Thursday, December 28, 2006

Natural Selection

(Fair warning: I didn't know where I was going when I started this, and now that I'm done with it I'm not sure where I've been. I'm just running a line of thought out here: function following form.)

A while back, I had a post about a poem a student had submitted to our high school literary magazine that posed an interesting set of hermeneutical challenges to us. That poem generated some interesting responses on the blog, and upwards of an hour's worth of discussion amongst the literary magazine staff, before it was voted in unanimously by our staff and editorial board at yesterday's meeting.

In the meantime, I've been turning over in my mind an art submission that a young man brought in at about the same time. It is a pencil drawing on graph paper. There are four lines of handwritten text in the upper right corner which have been erased, sort of, although you can still make out from the imprint that the first two lines used to read "Wars fought over gasoline..."

My first thought upon receiving this submission was, he's got to be kidding. I filed the submission with the other paintings and photographs as they arrived, and then found myself looking at it again when we were preparing a slide show of all the submissions to present to the staff. And I found myself contemplating several questions. They are similar to the questions that gnawed at me when I was looking at the student poem (and that continue to gnaw at me even though we've decided to publish it.) They're not new questions for me personally, and I'm certain they've been beaten to death by art critics all the way from Aristotle on down, but here they are again, nibbling away at my reserves of critical self-confidence: what makes something a work of art? And if it is a work of art, what makes it good?

The case against the piece in question is easy to make. It's a sketch; it was apparently done in some haste; it doesn't put any particular artistic skill on display; it's scribbled on a (wrinkled) piece of notebook paper; the artist hasn't taken much care in presentation or execution; it's gotta be a joke.

But suppose that was the point? Suppose we give this artist the benefit of the doubt and say that each of the above elements of description, although accurate, were an intentional and integral to the conception of the piece? What happens if we look at this as a performance piece, a piece of asking us to deconstruct or reconstruct or at least rethink what it means to be a piece of art? Placed in the context of other traditional pieces of art, how might this piece of art enrich our sense of what art is and what makes it good?

The poet William Stafford opens one of my favorite essays about writing ("Making a Poem/Starting a Car on Ice") with the line "A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the reader a certain kind of attention." What interests me about this definition of poetry is that it places the locus of determination (Is this a poem or isn't it?) squarely in the mind of the observer. If a piece of writing elicits "a certain kind of attention," if it makes us think in a certain way, it is, according to Stafford, a poem. If we were to adapt that definition of art to the student submission above, I'd have to say, yes, it is eliciting from me a certain sort of attention, encouraging me to ask art-ful questions, and thereby validating itself as a work of at least some degree—and perhaps a considerable degree—of artistic merit.

So anyway, today I was out walking with my camera and I was thinking in a parallel processing kind of way about what makes a good photograph. I was thinking on the one hand of a photo (from cyclewidowpatti) I ran across while I was browsing on the Flickr site the other day:

This is, by any of my intuitive standards, a terrific photo. I like its texture, its colors, its composition, the fact that it suggests a story, or perhaps several stories simultaneously: the story of failed human endeavor, the story of golden life and grey death, the story what grows up and what falls down. I like the stillness of it, and the sense of place. It's both sobering and beautiful. The photographer has selected, from amongst everything surrounding her, something that invites a certain kind of attention. (Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will also probably recognize an inclination on my part to respond positively to work that presents itself along the earthtones, Andrew Wyeth, organic woodgrain Ted Kooser Hudson-River-School continuum. Amber waves of grain and all that. Sorry. Can't help myself.)

And yet as I thought about this picture, and about the student's art submission, I found myself wondering whether and to what degree that element of selection by the artist is essential to our sense of what makes something art. So as I walked along, my left brain processing furiously as my right brain looked for camera fodder, I found myself starting to take, among the kinds of pictures I usually take—which is to say, composed, balanced, quasi-narrative pictures not unlike this one, at least in their aspirations—a number of random shots. What would happen if I tried to unlearn everything I think I know about taking pictures.(I'm not prepared at this point to start thinking about how to calculate the quotient of randomness in pictures which I was taking randomly by design. Even I have limits.) Suppose I were to just start pointing the camera at random odd angles and snapping away, would I perhaps find my way to something entirely new and comparably, if not equally, artistic? Suppose I dropped natural selection in favor of un-natural un-selection? So I did that for a while, as a kind of thought experiment. Here's one I took right before I arrived back home:

This is a picture is not composed, not balanced, not selected with a lot (well, any) conscious thought. (Take my word for it.) It's a point and shoot. It's somewhat dizzying to look at, probably because on some impulse I turned the camera at an odd angle just before I took it. It's not a very good picture, is it? Certainly not a work of art. Unless, of course, I listen for its understated, perhaps mumbled, invitation and shift the kind of attention I am paying to it.

Once I do that, I start to have second thoughts. That strong diagonal, for example has got my attention. There's an odd kind of geometrical balance here after all. The world is out of joint. The building and the world are fighting it out for space here. My hermeneutical antennae are starting to twitch. I sense the beginnings of a story...

So is this a good picture after all? Might it find its way, by virtue of its quirky, vertigo-inducing visual metaphors, into Flickr's "Most Interesting Pictures of the Week" after all? (Don't worry. I'm not going to hold my breath.) But it's certainly not as blatantly awful as it seems to have every right to be.

It occurs to me now that there's yet another factor at work: the question of context. This picture would undoubtedly look and feel out of place in the company of staid landscapes of the kind that are even now pulsing in the Flickr badge at the top of this screen. But in the context of the discussion we are now having, this picture, like the student work that we began with, takes on both conceptual and artistic weight.

So where are we? I'm thinking now that the traditional standards of artistic craft, the ones we apply intuitively (therefore?) unreflectively, will only take us so far. The more I look at the student artwork, the more I like it, not necessarily because of what is in it, but because of how it interacts with the other works of art that already exist as standards of comparison within my head, and how it would interact with the other works of art that would appear in the magazine with it.

I've thought about this before. I've written about it here before. I will doubtless do so again, perhaps soon, and with something more coherent to say. I'm already hearing voices objecting and elaborating and trying to make connections. But there's only so much I can do in one day. My brain is tired. So I'll leave with one last example of a truly random shot which gains significance only because of the context in which it appears, which is to say, right here:


Linz said...

Have you ever heard of Wabi Sabi? If not, I highly recommend picking up a book about it. Wabi Sabi is sort of an asthetic appretiation for change, and the incomplete/imperfect (sometimes conventionally called "ugly"). Most of the things that we see in our everyday life would be considered wabi sabi (i.e. run down houses). This term can be used to describe art, or archetecture, or nature, or change, or whatever really.

And about your blog: If you do indeed think that a piece of "art" (something that is questionably artistic, like that students drawing) is truly a piece of art, then does the credit go to you (for interpreting it), or the artist (for creating something with the potential for interpretation, even though they didn't mean for it to be)? Because what if the artist really did just slop a whole bunch of words/images together. If that's true (if the artist just randomly created the piece) do you think you would be considered a fool, or an intellectual for considering it true art?

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks for your comment. I started a response here and it got long enough that I put it up as the January 2 post, "Another Way."

- B