The Other End of Sunset

Sunday, May 07, 2006

What is art, anyway?

I like art, in all forms. I'm not an art snob, or anything, and am definitely not educated about art, but I like it.

I find myself moved by good art. Might make me happy or sad, hopeful, or angry. But it makes me feel something.

I found myself suddenly confronted by art today. Kind of like the Spanish Inquisition. After all, nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Or perhaps more like a land shark. You know, “knock, knock!” “who’s there?” “Pizza delivery” “ok!” {door opening} “Land shark!” “Eeek!” {munch}.

Yeah, more like that.

I want to believe that there is public art. Like, maybe signs, for example. For example, there is a sign that always interests me in Oakland. It’s in the restroom. It says “For Bathroom emergencies, call {number}”. Wow.

For those of us in the peanut gallery, what is a bathroom emergency? Like, is it something that you’d treat with an over the counter chewable “Advanced” pill? Or is it seeing a woman in the men’s room (perhaps because of confusion, or perhaps because the line to the woman’s room was too long)? Hmm.

But, it’s not art, you say – I can hear you, by the way, don’t think I can’t.

Anyway, you’re wrong, it IS art. It makes me think, and it makes me laugh. It has cognitive AND emotional impact. That means it is art.

Granted, I don’t think it’s a work of staggering genius, but still, it meets the definition, right?

Dude, Andy Warhol made millions painting soup cans – why not bathroom signs? Especially such a piquant, and poignant, one?

On the Venice boardwalk, there are all these huge walls painted, with scenes, and images, and the occasional homage to a great painter. My personal favorite was down the street from my house – a huge homage to “A Starry Night”. How can you look at all those stars, with their gamboling trails, and riveting brightness, and not feel free, and happy, and like love exists in the universe. I would sit there, having coffee, listening to the ocean waves, feeling a little chilly – it’s overcast in the mornings, you know – and look at the painting. Content. Not happy, necessarily, but content. Coffee and peace. A nice combination.

But mostly I'm thinking of bad art.

No, not the kind of art sold at those Marriot gatherings they advertise on cable. Rather, art that bothers you. Makes you sad. Makes you angry. And yet you like it, or approach it, or consume it, anyway.

For example, Elton John’s song “I feel like a bullet” is such a work or art. I mean, really, who can LIKE that song?

I threw the last punch too hard
I try not to look as I walk to my wagon
I knew then, I had lost what shoulda been found
I feel like a bullet
In the gun of Robert Ford

--Elton John

I mean, really, not a nice song, eh? It’s about a guy breaking up with his partner, and how awful he feels, and yet he has to do it. It’s very confusing, much like actual break-ups are (in my experience, anyway). And when I'm sad, when relationships are ending, that song says so much to me (props to those who recognize that very weak pun).

There is a building in Tulsa that is art like this. I think it’s on 11th street, but I can’t actually remember. Tulsa has a bunch of Art Deco buildings. The Art Deco gang sometimes tried to make buildings look like their function, so the physical form reminded you of the content. Perhaps it could be described as function follows form, if you will pardon the McLuhan reference. Well, this particular building was built for a mortuary. It looks like a headstone. A really gigantic one, but a gravestone, nonetheless. For a really big dead person, I guess.

When I was last there, the grave was populated by bad American furniture. How appropriate.

I had a friend in LA who made art from mannequins. Yes, you read that right. He did “live” action dioramas, using mannequins. Sometimes family rooms, and sometimes other stuff. He decorated my house as a present on Halloween. He had hands reaching out of walls, holding candles, and a body clawing its way out of the floor, screaming in terror. There were several pieces around the house. Not hundreds, but several.

At the time, I lived in a modernist house on the beach in LA. It was that typical LA style – a 2-story atrium with all glass walls, lots of windows and patios. The place was so bright you could practically get a tan INSIDE. Anyway, my friend’s art turned the place from a bright beach joyful jaunt, into something far darker. The light was still there, but there was an overwhelming sense of fear and decay. Suddenly my house felt like a Stephen King novel – contradictions, something not quite right, just under the surface waiting to break through – or maybe a Quentin Tarantino movie – this horrible juxtaposition of cruelty and laughter, all drenched in blood and the smell of humanity.

Now that’s art. Julian made art. He changed the world around him, by externalizing what was in him.

Manet is a great French painter. No, for the Americans in the crowd, that is NOT a typo, I meant Manet, not Monet. Anyway. He has a painting called “The Execution of Emperor Maximillian”. It’s terrible. It’s dark, and hard to see, and shows (as you might have inferred) an execution.

It’s painted in these greenish brown colors. It’s horrible. The whole thing feels hateful, almost like the canvas is angry. The canvas is angry to be showing such a hateful event, and it’s angry that it can’t show its inner beauty, but instead has to display a guy getting killed. This is a work of art that you won’t want to stop and look at for long.

But you should. It’s a wonderful painting. For years, I have been looking for a print of it. To hang in my entryway. To remind myself, and others, that beauty and terror coexist, sometimes in the same place, or even the same person. I love the painting. And don’t want to look at it for very long.

And, for me at least, there is art that is neither good, nor evil, but rather changes nature over time.

Try reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” every few years. I think you’ll find it has an amazing ability to change, almost like it’s alive, and growing. I find a new stanza every time. I don’t know how he’s writing them and sneaking them into my old poetry book. It’s magic. Not nice magic, but magic, nonetheless.

I have a painting from New Orleans, of jazz musicians. There are four small paintings, joined into one, with the (very simplified) jazz guys playing various instruments. It was a present to me. It’s lovely, and a mix of bright colors and jet black, great detail and rough abstractions. But lately, it’s been making me sad. I think of the person who gave it to me. I think of New Orleans, and the death and destruction, and all the great times I had there. I think of others’ stories – sad and happy – from that iconic city. I think of how playing an instrument is both freeing and incredibly alone. The painting has changed from purely happy to very complicated.

Yes, it’s complicated, just like me. See, I listen! I give in to feedback. You all say it, you must be right. So, fine, I give -- I’m complicated. I'm some weird mix of hard and soft, I guess, but I'm just little me.

Why do you think we surround ourselves with art that is good and bad? Wouldn’t life be simpler if we, well, simplified? Only have “good” art around us? Our surroundings would generate only positive feelings in us, not negative. Whatever angry, jealousy, hurt, sadness we felt would be from inside, not generated by that which surrounds us.

On the other hand, I am not sure I'd feel alive if I didn’t have something that pushed my buttons periodically. Are other people wired to be happy all the time? Me, I'm not.

I like to be happy, and excited. But I also appreciate fear, sadness, and loneliness.

I have people in my life who generate those feelings in me. And art in my life that generates only those feelings.

But I still surround myself with the art, and the people. And honestly I'm grateful for the chance to feel, good and ill.

I'm headed to that lovely city in the Southwest. I'll give a talk or two, I'll laugh, I'll probably sigh, and I hope to confront more art. I'll let you know.