Can I read the Ur Riff?

Here, for the archives, are the original emails that got me going:

Email # 1:

Okay. So what I get is that you have been interested for some time — five years at least — in the intersection of art, aesthetics, beauty (broadly understood), on the one hand, with utility, function, industry, mass use, on the other. You want your creations to have a practical import. (None of this may be an accurate sense of what you are up to, but I’m just riffing to get to my thoughts — hoping it is useful to you.) You want your customers, your patrons, your audience, your admirers to marvel at your work and also to USE it. To have everything have a function. Everything used.
Is there perhaps a suspicion of superfluousness here? Is it pure aestheticism that is the threat, and the prod, to your impulse to go liminal? Does Oscar Wilde get under your skin? Or pretentious concept-heavy art? I’m thinking here of other artists that wanted people to use art…. Da Vinci of course. Christo, in a sense (public spaces, not private). Brecht. Fassbinder. Oliver Stone. The Italian neo-realists (have you seen the Bicycle Thief?) in a political sense. Relgious-minded early renaissance painters, aiming to give a spiritual aid in addition to beauty. Eames. Jobs (though his is profit-oriented). Bauhaus architects. Camus, Sartre.
What is occurring to me is that you have a world-changing aspect to your work (as you say you are going big). This is the opposite of art for arts sake. It is almost theological. Although you pitch it on the level of industry and activism, it is an Religious-to-Enlightenment-to-Progressivism ambition to change people’s MINDS, even more than their actions.
Can you do this and still have it art? What is “art” anyway? Is it an artificial category that implies useless beauty? Is art always actually useful? What is “useful” anyway? Deep, unsolvable questions for this email! (or ever!). But let me take another tack.
I get that you have a more generous, more clear-eyed vision for the beauty of what most people categorize as “waste.” I think that is important and powerful and true — something you are compelled (rightly!) to share with the world. Waste, as we were discussing at Jeannie’s party, is usually associated in people’s neural networks with disgust, shame, infection, fear, shunning, separation. The body’s waste products are fetishized by some precisely because they trigger these powerful limbic-brain responses. They are taboo, hidden, involuntary. But there are two issues that you point out:
1. Most of these responses are, like so many of our evolutionarily-derived responses, not very accurate or necessary. We have ways to disinfect ourselves (soap, Purell, etc.). We have gone overboard in separating ourselves from body wastes to the point that many people NEVER really see it anymore. This is damaging to our psyches in that it walls us off from our own bodies and their processes. It promotes surface-shiny pictures of human beauty. At least a hundred years ago they had to use outhouses and chamberpots. They had spitoons (not that I would bring those back). They got it. Now, aside from athletes spitting tobacco juice, and college students vomiting behind their cars, and our own most private nose-pickings… and well, things that happen in the sexual context…and… well you get the picture, we have a blank, sanitized idea of human bodies. No wonder people want to tear them apart, violate them, shoot them in video games, fist them, etc. — they are trying to figure out what the fuck they are, they have lost their ancient understandings of them.
2. More to the point of your work, this waste assocation has been applied to ALL of our trash. Dumpster-diving makes people shocked and appalled. Picking up garbage is done with icky care. When in truth, as you make clear, most of what we throw out is not “waste” in the body sense at all, not threatening to our immune systems, etc. It is simply MATERIAL. Can we educate people — through public service announcements or, as is your urge, through artistic shock and enchantment — to separate these two types of garbage out? If we can then, how?
On point 2, you seem to have concluded that the best way would be secretly, indirectly, by making them work with these safe materials for their own gain. If they can make a placemat out of them, or a shirt, or a bookcase, or a hanging on the wall, then suddenly they redirect them into the category of useful and socially approved instead of disgusting. This is an act of changing their neural networks by changing their habits first.
— hold on, I’m going to send this and then keep writing on another one.
Email #2:
Okay, continuing…
So you want to change people’s habits. Like our kids’ school has us save yogurt containers or toilet paper rolls for art projects — soon we see them differently (at least for a few weeks). Or the person who first made chip-bag purse (you know, those woven ones) made us see how beautiful the wrappers of Doritos and Fritos really are, with the blacks and reds and blues and yellows all glossy.
There is a tension in your theology, though. One the one hand, you want us to USE all this trash, or have you and other artists TRANSFORM it into something beautiful. This would imply that we should buy more, shop more, just don’t throw it away: the more the better, the more inventive solutions and glorious art. Trucks on every corner! Shredders in every home! On the other hand, I know from asking you that you want LESS. You want people to use biodegradable products if possible. You are opposed to the consumerist nighmare of American culture. It’s not just that it’s all treated as disposable, but it is all acquired too much too, right? It is clutter. You aim for a streamlining of our lives. An attentiveness. You want us to model ourselves more on animals like birds and cats and mice — waste not, want not, cover your tracks, by instinct or will. But if people do this right, then your artistic contribution loses its material, no more grist for the proverbial mill….
