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Art as Experience

Like John Cage said: "Not a peep."

In the comments section of my last post, Can Video Games Be Art?, I sketched out a definition of art as experience, or even as an attitude, rather than as a thing or a collection of things (see here and here). At the risk of repeating myself, I’d like expound on that position, in case anyone is interested (and wants to discuss/debate it).

But first, and briefly: I really do consider Roger Ebert’s argument—that video games aren’t art and can never be art—easily refuted. (I suspect Ebert thinks similarly; he’s obviously being polemical.) Here are two different ways:

1. Redefine art so that it includes video games. (As far as I’ve seen, no one caught up in the Ebert-inspired debate has taken the trouble to actually define art—always a big mistake.)

2. Demonstrate how video games display, in their own way, artistry (formal elegance, originality, personal expression, ingenuity, response to an artistic tradition, etc.). This is what I see most people trying to do, but the key is to find that artistry in the video games themselves, without comparing them to paintings, literature, cinema, etc. If they are an artistic medium, then video games should have their own unique artistic integrity.

That said, Ebert’s right when he asks why anyone really cares whether video games are art. I think it’s self-evident that they can be, but despite that most of them still totally suck.

Art as Experience

So, returning to that first rhetorical maneuver: many artists have redefined art to suit their own needs. Arnold Schoenberg famously replaced Bach’s well temperment with a system of equal temperment, developing the twelve-tone technique and thereby redefining the very rules by which one composed music:

Some time later, one of Schoenberg’s students, John Cage, studied the twelve-tone technique but, by his own admission, wasn’t very skilled at employing it:

I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’

But Cage didn’t do that; he was far cleverer. He himself redefined music, taking it more afield than Schoenberg had. Cage found paths that led him away from that wall. In his (re-)conception of music, time became the medium’s foundation, making music “sounds over time, either organized or not.” Cage arrived at this conclusion in the 1930s, and everything else that he did extends from there: his inclusion of everyday objects and recorded sounds, his development of the prepared piano, his adoption of chance techniques, his organizing Happenings, his use of computers, his late indeterminate works—everything.

What’s worth noting here is how Cage’s redefinition pushed music away from being a thing (a composition, say) and more toward being an experience. This can perhaps most clearly be seen in 4’33”. Cage later expanded that work (and his definition of music) to include space as well—as he said, we have eyes in addition to our ears, and should use them. His later works make no distinction between musical composition and theater.

I love sounds just as they are. I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. […] The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. […] If you listen to Beethoven, or to Mozart, you see that they’re always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it’s always different.

Cage’s silence is of course not the absence of sound, but the absence of intentional sound. One simply listens to the sounds of one’s environment. This is music (and therefore theater) as pure experience. Whether one is experiencing art or not at any given moment is dependent entirely upon the audience. (You can, if you want to, stop reading this post right now, and perform 4’33”.)

Cage mentions Duchamp in the above video, and his hero had already been pushing sculpture in a similar direction: less an object, and more something to be experienced. And his chess playing is arguably performance art. (Why is it, again, that games can’t be art?)

An entire generation of performance artists and conceptual artists followed Cage and Duchamp. Allan Kaprow, one of Cage’s own students, coined the term “Happening” to describe the simultaneous multimedia events that Cage and others liked to organize. It’s a brilliant choice of word: art is what’s happening. And the root of happening, hap, ultimately means “luck, chance.”

A brief aside

Why don’t we have Happenings any more? In the late 50s and 1960s they were very popular; even Elvis got in on them (see 3:04–5:53):

It boggles my mind that so many writers today ignore don’t make much use of so many of the artistic innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, let alone the teens and 20s. For instance, after the 1970s, when the major presses essentially stopped publishing poetry, you think poets would have done anything and everything to get their work out there: team up with other artists, stage Happenings, make comics, make children’s books, embrace the performance and conceptual movements that have become dominant in the visual arts.

And some did, I guess. But poetry has, for the most part, gone in completely the opposite direction, becoming more inaccessible and more insular. Most poetry readings find poets standing in front of bored audiences, doing their best to bore them further. It’s no wonder that no one—except other writers—comes! (And then the poets complain about the fact that no one comes.)

