Friday, September 23, 2016

What is art?

Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 24, 2016— 
A CERTAIN AMOUNT of reflection on that thorny and unrewarding question lately, ever since a friend stopped by with a painting he'd made while on retreat among the redwoods at the former home of Morris Graves, near Eureka, California. He'd been enormously impressed with the house, built of local redwood by Japanese carpenters for the enigmatic maverick painter, and by the setting.

I asked how the house was furnished. Were there things Grave had made? Well, yes, paintings of course; the furnishings and cabinetry were wood and local…

But were there little objects he might have made, or did he leave primarily paintings? And what were the paintings like?

The conversation was so long ago (though in fact only two or three weeks) and we've covered so much ground since that I no longer recall the details. I have the impression the Graves presence was largely through the architecture and perhaps the feel that he had lived and worked there, that one was seeing his environment, and thus a good part of his "inspiration," through his sensibility. 

But had Graves whittled any of the door handles, or decorated anything, or was there only his art to be seen?

Ah, my friend replied, but what is art?

Oh, Henry, you don't ask easy questions, do you? I've been thinking about that one for decades. What is art? Well, it begins with attentiveness, and ends with devotion…

I was just riffing, of course, but Henry took me seriously. He takes everything seriously. Just look at the portrair he made of me several years ago, working in pencil on paper — a drawing hardly bigger than a postage stamp, enlarged above.

Art is not a noun, I think; art is a verb. Artist is a nount: an artist is a person for whom life is art. He makes things: they are objects, what the French call objets d'art. Often they are madee with crafft, and then art and craft become confused. 

While thinking about these things, before leaving home on our present trip, I came u[pon three things I've made over the years, in moments of art. I don't pretend to be an artist, but I have moments, I think, as do most of us, of art. Here they are:
The silver earrings I made (after Duchamp) for Lindsey back in the '60s
A painting I found at Deb's house in Flagstaff, maybe in the '80s
A little fake Brancusi whittled from a scrap of pine in the '90s

The earrings are kept in one of Lindsey's secret places, of course, and come out on special occasions. The painting hangs casually from a paper-clip hook at the end of a bookcase. (It's really a vertical, on a longer scrap of board; I've cropped it here as a sort of experiment. I like it better in the original format.)

The Brancusi lives on a windowsill over the kitchen sink, where it must annoy Clemencia who comes every couple of weeks to clean things up. So much clutter in the house! But they all contribute to Art…

At best, I think, art is what we live with. We've just spent three days with a friend in Amsterdam. Cynthia is herself an artist, but it's not easy for me to describe what it is she does: she works with organization, administration, the social or communitarian transformation of visual awareness and uncerstanding. Currently, for example, focussing on milk and wool, on seeing them more clearly both for what they are and for what they represent as products: things produced, distributed, consumed. Tough to verbalize.

Cynthia lives in art and I made a dozen photos or so quickly as we were preparing to say goodbye. Ultimately I'll do something with them, after I'm home; meanwhile I leave just one here:


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