Does art = Beauty?
Does art = Truth?
Does art = Seeing something in a new way?
What is art?
Sometimes, for the artist, this question takes the form of a very personal, very practical-minded inquiry into one’s motivation:
Why am I doing this?
What am I trying to achieve anyway?
Am I doing this simply because the beauty that I make gives me pleasure? (Nabokov spoke often of the decidedly “non-utilitarian delights” of art.)
Or am I doing this because I want to lead people closer to the truth? (Tolstoy: “Art is not a pleasure, or a solace, or an amusement; art is a great matter.”)
Or am I an iconoclast, a revolutionary, who wants to shake people out of their habitual modes of thought? (Antonin Artaud: “I would like to write a book which would drive men mad.”)
What are we doing when we make art?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Emily Dickenson likewise draws out that close relationship between beauty and truth in her marvelous poem, one of my favorites, “I died for Beauty”:
I died for Beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb,
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room —
He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty,” I replied —
“And I — for Truth — Themself are One —
We Brethren, are”, He said —
And so, as Kinsmen met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —
But surely these are not the only possible answers to the questions of What is art? and Why do art?
Of course, over the millenia, artists have had many other answers — and many other motivations — ever since, we may hazard the guess, they began first making art some 100,000 years ago in the Paleolithic era. The earliest cave drawings we have found at the Chauvet cave in Southern France (the subject of Herzog’s recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) show us that some 32,000 years ago the skills required for rendering a three-dimensional subject on a two-dimensional surface were already well advanced… We can imagine that artists were already in high demand for these skills.
Art serves the need for ritual.
It preserves memories of things lost.
It titillates (see: Venus of Hohle Fels to experience a Paleolithic thrill).
It grabs our attention (evolutionary psychologists would have us believe that artistic work is, at bottom, a courtship dance, a demonstration of the artist’s access to ample materials and time –and hence his or her relative fitness in the gene pool).
Not the least, art brings with it, on occasion (rarely, I know, dear readers), material gain (see Samuel Johnson‘s famous remark: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”)
With all these thoughts floating in our heads, let’s turn to the submission that provoked this riff.
Submission No. 4 comes to us in the form of a how-to manual:
“Instructions for Movement with Furniture”
The first thing that we notice about this submission is that there is no attempt at salesmanship or marketing or even any attempt at graphic design. We are face to face with a plain document, in plain type, on a yellow background. We are given no pitch, no argument as to why we should heed its instructions or even read it at all.
Nevertheless, we read on: “Instructions for Movement with Furniture may be performed by anyone interested in developing a deeper relationship with their objects.”
This line is the only indication given to us as to a possible context for this document.
So let’s unpack it, as they say (funny how the word “unpack” comes to mind so easily in a discussion of how to move with furniture).
It “may” be performed — each person’s choice, then — by anyone — from the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, to your crotchety next-door neighbor, Gladys, to your five-year-old nephew, Jimmy — interested in developing a deeper relationship with “their objects”.
Aside from the grammatical mismatch (anyone… their), this sentence has, sticking out of it, a number of burs that catch on our proverbial pant-legs as we pass.
Bur #1. We read that we “may” perform these instructions… Thank you. The question leaps to mind: Who is it giving us permission?
Bur #2. We read that “anyone” can do this. Then we are all equal in regard to these instructions, regardless of our social status, socioeconomic condition, or frame of mind? Do we not need any cultural understanding at all to follow them? Or are we in some Rawlsian Original Position when we perform them, wherein we have lost all of our specific commitments and attributes and traits?
Bur #3. The whole notion of developing a “deeper” relationship with an object is tantalizing. Is there such a thing as a genuine relationship between a human being and an inanimate object such as a piece of furniture? Doesn’t a relationship require consciousness on both sides, some minimal amount of communication? And who would be the final judge of the deepness of our relationship with an object anyway? Would this be from our vantage point or the object’s?
Bur #4. Finally, in the phrase “their objects” we can detect the assumption that we do, in fact, have objects in our possession already. In what sense, though, are they “theirs” (or, rather, “ours”) to begin with?
Okay. So we have a bit of context. Let’s now read the 12 instructions, which comprise the main part of the artwork, and see what we find.
The list is essentially a series of suggested actions to take vis-à-vis an object in your possession. It can be paraphrased succinctly as follows:
2. Look at it.
3. Listen to it.
4. Smell it.
5. Measure it.
6. Lift it.
7. Sit on it.
8. Connect physically with it, as if you are two links in a chain.
9. Use it as a shelter.
10. Do the impossible with it.
11. Inquire into its origin.
12. Introduce yourself to it.
What is this? What’s going on?
Is this art?
These instructions, if followed, will no doubt take the form of a kind of ritual. We will be treating an inanimate object, for a small time, as something worthy of a great deal of attention. This attention may be arbitrary (there is no attempt to justify doing this on the part of the artist), but it will nevertheless be undeniable.
So one way of looking at his work is to see it in the category of art as ritual, the same function that paleontologists believe cave paintings served.
Another way of looking at this work is to see it as a metaphor for human relationships — a kind of truth-telling.
By removing us from our usual assumptions about the people in our lives — by in fact replacing the image we have of them with the image of a piece of furniture — the artist allows us to see freshly the difficulties of forging or maintaining a “deeper” relationship with anybody.
For what can we do — except pay attention? Is that enough? We look, we smell, maybe we even lift somebody in the air (or more), we introduce ourselves, we ask for an account of this person or that person’s history and origin… but at the end of all this, are we any closer? Do we ever”know” anyone any better than we did at the beginning?
From this perspective we can think of this work as an example of art as truth. Lev Nikolayevich would be proud.
A third way of looking at this piece is to imagine how we would appear if we really followed these instructions, point by point. We would look foolish to an observer. For we would be slinging ourselves over and under a piece of furniture, lifting it, sniffing it, talking to it, with no apparent recognition that it is impartial and we are not disrupting its solid state in any significant way.
If you think about it, we would look very alone while engaged in this exercise. More alone than we would appear if we were simply sitting on the same sofa reading a book.
Perhaps this would suggest that this is an example of art as shaking-us-out-of-our-everyday-habits.
But I think that the key to this whole work of art is instruction number 10:
“Position yourself such that you are underneath and on top of your piece at one time.”
Of course this is an impossible task, considering the laws of physics (although, as quantum mechanics has shown, it is possible for unobserved electrons.) So the instructions are asking us to perform the impossible with an object in our possession.
There is something sexual in this, something compelling, something taboo, is there not? Underneath and on top. Time would have to be stopped, folded over itself, just as we would.
We would have to be humbled, negated, to the point of severing ourselves in two, giving up the very breath of life that distinguishes ourselves from our sofa, our bench, our chair. We would have to become two rather than one: indeed, our very identity would be in question (philosophers talk of “diachronic” and “quantitative” vs. “qualitative” identity — certainly we would give up at least two out of three of these identities to accomplish this task).
Here, then, we are confronted, by this list of black writing on a yellow background, with more than Beauty, more than Truth; likewise, we are more than startled out of our everyday rut.
No, there is more than all this going on in instruction #10. We are being asked, by the artist, to willingly disassemble ourselves. We are being broken down, packed up and moved. We are being made the object, with no thought anymore as to why or how, or what motivates us. We are submitting to the dictates of eternity, outside of the particularities of a life in time and space. We are learning to be an object from the inside out.
And this is perhaps another, rarely mentioned, definition of art: we are made non-human by it. We are made nothing. Art = Death.
Which brings us back to Dickenson:
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —