A A A A rt
I was recently lent, and gratefully so, The Wasteland and Other Poems. I don’t know that much about Stearns other than the little I gathered from an impassioned Creative Writing Prof as well as from a random but fabulous brunch date with an actual Indian Princess. But knowing the little that I knew of TS Eliot and his masterpiece, I knew I was going to face a problem I’ve had for a long time now that I still can’t seem to remedy.
Now being a liberal arts graduate, you take on the cloak of responsibility of one who has to deal with both the exegetical values as well as the aesthetic qualities and every other bit of grossly cerebral liberal arts commentary and minutia that may or may not deal with the art at hand. You learn through the myriad of hours spent reading and highlighting this philosopher and that theorist, how to look for certain cues and tells. You learn how to engage fully yet tactfully in any dialectic debate. You even know how to impress a significant other with a memorized obscure poem or two. But even equipped with all the supposed artillery to wage this war of valuing and understanding art, I still seem to fall short. Something is still missing. I still fall prey to the age-old question, ‘What is art?’
If you’ve been to a museum or gallery as of recent, you can see this frustration unfolding in the first-person. People, young and old, couples or even those riding dolo, making their way through an artistic labyrinth of taupe walls and marble floors and maybe after the first few pieces where time is spent really trying to survey the art and understand the ‘whys’ or ‘hows,’ many a persons give up and quickly pick up their pace and race through the rest of the maze. And I’m not mad at that. Even with my status as the learned, I’ve been more than guilty of doing it and doing it many a time. Luckily we all have the bail out plan, especially in this day and age, for at least if we don’t understand the art at hand, we can say at least we’ve seen the art. And in today’s commodified world, just seeing a piece of art is social capital enough.
But I think a majority of us still want to solve the problem. But without the proper acknowledgements, or better said, the proper understanding, we get more and more removed from any sort of solution. And furthermore, with this problem it’s so easy to get frustrated with the situation, that in the end we just slight the art itself or worse more, the artist. It’s so damn easy to slander the work of the artist as flawed or ridiculous or vapid. However, the real problem is not with the art or the artist (at least not necessarily) but more with us. We are trying to crack the value code and doing so without success because even though we believe a solution exists, it really doesn’t. We keep asking a question when in the end there is no question to ask. It’s like we’re at the terminal waiting for our flight, and after seeing there are no planes around, still expecting to be lifted off the ground and taken for the ride.
Ironically, in my first semester of University, I had a class titled ‘Art Appreciation.’ It was the first class I had on my Tues/Thurs schedule, and since it was a large class in a moderately large lecture hall with dim lighting, I found it pretty damn easy to stow-away in the back and rest my eyes for an extra hour or so. With that said, I didn’t learn much. But that’s not the irony. That comes from the name of the class. Because even though I don’t remember much of the class and probably didn’t learn a thing, if I had just started with the name and applied its title to any and all encounters with art, then I would be miles ahead of where I am today a decade later.
Simply put, I should have learned to just appreciate art.
Another complex situation that encourages the problem is that I come from a dense background of systematic or just linear based thinking. Most of my family works in the medical field and establish their successes in life at a rate of different levels of validation. Whether the daily dinners with my grandfather or the many family get-togethers of doctors who specialize in this or that, I continually heard of my family’s successes as they came in degrees of passing this exam or attaining a higher threshold in an established chain of command. And secondly, I grew up in a very modern evangelical environment. You may be thinking that I’m going to speak about some sort of venomous religious repeal. But it’s not that at all. Rather, it’s the pedagogy of modern evangelical thought. It mirrors a lot of University teaching. The structure of thought, at least taught via most Sunday sermons, books, and even general religious consciousness is very systematic. So much so that ‘systematic theology’ is an actual thing and has made it’s way into many a Christian bookstore with different names typefaced into the space for the author. And with this constant use of systematic thinking its hard not to become conditioned to seeing the world break down in such a linear step-by-step fashion.
So it’s hard to form a relationship with the longstanding tradition of art, especially the more modern leg, and do so with a vision couched in systematic thinking or linear deconstruction. It’s almost antithetical to the practice of art to do so. The word art is a three letter linguistic container that seeks to rationalize and compartmentalize a tradition that is naturally amorphous and that seeps, and for centuries now, out of the said compartment that was meant to define and hold it. It goes back to the initial findings in that systematic thinking is trying to deduce a rational answer instead of just appreciating the form. It’s not that systematic thinking is innately wrong, but it is not the appropriate holster to pull from when it comes to being appreciative.
