Matters of the Art

This morning as I was just about cranking my office apparatus to a slow usual start, among other things I read a couple of excellent articles which in turn gave me something I thought I would share. The first article was about how what we perceive (or not) as art is dependent on in which setting we found it. Let me come back to it shortly. The second article was about why authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Brown are bestselling and the whole problem with a lot of popular non-fiction particularly the Gladwell type (Dan Brown writes fiction but with similar tools). Do read it here.
So the art and setting thingy. The article I read tells about an experiment by The Washington Post where they asked an acclaimed, Grammy winning violinist, Joshua Bell, to pose as a busker (a person who performs on street for people for money they might give him) at a Washington DC subway station. He performed the same piece he did the previous day at a concert where the entry ticket was more than 100 dollars per person. A hidden camera captured his complete subway performance. He managed to collect a total of 32 dollars from about 7 people who stopped and listened to him playing. 1097 people passed him by in total. Only 1 recognized him. Amazing isn’t it?
The article also mentioned a similar story of a graffiti artist known as Banksy, who set up a small vendor stall in New York for one day. The stall, manned by an unknown elderly man, sold his original signed work for 60 dollars per piece. He managed to sell a total of 8 of his artwork for 240 dollars (yea, 8 pieces 60 dollars apiece should be 480, but it seems some people haggled and got some bargain!!) Banksy’s original work goes for thousands of dollars, if it could be sold at all that is, because he paints on public walls. Banksy is a graffiti artist. A stencil graffiti artist to be specific. Graffiti is basically any drawing, writing or painting, usually done illicitly, in a public place. Banksy uses stencil, which is a design cut on a paper, metal etc…oh c’mon you know what stencil is, don’t you. So he uses stencil. But why is he such a big name? Well, his work is beautiful. His work is witty. But most importantly, his work is satirical social commentary. His work make strong social and political statements; art with a purpose, if you crave some cliché. His work can be found on walls all over the world. And to add to this, his identity is secret. Nobody knows who Banksy is really (well a couple of journalists know, who interviewed him (but they are nobody. LOL. Now that is a hilarious extempore joke :D)). I strongly urge you to go and visit his website, here. But as the ‘clicks’ history on my blog dashboard tells me, I know most of you would not, so let me show you some of his artwork below.

banksy ghetto

banksy graffiti crime

Banksy mouse
I love his brilliant use of situation. Like here, a perfectly placed mouse and a little wood dust give the illusion that the mouse toppled the oppressive signboard.

What the article tried to convey was, how appreciation of art is not an absolute, to us. People were propmt to appreciate the violinist when they were told that he is tremendous and paid $100 for it. I am sure, a lot of them went home impressed. But when the others heard him perform for free and in an untidy setting, they did not really care. Of course there were other factors too but this fact still remains. Similarly, people of New York could not appreciate the art of Banksy while it was available on a park stall. And it is all the more ironical because Banksy’s hides his identity, according to him, so that his work matter, not his face, so his art should have mattered.
And this is something which has divided opinions forever. What constitutes art?
Consider this below piece for example:

Black circle
Black Circle by Kazimir Malevich. Oil on canvas. 1915

Modern art was a long time mystery to me. Not all of course, but things like this:

Snail matisse
The Snail by Henri Matisse. Gouache on paper. 1953.

I mean, I do not really find the black circle and this colorful piece here particularly repulsive, but why should they be interesting to anybody, always irritated me. Particulary if such work is celebrated. Pablo Picasso is perhaps the greatest example of this. He is widely known to be a genius artist. But then I see something like this and I wonder, what is wrong with ‘me’:

Picasso Dora Maar
Dora Maar with Cat by Picasso. 1941. One of the world’s most expensive paintings.

I was reading an article about Picasso somewhere which first appeared in The Guardian. Towards the end, the article had this quote, a sort of confessional from Picasso. He said it while being interviewed by a writer Giovanni Papini.
Today, as you know, I am famous, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I haven’t the  courage to consider myself an artist in the ancient sense of the word. Great painters are people like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood the times and has exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity and the greed of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than might seem, but it has the merit of being sincere.”
This quote was like a vindication to all my long held theories. I said, yea I knew it all along sucker. I knew it.
Coming from The Guardian, I never suspected its authenticity. But I think the journalist did not really did the background check and this quote is almost certainly an invention of Papini. But the fact that I was so eager to believe it was a real eye opener for me. It was damn funny how I so wanted to believe that all modern art is fake. And the fact that a journalist made up that story and it has been believed as true by so many people, is in itself, saying a lot.

I am no longer such a non-believer, but that theory has a certain pull, and I am far from alone in this. Most people I have met do not really believe in abstract and modern art. I was reading ‘What is Art’ by Leo Tolstoy sometime back which I dropped for some reasons, but from what I remember, he was not particularly friendly. One voice inside me which distracts, asks the question that what is the purpose of a piece of art if people cannot appreciate it; enjoy it? I mean, if a painting is too vague to be understood or if somebody has to be told that the sound he heard just now was some kind of amazing music, then what is the point? But then, is it really the burden of the artist if his work is too profound for the majority of the world? Should he really water down his work just so a lot many can enjoy it? What about his personal sense of satisfaction? That makes me not give up.
Ok before I wrap up, enjoy this little battle between Banksy and another street artist King Robbo. Robbo had created a graffiti which Banksy later ‘added on’, and the battle ensued. Do see, here. I would have posted it here, but there are about ten pictures, too many.


