Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Boring Talk About Art Which Shocks

Yale art student Aliza Shvarts stirred up a real controversy with her student project, a project about abortion - her own, she claimed, something she achieved by attempting to artificially inseminate herself and then induce miscarriages all over a period of many months. All of which she had videotaped, she said, and which were to be shown on a 4-foot cube wrapped in plastic and smeared in Vaseline.

Outrage and horror poured forth, many from online and many others in print and television. Finally, Yale officials came forth saying the project was in fact a hoax, a bit of performance art, but that they would not allow the project to go on display unless a signed statement from Shvarts was made in which she admitted the hoax. She declined, no project was displayed, her professors were disciplined, all as the media rumbled with the story.

It impresses me that with all the things happening in the world that a proposed art project can cause millions to react with such intensity, because, after all, it was just the idea of the project which drew massive response - Shvarts never showed any of her work. (And even I just yesterday railed against a project proposal which I myself find offensive. It happens.)

Art - what it is and what it isn't - is a discussion sure to bore many people, excite many others, but I'm marching into. It is completely infused with our human experience and always has been. One of the best artistic representations of that debate came in 1929 from painter Rene Magritte with his painting shown below - the translation of the words on the canvas -- "This is not a pipe".

Nope, sure isn't a pipe. Just a painting of one.

It does rather neatly provide the idea that art is not the thing, but a symbol of it, a representation of it, and confronts the idea too that each of us construct the world into signs and symbols which might be held in common or held by an individual.

So anyway, I'm reading some local blogger commentary (here and here) about Shvarts and wanted to share some thoughts. See, I think she should have been allowed to show the project - and, as a student, then been given a grade for her work. She could have gotten an F - and learned something in the process. Do I think her project was Art - don't know, didn't see it - so judgement belongs to those who did see it. Except that no one did. She may get some gallery to pay her big bucks one day. Maybe not.

Art can rattle the bejesus out of us, it can calm and soothe, inspire, haunt, and invoke all types of response. My good friend Mr Horton and I have had hundreds of discussions about Art with him holding fast to the idea that if an Artist makes something which only he understands, then he has failed, that Art must communicate something to more than the maker of it. I have often taken the other view - a support of Art for Art's sake, for example, very few cared for the paintings of Van Gogh as he made them, yet today they are auctioned off for tens of millions of dollars. Art and Time need to coincide.

And all this furor over Shvarts reminded me of a movie I saw recently called "The Shape of Things" by Neil LaBute, based on his play. It's a very compact and ultimately stunning bit of work about Art and relationships. It begins with the nerdy and awkward museum guard and student named Adam (Paul Rudd) who sees another student (Rachel Weisz) trying to spray paint a penis onto a large statue of a male divinity on display. He gets her phone number and allows her to make her 'statement' with spray paint.

As the pair begin to date, she often criticizes him for his looks or attitudes and in short order Adam eagerly alters his looks and clothes to receive approval - he gets contact lenses, loses 20 or 30 pounds, has a nose job, starts wearing trendy clothes. He is eager to do anything to make her happy, even abandon his longtime friends. But all the time watching this unfold, watching Evelyn (Eve? and Adam too, huh?) I knew there was something else, more dire, more weighty happening.

Not to ruin the movie for you (spoilers ahead!!), but Adam discovers he has been an art project. Evelyn invites him to her student show and on prominent display is a banner reading: A Moralist Has No Place In An Art Gallery.

That's a quote from writer Han Suyin, famous for her book "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing".

Here's filmmaker and playwright LaBute talking about that quote:

I think moralists have a place in an art gallery, I think everybody has a place in an art gallery, they just should keep their mouths shut. They're free to walk around as long as they pay the price, I just don't think they should be dictating policy. I'm big on what the argument the film proposes about subjectivity about art itself. This [picks up glass of water] can be art because you made it, or it can be a glass of water to me and I can think you're a loon for calling it art, and we could both be right. So I'm big on "I'm okay, you're okay" but if pushed, it turns quickly into "I'm okay, you're a piece of shit".


Because ultimately... I'm happy to come out even, but if forced, I want to come out on top. And that's what was happening up there, two people who are having an argument about something, where one's having a breakup and one's having a discussion about art - we often just see things through our own lens and it's difficult to understand what somebody else is saying when we're so driven to take care of our own needs."

Often Art is an act of manipulation from the artist. Whether it is in the construction of the entire artifice of a painting or sculpture, or perhaps it occurs at a more basic level of commerce, such as the constant photoshopping of images of people on magazine covers to make them look thinner. Manipulation is a sly thing - no matter the intent of the manipulator for good or ill. Each of us decides, many times a day, to respond how we will to influences artistic or real or perceived.

Perhaps the Artist gets the reaction from the public, good or bad, or perhaps the Artist is ignored. Our response, no matter what it is, is a moment of communication. There are real-world actions and events which are life and death matters. Art is at best a pale recreation of the real.

Some bit of Art on display will not (or hasn't yet) destroy the world. It's ideas which can prompt upheaval and change.

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