Hey Punk, Join the Jazz Band

Terry and I heated one winter night with a conversation about how to really make “interesting art”. He defined this category as one requiring the artist to “just go wild”. He detailed examples of works that he feels are successful and how they contain random insertions, juxtapositions, methods and images that contradict and challenge.  Sure, little old me with my pink sunsets got a little defensive.  

To be honest I entered into the conversation with guns ablaze, having been fired up by reading this article by Adam Gopnick about sociologist Howard Becker's theories of social deviants. I felt far, far away from being as cool as a Deviant and rather more like a Novitiate, crawling on my knees into the artistic world. I am currently holding a begging bowl trying to prove my worth, wanting to be granted a coveted identity and perhaps some monetary reward; being a bit obsequious; taking a few requests; leaning into humility. Gopnick says that “to enter [the art] field at all is possible for outsiders only if they learn to repeat the words that construct its values.”  I may be willing to mumble a guru's mantras and say three Hail Mary's, but let me be clear: I'm lying in wait. 

What came through this winter's conversation was a multitude of questions that influence the end product of an artist: who gets the title of "artist"?; who has the power to define what is "art"?; what is "interesting" vs. "novelty" vs. "aesthetically pleasurable"?; how do we value "novelty-based" art once the polish wears off?; what is the value of pure aesthetic pleasure?; is it possible still to make something "brand new"?

I used Becker's theories to argue that we have specific roles to play on whatever stage we act; there are rules to follow. As an striving artist, I defended the need to, at times, toe the line of “status quo” by making acceptable art. It feels to me that broad audiences don’t respect artists who can't also prove they have recognizable skill with their media before spitting on the rules and throwing in their wrenches. Sure, we'll talk about them, we give them our attention when startled- but strangeness doesn't have a lasting power in our brains.  We create long-standing meaning in our lives through context, and to have context "acceptability" and "respectability" come into play. Randomness and juxtaposition alone aren't that meaningful.

It seems to me that visual artists have to prove some mettle- and that usually means having some ability to parrot "Polly Wants A Cracker" a few times and step in line within the parade before beginning their delicately orchestrated secession. They might sweetly begin to harmonize, before leading a riff or insisting on an improv set; this happens before they can pause the track, scratch as the needle drags across the record, and shout out their own new song.

Becker might like my musical metaphor as he said, "Like reefer-smoking among jazz musicians, art making was not the business of solitary artists, inspired by visions, but a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art."

Here's where my ideas of relying on others' for my title of "artist" is also supported by Becker's work. He writes: 

A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project… The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

Becker spends a lot of time using a cinema metaphor for these interconnected relationships; that a movie is made through the teamwork of a myriad of people and their skills, resulting in an artwork that is an amalgamated vision. But what about people who strive daily in earnest towards perfection, and seemingly with little assistance? How about a housewife's efforts that are discovered at a garage sale, or a hermit's profound writings discovered posthumously? What of the person who cultivates ignorance so as to appear unbiased and independent? 

It feels like, looks like, is just like being alone- but what of the trail of choices we’ve followed? Who made the trail? Where does it lead behind and before us? How quickly and with what diversions will we choose to travel?  More to the point: what choices have we made, what choices have others made, to put us into these positions, influence our actions and our products? Personally, I feel at times like the American Beauty plastic bag: I am my own entity but certainly one under particular influences, or confluences of influences. 

So, I'm not able to don my sandwich board and stand on a street corner shouting: HOT OFF THE PRESS: THIS, MY, MINE ALONE! THIS MY NEW IDEA! I'm a part of a crowd who posits that extraordinary novelty only exists in a world that is regionalized, and narrowly contextualized. An impression of "newness" and "uniqueness" is created by having a perspective that is very limited historically and/or geographically. Babies are the only people who think for a brief time that "something comes from nothing"; they're the only ones honestly surprised around here!  As we age we are much more equipped and ready to see connections and equations, how things come about.  

Our increased awareness of what has been made around the world, how and why, means that there is often more likely a sense of "reference" or "appropriation". Case in point: the work of Europe's 19th and 20th century artists, from The Masters to the Cubist and Surrealist rebels, doesn't feel that surprising to contemporary viewers. We have an even broader understanding than those artists' own contemporaries of the larger contexts of their work, and even still we can greatly value and admire deeply their end results. What made these artists so special? What made their attempts feel so novel? The world was just about ready for their small twists to the game, and that's when the artists jumped in and said "Let's Play": their "talents" were a socially-acceptable amount of novelty.  Their genius has something to do with good timing. 

As a novelty spreads, its impact dims into the mundane. Likewise the wider and farther we look the greater number and variety of artists we have to acknowledge.  (Might that mean too, the title of "artist" isn't really that unique?) Today, mere pockets of extreme localism exists, except in certain American political parties and very isolated tribes, I dare say. Our narrowness is blown out by our global, instant connectedness, access to shared pots of resources, images, language, and values.  So, how shall we make "interesting" art?  Is "just going wild" just a way to manipulate attention?  And after we have the attention, what important thing shall we say with our work?