What Is Art?
Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me no more.
[Author’s Note: I began this article back in January and don’t feel much like altering it so just imagine it is still January and you are still pretending that gym bod on your list of New Year’s resolutions is attainable . . .]
January: For those of you dwelling in the northern hemisphere, the short, moribund days bring inclement or even inhospitable weather and sickness; for dwellers of the southern hemisphere, doubtless the Sun has made you its enemy and you are all frying like eggs in a butter-slick pan. The Holiday Season is through with us, and we are left to collect our wits and the dregs of our finances in its wake. You don’t care about metal right now; you don’t want to read about metal because you don’t have any money left to spend on any of it. What better time to slip in an article so tenuously related to metal that few, if any of you, will find the wherewithal to read it?
So. Not long ago—as not-long-ago as December 14th of last year—Señor W. posted an article regarding the source of the artwork for Krallice‘s Ygg Hurr album. (Read it here.) The article spawned, among other things, a most engrossing semantic quibble over the term triptych on the FB page and a spirited debate of the definition of art itself in the comments. Busy all day with my infinitesimal contribution to my nation’s alcohol problem, I was late to the discussion, and in a state of moderate panic I raced to steer things toward a question of the difference between art and not art. A certain Toilet-user who shall remain Stockhausen responded by asserting, to paraphrase: “There is no difference. It’s all in your mind you antiquated blowhard.” The resulting argument went a little something like this:
Richter: “The precondition for Art is a human—or at least sentient—perspective.”
Stockhausen: “There is no precondition for Art. Anything can be Art. There is nothing that is Not Art.”
Richter: “I see your point. Good show. Although I still disagree.”
Stockhausen: “That’s fine. I see your point as well. But, I’ll have you know, the Universe doesn’t give a toss about your disagreement.”
In this reenactment we are both vaguely British for some reason. Which has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that we reached what amounts to a gentlemanly stalemate. Assuming that it is even possible to disprove the statement “Anything can be art,” I lacked the intellectual finesse to do it. In turn, Stockhausen became caught in his own infinite loop of philosophical feedback, munched his own butt, and we both imploded. (Note: In the grandest scheme of things art does not matter. Every work of art created by the mentally challenged species we call human kind will eventually be atomized by the expansion of our sun; if/when the universe ends, those atoms will be nothing.)[Editor’s Note: We should probably cut out this incredibly depressing digression]
I don’t think that Stockhausen really meant to convince me that anything can be art; rather, that he meant to warn me against the folly of trying to define art so rigidly (or at all). He called me out on the hopeless subjectivity of interpreting artistic perspective; I threw up my hands and said, to paraphrase: “Stop being all smart and stuff.” Regardless of our agreement to disagree, there was a rustling of the proverbial jimmies, the result being that now I am sitting here sipping [insert gin of preference] and tonic and pulling my graying hair out over the question: What the fuck is art?
I revive the debate now not to prove Stockhausen wrong once and for all eternity, but because since then I have lost a bunch of sleep at both ends of night’s candle thinking about what might constitute the criteria for differentiating Art from Not Art. In fact, this article essentially started to write itself in my sleep. And now I turn the question over to you, the Toilet: writers, readers, compulsive commenters, lurkers, celebrity novelty accounts and Disqus scam-bots. Perhaps the Toilet has already said all it has to say on the subject of what is or is not art; perhaps the Toilet does not care. History suggests that it is ultimately a vain debate, so dependent upon subjectivity as to be a complete waste of time. Maybe this is true. Then again, all we have is time and it is ours to waste as indiscriminately as we please.
So, before I open the floor up to the Toilet at Large, I’ll restate my case and try to expand upon it as clearly as possible. The concept of art is a human one: it exists inasmuch as we exist. It is not nothing, otherwise we would not have a word for it. It cannot be everything, otherwise the word would be so redundant as to be useless—as nauseatingly vague as the word “stuff”. Some would say that art must, at the very least, be created by humankind; others (to paraphrase Stockhausen again) would counter that art could be created by a non-sentient computer programmed to do so by humankind. You could compromise and concede that art is “anything that is created”, whether by agency or accident. But things are created all the time which are clearly not art: babies, for instance, or oil spills. (A theist might say that babies are God’s art, while a complete bastard might say that oil spills are the art of Chaos, but let’s stay grounded here . . .)
