Thursday, July 4, 2013

You lost me at what Art is

I've been meaning to write about this in a place potentially accessible by anyone but probably accessed by none for a while.

Whenever someone brings the word art into a discussion, my stomach starts churning, my eyes turn instantly to the person who dared emit that word, and I feel utterly compelled to size him or her up. When the discussion is virtual, my reaction is similar.


When the word is followed by what the person thinks is an appropriate description or, worse, a valid definition of the word, whatever was in front of my eyes is replaced by a huge bulls-eye and all I want to do is shoot at it with arrows made of serpents pre-stiffened by cracking them like whips.


My problem with most uses of the word is that they are in fact abuses of it by people who have absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter - Art. They might have had some tangency with the lower understanding of the concept, art with a small a, art for the layman, art in art school, art in history of arts, art of science, martial arts, art in arts and crafts, tattoo art, nude art, art house cinema, but never experienced Art with a capital A, never having played the role of the Artist themselves. How do I know this? We could say, for the sake of the discussion, that I have an Art-dar and then I could go into this brilliantly crafted rhetoric that would make Plato proud and that would be intended to open the eyes of anyone willing to what is the truth of the matter.

Or I could open up another bag of pufuleți and drown my frustration in them, as all humans were meant to do. Or were they? What frustration, you ask? The frustration of having already done that a thousand times before. Of always looking for the perfect audience design and always getting a raised eyebrow from an artist (with a small a) or a pokerface from a dazed and confused layman. Since I'm writing about this, it's clear I chose the first path. So buckle up! Because, after we're done here, you will be tempted to conclude that I AM the Artist as satan-boy Hexvessel over there IS the ritual.


Now, before we call upon the Artist to explain what Art is, let us look at some recent instances of poor appeal to it that have made me go insane with indignation. This way, the clever reader I expect will be able to intuitively figure out what I mean before actually saying it.

Exhibit A. Art is ultimately the public display of emotion

Back story. I click on this article, being vaguely familiar with the subject of Abramovic and Ulay's love story. I read the article bottom up, as I usually do with articles I expect to be uninteresting. From the way they are described in the article, as I'm reading it bottom up, I already feel like I'm reading about a bunch of idiots. And then I finally get to the intro that has me out of my wits with fury. The author unwittingly says and I accurately translate: "If art is ultimately the public display of the artist's emotions, then which art form would be the purest if not that which presents the deepest human emotion [love]?". Rephrased, the uber intellectual sophism affirmed in that intro is as follows:

Art is ultimately the public display of emotion; love is the deepest emotion; therefor the public display of love is the highest art form.


Exhibit B. Nudity is the highest art form

Back story. I click on this article, being unaware that the Romanian Elle magazine chose to portray summer fashion on its latest cover with a highly accessorized and highly nude model. I shrug at finding out that someone reported the cover on facebook, which, although sounds like the reasonable thing to do since facebook has the no nipples policy, is utterly unexciting news to me. And then I see the deeply inappropriate appeal to Art that the blogger makes in order to gratuitously justify the otherwise witty idea of juxtaposing a nude model with the title "long hot summer" on a magazine that is meant to SELL fashion. The author unwittingly insists and I accurately translate: "We refuse to understand that fashion means art, that nudity is the highest art form, and we do not possess the cognitive capacities to understand and appreciate beauty in its true meaning". There are so many fallacies in there that I'll stick to the main ones:

Fashion is art; Nudity is the highest art form; Beauty in its true meaning is nudity (?) and cannot be understood by us, mere mortals.


Now, what exactly is wrong with these statements? Well, let me start by noting that, in a similar way to how our world is viewed as the lowest emanation from the divine creator Ain Soph in Kabbalah, so can the concept of Art be understood in gradually closer or further ways from the truth. The very furthest I choose to call false simply because accepting it blocks the mind from obtaining higher understanding of the concept.

The lowest level: art as craft or skill. art as excellence

This understanding tends to be predominant in art school environments where art is viewed as a subject which can be studied, taught, and learnt. Example: (s)he is so good at writing/ painting/ drawing/ sculpting/ dancing/ singing/ composing music/ playing an instrument/ fighting/ other means historically deemed to belong to artistic expression that (s)he is considered an artist.