With this in mind, I’ve come up with not a solution but more of a guide. It does take more of a systematic approach (I even use an anagram) but still allows there to be no definitive solution but rather there lays a yes ambiguous but still more refined perspective of focus for appreciation. You can look at it like a Venn diagram. The universal set would be the art you are surveying. Then the circles, or logical sets, would be the modes by which I posit are needed for appreciation. And then the overlaps would be where these modes, or filters of appreciation, would then amount to how much and to where in each piece there is a strong merit of value. And these filters can vary in size and stature for each person because they come from the self because they themselves are personal and subjective relying on the self’s need to define their boundaries. And therefore with the lens of the Venn diagram, one can then see how and where this piece attracts the most value through these different logical sets and be better appreciated for what it is and how it resounds through these lenses. The modes are not independent. They do not function autonomously. They need each other in order to survey the full value of a piece. And with this each piece will vary in value or appreciation but in the end never have to be determined as to why because they just are.
Aesthetic – Art, not in all degrees, but to most has to consider beauty. It’s become a codified condition for all things creative. Whether it be sound or taste or within plain sight, there innately is the appreciative value of its aesthetics. Again if the piece is being antithetical or contrary, determinedly displaying something ugly, it is still wagered within an appreciative scale of aesthetics by knowingly acknowledging its opposite and therefore validating the scale of aesthetic appreciation. So when surveying a piece of art, it’s simply important to see how (un)beautiful it is. Sometimes when standing there looking at something indecipherable, it’s important to not forget this measure. Because even if saying, ‘this is pretty’ or ‘shit, that’s pretty damn cool’ without finding the absolute ethos of the piece, you are still taking into account one of the functions of the piece being artistic. It’s association to beauty.
Artifact – I mean let’s be honest, look at the first three letters. Art as artifact simply states that any piece of art serves as a historical marker. Whether looking at Donatello’s David and knowing it’s the first nude sculpture since antiquity, or whether it’s viewing Vito Acconchi’s Seedbed marking the shock value of post-modernism, whichever piece of art that you are engaged with is serving as a mile marker in the full timeline of human history. The piece is an indicator of the time and serves to define that period. The piece has both historical and social allegiance. This is even so if this piece serves to be antithetical or contrary to the period by where it was created; by being anti-status quo it still reflects that specific voice of its auteur and being that the auteur is living and breathing no matter how engaged with the society and world around within that period it still pronounces that he or she and their piece is engaged in a part of that world therefore being an artifact or marker of that period.
Ambition - This logic set requires a bit more clearance because this is more a survey of the artist and less of the piece. So easy is it to be a critic. Now in the day of monoculture with an almost free access to everything, which requires little to no effort, being critical has never been more of a lazy armchair sport. The reason being, that no matter the piece of art, respected or not, there within its creator lies a certain ambition that is not being credited. And coupled with that ambition is fearlessness. And there in the product of that marriage is the piece, brought into the public sphere, being then surveyed and criticized. However, if you give weight to this logic set or filter when encountering any piece, you then can establish a value of merit solely based on that another person, removed of the title ‘artist,’ has created. And did so again with ambition and fearlessness and did so for someone else to see. Yes, the motivation for the creativity can be questioned, but the fact that the piece is ambitious in through to its full end awards itself a value that holds an almost invaluable weight. If it’s my man John Mayer stumbling his way through a set of stand up at the Comedy Cellar or some douchebag DJ is trying to sample his way into any and all girls’ pants, there still has to be credit given for the effort and fearlessness—the ambition—that it takes to produce any and all pieces of art.
Abstraction - Again a bit of stretch, and maybe done so to fit my anagram, but still I’ll prove its merit. When I say abstraction its application is almost paradoxical because in its definition, abstraction delineates a certain obtuse freedom. An independence. If something is abstract, it is unmoored from associations therefore would be removed from the value of the piece. However, in and of itself, the abstraction is a self-contained concept, whether preconceived or not. Therefore the abstraction may be independent but it still serves conceptually to add value to the piece because it still serves the piece by being independent. If in Utah and standing in front of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty I say there are many abstract qualities here, that can be conceived by each and everyone of its visitors and even so by Smithson himself when he was conceptualizing and creating the piece, each of those abstractions serve each and every person involved by defining the piece. But how do I define ‘abstraction’ within the bookends of an artistic piece? It’s both complex and simple. If there is known concepts of the piece by the artist, they are abstractions. If you yourself looking at the Spiral Jetty form your own relations with cyclical consciousness or even some sort of far left association to Spinoza, then those concepts are abstractions that add merit and depth to the piece as well. Again whether the concepts and ideas that are gleaned from the piece are preconceived or not, is not important. What is important is to see that each piece has concepts attached to them and they work as independent abstractions, but the fact that they are still linked to the piece because they are in mind, means they are a way of anchoring value to the art. So basically, in simple terms, what does the art mean to you.