It’s uninteresting, but is it…art?

Damien Hirst The Dream, 2008

Damien Hirst
The Dream, 2008

When one thinks too long about art, the act of writing or painting or composing for an audience, even if that audience is never manifest, the act itself assumes all of its oddity, and embodies its queer position as both foundational to existence and utterly irrelevant. There is no question that, without art’s dialogue in chronological time, life as human subject could not exist as it does. We would have no record of our language in past epochs, no idea what conflicts our ancestors faced, no appreciation for manipulation of material to make buildings, technology, or even medicine. Art has been used as a catch-all term for the things which comprise the collective consciousness of a community. Without the memory function enabled by our cultural production, then, we would be a people without a past, and because artists construct reality, without it we would be a people with no future (in the temporal, narrative-based way we understand that term).

And yet, despite art being the vehicle for “culture” in the broadest sense (of human-centric life), the individual instances of art can appear so arbitrary, non-sensical, and even boring to most people who don’t know or care to know what it is. Indeed, even to someone literate in one of cultural production’s many artistic dialogues, if presented with an unfamiliar work out of context, may find it uninteresting, silly, and worthless.

I recently overheard two adolescents on a first date debate whether women should be allowed to wear baseball caps. Art can sound like that. Not every conversation is relevant or mature. Additionally, an academic once spent 45 minutes explaining to me Deleuze’s concept of the rhizomatic. Not every conversation is necessary. We can fool ourselves into thinking certain topics are important, but they quickly become dated. Not every pop song endures. It depends on the power of expression, and the relevance of the articulation.

These problems of art are metonym for the awkward, and even humiliating, position of human life: Can we honestly say that our culture, which is foundational to human existence, is worthwhile? Is it worth the time and effort it takes to preserve and perpetuate it?

Take a look around at the people today. Not the ones you hear about or idolize, but the ones you know intimately. Consider the things they do—make money and spend it, like things on facebook, take pictures of food at restaurants, throw plastic into the ocean, yell at customer service representatives, play games on their phones, buy dogs with smushed faces, protest at abortion clinics, sign petitions for legislation, wear make-up, get hair cuts, try on clothes, get tattoos, drink beer, visit monuments, comment on YouTube, and talk about people they know. Consider all of it and more: humanity as it is, of the things they spend time on, what they talk about, murders they commit and reasons they give for committing them. Think of yourself living with them, and take stock of all the ways you spend your time. After long contemplation, which person would like to tell me humanity—not in the abstract, but in its everyday actions—is indispensible or important? Who wants to bleat at me that our culture is worthy of preservation, perhaps so we can enjoy its excellent shopping?

If you aspire to more than present humanity can give, you must work for it. Not just in art, but within specific and local communities, engaging the people in your everyday life.

For let’s not pretend that art can do more than the culture it arises from. Human beings are condition and will, and though the will is strong, it cannot completely dismiss its surroundings. If art appears silly, it could be that you are looking at the expressive equivalent of the adolescent debating women in baseball caps. But, equally, it could be that you are that adolescent, and maturity will make the object in question more meaningful.

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When Does Cultural Production End?

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Anyone can produce art. But when do we get to stop? I don’t mean here a question of the boundaries of a particular object or movement, but on a practical level, at what point has the painter, the author, or the sculptor finally said what it is that needed saying, after which time they get to cast aside the tools and do something else? Or are we to believe that once what needed saying has been said, one must continue to stalk one’s computer, ever after shackled to the task of churning out cleverness and replication without regard for usefulness?

Certainly we have seen writers like Žižek continue long after their relevant point has been made. Conversely, we know that Wittgenstein was able to walk away.

Cultural production is the worrying of a splinter beneath the skin, that shard having entered to some level of depth during some earlier time, the result of short-sightedness or recklessness or contingency, now affecting parts of the body that were meant for something other than splinters. Pushing a splinter out is frustratingly slow work, especially if the cells have become used to working around it. How does one convince others to sustain the work? How does one convince oneself?

I read a story recently that a girl had an asthma attack and died at her elementary school in Philadelphia. She had an albuterol inhaler which could have saved her, but the school had a policy that all medications had to be locked in a cabinet where only the school nurse had a key. And they had another policy in place where the school nurse rotated through five schools, one each day. The result being that when a girl needed medication, she couldn’t get it because the nurse was at a different school. Here we have two rules: medication must be locked up in the nurses’ office, and nurses must rotate. These rules were not meant to communicate. They were the result of separate conversations, one where children were taking each other’s medication and another where budgets did not allow a nurse at every school. But when these rules were implemented, it created an object which pierced skin. In the end, a girl died.

How much larger the implications become when we are speaking not of the policies of one school district, but of assumptions in the very way we speak, move, get and give money, take up projects and react to the projects of others—the collected mass passed down about what humanity can do—to each other, to ourselves, to the land.

What barbed object dragged itself across us, and for how long? How is it that the human condition is a history of rake, of abrasion, of pain and neglect? There are so many forms of life, they all have their operant assumptions, and their edges don’t match. The skin is porous and prone to puncture. Everywhere people die for the preservation of rules.

Cultural production is the outlet through which we test alternate realities, locating a conflict and working at it, worrying some issue, taking up a burden which may not be completed before our lives are, under the influence of a faith which says that resolve and creativity alone can push the splinter back out.

Cultural production is the testing ground for solutions, those times we attempt to articulate a reality which doesn’t exist and may never exist. The role of the artist is to chart the new way. As Barnett Newman writes, “Reality is what the artist makes it.” As such, cultural production ends in one of two ways: either when reality looks how the artist wanted it, or when we lose faith that art can change the conditions of our existence.

Matt Siemer
Contributor