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.

LEGO is not evil.

I read this blog post the other day—go read it, I’ll wait——and my immediate response was: bullshit.

After some consideration, I will admit that he makes a few good points early on about the boy-oriented “spaceships-n-guns” formula of most current sets. And, yes, Lego now makes a lot of “movie-tie-in model sets”—with Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sets coming in 2012!—but there’s nothing wrong with that, despite Mr Sinker’s insinuation that there is.

The place his post goes off the rails is his discussion of the Lego Millenium Falcon his son is getting for Christmas—and Jack’s getting one, too, and I’m really really excited about it, and about Ella’s Hogwarts set——and Mr Sinker says: “…it’s a model kit. We will put it together once and we will play with it a lot and that will be that. It won’t get remixed, won’t get hacked. Eventually it’ll come apart and be put away and not rebuilt because 1000 pieces is a pain in the ass.”


As counter-evidence, here’s Jack’s Lego box:

That box contains—in addition to a basic starter set, a few pick-a-brick buckets, and two City fire trucks—Luke’s landspeeder (from A New Hope), the Wampa cave (from Empire Strikes Back), an Imperial V-Wing, Anakin’s snow speeder, Master Plo’s starfighter, and an Anakin-versus-the-Sith set (those last three all from The Clone Wars). Oh, and various minifig battle packs.

You’ll notice that none of those sets are still put together. They all were, once: I built most of them, and Lorna built some (with Jack’s help), and we had fun doing it. But sooner or later, all of them get taken apart—mostly sooner.

The fire trucks—Jack’s first Lego sets—stayed built the longest, because I would diligently repair any damage done after Jack finished playing with them. His first Star Wars Lego sets were the battle packs—the stormtroopers and rebels from Empire Strikes Back—and I would put the minifigs back together after he was done taking them apart. After a few weeks, though, I realized it was futile—and, more importantly, that I was doing something stupid. So I stopped, and Jack comes up with all sorts of crazy shit now, and it’s awesome.

The point of Legos is that you can take them apart, ‘hack’ them and ‘remix’ them: and the toys are designed in a way that encourages that sort of play, whether the set is a bucket of bricks or the motherfucking Death Star. Kids who build a set once and never create something new——

Well, I won’t make sweeping generalizations about kids and parents I don’t know. My only point is that my four-year-old doesn’t give a shit about keeping his “models” together, he “just make[s] stuff” out of the pieces and has his own adventures. As does my nine-year-old daughter, who recently chose the blue bucket of bricks when I was willing to buy her the T-6 Shuttle. She chose well, and I was proud.

Maybe the marketing department at Lego is evil—but marketing departments are evil everywhere, and the toys themselves still inspire creativity and imaginative play.

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 214: Measure your IQ.

The Book provides a handy nine-question, ten-minute test with which I am to measure my IQ.

Before I tell you how I did, let me tell you a few things. First, I have never taken an IQ test, and so I have nothing with which to compare the results of the Book’s test — and I’m pretty skeptical about the Book’s test, having spent 214 days with the thing. I suppose an IQ test might have been administered to me somewhere back in the depths of grade school, but I’m not sure, and even if I did take such a test, I have no idea what my score was.

Second: I have no idea what the numbers mean. I remember that Forrest Gump had an IQ of seventy-five, which was five points lower than was required by the state of Alabama for admission to public school, and that his mom had to fornicate with the principal in order to get him in. That’s my only frame of reference.

So, without further ado: according to the Book’s test, my IQ is 149, which is at the high end of the Very Bright range, and two points shy of Liar.

That seemed high, I guess, if only because of its proximity to Liar, and so I took an online IQ test — at IQTest.com, where else? — because an online IQ test is bound to be infinitely more accurate than the one in the Book —— and keep in mind that it’s late, and I’ve had a few bourbons ——— but the Internet puts my IQ at 134. Splitting the difference — which I’m going to do, whether it makes sense or not — puts me at 141.5, which I’ll round up to 142.

That’s pretty good, I guess? It’s all bullshit, of course, but I’ll take it.

Also: Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.

Day 213: Surveillance special!

“Stage a crime in front of a back-alley security camera and see if anyone comes to the rescue.”

There must be a few back alleys somewhere in this town, but I don’t think any of them have security cameras. Even if they did, they would be useless: cameras in public places aren’t about making us safer, they’re about making us think we’re safer — about the illusion of safety.

Nobody is watching the feed from those cameras. It’s probably recorded and stored, so that it can be accessed and watched in the event that something prosecutable happens — but that watching happens after the fact, not in real-time. Go into a large retail establishment, though — the kind with far more overhead cameras than helpful employees — and you can be pretty damn sure someone is watching the camera feeds, at least most of the time. And why? Because there’s money involved, money to be lost if someone isn’t watching.

Surveilling an entire city — or even just the “high risk” parts of a city — in order to prevent crime simply isn’t cost-effective; not even fucking close. Making people think the whole city is being surveilled — turning the city into a Panopticon — might make some people feel safer, but it probably actually makes them less safe.

