Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What is art?

I cannot believe I'm asking this-- or writing the answer voluntarily-- as I was sick to death of this question by the first year of art school (and sicker by graduation). But unlike years past I'm not b.s.-ing my way through an answer (not consciously anyway) and I'm finally satisfied that I have an answer that exists outside the untenable binary of genius / loser, art / craft, transcendent / kitsch that is particular to post-Renaissance modernity. [Image: Lisa Simpson holding her sax in front of clouds shaped like Bleeding Gums Murphy, an obvious spoof of Simba's dad-cloud apparition from The Lion King]


Art is the notation or commentary that you make on life, similar to the notes you take in class. [Image: Lisa, Marge and Homer Simpson watch a meteor shower]


Some things you copy down because you need to know them. Or because it is interesting enough as-is that it's worth remembering. You usually parse what you believe is the most important or salient fact and make a note of only that, particularly when it is representative of a bulkier portion of the learning material. This selectivity reflects a combination of your personal values or intellectual system, and what the teacher (i.e. cultural authority) says is important.... [Image: Lisa and Homer Simpson watch TV in awe]
... I'm alluding to classical Academic art, cave paintings, scientific illustration.... [Image: Homer as da Vinci paints Lisa as the Mona Lisa]
... most portraiture.... [Image: storage room full of statues and paintings of Mr. Burns in many styles]
... and historic monuments. [Image: Homer Simpson imagines himself playing Foosball with Michelangelo's David]

Other times you may jot your own abstract theories of the material in the margins of a novel or history book: leading questions to remind you later of your thoughts, or your theories pertaining to the text which usually reflect your larger cultural and intellectual environment, such as parallels with material you're learning in another class.... [Image: Lisa Simpson dressed like Sherlock Holmes, i.e. a detective]
... Here I'm alluding to Abstract Expressionism... [Image: 3-D Homer Simpson paints crazy lines like Pollock]
... art which advances a theory such as Futurism and Cubism... [Image: spoof of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase featuring Homer Simpson stumbling cubistically down a staircase]
 and mystical or religious art. [Image: Lisa Simpson reads Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass]

Or maybe the class doesn't interest you and you're doodling unicorns in your notebook and making escapist fantasies. I'd say these "notes" are still reflective of the class because 1) they were produced because you were in class and 2) they are often subconsciously related to the material or are a reaction to it, such as a cartoon of your teacher with a Hitler mustache. Here I'm thinking of escapist art, fantasy, sci fi, satire, mindless entertainment, psychadelia, decorative art and art for the sake of pure beauty. [Lisa Simpson dances while Chief Wiggam eats a donut in a spoof of David Lynch's Twin Peaks where Agent Cooper dreams of the Black Lodge]

In this analogy community happenings or collaborations might be a sort of group study session... [Andy Warhol holds a giant soup can above a cowering Homer Simpson in a Dali dreamscape]
 ... or lab class where you learn through pre-designed experimentation. [Image: Lisa Simpson plays the sax in band with other kids]

You mostly make the notes for yourself but you might share them if they are outstanding, or if note-taking resources are scarce, or if someone else needs to use them. [Image: Lisa Simpson stands heroically in front of a sunset]

And while many of us were forced to take notes in class because we wanted to pass the tests or because our teachers made us, "notes on life," i.e. art, are usually voluntary.... [Image: Bart Simpson does write-offs reading, "I WILL NOT EXPOSE THE IGNORANCE OF THE FACULTY"]

... Maybe we have never come across an adequate representation of life quite as we've experienced it, and we want to make note of our version of events-- for the pursuit of a Higher Truth, in order to help others going through the same thing, because we think our thoughts could entertain others, because we think our experience is super important, or because we think we have something better to offer than what already exists (plans for the future, proposals, fantasies, utopias).... [Image: Lisa Simpson reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar]
... Maybe we aren't allowed to express certain thoughts or do certain things in real life, so we express them in abstract ways.... [Image: Lisa and Bart Simpson peruse a copy of Public Nudity: Codes and Statutes]

  ... Maybe we're taking notes on behalf of a huge group of people: carving our tribal history onto a vessel, or making something to entertain every child in an orphanage, or documenting a disappearing culture, or inspiring social justice.... [Image: Lisa Simpson points an accusatory finger with the caption, "The whole damn system is wrong!"]
... Or maybe we feel compelled to take notes and we never really understand why. [Image: Lisa Simpson holds her sax and looks up as Bleeding Gums Murphy sits alone on a bridge in front of the moon playing his sax]

And just as the division between the material being taught and the notation of it (or between teaching and learning) exists only because we say it does-- because we are conscious of ourselves versus others and the linear flow of time, because modern large industrial and / or capitalist societies value the division of labor (teacher/student), because we are a society of domination that values a hierarchy of information based on class markers-- so the division between art and life exists only because we say it does, and for the same reasons. [Image: Lisa Simpson plays her sax while Homer chills out on her bed and listens with a bag of chips]

1 comment:

Ariel said...

This is by far my favorite essay you have written! Your definition is flexible enough to cover all fields of art (as you have so skillfully shown) without insisting that all art has to meet a particular/artificial criteria of skill or expression. Oh, and of course, the Simpson references were totally awesome :)