Currently Waikato museum is hosting an exhibition of the finalists of the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award 2009. The winning piece was literally a pile of rubbish - the artist left instructions to collect the rubbish from all the other entrants and make it into a pile.
While I didn't think that piece really deserved to win the prize, the negative media response to the winning entry raises interesting questions about art. (I am convinced this response is part of the aim of the artist.)
Many of the arguments against the work reflect a rigid and narrow-minded definition of what art is. "Anyone could do that" - in other words art must involve a specialized skill or craft; otherwise it is not art. "The artist didn't even do the work" - in other words the amount of time and effort invested in a work of art increases its value.
I think it is unfair to say that the winning work wasn't art - it is the nature of art to cross and challenge boundaries, including the definition of art itself. This is why such things as a blank canvas with nothing on it is in a way an inevitable part of art history.
Whether the winning entry was good or not is a different question. Art is so subjective that even having a prize for the best work is somewhat questionable. Certainly originality should be some kind of criterion - and the idea of using the rubbish from all the other artists was certainly original, and moreover quite bitchy. As described above, the winning work also challenges the "work ethic" of our culture.
However I think the winner may have been chosen in order to induce a knee-jerk reaction and thus publicity. In this sense the pro and anti- contemporary art movements take part in a predictable battle. Some of the other entries challenged me in a less predictable and more complex way. I would have preferred to see one of them win a prize.