Columnist for Monday, 4/30 - Sun Ra

The Emperor's New Art

There has been a recent continuation of the age-old discussion of what, precisely, is art (or Art, depending on how seriously you take it), and I figured now was as good a time as any to chime in with my take on the subject. I realize, with some degree of resignation, that this will in no way settle the issue, which as I observed has been going on since the dawn of time ("Nay, Siegesmund, thy handiwork art not Art! Tis offal!" "Claudius, wherefore were you thinking when you sculpted that Gothic monstrosity?" "Gog, picture you do no am antelope. Is poop."), but it seems selfish to keep all the enlightenment to myself.

Originally, I had planned to use a fairly combative tone, but I saw a truly excellent movie last night, which, coupled with sleeping in until noon, has placed me in an excellent mood, so I'll be mellow. No, really.

The problem I have with "loose" definitions of art, such as Scott McCloud's or the one arrived at by Harlock is simply that I feel that the label "Art" should be, and is, a form of praise. If something is a "work of Art", that implies that it is at some level, good. And that is, I feel, the crux of my disagreement with most modern definitions of Art.

At some point in the twentieth century, we entered a self-feeding spiral where "everything is Art". A vacuum cleaner under glass? Art. A blank canvas? Art. And, of course, "if that is Art, then everything must be Art." Which is a point of view I disagree with at the very assumption. A blank canvas is not Art. Nor is a vacuum cleaner under glass. Nor are Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, nor are Picasso's napkin sketches with which he used to pay for dinner at fancy New York restaurants.

Okay, I raised some hackles there, but let me come back to picking on certain artists. I'm going to present my position beginning with my own loose definition ("art"), and then my strict definition ("Art").

If we define everything as potentially art, for instance by saying that it is anything which is not a tool, then why have a word for it? "Stuff" might suit as well. "Useless stuff", even. To me, "art" conveys a greater level of meaning.

Nor need it be easily defined. I mean, that's the point of a word. If it was easily defined by another word, why bother? (Sound of Harlock ripping out hair.) And particularly a word like "art", which is very much an antithesis of science, the field that seeks to define and label everything. What is "religion"? "Art" can be just as nebulous.

Not that it cannot be defined, obviously. "I know it when I see it," although a phrase used in a number of Supreme Court decisions (in particular, regarding obscenity), is as observed, insufficient. But the definition can be, and in this case should be, loose, and involve personal interpretation.

My take on "art" is very similar to the aforementioned examples to begin with, namely that art is created material whose purpose is to evoke feeling. Generally, said feeling is the enjoyment of the viewer (or listener, or recipient of whatever medium. Hmm. Scent art.) However, it can also convey a message which causes the recipient to feel emotions, to engage in a certain thought process, whatever. To feel. I would call this a "loose" definition of art - obviously, Pollock, Picasso, and your three year-old all create art. And yet, art is rendered distinct from other endeavors whose purpose is not to evoke feeling but to acheive other ends, generally more concrete ends, such as to create shelter or make money or to heat food. (By "feelings", I'm referring to non-physical feelings. A thumbscrew has as its direct purpose the causing of pain, but that's a physical feeling, and is not what I am referring to.)

Oh, yeah, there are lots of grey areas. What if the purpose of a poem is to gain fame, or get sex by impressing someone? Well, art is not and need not be separate from other activities. A palace is both art and shelter. Movies are both art and commercial enterprise. Art, according to this loose definition, pervades almost all things we do. And so it does!

However, I'm going to call that "art" with a lower case "a". And to me, what divides "art" from "Art" is effort. Art, real Art, takes sustained effort over time. It took Van Gogh weeks to make a painting such as "Starry Night", and moreover he practiced for years beforehand. To replicate "Starry Night", you would have to do the same. I'm not even considering the issue of innate talent.

Which is how I can say that Jackson Pollock did not create Art. I shan't debate the man's genius - but ideas alone do not make Art. You have great ideas all the time, and do not act on them, because you don't have the time. (It's not that you don't have the talent. You could learn the talent - if you devoted several years of your life to it. But you have to eat.) But to replicate a Pollock painting would take you a few days. Picasso's napkin paintings - they aren't Art. They are doodles. By their very nature, they don't meet my definition of Art. Nor does the (very nice, to be sure) painting your child has given you to hang on the refrigerator.

Michelangelo created Art. Normal Rockwell (hisses from the modern art crowd) created Art. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer, Joyce. e e cummings. Blue Man Group. The Beatles. I can namedrop forever.

And, despite what art curmudgeons like myself maintain, Modern Art is not crap. But most modern art is not Art - because it is idea without effort. Art takes great effort, generally years of training. (This is why I write. I've been reading my whole life, and reading is a form of preparation for writing. If I wanted to be a painter, I'd have to start practicing all over again. It's also why you have this column to read right now. I'm practicing.) Modern art, and I'm thinking here about that blank canvas hanging in SFMOMA, is inspiration without perspiration. (A key factor here is replication effort. Something may have taken the artist weeks to create, but if you can do the same thing in a few days, it's not Art - it's art.)

As an example, I visited SFMOMA recently for the Magritte exhibit (and don't ask me to comment on that. I like Magritte, and he is certainly an Artist, but "This is not a pipe" on a painting of a pipe is definitely more inspiration than perspiration. I'll just say that he is an Artist by ability, as seen in his other works. And much as I loathe Picasso, he's also an Artist - I just like to pick on his napkin sketches). There were, aside from said exhibit, very few works that I would consider Art. Warhol's stuff, for instance, is visually quite interesting, but it's art. Diego Rivera, on the other hand, made Art.

But the big red squares and the Kley pencil sketches and the washing machines stuffed with doll parts - all art. There was a great piece upstairs of large photographs cut into ribbons and woven together in a crosshatch just so, the copresence of the images creating fascinating visual effects. I couldn't have duplicated it in weeks. Art? I don't know.

Enough slings and arrows. It's time to bring this piece of art to a close.

Oh, the movie I mentioned? "The Dish". It's great. It's in fairly limited release, but if it is in a theater anywhere near you, go see it. I think Ebert's review went something like: "What a great film! It's better than a blow job! I'm going to see it again and again!"

I might be misremembering that last part.


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