The Laws of Nature

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Art of Making Art Without Lifting a Finger

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)

Chapter 4: The Art of Making Art Without Lifting a Finger

Art on one level already may be a state of mind. Of course it is first of all a physical object with which we interact in the moment. But after we have seen a work, what do we take away except a memory of it? And memory is thought, a mental seed planted by the artist, which is reproduced in as many different variations as the number of people in whom the memory exists. What makes art good is partly its power to proliferate as a variable memory, an intangible concept, filtered through individual consciousness.

To support this point of view, Kimmelman provides the interesting tale of Pop Art’s Ray Johnson. Johnson (1927 – 1995) was primarily a collage artist (photo), but also engaged in performance and conceptual art. One of his great contributions was the innovation known as “Mail Art.” His final artistic creation was his own suicide. Before jumping off the bridge into the frigid January waters of Long Island Sound at the age of 67 (6+7=13), he checked into Room 247 (2+4+7=13) of the Baron’s Cove Inn at Sag Harbor Cove (both of which to 13 letters). He also left behind an enormous puzzle of his collages on a wall in his house: a forensic challenge. It is interesting that his body was found floating upon the waters face up with his arms neatly folded across his chest – a work completed. This artwork now exists only in our minds, which as Kimmelman suggests is reproduced in as many different variations as the number of people in whom the memory exists.

Of course, this way of thinking erases the boundary between “art” and “not art.” Is every thought, every manufactured thing a work of art just because we think it is? Duschamp’s ready-mades support that notion. Robert Rauschenberg declared it to be “art” when he erased a drawing of de Kooning. Artist Yves Klein’s show, “Le Vide” (“The Void”), at a gallery in Paris attracted mobs of people into a gallery that contained no art at all. The list of artists who engaged in conceptual art is endless. The point was to “elevate the ordinary” and to achieve a “heightened state of awareness.” So, everday life became a work of art.

Is the “idea” more durable than the physical work of art itself? If so, then there is no line drawn between art and everyday life. They are, as Kimmelman suggests, one.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I like the fact that artist push the "envelope" of what art is and that they ask these hard questions. I also like the debate about whether it is art or not. Its the gray areas that are so fascinating.

Casey Klahn said...

I think you cannot say that the performance pieces are not art, since the foundation is there. The idea.

I often say about making art, "have ideas." You give the examples here of just the ideas. What about the "have" part of the phrase, though? Maybe the phrase for the post modernist should say, "be ideas." I like my statement better, though.

The problem with pm versus modernism is that it attempts to destroy what comes before for the sake (I think) of the destruction. That is the meaning.

The modernists were all about adding to (while repressing/changing/subverting things of the past). But, they recognized the past. Consider deKooning's Woman (one). It is based on the oldest art work, a clay fertility goddess. At the same time he paints completely new, and adds the ugly. What a guy!

Anyway, the post modernists have failed, since I am still making art. In your face. And, the art that came before still exists. Beauty is still there. Artifacts exist.

Resisting a pithy remark to Duschamp.

Casey Klahn said...

"In your face" is aimed at the post modernists, BTW. Not the lovely Kathy, our teacher extraordinaire.

Mark Sheeky said...

We've been here in previous discussions a bit. But, his comment about "what do we take but a memory" is more one about general philosophy than art ne's pas? Is art that is forgettable bad then? Maybe so. Perhaps people with good memories appreciate life more, then, and people with bad memories are philistines.

Fascinating story about Ray Johnson.

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - I agree. The gray areas (the intersections) are the most dynamic and interesting places. Thanks!

Hi Casey - well-stated: "be ideas" is a better way to say it. I could probably go even further to say that postmodernists are increasingly more narcissitic and inane. The meanings often are far more obscure and peculiar to the psychology of the individual artist. However, from this springs some really great stuff! And, as you say, there are still many of us that continue in the traditional mode. Thanks for the kind remark, although I don't see myself as a teacher in this blog. I'm simply reporting on the books I'm reading and ALL of YOU are teaching me with your ideas! Thank you, Professor Casey :-)

Hi Mark - C'est vrai! You mention something that I think is very important to creating art: making it memorable. I know I've failed if my viewing audience has no feeling about or memory of what I've produced. That's when I dig deeper and work harder. And, yes - I thought you might be interested in Johnson's story. There's much more that makes him a truly interesting character. I think Wikipedia might have an article on him.

Anonymous said...

When I read this chapter in the book, I thought what a shame Johnson wasn't alive during our time with the internet. His mail art was how he connected with people. He was rather reclusive and let people think he was poor, when, in fact he was not.
I liked this Johnson character and think his ideas about art were pretty cool. Too bad he killed himself. Even though he put an artistic spin on it, I think it was his isolation that drove him to it.
Life is art to me. But it requires work and effort. So the not lifting a finger thing... just a catchy phrase.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - Johnson was a very interesting artist, indeed. Your idea about how the web would impact his art is a great point to ponder. Thanks!

hw (hallie) farber said...

Wow, those 13's will get you every time.

I'm enjoying your blog and the comments.

Kim VanDerHoek said...

Hi Kathy, thank you for leaving such a kind comment on my blog.

Your post raises a topic I have strong mixed feelings about. While on one hand I appreciate the genius of claiming an object from everyday life as a work of art, as a living artist, I struggle with where to go from there. If a dust bunny can be art the why bother with craft at all?

I finally got to the point where Casey is (great comment BTW)and just raise a middle finger to Duschamp and Warhol and step up to my easel anyway. And yeah, I'm OK with not being remembered for an earth-shattering urinal.

Celeste Bergin said...

I saw that wonderful film "how to draw a rabbit" (about Johnson)--I recommend it! I fell in love with Johnson after I saw his "performance" (hopping on one foot and hitting the box with his belt). You had to have "been there". He was a genius. RIP!

-Don said...

I'm kinda' laying back on this book a bit. I'm reading your words and the comments - all of which I thoroughly enjoy, but I cannot get into the context. Sorry. Maybe I'm too distracted right now to truly get into this deep of a discussion.

However, I must say that human life is too valuable to me to ever consider the act of suicide as a "work of art". To celebrate someone taking their own life as a "performance piece" puts it into the same context for me as celebrating someone taking another life in a snuff film and then calling it a "performance piece". I abhor the thought of either and reject the idea that this is an artistic creation or should even be discussed as such.

I'll accept the idea that Johnson was an artist who happened to kill himself. I cannot accept the idea that because he was an artist and because he killed himself in a creative way that this then made the act art. If this is something I'm supposed to accept to be considered an artist then I resign.

Just my two cents...


Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - Thank you! Numerologists are a interesting lot.

Hi Kim - I'll join you in that gesture! It's not that I can't appreciate the challenge to tradition (I do!) but I also feel that the traditional approach should still be respected. I was appalled to find in one gallery a pile of used sandpaper on the floor with an enormous price tag. I asked the gallery director about it and he said that the sandpaper was left over from the remodel of the gallery and they decided to pile it up on the floor and sell it as art. I think that's insulting to the rest of us and, IMHO, ignorant. Thank for commenting!

Hi Celeste - I must find that movie!! Thanks so much for the recommendation.

Hi Don - I don't know that we're being asked by this author to consider Johnson's actual suicide as artistic, but he did precede it with a number of artistic works and certainly tried to make it creative. So ... don't resign!