Sunday, July 10, 2011

If I like it, it ain't art

 Fire and Ice
Artist and Creator collaborate
I eat my lunch in an art gallery most working days. This month, I’m surrounded by the landscapes of Darrell Bell; last month by the Illuminated Spaces exhibit of artist Carri J. McKinnon. Before that—the exhibits change monthly—I have eaten soup and bread among fabric art, photography, tattoo art, and even some tradigital art, a cross between digital manipulation of photo images and painting. I’m a lucky guy.
               Sometimes we exchange opinions around the lunch table on the quality of the exhibits. The nouns art, craft, kitch, mere illustration and . . . some I won’t mention here . . . occasionally intrude into the conversations. And then the whole question of what, in fact, can and cannot be considered art gets another airing. I’m reminded of Red Green’s summary answer to this question: “If I like it, it ain’t art.”
               Not so long ago we had a display called “Wayne Gretzky’s Last Game.” It was a series of framed, hockey-rink-shaped canvasses on which the artist had traced all of Wayne’s movements in his final game in the NHL with a china marker. One was called “First Period,” another “Second Period . . .:” you get the drift. It elicited quite a few responses in the “What the hell is that??” vein, or “My three year-old could have done that with his foot!”
               One judge in his ruling involving a different sort of “art” is reported to have said, “Pornography may be hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” Maybe all art falls into a similar category? Most of us can look at a painting or photo or drawing and although we can’t be certain that it’s good art—or even art, for that matter—we have an idea whether or not we’re looking at something of quality or not. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.
               Thing is, we look at questions like this backwards. ART is a nominative, a noun, a word that has rather loosely come to refer to a certain human activity and the resulting product. Like abstract nominatives, it represents an attempt to convey in language something that defies clear definition, like love. That activity—which involves a concerted and skilful attempt to create something symbolic and beautiful—has come to be called art. The activity and its product wouldn’t change even if we lost that word and called the activity foop, or dorp, or croot. As the bard said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
               I’m convinced that there’s a whole broader category of human striving that includes art, but also includes exploration, architecture, scholarship, plant breeding, gourmet cooking . . . etc., etc. All are expressions of our longing to fly, to rise above the mundane, the vulgar, the mortal. There are those among us who learn—if haltingly and tentatively—to fly, and taking us by the hand, they lead us to realms above whether through food, through gardens and architecture, through literature or music, through whatever they have created that is new, is pleasing and elevates us—if only for a moment—above the toil and sweat and weeds of our mortal lives. We call them artists. They are pastors and priests, intermediaries and teachers between us and what we long to be. Many of us “don’t get it,” and how can we, when we’ve never been taught to aspire to flight? In desperation, we seek our fulfillment in the pursuit of comfort, money and/or notoriety, in the momentary ecstasies of hysterical religions, in physical and emotional gluttony. The saddest of all are those of us who retire into our private enclaves and make a fetish of gloomy despair.

Jesus, too, was an artist, his object to raise us up from the mire in which we languished. Unfortunately, very few understood—or understand—his art. Like investors who buy paintings and hide them away as a hedge against the market, his art was overtaken by the religious “investors” who substituted a vision of immortal blandness in place of the promise that, mortal as we are, we may soar with the eagles. They convinced us that living forever was the right compensation for wallowing in the muck for three score and ten. They took art and made of it . . . wallpaper.

An Aside: I once took a university half course called “The Psychology of Aesthetic Responses.” In it, I learned what appeals to people visually—statistically—and some theories of why things appeal or don’t. I got the top mark in the class, so if you’re ever wondering if the object you’re looking at is or is not art . . . just ask me.
If you look back at the top of this blog page you’ll find an object titled, Fire and Ice. It’s not art. Or is it? You tell me. Does it inspire you to flight?

Maybe dorp is the appropriate nominative.

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