Thursday, 3 October 2013

Pain in the Arts

The other day, I caught up with my good, old friend Daniel. I hadn't seen him in a while and so I had a great time catching up. During that time, I happened to mention that I had never been to GoMA, which is to say the Gallery of Modern Art, also known as the Queensland Art Gallery. It's found in Southbank, just across the bridge from the CBD and I'd walked past it dozens of times before, yet I'd never been inside. So, on a whim, we went to check it out.
Now, I have to say, I was very impressed with the five or so pieces of art that I saw. There was a terrorist video where a man was reading "One Thousand and One Nights", clashing together two disparate views of Islamic Culture. There was a four-screened media presentation of musicians from around the world, such as a Siberian Throat-singer busking on the street; a Peruvian Water-drummer "playing" the water of a local pool; a whistling, Nigerian Taxi driver & another I didn't get the chance to see. The juxtaposition of these cultures, displayed in a heavily industrialized country, to me, is what multiculturalism is all about.
There was also, my favourite, a collection of paintings called "Echoes". They were painted it the old style of historical drawings and landscape sketches, but there was an overlay of geometric lines and dots, evoking some kind of calculating computer & if you looked closely you'd realize that the imagery was actually a representation of modern Australia, with issues of politics, immigration, Aboriginal relations and war - representing how, even as time goes along we still seem to repeat those mistakes of history, like echoes of the past - it was beautiful, meaningful and tragic.
The problem is, I only saw five pieces of art, but those weren't the only displays in the gallery. There was a video of people swapping a piece of gum and chewing it, there was a "fantasy land" made of wool that was somehow supposed to evoke the holocaust & (most egregiously) there was a looping video called "Export Quality Beef" of a fat man without a shirt, dancing and smiling with two gold stickers on his nipples. I wish I was joking.
That is NOT art. Ladies and gentlemen, particularly artists, we need to have a little talk about what 'art' means . . . The Word of the Day is: 'ART'

Art /aht/ n. 1. The production or expression of what is beautiful or visually attractive. 2. The products of human visual creativity, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture. 3. Also, Fine Arts. Any branch of these arts, especially painting. 4. (pl.) Also, Liberal Arts. Creative or non-specific branches of learning collectively, especially as a course of university study. 5. The skill or work of humans (often opposed to nature). 6. Skilled practice: the art of making speeches. 7. A studied action; cunning: She is full of art; he knows the art of politics.

Now, I consider myself something of an artist. For the most part, writing isn't art (I could elaborate upon and argue that point, but that would take a whole post in itself) as its not primarily a medium of visual beauty. However, I do like to do drawing and sketching, so I have dabbled in the realms of visual creativity. In fact each of the Illustrations for this blog are by my own hand, so I have created quite a lot of art. However, I am not a good artist.
I am often lazy, I don't draw much creativity beyond the visual pun & a lot of my best work is a trace-drawing of someone else's picture that I've recreated in my blog's trademark, monochromatic style.
This is a clear distinction that has to be made, so don't be confused. Bad Art is still Art. Even my worst illustrations are still art, because they are designed to illustrate a point. I consider, as best I can, a visual representation of a key concept and I create that image on a rudimentary scrap of A6 paper. They are still an expression of creativity, however lax that creativity is.
This is why I've never understood the "videogames are not art" debate. By the very definition of the word they are art, as they are a creative expression of imagination in a visual medium; but I digress . . .
The point is, I'm not saying that a a man dancing with gold stickers on his nipples is not art because it's stupid. Sure, it is stupid, but so is the Sistine Chapel when you think about it. I mean, why go to that much effort and detail in a painting on the ceiling? It's almost four storeys tall, you can't see it up close and you have to tilt your head back the whole time, which sounds like a great way to get a neck cramp and a headache. Being stupid does not make something not art.

I also should make clear that, while a lot of the exhibits in the gallery were ugly that alone does not stop it from being art. Traditionally art represented something beautiful or attractive, but these days it's much more than that. Hell, my favourite piece was Echoes and that depicts how Australia is still a racist, classist, aggressive, close-minded & dangerous country. Although that's a poor example, as it did look nice, even though the history and message was ugly. Then again, what about The Scream by Edvard Musch? That is a really ugly painting, in my opinion, but it is creative and expresses something more than just paint on canvas. Being ugly isn't what makes these pieces "not art".

I'm complaining that much of this "modern art" (at least as it was represented in GoMA) was not "Art" not because it was ugly, stupid or simple; but rather because it wasn't visually creative - it didn't mean anything.

