Saturday, September 27, 2008

But Is It Art? Part One: Hey! Where's my culture?

The missus and I used to share models, me drawing and her sculpting. She had some friends who were dancers. Dancers make good models.

It's time for me to start coming to terms with art. Just as I haven't seen something until I've drawn it, I haven't thought about something until I've written on it -- so here goes. This is not an expository essay, though. It's an exploration. Expect me to wander.

Right off the bat let me say that this is an area where I have a lot of doubt and a lot of questions. I tend to express myself with a certain clarity that frequently comes off as a tone of authority -- nothing could be further from the truth. This is a subject that has me utterly at sea and I'm writing on it in order to get a grip on my thoughts.

The initial inspiration for blogging on the nature of art came from Glendon Mellow over at The Flying Trilobite. (See blogroll -- I really need to figure out how to put links inside of posts.) He and I had an exchange in a comment thread on Laelaps (ditto) where I made some snarky remarks on the fine arts and ever since then I've been trying to figure out what I really think about the subject. (I don't have any real background here so the best case scenario is that I'll reinvent the wheel. Oh well.)

Then yesterday I found myself making some statements in my Digital Drawing class that were reflective of some of this thought. They seemed to take the teacher by surprise -- they certainly startled me. (That's not unusual. Sometimes stuff just comes out of my mouth...)

The subject of appropriation in the arts came up and I suggested that one of the reasons it had become so common -- almost the dominant paradigm -- is that currently we are living in a state of cultural flux that's so intense as to render us almost accultural and that appropriation is on some level an attempt to experience a sense of heritage and cultural unity. (I doubt I expressed myself that clearly in class.)

By 'us' I mean those of us living in a post-industrial society dominated by mass communication. We do not share a common ancestry, we do not share a common religion or history or way of life.

Instead we are presented with a smorgasbord of culture and right now everything is being put through the blender. Right now I can go online and see work that's been done in the past few years that draws on cave paintings or Renaissance art or surrealism or, or, or...

Ever see the movie Moscow On The Hudson? It's not bad. And there's one scene in it that's going to stay with me for the rest of my life. The lead character (played by Robin Williams but don't let that scare you off -- he plays the character, not Robin Williams) is a Russian immigrant and in this scene he's in a grocery store. He walks into the aisle where they keep the coffee...

... and he sees one brand. And another. And another. There's decaf. There's flavored coffee. There's instant and drip and jars and cans and as he stares he mumbles, "Coffee, coffee, coffee," his voice rising until he's screaming, "Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!" as he collapses to the floor and is dragged away. Poor bastard is traumatized by the wealth of options.

That's where I see the artist at this place and time, in this accultural culture we live in. And while appropriation is one response another is to seek novelty, uniqueness, originality.

But there are limits to originality in the arts -- and it's entirely possible to pursue originality at the expense of everything else that makes art worthwhile. To entirely abandon tradition is frequently to abandon the ability to communicate effectively -- because most effective means of communication have already been discovered. There aren't that many new chord progressions or techniques of perspective or emotional states or narrative structures waiting to be discovered.

But to say that there is nothing new in the arts is a dead-end way of looking at things. While nothing is new, nothing is ever the same. Two people drawing the same object using the same techniques are going to produce two different drawings. Two people writing about the same event are going to produce two different writings.

So for me the question is, what are your cultural affiliations? What kind of heritage do you claim -- or more to the point, which heritage has claimed you? My taste is no more under my control than my sexuality is but in both cases I can choose how to express myself to a degree.

I wish I could remember who wrote it but I once ran across a statement to the effect that an artist spends his or her life trying to recreate the first images of beauty that came to them. I'd expand that past beauty but it's certainly true of me.

My first contact with beauty in this particular sense had three sources: the natural world, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit for both the story and the illustrations, and the original King Kong. These things took me away from a rather brutal urban life and they gave me a sense of the numinous, that there was something outside my daily existance that was full of wonder.

And for most of my childhood I sought that wonder to the exclusion of all else. I tried to escape my life by spending time in worlds created by others or by creating worlds myself -- and that is the root of my creative impulse.

As I grew older I came to realize that all the magic and wonder of those imaginary worlds was real -- that a dream is a real dream and a fantasy is a real fantasy and that as such they are concrete additions to reality. More than that, the world I lived in was a much less limited place then I'd taken it to be and that the sense of meaning and significance I found in fantasy was a reflection of the significance of the here and now. Everything I found in art was present in life -- but not in a way that made art superfluous. Rather, art was something that could help me live life well by allowing me to view the world more clearly and more expansively.

And part of this grounding effect was to make me feel as though I did have a culture. I am a product of the last half of the twentieth century, I am a product of America, and I feel thoroughly alienated by the bulk of our culture. I hate cars, I hate sports, I hate phones, I hate fashion, etc, etc, etc. But through the arts I have come to feel as though I do have a people. That I am part of something as old as mankind or older, that I have brothers and sisters scattered throughout history. That what I'm doing now, regardless of its worth or quality, contributes to the larger pattern.

I wonder whether or not any art created during these times will live the way the art of the past has lived. There is so much art being made now and it seems so ephemeral and so closely tied in to a world and a way of life that are more temporary than anything humanity has known before.

And still part of me works with the vain hope that what I do will be remembered, that somewhere down the line some kid will see or read something of mine and have that sense of community, that feeling of not being alone.

I want to be part of my culture.


Glendon Mellow said...

This post is excellent.

I've been mulling over for the past few days how to respond, and there's so much.

I completely agree we're being overwhelmed by how much is possible in the arts from both a technological standpoint and from this place in history.

And that's why, I think, so much of the Fine Art world is so insular. The art references earlier art, and occasionally political flash points from the headlines.

Creative illustration like those brilliant pieces you've been posting the last few days are not yet in their time. I think a public love of science will re-discover the art of our timeframe, Sean, and hopefully we will be newly discovered one day.

In the meantime I am content. The art world may not always see what we do, but I've found many science enthusiasts to be gracious and encouraging. They get it.

This post is so big, I could go on. I'll stop here for now.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Glendon!

I thought I'd posted a response to your comment already. Ah, the mysteries of the net.

I'm glad you liked this; I wouldn't have written it if it weren't for our exchange over on Laelaps. There's more to come -- next up is the start of my attempt to come to terms with high art, low art, pop art, fine art, and, of course, class warfare.

Boy, am I gonna have a hard time not coming across as a crank.