Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Is it Art?

“Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen”
A popular saying in ancient Greece.
“A life without art is not a life.”
Sean Crawford

“Video games are not art.” In his film review web site, in his essay-journal section, that’s what Chicago Tribune film critic and avid reader Roger Ebert said. Oops—not a diplomatic thing to say. After rousing gamers to a religious frenzy poor Ebert was almost forced to recant. Almost. I missed most of the tempest as I was off on holiday at the time—and no, I don’t “stay connected” when I am away: I have a life. Although I don’t know all that was commented, I do know enough about human nature to predict that people were saying some games are good and I really like them and the pictures are detailed and so forth. And during all this no one was going back to fundamentals and asking, “What is art?”

Of course there is something terrific about video games. One of my favorite web-essayists, Stevey, once said something like if he was on his death bed and asked what had been important in his life he would LIE… and not gasp out “playing video games.” Incidentally, he has posted some fine game reviews, but at no time does he ask, “Are they art?”

I can remember a nice spring afternoon back in the 1980’s, during the first few years of “new, exciting” music videos. (MVs) I was sitting in the student bar with Jay Butler and a friend of his sister. The latter was majoring in art. One of us males must have said that MVs were art. “Music videos are not art,” said the artist firmly. Jay and I looked at each other, thinking we really like them and said, “Some are good.” We were both thinking of the same video, a ‘one hit wonder’ by Aha called, “Count on Me.” Unlike the other MVs, it had a story, told with graphics. Significantly, neither of us could immediately think of a second artistic MV. I thought of this conversation a week later when the art students used washable chalk to do art parodies on the sidewalk. To express frustration, and to poke fun at the ignorant, were the words, “But what does that dog represent?”

Back in the bar, drinking alone, I figured it out: The way to appreciate art is to first take it in. Don’t leap to analyze what you will later feel; just stand and feel what you will later analyze. Slow down enough to honor the artist and appreciate your experience. Only then should you switch gears to the left brain to, say, bring up into words the symbolic theme shown by the little doggie in the left hand corner.

When I took a college course in poetry, taught by a published poet, we didn’t spend any time at all on symbols or meaning. I mentioned this at When Words Collide last summer, speaking to a man I knew from Mount Royal University, a comic book writer and poetry teacher, Richard Harrison. He smiled. “Then you were taught right!”

Of course, for any art, such as poetry, a meaning is still there, even if beyond words: the artist must have something impelling the art. Art must not only have an impulse, but it must be “a work of a unified consciousness.” (Rita Mae Brown) Art by committee doesn’t work. Hence any major motion picture that claims to be approaching the status of art is made by a strong focused director—while the rest of the films, despite their detailed pictures, “in new, exciting, improved 3-D!” are merely meant as entertainment.

Looking back, I can see how music videos, being mostly an edited collage of images, lack any unity of consciousness. They are at best a craft, but not an art. There’s a difference. I suppose a craftsman gets better at his work, better at, say, making the dove-tail joints even more dove-tailed. His latest craft is visible, and everyone agrees “it’s better.” What an artist gets better at is something harder to point to.

When I stumble across an old great work I am struck by the feeling: Someone was here. Orwellian authorities, or today’s Islamics, can try to make a female artist an unperson, but if even one great work remains: You know. Truly, “no artist paints only one picture.” The artist leaves an earlier body of work as she develops into her good ability and good taste. Back to music videos: Have they developed? Are they any better now than in the 1980’s? Are there any classics on MTV that musicians today will peer at frame by frame, just as art students in a museum will be peering at, and then copying-to-learn, every centimetre of a masterpiece? And hey, another thing: Thinking back to poor Roger Ebert, are there any classic video games that our children will play? (I answer no, no, no and maybe a simple arcade game)

I’ve been thinking of art and Ebert ever since, following the latest massacre-suicide, he brought up the subject of “fame” on his blog-journal. Fame as motivation for murder. Someone pointed out in the comments how a young man in ancient Greek had torched a great work so he could achieve fame. We suspect the people of his time foiled him: They “pulled an Orwell” by deliberately changing his name for the history books. I commented on fame-killings in the Iliad and Tombstone, and mentioned the vandals. Not vandals in classical Rome, the graffiti vandals in modern cities. Spraying their paint for fame and ego. A commenter replied to me by name to say that graffiti can be art. Well. Really? I don’t think any graffiti artist would study at  length to copy the masters, even if there were any True and Worthy classics of graffiti. Neither would any classic graffiti posters be available commercially.

Suddenly I am reminded of a cartoon strip decades ago in Mad Magazine. At a party a lady notices a painting on the wall.
The host admits he painted it.
“It’s so marvelous,” she gushes.
Then he admits it is a copy.
“But that’s still good!”
Then he admits it’s a paint-by-numbers picture.

Well, let’s not digress into “how to perceive an artist by his many man-hours of devotion to the art.” I  doubt if there's a single graffiti "artist" anywhere who builds up a body of experience by spraying the wall of his mother's basement,  every day or week—producing 365 or 52 new pieces per year. If anyone wishes, I could one day do an essay on man-hours. For now, for “how to perceive if something is art,” I have today covered but a few points on a subject which I’m sure art students could discuss in class for hours. I guess I could number my points and then apply them to graffiti. But no, dear reader, I won’t insult you with a paint-by-numbers conclusion.

Sean Crawford
Living amongst beautiful things,
Including sculptures of Japanese comic book characters,
January 2013

~Can any art be fairly “judged” as being “good?” My favorite web essayist, computer nerd Paul Graham, nailed the topic in his essay, see link.

~What music lovers didn’t know, back in the age of discotheques, was that discos were being used to test market songs. This I learned not from any glossy entertainment mag, but from a dry obscure business magazine. Years later music labels would insist that artists make MVs, again for marketing purposes, again without the music lovers realizing.

~In my very first semester of college I took a survey course in Geography. By the time midterms approached we understood when our terrific teacher, an old Scotsman in tweeds, told us, “If I ask you on an exam to “define Geography” then you have the right to reply “Don’t be silly. You can’t define Geography.” …I’m sure Art is indefinable too, yet well worth many late night talks in the dorms, making the attempt.

~After I delivered a speech based on this essay, my toastmaster club had lots of comments in the bar afterwards. Feel free to add your own comments, since this brief essay could have no nuance, no qualifiers.

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