What is Art, and what is my position on the relationship between Theory and Practice in the work of a contemporary artist?
This question is very interesting to me and timely as well. Over the past few weeks, I have spent quite a bit of time pondering “what is art?” and the nature of the work that artists produce. For many years, since my early undergraduate studies in Art History, I have had a strong aversion toward Appropriational Artwork, and particularly the readymade. I would look at the work of Duchamp and his piece Fountain and think, “how can that be art?” I struggled with the issues surrounding the definition of art and what qualifies an artifact to be called ‘art’ in our contemporary society. I felt that if an artist just takes some random object, sets it on a pedestal and calls it art, that’s not enough to qualify it. I scoffed at Duchamp’s essay “The Creative Act” where he asserts that it only takes two groups (the artist and spectator) to declare anything as art, and I used examples like a crumpled up napkin on the gallery floor to illustrate my position. 
I do feel that there is a need for a set of principals to regulate what qualifies as art and what makes qualified art ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ And I don’t believe that the aesthetic plays an irrelevant role in this issue and the evaluation of the quality of artwork. However, over the past few weeks my studies and discussions on this topic have really expanded this viewpoint, and I definitely believe that my position has changed, or at least evolved.
In my newly evolved view of qualifying a work as ‘good art,’ Theory (or Concept) plays the greatest role in the work of an artist, along with a purposeful intent to evoke an emotional or intellectual response from the viewer. As the saying goes, “Concept is King!” It is in the idea behind a work of art, the underlying meaning that is woven into the piece that is the basis for a work to be ‘qualified’ as art. Whether the theory that motivated the piece is readily apparent, or if the concept is hard to find and is only known through research or writings by the artist, IF there is some conceptual idea present, and the artist is trying to elicit a response from the viewer, then the work IS art. To be ‘good art’ the theory and intent need to be matched with strong aesthetic execution.
With that stance in mind, I once asserted that Duchamp’s Fountain wasn’t art, because from my surface level view, an underlying theory was not readily apparent. There are many interpretations that exist on this work and the concept driving it. Interestingly enough, I am not alone in my struggles with the definition of this piece as ‘art.’ This photo of Fountain is one that I took on a recent visit to SFMoMA of a recreation that Duchamp authorized. The original piece, now lost, was submitted by Duchamp to the Society of Independent Artists for their exhibition in 1917.
On the surface, Fountain is a urinal that has been turned 90 degrees from the normal orientation that it is used in. On the front, Duchamp signed “R. Mutt 1917,” an idea that he wrote was received from a female friend who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt. Aesthetically, on the surface, it can appear shocking and beg the question, “why?” Why would the artist elevate this everyday functional piece of public restroom equipment to the status of a gallery exhibition entry? It is after all, just a urinal. The aesthetic form of the piece was debated from its inception. As Louise Norton pointed out when writing about the piece in the May 1917 edition of The Blind Man, “how pleasant is its chaste simplicity of line and color! Someone said, ‘Like a lovely Buddah’; someone said, ‘Like the legs of the ladies by Cezanne.’  Some have even pointed out the new position that this inherently male object is placed in creates an unexpected shape that, along with the plumbing elements, takes on a form that references the female reproductive system.  Finding beauty in the form may be a challenge, and is only the beginning. Looking beneath the surface to the concept provides a much greater understanding on the work.
The qualification of this work as ‘art’ was debated by the Society’s board and ultimately rejected. The rules for the exhibition stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. By following the rules, paying the fee, and submitting this piece, Duchamp was proposing the same imperative that I have been wrestling with, “what is art?” He asserted that he wanted to “de-deify” the artist.  Can art exist if the artist’s hands were not the hands that made it? Can it be a work of art by simply the artist choosing it to be so?
The themes and questions examined by this work are directly tied to the theories of Roland Barthes and his ideas of Appropriation (the borrowing of pre-existing images and objects) as well as Authorship. Duchamp’s signature on the work is not in his own name, a direct “attack on the idea of the ‘artist,’ the authenticity of the artist, (and) the price of the artist’s signature.”  Some of Duchamp’s critics at the time who reacted to the ‘questionable’ authorship of his piece, pointed out that the urinal was created by a plumber, not by the artist. As Louise Norton pointed out, “Fountain was not made by a plumber, but by the force of imagination; and of imagination it has been said, “All men are shocked by it and some overthrown by it.”  Duchamp was challenging the very ideas of authorship and the artist, and his work became the most notable in Appropriational Art.  Barthes further negates the idea of Authorship asserting that the author of any work is influenced by the writings and imagery that is prevalent in the constantly changing culture. Furthermore, the viewer and the culture are in a constant state of flux. All of these forces deny the possibility of authorial integrity. 
With Duchamp’s piece challenging definitions of art, and keeping in mind Barthes theories on Appropriation and authorship, I can now say that I see Fountain as an original piece of ‘art.’ Duchamp’s concept behind the work is what matters, regardless of the hands that made it. “He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object”  The act of choosing the object and creating a new thought for it outside of what it was originally intended for IS the theory. Whether he constructed the piece or not, he constructed the IDEA. The theory behind the piece paired with his intent to elicit a response from the audience, certainly qualifies this as art to me, and ‘good art’ at that.
 SCAD, Contemporary Art-ARTH-701-OL, Week 2 Discussions, Nevdon Jamgochian
 Louise Norton, The Blind Man, Vol. 2, pg. 6, 1917
 Elizabeth Cowling, Professor Emeritus, History of Art, Edinburgh University, Talk about Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2010
 Jerry Saltz, The Village Voice, 2006
 Louise Norton, The Blind Man, Vol. 2, pg. 5, 1917
 Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriation_(art)
 Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author