Friday, March 29, 2013

Disability and Art

Can you create something you can't imagine?

Language makes the question seem absurd. Improvisation or sudden jumps in technical skill can be explained away as forgotten pieces of memory surfacing without conscious direction, but only if you've never felt the stream. Bruce Lee wrote, "The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action," and the same principle applies to thought, and to creation. The artist-as-conduit, rather than artist as creator in the modern sense, is the artist who passes on; who transcribes; who serves. The conduit, rather than the fabricator, is the only vehicle for true creation here, because the active, fully-conscious, technical "creator" (again, "creator" used in the now-modern sense, where language continues to be dissipated) is only ritualistically expressing something Already Known, or something that Will Be Known. The artist as literal, worldbound, translime creator is only rendering, mechanically (and imperfectly) something that can (and will, eventually) be redone better by a more advanced artist later.

Joggers and Mechanics

The artist-as-technician renders; adjusts; fixes; portrays. For a visual artist, this is the capture of an image, imagined or real. The artist who paints what is seen externally, or what is fabricated internally--the artist-as-technician of fixed visual media--is little different, essentially and literally, than the automobile mechanic. The artist who plays what is written on the page, or what is calculated within--the artist-as-technician of acoustic media--is little different than a jogger. The suggestion would make many artists bristle, but if the comparison were made instead to a brilliant neurosurgeon or a prizewinning Olympic athlete, the violinist or painter might feel better.

The mechanic is presented with a car that will not run. The mechanic investigates the car, and determines what things may be done to get it running again, get it running as optimally as the mechanic is able, or to, in the process, improve it beyond its original parameters. She may choose from many tools to achieve the objective, using old favorites or shop standards, and in the process, thousands upon thousands of tiny variations in the job will influence the end result. How tight is too tight? At what psi do you stop? How much gunk can be on any one of thousands of internal parts before it is "too much" and must be cleaned? What parts will be added, from what manufacturers, and exactly how will they be installed, and in what order?

The end result--if it's your car, hopefully a working engine--is as different as one snowflake from another when parked alongside a different car of the same make, model, and mileage. Like identical twins, though not as complicated, all the aspects of life are not quite identical: the blueprints; the order of production; the amount of ozone exposure; the exact experiences of that model.

So too surgery. The differences in refinement in surgery are certainly greater than in automobile mechanics, but where a portion of a millimeter may save or sever a nerve or a life, will an artist in outdoor metal sculptures, or even charcoal or oils, be able to directly counter the surgeon that hers is not a "finer" art? Supercomputers and microscopes may assist vascular surgeons in threading a needle too fine for a squinting artist with a mere 20/0 detail brush, while the decision about sequence, timing, and pressure may have to be made by the surgeon, on the spot or beforehand. A violinist may repeat Wohlfahrt's etudes for five hours a day, gaining the necessary arm and wrist strength to begin contemplating playing them privately at performance speed, prior to considering an acceptable performance years later. A high-jumper may thrill in the expressive passion of curling over the bar in the exactly desired fashion, and win a competition in dynamic joy at a young age.

But, the argument might go, the jogger is pursuing her fitness, and the mechanic and surgeon are making their living, while the artist is pursuing art. The artist paid to illustrate, then, would not be considered an artist unless the jogger, mechanic, and surgeon are artists as well.

Absolute Art

To reconcile the contradictions in our use of "art," the many forms of postmodernism have resorted to agreeing that yes, everything is art. Sometimes, the qualification is added that art is any "expression," or that the person had to have intended to create art, but political-correctness tends to trim those requirements away once it encounters languages where there is no word for "expression" distinct from "speech" or "picture," or where there is no word for "art" in a tribe where unique costumes are designed, then danced in to live music next to outdoor sculpture.

