An essay in which I ponder the meaning of artPosted: September 16, 2016
This essay was adapted from one of my readings at Kill Your Darlings, our live lit and improv series. This was from the night celebrated as Art (one of the cultural categories on thirdcoastreview.com).
How do you define art? This question has always plagued me.
I know what art is. It’s a visual representation of life or some emotion or some experience. Not exactly tangible. That’s why it’s hard to define art.
There are dictionary definitions. “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.“ But that’s crazy because art doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Then there are people who think only they can define art. The know-nothings who say, “That’s not art” or “My kid could have done that with his crayons (or clay)” about any piece of art that isn’t representational. Or that they don’t understand.
If a sculpture isn’t a man on a horse, then it’s not art.
If a painting isn’t fruit on a table, or people dressed up and posing, then it’s not art.
Public art is very often the object of this opinion: That’s not art.
When our Picasso was unveiled in Daley Center in 1967, it was met with jokes, nicknames and worse. And this was before the internet. The late columnist Mike Royko said people could see
“it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like a giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
“But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago.
“Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the police scandals, the settlers who took the Indians but good. Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”
Royko concludes this way. “It is all there in that Picasso thing. The I Will spirit of Chicago. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.”
People insisted on knowing that the Picasso looked like something. Anything. A woman. A dog. Something real. Don’t show me that abstract crap.
Now we love it, however. You can believe the Picasso will be wearing a Cubs cap soon – if the Cubs get into the World Series.
There have been similar reactions to other abstract public art.
There was “Tilted Arc,” the Richard Serra sculpture on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The sculpture was a massive arc of steel that bisected the plaza. Serra attributed meaning to it in the context of the government agencies and workers in that public building. People hated it. They hated the way it looked. They hated the way it slashed through the plaza and made them detour around it on their way to their offices.
I had a similar artistic experience last weekend when I was visiting Greensboro, North Carolina.
There’s a new piece of public art in a new downtown city park. It’s called “Where We Met” by Janet Echelman. It’s made of net and wire and is meant to honor the local textile industry and its workers and the networks of roads and rails that supported the industry for the many years it thrived.
While I was hanging around taking photos and watching my grandsons play, I heard people’s comments. “Huh? Why is that art?” “It’s just a bunch of net. The city paid a million bucks for that?”
And so it goes. The Picasso survives and thrives. The Serra was the subject of such controversy that it was removed from the plaza, despite the artist’s objections. We’ll see how the Echelman survives in Greensboro.
Yasmina Reza wrote a play that sums up the whole question. It’s titled, appropriately, “Art.” It’s about three friends. Serge buys a very expensive painting by a fashionable artist and invites Marc and Yvan over to see it. It’s a large canvas, painted completely white with white diagonal lines.
The friends’ reactions—laughter, anger, sarcasm—affect their relationships with each other. It ends up (spoiler alert) with Serge offering Marc a bright blue marker and inviting him to draw on the “canvas.” Marc draws a blue diagonal and then a little skier with a woolly hat. In the final scene, the two of them are carefully cleaning the painting.
An old friend of mine used to say, “Art is what the artist says it is.” And I believe he’s right.
If I define myself as an artist, then what I create is art. If I pile garbage in the middle of a gallery, it’s an installation. And there’s a label on it that says it’s art. If I smear the garbage on a canvas, it’s a painting. It’s art because I’m an artist and I say it’s art. And when I’m well known, people will pay big money for that painting. Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.
And that’s the best answer to my question: What is art?