Editorial: What is Art, Really?

Editorial: What is Art, Really?

Someone once told me that art is like porn: you know it when you see it. And I think that’s true. 

Of course, art is subjective. You might not like it, even if other people do. Most of our art comes from our art team, and quite a bit of it comes from student submissions, who want to see their work printed and celebrated. This magazine is a great way for local artists to do that, and you’re always welcome to submit your work to teched@critic.co.nz - Art Week or no. So when you see art in here, just know that it came from people like you. And if you don’t like it, that’s okay - maybe it wasn’t your taste, or maybe you want to submit something of your own. 

This week, we’ve really pushed the boundaries of what “art” is. We’ve got art that’s obviously art, like our student submissions and the Ngāi Tahu art in the local gallery. But we’ve also got the art of Dunedin campus buildings (Richardson won a design award in the 80’s??), we’ve got the art of being a full-time goth, and we’ve got the art of cooking a meal with ingredients from the campus shop, which is as much an achievement as it is an art piece. 

Is this art? I’d say so. Art is about the process, the passion that goes into the product, and the progress made by the professional behind the scenes. If we can consider the art here to be “art”, then I think we have some criteria for what “art” is, and that brings me to a question I’ve been pondering for a long time: are “sandwich artists” artists? 

Remember when Subway tried to rebrand its minimum-wage employees as “artists” to try to distract from the fact that they’re getting shafted by the corporate system and try to give them some sort of greater purpose just by changing their job title? Turns out you can’t actually solve the deep-seated uneasiness that comes from being a corporate pawn, but hey, they tried. But it’s made me think, ever since, about what it would mean to truly be a sandwich artist. What does that look like? 

I think it’s possible. I think that if somebody truly had passion for what they were doing, if they honestly loved making Subway sandwiches and grew as a person throughout the process, then yes, they would be a sandwich artist, and they’d probably make an absolutely bangin’ footlong. But I doubt that the majority of Subway employees feel this way. Instead, you have a staff made up of people who are genuinely just there to work and get paid, labelled as “artists”, which seems to undermine the idea of what “art” is about in the first place.

When you mix art (which comes from a place of genuine experimentation, of passion) with paid labour (which comes from a place of exploitation and restriction), is it really art? No, I don’t think so. Not unless the workers give themselves the title of artist, which means they’ve been able to exploit the labour system to pay them to pursue their passion, in which case, good on them. But sandwich artists didn’t give themselves that title, it was handed to them by a corporation to distract from the fact that they’re more part of an assembly line than a gallery. I’m sure there’s a true sandwich artist out there, though. And I’d love to find them. Because, just like in porn, you know a good footlong when you see it.

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2022.
Posted 2:29am Sunday 8th May 2022 by Fox Meyer.