The intermediate level: art as a product of the artist who opposes time by immortalizing beauty.

This is usually the description artists intuitively assign to themselves. Example: That sculptor was so inlove with the beauty of his model that, knowing beauty and life are passing, felt the need to immortalize his experience of her beauty by sculpting it in marble.

The highest level: Art as the product of the Artist who experiences and externalizes the Sufferance

Note the capital S. In this understanding, the Artist is the one who experiences the most intense thing a human can experience, the deepest implication of the inherent contradiction between unlimited desire and limited possibility pertaining to the human condition. Namely, the Sufferance. Capital S is used here to distinguish it from its lesser emanations which manifest in the lesser understandings of art and the lesser ways of existing as an artist. The Artist is not the only one who experiences the Sufferance. The mystic does too. The difference between the two is that the first seeks to escape it by expelling it while the latter embraces it. The product of the expulsion is Art. The sole reason for Art is Sufferance. Anything created out of any other reason than the Sufferance is not Art, but is often deemed as such by the layman. I find the damned poet to be a very strong example of the Artist.

Because the product of the Artist represents a true part of him and of mankind, according to Plato's definition of beauty (roughly: truth appeals and is thus beautiful, lies repel and are thus ugly), it appeals to everyone and is therefore perceived as beautiful by everyone. This is the true link between Beauty and Art. Therefore anything which lacks content and cannot be evaluated in terms of true/false cannot be evaluated as beautiful/ugly either. Therein lying the perversion of beauty without meaning, of aesthetics, which is predominant in the lower layers of art. Fashion and many other means of expression deemed as artistic or of art either tend to be focused on aesthetics, or are motivated by completely different things than Sufferance (with whichever case s): for the sake of whatever the author thinks is art, for the fans, for the fame, for the money, for the hell of it, for the message. For the win. Nudity for nudity's sake or for a fashion campaign in a fashion magazine (Exhibit B) is NOT Art.

When sufferance at whichever level is not the one and only reason, the product cannot be called art. This is why saying that the ultimate goal of art is to publicly express an emotion (Exhibit A) is doubly wrong. First, it is wrong because not just any emotion is involved in the artistic process, but the one and only most intense emotion is and that is NOT love. Love may lead to a lower emanation of sufferance, but it isn't Sufferance itself. Second, it is wrong because the ultimate goal is to expel Sufferance out of the self and not put it on public display. This is where a very fine distinction between the Artist and a mere exhibitionist must be drawn: the Artist most desires freedom from Sufferance and expels it from the self into the void of creation, while the exhibitionist most desires the attention of others and displays anything he can to the public. The exhibitionist lives for the crowd, while the Artist lives outside of it. The Artist is Narcissus. First, because his experience is so intense that he cannot but become fully immersed in his own self and fully isolated. Second, because he may very well meet the same fate as Narcissus if he stops to look at his own creation which is irresistibly beautiful but the love for which will lead him into a vicious circle, a self-destructive life, and ultimately an untimely death. This is why I find the damned poet to be a clear instance of the Artist.

Whether Abramovic and Ulay were ever artists to begin with (prior to each performance) or whether performance "art" can be considered Art are discussions somewhat out of the scope of this blog post. In any case, their status as Artists depends on their true motivation for creating, something which cannot be readily determined. However, since most of their work is described in terms of ideas and themes they explored and challenges they presented to the audience, my Art-dar would be inclined to say that it sounds like desperate need to communicate rather than desperate need to escape Sufferance. In fact, if we are to trust Sernet and the rest of the avant-garde lot, even what might have been art initially, once published, stops being art since the goal shifts from something which needs to be expelled to something which needs to be seen and appreciated or understood. And this is where another and final distinction must be made: the distinction between the human and the Artist. The human includes the Artist which in turn is a role we may or may not play throughout our lives. We are Artists only when we create Art. The rest of the time is occupied by whichever other roles we may choose to play as human beings in this life. So we may very well be Artists and then turn into pseudo-artist exhibiting our work to the public, or to merchants selling out our work to the highest bidder. We may very well be everything that we can or want to be. Hesse dixit.