Written as a dialogue between two parts of my own identity, this piece provides an insight into the necessity of art in society (through a Marxist-humanist perspective) while discussing the dilemma of a true working class aesthetic.
The poet and the artist sat at a table in the back of the café. They sat in silence awaiting their coffee. The coffee arrives in a carafe along with two cups, two saucers, two spoons, more sugar than was necessary and a little steel dispenser for cream.
The poet: These cups could very well be works of art exclusively but more so within this ensemble.
The artist: Why do you say that?
The poet: Well, they are objects that represent the essence of a ritual. Coffee drinking is a ritual that supplements social interaction. It is an excuse to perform a certain modicum of social interaction. Any object that captures and represents the aesthetic and sensorial experience of that ritual could be called art.
The artist: In that definition of art, one invites the most banal expressions of experience into the institution of art. Art and its practice are already chastised for their banality. Erasing the exclusivity of artistic expression would only serve to illuminate and augment the purported fact that art is moot.
The poet: Why is art moot?
The artist: Let us examine our current state as artists. Art is seen as a pursuit of passion, something one could possibly pursue outside of slaving to support themselves within a normative reality. Part of the blame for this falls on the democratisation of the practice of art. Everyone who picks up a paintbrush over the weekend or a camera during vacation proclaims their artistry. The term “artist” is now a glorified euphemism for a hobbyist. The rest of the blame would fall on the industry of art. In attempting to promote the contribution of creative expression to the economy, it has formalised what art must be. Ironically, the industry forces non-conformists to conform. We then conform to different ideals and an alternate normative that provides an illusion of exclusivity and a mythical haven of liberty.
The poet: So it is perceived as being unimportant because it operates outside of reality and contributes nothing of import to reality…
The artist: And therein lies the fallacy of the typically pragmatic critic. Art, at its glorious best, is occupied by issues and controversies that are normally hidden from the naked eye… shrouded by stratified social and cultural conditioning in the name of tradition. So when one lays the claim that art does not contribute anything of import to reality, we speak of a reality that is stale, unoriginal and dubiously unitary.
The poet: Art is then a form of revelation… albeit, a form of revelation so shrouded in abstraction and mystery that it excludes and isolates the very people it seeks to enlighten. I’ve often wondered why it is that we poets, and maybe by way of extension artists, choose to express snapshots of experiences in a manner that requires deciphering. Most often, we represent a people who have not been understood. Our only sincere wish is to be understood by someone. And we distance the very people who could, possibly, understand us. We do so before they have had their day in our lawless court. But, I digress…
The artist: Hold on a second. You make a good point though. I have often wondered what price I might pay if my work was easier to understand. And it is necessary to not confuse the idea of easier comprehension with superficiality. Profundity can be achieved in essence and in subject without burdening the object with the same profundity. Burdening the object with profundity journeys to the realm of abstraction which by consequence complicates comprehension. The answer, however, is fairly simple… as to what price one must pay. It lies in watching a group of people in a gallery, staring at a painting, fingers planted on their faces and noses in the air, using multisyllabic words to describe what they believe is the meaning of that painting. The microcosm of consumers and practitioners of art expect complex contemplation. The enamour of a good film or a good painting or a good poem lies in its alleged complexity. Take Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as an example. What if the story was birthed out of Kafka’s utter boredom for his own style. All he really wanted to do was write an utterly nonsensical story about a man who wakes up as a bug and has to deal with it… sans symbolism sans complex psychological undertones… the fetishisation of the work and its status of celebrity is immediately diminished, not entirely erased but diminished as it still retains exceptional craftsmanship. Art is expectantly phenomenal. Or rather, it is forced to be phenomenal in order to conform to the standard. If not there is no respite for the artist and no platform for us to deliver discourse from.
The poet: And still Metamorphosis could have been just that, a nonsensical tale of a man waking up as an insect. Which would imply that art is not just the thing much like Metamorphosis is not just a story. In deconstructing art, we could think of it in a number of elements. Art -the object which would be the painting, the story, the poem or whatever else. Art — the concept or the idea that is expressed through the object. Art — the practice, embedded within and embodied by the artist. And finally, Art — the revelation that is delivered to and constructed by the audience. Art, as we speak of it, wouldn’t exist without any of these elements transmitting esoteric vibrations to one another. Each one supports the other three finitely and in-finitely. It is a process of evincing an idea and transcending it into a concept, the concept into an object and finally, the object to a state of being understood… to consciousness.
The artist: Now place everything we have spoken about within the purview of the framework you propose and it shouldn’t take much to realise that we have been ruminating primarily on the object of art.