Of course of course there are exceptions—but you know what I’m talking about.

End aside.

The cliché of the Happening is like the one Elvis attends in Easy Come, Easy Go—and I love the parody there of Yves Klein’s Anthropométries:

(Klein was a great one for turning art into experience. Art, in his view, transcended physicality.)

But Happenings were rather diverse affairs. Like any other artistic enterprise, they could be big or small, public or private. Allan Kaprow spent decades exploring the form, evolving them from stereotypical spectacular “spaghetti incidents” into more intimate, everyday actions (correspondingly, he shifted to calling them “Actions”):

Self-Service, a piece without spectators, was performed in the summer of 1967 in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. It spanned four months, June through September. Thirty-one activities were selected from a much larger number. Their time and locality distribution were determined by chance methods. Participants selected events from those offered for their city; each had to pick at least one, although doing many or all was preferable. Details of time and place were flexible within each month; choices made from month to month overlapped, some actions recurring. Activities took place among those of the participants’ normal lives. These were not necessarily coordinated; it was by chance that some actions turned out to be similar in two or all of the cities. (230)

—from Allan Kaprow’s “Self-Service: A Happening” in Mariellen R. Sandford’s Happenings and Other Acts, 1995, Routledge

Activities in Self-Service included things like “Couples kiss in the midst of the world, go on,” and “People shout in subway just before getting off, leave immediately,” and “Some torn paper is released from a high window, piece by piece, and slowly watched.” Others leave more of a trace in the world, but most are ephemeral, abstract, absurd. As Kaprow intended, they become more and more like everyday life—bizarre but also ordinary, beautiful yet mundane. Above all else, they are experiences.

(They are also extremely poetic; in my estimation, Kaprow was one of the greatest poets of the past 50 years.)

Art as Both Process and Product (And More)

As performance art has gained great influence in the art world, critics and artists have become more inclined to regard earlier works as performative. To cite one popular example, many critics have singled out the performative aspect of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; some now regard him as an early performance artist. (Even James Franco thinks so.)

(Another brief aside: I’m aware that some think James Franco foolish—and maybe he is—but he  strikes me as someone who’s exploring whatever interests him, and keeping an open mind about a lot of things. Compare him to Elvis, above.) (Although maybe I’m just tickled—or jealous?—that he can see a connection between Marina Abramović and the Green Goblin.)

I don’t mention any of this because I want to get bogged down in some discussion of when performance art started. Performance has always been an aspect of art; art has always been to performative. Today, performance garners more attention more than at other times; it is dominant (as is concept). And in time, performance and concept will lose their currency, and other aspects of art will replace them as dominants. Such is the story of art (all art).

So the question is really when did performance become dominant. But let’s leave that aside for now; rather, what I find interesting is how our contemporary emphasis on performance allows us to re-view art not as a collection of things, but as an experience—as Kaprow teaches us in Self-Service, art can be a way of interacting with the world, and considering it. This lesson holds true even when one’s looking at more object-based art.

Another way of thinking about it: Cage’s definition of music included both intentional and unintentional sounds. Therefore, an experiential view of art includes both intentional and unintentional objects (and experiences). What’s important is the attitude one brings to them.

I’m fond of saying that one can have an artistic experience with a tree, just as one can also have a religious experience with it, or a scientific experience with it, or an historical experience with it, and so forth. (Sometimes those experiences can overlap, or even become indistinguishable.) What matters is one’s perception. Watch a group of dancers interacting (especially post-1960); what they’re doing is often playful, absurd, meaningless, purely experiential:

Now watch a group of children climbing a tree. Why aren’t they having an artistic experience? (And why is it, again, that games can’t be art?) (If you want to ground it more in an artistic pedigree, you can sit it under the tree and perform 4’33”.)

That said, it’s easier to have an artistic experience with some things than with others. Art, like religion and science and history, has its rituals, its dominant conventions. It has its places and times and objects that make it easier to enter into what Laurie Anderson called “the art trance.” (Although of course some will argue that going to a museum to look at Degas paintings is not an artistic experience—and that the only real art is out in the street, etc. Different backgrounds, different perspectives.)

