When I was 19 or 20 I had a mean crush on a slightly older woman (she was 24-ish). An artist and filmmaker, Lindsay was cool and cynical, and I was in awe. She knew interesting people and seemed to continually hover on the verge of a new adventure. For some reason, she liked hanging out with me enough to occasionally drag me along on a few of her adventures, and I loved every second. Often, when faced with the drudgery of monetary transactions, she would reply simply, "don't bore me with cash". To my ears, this flat response to the issues-at-hand truly covered it all: we were above the boredom of daily routine, of matters of the practical and mundane. We moved in higher circles, and understood the world through deeper lenses. We were artists. Don't bore us with small facts like the need to pay for things. We search for bigger truth. Not like you, simple average person.
I pull this line out on occasion, typically in the context of dealing with the mundane yet consistent need to pay for stuff. Reciting it brings to me a smile and a warm memory...as I pull out some of that boring cash to purchase the things I need. I found a piece of the truth my younger self was seeking, and it involves (among other things) the need to pay for crap. It's just the way it is. It doesn't make any other high pursuit less real, honest, or important. But, I understand that I pursue in a world that likes to get paid. It's the common denominator we in our culture share.
This thought echoes, for me, an issue that I see running as a staple in the world of artists, art-making, and high-minded fine art-viewing/critiquing/buying/experiencing. The idea is this: art is about a search for truth, for a larger understanding of ourselves in relation to our world. As such, art seeks to find and illuminate truths, and artists must focus on this pursuit...even if it alienates some. After all, art isn't for everyone. As artists, we learn this in art school. We're special. We are the scouts, the pioneers, forging new ground by pushing envelopes, testing waters. Often, disruption/controversy/unsettling ideas/in-your-face facts= truth= art. It's a good measure for us in figuring out what is important to pursue in art, and what makes it good, right? Art shouldn't be about beauty. Art should be about TRUTH. Even if, and sometimes especially if, it makes the viewer uncomfortable. If it causes one to stop and recoil then, well, maybe we've got something.
I'm not writing to dispute that idea in and of itself. To be honest, I don't find fault in this perspective. Caravaggio painting saints with dirty feet was considered pretty dangerous and unsettling in its time, but hey, didn't their feet get dirty? Didn't we connect with them through their similarity to ourselves? Caravaggio found his truth, and it was considered blasphemous to some. I think art serves us well when looking down these roads, and it changes us. It is indeed, to me, one of the primary tenets of art's position in our lives: to open our eyes by illuminating new relationships of ideas, things, as we collectively work our way through the world and existence. Sometimes those relationships show us things about ourselves/our world that make us uncomfortable. It's important for us to see them.
However, it seems the message, both given to artists by the visual art world and also supplied by artists to the world itself, is that this is the measure of the truths we seek. In its entirety. Important art should not be beautiful. Beauty is old-school. Truth is ugly, or at least not beautiful. Otherwise it can't really be truth. Our world is ugly, anxious, unsettling. Nothing more or less. So, visual art shows us this. Nothing more (or less).
Funny thing, though...as we develop this criteria for visual art- and it permeates the art world, currently and for the past few decades- we seem to use slightly different criteria for other forms of art we seek to experience. Take music, as an example. Most people I know, myself among them, don't spend a great deal of time listening to music that unsettles them, makes them uncomfortable, rejects beauty in its search. This type of music exists, no question. But I find myself drawn to my search for truth in music, to a search for new meaning through new relationships, within melody, rhythm, progression, etc....things which serve to settle me in the pursuit. It feels good, in some way. Perhaps sad, maybe angry, maybe melancholy, but I'm not unsettled to the point of controversy or anger by its very structure. I don't get angry at the music I choose. I still, however, find it to be true (in its most elevated form, anyway). Why would we allow such in our pursuit of music in a way that is fundamentally different from what we would allow in our pursuit, or making, or visual art? Why must visual art be measured in such a fundamentally different format? After all, music and visual art both seek truth. Yet we allow beauty only in one.
When I say "we" here, I actually point my finger at the group of which I am a part: artists, and the art world...not the larger collective of our world in general. Here's the thing: I believe many people in the world actually DO allow for, and seek out, beauty in their visual art experience. Not ironic beauty, but earnest beauty. Beauty that makes one feel good. Beauty as reality, not escape. Or, maybe the majority of the people of planet Earth simply allow for escape in their art experience, as part of their understanding of it, and ultimately of truth. Makes sense to me. The world is harsh. It's also beautiful. Un-ironically.
The "we" of whom I speak are the ones with the problem. WE are the art makers, art critics...we in the visual art world. We who insist on defining what we do as the pinnacle of the search for truth, and within this search further insist that truth is at its most important when ugly/unsettling...that beauty as a pursuit or even a measure is beneath us, not "important" enough of a pursuit in art. Don't bore us in the art world with beauty. We seek higher truth.
Fuck that noise. If we in the art world continue to position ourselves within this dynamic, we will simply continue to build the dynamic that exists: that the "art world" knows better. If you don't get what is being done in the "art world", you're not serious or smart enough and don't deserve it. The "art world"'s importance can be measured by how hard it is to understand, by how small the circle of practitioners and viewers who do indeed "get it". Truth is hard, and intellectual...like the world. You don't get the work of Maurizio Cattelan? Don't get why a Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey is important art? You like the paintings of Bob Ross? You dig artwork you see at the furniture store? Then you don't know real art.
Well... for many people, Bob Ross paintings are cool. These paintings make them feel good. Connected. It is both escape and truth for them...the truth that the world is theirs. Because it is. Just like it's mine. And yours. Beauty can be cool, and important. And truth. For its own sake. Not saturated in irony. A Gerhard Richter painting can be seen as a commentary on visual image-making. It can also simply be a beautiful landscape. Or abstraction. Or both. That neither reduces its importance nor does it tell the whole story. It simply is one of its things. An important truth, a truth we feel.
Again, I'm not arguing against the ugly, unsettling, controversial in art. Not at all...as reflections of our realities they are critical. We need to see ourselves, our world. Art can be that. But, if we as artists and art specialists continue to insist that beauty, without irony and even (gasp) for its own sake, can't be a part of "important" art because it is just not important or big enough, we will continue to alienate ourselves, the world in which we work and define ourselves, and our position in the larger context of our culture and society form that very culture and society. What good will it ever do to separate ourselves so much from the common denominator, the majority, of our own group of human beings? We will cease to identify. It's an idiotic approach.
If we continue to alienate people in our pursuit for high truth (because they just don't "get it"), we artists may soon find ourselves creating things for no viewers at all. The rest of the world will be too busy finding their truths somewhere else.