There’s a grotesqueness to this whole concept of “art;” a repulsive thing we do with “les objets d’art” – the things we find or make within it.
THE UGLINESS OF ART.
Art is often ugly because, in making it, we kill things. And then condone the killing of things and celebrate the massacre by hanging the carcasses up on walls.
You see, art, it comes from life. It is a part of “the real world.”
But when art is at its ugliest, it is merely the pelt of what was life – “a part of it” only because it takes from it, destroying the essence in the process. And most art, once created – once captured – then ceases to be a part of life’s continuum.
The admiration of art at its best can be beautiful. But the reverence of art for art’s sake – that is, the art on the wall alone – is perverse. And sort of sad.
Author Rebecca Solnit puts it well when she says:
Yeah. That’s pretty much precisely how it is. There is a perverseness in preservation, a staleness in the spaces where things hang.
“Something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.” – Rebecca Solnit
IT’S NOT JUST ART.
We do this to people, too. We think “love” or the adoration of another being is nothing more than the act of containing them somehow – categorizing, controlling, stripping away their mystery and sitting them up in a way that works for us. Some of us believe that “love” – or even “friendship” – means exercising control and making demands on one another. Act this way; do this thing. Be this person for me.
It is gross, really, when you think about it. In the same way that it is “gross” to put artifacts in museums. This is a different sort of coveting. A consumption through control. Be still; be stable; be secure. Be this way and stay the same forever.
ARTISTS CAN BE UGLY, TOO.
And sometimes artists are just as selfish; just as motivated to simply capture and contain.
Many artists do not create art in an effort to enlighten. Some don’t even create art in an effort to entertain. Many, in fact, are creating art for the very same or similar perverse reasons their audiences adore it… namely, to soothe their own desires or insecurities.
In Mental Floss’s article “27 Responses to the Question ‘What is Art?'”, we find that many artists speak of art only in these forms, seeing it as:
- An indulgence, pure and simple – “Art is a habit-forming drug.” – Marcel Duchamp, French-born American artist
- An attempt at immortality – “Art is a revolt, a protest against extinction.” – André Malraux, French novelist, essayist, and art critic
- An attempt to capture and silence something – “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” – Saul Bellow, American novelist
- An attempt to “calm” – to escape – “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter… a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” – Henri Matisse, French artist
- The stripping or “cleaning” of something – “To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form.” – Robert Frost, American poet
To “clean” it? Since when does life need to be “cleaned?” If you are really moving through life regarding it as fundamentally “dirty” or “too complex,” saving it from itself (or you from it) in paint or paper, then something is askew. (This perspective in reads eerily similar to “cleansing,” as in, like, “ethnic,” to me.)
And all of these reasons are grossly askew; repulsively indicative of a value system gone wrong.
It’s a fake tree. Modeled after a real tree. Once found in a meadow, now sitting in a room.
The piece, titled Hinoki by artist Charles Ray, not only violates everything that is good about life but quite literally destroys it – specifically, the piece’s real-life origin and inspiration. And it is a clean-cut, accessible example of the ways in which art and artists sabotage.
Artist Charles Ray describes the piece through story:
“I spotted a fallen tree in a meadow just off the highway. I was instantly drawn to it. It was not only a beautiful log, but to my eyes, it was perfectly embedded in the meadow where it had fallen decades earlier.”
The log’s beauty, then, being fundamentally rooted in its “embeddedness” – its context (its surroundings) is integral to its appeal. Ray knows this – outlines this first in his description of its beauty; citing the context as even more important than beauty of the log itself (“it was not only a beautiful log, but… perfectly embedded.”) Not only, but also. Furthermore. Moreover.
And yet, even though he sees the value of the context, Ray destroys this altogether.
The reason is that, although he can enjoy the beauty of nature as a passerby, he is not at peace with the very essence of nature and the fundamentals of the natural world – namely, the inevitability of decay, which he sees as tragic:
And so he decides to “save” it, and he covers up this compulsion by ascribing heroic language to his intent:
At one point, I determined that its armature could its pneuma, the Greek word for breath, wind, or life. Later, I considered making an inflatable sculpture but realized that the tailoring of the form would bring an unwanted complexity to the surface. It then struck me that the breath or life of the sculpture could be manifested in the very act of sculpting. Making a wood carving of the log by starting from the inside and working my way out wold bring a trajectory of life and intentionality to this great fallen tree.”