Is art, then, everything? This has been the final (but also squealingly and avowedly not-final) conclusion of western art historians and promoters: that anything is art. When Larry the garbage truck driver scratches his hairy ass crack in an expression of hemorrhoidal pain, it is performance art. That seems patently ridiculous, but when Manzoni defecates in a can, labels it and sells it, it is defended, and celebrated, as art. Similarly, movie producers who write a check, suggest two or three CAD agencies their fathers know to use for the action sequences, and agree to produce "as long as Cage is in it," are artists.

In a failed attempt to avoid the ridiculous, art historians have attempted to distinguish "fine art" from "art," so that when Christo puts up umbrellas along a highway, he's an artist, but not a "fine" artist. Da Vinci painted pictures; Christo put up umbrellas: conclusion, they're both artists. Postmodernists who fling a bucket of paint at a canvas, however, make the "fine" grade, unless they're so cool that their artist's statement rejects the distinction.

(Christo's work putting up umbrellas by the highway, similarly, is different than when the local auto mechanic puts up a billboard with a $29.99 oil change offer in all-caps Times New Roman--Christo is not only different than the mechanic, by his own definition, he's also more courageous. In his own words, "[Y]ou know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain." Which raises the question: when the $29.99 oil change special is gone, and the billboard is replaced by an advertisement for the laundromat across the street, has our mechanic then become courageous?)

The distinction between "fine art" and "not-fine art" expresses its ridiculousness in more offensive ways. If our example mechanic designed the billboard herself on her computer, selected the font for the oil-change offer, and perused the color wheel for just the right shade of red, have we not crossed the line into fine art? What if the sign was ordered from a printer in black and white, and the mechanic then used her own can of paint, mixed at the self-serve machine in the hardware store, to fill red in between the outlines of the letters? What if the mechanic decided to layer the paint more or less heavily to make drivers more or less excited about the oil change (to evoke a mood in the viewer)? What if the mechanic painted all the lettering by herself?

Clearly, "art" under the new definition. Just as the heart operation, engine fix, or locker-room wedgie is art. Just as going to sleep every night in a slightly different position, going around a beetle (or stepping on a beetle) or breathing is art. This interpretation of "art" covers everything, and it is so total in its bounds that it cannot be fairly limited. The example of Larry scratching his backside comes across as ridiculous if you suspect High Arka is being ridiculous, but there's a legitimate argument to be made about expression, timing, desires, and interpretation. To rely on your own subjective judgment about whether or not something should "really" be art is to allow someone else to use their subjective judgment that an abstract painting is not art--and if you're subscribing to the totally inclusive definition of art, you've already denied them that agency.

(We might try to save the expansive interpretation of "art" by defining art as anything that is art in the eye of the reasonable average beholder, which means that Christo's umbrellas would not be considered art by virtue of popular vote of >6 billion humans shown a picture of his umbrellas and asked if they are "umbrellas" or "art." We could try another way, and say that art is anything that is art in the eye of any one beholder, such that art is completely relative, in which case the discussion doesn't matter because any one person's honest feeling that something sucks means it "isn't" art--which, of course, cannot be right in every instance, so art historians who take this route have pretty much agreed that the interpretations that matter are those of powerful artists, exhibitors, producers, and art historians, with the end result being that relativist definitions of art actually mean, "art is what we say art is." Uneducated fools, too stupid to appreciate the value of $7,900 renditions of the color blue in 5'x6', only matter as object lessons in ignorance.)

Yet again, allowing art to be totally inclusive--in this case, not of "anything," but of "anything anyone believes to be or not be art"--we allow the word "art" to be so inclusive that it is either everything, a carefully exclusive something, or nothing at all; either worthless, snobbish, or meaningless. The idea that words--the art of language, and of shared understanding beyond place and time--should have no value is a false front. Artistic relativists, like moral relativists, tend to see little positive (if any) value in burning crosses, lynch mobs, gang rape, or longstanding traditions of female infanticide, and rightly so. The obligatory resort, "Well, everybody knows that that's just ridiculous, and not art," is true, but not by an inclusive definition of art.