One of the things I like about this concept of art as experience is that it is fairly inclusive. It allows one to include as art more than just statues and paintings; it accommodates performance and process and experience and concept. It helps explain how the things that John Cage and Allan Kaprow did are related to the things that, say, Edward Hopper did. It expands easily to include a great deal of “extra stuff” we’re also always talking about when we talk about art—art instruction, institutions, the market, criticism… And yet it doesn’t focus only on process and concept and performance. Even under this definition, art-objects still remain important.

Why Do You Like Mark Rothko?

Two weekends ago I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, where someone asked me what I thought of a Rothko painting on display. (This is the one Rothko in the Modern Wing. The AIC has more than one in their collection; they rotate them. Right now Untitled (Purple, White, and Red) is up.)

What did I think of the Rothko? Or Rothko in general? These are difficult questions to answer. I simply adore Rothko—but why? And how to communicate that adoration, maybe even transfer it? (And was the person asking for that?)

My love for Rothko’s work, and for the man himself, is personal and irrational. There was a time when I didn’t care for his paintings—when I dismissed all abstract and modern art out of hand. But eventually I ran into a teacher who showed me some Rothko paintings, and I happened to be open to actually looking at them, and I thought they were really pretty. It wasn’t anything deeper than that: just beauty. And so I started looking at more Rothkos (well, prints), and slowly I began to appreciate other abstract art. So I’ve always felt a debt toward the man and his work, for opening things up for me like that.

I bought a poster print of this painting...and the painting was printed upside down. Which did nothing to diminish my affections.

Around the same time, I fell in love with someone who really liked Dar Williams. (To anyone rolling their eyes, c’mon—we were in college. But also c’mon—Dar’s pretty cool!) And Dar Williams wrote a song about Mark Rothko. And my then-girlfriend and I spent a lot of time looking at Mark Rothko paintings (well, prints—the paintings work better, but you can fall in love over Rothko prints).

And around the same time, Meet Joe Black came out, which has some great Rothkos in it. And I know it’s not a great movie, but I’ll always be fond of it, too, simply because it contains those paintings. So for a while it was love, love, love, and Rothko, Rothko, Rothko. (And of course this happens whenever you find something new—you start seeing it everywhere—but at the time I thought it magical.)

Seeing a Rothko painting now—and I don’t look at them too often anymore—stirs all of this up again, a very intense and bittersweet experience. We each of us have artists like that. Of course emotional intensity was a lot of what Rothko intended, and like most I find it impossible to look at his work without thinking of his suicide—it’s all so sad—but there’s a lot of other personal sentimentality and romanticism wrapped up in it, impossible to untangle. A lot of experience.

I can’t separate any of that from the object. Nor would I want to.

Art as Experience

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s an idea that’s easy to forget (I often forget it). So can video games be art? Well…like I said, who really cares? (I imagine that someone cares.)

The title of this post is borrowed from John Dewey, so I’ll let him have the final word:

In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventioned that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience. (1)

—John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

24 thoughts on “Art as Experience

  1. How essential do you think the word “ambiguity” or “mystery” is to the definition of art? I mean, do you think art (either as experience or as object or as something else) is necessarily ambiguous?

    1. I have a fondness for art that’s mysterious and ambiguous, but I don’t think those things are central or exclusive to art. Meaning, I don’t think one has to require that art be made so as to emphasize those things (although that’s often nice). But that said, the world is mysterious and ambiguous and so art, being part of the world, will necessarily be mysterious and ambiguous. (Well, certainly ambiguous. If one wants to get painstakingly etymological, I suppose it’s debatable whether all art is mysterious: a given work may not have anything to say or teach in regards to the mystic rites.)

      I could leave the Michigan Building right now and cross the street and walk into the Art Institute of Chicago. A lot of the paintings there will be mysterious and ambiguous to me, simply because I don’t know much about most of them. Some of them, many of them, may remain mysterious to me even after I study them. I know a great deal about Yves Klein’s work, for instance, but his work remains…uncanny.

