What is “Art”?

About a month ago, this was retweeted into my feed:

I don’t know who Bök (a poet) or Watts (a novelist) are, and I have no idea what the context of the statement is—but it  seemed like a bizarre and ridiculous claim. Operating under the assumption that Watts meant this seriously, I responded:

It sounds snarky, I know, but I was being serious. I promise.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response; by the next morning, I’d mostly forgotten the whole thing. Except that, like an annoying pop song, the tweet kept—keeps—popping into my mind at odd moments, demanding a bit of attention, and then receding again. So I’m going to write about it, and hope that gets it out of my head.

Let’s start with the word “cheaper” (and, really, that should be “more cheaply”): any calculation of cost has to include the time spent doing/making whatever the thing in question is. There’s an xkcd about this:

I phrased my question to Bök in terms of plumbing because we’d just started remodeling a bathroom, and had the plumbers coming out to update the shut-off valves and shower plumbing while the bathroom was in a state of undress demolition. I’m fairly sure I could have done everything the plumbers did, and the materials would have cost less than they charged us (which was a very reasonable amount, by the way). But it took the plumbers about ninety minutes to do the job, and it would have taken me all day. Maybe two days—I’m not very good at sweating copper pipe.

What the plumbers did, then, according to Watts’s definition, was Art, because I could not have done it more cheaply myself.

Conversely, the Artness of Tara Donovan’s cube of toothpicks depends entirely—under Watts’s definition—on the price of toothpicks at any given moment. I recognize that the Artness of the toothpick-cube is debatable, but that debate should be about the concept and the experience of the work, and not a question of commodity prices. (As an aside: I think the cube of toothpicks is definitely Art, and a big part of its Artness, at least for me, is the fact that it disintegrates, slowly and then quite suddenly—or so I’ve been told.)

Reproducing the cube of toothpicks is in some sense trivial—one just has to build a frame of a certain size and fill it with toothpicks. But what about, I don’t know, the Mona Lisa? I’m not sure how long it took Leonardo to paint it, but I could probably knock out a copy in an afternoon. It would look like shit, of course, but it would be cheap (especially if I used crayons). And does it matter that my hypothetical crayola-copy of the Mona Lisa is in every way inferior to Leonardo’s? I just have to do it more cheaply, not better or even as well. But a further consideration is that nobody paid me to make my Art, and (at least as far as I know) Leonardo was paid. An accurate cheapliness comparison would require me to figure out how much he was paid, what his material costs were, how long he worked on it, what his time was worth … too much stuff, too many variables. And I’d have to adjust the whole mess for inflation and determine some sort of exchange rate. This is just stupid, right? This paragraph has been a waste of time—but Watts’s criterion for determining whether or not something is Art compels me to write it.

Dropping the word “cheaper”—so that we have “Art is anything I cannot do myself”—clarifies how unhelpfully subjective this definition of art is: the entire range of human activities, and a fair number of bodily functions, are “Art” for someone. Ultimately, I think Watts’s statement is reducible to “Art is anything”—which is the same as saying “Nothing is Art.” Maybe that was Watts’s point? If so, well, bullshit.

I don’t want to argue that there is some set of objective criteria for determining whether or not something is Art—that would be silly, and a waste of time. But I do think that, to be at all useful, a subjective and heuristic set of criteria for determining Artness should probably exclude more than it includes, and should take much more than mere cost into account.

Day 203: Book pyramid scheme!

I bought a box of nanobots from an exceptionally foul-smelling drunk in a back alley; he claimed to have been a triple-agent for the US, the Soviet Union, and Andorra during the height of the Cold War. He had no teeth, which made his story more believable.

I took the nanobots home, programmed them, and turned them loose. They started cutting up the remaindered copies of The Book that I’d acquired for this task, making little blocks out of the pages—too small for me to see.

When I woke up the next morning, enough of the foundation was complete for me to see it: a four inch square, perhaps an eighth of an inch tall, slightly tapered. Two days later, the bulk of the pyramid was done, and the nanobots started putting the glossy outer layer down.

The capstone was set early on the morning of the fourth day, before I’d stumbled out of bed. By the time I awoke, the nanobots had sealed up the entrance to the crypt, interring themselves inside, hibernating, waiting to be woken. I put the pyramid inside a plastic box—I put that plastic box inside a bigger plastic box—I put that plastic box into a metal fifty-five-gallon drum, which I then filled with concrete. Once the concrete cured, I rolled the drum into a deep hole, covered it with dirt, and planted an apple tree above it.

I went to bed satisfied, my life’s work complete.

Day 235: Stare at this stranger; memorize her features…

Originally scheduled for August 23.

“…should you ever meet her, call her Aubrey and she will tell you a secret.”

A woman sat down next to me on the train. I glanced at her, reflexively, quickly, and went back to the novel I was reading: Faulkner’s Light in August. She settled into the seat, opened a magazine, started reading.

Two stops later, as the train pulled away from the station, I said — neither loudly nor quietly, and without looking up from my reading — “Tell me a secret, Aubrey.”

I waited a beat, and then another, and then turned to look at her. She was staring at me, a look of puzzlement and something that was not quite, or not quite yet, anger — and something else flitting around behind her eyes that I could not identify.

We looked at each other for a moment, and then another, and then she said: “What did you say?”

I said: “I said: ‘Tell me a secret, Aubrey.’ ”

She said: “My name isn’t Aubrey.”

“I’m not sure that matters,” I replied.

