Duchamp's Fountain of the bonsai world.
Recently at the Artisans Cup 2015 in the Art Museum of Portland, Oregon
this piece was among the 71 bonsai exhibited. It is by David Crust,
who is a student of Nick Lenz. I am sure that this was the most
confusing if not disturbing piece of the whole exhibit. I was asked by
many what I had thought of it as judge. In my answers I called it
'Duchamp's Fountain of the bonsai world'.
So what is Duchamps's Fountain? I have to digress here to make this more
understandable: In the year 1917 the art world was in turmoil and much
discussion was going on what was art, what was good at, what was not art
and who made these decisions. Up to around 1880 the world was in order.
Art was something that was beautiful and that appealed to most people.
Painting and sculpture were realistic, up to photographic realism. This
was more or less consensus among the art world and the general public.
In the following decades the art world fell apart. Impressionists dared
to paint outside in natural light and painted the world as they saw it
and not as they were told to see it. Some did not paint in strokes but
painted in what today is pixels - unheard of. Some painted things that
one could hardly recognize any more. Then some painted abstract - end of
civilization! All sort of 'insanity',abounded.
There was an open fight whether the new stuff was art. The art museums
decided that it was not. So the new artists created their own art
museums which still exist in Paris and other places as 'secession'. At
art exhibits a strong judging system tried to avoid influx of unhealthy
art.The general public decided that it hurts the eyes. So who decided
what was art and good art? The museum Directors thought they did and
they did indeed by exclusion. The gallerists did by selecting what they
thought could be sold. They were astounded that the 'naive' Americans
bought all this crap because they had no idea what good art was. The
general public as always thought that they decided - what the majority
liked was good art and what the majority hated was bad art. Nobody asked
At the most important art exhibit in the world in 1917 in Paris, Marcel
Duchamp did the unthinkable. He managed to get into the exhibit what is
widely called 'Fountian'. This is a euphemism because it really was a
urinal, but the word is so obscene, isn't it. Well, obscene and shocking
is what Duchamp wanted dot be. Therefore it should be clalled by it’s
It was a urinal as mass produced industrially with no alterations or
additions by the artist. When asked what in the world he was smoking
Duchamps said along the lines 'so many parties think that they decide
what art is and should be, nobody has asked the artists. Her is the
answer: the artist alone decides what art is. This is a urinal and I
call it art, high art, good enough for the most important art exhibit.
It is art because I have decided so. Period!.' What a scandal! up to
today. Duchamp had invented the ultimate scandal as promoting art and
himself. We are now so used to this as it had become commonplace in the
art world. But at that time it was a novelty and it took a genius to do
that. And Duchmp had invented what is called 'Conceptual Art'. This
means that one has to know things to understand it. While eg a nude
female or male body as sculpture needs no explanation and is understood
by everyone instantly a urinal does need explanation. If one would not
know what at this means one could think it is a mistake, it is crap. So
ironically the cleaning crew thought after the end of the show and threw
the original away. In 2005 around 1400 art historians from around the
world congregated and had to vote for the most important piece of at of
the past century . Guess what they came up with.
Back to the bonsai world. Yes, this is in a way shocking and it does
need explanation. What exactly is it anyway? It is apparently a vintage
Kirby vacuum cleaner probably from the fifties in which a nice little
larch is planted and an Angel is hanging from it. It is by David Crust
but could well have been by Nick Lenz. Is it art? Is it beautiful? It is
ugly as good art - much to the surprise of many - does not have to be
beautiful. And it is art as it was done by an artist.
It is a statement: 'the bonsai world was in order up to around 1985 when
everybody knew what was right and what was wrong. It all could be found
in the bonsai bible - John Naka I, Old Testament, John Naka II, New
Testament. Everybody knew what was good and what was bad. And then came
modern bonsai - they looked more like sculptures than trees. Then
naturalism, bonsai looked like trees and not like bonsai - how dare
they! Bonsai rules were obsolete. Then penjing - how ugly! Then other
strange aberrations like Fairy Tale Bonsai Style. Nobody knows what is
right or wring any more. Who decides what is bonsai art and what not?
The ones who judge the entries to exhibits do. The judges for the
exhibit do. The customers who buy do. The magazines by what they print
do. The viewers on the internet do by their 'likes'. Nobody asks the
This is the answer of an artist who says " I, the artist, decide what is
art and what is not. This is art, period! It does not matter what
others think It is not a democratic decision. If the ordinary person
does it it is crap, if the artist does it it is art."
This is a statement that wants to say: the whole world thinks that what
they like is good and what they don't like is bad. So what - they don't
count. This room is full of vanity, all the bonsai try to be as
beautiful as possible, as impressive as possible. They are craving for
the public's attention and for winning awards or fetchng money. And the
artists are following the wishes of the public. They create the kind of
art that the public wants. This is artistic prostitution!. And this
artist clearly shows so.
Like it or not. It will go into the history of bonsai art because it is
the clearest statement so far that proves that bonsai is an art form.
The discussion is open and will never end - as is the practise in art
since ever. We will never again be certain what is good an what is bad.
We will have to see what artists come up with.