Man, I love art. It’s one of the best parts of being alive in the western world in 2020. We get to enjoy all kinds of art and we can ignore the kinds we don’t like. It’s great!

What Is It?

I don’t know! One workable definition of art is this: a thing that doesn’t have a purpose except to exist. It usually has some aesthetic appeal, but not always. Duchamp’s Fountain (a urinal with something written on it) is not exactly beautiful, but it’s definitely art. The obvious things that nobody would debate, like the Mona Lisa or Girl With the Pearl Earring, or Donatello’s David, don’t need to be defended. They’re obviously art.

What was the first art? We have no idea! The artifact most widely believed to be the oldest art in the history of the world is this:
It’s a bunch of red lines drawn on a piece of rock approximately 73,000 years ago. Its incredible age, 30,000 years older than the previous record-holder, is one reason why not everybody thinks it’s art. This skepticism is consistent with debates that go on even today about contemporary creations that, some decide, is not art.

Roger Ebert

I always enjoyed Roger Ebert’s writing and I was sad when he died. One unfortunate thing he’s remembered for is saying, repeatedly, that video games were not art. He mounted a major defense of his point, which I won’t get into here. That made me sad, too, but not because he didn’t think video games were art. What made me sad was that he felt justified declaring that anything isn’t art.

A game of baseball isn’t art, but if I take a photo of it and put it in a frame, it is. If I get a bunch of my friends together and dress one side up like German philosophers and the other like Greek philosophers and have them play soccer and film it, that is art. Even hard rules, like “sports aren’t art,” are flexible.

So what is art? Art is anything we say it is. We can therefore debate the merits of a certain piece of art (“how artistic is this art?” Or “what is this art saying?”) but its existence as art is undeniable. It might not be pretty but we should not be willing to say anything isn’t art. When someone says “this is art,” we should never say “no it’s not.”

Performance Art

It’s hard for a lot of people to appreciate performance art. I confess to once being one of those people. It wasn’t my experience of performance art that changed my mind (in fact, I once saw some performance art that simply reinforced my opinion, at the time, that it was not art). What made me come around was the the slow erosion of my preconceived notions, a process that naturally happens as we age. I got older and more appreciative of things that I had at one time dismissed. This is an ongoing theme of this newsletter because it is an ongoing theme of me. I am, broadly speaking, more apt to accept things and appreciate them, than I was when I was younger. I am less certain that my opinions are correct, so they take on a certain plasticity. This is supposed to be the opposite of what happens when you get older. Your opinions are supposed to calcify as your biases are reinforced. I feel lucky to have this experience of wonder rather than skepticism. I was extremely skeptical as a younger man, and I am less so now.

But enough about me, how about that Marina Abramović!

This TED talk is a good summary of her work, in her own words. The difference between performance art and theater, according to Abramović, is the participation and complicity of the audience. She talks about one of her most famous performances, Rhythm 0, which she performed in 1974.

Rhythm 0

I’d call this piece emblematic of what performance art is to me, even though it’s an outlier and not representative of how most performances are constructed. Abramović is, herself, an outlier, and calls herself the Grandmother of Performance Art. I think it’s a good representation both because of how it was constructed (echoed by her most famous performance, Artist is Present) and some unsettling realizations about the audience. The setup was simple: Abramović stood completely motionless near a table with 72 items. The audience was encouraged to use them on her in any way they liked. One of those items was a knife. One was also a loaded gun. The acts performed on her grew progressively more brutal and dehumanizing as the six hours went on. This outcome was not entirely unexpected, but even the artist was surprised by how it all went. In her own words:

I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.

While all art engages the audience in some way, even just as a passive viewer (as in the painting Las Meninas, in which the viewer takes the perspective of the King and Queen of Spain, whose portrait Velázquez is painting — they can be seen in a mirror reflection in the background), performance art often includes the audience in some way. Indeed, without an audience to perform various acts on her during the performance, there is no Rhythm 0, which would be a powerful statement of its own. Am I suggesting that an unobserved person standing alone in a room with a table covered in objects for six hours is art? Yes, it could be!

My Favorite Art

First of all, my favorite artist is my mother. I own a few of her paintings, and it warms my heart to look at them. Not only are they good paintings, but she’s my mom and she made them and I love her. I particularly love her watercolors. The attic of her house is a mini-gallery of her watercolors, specifically of dogs, and I adore each and every one of them. I also love the art made by my friends, who are my second-through-seventeenth favorite artists (you know who you are).

One artist I love is an artist I’ve never met, Simon Stålenhag, from Sweden. Sure, he paints giant robots and unnatural creatures, but they’re only part of what I love about his work. My favorite of his paintings are the ones that turn the fantastic into the mundane. I love the cognitive dissonance of a person encountering something unimaginable with a sigh of familiarity.

Here are two of his paintings that I love, and what I love about them.

