What is ‘art’? And who are ‘artists’? We know it when we see them. Sometimes. But how far does that get us? Let’s look!
“People get really focused on the noun, like ‘Oh, I’m an artist’ or ‘I’m a writer’ and then they don’t actually think about making art, or writing. Right? The verbs of it. I mean the verb is what you have to fall in love with, the process of the work and not just the product. And I think its so important in creative work just to figure out what your verb is and to figure out a way to have that verb in your life everyday. And then if you turn into a noun, that’s great, but what’s important is to keep doing the verb.” Austin Kleon
Labels are important. They are shortcuts to making sense of the world. They are useful for that, but we can also get carried away. We perform the mental sleight of hand and the signified is traded out for the signifier. Presto-Whamo! Now you are An Artist. Congratulations! The words have made it real. So often saying helps make it so, especially if the words are in the right mouths. Institutional and authoritative mouths. The hard part is already done. Having the right label is like pinning a medal on our chest or hanging a blue ribbon from our neck. Its validation and certification. Cha-ching!
That act of prestidigitation was itself sometimes more convincing than any actual ‘art’ work that might have been done along the way. We flaunt our dossier of gallery representation, sip our half-caf lattes at curbside cafés while reading Foucault and Derrida, wear disheveled rumpled vintage clothing, thumbing our noses at mainstream society and, if we are unlucky, our parents…..
We dress the part. And dressing also helps make it so. We can spend at least some of our precious creative efforts living up to the visual expectation of the label rather than doing our work and letting the chips fall where they may…… By mistaking the trophy for the race we flirt with parody. What would Sisyphus say?
The idea of the stereotype isn’t that its necessarily true or necessarily false. Rather, a stereotype lets us know when we have been bamboozled. The fact that there is an acknowledged stereotype means we understand the sorcery behind our words. If we buy into the stereotypes it only means….. what?
We can jump to conclusions. We can hang the label in the wrong places. We can mistake one noun for a series of other possible nouns and a few choice verbs. Everything else is too often window dressing, but the label we are fixated on seems to hold the key to the real underlying reality. We accept it as the really real. Only, our language has deceived us. As Wittgenstein repeatedly pointed out, “a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it”. We are obsessed with the power of nouns to pick out objects. We are tempted to think every noun has to mean something substantial. That and only that.
We make the same confusion with the word ‘art’, for instance. The vague and loose ways in which we ordinarily use the term ‘art’ seem to often (mostly, always?) get substituted out for the art that is the object of the ‘official’ version. As if it has to mean this and only this. How could it not be this? How could it be something different? Something less substantial? Our material minds take over. We are prejudiced in favor of nouns, and when we can pick them out we are often encouraged to look no further. The noun works, lets use it. Cha-ching! Look who just got paid!
But there isn’t just art in the end product, there is also art in what we do. There is also art in how we do it. The verb of ‘art’ is under-appreciated. Kleon is right about that. It has to occasionally be more than the object, right? At least at times? “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. Its you and the muse who are necessary. The art won’t happen without you and not often without the muse. The art only happens when you are working. The art is you working. Its performative. Get your verb out and let it run wild. Art all day. Art like it matters.
Art doesn’t just show up in the hands of artists. It doesn’t spontaneously erupt from what they do. Sometimes the object itself is incidental. Or, even if the object is momentous sometimes the important thing is how we got there. There was art in how we got there. The doing of it. The art was in the performance which gave rise to the object. The art was something we did. The art extended out of us in a natural creative act. Our hands moved and something new was born. The art was a part of us rather than the materials we used. We own the art in the same way we own our feelings and our moods. The object may be sold, it can be shed from us like clipped fingernails, but no one can ever take the art out of us. Its ours to give. It lives inside us. Its how we express ourselves in the world. Its something we exercise where and when we wish.
Or not. In some not so distant future we will all have our own personal 3D printers that we can download the specs of any object to and reproduce every possible three-dimensional item. Even if its only speculative science fiction right now, the idea is that the original object itself is nothing special. Objects are a dime a dozen, and are not ranked differently in the material plane. Anything can be reproduced when broken down into its physical attributes. Art is just one of many possible things in the world. We can get our own new art with just a series of input values run through a program, cranked through a material synthesizer and Presto-Whamo! another art object inhabits the world. And artists ‘showing up’ is less important for the creative act than a drone simply flicking the switch to let the machine take over. What happened to the art? What happened to art as something special, something unique? In the level playing field of this possible future I’m afraid I’d be out of a job……
Homo Economicus thinks this picture of the future makes every bit of sense: The world as commodity. What is the value in ‘making’ if we can’t trade on something that personal and ephemeral? The things that get traded out in marketplace transactions are the things that we can count, so we are back to products rather than process. Process is simply how things get to market, means to ends. Forget the artist, get me that future where the ‘art object’ is manufactured as efficiently and timely as possible. Why wait for artists to ‘show up’, for their muses to ‘show up’, or for the trial and error of free form exploration? Human creative process is messy and profligate. You will want your art and you will want it now. Life is a vending machine, not a lump of clay. If you want something arty you will be able to get it off the racks, take the mechanized shortcut through the messy creative solipsisms and nervous breakdowns of actual organic artists, head straight to the checkout and have your art waiting for you. The future looks bright for the art connoisseur!