The poet: Precisely. Maybe the purpose of art lies more in its essence as an action and its conception. Maybe addressing that essence and remedying it or clarifying it would transform its reception. The object is only a result of the other three elements. It truly can not exist without the other rest.
The artist: What would be the essence of art in practice?
The poet: Art is inherently symbolic, even in its practice. It is a semiotic expression of free-will. Any artist is concerned with two things and that is probably the only unified identity held by all who engage in the practice of art. The artist is concerned with their own freedom and ideals and observations and they are concerned with how these fit within society and culture. Art is a symbol for emancipation and liberty from the injustices and harshness of reality… a conscious escape to a world that is informed by the one we share but absorbent of the subconscious self of the artist and their own individual truth.
The artist: That explains the fetishisation and romantic ideal of artistry. It is seen as a reserved privilege for those who are not troubled by the compelling need to support their own existence. But, the practice of art is senseless if it is bound by who can or who cannot practice it. We are all striving for an emancipation whether it is through God or through a drug or through art. We circle back to the idea of alienation through art, now knowing that the ultimate agent of alienation is not art itself but its manifestation. It is the aesthetic driven by the ideals we spoke of earlier… of complexity and of normativity that causes art, as the object, to distance specific people from it, physically, cognitively and metaphysically.
The poet: And yet, there is no other way to understand art… or anything. We experience the world sensorially and understand it tangibly. We can consider only that which is spoken as being true, and always with justifiable suspicion. Anything else would be speculation that lies on a spectrum of informedness. Any change that one intends to impact on the social perception of art has to happen within the realm of the tangible aesthetic.
The artist: And how must one achieve this comprehensible yet profound, emancipatory yet socially informed aesthetic? What defines it?
The poet: It would not serve to translate a sliver of reality and give it a tangible form.
The artist: Realism is too discrete. It is a single dimension of reality that is partially observed, partially absorbed, partially distilled and poorly translated to recreate a quasi-real statement on what has already become the past. That is not liberating either to the artist or to the audience. It only serves the ego of a prescriptive society and culture. The aesthetic of a comprehensible art must embody the true solubility between social reality and personal fantasy.
The poet: If I were to write a verse after that custom, say about an old woman begging on the streets, might it sound like such?
The cars and their horns signal the entrance
Of the Begging Queen of the Street
Amidst the din of the rich city being busy
She clinks the few coins she has
For a few morsels to eat.
The artist: The true power of such an aesthetic lies not in remedying the identity of another but in transcending oneself through the expression of art. That brings to question the accessibility of this aesthetic. Beyond comprehension, one must have an expressive vocabulary that they could use that is reflective of this aesthetic.
The poet: That vocabulary lies not in the art that is produced arduously in a studio or objects that are manufactured but in the coarse materiality of the everyday. By taking the contents of a trash can andthe trash can itself and constructing an artefact from it is, in essence, the transcendence of a reality to a fantasy. To look at the mundane that has a standardised connotation, to embed within it one’s own perception and to present that embedded perception in material glory is a vocabulary of liberation.
The artist: And is that not art itself… in its most authentic form. In that sense Dali would be the perfect artist and his melting clocks the very epitome of this aesthetic we speak of. Dali’s folly lay in his embracement and submission to celebrity and his exclusivity.
The poet: Dali’s exclusivity was a result of his medium. He was using a medium that was unattainable to many and it was a highly cultivated aesthetic. It may have been liberating to him but surely not to his audiences. He was the perfect embodiment of distancing and alienating through art in object but approachable and liberating through subject. But, as we said earlier, to the audience the subject is a revelation that occurs after they have crossed the mire of the object.
The artist: And we return to where we began I suppose… the coffee mug. In observing it as a symbol of conversational and cultural ritual you juxtaposed your perception upon what is typically held unconsciously in one’s hand. Upon thinking of it more deeply, I might attach to it the connotation of a non-consensual relationship while another might choose to see in it the passionate, dedicated lover with whom one shares great intimacy. In each perception, lies an element of shared reality that coexists with a personal way of seeing… a blurred line. Identifying that blurred line for oneself is the liberation one finds as a creator. Identifying the blurred line in the work of another is the courageous emancipation one finds as an audience. In the transcendence of the object from the identifiable mundane to the decipherable abstract lies another blurred line… the seeking and finding of which is a liberation of the object.
The poet: The blurred lines are only active in the world of art and art then is the shadow of emancipation that follows everything. And when the darkness falls, much like it has now, we must look to that shadow to guide us to a land of eternal light and shared deliverance.
They sat in silence for a while, in contemplation of their rambling that already was the past. They smiled, privately, for they knew that in that shared past lay their own deliverance from the shackles of the gross and material reality they inhabit.