Much, if not almost all, of the assigning of massive definitions to the word "art" was accomplished by unorthodox performance artists, academics, and grand showmen, rather than by those artists whose expressions are the use of language. There are certainly well-meaning exceptions, but the flamboyant, creative, often unskilled object-juxtapositioners (of the "tampon in a teacup" variety) primarily drove the charge to make collective notions of art include things they could do without learning how to draft, illustrate, or finger. There is an irony, or perhaps a hypocrisy, in the invasion and authoritative redefinition of the written word by umbrella-stickers and foil-wrappers.

Settling the Argument on What Constitutes Art

Luckily, the argument was long ago settled. Once, while discussing this issue with a mostly-hostile group of art graduate students, a young woman told them, "My art is everything." When questioned on the specifics, she answered, "My art includes all things others have called 'art' which are included in my expression of everything. Past, present, and future."

Since then, High Arka has been the artist responsible for the universe, and all so-called "art" within it. Christo's expression of umbrella was merely a sub-expression of High Arka's expression of "Earth" and its inhabitants. With some difficulty, the PhD MFA responsible for originating the discussion was brought to good cheer in the end, and conceded that if it could be an artistic choice to frame a mountain, then it could also be an artistic choice to frame the cosmos. (Accordingly, you are all my art. Not even my "found art," but actually my art. That's how I roll. :D)

This conclusion, while ridiculous, is nonetheless "true" in the sense that, if we define art as anything interpreted or framed or experienced by the definer/artist, High Arka is the artist of everything. And within that context, High Arka's artistic expression of what defines "art" controls, as both creator, viewer, and creator and interpreter of all viewers anywhere and everywhere.

The penultimate conclusion of any all-inclusive definition is, naturally and necessarily, inclusion: inclusion of the ridiculous; inclusion of the brazen; inclusion of the offensive, the contradictory, and the explicitly wrong. If art is everything, art isn't actually everything. It is, instead, actually nothing. If we define something so wholly as to allow everything "in," then there is no more "inside." A house large enough to contain everything in the universe ceases to be a house, and becomes instead the universe. A definition of "female" so broad that it includes "males" means that there are, no longer, any females.

If we move beyond the rhetorical inevitabilities inherent in the misuse of language--the traps that the verse has set for those who claim the absurdity of relativism--there is a real answer; a real, meaningful separation of art and non-art. That salvation is artist-as-conduit: art that transcends the merely tangible and the merely imagined. Disability studies, certain sage takes on photo-realism versus interpretation, and player pianos come in there. The advent of science, and the popular and academic rethinking of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, was a Trojan Horse: it was the most effective attack possible on the idea of art. Because art is so vast and so universal, and so intrinsic to life and creation, it will take an overdose, rather than an underdose or mere massacre, to wipe it out forever. Variously elitist on purpose, variously populist on purpose, the maw of artless evil seeks to turn all artists into technicians, until the memory of a distinct, loving process formerly called "art" is gone.

~Lightspring embrace. Until Part 2.


  1. I've always loved the lines in Stevie Wonder songs that are explicitly about sight: "You are the apple of my eye"... "she is sho nuff pretty"... etc. As a kid, I wondered how he could write that stuff, was it just because it rhymed? Decades later, I feel dumb admitting I ever believed such a thing, but of course, he meant it the way he meant it. She WAS the apple of his eye, and she WAS sho nuff pretty... and people enjoy those songs without ever stopping to think about it, don't they? A guy I worked with (at a record store) once claimed that "the multiplicity of viewed-images in Stevie's work means he is very close to the Godhead." I thought, wow, yeah.

    I still believe that, but now for different reasons: his non-hesitation in using the lyrics, and imposing his own meanings on reality. She was Stevie's idea of sho nuff pretty, which means that she may not have been the ordinary, accepted definition at all. And yet, she is commemorated for us as pretty, and so she is.

    (Babble babble, hope at least some of that made sense.)

    1. :D

      So perfect. You anticipated a fair amount of Part 3.