March 12, 2014

Art for no one’s sake

I used to be a sculptor. This is to say, I used produce in art in some recognizable, formal, and even credentialed sense. A spectacularly rude physicist once pointed out to me – quite correctly I might add – that having a degree in fine art is almost meaningless. It means that you paid your tuition, showed up, and were bright enough to get through your general education classes. I’m not sure why I did it or why anybody does. You cannot be arrested for producing art without credentials – not yet at any rate.

Art school wasn’t always undemanding. I remember reading that Adolf Hitler was refused admission into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Perhaps the rest of the art schools in the world took note after the war, and concluded that keeping nascent megalomaniacs occupied by waiving the requirement for talent was a low price to pay for the sake of world peace. It would be nice if the general slackening of standards had been the product of sound reasoning – or of any reasoning for that matter.

I have no idea what the weirdly self-regarding class of people who constitute the art world are doing now, nor do I really care to know. It doesn’t seem worth the negligible effort of a Google search. I am deliberately and obstinately disinterested. Long ago, I found myself in the Museum of Modern Art looking at a formless tangle of bailing wire in the middle of a gallery. There was a spotlight on it. It was painted green – not by the artist, but by the wire manufacturer. It occurred to me that my fine arts education had left me fully equipped to talk about the bailing wire in a sophisticated way – discussing the importance of line, the complexity of the negative space, and perhaps even to venture a few words about the cultural symbolism of a chaotic pseudo-random object juxtaposed against the ordered and traditional backdrop of the museum’s hardwood floor.1 It was not a moment of epiphany exactly. It was more one of those moments in which the weight of accumulated evidence catches up with you, and for awhile you stand teetering under its ridiculous weight – a clown balancing an elephant on a unicycle. Such realizations always pass. You go on to the next minute, and the next. You forget that you have spent four years acquiring skills that in any other context would amount to a psychosis. If “artist” isn’t in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, perhaps it ought to be…

297.1 Delusional Disorder - presence of one or more fixed delusions, but otherwise functioning usually is not noticeably impaired.

     Specify whether:
     Erotomanic type
     Grandiose type
     Jealous type
     Persecutory type
     Somatic type
     Mixed type
     Unspecified type

Of course, a rigorous application of criteria like that would swallow up just about everyone. Delusions are what human beings do best. But really – is bailing wire art? A sane answer, I concluded, is that if an object needs the context of MOMA to make it recognizable as art, even to people who have undergone the cultural absurdity of being specially trained to recognize art, it isn’t art. If the definition of art includes “anything left under a spotlight at MOMA” we are done. I want some standards, however vague, even at the risk of hurting some potential megalomaniac’s self esteem and precipitating another world war. Art, whatever it is, might just be worth the risk.

The irony of my realization is that one of my art history teachers actually warned me in advance. She made me read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, in which he made the case that art objects themselves had become inconsequential – and that what really mattered now (the “now” that he was writing about being 1975) was what the art intelligentsia said about them.2 The art itself could be not merely poorly executed and meaningless, but even wholly imaginary. It was just a prop – an incidental starting point for clever criticism. Everybody in my art history class nodded and accepted Wolfe’s assertion. They took the exam and passed. The art students in the class went on to whatever peculiar fates art students encounter when they meet the unavoidable parts of reality. The bored rich housewives in the class went on to add Tom Wolfe to the discourse they attempted to impress their friends with. A thoughtful person would have hanged himself with bailing wire on the spot.

This erosion, this bleeding of the life out of art, has not been confined to the visual arts. The culture of relativism has claimed many other victims. Classical music was alive and well deep into the 20th century, but died a horrible death at the hands of intellectuals – and was still dead as of my last inquiries. One can give the approximate time of death as 1952, the year in which John Cage composed 4′33″ (Four minutes, thirty-three seconds). This “composition” consists of any number of musicians holding any combination of instruments while sitting (or standing, or lying down) in complete silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It may be an exercise in Zen, as Cage himself seems to have intended it, but to call it music annihilates the very concept of music. It is the ultimate exercise in relativism.3 A performance by the world’s most gifted pianist would be no better than that of a complete novice – or, for that matter, than that of a corpse. With the death of the last of the traditional classical composers, the genre then drifted into the mathematical, mechanistic subgenre of minimalism. While sound did return after Cage’s fatal silence, the life and humanity of classical music did not. When I listen to Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, composed in 1941 – before the fall, I am moved almost to tears. It is sublime. Something important about Copland the man lives on in my experience. It is timeless, beyond the need of any explanation. Through the music I know something more about what it is to be a human and alive. Listening to any of the works of Philip Glass, on the other hand, only give me a sense of what it is to be a washing machine. There is no scope for interpretation or virtuosity in Glass. There is only mechanical repetition and a steady sense of strain.4 Most of us who live in advanced societies live lives similar enough to those of washing machines already. We do not need to have our helpless sense of regimentation reinforced by art. I’ve occasionally seen Philip Glass albums in peoples’ record or CD collections. I have never met a person who had two such albums. One is enough to show people how refined you are.

It is mainly the formally educated who are susceptible to this particular kind of cultural disease. The average man or woman might have very narrow or unimaginative tastes, but they know a naked emperor when they see one. You can seduce them with the most vulgar sort of dreck, but you won’t see them displaying bits of bailing wire on their sofa end tables or watching with false interest as Yo-Yo Ma does nothing for four and a half minutes behind his cello. Religion is the opiate of the masses – the elites require newer forms of nonsense to underpin what passes for high culture.

Is anything art really? Yes. There are basically two senses in which something can be art. The first is the sort of thing I’ve been criticizing above – art as an emblem of one’s personal or cultural identity. If you say that bailing wire is art you’re not saying anything about it – you are only saying something about yourself. You are identifying yourself as an aesthete. Of course, one need not be a snob to experience art in this sense. I have a hard time imagining that the average head banger loves heavy metal music as a sensual experience. You could get more-or-less the same effect by standing close to any dangerously loud machine. I think head bangers like being identified as head bangers, just as aesthetes like being identified as aesthetes. The other way of experiencing art is simply to let it effect you without you affecting it. If we could use an MRI to see into the brain of a person looking at a painting full of interesting shapes and beautiful colors, we would see the brain making interesting shapes and beautiful colors too. Responses to different stimuli do vary from person to person (no doubt Philip Glass and five other people on the planet really do like Philip Glass music) but when it happens it is about nothing but itself. Identity art is about – identity. The other sort of art just is.

The material world, whether natural or man-made, abounds in things that move us – presuming we have not become too numbed by other concerns. Art is just the duplication and refinement by human beings of those stimuli we find elsewhere. If there is an evolutionary reason that we have an aesthetic sense in the first place, it eludes me. On the other hand, the beauty I perceive in a sycamore tree against a winter sky is not diminished by a lack of justification. The thing in itself suffices.

The trick of making art in this direct sense is to dissolve oneself in the process of creation without holding some fragment of one’s consciousness back to admire what one is doing. It is to be the process – to cease to be a bundle of concepts, identity, and noise. It is very simple, but it is not a capacity that life usually encourages.


1 I think it was hardwood. It might have been otherwise.

2 This is really just a corollary of the postmodernist definition of truth: Truth is just what an authority says it is.

3 This oxymoron was deliberate.

4 To be fair to Philips glass, his music does at least leave you feeling something. It does at least attempt to be listenable. The compositions of the rest of the minimalists are even more extreme, leaving one with no more than a sense of what it must be like to be a clock.

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