I wrote an article yesterday called “this right here, this is reality” (localisation). In reality, the title is absolutely meaningless, unlike the rest of the post. For those of you who missed it, the rest of the post is a center aligned sequence of 1004 randomly generated five digit numbers. For those of you wondering what this could possibly mean, it means a lot of things. Okay, not a lot of things, but it does mean a couple things and it is meant to raise a few questions. Questions like: what is the value (no pun intended) of a thousand individual words? If you read those numbers out loud and hyphenated the words comprising every one, you’d have a thousand original words. Technically, they are as artistic as the words you’re reading right now, or the words you read the day before that post. So why, when I tell people about it, do they call me lazy?
That’s the other meaning behind it, and what I wanted to talk about today. On Saturday, my brother and I had a long conversation my mother mistook for an argument on my family’s way to buy a car. Maybe we were coming home, but really, where we were isn’t what matters. What matters is that my brother, a physicist, and I, a critic, started to talk about what was and what wasn’t art. We talked about different examples, almost all of which I’ve forgotten by now–it’s Wednesday, what do you want from me. So, I’m gonna half-ass the examples a bit, but it’s the differences between the underlying philosophies I want you to notice. Because where my brother and I differ may become a very important thing to the arts, very soon. Where we disagreed is the line between “art” and “not art” and where that should be drawn.
They say there’s a quantitative man in every crowd. Technically, both my brother and I are that man. However, he’s the one currently pursuing his doctorate in a niche field of physics, so I’ll leave him as the quantitative man for this article. Not least of which because he has a few criteria for what constitutes art. I’m not going to get them right in tonight’s draft–he isn’t online on Gmail chat–but I’ll give a go at them and let him correct me later. He said that for something to be art, it has to have some meaning by the artist, even if that meaning is a lack of meaning. He said the work of art needs to have an original idea–a grain of sand to form the pearl of the work around, something either no one has thought of, or a new perspective on it. And–and this is where I quote directly–he said that to be art, it has to be something that “[he] couldn’t do”–it needs to involve some advanced skill he doesn’t possess. (I just thought now that I should have told him that because he can play a mean bass, funk music is no longer art. You always think of these things later, don’t-ya.)
He said that something like the roof of the Sistine Chapel is obviously art because he could not have done that. He said that, by contrast, something like the pencil line, drawn in a circle on the wall of an art gallery by the security guard who happened to pick up the phone when the artist called it in, could not be art. He said that there was the line between art and not art. That on one side, we had the Picassos, the Warhols, the Mozarts or Reznors, that these people were artists. And on the other side, we had people who did stuff like poop on a canvas, or, specifically, Andres Serrano’s Pisschrist–people who did not make art by any scale. Their work could not be art, because despite thinking of something that he didn’t think of and then carrying it out, as opposed to just going back to their physics, their work was not art.
As you might be able to tell by the tone of that sentence, if you aren’t entirely tone-deaf, I disagree. Any work that has been created from an original idea is art. There is no way to distinguish it from anything else as long as it is agreed upon or displayed as art. Basically, I take the Stephen King view. He says that if you wrote a book and you submitted it to a publisher and they published it and they sent you a cheque and the cheque didn’t bounce and you paid the light bill with it–you’re talented. I say that if you made something, adapted something, did anything to anything and had someone call it art or evaluate it as such, you’re an artist and what you’ve created is a work of art. What matters to me is that I can see your work exploring the dichotomy between how Christ is supposed to be viewed as a cultural icon and how our modern world has treated him. Not that you communicated that dichotomy by filling a jar with your urine, putting a dime-store plastic figure of Christ on the cross in it and taking a photograph of it. I don’t care if it’s “something I could do” unless I did it and I did it first and the artist stole it from me.
So that’s where our opinions differ. I said that he was free to call anything he would deem “not art” “invalid art”. The work is not valid because not enough effort was put into one area of it or another to support calling it art. He told me that if I called it invalid art, I’d be saying the same thing that he was, but with different words. I said that I liked Pisschrist a lot. He called me buddy before we carried on talking about this for another hour.
The reason I bring this up is that very soon, the Supreme Court of the United States of America will decide whether video games are art or not. Now, by my brother’s standards (I assume) they are. And by my standards they are. But given that there is no true universal standard by which to judge a work to be art or not in any medium, all we can really do is talk about it and hope. Hope that stuffy old white guys with their stuffy old white guy values don’t cripple what could’ve been the next great medium of artistic expression. (I assume) Ben and I stand together on that.