A topic that will no doubt continue to be a contentious and continuous issue. What makes a piece of art? Can anything be art, given the right context or direction?
The ability to see art in an unaltered item surely is dependant on the context and the implication the artist bestows upon the item.
Personally I believe that the significance lies in intention. This can land on either the artists of audiences side. So the piece can often be transformed in the moment, implying the importance not only lies in the communication between artist – piece – viewer, but also where the viewer can find themselves, both physically and emotionally.
“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” (Duchamp)
So the push and pull, the collaborative nature between the artist and viewer creates the environment for meaning and purpose to be interpreted. It is important to note, with an object (rather than a painting, drawing, sculpture) the journey the artist has taken is not always obvious. You (as the audience) may miss a process, or interaction that has occurred. Whereas with a painting, for example, you can appreciate both the concept and the technique.
This is challenged when you have an object that has been manipulated with in some way. In which an artist may imply a feeling or intention. Depending on the level of manipulation or disfigurement, you (the viewer) may begin to see the object as the artist had intended. Or, on the other hand, the act on the object may begin to stir a new thought which was not initially intended, but a coincidence the artist would appreciate.
Another thought with objects as art is how they are displayed. Sometimes and object out of place, seemingly alien to its surroundings, will begin to create questions and dialogue around its meaning, purpose and usual position in normal life. This can work both ways – challenging the norms and questioning clichés but also possibly creating a culture of pretentious artists who some may think make a mockery of typical art institutions (not my opinion by the way, but there are plenty of articles out there that are of this ilk). For example, the work of Duchamp, Manzoni and Emin vs the fact you can lay a pair of glasses (or a bin, a jumper etc etc) on the floor of a contemporary gallery, and most will think its a work of art. Does this diminish the validity and significance of objects as art?
My last point is understanding and deconstruction. You could see it as the opposite of objects as a tool of potential. As in the act of deconstruction you can fully understand the components applied in the object. Full ‘mapping’ of the thing in question can create a layered understanding of both its function and components. The term deconstructionism is probably more suited to architecture, yet I feel its a completely valid (and important) factor in object art. The act of (often but not always) meticulous dismantling of an object would enable the person interacting to gain a new insight into the function, origin and possibly facilitate a new appreciation. In a way, the act of taking things apart and laying them out in their components gives licence to the viewer to make their own judgements and discoveries about the item in question.
So, albeit brief, I guess this was a look at the function and validity of objects in art. As a tool of understanding, a vessel for communicating an idea and a device to create a dialogue and engage the viewer. Using objects to move art from the definite structure of artist/viewer, to a more vague relationship, in which the meaning appropriated to a piece by both the artist, and audience, holds equal importance.