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21.10.13

L'art Pour L'art

What is art?

Related to that, what is creativity?  Few people stop to think about these things in their daily lives, though we are surrounded by things called art nearly every moment of every day.  Many large cities have public art on display.  Counties maintain museums to display art.  Some people call TeeVee, movies and pop music art.  There is no lack of folks around that call themselves artists.  But what is it?

Can we be objective about art?  People commonly say that art is in the eye of the beholder.  One man's trash is another man's treasure.  Art is a statement that provokes emotion and even fistfights.  But is all that really art?

Robert Mapplethorpe's Pisschrist at one time was the center of tremendous controversy, with pickets and heated public debate over its merits.  It was defended as art on the grounds that it was self-expression.

Andy Warhol became famous for taking pop culture icons and removing them from context to show them in isolation.  Who can forget the Campbell's soup can or the Marilyn Monroe four-panel?  Are they art?

Are the works of Steven Spielberg or The Beatles art?  In fact, are any movies, commonly called a collaborative art form, definable as art?

The central problem here is whether we can measure art objectively.  Everyone has a favorite movie, book, painting, or song.  They can be very moving and meaningful to us and evoke strong memories and emotions when we encounter them.  However, the smell of frying bacon does the same thing for me.  Does that make cooking bacon an art form?

I submit that creativity and art are two very distinct things, and that just because something elicits strong emotions does not make it art, but simply a memory trigger.  Art is not necessarily emotional, though art can bring forth emotions.  Creativity is not art, though art is creative.  How does this work?

Well, one can do something creative that is not art.  Mapplethorpe's Pisschrist is creative.  I juxtaposes two things that no one in the public sphere had done before (mostly out of fear of being burned at the stake).  Placing a crucifix in a jar of urine was a creative act.  It took two objects that had never been combined before and did so in a way that provoked comment and emotion.  Some people thought it was sacrilege, other thought it was poignant.  Some felt compelled to look at it as a challenge to their personal paradigm, others felt compelled to cause damage and injury to prevent folks from looking at it.  But...it was not art.

Art is taking raw materials and, according to certain rigid rules, creating beauty by making the raw material conform to opposing rules.  Now that all sounds fine and dandy, but what does it mean?

Michelangelo's David took raw stone, and by the rules of symmetry, balance, rhythm, and context, converted the stone into flesh.  When one views the statue up close, one can see the ripples of sinew, the veins, the pensive look in the eyes.  The stone was forced to assume an unnatural state for the material.  The assumption was predicated on certain rules of 'beauty' that all people everywhere consider true and verifiable.  The pose of the subject creates the expectation of further motion and emotion, something which stone is not supposed to possess.  For that reason, the statue has endured for centuries as a treasure and work of art because it forces the natural (raw) to appear soft and flexible, while at the same time making flesh appear to be inflexible and eternal.

The artist not only accomplished an unusual juxtaposition in textures, but did so while creating a remarkably beautiful object.  Both in subjective and objective measures, the statue   The figure has perfect symmetry, is visually balanced, and the pose implies forward motion and thus rhythm.  Combined, these elements are the hallmark of true art.

By comparison, Mapplethorpe took two manufactured items - one produced by involuntary processes in his body and other by some manufacturer - and put them together without value added to either object.  The materials do not deny their basic natures and functions.  There is no rhythm, balance or created symmetry.  The crucifix is simple dunked in the urine in a more or less random manner.

While this might be considered a creative juxtaposition, it is not art.  It does not bear any of the hallmarks of subjective or objective measurements.  There is no beauty.  There is no modification of raw materials.  In fact, the only real labor involved was an involuntary body function requiring no conscious effort at all.

We can say this about much of pop culture.  Music is little more than organized chaos.  Most movies do not rise above being cuss fests and car crashes.  Even much of painting and sculpture can not be considered art.

One key factor of art is the hardest to judge because it takes a lot of time, and that is that art must withstand the test of time.  True art rises above contemporary fashions and trends.  It is as fresh at this moment as it was 400 years ago.

Art also exists above culture and, in fact, creates culture.  A work of art from any place and time can be appreciated in any other place and time.  The works of da Vinci, Mozart or the creators of King Tut's funerary pieces have fascinated and enthralled audiences across time and space.  You do not need to be Egyptian, nor even know anything about Tut's culture to marvel at the incredible workmanship and beauty of the art.

I find it hard to believe that the works of Jackson Pollock or Roy Lichtenstein will survive this century as anything but curiosities.  Some of The Beatles' music has withstood a half century and is greatly enjoyed on every continent.  It may well be that we could apply the term 'art' to some of their work, particularly that of John Lennon and George Harrison.

As for Steven Spielberg, the only thing artful about his work is the amazing way he has risen to the top of the movie world.   In 20 years, I would be surprised if anyone remembers who he was or what he did.  For that matter, after nearly a century of Academy Awards, how many Best Pictures can you name?  If you can think of two or three then there's a job as a film historian waiting for you.

Art never causes revulsion.  Things done for shock value can not be art.  Art does not shock.  It is elevating and inspiring.  It is timeless and exists outside the culture in which it is created.  Real art has no need to be anything but itself.

And can we please stop calling those brainless, clueless bucketheads in the recording industry "artists"?  At least in the movie and TeeVee industry, they call the actors "talent" and not "artists".

When it comes to art, at least there is one thing we can all agree on: Life on the Far Side is high art!