Now, some could argue that, in a way, that's my fault. When I look at a video of a bunch of people chewing on the same piece of gum, it's really up to me how I interpret it. While to me it is meaningless, it could still evoke in others concepts of personal space and boundaries, and question their validity. It could even bring us to ask what beauty means, and whether or not something as disturbing as swapping gum is truly ugly, or another degree of intimacy.
However, this doesn't hold water because I'm a writer.
As a writer, I come up with ideas for stories. So often I do this by being inspired by what I see around me and seeing meaning in meaningless things. For instance, one of my story ideas I got because I was at Hungry Jacks and I saw a sign that said: We Never Close.
To me, that sign was full of meaning. Sure, it just states the business's operating hours, but the word "never" to me was full of hope and fear. Not only are they open all hours of the day, but even at night when all civilized people have gone to sleep - and the monsters crawl out of their holes and wander the city streets - they'll still be open. To me it represented a beacon to those lost insomniacs and night-walkers. Even when the world has gone to sleep - they're open and ready to serve, because they never close.

Now, is that sign art? HELL NO! It's just a sign, it's my interpretation that gave it meaning. The point being, I do this all the time. Stop signs, caravans, outdoor furniture, detritus, animals, children & buildings - all of these inspire me because I can see a story there and take meaning from it. Just because someone can appreciate a thing or see meaning in it, does not make that thing art.
This is what bugs me about this modern art thing, it seems like it's weird for weirdness' sake. People come up with the most outrageous and random thing not because they think it's creative, but because you might. You might as well replace these artists with a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, because you're just hoping to randomly come across Shakespeare (not that he's a good artist either, I'm just saying).

Okay, I might be jumping the gun here. I know for a fact that a lot of artists do go for this "why not" style of art, to try to come across something profound, but not all do. After all, the cotton-wonderland that was supposed to represent the "holocaust", that was obviously inspired and a lot of work went into it. However, that too is not art, because I couldn't see what it meant. I've said about writing:

  "Writing has no rules, but reading does."
- The Absurd Word Nerd

The same is true of art. Art has no rules, but the observation of art does. We need to be able to see it. There was one piece in the gallery that was supposed to represent the struggles in India; it was a fibreglass house resting upon an egg (with both textured and coloured to look like stone). Alone, it confused me, so Daniel and myself joked about what it could mean. Then I read the information card on the wall, which the gallery had provided. It's only then that I realized the piece represented the modern struggles in India and that there was a sword under the sculpture. I crouched to look down and, sure enough, the house was resting on a fibreglass sword, painted to look like steel. It was obvious to me that the sword represented the hidden violence and anger of the modern household (of India, but I believe it could represent all of us) so it did try to express something, but that is just bad art. Look at that definition again, look closely:
  "The production or expression of what is beautiful."
Expression. It has to express something. These days it need not be visual beauty, but art is supposed to be expressive. So, if I have to read the card in the art gallery to understand what your sculpture means, then it's not "art" - because at that point, it's not you or your art that's expressing your ideas, but rather some art gallery employee; and your sculpture/canvas/video/work is nothing more than a visual aid for the gallery card.

Now this is a tricky one, as its based on subjectivity. What I understand and what others understand are so often completely different. For one thing, I didn't understand the point of the cotton holocaust; but there was one picture called "Seven Sisters Dreaming" and I actually understood it because I had looked up old Aboriginal drawing symbols (for a story idea) and knew that the "U" symbols in the painting represented people. The gallery card didn't elaborate, so no one less educated than me (in that matter) could easily understand the symbols' meaning and the artist's intention.
So, as far as I'm concerned, the piece was not art, it was just a painting. It's no different from graffiti - no matter how much effort you put into your work, if none of your audience appreciates it or understands it then it is not art, it's just a dirty mark on the wall. It's a cruel and fickle definition, but that's how art and culture works.

You can't just throw something together, even with the best intentions, and say it's art. It has to express an idea, moral, emotion or concept that others can perceive. If it achieves this, the capacity for a person to understand what you were trying to convey, dictates the quality of the art. If it does not achieve this, then it is not art as far as I'm concerned.
I don't mind surrealism, lateral thinking or post-modern art, I really don't. The concept of being confused or entering a state of wonder makes sense to me, I understand that; having something be confusing doesn't make it less artistic. But weird for the sake of weird is a waste of time. True art doesn't need a gallery card to be understood.
As I like to say: "Truly great art is bigger than its canvas". It has more meaning, more truth and more to say than the image you can see. If your art doesn't evoke something more than itself . . . then you might stop wasting my time and go dance around with gold stickers on your nipples.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and a quick heads up - I'm planning something big for October, so if all goes to plan I'll be back in two weeks with something fun, be patient. Until next time, I'm off to create a masterpiece . . .

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear! I think video art is stupid, personally, and glad that others think so. Abstract art needs SOME effort put into it, to convey at least one particular message to the audience.

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