The absurdity of human endeavor, especially the absurdity of making art, has been at the forefront of my mind recently. How could it not be? Ever since the economic meltdown that greeted many of us soon after college graduation, those who sneer at an education in the arts have half-converted many in the ranks of the formerly art avid–none of us are really sneering but we concede the point that maybe it’s not the best idea. For me, the conversion happened while I was still completing my undergraduate degree, but I’ve never felt like I actually dodged a bullet. In fact, quite the opposite.
Economic value is important. It is important to meet your own basic needs, and even to be comfortable, or you will have no energy for anything but surviving. Art can add economic value to the world, but far too often it does so by becoming hyper-commoditized in a way that makes me feel ill. I’m not saying that if you’re successful as an artist, you’ve betrayed your art somehow. I’m saying–well–Jeff Koons. I enjoy the balloon dog that lives in Versailles–for its very absurdity–but for the most part, his super-slick work makes me immediately feel empty. Or emptier. I think this goes counter to art’s possible purpose, its possible semi-quantifiable value.
I recently completed a sculpture and immediately felt kind of like I’d done the earth a disservice by cluttering her surface with yet another object. Sometimes I feel like a sculpture is a thing in much the same way a toaster is a thing, or a Brillo box, or soup can, or whatever. But I don’t think this way and see it as a possible conceptual driver for a body of work. One, it’s already been done to death and continues to be done. Two, how can all this irony about art’s value, embodied within art itself, be self-sustaining for art as a practice and institution?
So, I’ve been thinking about all of this and wondering how to move forward when these feelings were plaguing me. And then, I was watching Andrew Bird’s TED talk (which really didn’t involve much talking) and several things occurred to me. Art adds man-made color to a man-made world that is often gray and monotonous. It restores our faith that human beings can make beautiful things, when so often what we see is how we’ve destroyed our natural world and replaced it with this horrible grayness. I was feeling particularly low, and this beautiful sound he made suddenly convinced me that yes, the world can still be beautiful. This is art’s value. I am not saying that art is necessarily about making meaning, or at least not meaning that is expressible in language. There is a cynicism that pervades conceptual art-making, which too often becomes its own meta-commentary, inaccessible to any but those who enjoy a good art-dissection session. The meaning I’m talking about is extra-verbal. Art, especially music, has the power to reach out and plant a sweet ache in our hearts, a feeling of connectedness and desire for life that we can’t necessarily explain.
Music does this best, most immediately, and for the most people. There are musicians whose work obviously doesn’t have this quality. There is highly-processed pop that you can probably dance to, but it’s not going to make you feel the kind of joy I’m talking about. I regret that I’m not a better musician because of what music has done for me, but as a sculptor, I think it’s possible for visual art to work this way also. Against Jeff Koons, look at someone like Tara Donovan. Look at Gehart Demetz or Bruno Walpoth. A person has to work harder to find this kind of visual art. You have to work harder to view art without the cultural expectations about art weighing you down. The rarefied gallery setting, the artspeak, the rich patrons–these things are all exclusionary and they’re layered on like shellac. Additionally, the likelihood of accidentally encountering visual art and falling rapt is statistically less likely than accidentally encountering music (unless you live in a cultural epicenter, which I don’t). I found Andrew Bird through his NY Times blog (click here for his most recent installment). But I found Devendra Banhart in a coffee shop. Some people probably found Grizzly Bear on the Blue Valentine soundtrack. I actively seek out music too, but there are these many happy accidents.
So, I’ll get off my soap box. But if you haven’t listened to Andrew Bird, I wanted to share some of my favorites. Andrew Bird combines extra-verbal meaning with highly conceptual word play, so if you like explicating poetry (my literature friends), you’ll enjoy his lyrics. If you like some silly mixed in with your serious, you’ll also enjoy his lyrics. But you’d better like whistling. If not, don’t bother.
The Best of Andrew Bird (But really, all of it is good, and beyond the #1 song, these aren’t in any kind of ranking order)
1. Armchairs (Armchair Apocrypha)
“I dreamed you were a cosmonaut of the space between our chairs, and I was the cartographer of the tangles in your hair.”
“Grab hold of your bootstraps, oh and pull like hell till gravity feels sorry for you, oh and lets you go. As if you lack the proper chemicals to know the way it felt the last time you let yourself fall this low. And Time, Time–it’s a crooked bow.”
“It says that someday we’ll get back at them all with epoxy and a pair of pliers.”
2. Lazy Projector (Break it Yourself)
Favorite lines: “It’s all in the hands of a lazy projector. That forgetting, embellishing, lying machine.”
3. Anonanimal (Noble Beast)
Favorite lines: “I will become this animal. Perfectly adapted to the music hall.”
4. Tables and Chairs (The Mysterious Production of Eggs)
Favorite line: “There will be snacks, there will.”
5. The Trees Were Mistaken (Soldier On)
Favorite lines: “And the trees were mistaking the trees for the woods and the sound of the trash for the sound of the blowing leaves along the Southfield freeway.”
6. Eyeoneye (Break it Yourself)
Favorite lines: “And the eye that eyes itself is your eye. And the ear that hears itself is too near. And you’re getting too close, you’re getting too close, you’re getting too close to your source.”
7. A Nervous Tic (The Mysterious Production of Eggs)
Favorite lines: “You’re what happens when two substances collide.”
8. Why (The Swimming Hour)
Favorite lines: “How I wish it was your dishes you were throwing. Damn you for being so easygoing.”
9. Not a Robot, But a Ghost (Noble Beast)
Favorite lines: “I hear the clockwork in your core. Time strips the gears till you forget what they were for.”
10. Weather Systems (Weather Systems)
Favorite lines: “I can see your blood flow. I can see your cells grow.”