Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What is art?



A new version of Star Wars was just released, one made through the cooperation of thousands of strangers. Star Wars Uncut is a crowd-sourced film, meaning that people all over the world recorded their own versions of individual scenes, and a team of collaborators edited them into a full-length copy of the movie. This new creation has Lego actors, little kids, cartoons, ferrets, Darth Vader as one of Charlie’s Angels, and lots and lots of people in C3PO masks. It is good-humored, irreverent, a labor of love, and mesmerizing.  It’s also, I think, a work of art.

When people see art that they don’t like, appreciate, or understand, they often claim that the piece isn’t really art when what they mean is that it’s “bad.” So, people will look at a Jackson Pollack painting and claim, “I could do that” or call it “ugly” even though they can't do it and his paintings aren't ugly (besides,  art doesn’t have to be beautiful, anyway). But the question of what art is, is much more basic and much more difficult. We can’t know if something is good if we don’t know what it is.

Possibly the most influential example of this debate is Marcel Duchamps’s “Fountain,” a sculpture that was actually a urinal taken out of its proper context and displayed in a gallery. The reactions at the time were exactly what you would expect: some people claimed it was trash and others thought it was genius. History has sided with the latter, and his “ready made” piece has become one of the most influential pieces of twentieth century art.

Duchamp shows how difficult it is to find a definition or art, and since this is the first of what I suspect will be many posts on the topic, I won’t try too hard today. (If you want a full-length discussion, I recommend the WHY? episode with Arthur Danto.) What I will suggest however, is that whatever art is, it is concerned with the intentional creation of a work that is to be contemplated for its form as well as its content. The process of creating it needs to be valued as much as the product created, and both the making and the thing made must also let us see our world in a novel and interesting light. Star Wars Uncut does this. It is an impressive collaboration of people who put their own stamps on the production, sometimes as jokes, sometimes with all seriousness. Together they created an object that is more than just the sum of its parts, also a condition of art.

There are people who will object to my position, claiming that the movie is just pop-culture silliness. It is anything but. Star Wars Uncut is a monument to the desire of people to participate in a phenomenon that helped defined how each of us see the world, whether we know it or not. It is a document to those who want to be “in” Star Wars after-the-fact, and who hoped to tweak it, just enough, to preserve their identities while revealing new aspects of a movie they watch over and over again.

To see what I mean, compare Star Wars Uncut to a recent Volkswagon commercial, featuring dogs barking Darth Vader’s theme. I love this commercial. It’s funny, cute, and full of in-jokes, but it’s not art. Why? Because it doesn’t tell us anything new. It doesn’t move any debates forward. The creativity is pat. It adds nothing to the viewer but distraction.



Nevertheless, I admit that it is hard to define exactly why Star Wars Uncut is art and the VW commercial isn’t. To a certain extent, my judgment is a result of an intuition rather than an argument, but I stand by my answer nonetheless. For lack of a better metaphor, Star Wars Uncut has a soul and the advertisement does not., All art must have soul, even though I can’t define the latter term any more than I can define the former. What I do know is that it isn’t just because one is an advertisement and the other isn’t. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters were advertisements too, but they had more soul that any of us know what to do with.  Star Wars Uncut is art and anyone who watches it will see the original Star Wars differently because of it. Duchamp might even be proud.

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1 comment:

  1. I learned this from an art teacher. I don't know if he was kidding:
    Say you have a pig in a poke. If you paint a pretty picture of that pig and hang it in your dining room, you have a pretty painting of a pig. If you kill the pig and hang it in your dining room, that's ART. If you kill the pig, skin it, tan the hide, and make bagpipes out of it so that you can play 'Lady of Spain,' that's CRAFT.

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