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 219: Volume-test your neighbors.

This is not see how loud your neighbors are day, but see how loud your neighbors will tolerate you being day. It’s a task that’s easy enough to do in an apartment, but difficult to do in a house—I’m not sure I have the means to produce enough noise to attract the attention/ire of my neighbors. I suppose I could fire the shotgun in the house a few times—but that would then require some sheetrock repair and repainting, and I don’t want to do any of that.

As it happens, however, I am testing the patience of my neighbors in a different way: I haven’t mown my lawn since … hrrmm, last October? Now, normally one doesn’t have to mow over the winter, but we’ve had a mild one here in north Texas, and my yard is flourishing. Why is my yard flourishing? I don’t water, I don’t fertilize, I don’t rake up the leaves, I don’t pamper the grass in any way—I don’t even mow that often, though probably the grass appreciates not being maimed every few weeks.

As an aside: people who water and fertilize and pamper their yards, and then mow and trim and manicure them like putting greens? They’re totally communists. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Think about it: any patch of grass that makes better use of the available resources is cut down to size, kept at the same level as the lazier grass.

I take a laissez-faire approach to my yard, which is why it flourishes even over the winter: it’s full of plants that are adapted to this climate, that can handle rainless periods without being sprinklered and fertilized; it’s full of plants that make efficient use of the soil and water that they have; it’s full, in short, of plants that are commonly called weeds.

I introduced some mint last summer—transplants—and enough of the plants took hold that I think it will take over the section of the yard it’s in: mint juleps and mojitos all summer! I may try to introduce some other perennial herbs: some sage, maybe? I think I’m going to try and grow some vegetables, but not in any systematic way: I’m going to scatter seeds of various sorts willy-nilly in the yard, and see what happens.

Whatever happens, though, my yard is going to remain a wild assortment of opportunistic plants, and I’m going to push the limits of an ultra-low-maintenance yard as far as I can. So far, none of my neighbors have complained—at least not to me—but this year, I’m cranking up the bass to 11. We’ll see what happens.

Comic books!

I didn’t really read comic books as a kid. I read some, of course—an issue here and there—I remember one, an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured a Viking Batman——but I never really latched onto a title or a character and read issues regularly, as they were released.

Part of the reason—and I may be projecting backwards here, at least a little bit—is that the (perpetually) serial nature of (most) comics felt like work. I like my narratives to be contained and finite, and serial comics are exactly the opposite. Every issue of every comic I read as a kid was the middle of some story arc, which was itself part of some larger collection of story arcs, and I fucking hated it. (Serial comic titles are like soap operas, basically.) I had no idea what was going on, no idea where I would’ve had to start, no idea when the story would end—and, because I’ve never liked interacting with strangers, and this was before the internet, I had no resources for figuring out the answers to those questions——so I just didn’t read comics. I read books. On the playground, during recess, in grade school.

(Another reason I never got into comics, which developed later, and also applies to things like the Star Wars Extended Universe—there’s an obsession with continuity and canonicity that I find ridiculous. I can explain why to you sometime, if you’re interested, and you buy me a beer. For now, here’s an example.)

A few years ago, though, I started to get cautiously interested in comics, largely because a blogger that I read regularly (or read [past tense] regularly, until he stopped posting regularly—which sounds vaguely familiar) kept blogging about Watchmen. I eventually read it, and I was hooked—cautiously. I started slowly picking things up as I found them at Half-Price Books, but I had other things to read, and my reintroduction to comics stalled. Then I read Fun Home in a seminar last fall, and was blown away: that was text that made me realize how much the medium was capable of (a lot). And then I read Asterios Polyp over the break after that semester, and I was hooked in a not-cautious way.

I read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I read Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, and its companion Batman: Year One (I’m still trying to get through The Dark Knight Strikes Again). I read Warren Ellis’s Planetary series—and even taught his Planetary/Batman crossover/one-shot, “Night on Earth,” in my first-year writing course this semester. (If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of Batman.) I read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come.

I started to feel confident: with the power of the internet, I could identify (mostly) self-contained story arcs (and read them, too, in an ethical grey area). I solicited advice from more knowledgeable friends and colleagues, and tried to figure out where to start——with Grant Morrison’s (really recent—July to December, 2010) “Return of Bruce Wayne” run in Batman. It was good, if a little odd, and it might actually be better the second time through. It was great! Comic books!

…and then I read Morrison’s All-Star Superman.

It was often, as the above image (pages two and three of the first issue) shows, gorgeously illustrated—but it made no fucking sense. Well, it made sense occasionally, but when it did, it was either inane, or derivative, or boring. To sum the plot up: Superman gets too close to the sun, which overcharges his cells (which are like little solar batteries, I guess?—that’s one of those things that makes me hate comic books)—which means he’s dying, slowly, for the whole twelve-issue run, and he has to complete twelve labors before he dies (except he doesn’t die, exactly, but goes into the sun to keep it running after it turns blue, like a super-hamster on a fusion wheel, or something).

Okay: a hero, twelve labors, a final sacrifice: those are the elements of a good plot. But the labors are never enumerated in the series, and the list Morrison later provided includes some that seem less-than-heroic (and aren’t really presented as “labors” in the text)—and the doing of the labors is surrounded by lots (and lots) of narrative clutter: things that happen for no particular reason except to happen. Some people like that, I guess—but life is full of things that happen for no particular reason, and I like my narratives more carefully constructed than that.

I could continue complaining about All-Star Superman, but you don’t want to read it, and I don’t want to write it. The point is that my newfound enthusiasm for comic books, while intact, has become more cautious again—and it will be a while before I read Morrison or Superman (whom I’ve never really liked) again.

Day 189: [Read Habakkuk on the toilet]

“Don’t waste the 4 minutes and 22 seconds (on average) you will spend on the toilet. Read the much-neglected Old Testament Book of Habakkuk instead, and try and improve yourself.”

Habakkuk is an odd book. The one verse from it I’ve ever heard quoted is: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). That verse is always taken out of context, though, as almost all verses from the Old Testament are — and it’s almost unavoidable, really, because so much of the Old Testament is unremittingly bizarre.

Habakkuk is, like most of the Prophets, full of blood and thunder, death and destruction, wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s also not really clear to me what the occasion of the death and destruction in Habakkuk is: there’s blood and violence, but there’s also drunkenness and foreskins.

So, here’s the context for 2:14:

Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity! Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity? For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness! Thou art filled with shame for glory: drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered: the cup of the LORD’s right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory.

Really, verse 14 seems really out-of-place, and it’s not at all surprising to me that preachers who are on about the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord covering the earth” are less excited about explaining what that has to do with cities founded in blood, full of drunken carousers waving their foreskins around.

Speaking of foreskins, does anybody remember the part in Exodus when Zipporah hastily circumcises her son and throws the foreskin at Moses’ feet — or maybe his genitals? — so that God won’t kill him (him being Moses)? That’s a good one.

I’m also a fan of the story at the end of Judges about the Levite who allows his concubine to be raped to death, and then cuts her into pieces and sends them to various tribes to incite the Israelites into killing all the Benjaminites. Oh, and when Elisha had two bears kill forty-two kids for calling him ‘bald-head’? Classic.

What point was I trying to make? I’m not sure. I guess it’s this: read the Old Testament, sure, but only if you’re willing to appreciate the truly bizarre and discomfiting moments — of which there are many — without attempting to fit them into some preconceived framework of meaning.

I mean, the Bible is full of sex and violence and intrigue and things that make you say “what the fuck” — and none of that is as much fun if you’re trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Day 186: Cleanliness day.

Two hundred years ago, I’d have been a pretty clean guy. Suspiciously clean, perhaps. But by our current mysophobic and anti-dirt standards, I’m not particularly clean.

I don’t shower daily. I come close to it during the summer, but I average three showers a week during the winter. I don’t wear deodorant.

You’re probably all squirming a bit; tell people you don’t shower every day and don’t wear deodorant, and this is what they picture:

I’m not that dirty. I’m not anywhere close to that dirty. When I get that dirty — which happens, on occasion — I take a fucking shower.

I wash my hands regularly. I wash my face in the morning, and after certain meals (those meals during which I get food in my beard). I brush my damned teeth.

I took a shower today, of course, because it’s cleanliness day. I’d vaguely intended to get excessively dirty beforehand, but the most difficult thing I did all day was read Clarissa, and that didn’t make me dirty — not physically dirty, anyway. I did some jumping-jacks before showering, in an attempt to work up a sweat, but it was only sort of successful.

I cleaned myself more thoroughly than I have in a while. I washed everywhere at least twice, and with Dr Bronner’s Liquid Peppermint Soap — I came out of the shower smelling like a candy cane, and tingling like … uh, something tingly.

I’m certainly not going to start cleaning myself this thoroughly all the time — I’m just going to get dirty again, and I can’t tell any difference between today’s super-clean and my normal sort-of-clean. I guess the problem is that I wasn’t dirty enough to start with, because my normal clean always feel amazingly clean if I get into the shower caked in mud and grass and feces, which happens more than you might expect.

The secret to happiness is, after all, being really miserable before and after, so the brief moment of happiness seems that much better in comparison.

Day 177: Try seducing someone way out of your league.

So, earlier today I was at [redacted], attending [function where this sort of thing is very out of place]. I saw [redacted] in the crowd, with whom I have the slightest of acquaintances, due to [redacted]. She looked even more stunning than usual, which is saying something. I approached her, abandoning my wife.

Me: You looking stunning.

Her: [a bit startled]: Thank you…

Me: Even more stunning than usual, which is saying something. I always enjoyed seeing you at [redacted].

Her: Uh…

Me: That dress is amazing. It really accentuates your [redacted], and your [redacted] looks fabulous. Have you been working out?

Her: [polite but cold smile]

Me: Look, this [function] is going to be a waste of our time. Let’s get out of here, go have a few drinks.

Her: I’m not sure—

Me: Let me cut to the chase. I want to have sex with you.

Her: [shocked, open-mouthed stare]

Me: Should I take that as a yes? [pause] You see, I’m blogging through this Book—

Her: [forceful slap]

People around us: [suddenly silent and staring]

Me: [pause, then—]: Alright, seriously, just once, I think it could  be a lot of fun—

[when suddenly—]

Her husband: [smashing right cross to the side of my head]

Me: [sudden loss of consciousness]

[Cut to black. Fade in, new scene: a ditch, between a small two-lane highway and a field. There are cows. It’s dusk.]

Me: [slowly regaining consciousness in the ditch.]

[long pause]

Me: Well, that didn’t work out like I’d hoped…

[long pause; cattle lowing in the distance, off-screen]

Me: [staggering to my feet, looking around trying to get my bearings]: Where the fuck am I?

[a car passes]

[I start walking east]

[fade to black, roll credits]

Day 168: Women-only day.

Alright, since I did manly things on “manly-things day,” I should do womanly things today. I guess? What counts as “womanly things”?

The Book’s suggestions, as with both manly-things day and gay-day, were less than helpful, and occasionally border on sexist. Accessorize? Gossip? Open your heart? No, no, no. Drive cautiously? Not a chance. Hate the food you’re enjoying? I don’t even know what that means. Stay home from work with a headache? I’m a grad student; I don’t go to the office in the summer. Entertain two contradictory thoughts simultaneously? I do that all the time anyway.

Cry at the movies sounded good, because it would have meant going to the movies, which I rarely get to do: tickets are expensive, and baby-sitters are expensive, and I’m usually too busy pretending to work, and so I don’t see movies until they’ve been out on DVD for a while.

Multiple orgasm sounded the best of all, but I’m physiologically incapable of that one.

What are some other stereotypical “womanly things”? I interacted with my children; I washed the dishes; I picked up dirty laundry; I put toys away; I swept the floor. I guess those count, or would count, if this was the 1950s — but I do those things all the time anyway, because that’s how I roll.

In the end, I decided to sit this one out: I dont have a vagina, and I think that disqualifies me from something labelled “women only,” in the same way that having a penis means I can’t use women’s restrooms.

Well, I’m not supposed to, anyway.

…and, for the record, I don’t.