Sunday, May 11, 2008

What is art? (the long awaited Vito Acconci post + pictures)

Back in 10th grade, my world history teacher, Dr. Klug (also a philosophy teacher), proposed this question to the class:

What is art?

I didn't really think that much of that question until I hit college when I took my first real art course. I was exposed to some things that are called art that would not be accepted by mainstream society, yet, are hailed as among the top creative works in the world of art.

One of the field trips I took with the foundations class last year (in fact, it was the FIRST ONE) was to PS1 during its "Into Me/Out of me" exhibition. For those not familiar with the show, it mainly involved every single way you can interact with the human body, from food consumption to rape to self mutilation (a lot of self mutilation, in fact). The term phrase scarred for life does not do justice to what I felt that day. My artistic cherry was popped and it felt like a little bit of me died that day. Was THIS art?

One of the culprits that contributed to one of my inner children's death was Vito Acconci. One of his video pieces was being screened. I won't divulge the full details, but it involves him, a bathtub full of blood, a knife, and an oblong object dangling in his hands. I can't find that video (not that I would want to), but this is but a sample of the stuff Vito's done (caution: mature subject matter)

So this is art?

To me, this is a class of art I call Conceptual Art, I can't just call it Art because, to me, art is something that looks like it takes actual skill to produce. Art is something that you spend years learning how to make

Anyways, back to Vito.

Vito recently visited UMass Amherst (last Thursday/Friday, in fact) and I opted to go to the free 10:00 PM informal grad student art critique. I wanted to tell him how much I HATE his video work and how any idiot with a camera could make it and that it takes absolutely no skill whatsoever to make what he made. I wanted to call him out as an artist, right then and there, in front of the 20 other people there.

But I couldn't.

If you've seen any of Vito's architectural work, you'll know how brilliant he really is. And when he spoke to critique the grad student's work, I got the sense that he really knew what he was talking about. Why does a design have to be this way? This thing feels more like a human parking garage, what's the function of it? He knew how to look beyond the aesthetics and to bare down on the CONCEPT and the REASON behind the work.

I went tog go shake his hand afterwards. This is Vito pulling out the mace:

None of my pictures came out that great that night. The lighting in the art studio was hideous (go figure).


I believe that ART is the result of a solid concept executed with an expert's talent. Yes, you can make a statement on the fragility of art by smashing in a window with a hammer, but ANYONE can do that. At the same time, you can make a photo-realistic charcoal drawing of a still life, but since it has no meaning, it's a one trick horse; you look at it once and it's done. But take those glass shards and arrange the Mona Lisa, or draw that still life 359 more times and post it all in a row around a room, and you'll have a piece of art. Art, in my opinion, must be both aesthetic as well as thought provoking.

And I can thank Vito for that enlightenment.


Thanks, Vito.

...Now can I burn your film/video reels and tape it as my own art piece?


Artist Anika said...

I love your definition and I highly agree. Unfortunately, that is something that I feel all artists struggle with. Where is the line between beautiful and meaningless (what I like to call elevator art) and horrid but meaningful? It is not a fine line to walk, I see "art" that leans one way or another all the time, but is still called fine "art." However, it is extremely difficult to find the line.

It sounds as if your college art experience is vastly more educational than my own. My college encourages and loves the more meaningful art, but seems to teach only the "elevator art." I would love to see more in the way of meaning, but that still retains some of the talent.

As you say, anyone can smash a window and call it art because of the meaning. Fewer people, but still a great many, can draw a beauty that has no meaning (a type of art that seems to be gaining in popularity). I know that my own art tends to lean toward "elevator art," but am hoping that it at least has some meaning.

I thank you for putting it into words, you have done so far more eloquently than I would be able.

Artist Anika said...

Thanks for commenting back. I've been reading and posting on blogs for a short while now, but you are only the second person to ever respond to my posts. It's good to know someone is actually reading these :)

I am glad to hear that you read my "Art of Drawing Hands" page. That one took a while, because hands are definitely difficult. I do find that drawing the structure first helps me to position them in a more lifelike way. The better they are shaded, the more realistic they look as well. Even hands that are a little off in shape can look right when the shading is done.

Addressing your comments in my blog:

You said that you "don't mean to belittle 'elevator art,'" Don't worry, you don't come across as doing that; at least, I didn't take it that way. Elevator art does take a lot of thought and planning, but, I feel that more than that is required for something to be considered art. Maybe that is because so much of my own work is still in the "elevator art" stage. After all, an artist has no harsher critic than herself/himself.

There are so many of us who can draw something beautiful, but putting meaning behind the beauty is harder, at least for me. It seems like most people go from one extreme to the other. Either having meaning and little skill, or having all skill and little meaning.

Even when I do put meaning into my work, it is rare that anyone I know recognizes the meaning (though that may be because most of my friends and family are not educated in art - in fact, most are only interested in fanart).

And you are right, the meaning does not always have to be readily apparent. Sometimes, thought, skill, and a manipulation of how a viewer sees the work raises it from "elevator art" to something deeper.

I am still learning, despite having studied art in school for the last 4 years and having practiced it for over 8 years. I still have trouble finding the balance between meaning and beauty. Maybe that is something that all artists will always struggle with.