‘-isms’ and ‘-ities’ and crayons and coloring books

Is it art anymore?

| Forum Editor

I feel it necessary to comment on the “-isms” and “-ities” sculpture show that Wash. U. art students put on Friday down in an obscure warehouse in downtown St. Louis because it remarkably disturbed me.

You come to the occasional event as a human being that takes you to the limits of a concept which you think is rational, bounded or in some way useful. You are then forced to watch while it lifts those limits high into the air, bends them almost to the point of breaking and them smashes them on the uneven but resilient soil you stand upon. This was one of those events, and the assaulted concept was “art.”

I assert that there are three sensible values findable in art: depth, originality and sincerity of expression; amount of time, effort and skill required for execution; and profundity and complexity of effect it has upon the looker/experiencer.

This is how I can appreciate square metal boxes sequentially smashed—still and alone, piled and welded into a hard-to-support pattern. The metal-smashing and metal-working skills you must need to create this aesthetically-questionable sequence must be at least somewhat hard to come by.

This is why I can reconcile the concept of art and a pile of gravel topped with what looks like a giant, destroyed space structure. It may ask how we reinterpret such a scene when it is in a warehouse instead of on another planet or in our backyard, why we make such metal structures when they end up being destroyed metal structures, how the “practical” things meant to move us forward in the so-called grand scheme of things can be beautiful too and hundreds of other things.

This is why I can handle a stand-up rural farm scene made of layered cardboard, which must express…I don’t know what exactly…but it gives rise to the perception of some kind of multifaceted and fascinating emotion on the part of the artist.

But I cannot reconcile four pieces of torn-out paper with crayon scribbled on them in what seems like an only-vaguely systematic way: As the lines within which to color have been absent for more time after the initial lined piece of paper, the expression of the crayon grows and becomes more prolific; without lines, we gradually begin to express more, at least quantitatively.

Even if I have an interpretation of the work, and even if the artist had something quite profound in mind in his/her creation of the work, I can’t understand why there is any reason I should stand in this warehouse and look at it.

These other things had what seemed to me to be technical value or were interesting conceptions that I would see nowhere else, or made me think in some way I had not before. This crayon work, on the other hand, seemed to me to express a blatant “F— you.” And as I confronted that very personal challenge, I began to question why I was even looking at any of this stuff.

Outside, as we walked up the pathway to the show, we slipped and hopped along a variously white and brown path of slush and snow impressed and impacted and impressed again with the marks of tires and of shoes, a work of infinitely-varied texture, temperature, look, color and contour that had been 48 continuous hours in the making (it was, I think, two days since the big snow).

This vast pathway, still in continuous motion of reinvention, was to me much more beautiful, more expressive, more arduous in its creation than anything I saw inside the warehouse.

This makes me ask, then, why create art, if there is a whole world out there of constantly-created scenes and texts and canvasses more infinitely expansive and meaningful than yours can ever be? I ask the question sincerely.

Is it because we want to experience the aesthetic through the hands of fellow humans? Because we value expression for what it says about our species rather than for what it says about the universe at large? Because we lack the ability and inclination to process the infinite texts of nature? Because we like the distilled version of beauty? Or because the organization of humans’ art is actually sometimes more meaningful than that of the art we experience when we briefly textualize our bodily state and understand the entire sense of the moment in which we reside as itself a piece of art?

Does art signify a loss of amazement with nature? I think not. I believe, at this point, that artistic invention is the outlet for the universal human urge to create: to create children, to create a business, to create artwork, to create the great American novel; we are all pregnant with thoughts and ideas that we think ought to be expressed in the world more than just implicitly.

The question, I guess, is should they be?

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