1971-“Are you ready?” Black jeans, white T, a rifle pointed at the man in front. Nondescript except for the shoulder length hair that covers his face, his arm is steady during the pregnant pause before he pulls the trigger. His target, a thicker version of himself with short hair, stands stiffly against the white wall. This man’s arms are held out at his sides, awkwardly, as if bracing himself for a fight he will lose. A few seconds filled with the buzz of white noise, the gun goes off. The second man, who is not the shooter, flinches as he grabs his left arm. He walks towards the gunman and the empty shell hits the floor with a clang (Blundirensu). “At 7:45 P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me,” Chris Burden described (Schjeldahl 1). Some one takes a picture of the bandaged arm, a circle of blood has already seeped through but Burden, lips apart, eyes dazed, stares at the camera blankly (Rhode Island School of Design).
1973-Eerie classical music floats through a stark white room. Marina Abramović, in black from head to toe, slowly, methodically, arranges ten knives, some big, some small, in a line. The first is a big knife, wood handle, smooth, no serrated edges. The others are different, smaller. The music stops but the gentle tapping as Marina gracefully arranges the knives continues. On her knees, she hugs herself before placing her left hand on the ground in front of her, fingers splayed. Starting with a small knife, she begins to stab the space between her fingers. The quick, steady staccato of her stabs interrupted only by the sharp gasps of breath when she misses… and slices her fingers. With every miss, she changes knives (Aszmedia). Ten slices, ten knives, then she stops and listens to the recorded sounds of her self-mutilation (Kaplan 9). She begins again, this time trying to make the same rhythm, the same cuts on the same fingers. A steady, obsessive stab, stab, stab, stab, like a chef slicing vegetables (Aszmedia).
These are not crime scenes, police reports or excerpts from a horror story. They are works of contemporary conceptual performance art. Each demonstrates a long and complicated thought process, which as a concept may, or may not, be valid. As protests, social and artistic commentary they work, but in the category of artistic skill, they fall short. Traditionally, art is defined as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination,” both the Greek and Latin roots of the word “art” refer to technical skill (Webster 65). These demonstrations may be creative, but skillful, beyond a purely conceptual level, they are not, unless you count, butchery and the use of firearms.
Historically, art represents the society of the creator. The Renaissance and the Jazz eras reflect not only the beliefs, but also the struggles, the beauty and the emotion of the artist‘s world. However, today, more and more of our art resembles only the bleak monotony of artists’ obsession with modernity, which is too narrow to account for the complexities of the world around us.
Avant-garde artists and art critics, desirous of the new and different, often overlook the use of skill in their artistic endeavors. Anything accessible or resembling traditional art is considered old, done, and pandering to the masses. For example, critics now consider videotaping a friend shooting you in the arm or stabbing your fingers as high art; meanwhile, a meaningful story in a popular novel like Scarlett, the best selling sequel to Gone With the Wind, or a tattoo intricately designed in human flesh is considered low. Avant-garde artists have pushed the line so far left in search of the new that they have lost site of the skills, which make art so powerful. Three-dimensional scenes on one-dimensional paper, universal truths in mathematical rhythm and rhyme, stone softened into curves- these are what make art so powerful, because so few people can do it.
When you look at the works of Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci you know that you are looking at unique talent and genius which can never be replicated. They are not just concept, not just creativity, but concept and creativity fused together and fully developed. With skill and creativity artists can turn something into what it isn’t; skin can become canvas. Concepts force us to explore new thought processes, which, indeed, have their own value but art without skill is a dangerous concept. Without skill art will lose its power to inspire us to not only think but also to do, whatever it is we do, to the best of our ability. A world without concept would be shallow, without creativity, dull, and without skill, anarchistic.
Art critics need to redraw the line separating high and low art around the criteria of creativity and skill instead of just the new and conceptual. Art should be left to the artists and concept to the theorists, but if they must mix, and they must, then they should function equally within the constraints of both.
To begin with, the canon of high art was developed for and by the most skilled and educated members of society whose abilities were often scarce. As John Berger wrote, “ The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class” (Berger 85). Because art is a luxury and not a necessity, only the rich could afford it. Physically and sometimes intellectually, art was not available for the lower classes. According to literary scholar Anthony Easthope, high art developed into a language of socialites (101-102). In the case of modern art many works, which disregard skill and tradition, are declared valuable because of their inaccessibility, in one way or another, to the underprivileged.
