BY: TED BARNABY
In mid-2006, British artist, David Hensel, submitted one of his sculptures—a large, black, laughing head—to the British Royal Academy of Arts in hopes of having it displayed at their Summer Exhibition. He was later delighted to find that, out of nearly 10,000 other works, the Academy had chosen to display his sculpture. However, when Hensel arrived at the exhibition he was confused to discover that only the plaque, which supported the sculpture, was on display.
Where was the actual sculpture—the laughing head? As it turns out, the head had become detached from the plaque during shipping, so the Academic Art Judges thought that the head and the plaque had been two separate pieces.
The plaque—a black, barren slab aside from a small piece of wood used to support the head—was praised for its artistic minimalism. Alternatively, the laughing head was deemed unworthy of display.
Hensel claims to be thoroughly amused with the situation considering his own daily struggle in defining and creating “art”. From this situation emerges an old artistic controversy, which has become increasingly prevalent with the rise of minimalistic art. The question isn’t so much what is art, but rather who gets to decide what is art.
For something that is inherently subjective, art is under the constant weight of objective influence. If you put something in an art gallery, people will call it art. Thinking about this, we can’t help but pay homage to Marshall McLuhan’s coined phrase, “the medium is the message”. How much are we influenced by the sources of our information and the credibility we attribute them?
Hensel’s laughing head sheds a great big spotlight on this controversy. The Royal Academy maintains that the plaque is of minimalistic artistic value, but their explanations seem more likely to be an attempt at covering up an embarrassing mistake. Sure it’s a nice plaque, but was it really worth the original asking price of £3,640?
Unfortunately, given art’s subjective nature, it’s hard to dismiss the validity of the esteemed Academy in deeming the plaque to be art. Maybe the plaque really was the hidden masterpiece in Hensel’s sculpture—who’s to say?