Anxious objects

Sue Hubbard ponders the perennial question of how to decide boundaries of art

The big question in art is: "Is it art?" Is an outsized Brillo box or a pickled shark art? Ever since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp's porcelain urinal, scrawled with the pseudonym "R Mutt", was submitted to the Society for Independent Artists in New York (and rejected) for exhibition as Fountain, the cognoscenti have considered such objects as art. The critic Harold Rosenberg called such works "anxious objects". What artists made mattered less than what they thought. They now approach the condition of philosophers (I think, rather than paint, sculpt or draw: therefore, I am).

Artists see it as their job to refute what has gone before - especially as it is now impossible to say "avant-garde" before new examples become absorbed into the voracious maw of the mainstream and lose their power to shock.

In 1994 the racing fan and Turner Prize nominee Mark Wallinger bought and named a racehorse A Real Work of Art, with a view to entering it in races and causing his "art" to be piped into bookies up and down the country. This may not be the accepted "Royal Academy Summer Exhibition" view of art, but that it challenged perceptions was a large part of the point.

Recently, millions signed a petition calling for the Costa Rican artist Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas not to be included in this year's Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. The reason? Well, Habacuc, as he likes to be known, also used an animal in his artwork Eres lo que lees ("You are what you read"), but this time it raised complex moral issues. The artist paid street children to catch a stray dog that was then named Natividad ("nativity"), chained up in the Códice Gallery in Nicaragua and, reputedly, left to starve to death.

Even if the dog did escape, as gallery and artist contend, there was nothing to indicate that this would be the case to the viewers, for the dog appeared ill, thin and dehydrated. But the point - if point there can be to pointless suffering - was that although a few visitors to the gallery requested that the dog be fed, they were banned from doing so, and no one actually intervened to release the suffering animal.

Animal rights campaigners went ballistic; and who, in their right mind, would want to see an animal suffer? The event smacked of bread and circuses and the decadence of throwing Christians to the lions as entertainment. It is also not hard to think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which psychologists designated students as either guards or prisoners, only to have to stop the exercise when the guards started living out their role with too much enthusiasm.

In the case of poor Natividad, did people not intervene because he had the authority and status of art? And what did the event say about that same audience, which every day passed by not only starving dogs but also children in the streets? Cowardly, self-serving, distasteful and immoral it may have been, but if it is the business of art to ask questions, this certainly raised a few.