Some of my friends were trying to have an aesthetics discussion on twitter today. And I wanted to quote this bit from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Timequake” that I thought was rather applicable, but being as it was twitter, I couldn’t fit it in 140 characters, so I just made a snide comment instead. But I promised I would post the excerpt on my blog, so here it is. It’s a bit long, but it is very good.
So much for science, and how helpful it can be in these times of environmental calamities. Chernobyl is still hotter than a Hiroshima baby carriage. Our underarm deoderants have eaten holes in the ozone layer.
And just get a load of this: My big brother Bernie, who can’t draw for sour apples, and who at his most objectionable used to say he didn’t like paintings because they didn’t do anything, just hung there year after year, has this summer become an artist!
I shit you not! This Ph.D. physical chemist from MIT is now the poor man’s Jackson Pollock! He squoozles glurp of various colors and consistencies between two flat sheets of impermiable materials, such as windowpanes or bathroom tiles. The pulls them apart, et voila! This has nothing to do with his cancer. He didn’t know he had it yet, and the malignancy was in his lungs and not in his brain in any case. He was just farting around one day, a semi-retired old geezer without a wife to ask him what in the name of God he thought he was doing, et voila! Better late than never, that’s all I can say.
So he sent me some black-and-white Xeroxes of his squiggle miniatures, mostly dendritic forms, maybe trees or shrubs, maybe mushrooms o umbrellas full of holes, but really quite interesting. Like my ballroom dancing, they were acceptable. He has since sent me multicolored originals, which I like a lot.
The message he sent me along with the Xeroxes, though, wasn’t about unexpected happiness. It was an unreconstructed technocrat’s challenge to the artsy-fartsy, of which I was a prime exemplar. “Is this art or not?” he asked. He couldn’t have put that question so jeeringly fifty years ago, of course, before the founding of the first wholly American school of painting, Abstract Expressionism, and the deification in particular of Jack the Dripper, Jackson Pollock, who also couldn’t draw for sour apples.
Bernie said, too, that a very interesting scientific phenomenon was involved, having to do, he left me to guess, with how different glurps behave when squoozled this way and that, with nowhere to go but up or down or sideways. If the artsy-fartsy world had no use for his pictures, he seemed to imply, his pictures could still point the way to better lubricants or suntan lotions, or who knows what? The all-new Preparation-H!
He would not sign his pictures, he said, or admit publicly that he had made them, or describe how they were made. He plainly expected puffed-up critics to sweat bullets and excrete sizable chunks of masonry when trying to answer his cunningly innocent question: “Art or not?”
I was pleased to reply with an epistle which was frankly vengeful, since he and Father had screwed me out of a liberal arts college education: “Dear Brother: This is almost like telling you about the birds and the bees,” I began. “There are many good people who are beneficially stimulated by some, but not all, manmade arrangements of colors and shapes on flat surfaces, essentially nonsense.
“You yourself are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, and again essentially nonsense. If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs, and then say to you that the racket I had made was philosophically on par with The Magin Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and upsetting debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be, ‘I like what Mozart did, and I hate what the bucket did.’
“Contemplating a purpoted work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or your don’t. You don’t have to say why afterward. You don’t have to say anything.
“You are a justly revered experimentalist, dear brother. If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, ‘art or not,’ you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens.”
I went on: “People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?
“There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France.
“I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.
“Pictures are famous for their humanness, and no for their pictureness.”
I went on: “There is also the matter of craftsmanship. Real picture-lovers like to play along, so to speak, to look closely at the surfaces, to see how the illusion was created. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ball game a second time.
“Good luck, and love as always,” I wrote. And I signed my name.
(From Vonnegut’s 1997 novel “Timequake,” which I kinda liked, even though it was kindof all over the place, because it occasionally contained some really good stuff like this. Please don’t sue me, owners of Vonnegut’s rights. Just trying to make conversation.)
This little bit does a fairly tidy job of responding to the volumes of stuff that has been written trying to pin down really specific definitions of what this crazy thing called art is. Coming from a technical background (with a little artistic goodness thrown in), my inclination was to try to come up with a really nice reductive definition of art (of course ignoring the social conversation going on). But good ol’ Kurt does a good job of making sense, as always.