Sunday, August 24, 2008

Art is Art

In this morning's paper there was an article about a robotic chair that autonomously falls to pieces and then reassembles itself. It is being exhibited around the country in galleries and after the tour will be sold to a collector.

This is an example of what bothers me about the state of the art world today. "Art" is a broad term that covers many areas of creative endeavor but it seems me that its meaning is being broadened too far. Communication through language depends on words having meaning. They tell the listener or reader what something is and, by default, all else that it is not. In recent years I have heard almost everything including politics, sports and cooking described as "art". There are books on the Art of War and the Art of The {business} Deal. An Amazon search for books on "The Art of..." returns 1,293,083 matches.

Then there are those galleries, museums & grant foundations that exhibit and/or present awards to "installations" such as a folding table with overflowing ash trays and empty beer cans. Think Damien Hirst in a London Gallery. If a thing contains any one element, even peripherally, of the definition of art then it is deemed "Art". Worse, the distinctions between the various forms of art are being demolished. The dark scribblings of a drug addict trying to work through his/her addiction via art therapy are held on a par with the work of a trained professional painter, indeed in some venues they are valued higher because they are untrained and the "Art" they produce is therefore not derivative, a bad thing to be in the art world but inevitable to some degree for those artists who made the error of actually studying art.

With the robotic chair we have an engineering project hailed and exhibited as a work of Fine Art, worthy of exhibit in galleries and collection by an art collector. It is novel, creative in a mechanical sense and probably fascinating to watch it do its thing, but is it really "Art"? It seems to me that when the meaning of the word art stretches to include anything and everything we choose to apply it to, it no longer has any meaning. If it can be applied to anything, it describes nothing. A word that describes nothing is useless for communicating what something is. OTOH using the same rational by which the article concludes that the robotic chair is art, "It has no utilitarian value," D'Andrea said. "It is an art piece", one could argue that the word "art" itself is art. The ultimate self-referential work.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Two Viewpoints on "The Wall"

One of my e-friends is Darrell Bohlsen, a retired art historian. We correspond about art and recently discussed a NY Times article about an economist who claims to have determined the "Top Ten" works of modern art based on how many times works appeared in art history books published between 1990 and 2005. We both agreed that was pretty silly for reasons I won't go into here but my friend decided to make his personal Top Ten list just for fun.

Today Darrell sent an email with his #1, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin 1982. He wrote "Although the AIA (American Institute of Architects) has honored it as Architecture I consider it a memorial sculpture qualifying for my list."

"Ms Lin has come up with a concept (at age nineteen) of a war memorial that rejects the traditional Manneristic, larger than life, solutions of dictatorships. Think, Moscow-Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or Saddam Hussain's Irag. Indeed, think Washington DC with Frederick Hart's Korean Veterans War Memorial, adjacent to Ms Lin's work."

"Ms Lin's work with its delta shaped granite rising out of a depression in the earth sets the tone for meditation on war and its dark polished granite surfaces reflect the observer and his/her involvement. I have been to the monument four times and have always been moved. Moreover the people I observed there have been also. Most I assume have no formal association with Art."

He went on to detail the history of its "improvement" (not in his opinion) by the addition of two additional features both in the historical style and concluded by recommending "Should you visit the monument in the future I strongly suggest you follow the wishes of Ms Lin and first walk to the wooded knoll that faces the monument on the opposite side of the site and walk over it to the other side. Then turn around and experience what the designer intended by going back up and over and through the trees you will encounter this powerful sight of mother earth opening up and accepting her sons and daughters home."

I responded that his choice for #1 is interesting and thought provoking. Memorial, architecture or art? All three? I have not seen the original but I have seen the "Traveling Wall". As a Vietnam Era Vet with friends who went to Vietnam (I was notified I was going to go but the orders never came and I never asked where they were) "The Wall" has associations to me that overwhelm the mere form of the work. When I went to see the traveling version, art was not on my mind and I'm sure Darrell is correct in assuming that most who visit it have no formal association with art. They don't go to see art. They go because of what it represents in terms of personal loss, a friend, a child, a brother/sister, a father or mother, a wound on their soul.

I agree that a traditional "heroic" memorial would not have been appropriate. Those things are propaganda designed to make us feel good about the sacrifice of young lives to settle political disputes. It is refreshing that we finally rose above that tradition with "The Wall", putting the price of war ahead of the false glory, but pathetic that so many had to die to do it.

As an Army photographer I used to photograph the ceremonies in which they awarded medals, photos to be sent to hometown newspapers. It didn't take long for me to note that if the soldier was still living the Commanding General always awarded the medal. If the award was posthumous it got relegated to the Deputy Commander, a Colonel. The General never did those ones, the spineless (expletive deleted). Burned in my memory is one ceremony where the young widow and a small child of 2 or 3 got dragged out to the ranges for a ceremony in the field because someone thought it was an appropriate location for a posthumous award to an infantryman. As the 20 something widow balanced on her toes to keep her high heels from sinking into the sand and the Colonel was handing the widow a folded flag with medals pinned on it, the child was pulling on her skirt and asking "Where's Daddy?".

My friend Darrell explained that he feels that "The Wall" has aesthetic merit that will continue to attract many visitors even in future when those directly affected are gone. I'm sure he is right. Maybe someday I will be able to step back emotionally and examine The Wall objectively as a work of art, but not yet.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Shifting The Ground

I'm not talking about earthquakes. It's time to post some opinion again. This is about the "quaky" stats that the media keeps feeding us. This morning on one of the news broadcasts the commentator said that fatalities in Iraq were "way down" in July. Only 11 US troops died compared to 80 military & civilian deaths a year ago.

Did you notice the statistical shift in that statment? 11 US military deaths vs 80 total (combined US, coalition military, Iraqi forces plus civilian) deaths from a year ago. Talk about comparing apples and oranges. Maybe they should have thrown in how many expatriate Iraqis died of cancer while outside the country a year ago to inflate the comparison further.

Those figures are bogus anyway. The devil is in the details, the details in this case being which deaths get counted. The iCasualties website lists 13 US military dead in July 2008 and I distinctly recall reading only a week or two ago about bombings that killed at least 80 civilians. And then there is the practice of not counting as war deaths those US soldiers who are air lifted out of the country for treatment and then die in a military hospital in Germany or the US.

Is violence down in Iraq? Are the number of deaths from insurgent attacks down? When we can't trust the numbers we are being fed and there is limited to no reporting on such events as the Iraqi Christians being driven out of the country or into hiding, it is hard to agree that the surge has really "improved" the situation and stability of Iraq unless you consider an ethnically purged society a stable society. I fear that all we have done in Iraq is changed one bad situation into a different bad situation.