Let’s say I mug somebody in an alley that has a security camera. A week goes by, I don’t get arrested. I mug someone else, in another alley with a camera. I don’t get arrested. I talk to my colleagues, at the monthly meeting of muggers and malcontents, and it turns out that lots of muggings happen in front of cameras — and only, I don’t know, 2 muggings out of 100 that occur in front of a camera result in an arrest. I don’t have to know who Jeremy Bentham was to figure out that the cameras are bullshit.

Now let’s say I’m an oblivious middle class bougie who had a few too many $2 PBRs at the local dive, and I’m wandering home, drunk, and decide to take a shortcut down the sort of alley that people get mugged in — but there are cameras, and I know how Jeremy Bentham was, alright, because I read about him in college — and so I feel safe, because there are cameras, and the feeling of safety (and the beer) make me complacent and unobservant — and I get the shit beaten out of me, and my wallet and iPhone stolen.

Here’s my point: even if I could find a back alley surveillance camera in this town, and I went to stage a crime in front of it to see if the police would show up — I already know that the police wouldn’t show up, and I’d probably get attacked and robbed by actual criminals while I was pretending to be one. That didn’t sound like fun, which is why I stayed home, drank vermouth (I’m out of bourbon), and watched The Walking Dead.

Cameras don’t help in a zombie apocalypse either.

Day 188: Get a life coach.

What the hell does a life coach do?

According to the Wikipedia — or, more specifically, to a Wikipedia article with “multiple issues” — really, the thing is pretty unreadable, but you get that sometimes when anybody can edit a thing —— anyway, “life coaching is a practice that helps people identify and achieve personal goals,” and life coaches do this “using a variety of tools and techniques.”

Well, glad we cleared that up.

Life coaches aren’t therapists, they aren’t counselors, they aren’t psychologists or psychiatrists or psychoanalysts: they don’t bother with the past, apparently, only with the future — though how that’s possible I don’t know, since dealing with goals for the future has to take into account where one is in the present, and an (honest) assessment of one’s present has to involve looking at how one arrived where one is, which involves dealing with the fucking past.

Life coaches are bullshit artists, then: con men and snake oil salesmen, whose goal is to make people feel good about themselves without actually changing their lives — because actual change in the sucker’s client’s life might make the life coach obsolete — so that the people give the life coaches money.

Of course, I’m basing this less-than-flattering assessment on one section of a poorly-written Wikipedia article. Maybe I should see what some actual, professional life coaches have to say.

LifeCoach.com bills itself as “the way to effortless success” — and, as anyone who’s ever done anything worth doing knows, “effortless success” does not exist.

Bill Blalock promises an “ongoing partnership that helps clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives” (emphasis his) — that’s a sentence that doesn’t really say anything. He does acknowledge that the coaching process might initially be “discomforting and even painful,” and that it can be “difficult” to talk about one’s “issues.” On the other hand, before becoming a life coach, he “held management positions at Frito Lay, Inc., Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc, Ernst & Young LLP and Cadbury Schweppes” — and one should never trust middle management.

I cruised Tina Ferguson’s site for a few minutes — it’s pinker than I like — but I have no snarky comments to make, because I can’t make sense of anything she’s saying. Alright, I do have one snarky comment: what kind of successful life coach asks her readers to send her money to blow at Starbucks? I mean, if any of you want to send me money to spend on beer coffee, that would be awesome — but if I was already charging people to spout bullshit at them, asking for tips for the bullshit I gave away for free would be tacky.

So, I think I stand by my initial assessment. Life coaches: people who take your money and make you do stupid things that aren’t really going to do you any good.

Why would I want one? Isn’t that why I have this stupid Book?

Day 185: Join a political party.

Allow me to be blunt: political parties are one of the fundamental problems with our entire political system.

If we had, I don’t know, a dozen parties — a dozen viable parties — and a coalition-type government wherein no one party controlled anything, then maybe I wouldn’t have a problem with political parties. As it is, we have two parties that are little more than factions of the military-industrial-bureaucracy complex, and then a bunch of parties nobody takes seriously.

Political parties don’t make sense. Short-term alliances around specific issues make sense, if the goal is actually getting things done. Political parties aren’t about getting things done, they’re about maintaining the status quo, and keeping in power the people who are already in power.

There’s nothing to be done, of course, because the bureaucracy that runs this country is a giant, many-armed, beak-mouthed, voracious, horrible, stinky deep-sea-squid of a motherfucker — we can cut off an arm here, an arm there, stab it in some other place, but it keeps growing arms, faster than we can get rid of them. Individual politicians are like this giant squid’s intestinal worms, which it shits out all over everywhere in a violent, continuous flood of excrement.

I’m not really sure where that came from. I hate politics, though, and I hate the system, and I have a deep mistrust of anybody who does politics for a living. If politics and politicians had anything to do with “liberty and justice for all,” I might not be so cynical about the whole enterprise, but I’m not holding my breath.