Musings on art and other aspects of life and culture

Reading “Walden”: What is the value of a man?

I have just begun reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau on recommendation from a friend. The unspoken question that has poignantly struck me thus far, only a few pages in, pertains to the relationship between man, his labour, his property and his worth. My internal feminist calls me to substitute in a gender neutral pronoun extending to the rest of the human race; thus I suppose the question may be rephrased as “What is the value of a human being?

There is no easy answer to this question. Obviously, it is not how much money one makes or the job which one possesses or how much/what one owns. How much one loves or is loved by others and the extent of this love cannot be quantified or compared. Neither can one’s relative contribution to society be accurately measured. We could say that each human being is created equal and thus each human life has equal measure. Yet then how do we account for the sick and invalid, those who are handicapped or who have developmental disabilities and the impoverished—not to mention the ethical quandary over euthanasia and abortion. Different cultures have over time developed their own strategies, some of which we contemporary, liberal, ‘enlightened’ Westerners express abhorrence over (total rejection of birth control, twin killing, killing of prisoners and/or criminals, sending the elderly off on an ice flow, etc.) yet our own hypocrisy and the divergence between our own words and actions cannot be excused.

I was listening to an episode of This American Life hosted by Ira Glass a short while ago about the experiences of immigrants coming to the U.S., and one point which struck me in particular was the culture shock some expressed over observing homelessness. These immigrants were shocked that people living in such a wealthy country would be so disgraced by their families that they were cast out onto the street. True, many homeless suffer from specific ailments, afflictions or addictions which inhibit their ability to work and support themselves. But how can we, who say all lives are inherently equal, treat others with such disrespect? How often do we judge people for inherent characteristics, for their appearance, their mannerisms, for their decisions, for their shortcomings, etc.? All the time. Even now I am passing judgement on the judges. No one is exempt. It is impossible to treat others equally and live up to our own lofty ideals, owing to inherent flaws in human nature. For all we claim to be rational beings, there is very little correlation between any person’s beliefs and their actions, the latter of which many are carried through with little or no contemplation or cognitive dissonance.

Origins (The Nature of Art)

"What is art?"

Although the aforementioned question has become somewhat of a cliché, being posed countless times throughout history, when I came across this question on my facebook newsfeed (posed by Saatchi online) it made me stop and think. It seems straightforward enough, and I suppose dear reader that you may think that as someone who has studied fine art and art history for a number of years and possesses an honours BA on the subject that I should have a concrete answer that I will now reveal. However, I don’t.

In fact, I think the more one knows about art, the more difficult the answer becomes. The most simple and also the traditional answer to this query is that art is in effect a “window to the world” (the frame around the canvas acting as the frame around a window, the varnish acting as a pane of glass and so forth). But such a simplistic explanation does not take into account the vast amount of disegno and other conscious editing choices that go into a work of art—let alone the existential questions posed by 20th century rebels like Marcel Duchamp. In fact, the window on the world analogy only seems to befit a very small portion of the art created throughout the history of mankind.

If one was informed enough to take a dadaist or Duchamp-ian approach they might say that anything and everything is art. However, this theory also has numerous gaping flaws. Even if one is uncertain of what exactly the nature of art is, each possesses his or her own opinion of what art is not. While there is no clearly demarcated universal consensus, neither is it entirely subjective. If I was to point at a miscellaneous object (a woollen toque or a tree, for example) and ask “is that art” I think the vast majority would say no. If I was to gesture at a children’s drawing or an advertisement I would expect a few more yes-es. Finally, if I was to indicate a familiar old masterpiece in gallery (imagine something by da Vinci or Caravaggio if you will) I think the answer would almost unanimously be a positive one. So what governs these distinctions? Is it the mere placement of an object in a gallery (like Duchamp’s Fountain) that makes it then worthy of the designation “art”? No, because this explanation again fails to recognize that art does not always occur in a gallery (folk art, outsider art, earthworks and other site-specific installations to name a few exceptions). Nevertheless, I think we are getting close.

What makes Duchamp’s found objects works of art is not merely the fact that he was an artist or that he placed them in a gallery, but rather the conversion which took place when a concept was applied to them. In my experience, a work of art begins with something intangible—an idea, an emotion, a sensation. The artist either preconceives an image or fosters the intent to create something out of the materials at hand. The intangible could range anywhere from being an elaborate figurative narrative with a broad range of symbols, to a childhood memory, to a desire to explore the sensual qualities of a block of wood. The artist then proceeds to create a work of art—something which can be at least experienced visually (if not through other senses as well), which in some way is intended to act as a vehicle to convey that intangible concept or feeling to another person.

In short, I see art as a kind of communication device utilizing the language of aesthetics. Art is neither a window nor a concept—it is in fact the frame which the artist has chosen to display their idea within. Furthermore, if we are to accept John Locke’s theory of empiricism, that the mind is a blank slate upon which the world writes, then it can be understood that art is a frame that gazes onto the world itself. An artist then may be understood as someone who looks at the world, and seeing something of note, draws a frame around it in order to convey the importance of that thing to others. He or she does this much in the same way a photographer chooses one select element out of a broad, panoramic field of vision to specifically emphasize within a photograph. I don’t it’s as much fabrication as it is selecting and bringing together various collected fragments of ideas and experiences to create a cohesive whole. I guess you could also see art as a kind of filter or sieve that lets some elements of the world to be transferred through and others to not, but I prefer the analogy of the frame because I think it better conveys how art consciously highlights certain elements for display.

If anyone reading this post has any thoughts on the subject (or even strong words of disagreement) I would like to hear them. :)

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