Understanding Art

Let’s talk art for a moment. Specifically, let’s talk why that which we separate off from the world at large seems so inaccessible. Let’s talk about why it seems so hard to understand. Actually, those two thoughts are almost impossible to separate.

The reason that “high” art seems too remote and complicated – at least if we set aside that there are people who see setting art apart from the hoi polloi as a virtue – is that art has its own language. We can learn this language when we realize that art is an act of memory, prediction, and nuance.

It actually helps to think of art as language. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a native speaker of English who has never in your life learned a word of a different language. Through some contrivance you end up in a room full of German speakers. You would probably find this intimidating. German is completely foreign to you. I.

If you don’t run out of the room immediately you might begin to notice something. At first you might note that there is most definitely a rhythm, purpose, and structure to the language. Once you grew accustomed to it you might further note that German shares several words with English. Eventually you might even begin to get the gist of what’s going on in some of the conversations.

The problem with learning the language of art as opposed to learning German is that art is an almost entirely subjective language. Words have a fairly narrow range of possible meaning. If you get the basic word you can understand how to use it. There will always be difficulties that stem from wordplay, ironic usage, and slang. If you can get the rules and definitions down chances are that you will learn to incorporate the alternate usages without too much difficulty.

The language of art, on the other hand, is an infinitely complex variation on motif and theme, a building on past terms and nuances in order to create present meaning and future purpose. Those variations are entirely dependent on how the artist sees them. Since there is no really way for the uninitiated to know what the artist was thinking or how the artist was influenced, it can make the language seem densely impossible.

That is where the self-appointed gatekeepers of higher culture come in to play. The fact that art looks so complicated allows them to possess the gnosis of art. They get to separate themselves and look down their noses at the madding crowd with its lack of appreciation for the finer things in life. Everyone likes to be important, after all.

But here’s the thing: the language of art is actually surprisingly easy to pick up. Chances are that anyone who has ever consumed popular music knows exactly how to speak the language. Musicians speak in terms of influences all the time.

Say the only band you’ve ever heard about is Oasis. You love Oasis. You listen to Oasis constantly.

One day you read an article about Oasis. That article talks about Oasis’s influences. All of the sudden you learn that there is a band out there called the Beatles and another called the Velvet Underground and a third called the Jam. Studying further you learn about the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Ride. So you set out to get music by all of those bands. You listen for a while and realize that there are a bunch of things in Oasis songs that are similar to things in songs by those other bands. But you also realize that there are things that are different. Believe it or not that’s all that is required to understand art.

Anyone who knows about the history of music knows that it’s a long story about interrelation, influence, and collaboration. Take any modern rock band and follow their influences back. You’ll eventually reach the Beatles and Elvis. Go back from there and you’ll hit jazz. Go back from there and you’ll eventually hit Mozart and so on until you’re at the first caveman who realized that he could make pleasing hooting noises.

The great thing about this is that you don’t actually have to know anything whatsoever about music in order to do this. You don’t have to be able to play an instrument, write a song, or carry a tune. You just have to be curious.

Moreover, you don’t have to worry about liking the right music. You just have to like something. Getting in to art is really that simple.

Walk into an art museum somewhere. Look around for something that you find interesting. Look for something, in short, that you like. Soak in the details. Then find something else you like. Soak in the details. Keep doing that until you’re tired or a docent kicks you out. But don’t – and this is key – forget what you liked and why you liked it. You’re not done yet.

See, now that you’re interested in some bit of art the next trick is to go study it. Find out why the artist made it, find out who that artist’s influences were. Then go look at some more art.

If you’re feeling really frisky, go find some art you don’t like. Study it. Ask yourself why. Then find out about that art, too. You might discover that your reasons for disliking it are based on a lack of understanding of intent and style. You might find you appreciate it in spite of the fact that you dislike it. That happens. It’s good.

Now that you’ve picked up a few things in this language known as art the next step is to find a tutor. I recommend Lawrence Weschler, personally. His magnificent Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences taught me more about art than several semesters of humanities classes, precisely because he wrote a book about how to look at and understand art, instead of writing a book that was just about art. He’s like Art 101 and a graduate-level seminar on the subject all rolled in to one ecstatically brilliant and wonderfully written package.

I also strongly recommend finding a copy of Simon Schama’s Power of Art, a BBC program from a few years ago. It picks eight pieces of art and tells the story behind them, creating a narrative scaffolding to explain where art comes from. Art doesn’t just pop in to existence, after all. It is the product of a time and place and person.

If you start there you will, of course, be given the option of following any number of additional paths. I cannot choose those for you. I would not dare try.

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On Time On Trains

There is one truth of human nature that is made crystal clear by continual use of public transportation:  people are creatures of intense habit.  They tend to arrive at the train platform at roughly the same time every morning, carry the same things, stand in the same spot, and get on the same car to head towards the city, where they undoubtedly will do the same thing they did yesterday and will do tomorrow.  In the evening a different collection of the same people get onto a different same car on a different same train.