She paused, and looked away, and then looked back.

“There are no secrets left,” she said, “no secrets that can be told, anyway, because the telling makes the secret public. It used to be that you could tell a secret to someone, and it would go no further, or go further so slowly that by the time it became what we might public knowledge it didn’t matter anymore, the reasons for keeping it secret had passed or no longer obtained. Now, though, there is no grey area between secret and something everyone knows — once told, the secret takes on a life of its own, contagious, viral, an incorporeal zombie that bites and infects and spreads so fast that one wakes up the morning after telling to find oneself in a wasteland, a world wrecked and forever ruined. And so what secrets I have I will keep to myself, and anyway my name isn’t Aubrey.”

After some amount of time had passed, or maybe as soon as she stopped, I said: “I’m sorry; I’ve had a few drinks too many today.”

“…but it’s 9:30 in the morning,” she said blankly.

“I know,” I said, and went back to my reading.

Day 201: Become a contemporary artist.

By itself, this doesn’t make any sense: a “contemporary artist” is just an artist working now, and how could I do anything else?

Fortunately, the Book provides a few “ideas” for its readers, which give one an idea of the sort of thing it means.

A two-meter test tube filled with semen, containing billions and billions of spermatozoa. A canvas filled with nothing but the artist’s signature, over and over. “A feminist video installation featuring nuns discussing their sexual fantasies about Jesus” — although that’s been done, after a fashion. Similarly, a performance piece involving a monk who has taken a vow of chastity lying in bed with two female nymphomaniacs — which has been done, ad nauseum.

The best one, though, is a supercomputer that connects two phone numbers at random, and records the conversation: this “the best” because these things already exist, and we’ve been down this road before. It’s a fun road, so I did it again.

For the record: “asl” means “age/sex/location,” and I hate conversations about those things.

I have no sense of humor. Very funny.

There was — of course! — a better conversation before this one, but it was lost. Alas! And I lied in this one, which I try to avoid doing. It has its moments, though, despite not being nearly as good as the one before, in which I turned the conversation to hedgehogs after ten minutes of nonsense.

Fucking hedgehogs — they make everything funnier.

Day 196: Mannerisms day.

Originally scheduled for Friday, July 15.

I actually did this, sort of, on the day it was scheduled.

Friday was the last day of our seminar, and we needed to unwind. So five of us — myself, Bethany, Julianne, Kristina, and Charles (minus the dux clamores) — the Team of the White Moose of the People —— the five of us drove down to Santa Fe.

We went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which is usually full of O’Keeffes (paintings, not relatives), but which currently has instead a fascinating exhibit on American Modernist painting and photography, and specifically the relationship between the two, and the use of photographs as sketches. I have a new respect for Norman Rockwell, having seen what went in to The Soda Jerk.

We wandered around the plaza, downtown Santa Fe. We walked the labyrinth in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis (we couldn’t go inside the church, unfortunately, because it was being used for a marathon of wedding rehearsals). We went to Rooftop Pizza — we had a pizza with smoked duck on it — to eat and drink and be merry. It was a good day.

Anyway, on the drive into Santa Fe, Bethany asked me what the day’s task was. I told her, and then my colleagues started identifying my mannerisms. The big one is the sigh — a sort of exasperated sigh preceded by a short pause, which is my response to anyone asking me anything. My wife knows the sigh well, and it has sparked more than one argument between us. Apparently there’s also a sigh/grunt variation, but I can’t reproduce that one on demand like I can the original. I also make a specific hand gesture — not this one — when I’m talking, especially when I’m trying to explain or talk my way through something. The gesture is the one you’d make when saying “it’s about three inches long” — and I’ll leave it to your imagination what is about three inches long.

Those were the only of my mannerisms that were enumerated, either because those are the only ones I have, or (much more probably) because my friends got bored pointing them out and started talking about something else. Because I do have a few others: I stroke my beard; I rub the place on my finger where my wedding ring used to be, before I lost it, because I constantly took it off to fiddle with it; I scowl — but maybe that’s not a mannerism? —; I speak in incomplete sentences.

My mannerisms aren’t interesting — obviously, because less than half of this post was about them. Sorry. I’m just not an interesting guy.

Day 191: an update

Q at Cadillac Ranch.

Day 191: Bury a treasure.

Just west of Amarillo on Interstate 40, there’s a place called Cadillac Ranch.

It’s not, as I half-convinced one of my colleagues, the place where they grow the baby Cadillacs. It’s an art installation, consisting of Cadillacs half-buried in a field in the middle of the Texas panhandle.

It’s also a great place to bury deposit treasure.

…except I didn’t actually deposit the treasure. There are several reasons for this failure on my part, none of which are acceptable. First of all, the Ranch was crawling with people, and hiding a treasure in front of a crowd of strangers isn’t the best idea. Then, the place we stopped for lunch wasn’t where the map said it was — and the map said it was right down the road from the Ranch, which would have been quite convenient — it was, instead, five miles back the way we’d come, so we had to turn around. Also, we were in — not a hurry, exactly, but we weren’t making unnecessary stops on the trip out, and are planning on stopping when we drive back through next Sunday.

…I’m not sure that all made sense, but I don’t care. Why should I bother making unacceptable excuses when they’re prima facie unacceptable?

Next Sunday, crowds or no crowds, I will deposit the treasure. I won’t reveal what it is until then, but I will say that it’s something small and plastic and from my childhood, and it’s not — I hope, anyway — going to track me down and kill me.