© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

Gotta Move, Yoko Ono's Coming Through

shart: /SHärt/
v: to unintentionally defecate when attempting only to flatulate; a combination of “shit” and “fart”
n: (1) flatulence accidentally producing defecation; a combination of “shit” and “fart”, (2) the vast majority, in this definer’s poorly-read and extemporaneous opinion, of so-called “modern art”; a combination of “shit” and “art”

Q: What do an Evian bottle full of Yoo-Hoo, brown paint hand-smeared on stretched latex, a b&w movie of people having a dinner fight underwater (replete with drowned cats and poorly-pulled punches), and an empty room with a blue-tinted window have in common?
A: …
Q: Hello?

Oop, sorry. Got distracted by this amazing contemporary piece on the wall over here, did you see this? So technologically modern, yet retro. Smooth, yet protuberant. What do you mean, “It’s just a light switch?” Wait, what was the question?


Is the subjectivity of art what makes it art? In other words, because someone dares to claim that they see something beautiful or new or true in a work of art, does the high value they place on it then give others cause to hold it in similar regard? Is art simply a big product of groupthink? Setting aside, for only a moment, the art collectors and philanthropists that give art any monetary value at all, it often seems that the more trite or daringly simple or quietly outlandish a “modern-art” piece (as if anyone could create anything that isn’t, by the laws of time, modern) is, the more often it is labeled as exceptional or genius, or at least exhibition-worthy “artistic”.

I apologize for all the quotation marks, but they are necessary.

At MoMa PS1’s EXPO 1, installations range from room-sized koy ponds to broken pillars topped with plastic guns and shoes then spray-painted gold to ten-minute footage loops of a helicopter circling Lady Liberty while a swirling dildo flopped in two inches of water like an ever-dying coital fish. If nothing else, the expo allowed a glimpse of an intensely insular crowd (the artists and buyers more so than the Brooklyn-ite guests, of course) of which I don’t often come into contact.

In a module entitled “Your Waste of Time”, an artist had delivered to Long Island City huge chunks of ice that had broken off from glaciers in Iceland. Does the transportation of precious or fading objects make it art? Does their arrangement in the gallery? The huge chunks were interesting in themselves, true, but the whole thing felt lacking because I was able to see and even feel the long dramatic history spanning not only centuries but millennia that I knew nothing about; an ephemeral history I was allowed to smell but not taste. I wanted more, an information plaque even, as would be found in a science museum. Does that lack of information, that wisp of tangible history make them art? Should we imagine what the artist (nature/the transportation company/the guy who paid for them to be brought over) was thinking during its/their creative “process”?

But not all modern art invokes an immediate eye-roll. Odd to the point of unsettling were the skin diamonds, softball-sized diamond shapes covered with what looked like human skin, replete with hair of a slightly pube-esque nature (you couldn’t have paid me enough to smell one, I’ll tell you that), and I can, for some reason, garner a sense of newness from that, a notion I might have considered before but not in such an discomfiting way: that so many beautiful things in this world are debeautified by being made human. That by taking something manufactured to be “beautiful” or “valuable”, and giving it the natural appearance of its creators, something abhorrent and disgusting is evoked by such a visually jarring union.

Are diamond miners artists, since diamonds are beautiful and valuable? What about cutters? Can you polish something into art?

Even then, what of the banality of a painting of a tree, an already existent subject? What can someone who doesn’t understand brushstrokes and composition gain from it? Is it asking too much of its audience? Had the Mona Lisa never been mentioned to you, would you sincerely consider it better than Da Vinci’s other portraits? How is it more beautiful than the trillion-pixel animation of Pixar? Or why?

Why are M.C. Escher’s snapshots of Yosemite better than some tourist’s? And how does photography qualify as an art form, anyway, if the place or object photographed was there already, created by someone else or nature? By the Creation as Art definition, of course, photoshopping would be the only art in photography, since every unedited photograph is of something already in existence. Is it the viewpoint that makes it art? The composition? The color? The frozen moment? Are photographers artistic in the sense that they have the power to control time the way a movie creates an entire world, or a book makes you hear thoughts inside your head, or the way musicians speak in a language universally understood? Why, then, is math not art? Is what makes creation artistic the godlike component of controlling the uncontrollable (time) or generating something universal (music) or creating something that wasn’t there before? So are babies art?

(To actually answer one of these questions, at least by the Creation as Art definition, no, babies are not art. But each individual baby most certainly is; each in itself a product of artistic collaboration in its purest form.) Ooh, another one: So, then, is sex art?

The art world has a (well-deserved) reputation for snootiness, stemming not from the eye-rollery that much of “modern art” garners, but from the subjectivity motivating art collectors to spend millions of dollars for a canvas with some paint on it in the first place. Were a poor (and infinitely more common) family to acquire not even the money paid but the painting itself, they might tear the frame down for firewood and use the canvas as a blanket or shade, or even throw that in the fire, too, if they had to. Warmth is priceless in the cold, unlike anything ever painted by anyone ever. In other words, something is only as valuable as what someone is willing to pay for it. And frighteningly enough, the art world is only financially successful because of rich people listening to the opinion of “experts”. And in buying artwork, they feel like they’re donating, down-trickling, doling money to the common man, investing in the starving artist. Can something be charitable if it remains unmotivated by empathy?

And what of the morality behind that question? Had you ten million dollars to spend on either a painting or feed a thousand starving children for ten years, which would you choose? Does one choice make you an immoral person? These questions only arise in “arts” that cater, at their highest and frufiest levels, to the über-wealthy, and we should all be wary of anything creative that can be purchased and stowed away. Find me a newly printed book that only a rich man can afford to read, or a film that only the 1% can watch, or a song to which only a billionaire may listen.

Historic works of art are obviously a little more pricey because of their time-value, both in the historical significance of the piece and the artifactual value of who created it (or merely to whom it belonged); but if that’s the case, isn’t it inherently selfish to purchase such a thing to hang in the foyer? Doesn’t that deprive almost everyone else of its grand significance? Or is the “Donated From:” plaque adjacent on the museum wall more important? I.e. Does it fulfill the collector more to view the work during themselves or to have their name inscribed on such an inherently fancy wall for all to see?

I think we all realize that I’m just some uninformed asshole poking my head into a museum like Sam the Eagle long enough to frowningly declare, “You are all idiots,” before going back to my own insular world of observing on other insular worlds, a simpleton who doesn’t know dick about artistic aesthetics nor the finer points of a red square painted on top of a white square, but I do know this: Something is only as valuable as what someone else is willing to pay for it. So the entire artistic endeavor itself relies on some form of beauty (aesthetic or implied) in order to operate, not only beauty, then, but value is in the eye of the beholder, unlike an ounce of gold or two dimes and a nickel.

So, then, does creation become art once someone is willing to pay to experience it? Does a creation become art once someone who places value on it discovers it? Or was it art all along, and the art lover simply found it? Better yet, is labeling a creation “art” a supremely subjective endeavor in itself? What about questioning the motivations behind it? Is this art? How can a bottle of dirty water and a tree of dead animals invoke me to ask more questions than I can possibly answer? Wait a second…

…is that the point?