      But I can also walk past the Art Institute into Grant Park, where I’ll see lots of trees and animals and people. And all of that will be pretty mysterious and ambiguous to me as well. Maybe even more so, because the space is somewhat less rationalized and laid out for me. And I know less about trees and animals and people than I do art.

      Once I saw two ambulances racing down Logan Boulevard, in opposite directions. They passed one another, each headed urgently elsewhere. I never learned their destinations, of course. And it suddenly seemed very silly to me that we pride ourselves on knowing much about anything.

  2. I thought you would go more in Rothko. The Dar Williams and your ex, along with Rothko-all of that seems rife for a quasi-autobiographical piece a la Sebald. It’s a world rich in anniversaries.

    1. That reminds me of what Morrissey said, in his Q&A with The Face:

      “Q: At which point did you stop being celibate, why and who with?

      A: I don’t see how anyone would benefit from seeing that kind of information in print. Least of all me.”

        1. OOH! Those are fighting words!

          I realize of course that a lot of people don’t care for him and his, but his skill with words is, I like to believe, beyond doubt. I think him pretty brilliant myself—I’d go so far as to call him one of our greatest living poets.

          Look at the lyrics to “Cemetry Gates,” for instance:


          A dreaded sunny day
          so I meet you at the cemetery gates
          Keats and Yeats are on your side

          A dreaded sunny day
          so I meet you at the cemetery gates
          Keats and Yeats are on your side
          while Wilde is on mine

          So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
          all those people all those lives
          where are they now?
          with the loves and hates
          and passions just like mine
          they were born
          and then they lived and then they died
          seems so unfair
          and I want to cry

          You say: “ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn”
          and you claim these words as your own
          but I’ve read well, and I’ve heard them said
          a hundred times, maybe less, maybe more

          If you must write prose and poems
          the words you use should be your own
          don’t plagiarise or take “on loans”
          there’s always someone, somewhere
          with a big nose, who knows
          and who trips you up and laughs
          when you fall
          who’ll trip you up and laugh
          when you fall

          You say: “ere long done do does did”
          words which could only be your own
          and then you then produce the text
          from whence was ripped some dizzy whore, 1804

          A dreaded sunny day
          so let’s go where we’re happy
          and I meet you at the cemetery gates
          Oh Keats and Yeats are on your side

          A dreaded sunny day
          so let’s go where we’re wanted
          and I meet you at the cemetery gates
          Keats and Yeats are on your side
          but you lose
          because weird lover Wilde is on mine

          …That’s pretty fucking clever.

        2. Lately I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the words to his later solo song “Piccadilly Palare.”


          “Palare” is thieves’ cant, later adopted by gay men (who were themselves criminals), especially in 1960s London. And of course Morrissey is drawn to language that signals both homosexuality and criminality:

          Off the rails I was and
          Off the rails
          I was happy to stay
          GET OUT OF MY WAY
          On the rack I was
          Easy meat, and a reasonably good buy
          A reasonably good buy

          The Piccadilly palare
          Was just silly slang
          Between me and the boys in my gang
          “So Bona to Vada. OH YOU
          Your lovely eek and
          Your lovely riah”

          This is especially clever. What’s the meaning of gang here? And why is the slang silly? The song’s use of past tense is very loaded. This song comes from Bona Drag (“Nice Clothes”), one of Morrissey’s first solo albums—is he talking about the Smiths? Of course he’s talking about the Smiths! So what then is he saying about his own identity?

          We plied an ancient trade
          Where we threw all life’s
          Instructions away
          Exchanging lies and digs (my way)
          Cause in a belted coat
          Oh, I secretly knew
          That I hadn’t a clue

          (No, no. No, no, no. You can’t get there that way. Follow me…)

          The Piccadilly palare
          Was just silly slang
          Between me and the boys in my gang
          Exchanging palare
          You wouldn’t understand
          Good sons like you
          NEVER DO.

          So why do you smile
          When you think about Earl’s Court ?
          But you cry when you think of all
          The battles you’ve fought (and lost) ?
          It may all end tomorrow
          Or it could go on forever
          In which case I’m doomed
          It could go on forever
          In which case I’m doomed

          I also really love this last verse. Earl’s Court was a gay-friendly district in 1960s London. And it where some of An American Werewolf in London was shot—hence the wolf cries at the start of the studio track?

