Dali Want a Cracker?

Well, our fine editor and generally beneficent overlord Sun Ra has laid down a challenge. He has provided an image for our perusal (http://www.joslyn.org/permcol/images/1990_1.jpg), and it's our job to interpret it. A Rorschach test of sorts, but asince only the most super-charged, industrial strength minds are allowed to join this elite group of authors, only a particularly complicated inkblot would do.

However, I think this little interpretation-fest is an excellent opportunity to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Harlock and later picked up by Sun Ra. The question of "What is art?" and the subsequent attempt to throw some definitions at the wall and hope they stick.

Personally, I don't think the question is really "What is Art?" at all. A better question is "When is art?"

I read "Death of a Salesman" in high school and it bored the crap out of me. Didn't speak to me, didn't change how I saw the world, might as well have been a set of stereo instructions. Not Art. Read it again in college, no real change. Still, not art. Graduated from college, and worked in the real world for a while, in a none-too-healthy economy. Was paid poorly, treated like I was twelve years old, and watched other co-workers with families struggle through the same demeaning work so that their children could some day experience the Temp Worker's Holy Grail: Medical Benefits. Then I went back to school, had to read that lame-ass play once again, and suddenly I found meaning in "A man's not a piece of fruit! You can't just eat him up and throw away the peel!" Aha! Art.

To this extent, Harlock's "Art is Useless" theory applies nicely. While you're using the Van Gogh to patch a hole in the roof, it's not art, it's just among the world's more expensive shingles. Similarly, when you're using Beethoven's 9th to sell tampons, it is again, not art. Even if it the new applicator is made of space-age flexible polymers and is a revolution in feminine hygiene products. These pieces are still art to the extent that they changed their audience's perceptions of the world around them -- before Van Gogh, painting a pair of mere peasant shoes was considered beneath a true artist, and Van Gogh significantly altered the way artists represented the minutiae of daily life -- but while they're being used for a practical purpose they cease to be Art and become Things.

I also think art can happen accidentally -- like whoever decided to paint all "no parking" zones red may have just been looking for a color that would stand out and tell people "Don't park here! Really!", but inadvertently tapped into the color red's eons-old association with blood, fire, danger, sex, etc. When you're looking for a place to park and red is telling you "no", it's not art, but when it's just passively seeping into your brain reinforcing the notion that "red" is dangerous yet strangely erotic, well, then it's Art.

So yeah, I don't think that Art necessarily requires effort, so I'll have to disagree with Ra here. If it was easy to produce, but changes the mindset of a million people (or more importantly, just mine), it's Art. I see art as a filter through which one perceives the world. If I look at a piece of art, and I am subsequently unable to see some aspect of my world in the same way as before, it is Art. If the piece of art is clearly the result of great effort, it's more likely to sink into the brainstem, because hey, someone spent their whole lifetime making that point, so it might be worth considering. But then again, too many lifetimes have been spent making totally worthless observations to allow effort to be a defining factor.

But honestly, I'm ditching the issue here, which is the Rorschach test with the big kitty and the guy in the turban, which doesn't really speak to me, and hence, for my purposes isn't Art. So I'm forced to try to make it art, through the ugly process known as "Stream of Consciousness".

Journal Entry, October 12th 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning. Tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me...

Ok. Wrong Rorschach. But I am again reminded that October 12th is Columbus Day, the esteemed birthday of both my wife and Aleister Crowley, and the day Sid killed Nancy. A rather mixed "day in history" really.

The images in the painting play off each other in frustrating ways. There's no "story" being told, just images of time (candles), danger (tiger), and peace (roses, the tiger's slumber). The setting seems realistic enough, with the middle-eastern architecture and the Persian rug on inlaid tile, but the juxtaposition of a rather fearsome tiger and a thoroughly bored onlooker immediately informs me that the image can't be taken literally. On top of this, the column-sized candles set off my Salvador Dali detector, which knocks the piece into a different realm of interpretation altogether.

Now, I can no longer look at the piece without applying what I know about the surrealist movement. (See! This is what Art does for you! Liberates you to see things in new ways, but forever jades your perception!) Which ticks me off because I find it positively insulting to the surrealists to analyze their works in a rational manner. Yet, here I am doing it. The hypocrisy is maddening. I had this same problem studying Artaud's Theater of Cruelty: it's like showing the audience the false panels and fake feet before you saw your beautiful assistant in half. Artaud would, of course, have included stage directions of "Ten thousand cockroaches come swarming out of the box", which would have made Dali happy but probably hurts your relationship with your stage manager.

(Artaud abandoned the theater because he realized that the only way he could really speak to an audience was to throw bombs at them. I *so* understand this man.)

But I digress. I really do have a point to make about this painting. Really.

(To Be Continued...)