You can read part one here. This entry is my own response to Brian H. Morgan’s inquiry.
Dear Mr. Morgan,
In Confessions, Book II, St. Augustine related stories of his past transgressions. One of the best known is from his adolescence. One evening, while out with friends, they decided to steal pears from a neighborhood tree, “A pear tree…laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste*,” and throw the pears to pigs. There was no purpose in this, just youthful hijinks, a demonstration of the old adage that “the Devil finds work for idle hands.” Looking back on it many years later, Augustine spoke to God of his deep regret. “Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation…”
The naming of things is profoundly important. No one can look upon pears hardly fit for pigs and beautiful pears God made and see the same thing. By the words we use, we alter the substance of things in our mind. We create meaning even when others might find none. This is the job of the critic, the interpreter, the propagandist. We share our word and our history through our choice of words.
You refer to your great-grandfather’s egg as sculpture, which shows you regard it as art, which is just as it should be. Yet you do not call him an artist. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, making significant a lacuna required by the brevity of a letter. Of course it is art, whatever Finck’s intent. You have named it such. But we differentiate between art and Art, which causes as many problems as it resolves.
Brancusi named his work in the way Art is named (though that is uncertain in the case of Sculpture for the Blind) and was recognized as an artist in his lifetime. Finck’s title, if there was one, is lost. “Egg” is evocative as well as descriptive. It goes beyond describing the shape (“Ovoid” would have made it seem even more abstract) to suggest generative processes, or a boiled egg waiting to be peeled and eaten for lunch. Was there some inspiration in the area in which both men lived, beyond the obvious? Or is it a matter of “great minds think alike”?
Art is everywhere – small a art, that is. It is the doodle we draw while trapped in conversation at a meeting or on the phone; it is the indistinct scribbles of a two-year old put up on the refrigerator. We decorate our world to an extent no other species does. Perhaps that is one of the prerequisites for civilization. But most of this art is bad, and most artists do not merit the capital letter. It is up to others to name something as Art, and not mere art. That is the artist’s eternal frustration.
But your question has gone beyond mere naming, asking if it is art worthy of inclusion in a museum. That is another matter. Artists create art, but they don’t always create museum-worthy art. There is plenty of bad art by great artists, some of which is in museum collections. Similarly, there are great works which are unknown because they are anomalies from the hands of otherwise obscure artists. Museums collect to define narratives they have chosen to tell, to support their communal definitions, which sometimes means buying a lesser work to fill in a gap. No Picasso in your galleries? That must be addressed. No Finck? Well…
I could make excuses. Is Finck’s egg perhaps a bit small to command space in a gallery? That assumes it was made for such a space. Did he make any attempt to share his work with the greater world, or was it a private pleasure? The best artworks come to us as personal gift, something that speaks to me, and perhaps others. Thackeray said something of the sort about Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I have found it a universal truth. Through art, something divine (if your beliefs encompass that idea) is given human scale. Although I have never seen Finck’s egg, I imagine holding it in my hands and wondering what it would say to me.
Museums are a human creation, and heir to all the flaws of individuals and society as a whole. Whatever caused Finck to be forgotten by all but his loved ones and excluded from art history is our loss. I hope you continue to treasure his egg, and, even if no one else does, call it Art.
*translation by Edward Bouverie Pusey (1909-14)