I’m sure that this one won’t go over well with some people. I know there may be some who strongly disagree with my conclusions. I’m all right with that.
My generation is killing art. Not only are we killing it, we’re sinking our thumbs deeply into its carotid artery and slowly watching it die by our hands. The saddest part is that we’re like a drunk who’s gone stark mad on a rampage and don’t even realize what it is that we’re doing.
We’ve been raised to “challenge” everything, from morals to the concept of common causes. Along the way, the concept of art is being based solely on a sliding scale. We don’t need your rules, man. Art is what I like and what I like is art.
Well, that’s a bunch of horse crap.
Art is something that is difficult to achieve, rare to witness and beautiful to behold. It’s something that strikes deeply at the core of your soul with a thunderclap that leaves you breathless, or makes you feel like the world was fresh and new before you again as it was when you first appreciated a spring day. Even if you hate it, you can still see it for what it is.
Art must be lasting. This is the great irony; only in retrospect can great art be recognized and only after the moment of discovery can true art be appreciated. By that definition, art is not something that speaks only to the moment. It’s something that must speak across the moments.
For example, if a piece of art is a political statement, it is about a political idea that is not restrained to the time at hand. If I were to make a painting today about how I feel about Barack Obama in specific, it’s not art no matter how much I claim it to be. The reason is that once Barack Obama is out of office, and once his time on Earth itself is at a close (be it by ascendance or riding light beams back to his wondrous planet) my work stops being relevant. However, if I make a painting that uses Barack Obama to symbolize a set of ideals and how I feel about those ideals, then he’s consigned forever to the boundless prison of art.
My generation was taught by their forebears (hippies), the media and our teachers that no one’s judgment is valid except our own. As a result we’ve tossed out definitions of art. Heck, we’ve tossed out a lot of definitions.
But we need definitions and limits. I recognize that they’ll change over time. Every so often we’ll get a true genius like Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright who will blow open our understandings of form and function; but still there must be definitions. Otherwise, we’ve just got a set of individual standards that don’t help anyone but ourselves.
This lack of standards has led to many of the more questionable pieces of “art” over the years; let’s take everyone’s favorite poster child for non-art, that abominable photo of a crucifix in urine. You couldn’t criticize it, we were told (and I was a kid at the time, in art classes, freaking out that it wasn’t art) because the artist was saying something and that made it art. No, all the artist was saying was, “I want attention.” Also, I suspect based on the subject matter that he had a problem with religion and possibly a urinary tract infection.
Again, making a statement is nothing more than making a statement. Under the rules of free speech (and I’ll write about how we’re all screwing ourselves out of that one later) you have every right to do it. I’m in no way saying that it should be limited.
But don’t try to sell me on the idea that it’s art unless it meets the proper criteria. Otherwise, every half-witted, poorly written blog entry is art (hey, wait a minute…score!) and I want my endowment check from a benefactor, be it either Uncle Sam (you can afford it) or some wealthy patron desperate to attach their name to something that will make people like them (I’m cheap, if that’s any added incentive).
So what about Andy Warhol? Was he an artist? Actually, yes he was, very much so. His work was not just a statement, it had form and function and spoke beyond the specific time. He asked questions that transcended the period in which they were asked; after all, we all still ask after peoples’ 15 minutes of fame, don’t we?
The most difficult part of my own argument, and the piece which leaves me open to having my mind changed (there are maybe two or three people who could do it), is that as I’ve admitted, standards do change. When you enter a new era in a society what is deemed art is invariably different and open to growth, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the Cubists or even the Impressionists.
But I still maintain that there have to be some set of standards by which we communally judge if something is art. Those works didn’t occur in a vacuum.
To call everything art – or at least leave it open to the idea that everything can be – is not helping anything and in reality just cheapens our understanding of what truly is. Without a clear definition of what *is* art, we can’t hope to define what *isn’t*. And I think none of us want to open the field enough to declare that GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is art. Because that’s where we’ve gone. Then you’ll be trying to tell me that Cormac McCarthy can write worth a damn.