My sister is an artist, and I remember her telling me the standard line they use in reaction to the ultimately least helpful criticism a piece of art can get: “Well, I could have done that!” Yeah, but you didn’t.
I remember the first time I heard her say it; I was 18, she had just finished her first year of her BFA program at Queen’s University in Kingston, and I was visiting her in her summer digs. (Incidentally, that was also the summer I read Maus. There’s really nothing quite like those hours you spend completely sucked into a great piece of literature, is there!) Yeah, but you didn’t. I got her point at the time, on some level, but I think now I get it quite a bit more.
Art isn’t about skill. And that’s what those people are expecting when they say that; art should be something that the average guy on the street can’t concieve of producing on his own. He want to look at a piece of art and be awed. The easiest way to be awed by something is to look behind the curtain and see who’s pulling the strings. If you can’t see the strings, and can’t even get a look behind the curtain, there’s a level of the magic that remains. You can be in awe of someone’s technical skill. That’s easy. And i guess it’s easy to stop there and let the definition of art rest.
But what my sister said is that it’s not about that. The skill isn’t the point. The ideas are the point. The creativity. Saying something, doing something, producing something so surprising and unique that it hasn’t been done before, ideas that haven’t been thought before. I don’t know my artists all that well, but that fellow who put a toilet in a room as an installation: he was the first one to think of doing that. He’s expressing that every day objects are art as well, he’s taking something ordinary and humble out of its context and forcing you to think about it in a new way. Those are the things that can only be art once; the first time someone thinks to do it. After that it’s just derivitive. “But I could have done that.” Yeah, but you didn’t. And you can stand there and be scornful, thinking, what skill was involved here that’s so special, what skill is being demonstrated that make this piece of art worth untold millions of dollars? But that would be missing the point. That’s the tyranny of skillfulness. The point is the newness, and once it’s done it can’t be new again.
And then I think of artists like Van Gogh, who created things that his peers had nothing by criticism for. Paradigm shifters. The rest of us stand on the shoulders of giants; as a culture, we need to move incrementally from one idea to the next. We don’t manage radical change of ideas well. We need to be introduced to things slowly. For the vast majority of us, truly unique, paradigm-shifting ideas cannot even be birthed in our brains; we are too stuck in the hegemony of the status quo, too utterly born into the water of this culture that we can’t even imagine what lies beyond it. We can’t even consider that there is a “beyond” in the first place. That’s survival, that’s living in the real world. Is it physiological? Can we only progress so far in a lifetime? It you picked up a medieval man and dropped him in Times Square, could he learn to make sense of it, or is he shackled to the Great Chain of Being so much that his brain can’t make the necessary leaps? It seems fairly clear that, in general, people don’t like change. When we first look at a thing, or think a brand new thought, it seems ugly. Once we feel around the edges of it and understand what it is, why it’s wonderful, what it brings us, then we can see the beauty of it.
Once in a while, when I’m looking around at the world, I think about the fact that the very concept of seeing is flawed. We like this idea that we see things as they are, that there is real truth in what we see. But we don’t “see” objects and things, do we? We only see how light reflects off them. We see the particular way that light moves, and we wring information from it. No different, really, from echo-location; just using different senses. In medieval medicine, it was believed that you could get sick if someone looked at you, because looking at a thing meant that invisible tenacles reached out from your eyes and touched the thing you had your eyes locked on. Looking at a person, in that context, is a profoundly intimate and possibly dangerous experience. And in many ways they were right; looking at a thing isn’t nearly as clear cut as it seems to be. It could have been our noses that came to dominate, and we would “see” the colours of things based on how they smell.
And I guess we should feel awe about that too.
I can’t stop coughing, and this is what I came up with to occupy my head.