awkwardly

Friday

If art can be anything, how do I know whether to give a shit?

I was flipping through an issue of Canadian Art magazine yesterday. No, I was not in the waiting room of a dentist across the Ambassador Bridge. I deal with lots of periodicals at work. No, I'm not going to tell you where I work. Assume I work at a library if that fills your need to know. It's not true, but it won’t hurt you to think that, and more importantly it won't hurt me.

As I flipped through the pages of ugly garbage, it struck me that a solid portion of the paintings would be indistinguishable from random spatters. The photos intended as art would be mostly indistinguishable from the ones that your aunt took but didn’t bother to put in her photo album. In some cases, they’d be indistinguishable from a picture that was accidentally captured when the camera was dropped on the ground, or stolen by a toddler or bonobo. Maybe the artists are achieving something that I can’t see. Maybe the photographers are going for a level of verisimilitude that is so perfect it has reached the point of boring reality, and thus too boring to care about, like Gus Van Sant’s last three or four movies.

In fact you can flip through the articles of this and other art magazines and make a guessing game or a drinking game out of the photos. Without reading the captions, can you tell if a given photo is meant to be exhibited as art, or is it a photo of an artist meant to accompany the article? Is it photo-journalism depicting artists, or is it art?

It reminded me of the poem that put the last nail in poetry’s coffin as far as I’m concerned. Not that I was a big fan of poetry who was disheartened by one example of it. I was basically indifferent to it, but lost all interest when I felt like I couldn’t recognize poetry anymore. You may have read it because it used to be in lots of anthologies. (Maybe it still is. How would I know? I don’t read it.) If you had an Intro to Poetry class without reading this, you’ve been done a real disservice, either because it’s a must-see example of the craft, or because reading this would have cured you of poetry forever.

This final nail is by William Carlos Williams, and I’ll reprint it here in full without permission because fuck him and his estate:
This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Imagine if you found this on the fridge, or on the side of the road. What details would tell you that this set of words qualifies as “poetry” or “literature” or deserves to be studied and discussed? What makes it so special that student loans should be taken out to fund class time talking about these 28 words (33 if you count the title)?

Is it the image of plums in an icebox? Meh. Is it the alliteration of “so sweet and so cold? No. Is it a big joke to test what should be considered art? Not as good as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

I got nothing. I have no idea what makes this noteworthy or remarkable, or worth treating as special or as “literature” or as “poetry.” But this means we can have poetry in everything! Maybe everything is poetry, more or less. Some of it just works better than others.

But if everything is poetry, if poetry is something special that you used to think of as rising above common prose or conversation or god damn notes to your wife on the fridge, then everything is special, but that’s just a contradiction. That’s like saying the ordinary is now extraordinary.

This poem BROKE poetry for me. How can you give a shit about short arrangements of words ever again, after you realize that this schmuck got a scribbled note to his wife from off his fridge, got it published somewhere, and it’s now in dozens or hundreds of anthologies across the country, in fucking textbooks and labeled “literature”?

Same thing with painting and photography and sculpture and performance art and much of what passes for “art”. I don’t want to be one of those people with a knee-jerk reaction against modern art and how it looks funny. And yet, how the fuck do you expect people to react when there’s nothing to clue us in that we’re seeing something special? Are we supposed to walk around in blissful wonder, thinking that every glimpse of snotty Kleenex on the sidewalk is art, every photo rejected from Aunt Bea’s album is art in its own weird way, and every dozen words you write in any context during the day can and must be classified as “art”? It’s forgivable when parents stick their kids finger-painted less-than masterpieces on the fridge or on the cubicle wall and actually enjoy the things and think they’re wonderful, but are we supposed to go through life looking and thinking that everything is awesome like that?

Maybe we’re in the wrong age somehow, but the more natural reaction is that everything around us is still as mundane and boring as it used to be, except now even the art that’s been singled out as extraordinary fails because it’s indistinguishable from the ordinary. If everything around me is art and I never used to be impressed by most of it, why should I start being impressed by it now?

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