A “trajectory of life.” The irony here is that his very efforts in preservation of a thing, rather than honoring or respecting its own trajectory, is, in fact, an interruption of its true trajectory. In his grandiose gestures around preservation and protection of a thing – a bit of nature; a piece of the natural world – and in his investment in capturing it, in stillness and silence, for as long as possible, he actually destroys it.
And after he destroys the tree, interrupts its natural trajectory, and destroys the beauty of its context forever, he goes through great pains to somehow recreate it; rebuild it as a simulation.
“Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoski and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress (hinoki.) I was drawn to the woodworkers because of their tradition of copying work that is beyond restoration”
The problem here, however, is that this was never a “piece of work.” This never belonged to Ray or anybody else for their sole consumption or destruction – “restoration” or recreation. It was something belonging to the natural world; something that they plucked out of that context and then mauled.
“In Japan, when an old temple or Buddha can no longer be maintained, it is remade. I visited Japan often and had a difficult time bringing this work to completion and allowing it to go out into the world. When I asked Mr. Mukoyoshi about the wood and how it would behave over time, he me that the wood would be fine for 400 years and then it would go into a crisis; after two hundred years of splitting and cracking, it would go into slow decline for another 400 years. I realized then that the wood, like the original log, had a life of its own, and I was finally able to let my project go and hopefully breathe life into the world that surrounds it.”
It’s a funny use of “life”… self-deceiving and, frankly, a bit delusional, because he did not honor this log’s life, let alone create for it any degree of pneuma – breath, wind, or life. In fact, far from it: he killed it. Destroyed it altogether, and instead put out an imitation.
And it’s not just Ray. This is, in fact, the whole essence of “The Museum” – a space in which things are protected; preserved – kept lifeless and still, for silent admiration, in this cold, false context.
Artist Martin Puryear lost much of his life’s work in a fire, resulting in what he called “a period of grieving.” Grieving. The only reason someone would grieve over this is if they valued their artifacts over their own artfulness – if they had made the mistake of valuing art not as a process for creation, but as the end product – what is done.
Puryear did finally come around, embracing the trauma also as “an incredible lightness and freedom.” But not all artists do. In fact, many artists seem to have every bit the skewed perception and value systems that the rest of us do.
SO? WHO CARES?
The problem is that this is not about art – either the making of it, the end products, or the enjoyment of it. The problem is that it’s about value systems, and value systems are about the way we live our lives and, ultimately, our happiness.
Our value systems are the difference between worthwhile lives and those that aren’t. When we over-value imitations and mock-ups, and when we spend our lives agonizing over containment and preventing change, anxious that we’ll lose control, we set ourselves up for unhappiness. Because all things ultimately change – and fade away. Trying to fight this is futile.
When, instead, we make peace with the inevitability of change, when we embrace the fluidity of art and see art as an ever-changing representation of what is real, something to treat lightly, then we set ourselves up for a richer way of living, with far greater contentment and ease.
WHAT IS ART?
To start, a dictionary offers:
- The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power; works produced by human creative skill and imagination; creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.
- The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
Note: the expression – the act of expressing – rather than the expressed. The application. The action. The creative activity, not the creation. It’s an act, not an artifact.
This gets us partway there.
WHAT IS GOOD ART?
Art at its worst is the stripping and plundering of what’s real, the taking away of life itself in order to render something lifeless; to keep it precious. This is the ugliness.
But art can be beautiful. And it can add value to our lives.
In order to do so, though, it should highlight, not replace. At its best, all art can ever aspire to be is illustrative – to bring our attention to a thing without destroying or recreating it. The whole of the world is beautiful. Beauty does not belong to art alone, and the most beautiful art brings awareness to the beauty of life.
It should teach us to appreciate these things when we encounter them in reality. If we must enter a gallery in order to see something as beautiful, if a thing must have a frame or a pedestal to warrant our attention or our praise, there’s something wrong with our perspective.
Art, at its best, can teach us to see. Can enlighten. Can capture and communicate something only as a moment in time; art is something meant to be seen once, lightly, and not revered or revisited. Art is a moment of seeing and then of moving on, and the enjoyment of art contributes to our private curation of experiences meant to fuel the way we encounter those before us – not just at the next painting, in the next room, but in our real, day to day lives.