Example #1: Mankind creates the sock (his feet are cold). One man in particular purchases a sock, wears it for a week, then places it in the middle of the otherwise empty floor of an “art instillation” and asks us not only to accept this sock as art, but to ponder its meaning. An argument could be made by one so inclined that the sock presents a reflexive question about the definition and/or value of art itself; someone else might point out that the sock is more likely a trite reflection of the self-proclaimed artist’s laziness. At best, the sock is a joke. Beyond raising the meta-question of its own meaning or lack thereof, it says nothing, asks nothing, tells us nothing about ourselves. It is a purgatorial loop of insignificance. If you somehow find yourself identifying with this lone, used sock in the middle of an empty floor, news alert: You need help.
So, I have some questions. If I vomit involuntarily in the street, is the splatter trajectory of bile, booze and masticated foodstuffs art? If a bear shits out a convincing effigy of Vishnu in the woods and there is no one there to see it, much less ponder it, is it art? Can art exist independently of an audience? And is the mere presence of an audience enough to prefigure art? I feel that the notion that anything can be art is merely a delightfully nihilistic intellectual exercise, with no real-world application. In my worldview, there are Arts and then there are Crafts. To formulate it mathematically:
Art – Perspective = Craft
Crafts are functional, art is something more. Whatever that “more” is may not be easily articulated, but it is certainly palpable. It moves us. And if you are moved by the construction of an Ikea chair, news alert: You are a shallow individual. As fanatical patrons of various arts, all of us here have some innate albeit largely inexpressible sense of what is art and what is shit. I can paint a picture of a bird, and however technically proficient the painting may be, if all it says is THIS IS A BIRD then I’d argue it is craft (or shit), not art. Why? Because it lacks perspective.
Which begs the question: who defines perspective? Well, I don’t have an answer for you, kids. All I can do is pay that rustling of jimmies forward by asserting that the works of Bob Ross, that painter of nature par excellence, are not art. There may be no more masterful craftsman in the world of oil-on-canvas nature reproductions, but not a single one of that soft-spoken afro-sporting gentleman’s nature paintings says a single goddamn thing about life, existence, the human condition or anything else. The man’s entire televised body of work amounts to nothing more profound, illuminating or moving than: “Trees n’ shit are pretty.”
Let’s swing the discussion around to music, yeah? As most of us have probably already experienced, sifting out what is or is not art in the world of music is exhausting. Is the low-calorie pop of the ubiquitous Taylor Swift art? Is noise art? Is silence art? Is the sound my hair dryer makes art? Stringing chords or sounds together in a composition requires some base-level degree of perspective. Recording the sound my hair dryer makes, burning that recording to CD and then selling it as “Hair Dryer Noise Art” does not. John Cage, avant-garde composer and all-around bastard, probably would have disagreed. He believed that anything can be music. And to follow this absurd notion to its logical conclusion, he “composed” a piece entitled 4’33”: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of musicians not playing their instruments. While I agree with Cage’s assertion that silence is important to the structure of music—as important as negative space in any artistic medium—I must remind myself that silence itself is the opposite of music. Luckily for us, 4’33” is not actually silence. But do the incidental ambient sounds audible in any “performance” of 4’33” constitute music? If you were to record them and release them commercially, would anyone feel any more prone to listen to it than they might to four minutes and thirty-three minutes of actual silence? Who would even download a recording of 4’33” for free? A complete jerk, that’s who.
As a catalyst for a conversation about what music actually is, 4’33” is useful. But again, it’s only true content is an intellectual exercise. It has a perspective, but perspective without crafted content really only leaves you with philosophy. As an absurdist joke, 4’33” is kind of funny—kind of—but I shudder to imagine the type of creature who would sit through a performance of the piece and laugh. And anyway, the piece is not a joke; Cage was apparently dead serious when he conceived of it, to the degree that he considered it one of his most important works. This is the kind of smug elitism that makes smug elitists like myself want to heave. If he went to the grave believing this, I’d say the joke is on him.
Now that I’ve profaned the memory of national treasures Bob Ross and John Cage, I feel no closer to articulating some unilaterally agreeable criteria for art. If anything, I’ve only exposed myself to greater doubt and, doubtless, mass ridicule. I could be wrong; I usually am. Let me know in the comments. Defend the honor of Bob Ross and John Cage. Confirm that this has been a waste of time and words. Or, if you didn’t bother to read this article because it is sheer bloated drivel, congratulate yourself for being a sane individual and post some excellent metal.
Here, I’ll go first: