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 200: Send a message in a bottle

I was awoken by bright sunlight on my face and a pressing need to urinate. I stumbled to the bathroom, knocking over bottles with each step, the noise like rubber mallets on my skull.

It was sunny outside; flowers were starting to bloom in the yard outside my cottage. Flowers? Wasn’t everything covered in snow just a few days ago? What month is this? It wasn’t important, at least right then: I needed food, water, aspirin, maybe a small glass of wine…

The quarter-gallon of milk in the refrigerator was a solid, and the bread on the counter was moldy. Breakfast was eggs and bacon—things that never go bad, right? While I was cooking, I reached for a bottle of wine—just a little, to tide me over until I could make coffee——there was no wine in the bottle, but there was a piece of paper. Paper? How the fuck did that get in there?

I scanned the kitchen: bottles everywhere, all of them with scraps of paper inside. I finally spotted an unopened bottle—a cheap, vile red, but it was better than nothing—poured a glass, drank it with my breakfast, and tried to reconstruct the last few months.

It was a blank.

I was sitting back in my chair after breakfast, drinking a third glass of wine, casting my eyes contemplatively around the cottage—most of which was one large room—when it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, the pieces of paper in the bottles might be messages from my excessively-drunk self to my mostly-sober self.

I grabbed the nearest bottle—and then realized that I was going to have to break the bottle to get the paper out. All of the bottles: dozens, maybe hundreds of bottles, all with scraps of paper in them. What to do with all that glass?

I grabbed an armful and carried them outside, to the fire-pit. I found a few logs, threw them into the pit, and broke the first bottle on one of them. The writing on the paper—well, it wasn’t really “writing,” it was indecipherable squiggling. I tried a second, a third, a fourth: all the same. A word was decipherable on the fifth scrap: “cold.” On the sixth was something that looked like “found corkscrew.”

I went in for more bottles.

Several dozen broken bottles later, all I had was a small handful of words: “wine,” “bread,” “piss,” “snow”—and a lot of squiggles. I was ready to give up, to throw the rest of the bottles in the pile and burn the lot of them—to consign the rest of the scraps to destruction, unread.

I couldn’t do it, though: surely the messages from the early days of the lost months would be readable, at least mostly? I had to keep breaking bottles. And so I did.

There were, I think, a dozen dozens. I’m amazed that I didn’t cut my hands more than I did, breaking all that glass. It wasn’t worth it: the squiggles got harder to read, not easier—some were just lines across the paper, like small children make.

On the last scrap—although who knows when I drew it, because I didn’t date any of them—as if I would have known what the date was——I didn’t know then, mostly-sober and smashing bottles…

…on the last scrap was a drawing of male genitalia. A hairy cock and balls.

I burned the cottage down, walked down the mountain back into civilization, and never drank again.


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 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.


Jours 205-211: Take this week off and spend it France, acting like the French.

Sunday, July 24, through Saturday, July 30.

The Book had several things for me to do while in France: fight in public, sit in a café all day, sunbathe topless (no problem!), smoke three packs of Gauloises, take a lover, and protest violently against the government. I did not do these things in order, but I attempted all of them.

The first day, I sat at a café, drinking espressos, scribbling away in a notebook, flipping desultorily through Being and Nothingness, and smoking my way through a pack of Gauloises (just one pack, the first day: I planned to work my way up to three by the end of the week). It was a good day, and I felt like I’d accomplished something, even though I really hadn’t.

About three in the afternoon, a man sat down at my table. No worries, I thought: this could be interesting. I made eye contact with him — briefly — as he sat down, gave him a little head nod of greeting, and went back to my Sartre, my coffee, and my cigarettes. After a moment, I felt his eyes on me, and looked up. He was staring at me: an intense, unsettling stare. Unsure of what to do, I offered him a cigarette: he made no response, and continued to stare. I hailed the waiter, and ordered my tablemate an espresso. When it came, he calmly picked it up, and — staring at me all the while — threw it forcefully at the couple at the table next to us. Then he stood up, and calmly walked away.

I was stunned, immobile, unsure if that had actually just happened.

I was brought back to myself by a young man yelling in my ear — obscenities, I assume, but it was all in French, and I don’t speak French. I’m sorry, I said, but I don’t speak French, and I didn’t throw that espresso at you. The man kept yelling, and soon I was yelling too, trying to make myself heard and understood. It didn’t work, of course, and soon the two of us moved beyond words: he pushed, I took a swing, and then: a blur, a scuffle, bodies colliding, then red, and then darkness.

I came back to myself in my hotel, lying naked on my bed, bruised and bloody in places, but I felt worse than I looked. I grunted, sat up, and saw her — the woman from the café. I tensed, which hurt, and so winced. We looked at each other, but said nothing.

She had a bottle of something on the table in front of her, and two glasses. She poured the glasses — a deep amber liquid — lit two Gauloises, and walked over to the bed. She handed me a glass and a cigarette, and sat down next to me…

I woke up late the next morning with the worst headache of my life, and she was gone.

Somehow I made it through the morning and into the afternoon, but I don’t really want to talk about it. I spent the first part of the afternoon — once I felt like a human being again — sitting in a café, drinking espressos, smoking cigarettes, and taking stock of my situation. Sit in a café, fight in public, and take a lover — three tasks down! And I was halfway through my second pack of the day! Nothing like a hangover to make one want to smoke, I guess.

I finished my espresso, bought another pack of Gauloises, and set off in search of a topless beach.

I found one, sort of, somewhere along the Seine — the Paris-Plages, a series of temporary beaches erected during the summer. All sorts of folk were there, but none of the women were topless: apparently it’s not allowed. This made me angry, much angrier than it should have, and before I really knew what I was doing, I’d taken off all my clothes, thrown them into the river, and was shouting anti-government and pro-breast slogans, sprinkled liberally with obscenities.

I think I’d hoped that the people of Paris would rise up, cast off the shackles of their clothes, and join me in a new, naked utopia — but it didn’t happen, obviously. People stared; a few laughed, some took pictures. One dude handed me a bottle of wine at some point. Then the police showed up, and arrested me.

I spent the remainder of my vacation in jail. I was escorted to the airport on Saturday morning, and allowed to board my flight back to the States; I was not, however, allowed to return to my hotel room, and so came home empty-handed, dressed in the jumpsuit I’d been issued when I’d been booked and processed.

I had plenty of time to smoke in jail, though — I went through four packs a day while I was on the inside. Game, set, and motherfucking match, Book. What else you got?


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.