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Friday, May 8, 2015

What is Art? (Mailbox)

What is art?

I'm switching the schedule around a bit since I've had another week that's already clocking in at 42 hours going into the weekend. (And that's not including the writing.) You may have noticed that I am posting today (Friday) with what would usually be a Sunday Short.  

Dipti asks:

Hey Chris. Try answering this: what is art? 

My reply:

Slow and over the plate, that's how I like them. Because nothing says "Sunday Shorts" like a question as low key as "what is art?"

And why can't I read this question without thinking "Baby don't hurt me...no more."

I know you probably intended this to be ironic, and that you knew exactly how difficult a question it is. But I'm a dragon; I'm going to answer it anyway.

Next stop: The Thatched Roof Cottage Land of BURNI (wait for it) NATION!

I could fill thirty pages with a treatise on the delicate relationship between form and content or the technical execution of the skill, and I could surely quote a lot of humanities professors on what they think art is (or rather what they think art isn't since that is what they tend to be infinitely more vocal about). In particular, I could focus on the elements of craft within fiction and how they work to emphasize a theme.

And at the end of it all, you wouldn't have an answer even close to what art actually is. Instead I'm going to tell you a story. I'm going to show you what art is.

About ten years ago I was just going back to college to learn to write. I had had some awful criticism of my writing, and I decided that I needed some professional help with getting better. Well even an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing was going to require general education coursework, so I trucked over to my local junior college and started taking classes.

One of my first classes was a humanities class, and for one of the assignments, we had to go to the Oakland museum to look at art and write up a bit about various works. Sure we spent time in this class looking at The Mona Lisa and American Gothic and we did a quick run through impressionism and cubism, but we were also supposed to be able to think about humanities and their relationship to the culture of the time. Blah blah blah insertcollegecriticalthinkingstuffhere. So we were to go look at some modern art and artists and write up a quick impression of what they have to do with modern culture. There I was on a Saturday with my little clipboard and my lined paper going around to all the predetermined pictures to write stuff. And it's the last weekend to do the assignment, so half a dozen of my classmates are floating around as well. We were almost the only ones in the whole place. My footsteps echoed through the gallery and I could hear the guy in the opposite wing coughing.

And I saw a picture.

I don't remember the picture's name or who the artist was because at the time I didn't think much of it. I thought it was a moderately interesting piece, but there wasn't that much to it. The painting was of this elderly guy and he was sitting in the kitchen of a very, very small apartment–it looked like it might be a loft or a tiny one bedroom. I think I remember that there were sky scrapers out the windows, so it was some kind of crowded city. This guy had, in this tiny little kitchen, just dozens of caged birds. And the artist had done a really good job of making it clear that the old man was just delighted by these birds.

The weird thing was, this guy in the picture was slightly transparent. You could JUST make out the vertical line contours of the apartment and one of the birds THROUGH him.

And I looked at that picture and I wrote a blurb about it, and turned my paper in and got an A. No muss. No fuss. Bibbity bam.

And that night, I was lying in bed and I couldn't get to sleep. I couldn't get to sleep because of that fucking painting. Because I couldn't get it out of my head that the guy was slightly transparent. Like he wasn't really even a real person. Like he didn't even matter as an individual. Like all those vertical lines in his really small apartment and from the skyscrapers meant that he was in his own cage. And I imagined this old guy who couldn't get his kids to call and didn't have friends except his birds and even though they made him happy, in a lot of ways it was like he wasn't even there. Trapped and invisible.

And that's sort of what we do with the elderly in this society.

Ten years later, that picture still haunts me. Ten years.  I'll be walking down the street or sitting watching Daredevil, and suddenly I will think about how people can be transparent and that picture of that man who seemed so happy, but I wonder if he was even really there.

That's what art is.

Art isn't something I can explain in ten pages or ten thousand. It tends to have some things in common like its relationship with message and execution, but ultimately the more you try to lock down what is art, the more examples of the most breathtaking art of all time you will find outside your parameters.  Art crawls into the deep places of your soul whether you want it to or not and jumps unbidden into your mind. It might make you angry, sad, or hopeful, but it always makes you skip a breath. Whether it is a line from Salinger, a strain of Mozart, or a smear on a cave wall from the first beings who we might have called human, it reaches across time and space and digs a barbed hook into you that you'll never remove.

And if I write something that someone can't help but think of a decade after they read it, I will count myself a great artist, no matter what someone with an elbow patch and a shelf full of books ever says.

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