          Again, the use of past tense is very telling. Who is Morrissey talking to? Himself? Is he criticizing his own appropriation of 1960s gay culture? Or is the song not autobiographical at all, and rather a fantasy of living in London in the 60s? For which he’s chiding himself? Amazing how much intertextuality and ambiguity he packs into pop lyrics. And I’m always amazed by how coded and self-referential his language is. He, more than any other pop singer I know, understands how language’s significance depends so much on its social context.

          Oh, Morrissey. How I love thee!

          1. And “Piccadilly” comes from “piccadill,” a kind of shirt. Bona drag.

            I’ve always wondered if the Smiths had a particular connection with Piccadilly—maybe someone out there knows…?

          2. From a Morrissey interview in The Face, March 1990:

            ‘Palare’ is gypsy slang that was adopted by the theatre and in the Seventies I heard it being used by male prostitutes (laughs). They have their own code words for sizing people up and talking among themselves. The song is about male prostitution in Piccadilly. It became a very big thing during the Seventies. Were you ever aware of documentaries like Johnny Go Home? In the North, among most people I know, there was something oddly romantic about the whole thing. It spelt ‘freedom’. Catching a coach and spending a day in Piccadilly was extraordinary. It’s very glitzy now because Soho’s been cleaned up, but then it was quite… powerful.

            And from an interview in Vox, November 1990:

            It’s not a particularly strong record. It’s not overwhelming, the subject is even slightly dated. ‘Piccadilly Palare’, which will receive blanket horrendous reviews, is a song about male prostitution. But I’m not running around in the street saying ‘Look at me singing about male prostitution, isn’t that incredibly unique!’ I don’t want plaudits for examining a new subject, but I will say that even coming across a pop record with a reasonably unique situation is in itself interesting.

            He also mentions Piccadilly in this 1986 interview, although I don’t any real connection to the song.

  3. adam, i’m a big fan of your tree perspective, for many reasons. not least of which is the old eastern parable of two monks sitting in a field, and one points to a tree and says, ‘they call that a tree,’ and they both burst out laughing.

    but something bothers me, or strikes me as too imprecise yet, in your discussion. i think you bring an important element to the table, but it seems to err on the side where everything is art. and as a consequence, nothing is art. to break all boundaries in order to include everything is to destroy the divine tension by which a thing radiates.

    sure a rothko painting is pretty, but then aren’t all pretty things art? more likely the reason a rothko painting is art is because it’s hung on the wall and therefore ex-ists, i.e. stands out, has entered the ritual space of art, in which the environment plays as significant a role as the object. maybe art, then, is any situation in which thingness (in the heideggarian sense, i guess) and beauty are simultaneously expressed. that’s just one possibility.

    performance art strikes me as jehova witnesses who knock on your door to convert you—look everything is art! which is not to say it doesn’t sometimes work. but being handed a pamphlet is far from having a religious experience. as an art form it seems to fall more towards the commentary end spectrum.

    the tree perspective breaks down when the logic goes from: anything has the capacity to be perceived as art, therefore everything is art. whereas, even though anything has the capacity to be analyzed scientifically, a complex mode of techniques and knowledge is required to make that possible. admittedly, art is inherently mysterious and ambiguous, as edward pointed out. but that indicates that a instrument of thought capable of high resolution and precision is required to grapple with it, not that it lacks distinction and therefore everything is everything. and yet, i have the sense that art, unlike science, will always remain to one degree or another undefined given that objectivity does not trump subjectivity in this particular domain of human experience.

    although i’m wondering if a thought experiment might bring about any insight, by following your tree perspective and applying each viewing lens onto the tree to see perhaps what are the essential traits of that viewing lens. how is the tree perceived according to each lens? and would comparing those descriptions reveal the filters inherent in each lens, i.e. what makes those lenes unique?

    1. Hey Keith,

      You’re right that the danger in this view is that “everything becomes art.” That’s the ultimate conclusion of Cage’s argument, really: the world entire became music, and therefore also theater. But note that Cage issued a criterion as well: everything becomes music if we have ears to hear it. There remains the question of perception.