11 thoughts on “Matters of the Art

  1. Thanks for the link! I love that piece about Joshua Bell, it’s one of the more brilliant pieces of modern feature writing. That same journalist also wrote one of the most deeply moving, sad and unbearable pieces of journalism I’ve ever had in another piece, which I won’t link to here, because I don’t want to ruin your day.

    I’m not quite sure I took the same thing away from the story of the busking virtuoso as you did, though. I don’t think that art is “merely” a function of how much you pay for it or what setting it’s in. And I don’t think it has much to do with modern music either. Don’t forget: Bell was playing music from the 1700s. Bach’s Chaconne (which is a m a z i n g) was written around 1720. And the people back then loved it. Bach was folk music, deeply engaged in the life of the community around him, who heard his orchestral, organ and choral work every Sunday.

    What I learned from that piece, Pearls Before Breakfast, was that art needs sustained and focused attention to be recognized as art. And it needs what the theorist Genette calls a “paratext”. Meaning that all art has these little bits of stuff tagged on to either end which signals HERE COMES THE ART and OKAY WE’RE DONE NOW. It gets you into that state of heightened symbolic awareness necessary for appreciating the heightened reality of art. That’s one of the important reasons why books have covers, theatres have seats, TVs have remote controls and museums have ticket counters.

    By the way, check out Joshua Bell’s CD of French impressionism with Jeremy Denk. It’s good stuff. (And also check out Denk’s blog, which is interesting.)

    1. Release,
      I would like to thank you for more reasons than one. First of all, I really appreciate you took all this time to read my blog and then share your thoughts which completely shaved off at least 2 hours of my life in absolutely the most amazing ways, I will tell you why. Your writing is lucid, and you convey your thoughts beautifully.
      Now onto the second and more important reason I am thankful you dropped by. I had not read ‘Pearls before Breakfast’, at all !! I thought of writing this blog piece of mine after reading another wordpress post (whose link I have given above, but I think you read what I had written and assumed I was referring to the original Washington post piece). Now that wordpress post mentioned the Bell experiment, I read it and then wrote this article of mine, adding couple of more of my thoughts. But after having read your comment, I went back and read the original WP article by Gene Weingarten and it was beyond wonderful. And I could see why you would not have ‘taken the same thing away’ from that story. Because, even I would not. My article was passed a baton by the wordpress article, which itself interpreted the experiment in its own way. And it being my reference, influenced my piece accordingly. Damn, I need your lucidity 😛 .
      So you are right. I totally agree with you. And in a funny way, I think I demonstrated your point in a strange way. I observed a part (the wordpress article) of something (the original WP post) and hurried back to interpret it in my own way. Because I wanted to ‘see’ that experiment in my own way of thoughts about art. I tweaked it to match my own.
      And, in the process of saving me the heart-break of that another piece from Gene Weingarten, you made me all the more curious (I wonder that’s what your plan was all along 🙂 ), and I googled it and I got it. Very moving indeed.
      So you see, I am really glad you posted your comment.

      1. Hey, sorry for the late response. I’m so happy you got to read Pearls Before Breakfast!! Such a great and engaging piece of writing. I love Weingarten.

        And the other piece — I’m glad you read it, I think. I just hope it didn’t ruin your day. I have kids myself so stories like that are shattering for me. I just completely went to pieces over it. Took me half a day to pull myself together.

        Anyway, so happy you enjoyed them. Oh, and I don’t know if you get trackbacks automagically, but this post of yours wound up feeding one of my own:


    2. The automagic was off, so I did not get the pingback, but I did read that article.
      And I had the pleasure to listen to Bach’s Chaconne, and it was every bit as wonderful as you said it would be. And Denk’s blog too. It was surprisingly funny. I hope to find Joshua Bell’s CD of French impressionism soon. Thanks a lot for all your wonderful suggestions.

  2. Excellent read. I wonder how more awesome our office discussion would have become, had you started writing earlier. Coming to your question “Should he really water down his work just so a lot many can enjoy it?” I remembered a quote from Fountain head:

    “But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

    I guess it the creator who is the most important person, it is himself whom he should satisfy with his work first and foremost… What do u say?

    1. Thanks Ra-sais…your comment brought a smile to my face. And took me back to those epic days.
      I agree with you. The creator should be the first person to be happy about his work, and for, maybe, no other greater reason but that he saw the completed work FIRST, you know what I mean. But that raises a question, ‘would he, then, care to show his work to others, totally satisfied in himself?’. I guess, yes. And that too, because he enjoyed it. Am I making any sense 🙂

  3. Such a thought provoking post! Your point about setting when first creating an opinion as to whether or not something is “art” is a concept I wrestled with time and again.
    Years ago, I taught a course introducing elementary school aged children to the ideas of how to approach any given piece of artwork. The message was not necessarily, “Do you like it or do you not?” It was more about building a framework for becoming observant. It’s too easy to become judgmental (and this was where I struggled most – in attempting to remain neutral so as not to influence the children with my own feelings). But after creating that strong foundation of examination and perception, I urged the children to formulate their own opinions based on their individual exploration. Only then did I encourage them to share with others. I hoped I might be able to get them to listen more inwardly, and develop a trusting relationship with their gut, based on both intellect and emotion. Afterward, it might be more interesting to listen to, and likely be influenced by their peers and outside critics.
    It’s too easy (and lazy) these days to allow others to tell us what we like.
    Again, wonderful post.

    1. What a wonderful point you made. This post of mine was supposed to be the first of at least a couple more and your comment just urged me to get going. You are a great teacher :).
      Thanks for your insightful comment. Glad you dropped in, and liked it.

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