For example, Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian works were considered valuable, by those who did not have the privilege of traveling to Tahiti, not only for the skill and concepts behind the paintings themselves, but also for their depictions of Tahitian life. In actuality, they are not based on real Tahitian culture, but on Gauguin’s sexualized, exotified imagination. However, firsthand knowledge of Tahiti was scarce so his anthropological suggestions were believed and valued just as inaccessible art is valued (Lang). I cannot criticize Gauguin the artist, but as an anthropologist he and other Primitivist artists helped create negative stereotypes of the “other” which, hundreds of years later, still haunt certain ethnicities. In summary, the Primitivists were skilled artists who unskillfully dabbled in anthropology with negative results; similarly, those who unskillfully dabble in art have negative impacts on the state of art if their work is extolled by critics.
Likewise, we have let “art experts” create a canon of high modern art which is not always what it always claims to be. We often believe it is high art because we have been told that it is, not because we know it to be so. We have been told that John Cage’s 4”33’, in which he does not play music for four minutes and thirty-three seconds is high art. However, a tattoo by Miami Ink’s Ami James, which not only takes into consideration the use of line, shape, and color but is also designed to stretch with human skin is considered low art. We know instinctively that James has used skill and creativity and that we could not do the same. But with Cage, the value lies in the concept not in the execution, which can be easily repeated. Not only that, but the concept must first be explained before it can be fully appreciated, therefore, we are again relying on what we are told rather than any observable evidence of skill. Which is not to say that all high art must be one hundred percent understandable and enjoyable to Average Joe, but it is to say that art, before it can be categorized as high or low, must meet the entry level requirements of being both skillful and creative. If great skill and great creativity are present in a work, there is no reason why it should not be considered high art. Conversely, if great skill and great creativity are not apparent in a work there is no reason why it should be considered art at all. Perhaps, it should fall into some other category. Is a good idea all it takes to create high art, because, if so, then we are all artists.
Right now the divisions of both high and low art contain examples of skill, creativity, and social commentary and I would argue that some low art, like tattoos or popular fiction, is better than some high art, as it is currently defined. However, I am not trying to prove that there shouldn’t be any high and low or that conceptual art is not art at all. Although, I am saying that the levels of these qualities need to be what divides the high and the low, not just arbitrary categorizing based on the whims of “experts.” Boundaries should be pushed, stretched, redefined, but not broken. Without constraints we stand for nothing. And we must stand for something whether or not that something is good or bad, because a society that stands for nothing is not a society at all. Madness can be genius, but there must be a method behind that madness. Think Jackson Pollock with his purposeful rejection of traditional technique.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that it is not the artist’s job to provide the boundaries but the beholder’s. They believe that art should be valued purely for the aesthetic experience it gives to the viewer. Therefore, high and low art is based on the quality of the critic’s experience, which is subjective. As author and critic John Dewey Richard said in Richard Kostelanetz’s article “Contemporary American Esthetics”, “a beholder must create his own experience” (22).
Another example of this school of thought is critic, editor and poet Ron Silliman who, in his blog, writes about the value of Language Poetry (Lang Po). Lang poems are poems of random words, which don‘t make sense but create a certain sound when read aloud. For example, Silliman uses an excerpt from The Maintains by Clark Coolidge.
such like such as
of a whist
the mid eft
own of own off… (1)
Silliman argues that a lack of intellectualism is to blame for American society’s negative reaction towards extremely avant-garde works. He believes that the average American is too uneducated and lazy to appreciate the skill and the concept behind this kind of art. It is not a lack of skill on the artist’s part but a lack of the ability to read what the signifiers are signifying, as Silliman writes:
Why aren’t our student’s being taught to read? How can we produce a literature for the illiterate? In a society where crackpots can argue “intelligent design” and have an opportunity to set K-12 curriculum, the level of anti-intellectualism, which is really a hostility to critical thought itself, runs very deep.(4)
It is true that ever since dial-up our high-speed Internet culture is becoming more and more obsessed with instant gratification. We often consider the patience, necessary for critical thought, not worth our time. However, in the case of modern art, the fault lies with the artists and not with society. Before we can take the time to analyze a work of art, the art must inspire us to do so.