In realizing this aggregate habit it is possible for the observer to then see an additional overarching truth of human nature:  I am a creature of intense habit.  The observer, after all, must be in the same place at the same time every day in order to habitually observe the habits of the observed.  The divide between subject and object is then obliterated and the observing self becomes the observed other.

Of course if that gets too complicated, too post-modern, too deconstructionist, there’s a different option.  Sometimes you can simply think about trains.

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The train is a fascinating artifact of the human experience.  It is both an object and a subject in and of itself.[1]  When the train arrived it brought with it the full potential to change the world in ways that were impossible before that moment.  The train, after all, obliterated distance.  As long as there were tracks a train could run on them.  It was no longer subject to the speed of man or beast and no longer subject to the simple fact that even the most robust of creatures becomes tired after a time.  It was also not subject to wind and current in the way the previous forms of mass transit were.

The train, instead, made a subject of all.  It destroyed space and, in doing so, created time.

See, time was a wonderfully imprecise and subjective thing before the train arrived.  Noon was not twelve o’clock, but the time the Sun was at its highest point in the sky.  So noon in one town was 11:55 in the next town west and 12:05 in the next town east.

This made scheduling a train difficult.  Trains only make sense if people know where and when to meet them.  The where is simple:  go to the tracks, find a place where the train stops.  The when becomes complicated, though.  If the train stops in one town at noon, then travels for five minutes to the west it might make another stop at noon.  If it travels five minutes east it instead makes another stop at 12:10.

This is not a problem for the person waiting to meet the train.  If you know when the sun is at its highest point then you know the train will be in the station at that time and you can meet it.  Time is a completely subjective thing, after all.

This is a problem for the person sending the train.  A succession of noontime stops becomes unwieldy and complicated.  It also invites the potential disaster of an eastbound train and a westbound train on the same stretch of track meeting at a noon neither knew existed.

Time, then, needed to stop being a subjective thing, depending on the perspective of the individual, and instead become an objective thing, subjected to the needs of the mass population.  Noon in one town, in short, needed to become noon in the next town over and the next town back, regardless of the actual, physical location of the sun.  After that avoiding tragedy and obliterating distance simply became a matter of making the trains run on time.

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“Make the trains run on time.”

It’s a concept with a sinister connotation in the modern world.  That was, after all, the promise offered by the nascent fascist movements of Europe in the lead-up to that orgy of senseless violence and destruction that defines the 20th Century.  But the promise, as anyone who was listening no doubt knew, was not to actually make the trains run on time.  It was to enforce order and create orthodoxy.  For in order there was certainty.  In certainty, so the theory then must go, there is strength.

The train, then, became the object once again.  It was the mere abstract symbol of the human yearning for order, pace, and blessed, unthinking habit.

The train, that wonderfully constructive and destructive force, became the very tool and symbol of the banality – the habit, if you will – of evil.

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The Nazis made the trains run on time.  They made the trains with their long lines of cattle- and boxcars loaded down with the damned run from the ghettos to the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau.

Without the train the Holocaust would have been impossible.

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Making the trains run on time is a promise that doesn’t make sense, really, since time itself was re-created to run on trains.

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Perhaps, then, it’s best not to think about trains and to, instead, attempt to follow that rabbit hole logic of the subject becoming object and observer becoming observed.  It’s best, too, to do so at a tea house, away from the office and especially away from the trains that take you to and from that obsidian monument to human habituation.

Preferably an infrequently or never before visited tea house.  That way the decision at least carries the veneer of spontaneity.

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I do not trust people who refuse to appreciate art.

This is a statement, I suppose, of snobbishness.  It separates the world in to “my people” and “those people,” the subject and the objects.[2]  It imagines a world where I only want to spend time with those who stand in silence before a Rothko, considering the deep meaning of a red square on a differently colored red background.  It implies that I spend my time watching dense films, probably in French and with subtitles.

This is because we’ve taken the concept of “art” and sealed it off from the world.  We have deadened art, made it into the sort of thing that implies Old Masters or densely impenetrable post-modernists pulling a fast one on the world by slapping random splotches on a canvas and calling it “art.”  We have, in short, attempted to separate that which is artful from that which is human.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  Art is still very much a human endeavor, created by and intended for humans.  What we’ve done is something more insidious.  We’ve created tiers of art.

We have endeavored to define art as “high” or “low.”  There is that which is “art” and deserves to be hung in museums, discussed in low tones by serious people.  There is that which is “popular art” and deserves to be tossed out to the madding crowd, torn apart, and discarded.

That barrier between the high and the low is absurd and artificial.[3]  Popular art is still art.  It’s that simple.[4]  We tend not to realize that, though, because we lack historical perspective.

We regard Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers and playwright in the history of the English language.  Students are required to read his plays in school.  Entire festivals, hell, an entire town in Canada, are devoted to the production of his plays.  It must be the case, then, that Shakespeare was regarded as the best playwright of his own time.

Not so much.  He was simply one of the most popular.  That popularity, it should really be no surprise, came from the fact that he was one of the most accessible playwrights for his generation.  We have declared him one of the greatest when the truth is that he is actually probably just one of the most memorable.[5]  Not that the “just” there impinges, in any way, on the Bard’s ability.