As different as this future might be its something that artists can at least relate to on one level: We fallible fleshy idea processors mostly have to play this object oriented game to make our living. The object can be bought and sold. Right now we have the advantage. The art buying public needs us as manufacturers. But when Voulkos and Picasso can be dialed up from the memory banks of your personal 3D replicator the actual verb of art may have been driven off a cliff and to the further margins.
Someday we may even rely on computer programs for our new poetry and innovative art ideas. What is so strange about programs generating ideas? Artificial intelligence aims at creating the full flavor of human nuance, and this surely has to mean our eccentric creativity as well. Are ideas so special that only humans can have them? Hmmm…….
For instance, art can also be taken as an idea. Forget the object, forget even how it got there, its sometimes only the idea that counts. An author pours her heart out and gets published. She gets paid not for the pencil scrawlings, not for the number of pages compiled, but for the ideas that are represented there. The plot is embedded in the words, the characters exhibited by the scenes, but it is those things put together in just this way that make the difference. The individual printings and editions come and go, but it is the idea that she contributed, ‘the work’ itself. The idea is what gets trademarked and copyrighted. Material things appear in the world; books, automobiles, and toaster ovens. They are appearances. But the idea that stands behind them is more fully real (according to some Platonists). You can destroy a copy of a book, but the idea of that book is something different. You crash your 1974 Corvette, but the idea of Corvettes lives on. So maybe art is better thought of as the idea behind the object. Maybe?
Take the latest twist at the etsy crafts marketplace. Handmade is now something that includes the design you sent to China to have mass produced in factories.
“Etsy’s updated guidelines state that all Etsy users are eligible to use outside help, whether that be a clothing designer who outsources her sewing to a garment factory or a visual artist using Zazzle to print his work. The only stricture is that creative authorship has to rest with the seller.” Liz Stinson
The art, then, can really also be a design property. Rude Platonism is on to something important. Forget the object, forget how it gets there, its the idea behind its construction that contains the art. The artist doesn’t just make objects, doesn’t really have to make anything at all. The art is in the idea for things, a mental property, and the artist is the conduit that makes these wheels turn. The artist is the software designer. The artist is the software. The hardware, the actual object, and how it gets put together are not something the artist has to dirty their hands with. Art is the selection of what ideas will be manifest.
Duchamp helped move us in this direction with the idea of Readymades. The object is merely a vehicle of the artists curatorial discretion. Its not even the idea behind the making of the object that is important. Its original purpose is irrelevant. Its the idea of the object in this context we need to consider.
Term applied from 1915 to a commonplace prefabricated object isolated from its functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection. Unlike most types of Objet Trouvé, of which it can be considered a sub-category, it is generally a product of modern mass production, and it tends to be presented on its own without mediation. In its strictest sense it is applied exclusively to works produced by Marcel Duchamp, who borrowed the term from the clothing industry while living in New York, and especially to works dating from 1913 to 1921. Duchamp envisaged the ready-made as the product of an aesthetically provocative act, one that denied the importance of taste and which questioned the meaning of art itself. According to Duchamp, the artist’s choice of a ready-made should be governed not by the beauty of the object but by his indifference towards it; to these ends it could be selected by chance methods, for example by a predetermined weight or at a predetermined time.” Lewis Kachur
And there you have it. Are our knees wobbling and our heads spinning?
What was the point of all this discussion? I’m certainly not saying art has to mean one thing rather than the other, and I’m not jumping to the conclusion that it therefor means nothing at all. Really I’m just seeing where looking at art takes us, where it lives in our lives, and the broader contexts that give it meaning. If its a messy affair, then so be it. Imagining that it has to be something simple only makes us look simple. I get tired of the linguistic and cultural surgeons who would rather amputate and sterilize what we mean by art than respect the jumbled diversity and confusing plurality of what human beings actually do with it. Always ask yourself the question “Who does it serve?” to take one meaning above the others. What ‘disease’ are they treating? Whose mouth are they feeding? And may illumination find you.
There, I’ve said my peace.
Make beauty real!