Silliman’s attitude that “If there is a there there, then that’s where it is” so the beholder should be able to find it, suggests that artists don’t care enough to put in the skill that, in turn, makes us, the beholders, care (5). The works of Picasso, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock do not offer up their secrets at a single glance, but our visceral recognition of their skill and creativity intrigues us enough to want to breach the surface.
If we can look at a work of art, say “I don’t get it” and walk away, then the artist hasn’t done enough. We knew that the old masters labored over their work because we could see the fruits of their labor. That is why we always speak highly of Mozart, Keats and Shakespeare, to name a few. In contrast, Silliman provides a quote from “How to be a Poetic Genius” a section from Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life to illustrate how we speak of some of the modern works, “Here is one of the coolest poetic secrets of all: You don’t even need real words. That’s right. Just make’em up. 11.You can write anything you want and call it a poem if you add a lot of space” (5).
Our nonchalant attitude reflects that of the artists. Calling concepts that are executed without skill high art condones artists who don’t put in the effort to create a truly skillful and inspiring masterpiece with which to illustrate their concepts. It is much easier to be shot in the arm than to sculpt the Pietá, even if the concept behind both is equal.
Of course there are some who are not quite so extreme as Silliman and Kostelanetz. Take for instance artist and critic Michael Kirby who defines an avant-garde artist as one who pushes the limits regardless of society’s disapproval; unlike Silliman, he makes the avant-garde style a personal preference rather than a supreme form of art. In fact, he says that the point of the avant-garde is not to be either “good or bad” and that the term itself does not “denote value” (39). To Kirby, art is neutral, he agrees that art, even avant-garde art, can be bad. In his collection of essays, The Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde, Kirby writes:
This impulse to redefine, to contradict, to continue the sensed directionality of art as far as they are able, is independent of success. The fact that an artist does not actually succeed in adding anything of importance to the historical development of art does not, in the sense, make the term avant-garde inapplicable. (37)
He describes art as “a man-made thing of no objective, practical, or functional purpose intended to have aesthetic importance or significance” (40). If we agree with this interpretation, then purely conceptual “art” is not automatically high art.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not necessarily trying to determine what is art. I am arguing that what is new, complicated and different is not always better than what is old, simple and familiar. We should not assume that the avant-garde is high or that popular, commercial, body art or any other type of art is low simply because it falls into a certain genre or school of thought. As discerning individuals critics should judge each work by the degree of skill and creativity present. A work of art should not be considered complete without these aspects, even if it contains other valuable qualities. No matter how high the concept, there is no substitute for skill. If concept replaces skill, we will soon be living in a society of mediocrity.
Aszmedia. Marina Abramović - Rhythm 10 ("The Star", 1999).” YouTube. October 29, 2007. July 8, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9-HVwEbdCo&feature=related
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin Books, 1972.
Blundirensu. “Chris Burden ‘Shoot’.” YoutTube. February 4, 2008. July 8, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26R9KFdt5aY.
Easthope, Anthony. Literary into Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1991.
Kaplan, Janet. “Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramović,” Art Journal 58:2 (1999): 6-19.
Kirby, Michael. “The Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde.” The Art of Time:Essays on the Avant-Garde. ED. Dutton. New York, 1969.
Kostelanetz, Richard. “Contemporary American Esthetics.” Esthetics Contemporary. New York, 1977.
Lang, Karen. “Primitivism: The Construction of the Other in Modern Art.” University of Southern California, Los Angeles. September 25- October 11, 2006.
Rhode Island School of Design. Santa Ana, California. 1971.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Performance.” The New Yorker. May 14, 2007. July 8, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/artworld/2007/05/14/070514craw_artworld_schjeldahl.
Silliman, Ron. Blog Entry. Blogspot, 2002-2005; Online. Internet. June 6, 2005. July 8, 2008. ronsilliman.blogspot.com.
Webster, Merriam. “Definition of Art”. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 1993.