      Everything can be perceived artistically, as you say (as I say), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything is art. Because according to this view, art is not a thing. It’s a perception.

      And only a certain kind of perception, which does not always exist. Right now I’m typing this on a keyboard, and the keyboard is nothing but a tool to me. I’m not even looking at it, and I’m not having an artistic experience with this keyboard. I’m making a very practical, tool-oriented use of it. (I agree with you that this view is very Heideggerian.)

      This all leads one back to the question: what is art? Sure, art can be defined as an experience, but that begs the question: what kind of experience? I think there are many answers to that question, but one I find especially appealing is the definition Shklovsky gave in Theory of Prose:

      And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, at our fear of war. […] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’ (5–6)

      So something must be done to make a perception an artistic one. Most people don’t go around having nonstop artistic experiences, just like most people don’t go around having nonstop scientific experiences, or religious experiences, etc. (Of course, the scientist is more apt to see science in all things, the Jehovah’s Witness to see religion in all things—and the artist more apt to see the art in the everyday.) And exercising artistic perception requires techniques and knowledge, just like science and religion do.

      This is why Shklovsky so liked enstrangement: it complicates our everyday approach to the world. Putting a telephone on a pedestal allows us to see the telephone, rather than just make conditioned, practical use of it. The next time we encounter one in the living room, we might be more inclined to look at it as something other than a tool. We might appreciate its design, for instance. Or find something absurd to do with it, like take it off the hook and admire the sound of the dial tone. Take every phone off the hook and wander through the house—it’s a concert! (Of course, we don’t have telephones like this any more, so there goes that idea.)

      Museums are to art, I think, as temples are to religion, and laboratories to science. They can facilitate having artistic experiences. Upon entering, one suppresses other forms of perception, and brings one’s artistic facilities to the fore. But museums aren’t the only place you can “do art.” And some find it impossible to experience art in museums. See John Cage. See Allan Kaprow. See FLUXUS.

      Performance art, for me, is investigating performance as an artistic medium: one can approach the body and the things it does artistically. Dancers have known this for a long time, and in some ways performance art is an outgrowth of dance (of modern dance, and sympathetic forms like butoh). I don’t think that makes everything art at all: it just brings attention to a a medium previously overlooked, or largely overlooked (or explored only in certain ways). But we still go around doing and performing actions without thinking of them as art. I’m typing; no art is involved in this (especially the way I type). When Albert Tangora types, that’s another thing entirely (and possibly art).

      I like your thought experiment. One could pick a week, then explore seven different ways of experiencing a tree, one for each day.


      1. if we remain in the field of pure theory, then everything you and i have said probably works out fine. but things admittedly become infinitely more complicated when you introduce the variable of value, perhaps most problematically in the form of economics, as in the case of the first telephone placed on a pedestal in a museum. that telephone is placed on a pedestal to inspire the art mode of perception, to make us stop and see that every telephone, every object of ordinary regard has within it the element of the strange and extraordinary masked over by the numbing paste of the familiar. and yet that telephone (and only that one alone) on the pedestal, would sell for thousands of dollars, whereas every other telephone equivalent in make and craftmanship would be worth its meager market value.

        it becomes very difficult to account for and incorporate the aura quality (to allude to benjamin) of an object, and its relationship to originality, difficulty of execution, and rarity or abundance. the latter of which is intimately bound with shklovsky’s estrangement (which i agree is an amazing definition for art, and can possibly extend even further beyond the domain of art into a potential worldview of life itself). for it seems only the rare has as its natural state that quality of estrangement to which most art aspires, whereas the rest must be arrived at by an exercise of will.

        how would introducing these other variables, most particularly value (whether in its general sense or more specific economic sense), affect the art-as-expericence model? do things become overly complicated at that point?

        1. Well, as Morrissey wisely said, “Money changes everything.”

          Let’s look at it this way: any published writer quickly learns that being a writer includes far more than just sitting down and writing. There’s a practical side to the profession, usually ignored in MFA programs: researching the publishing market, submitting work, tracking manuscripts, networking, promoting one’s work, etc. Are those things doing art? Are they part of the artistic experience?

