Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Art, What is it Good for?

I frequent an online arts discussion forum, and every now an then the subject come up of the "value" of art. A poster wrote:

I want to understand the value of young artist work. There seems to be a plethora of cartoons and work influenced by video games, violence, and seemingly shallow and markedly gruesome subject matter. I am open minded. Someone please explain to me how to appreciate such expressions. Has formal training in the visual arts died? I understand commercialism, replication, pop arts and pop culture. But these doodles that fill the smaller galleries in Philadelphia are warping my artistic sensibility. I want to see the value in this but am struggling. Anyone up for a critical discussion? 

I wrote this in response:

You seem to be implying that art should be implicitly good for something other than self expression.

Certainly there are other types of art... commercial art, commissioned art, "social practice" art. But fundamentally, in my experience an artist creates because he/she "has to", not because it is "good for" anything.

In the free market, that work will either be collected, or it won't. If the art is purchased, it means that that piece of art somehow communicated with another person.

Artistic expression tends to speak in languages. If you are creating art about Harry Potter, you are speaking to Harry Potter fans. If you are creating zombie art, you are talking to a particular subset of horror genre fans.

Artists who are formally trained tend to talk to other artists. Rules of self-generated composition and techniques that are esoteric languages designed to communicate to those who are "in the club".

Commercialism, pop arts, and pop culture says "f*ck that". It is the difference between telling a joke like:

Renee Descartes was on a flight to France when the stewardess asked him, "Coffee, tea, milk, Mr. Descartes?" "I think not," he replied. And VANISHED!

And a joke like (told in a southern accent):

Why's my fanger like a lemon pie? "Cause it's got my rang on it!"

The pun has been called the lowest form of humor. But I enjoy them throughly. What is a joke good for? Do you need to be versed in existential philosophy to be able to laugh? Do you need to be formally trained in visual art to enjoy imagery?

Think of how poetry has evolved over the centuries. The complex rules surrounding sonnets, haiku, etc...

Imagine if humor had those rules. Granted, limericks have a foothold in the world of poetry and humor, thus the rigid structure. But imagine a parallel world where there were subsets and genres of humor, each with its own set of rules... a "school" of humor. Humor snobs would create comedy clubs that wound up hosting comics who told jokes that only other comics would understand.

Imagine if you had to be versed in the origin of the "Niagara Falls!" routine (Slowly I turned, Step by Step, Inch by Inch) in order to understand a whole evening of jokes. Imagine all the people pretending to "get it" as they drank wine and nibbled on crackers and salmon; the room filled with queasy laughter, and half a dozen genuine deep belly roll laughs.

That is what we have done to art.

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