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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: So you look at a work of art and think to yourself, I could have done that. And maybe you really could have, but the issue here is more complex than that -- why didn't you? Why did the artist? And why does it have an audience? We delve into it by looking at work by artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Piet Mondrian, and Cy Twombly, among others. You might find it’s not quite as simple as you think.

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Sarah: A few weeks ago, we got a question from Trey Willetto who asked how we respond to people who say "I could have done that. It's so simple' about art. For example, Félix González-Torres."

John and I answer that A. You probably couldn't do it and B. You didn't do it. But some of you, like Becky, were dissatisfied. She said, "doesn't that imply that the art has no merit outside of some guy thought about doing this first and now we care about it? It just seems like a really lazy answer."

Challenge accepted Becky, I'll give you a less lazy answer.

Okay, if you're looking at a work of art and feel compelled to say, "I could do that" or "my kid could do that," the first thing you should do is to assess whether you really could do that. Take some hard edge abstraction like this painting by Piet Mondrian, that at first glance may seem very easy to execute. But if you've tried to use oil paints before, you'll know that it can be really tricky to create such smooth lines and a consistent, flat application of color. There's also little details like a line that stops just short of the canvas, that clues you in that no amateur did this.

Or Cy Twombly's work gets a lot of heat for looking like a bunch of kids scribbles. But take a closer look. The quality and character of his line work is astounding. The restrained use of color is exquisite.

This isn't crayola crayon on construction paper, this is pretty masterful handling of paint and pencil and crayon. They may be scribbles, but they're freaking amazing scribbles. And if you still think you can do it, I say give it a try. It could be a really productive exercise to see how something is made and it may help you learn a new skill or take your work or life in a new direction.

But let's move on to what happens when you really could have made the thing in question. If you think about Félix González-Torres, the example that Trey brought up, we can look at a work like "Untitled (Perfect Lovers)" from 1991, that pairs two commercially available clocks and synchronizes their time.

Yes, you can go to a store, buy two clocks, and hang them on the wall just like this. And you know, it would still be a pretty cool experiment to see how long they stayed synchronized, and which runs out of batteries first, but you'd be missing something key here. The title clearly asks you to consider these clocks to be a metaphor for lovers, and how two individuals, with hearts beating like the ticking of clocks, can be in perfect sync and then inevitably fall out of sync. The title further suggests that they remain perfect even after they've fallen out of sync.

But there's more, because this work wasn't just made by any person at any time, it was made by Félix González-Torres, who was openly gay and made the work after his partner, Ross was diagnosed with AIDS. González-Torres's work was overtly and strategically political, and this lovely and heartbreaking work is unquestionably made more resonant when you know that his partner died in 1991 and he died in 1996. His battery lasted just a little bit longer.

And if you think a work of art should tell you everything you need to know without the help of wall labels or the like, then I'm probably not going to convince you otherwise. But for me, whether it's the Mona Lisa, a landscape painting in a thrift shop, or an iPhone, every object is created within circumstances that are important, and is distributed in ways that add to its meaning.

Back to González-Torres, because we're not quite done with him yet. Many of his works depend of reproducibility, stacks of paper or piles of candy viewers are invited to take. He wanted his work to spread, and to be in multiple places at the same time, and to be created in participation with you, the viewer. With this work, it's not that you could do it, it's that he wants you to, you're invited to, that's part of the work. It also means his art can exist in perpetuity, beyond the confines of his own life, and you can still experience it today, and maybe take it home with you, too.

When you say "I could do that," what you're really saying and what I would encourage you to say next time is "this doesn't display a remarkable amount of technical skill, and that's what I really look for in art." I think it's perfectly fine to have a preference for art that displays manual talents unavailable to most, but there's a history of artists beginning in the 20th century who took on new approaches to material purposefully avoiding showing off technical skill, and for lots of good reasons.

To upset the dominant art trends at the time, to question the value of unique objects, to undermine the commercial system of art by creating work that is unlikely to be trophies for the rich, or to reconsider the separation of art and life. There's been some theorization about the so-called "de-skilling" of art in the 20th century, a word first used to describe the replacement of skilled laborers by technologies and less skilled workers who operate them.

Industrialization also had a profound effect on art, introducing new methods of reproduction and we can't forget about the dawn of photography that certainly called into question the relevance of spending loads of time learning how to paint something realistically. Rather than devote their lives to mastering a particular medium, some artists began to push the boundaries of those mediums, and even forego them altogether.

There's sculpture that is purposefully unmonumental, paintings purposefully non-virtuosic, drawings purposefully simple. It's not that these things don't take skill, they just take different kinds of skill. Research, deduction, collaboration, exploration of new materials, radical thought. Just as we value professions other than skilled labor, we should also value work by artists focused not just on craftsmanship, but on the effective execution of good ideas. It's the thought they bring to the form, or have other bring to the form, and not just the form itself.

Next time you're compelled to say "I could do that," I think you should stop and ask yourself why did they do that, what are the circumstances that led me to not doing that and them being so driven to make the thing that they not only thought of the idea but then completed it and found an audience for it. What are the social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding their doing this thing? You can still admire impressive technical skill, but you can also open yourself up to appreciating a much wider world of art.