          When looked at from the definition I propose above, I’d say no—they’re more business activities. One approaches them practically, not artistically (assuming one wants to be successful). We’re all familiar with at least one successful author who’s also a lousy writer; she’s mastered the business and social side of things, but not the artistic side. Similarly, we probably all know at least one fabulous writer who will never be successful in the present, if ever, because she “doesn’t have her act together”—can’t negotiate the social side of being a writer.

          (Of course one doesn’t need to be any good at doing art in order to do it.)

          So when I go to the PO and send off a bunch of manuscripts, then go home and log it all in my Excel file, I don’t think I’m “doing art.” The same way that I’m not necessarily “doing art” when I pay $20 to take someone on a date to a new movie—that’s a social experience. And with any luck I’m employing facilities other than my artistic ones—although I of course appreciate the beauty of my companion, and try to say clever things, etc. Doing business and doing the social doesn’t preclude having aesthetic thoughts. Experiences are never pure.

          So that’s if you look at art as an experience, a way of approaching and interacting with the world. But of course “doing art” includes and to a large extent necessitates a lot of resources and institutions, and those things include businesses and markets. Museums, we well know, are also big businesses. And without museums and galleries and schools and auctions etc., many artists—not all, but many—wouldn’t be able to “do art”—at least, not in the same way. Matthew Barney needs petroleum jelly to make his self-lubricating sculptures. At some point, he has to put in an order for a dozen vats more of petroleum jelly (or have his assistant order it for him). Where does one thing start or stop being another? Well, one draws a line somewhere; I doubt Barney thinks of the chore of ordering more petroleum jelly as “doing art,” even if it is an important part of his art practice. But at the same time, if Barbara Gladstone Gallery hadn’t taken Barney on board in the 1990s, then the guy wouldn’t have millions of dollars today to spend on petroleum jelly, renting Japanese fishing boats, making goat costumes, etc. He might still be modeling clothes for Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, and purchasing his petroleum jelly at CVS.

          If I sell my newly-finished novel manuscript, “The New Boyfriend,” to Hollywood for $1,000,000, then I’ll have more time to be able to pursue writing. …Doesn’t anyone want to make me a millionaire? I swear I’ll put the money to excellent use!

          This is a story as old as art itself. The folks who painted those animals at Lescaux were no doubt being supported by others, who went out hunting and gathering while the artists sat around all day learning how to mix pigments with liquid adhesives and then use them to represent animals… But who is to say that those hunters didn’t “do some art” while out on the game trail? It’s a mistake—and this is my argument overall—to relegate artistic experiences only to certain times and places.

          So the art market exists, and it plays some role in how people are able to “do art.” It provides resources and enables communities, among other things. Conversely, the art market often does a great job of getting in the way of doing art. My artist friends often complain of how much time they have to spend wooing galleries, and then satisfying those galleries; they’d rather just be in their studios, playing around and making things (doing art). And galleries also often turn artworks into commodities, which may have nothing to do with doing art. (Although who knows? If someone spends $5000 on a hip little sculpture and it helps them live a little more artistically, then so be it.)

          Now, I think that material is very important and shouldn’t be overlooked—I’m co-editing on a book of interviews with authors that focuses exclusively on the material aspects of their practices—but somewhere you have to draw a line. Without the hummus and the veggies I had for lunch, I’d be too distracted to work on my new novel manuscript. And lord knows I need coffee to write! But when I made coffee earlier, was I making art? No, I was much too groggy, and lucky even to get the grounds into the machine.

          This is why Matthew Barney hires someone else to make his coffee.

          And this is why any definition is ultimately absurd—but only when viewed without limits. Within a given context it can be quite useful.

          As for original works of art etc.—they’re useful, but not necessary for doing art, from this perspective. I mean, it certainly gives me a frisson to walk across the street to the Art Institute and look at American Gothic. I stand in front of it and think, “Wowzers! Grant Wood once stood in front of this canvas, too, touching it with his brushes and bringing to life this painting.” That’s cool! And no print will ever reproduce the actual appearance of the actual painting (although someday, who knows, we may be able to look at work on holodecks). So that’s cool, too—and useful. (It’s tough to study paintings without actually looking at them.)

