Tuesday, August 14, 2012

But Is it Art...?

If you live in Portland, you have likely seen this car driving around Congress Street.

The car belongs to local artist, Michael Shaughnessy. His “hay ball” art is meant to be a conversational ice-breaker, and according to a recent story in the Portland Press Herald ("Hay! What's That For?" 7/31/2012), so far it is succeeding. Shaughnessy is planning to travel the country using his “hay ball” the same way John Steinbeck used his dog Charley in his road-tripping book, Travels with Charley.

Now, Mr. Shaughnessy seems like an affable guy (I’m pretty sure I have seen him at a few Occupy Maine rallies, so he can't be all bad), and given that he teaches art at USM, I would not presume to know more about the subject than he does.

But this tumbleweed he drives around with on the top of his car is not art. Certainly, it is unusual. It is authentic. It is, perhaps, even a bit eccentric. But it is not art. (It should also be noted, Shaughnessy is hardly the first person in Maine to drive around with strange crap protruding out of his vehicle.)

Shaughnessy’s decorative car and the Press Herald story on it got me thinking about the nature of art. What is art? Is art, as many artists claim, merely whatever one designates as “art”? Or does a work need to meet certain aesthetic, visual or cultural criteria in order to be considered legitimate “art”?

While I realize many MECA (Maine College of Art) students will disagree with me, art is not “whatever you say it is.” There are specific aesthetic standards or principles used to judge, analyze and evaluate art--just as there are for evaluating film, music, acting or writing.

Indeed, as a writer, I would like to think I have a pretty good understanding of what constitutes “good” writing. (And as I have long maintained, many contemporary authors are highly imaginative story-tellers, but by traditional standards, lousy writers.) Call me a snob if you must, but you cannot arbitrarily throw a bunch of words or phrases onto a piece of paper and call it poetry.

This is essentially what Jackson Pollock made a career out of. Pollock aficionados defend his unconventional, postmodernist paintings as “open to interpretation.” This is fancy way of saying Pollock’s work means something different to everyone, which is just another way of saying it does not mean anything at all.

Pollock, along with his peers in the abstract expressionist, Dadaist and surrealist movements shifted the focus of art away from political and social commentary, and toward the novel, irreverent and, frankly, inane. The goal for these artists was to defy traditional artistic conventions simply for the sake of doing so. They had no guiding principles or artistic ideals of their own. There was nothing they wanted audiences to attain or learn from their works. It was rebellion for the sake of rebellion. Their manifesto, to the extent that they had any at all, was best summed up by Frank Zappa in the 1970s who famously defined art as, “Anything you can get away with.”

Then again, Shaughnessy is hardly the first artist to take a mundane, everyday object and call it art. In 1917, French surrealist painter, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal (which he titled, “Fountain,” and signed as “R. Mutt”) to the Society of Independent Artists.

Though the work was initially rejected, it has since become a revered piece associated with the Dada movement and its attempts to “demystify” the artist. The urinal was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by a board of 500 British art professionals in 2004. Indeed, it is difficult to determine which is more ridiculous: The fact that Duchamp did not even create the toilet himself, or the vast amount of ink art critics have spilled assessing the work’s supposed brilliance. As artist Alan Magee notes of “Fountain” in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class, “Duchamp’s point, intended to repudiate genteel aesthetics and to ‘shock the squares,’ was timely and well made, but it didn’t need to be repeated for a century.”

Art, at best should act as a mirror for the human experience. It should strive to connect with the audience politically, socially, culturally or even religiously. “The job of the artist,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.” Consider Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” which he painted in response to the Spanish Civil War. Or Edvard Munch’s classic, “The Scream” which depicts a person conveying an expression of agony under a menacing, blood-red sky.

Local artist, Robert Shetterly carries on that tradition of politically-oriented art with his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series. Shetterly has painted elegant portraits of such famous, rabble-rousing Americans as Howard Zinn, Rachel Corrie, Ralph Nader and Henry David Thoreau.

“It is my belief that art should be, and can be, many things,” he says. "If it is about beauty it must also be about truth, even when that truth is ugly and anathema to the beautiful and powerful… [I]f the survival of human life is in jeopardy, maybe it’s important that some artists explore why with all the urgency and truth that they can bring to bear.” (As quoted in Hedges’ aforementioned, Death of the Liberal Class, 2010).

Contrast Shetterly’s passionate, informed artistic statement of purpose with Andy Warhol’s “ironic” raison d’etre: “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

In short, we need more Shetterlys and fewer Warhols. Michael Shaughnessy’s tumbleweed is unique and quirky, yes. I will give him that.

But please, let’s not call it art.   

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