My dear student — can I call you that still even though I’m not sure I ever really taught you anything, and even though you’re a better artist than I in so many ways? I’ll call you that. Let’s restart…
My dear student! How cool and flattering it is to hear from you still, even though you’re… oh god. These openings are all awful. Restart.
Vika, you sent me a text a few days ago, wondering about my definition of art. It was part of an assignment you were given at Pratt. Jeez — how cool you’re at Pratt! Amazing.
I texted you answers back. You mentioned I should post it up. Not a bad idea, so that is what I’ve done.
But I’ve added a bunch to it.
“What is art” is the kind of question that rattles around in my head. And it is a good question for an artist to ponder. Not because there is actually an answer to it, but because it is good for the brain to think about such things — in that aspect the question is a Koan. And thinking about it is good, essential, to being an artist. Drinking wine is good. Knowing what the hell you’re drinking makes it all the better.
So, below: the characteristics I notice when I consider things art. The symptoms, if you will. And like with almost any disease, sometimes not all the symptoms are present at once.
Most importantly, bear in mind that these are mine, and they were concocted for my use. They’re not universal, and if people want to say, “I disagree with you on blah blah blah,” they can and I don’t give a crap if they do. I’ll probably change my own ideas in a few years anyway.
SO… here ya go.
What Art Is
It is the product of human endeavor and effort. So, a sunset isn’t art. People have argued with me things like, “What if I put up signs and add benches and then sell tickets to it? Then is it art?” No, that’s capitalism, and this conversation is a waste of thought so next:
It has as its purpose nothing other than the experience of what it is. So a car isn’t art, a really beautiful poster advertising something isn’t art. People have argued things like, “But there’s a helicopter up at MoMA. So now it is no longer functioning as a helicopter so now it’s art.” No. That’s capitalism yet again. And if you’re going to MoMA to see a helicopter then why not go to the National Air and Space Museum outside of DC and see the really cool stuff.
“But what about those amazing Lautrec posters. Are those art?”
This is where things get dicy. Bearing in mind that the whole idea of rules for art is stupid to begin with, we can say they’re art. Or we don’t have to. Whatever. I love them and get ideas from them. There’s more on that later. So, yes. Or no. You figure it out. I don’t have to.
Its form is tangible and its form is intrinsic to it and the medium of it. So pictures and documentation of an experience aren’t art, nor is a thought, the existence of which is somehow documented. So, yes, I basically just said conceptual art isn’t art. This idea that documentation is art is the basis of Phot.
(we will discuss Phot at another time)
Often there is a “wow” factor to it — something that bespeaks huge ability. The paintings of Klimt, or Marlene Dumas. The sheer guts and maniacal ability to intrude of Diane Arbus. The virtuoso recording techniques, playing and writing behind a Steely Dan album. What a great orchestra is capable of. What an opera singer is capable of. Anything by sculptor Tim Hawkinson. How Renee Jeanne Falconetti manages to cry her way through The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Sometimes the wow is the size or the scope — huge paintings by Pollock or the utter audaciousness and whateverthehell of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. I guess the point here is either get really fucking good at something or go for utter broke.
At its best it has the power to help us re-experience that which with we’ve a relationship of intimate mundanity. It reinvents how we see things. It can show us the magic of what is around us everyday. It can help us to reclaim the vistas seen by a baby in stroller on walk around the neighborhood. Even in its lowest form it points out representative beauty.
Art can be used as a proxy to share our internal experience of life. We only know ourselves, and even then just barely. We cannot know what it is like within someone else, but two can connect their inner experiences through art.
We bring our insides with us. My name is Luke. When I see Star Wars I guarantee it is different for me than it is for you. That name in common alone changes my relationship to a certain character in a way I cannot decribe. But we both can watch the movie, trace its ups and down, and ponder our own heroics. And then we can talk about the parts of it we love, the parts of it we didn’t, and in this way we each can get a sense of the other. And when we want to know the loss in each other we can watch Biutiful.
Art is how we talk about things that cannot be talked about, and find the things we want to talk about. When I was younger and pathetic and feeling alone and out of place at bars and clubs, I would ponder the girls and guys dressed up to sell themselves, feel the teeth of judgement going on all around me, chewing me up, and beneath all of that a certain fear. Of rejection? Of meeting someone only to find out they’re a nightmare? All of that. And there’s something like a slave market going on as well. I guess I could throw it down into a bunch of sentences, like I just did, but I didn’t know those sentences until I finished a pair of paintings. I didn’t start the painting thinking, “These are about dating in the late 80’s.” And I didn’t paint them until 2014. They were never about that. I only kind of have an idea what they’re about. Or I know exactly. And it doesn’t matter because—
Art is useful, but the meaning and usefulness of it, and even the value of it, lies with the audience. The maker of art simply makes the thing, for whatever reasons, by whatever impulses. Now, the maker might say, “I want people to understand how I feel about this,” or, “People must know how bad this particular inhumane behavior is,” or, “This is how the world is for me.” Whatever. Fifty years past the summer of love all those great anti-war songs and paeans to the hippy lifestyle are now curiosities and in some cases novelty songs. Listen to The Eve of Destruction and try not to laugh. If no one tells you Guernica is about a terror bombing then it’s mainly about horse nostrils. Everyone in an Ingres is dead, society is completely changed and there are no fashion tips that are still applicable. Some bright guys performed Hamlet to a tribe in the Sahara, and the basic comment from the audience when the play was over basically translated to, “Why didn’t he just stab his uncle and get it the hell over with?” So much for the universality of Shakespeare.
Are these about dating in the 80’s? They are if you want them to be.
What really matters is what you, audience, get from art. How is it helpful to you? Does it give you permission? I find Matisses (that is plural Matisse, as in a bunch of his paintings. I’ve been given permission to make up my own words by George Saunders, amongst others) give me permission to not pay too much attention to the accuracy of my color matching, and to simply paint over anything I don’t like. A generation of queer kids and hitherto outsiders were tacitly rubber-stamped as OK by David Bowie in 1972, when he looked straight into the camera on Top of the Pops and sang the words, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you.”
What the artist wants from you is nonsense. In a generation it won’t matter, so if the art is to function it is up to the audience to assign the meaning and value. Getting out of it what the artist meant is like getting a multiple choice test question correct. Finding where YOU are in it, finding a piece of your own voice, that is food to sustain a life.
So, my dear student, young genius, there you go.
One last tidbit: if you think it’s art, then it is. It is ok if one person’s art is another persons Phot.
(I titled this as it is, numbered it 1, because I am sure I will write you again)