My Loud, Mouthy Opinion on Art
by Nix Winter
I am reading this book. It's a book gotten on from the back shelf at a thrift store. For a $1.99 can see into the academic thought of a couple decades ago. I can see the sweet little students sitting in class swallowing these ideas down like lead based cough syrup. Sure, the Greeks had a 'Middle Ages' and it was just like ours. Everything in the history of Humanity relates back to our own experience of culture, which is, of course, the pinnacle of Human endeavor and experience.
The first anthropology class I ever took taught me a very useful concept. Ethnocentrism. I think that a deeply imbedded belief that our culture is really and truly the very best and everything else is just trying to grow up to be our culture is at the root of the idea that everything is art.
Humans make judgements. That's what we do. It's at the heart of being able to survive in a physical world. Back in the day when 'Do I eat this?' was a life or death question, we got pretty good at making choices. Even as recently as a hundred years ago a cut could kill you, ice boxes were for the rich. A little more than a hundred years ago some doctors thought that being a gentleman meant your hands were clean... that they couldn't pass disease. What has this got to do with humans making judgements? The world is historically a very dangerous place. Making the right choices keeps body and soul together, gets one's spawn old enough to reproduce themselves. Making choices, practicing this skill with logic, authority, and skill is like eating. We need to do it to stay alive.
We also need inclusion in our tribe. Exclusion, banishment, isolation, loneliness, abandonment... these are all very dark words to us, words that whisper of death and misery. We want to say true things, right things, that get us respect and make us look like the good guy. Old text books on art and history... they drip with how Western Culture is the pinnacle, how the bible is actual history, how Dick and Jane are real people.....
Dick and Jane are so familiar. See Jane run. When I'm in that place where I'm safe and comfortable in my culture, my sweet culture that surrounds me and obviously represents the height of human achievement, and then someone shows me a basket that looks more like a hairball my cat might have puked up than something Little Red Riding Hood could have carried, well.... It doesn't look like the height of civilization. It doesn't look like art. Now, not wanting to be like those people who wrote those ethnocentric books that are now considered so rude, I don't want to say it's not art. Even if I think that my cat could kick out better from her litter box, I can't say that.. if I can't say it.. I can't very well be thinking it and lying, now can I? Someone might actually think that basket is art. Who am I to question the intent of the creator?
Along that line of reasoning, I get to a place where if I draw a line and say anything beyond this is not art, then I'm going to find exceptions and I'm going to offend people and risk banishment. I can't make a choice like that.. so Everything is Art.
Refusing to choose, refusing to embrace the messiness of our world is asking for the world to give us unpleasant results. It's not safe to say “Everything is Food” just because we have the ability to grind up lead and put it in our cough syrup. Not everything is art. Not everything nourishes the soul.
Now, granted.. it is a little easier to understand that live cockroach is a source of protein that might even be better for the world than beef. We know what happens now when you eat lead.
The insult to art when 'Everything is Art' - is that saying the artifact that a bear craps out in the forest, that this is art the same as Japanese calligraphy, or a Rodin, or an O'keefe. An O'keefe painting does not have the same value as a pile of excrement in the forest, or anywhere else for that matter. The creation of art objects marks a kind of intelligence, a need to express, to leave a record of one's existence. An animal's scent marking comes closer. A fence is not art though. If someone comes along later and sees art in it, makes that fence into something in their own mind... that's a different event.
For all of our shared history, human life has been brief, too brief, a flick of aware and then a drizzle away into maybe just the very slight echoes of remaining artifacts. While I very much want to see an end to involuntary death, the present truth is that I'm probably going to die. You are probably going to die. That probably is the kindest modifier we've ever been able to put in such a sentence. In this moment, I love the word probably.
What little whispers our bright sparks of intelligence can leave behind, these things we call art, they are invaluable. They are the imprint of life. Everything in the world is not the imprint of a life, of a consciousness.
So art must be an artifact of human creation. Found art, photography, objects from nature or civilization that are compounded together, set apart, somehow underlined by the intent of a person's desire to use them as an expression... the person's intent to express is the art, the manifestation of that could just as well have been unwashed dishes in a diner. An unwashed dish is not art. The unwashed dish preserved with the rest of a meal, like a frozen moment in time is art. I actually saw a piece like this at the Seattle Museum of Art this year in their Art Attack exhibit. It was stunning to be able to nearly reach to touch this frozen moment in time. That the human mind can conceive of such a freezing of time, this expresses human experience, whispers at our desire to exist behind the fleeting moments we know we have.
Now... Other species may make art. I don't mean to be rude to any species that may read my words in the future. Dolphins, elephants, other primates, they might all have art in some way. I don't know. I think there's a good sign that they have language, culture of their own. Good for them. I wish them all the luck. With the way we run the world – they're going to need it. I'm a human though. That's the only thought process I can really speak to.
Next time... let's talk about Color Field paintings...