I would break “good art” down into two categories: how it is created, and how it is consumed:
- The act of creating / creativity: the intellectual process – to share thoughts; to respond; to create; to “try.” To communicate, to express, to either join and/or catalyze a dialogue about life and our own nature.
- The end creation: fodder for someone else’s intellectual process – to offer some illumination or inspiration for anyone who might find it and join the dialogue, even by way of thought, reflection, or ideas.
Art is fundamentally a part of a dialogue – each piece is a story. And stories are integral to the way people understand their experience. They’re the constructs with which we create meaning from our lives.
“Good art” is treated lightly – appreciated, richly even, and then set down. Move quickly. Make art lightly; quickly; easily. And move light on the heels of others’ art.
IMITATION VS. CREATION
I elevate art to “creation” over “imitation,” the former being the fundamentally superior value and motive, even if the two overlap.
“Good art” comes from the desire to create – to contribute rather than capture alone. Art is the process – not the keeping of things precious but rather their creation.
That being said, of course all art – all of everything, really – is, to some degree, imitation. We all borrow our inspiration for all things from somewhere; all pull from other things in order to yield something new.
Imitation is okay.
But the point is which should be more closely cherished – the imitation or the imitated. And the problem in aligning ourselves with the former – the fabrication – over the original and the real.
Imitation is far more tolerable when it directs the audience to the original, when it serves to inspire us to see and then keep moving. Imitation is ugly when it, instead, permits or encourages us to instead lock the thing up in a cage and keep it there; when it indulges us in our capacities to contain.
Art is about honesty. And humility. Art contributes to a dialogue, and is meant to direct us back to life, not replace it.
“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”– Paul Klee, Swiss painter
“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”– Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter
Good art directs us back to the thing, and the thing will always be better, on account of its originality; being real.
Art teases out a desire and/or piques our interest in something, communicates ideas about a thing or inspires conversation about a thing, but the focus and reverence is always on the subject, not about the object in which it’s merely represented.
A photograph or a painting of a flower can never be more beautiful or cherished than the flower itself.
The only reason we would feel otherwise – that we would love the imitation over the original – is because we’ve built up “backwards” values (preferring containment and immortality – control – over what is real.) To live this is way – to cling to things that are not true (namely: believe that things are more “beautiful” when they do not change; the delusion that beauty isn’t fleeting or that its fleeting nature can be controlled) – is to live very poorly.
WHY WE LIKE WHAT ART WE LIKE
Art compensates on what we’re looking for – what we lack and/or what we seek.
But art only does this because all things do this. This is how we go about buying clothes, how we choose hobbies, how we occupy ourselves in our free time, how we shop, how we eat. And yes, how we love.
If you look closely at the things that you prefer, you will notice a trend. Looking first in one category alone and giving names to the reasons you like them, you will see similar adjectives across the pieces. Branching out to other areas of your life, however, and working to describe them, you will notice that you likely have a “short list” of words for the things – and people – that you love.
One might find pieces to be arousing – attractive in rich ways – if one is open to seeing a person has an essence, and able then to see similar essences in things. I like presence, substance, heaviness; a groundedness, a certainty, a weight; a rawness; an honesty; authenticity. I like something I can “press against,” and I disdain the dainty; the precious; the made-up.
We want our art to fill the gaps. We are looking for things, and the things we see in the art we like mirrors the sort of things we seek in life.
“The art we love is frequently something we’re drawn to because it compensates us for what we lack. It counter-balances us. When we’re moved by a work of art, it may be because it contains concentrated doses of things we need in our lives.” – Alain de Botton, philosopher, What is Art?
(One might ask, of course, how we and our partners can share a space together, if we choose people that represent the sort of things that we’re chasing for ourselves. After, it we succeed in both finding them and building ourselves out, in some ways, we may grow to share the same “space,” which leaves me to wonder how we then yield to each other. But that’s another tangent entirely.)
The adjectives themselves – the ones I use to describe my favorite art – is, admittedly, an immensely subjective stance. Others who are every bit entitled to their own viewpoints and every bit as intelligent, including at least one person who’s very dear to me, instead prefer to see art as “beautiful” – they pursue beauty in the objects in their lives.
And this is okay, because it’s not about defining “good art” as a static set of adjectives, but rather recognizing the act of assigning the set for ourselves, which is on some levels, something organic and ever-changing.
The curation of art, then, is not about les objets d’art themselves, but about their process – of creation, of cultivation, of communication with other people; a way of understanding ourselves.