What is your relationship to the greens, to the Sierra Club, to the Earth Firsters, to the sustainability people? Are they just like you but with less artistic imagination? Are you the artistic committee of their movement? Or are you doing something substantively different? Are they heading down a dead-end and you are giving them a new paradigm? Many people, as you know (i am one of them) are skeptical at the attempt to restrain human being’s alteration of the planet. I believe that people will consume whatever energy they can for as long as they can — at the expense of the environment. Climate change is a foregone conclusion. Burning through all of the finite resources of fossil fuels is a foregone conclusion (including all coal, all natural gas by fracking, all shale oil, everything). Creating nuclear reactors is a foregone conclusion, even in the face of millions getting killed and harmed by melt-downs, etc. Gloomy, I know. But just take a moment’s look at human nature, and it is obvious that short-term status over other’s around you is the CENTRAL motivator and source of identity for most people, on an hour-to-hour basis as well as over a lifetime. Energy consumption gives that status.
So the only way to change the picture would be to reUSE and this must give people ADDITIONAL STATUS. You must be enabled in the sense of creature comforts, or social standing, or coolness in your self-image (which is also social, unconsciously or not). So my question for you is:
How are you going to make going to the local shredder a status move, like going to a ski resort? Short of that, and you’ve only got a subversive concept, a piece of whimsy, a provocative picture of an alternative universe. Nothing wrong with all that, but it still, despite your efforts, even after massive success in the art world ($, acclaim) only another piece of useless beauty.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am more in the Proustian, introverted, art for arts sake camp, myself. I have a strong moral sense (it comes out in times of crisis, injustice witnessed first hand, my interest in politics, my commitments to my own values). But my growing-up experiences have led me to think of the world as a chaotic, meaningless place, in which animals, including hairless bipedal primates such as ourselves, have their brief hour on the stage, signifying nothing. So we strut and purr and shout and embrace, and it is wonderful, but it is wonderful in the sense of those “divine captives” that Proust talks about — ultimately in a private mediated way. So when I ask myself whether I want all children in the US to have a good education, or all native plants to be protected, or all trash to be recycled and limited in its production in the first place, well I see these as private visions that I have developed based on my experience of a good world. I will fight for them. I might even die for them in a war! But I do not expect that there is anything intrinsic and inevitable in them.
So — I have gone far afield. Sorry. So — what I’m trying to say is: the function of art — its USE — is always to promote a private vision. Even the most obscure, think Sappho’s fragments of erotic observation — and the most gigantic — think the onion domes on Moscow’s churches — they are all making the most tiny, private detailed notes of artists readable by others. The great thing about art is that it breaks and alters our received categories, it weaves new networks. When Vermeer showed how sidelighting looked on a checkered floor, the world collectively said, yes, I see that now (I always did but now see it consciously?). When you create shredders for our waste products people will say, yes, I see that now. But will they stop buying wasteful consumer items? Probably not. They will just have a new option to extend their use.
If there is a post Peak Oil collapse, then these shredders and looms could be useful with the remaining detritus we thought we would leave in landfills. But really, there will be such a flurry of people figuring out what to do with these — and remember, without electricity readily available — that who knows what we will do with trash… Probably the basics: shelter. As in shanty towns the world over.
Beauty is — the luxury of beauty — is a perk of our contemporary world. Anything we do to bring attention to it — even if we characterize it as useful — is really a way of saying, I LOVE THIS! I WANT TO SHARE IT WITH YOU AND MAKE YOUR HEART SING WITH MINE! This is amazing. Your vision is amazing. But my conclusion of all this is this:
I think of you as akin to a Buddhist monk, widening our field of awareness of the sacred. You are like those photographers who started showing us the beauty of weathered faces in the 30s, dustbowl farmers, prostitutes in the 60s. The trick for them (as for you) is not to romanticize ugliness — look at that chewed bubble gum stuck on that soda pop label, look at it! — but rather to make it no longer ugly at all.
Sending. Then later I will reread and perhaps find my real point. I hope this is not a burden! Don’t worry about reading if it is not helpful. Just trying to help, as you know, my dear friend and inspiration.
Tom
Email #3:
Jyst reread what I wrote.
Bottom line: you are ruthlessly anti-nostalgic in your conception of art, you have no interest in the polite boundaries of what are proper materials or subjects. You are like a neolithic cave painter: of course you use the materials on hand. Anything else is bizarre to you.
The rest, the implications of it all… meh. You aren’t concerned. You simply must make beauty out of everyday things, including “waste” — let whatever comes of it (a less consumerist, disposable world? Nothing at all? Who knows?) come.
I like it. It is an original vision not because it is new but because it runs so deep with you that it is not forced.
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