          But this just comes back to the idea of art objects as enablers. How many people have looked at the real honest-to-goodness aura-owning American Gothic and not had any kind of artistic experience at all? Answer: Too many people.

          I should hasten to add that the view of art I’m advocating here is not simply a theoretical one: it’s also a practical one. I have no interest in theory—well, very little interest in it—if it doesn’t inform action. One of the things I like about this view of art, and Shklovsky’s definition of art, is that it enables one to do what Rilke said one must do. (Indeed, it’s what is not there—what is now only a trace in the sculpture—that compels Rilke toward that conclusion.)

          1. i didn’t express myself clearly in my previous comment. i enjoyed your response and agree that it’s impossible to separate process (and all that entails along the hierarchy of needs and even comforts) from finished object or the event of a happening. and rock on rilke.

            but what i meant to say (as simply as possible) is why is the telephone on a pedestal valued more (aesthetically, critically and hence monetarily) than every other phone of equal craftsmanship?

            the function of the telephone-pedestal qua art (as i understand it) is to invoke the ‘qua art’ of every telephone; i.e. to point out that there is no essential difference between the telephone on the pedestal and every other, and so signify that we are potentially surrounded by art in every moment of our lives. as such the telephone-pedestal is nothing but a place-holder, so to speak, for that recognition. it could have been any object whose ready-at-hand was forced into the present-at-hand ritual space of a museum.

            by the way, congrats on the novel!

            1. Thanks, Keith!

              If someone put a telephone on a pedestal, I’d hope it would go further than that. If it did, then it might be an interesting work of art, and then it would really be different than a phone on a nightstand. As for whether anyone would value it, that’s another thing.

              Here’s a for instance. There might be some writer whom you and I don’t think is particularly good, but he manages to make a name for himself (maybe by relentlessly promoting himself and his work). And then he becomes a commodity. Because we recognize his name, we’re more apt to pick up an issue of a journal that has one of his pieces, or to talk about him with others, even though we don’t really care for his work. But everyone else is talking about him, so we join in. And it doesn’t really matter after a while what others think of him, because he’s in fashion. And he can get published wherever, or most places, because editors realize his name will sell issues, or maybe they’re even a little afraid of him… And so on. I’m not trying to be cynical or say all publishing is like this, because it certainly isn’t. But these kinds of things happen. People often desire things that they see other people desiring.

              I recycle the same five YouTube clips over and over again, but I think Antonioni really nailed it with that Yardbirds sequence in Blow-up:


              Another example: You see a movie and aren’t sure what you think of it, and then you read a few extraordinarily positive reviews, and so you decide you like it, too. I see this happen all the time. Hell, I’ve done it myself! We’re often very irrational when it comes to what we think about art. We decide we like a certain thing, and then we become its defenders. Or we decide we dislike something, and then we have nothing nice to say about it. Again, I’m not saying this is all there is, or that everyone is always like this…but it happens.

              This is why savvy artists write their own press releases, and take their PR seriously. Whether they’re good artists or not. It doesn’t hurt to be able to sell oneself.

              So I think all of that is involved as well. One big difference between the telephone on the pedestal and another telephone is that many people desire the first one.

    1. Hi Sam,

      I bought mine back in college, at a poster sales. Which are still going on, because I saw one at my current university just yesterday—though I don’t know if they still carry Rothko prints.

      A quick Google revealed that the Tate sells posters of Red on Maroon:

      And there seem to be a lot of British poster sites that sell Rothko posters of various other paintings:

      Good luck! And let me know how it goes!


  4. Thanks for your reply Adam :)
    There are multiple works who have the same title, the one you referenced in your post is probably not the one you bought. It’s lighter and more robust in it’s expression than the version they are selling.
    I am starting to think that they never made a print from this one, too bad because it’s a great piece.


    1. Yeah, the one I had is not the same as the one the Tate is selling (the one I linked to). I’d have to look around, I think, to remember which one I owned. I do remember that the print was incorrect. It was upside down, as compared to the original painting. (I’m basing this on how the text was printed on the poster.)

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