Art is funny. Recently, I went to my friend Heather’s art show in this huge compound in Chicago where I was treated to a wide range of different artists’ output. Among the stuff I saw were some pretty large fabrications, some paintings, some prints, a few sculptures and some textile-y type deals.
The art ranged from great to absolutely god awful. The most awful of all the work was the largest exhibit in the entire compound and, seemingly, the most important, as it was placed right in the main gallery on the main floor and had drawn the most attendees even though it wasn’t offering complimentary booze and snacks like all the other shows (pro tip: If you’re a hobo, feign an interest in art and go to galleries and show openings, because wine is plentiful and tiny finger foods usually make an appearance as well). The artist was an older woman and her art was large in scale. Some of the pieces included a room full of soldiers’ helmets and backpacks, dangling from the ceiling and placed on the floor, respectively, in what I’m sure was supposed to be some ghostly, beyond the grave military formation, a menacing table beneath a single dangling bulb, strewn with files (one of which said ‘Karl Rove’), a hallway made entirely of books (pretty cool until I was informed by the large plaque at the entrance that it in some way represented the banning and destruction of books at the hands of the Nazis and other censors throughout history), and some kind of Moses tablet that said something about having the right to abortion. The whole thing sucked the dick right off a dog and really highlighted to me the biggest misconception about what makes important art and what art’s purpose really should be.
Firstly, let’s be clear: I’m opposed to militarism in general and I’m also saddened by the death of young people at the hands of military involvement, whether they’re idealistic servicemen or ancillary civilian casualties. I don’t believe in any form of censorship. I (brace yourselves!) am no fan of the Nazis, nor am I a supporter of their ‘burn, torture and gas people’ agenda. I’m of the belief that abortions should be legal and in some cases even free. I think that American leadership pays lip service to the idea of being for and by the people but is in reality a shadowy cabal run by powerful men with lots of money. That being said, just because I find myself aligning with this artist ideologically, does not mean her art is any good. That’s really not a relevant concern when it comes to art, in fact. If your art is pushing an agenda, it MAY be great, but that’s in the same way that a commercial for Cheetos MAY be great. There’s nothing that inherently makes selling something bereft of any artistic merit, but it’s WAAAAAAAAY harder to sell something AND maintain any semblance of quality.
Now, lest you think that likening pushing a political agenda (a woman should have the right to a safe and affordable abortion, for example), to selling a product (The Wendy’s Baconator) is a glib comparison, keep in mind that both are inherently just notions that either concern you or they don’t. The success of the Baconator as a commercial product contributes directly to the livelihood of those folks who make and sell the Baconator and therefore can be considered to be a very important issue to some. Likewise, someone who lives in their mom’s basement and plays video games and eats Baconators all day long and who never so much as sees, let alone touches a human woman has no real vested interest in the availability of abortions one way or the other (and in fact is vastly more impacted by information regarding Baconators). My point is, just because you think your subject matter is important don’t necessarily make it so to your audience, and more so, DEFINITELY doesn’t make your art any good.
The best art is just art. It can be cool just because it looks or sounds or feels cool. It can have no agenda, or if it does, it is the product of the art being good, not the reason for the art existing in the first place. For example, the book The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes written by Tim O’brien about an army unit during the Viet Nam war. One of the stories, called Speaking of Courage, involves one of the men, recently discharged, driving around his small town, just taking everything in. He notices the kids playing football, the cars at the A&W (or whatever….it’s been a while since I read it) and the general hustle and bustle of this tiny, tranquil town getting off of work and settling into its evening. He thinks about the death of one of the men in his unit, and his own part in the battle (which literally takes place in a field of poo) that earned him a medal. He wants to tell his dad about it, but he can’t because his dad’s either dead or distant or something. He realizes that he can’t tell anyone about it and the story ends with him watching some fireworks or something….again, it’s been a long time since I read it.
The thing is, while there’s plenty of mention of war and the horror of death and holding your buddy’s face in your hand and all that kind of shit, this story is about the real terror of disconnectedness, a feeling that’s all to familiar to anyone who’s lived long enough to realize that being a bunch of neurons with positive and negative charges floating through a universe of blackness can be every bit as cold and isolating as it seems. It’s a story about a guy. It’s a story about a guy who LIVED and came home and it’s deeply brutal and haunting because it is less concerned with exploiting the idea of its purported agenda (war is hell, bro) and more concerned with exploring the mental state of an actual human being. That’s what makes it so effective. On the other side of a very similar coin, the Viet Nam memorial, just a list of names of people lost in the conflict carved into a black wall in DC, is effective because it’s such a clinical list…it’s representative of the dehumanization of the men on the ground by the war machine. At least, that’s my take. I’m no fucking art genius or anything.
However, when I saw these helmets and backpacks at this exhibit I had 2 distinct thoughts: 1) That’s some cheap, exploitive emotional cash-grab type shit and 2) I’ve seen this before done way better. There was never a moment when it hit me as something that had even a hint of emotional resonance. Because of the overt agenda pushing, because the agenda was the entire reason for the piece, the fact that it physically looked kind of cool became irrelevant. It’s like the way that Yngwie Malmsteen (second reference in as many blog entries to Yngwie!) technically can play guitar pretty well, but the agenda that he’s pushing (“hey assholes! Check out how well I can play guitar!”) renders all the aesthetics of the whole thing pretty shitty, useless and hollow. A file that says “Karl Rove” sitting on a table underneath a lone bulb is a good piece of art only if it’s title is something like “My Art School Final Project,” because at that point it becomes about something beyond just exploiting an agenda. It also becomes pretty self congratulatory and smug, and maybe stops being art and starts just being parody, but at any rate, it’s better than this bullshit was.
Here’s a little advice about art and message: If you’re tempted to paint up tablets that look like the ten commandments with your own ideas, you’re probably pretty shitty at making art.
Finally, (and I could go on about this for hours, but I’ve got a ton of shit to do today so I’ve gotta get moving) I am completely aware that all art is subjective and that I suck at everything I’ve ever done and yadda yadda yadda. I get it. That’s the beauty of the lilies, bro. That’s what makes the world a lovely place. Dumb shitheads like me and this lady who did this dumb exhibit get to feel self actualized by pushing our dumb art on everyone. And then we get to go on the internet and talk about how each other suck. Welcome to the puppet show, everyone.