The eye is immediately drawn to the giant robot, of course. And there’s a kid with a gun! Where did he get that? Is it real? Probably his dad’s, because semi-rural Sweden is a lot like semi-rural West Virginia, where I grew up, and this kid is up to no good. His sister, or neighborhood friend, is bored, and doesn’t care about the gun or the giant robot, she just wants to do something else. The fantastic and the familiar collide and we see it in the girl’s body language and her expression. (Here’s a bigger version where you can get a good look at the details)
I also love the body language in this painting, which is also the cover of his book, The Electric State, which is a series of paintings like this one tied together by the story of a woman, Michelle, and a childlike robot traveling across the country. It’s America, not Sweden, but one that’s been ravaged by a virtual reality simulation that replaced real reality for so many people that civilization appears to have collapsed around it. What I love about this painting is the familiarity of the parking garage and the cars and the (again, bored) expression of the woman. I know that pose, hand out, waiting for a curious kid to stop staring at whatever captured his attention and come along already. (Here’s a closer look at the detail)

Charlie White

When I was doing data entry at a big company, it was my first Real Job. I was so comfortable there that I stayed for 8 years. I tend to get very comfortable in my comfortableness, even in bad situations, which is also something that happens to me less and less often as I get older. The Me of 2020 would never have stayed there for that long, because I’m less and less inclined to let my comfort command my better judgment. A little discomfort is good when it leads to a better place.

One thing that I carried with me at every cubicle (they shuffle you around a lot in big companies like that) was a photograph from an issue of Wired magazine. It was a feature story about an artist named Charlie White and his work immediately grabbed me. In particular, I loved Fleming House, and kept a two-page spread of this work thumbtacked to the wall of my cubicle.
This photograph is another clash of the fantastic with the mundane. Reading that article again I see that he was influenced by The Raft of the Medusa and Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya, which are paintings that loom large in my mind, also. I love the reactions, the capture of a moment in time that could never happen in reality (luckily for us), and the fact that there’s a giant monster about to eat some college students.

I freely admit that I am drawn to these works because of the robots and monsters, and that without these fantasy elements, I probably wouldn’t have taken a second look.

I have a fondness for the extraordinary. Maybe it’s childish, or escapist, and a sign of arrested emotional development, but I don’t think so. I won’t turn this into some wide-ranging defense of science fiction and fantasy, as much as I’m tempted to. I can’t explain precisely why space ships and dragons make me happy, they just do!

But Not Everything I Love is Science Fictiony or Whatever

I love those things, and I love Stålenhag’s work for those elements, but I love plenty of things that don’t have anything weird or fantastic or magical in them. I’ve written before about the Raft of the Medusa and the amazing story behind it, and a video project made about the painting, in my newsletter about Routines. I confess that something needs to have a hook to keep my attention, but that hook can take many forms. Even when the hook is science fiction, like Star Wars, my favorite moments from movies like that are the human ones. My favorite scene in all of Star Wars has nothing to do with space ships or laser swords — it’s two people having an argument in a hallway.

I Feel Like I’ve Used This Example Before

I like to write, as you might have noticed. I enjoy the process of converting thoughts into words and communicating and telling stories. I love doing it! I also love it when people read what I’ve written (so, you know, tell your friends).

What I tend to write tends to have a tendency toward the fantastic. That’s not to say that it’s all space ships and dinosaurs, but the hook that interests me enough to propel my fingers to write a piece of fiction is usually in the category of what is largely referred to as “speculative,” which combines science fiction and fantasy and all that other associated weirdness. I need some level of weirdness to make me want to write something, but I make sure that not everything I write has weirdness or speculative elements.

The example I referenced above is from the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, so stop me if you’ve heard this before. The show was fun and disappointing at the same time, and I rarely watched it. I was a kid, and didn’t appreciate that George Lucas was using a young Indiana Jones to explore the history of the early 20th century. Lots of stuff happened in that era, including the invention of the blues.

Young Indiana Jones often encountered some famous person and, from them, learned some valuable lesson. In this episode, he learned how to play jazz, but he only practiced improvisation. One musician plays the Saints Go Marching In on the piano, and plays it perfectly, much to Indy’s amazement. The lesson imparted to our hero is one imparted to me, too: you have to know how to do it right before you can start improvising it. You must master the mundane before you can start messing with the fantastic.

I lurk on a few message boards for writerly types, and I see a lot of people asking questions about their magic systems, or the power levels of their characters, or what they should name their character’s sword. My advice to them all is the same: who cares? They’re almost always new writers who have never really tried anything before and, influenced by something they’ve watched or read, have lassoed their imaginations and are expressing themselves. This is good! I’m glad they chose to write. But unless there’s something meaty on those bones, it doesn’t matter.

Post Script

In researching Charlie White, I discovered that he very recently joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, which is mere minutes from where I live. I’d love to meet him sometime, but I’m content to enjoy his work. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone I know only from their art (but I wrote about that, too) and I’m not sure I’d know what to do.

40 thoughts on “Art

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