Y’tulip, y’tulip, y’pea brained earwig
Y’punk, y’silver tongued snake
I’d rather make furniture than go to midnight mass
– Wire, from the Snakedrill EP
The characteristics of good Art and bad Art are apparent to each of us when we are alone and don’t gain anything by our judgements. Good Art has something to do with truth and earnestness and satisfaction, and so bad Art that has something to do with the opposite of those things; to be disingenuous, to be callow, to submit to being unsatisfied. Surely there is enough of this floating around under the sun for everyone to have their fill and take leftovers to work tomorrow. What then is to account for all this bad Art? The qualities of Art, the focus of this essay and the five to follow, is a wild geometry. Readable in an instant, as fast as looking.
Good Art doesn’t make it rain more in dry weather. Bad Art doesn’t run over my foot or overcook my egg. A weak piece does not diminish a regionalism, or stunt a movement, or muddy the entire project of Art. So why all the hay-making about good-Art-bad-Art ? For the vast majority of Art’s adherents and practitioners, Art does not keep the lights on at home or pay the studio rent. This is beside the point though; Art is what makes the lights worth turning on, makes the rent worth paying.
Here is an image of Art; here is a busy bay on a warm holiday weekend. I have been at the bay all morning long, just dog paddling, and I hope to stay until after the sun goes down. I feel a blissful and deliberate joy in negotiating the water as it moves around me. I am wary of the fanciest strokes and the shiniest innertubes as they cut through the chop or float above it. Ease and habit sometimes share an inflatable raft shaped like an ear of corn. There is a quagmire down below — as wide and deep as consciousness, as dense as thought, and woven through with currents of judgement and veins of taste. The act of making Art is to plumb the muck of the quagmire, to locate a resonance, to pursue it, and to return with some piece of what is there. Whatever else we have in our pockets when we come back is probably just pocket lint.
Art looms large in my life and stands close to me, and I cannot see its edges on some days. However I am not a zealot or a Pollyanna about the importance of Art, and I do not maintain a standardless appreciation of it. Rather, I am proprietary of Art and offended to see it dealt with callously. Here, it’s like this: some Art is better than other Art, and most Art is not very good. So much of it is truly and deeply lazy in its execution and cynical in its conception. So much of it doesn’t attempt anything. So much of it is devised as social capital, or it is overly burdened with the prescriptions of the day, or else the relationship between artist and material is conservative and transactional where it ought to be curious and slutty, or else there is too much shame given and received in retreading old ground in the pursuit of finding new territory, or else the work takes itself too seriously, or else it is an execution of fashion without regard for the flow of time, or the work is too greedy for attention and space, or the work is only descriptive where it ought to be transformative, or it is a branding exercise, or it is too much given over to commerce, or it is too timid, or it is too blustery, or it is fetishized beyond vitality, or it is happy without being introspective, or it is joyless without being redemptive, or it condescends, or there is all this damned context, or the work conflates shiftlessness with pursuit, or it is just a game of inside baseball, or it is just a game of throwing pocket knives, or it is too much the opposite of any of these, or else it has been tailored to be the size and shape and weight and aura of Art which is called Fine.
Back in the bay, left hand right hand, a note about discussing Art before I go. Art calls for acts of intellectual and emotional exploration where literal and functional considerations are jettisoned in favor of timelessness and play and evasion. Discussion calls for a common, descriptive, restless tongue–a dumb muscle. This being the case, discussions of Art are slippery and too often reliant on the dry ground of precedent and terminology for footing. Precedent is difficult; to describe one thing by describing another is to sometimes describe neither. Terminology is difficult; to describe a thing with a five dollar word when plainspokenness would do is wasteful at least, cowardly maybe, and alienating. It is good to have standards, and to speak to them. It is good to be available to Art, to be available to each other to discuss Art, to give no cover to Art that is bad, and to recognize the qualities of Art that is good. Whatever else we have in our throats when we talk about Art is probably just pocket lint.
Next time — E S S A Y 2 / 6 : Who Should Play the Flute.