That’s simply the Darwinian nature of cultural memory.[6]  Survival goes to the fittest, not the best.  The consolation prize is the same for everyone.

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The first time I encountered Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers’ album No More Beautiful World I thought it was an uncharacteristically depressing album title, considering that Clyne’s songs are almost always about finding the happiness and light in life.  It was an album title that seemed to wallow in death and decay, despair in the hopelessness of a better world gone past.

Eventually I realized that it was a koan.  The album title could be read as a dirge to a better, past world.  It could also be read as a celebration of this, the Panglossian world that is relentless in its goodness, nay, its best-ness.

It asks a question on the nature of perspective.  It asks us to make a choice.

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Mike Doughty’s “Rational Man” ends in a strange coda of, “Don’t shoot Donna don’t don’t shoot Donna Donna don’t shoot Donna don’t don’t.”  At first encounter the coda seems to plead with Donna.

“Don’t shoot, Donna,” he pleads, “Please don’t pull that trigger.”

Listen long enough, though, and it changes.

“Don’t shoot Donna,” he pleads, “Please don’t pull that trigger.”

That comma, that simple bit of punctuation, changes the idea completely.  In one Donna is the subject, acting upon this beautiful, arbitrary world.  In the other Donna is an object, being acted upon by this beautiful, arbitrary world.  In one she has all agency.  In the other she has none.

This little episode contains no context.  It simply exists, following the words that preceded it with no explanation, no citation.  It is a tableau, a word picture painted by three words.  It is an observed event that changes depending on how it is observed.

It is an object, in short, that can be observed in different ways depending on the observer’s state of mind.  It can be observed in different ways depending on the observer’s understanding of language.

To put it another way, it is art.

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Art is both object and subject.  It is something that is created with one mind and observed with another.  It is something that is partially, if not wholly, dependent on being observed in order to exist.[7]

But in being observed that which is art invites the observer to also become the observed.

Thus, we have come full circle.

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[1]This, of course, is not strictly true.  The train lacks consciousness and so is rendered forever inert, an object.  We, however, personify the train and project its designed functions into a self-determining goal and personality.  It is the core of human nature to objectify the subject and subjectify the object.

[2]While simultaneously making “my people” an object as well.  It defines people according to my external classification.  Simultaneously, too, it makes the newly objectified into subjects.  But they are not subjects in the sense that they are subjective observers, but subjects in the sense that I am saying, “These people belong to me.”

This is the joy and frustration of that wonderfully imprecise thing we call language.

[3]This, I believe, is the point that Andy Warhol was attempting to make.

[4]This is not to say that all art-like things intended for popular consumption deserve to be called “art,” however.  I would, instead, say that we can (and should) draw three broad categories: “art,” kitsch,” and “propaganda.”  We can then draw the lines between these categories not with the question, “What is it?” but, “What is it intended to be?”  This question then makes the differences clear.

You would not, after all, open up a new wing in the MOMA and hang a Rembrandt between a Thomas Kinkaide painting and a poster exhorting people to buy war bonds.  One is proper art, one is kitsch, and one is propaganda.

To look at it another way, while Britney Spears and Lady GaGa both fit under the broad umbrella of pop music, the former is a purely manufactured entity presented to the world to sell records while the latter is an individual who has intention and a message.  We’ve already seen a dozen Britney Spears clones, but will never again see another Lady GaGa.  As such, Spears is a purveyor of kitsch and Lady GaGa is an artist.  I can say this in spite of the fact that I don’t actually much care for either one.  The question, “Is this art?” is, after all, a completely separate question than, “Is this good art?” which is, in turn, further removed from, “Do I like this?”

[5]On the off chance this seems counter-intuitive, consider something more recent.  If you’re in a place that sells second-hand games for the original Nintendo console, the game you’re most likely to see is the original Super Mario Bros, probably the one with Duck Hunt on the same cartridge.  That game is also most likely to be the least expensive game on the rack.  Why?  Because everyone got a copy of that game when they bought the console, so thousands upon thousands of copies still survive.  You can probably get one for a buck ninety-nine.  If any original Nintendo game survives for the next five hundred years, it stands to reason, it will probably be Super Mario Bros.

Does that mean it’s the best Nintendo game?  Absolutely not.  It simply means it’s the most prolific Nintendo game.

The most expensive Nintendo game, meanwhile, is an extremely rare demo cartridge.  It’s not even a complete game.  But its rarity is what makes it expensive.  And since there are probably less than ten copies of that game in the world, it probably won’t last five hundred more years.

[6]This throws my art/kitsch/propaganda argument in to chaos and reveals it for what it is: a convenient artifice.  It forces me to ask the question, “Would I have dismissed Shakespeare as a mere purveyor of kitsch or a Jaques-Louis David a mere propagandist?”

Put another way: five hundred years from now will the Art institute be mounting Thomas Kincaide retrospectives and serious musicians assembling elaborate stages in order to recreate the Britney Spears concert experience?

[7]For this we can advance another koan, a variation on the question of trees and forests that has been repeated so many times it has become trite and meaningless:  If a painting is placed in an empty room does it exist?