As an English major, a writer, and someone who has been reading prodigiously for years, the issue of art and what is art is an issue particularly close to my heart. I’ve found, from my own experience, that the field is wide-open. The simplest explanation, I think, is that when an object is meant to inspire thought (or even lack of thought, I guess), that object can be considered an art object. Clearly what that object can be to be an art object is practically limitless. For example, Seoul’s “The Cloud” can be considered art. It is designed to be functional, certainly, but one cannot deny it holds an aesthetic beauty and inspired considerable philosophical thought from some (and thoughtless outrage from others). It can be ridiculously easy to consider just about anything art, from this perspective. A very simplistic tower, in contrast to The Cloud, could inspire thought about austerity or modernity or even man’s inability to copy nature or whatever. In the visual arts, a happy face on a canvas or a single black line or even a blank canvas can be considered art. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t or can’t judge art (“good” art, “bad” art), but that we should keep in mind both what is art and that very frequently, what we consider to be good or bad art is completely arbitrary. Some of the greatest art from the medieval era of painting, for example, was commissioned by nobility and was described by them to the exact detail: because it is strictly commercial and because what we consider to be creativity isn’t of huge importance, do we not consider it art? Do we only consider it art if x number of dollars have gone into its production, or if the artist spent y hours of time? These are all very important questions, and I guess when it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think restricting what is art is negative and leads to elitism of the worst kind.
Given all this, I was pleased to read Tycho’s take on the thing over at Penny-Arcade:
I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid. Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art. I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity. This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake. The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex.
If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack. But it doesn’t. Its entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby. The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur. Its effete and its fucking disgusting.
I would of course argue that art is a thought-machine, itself. Art is, or should, or can, or might, allow us to view the world from a certain perspective (or no perspective at all). Art is, or can be, or might be, an expression of an idea (that idea, at times, being art). Whether or not that idea is beneficial, or useful, or unique, or anything like that, is a different issue (and perhaps not an issue at all). It becomes so hard to draw a dividing line that it is pointless to do so.
One of the biggest drivers seems to me the intentionality and even authenticity of the piece of art. Regarding authenticity (which itself is such a nebulous term, only by taking it at face value with only the most cursory examination is it useful as an adjective), art that is made for the express purpose of making money, for example, is not considered art by some. This would, for those that hold that view, exclude such things as Harlequin romances. By that same token, however, do we then exclude movies and video games and TV shows automatically, or do we take it for granted that the creators are simply trying to tell a story rather than make money, whereas pulp novels written a dime a dozen are less about story and more about dollars. But, given that we know in today’s day and age at the very least anything that is created that can be considered art can be commercialised, where can we even begin to draw the line?
Regarding intentionality, what does it matter what the artist thought? I’m an artist in that what I create is intended to have some aesthetic value and is meant to impart some kind of message and impart some kind of thought. An interpretation of how I write, for example, is useful but why I write it, my intentionality, is much less so. My intentionality is useful in terms of my argument, of course, but in terms of any sort of aesthetic appreciation it becomes next to useless. A great example that always comes to mind is one from an English course I took a year or two ago. Reading Edgar Allan Poe, the issue of intentionality popped up (as it did in a discussion on Henry James some weeks earlier). When the professor asked us what we thought the author thought, I stated that I didn’t care what the author thought and that it doesn’t matter what he thought, what matters is what we think his art is expressing. In this sense, the artist is kind of a hero. He, or of course she, has the potential to harness a brilliant idea and spill it out on canvas or paper fresco or .doc, but once they leave the picture, what they thought ceases to be of great import. They can interpret their own art, and we can take that as being important or relevant or helpful (in that they may be an authority and in that any interpretation can be helpful), but we certainly don’t have to take it for gospel.
I think that when philosophy ceases to be useful for mankind and begins to be useful only for philosophy, we may be missing the point. I don’t mean to be like some douchebag first-year philosophy major who walks into a bar and says what… is? like some pocket Rousseau. Sure, what is is an important question if we’re talking about what it is to be sentient, or to think, or to just be. But the goal should be to come up with a practical set of ground rules, or to at least recognize that we don’t have a practical set of ground rules, and what is and isn’t art varies from day-to-day based on current sociopolitical thought, market trends, education levels, and even the weather. More importantly, I think, we should be more mindful and more critical of thought itself. We should assess and evaluate not just what is art, but why it is art and why we think it is art.
But limiting what is art with bullshit elitism is probably not the way to go.
After some conversations with folk online and off, I’ve had some time to think about MVRDV’s “The Cloud” project in Seoul, South Korea. I’d like to come at it with a certain angle, though, so I’ll start with this.
Since the end of World War II, Germans going through school are taught in almost excruciating detail about the Holocaust and Germany’s complicity in it. No one’s feelings are spared, and German students are reminded time and time again, not that “those Nazis” did this (in the way we, as non-Germans are taught that), but that “we” did this. The nation of Germany, which until 1871 wasn’t a nation in any true sense of the word (and after WW2 and until the fall of Berlin wall was again, a fractured nation), has taken full-on responsibility for the Holocaust and are properly commended for this. The victors write history, after all, and in the world’s history books, Germany was most certainly in the wrong.
But within the last generation or so, something interesting has begun to happen in Germany. German students are beginning to openly express frustration over what is still seen as their complicity in the Holocaust. Most superficial scholars of history paint all of Germany in one colour and as the nation that killed six million Jews and was lead blindly by Adolf Hitler in a mad bid to conquer the planet. Now imagine being a young German in Germany today: from a young age until the day you die, you’re constantly reminded of your nation’s shame and constantly told to carry that burden, even though you weren’t around in WW2 and your parents might have even been Holocaust victims themselves. Though my experience clearly pales in comparison to just about anyone else’s tale of discrimination, I have several times in my life been accused of being a Nazi or even Hitler himself on account of my German heritage. The accusation has nothing to do with fact, but it is still one made because of the actions of men long dead who I had nothing to do with.
So it is understandable that Germans want to move on. Every other year it seems there is either another Holocaust movie or a film that jokes about Germany and their complicity in that war. Whether it’s Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, or even that Fawlty Tower’s sketch from so long ago, Germans are constantly reminded that even Oskar Schindler, who is the protagonist and ostensible hero of Schindler’s List, was still a German complicit in the Holocaust and despite what he did for the Jews, there’s always a notion that he could have done more or that he was just motivated by profit. To some extent, Germans deserve to carry the shame of WW2 (as Angela Merkel recently confessed in an address in Israel), and again, to Germany’s credit, they have done a damn fine job of rooting out anti-semitism and racism in Germany to the point that collecting Nazi memorabilia, a social faux pas but source of interest for many enthusiasts in the world, is illegal in Germany, many European countries, and even eBay. And while one could argue that to ban Nazi memorabilia is to pretend it doesn’t exist and to, in a sense, rewrite history, Germany at least deserves a ton of credit for the burden their youth have to carry for the sins of their grandfathers. And while poking fun at Germans for their complicity (and even poking fun at the Holocaust itself) has gotten a bit more in vogue in mainstream culture, for some it remains wildly inappropriate (and, well, fair enough).
I think another example that (perhaps) is closer to home is the subject of Native Americans and colonialism. It goes without saying that in 1492 (when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc), Europeans showed up to North America and began killing its inhabitants. I mean, to be frank the destruction caused by the colonization of North America was genocide, whether you’re talking about giving out smallpox-infested blankets or declaring war on them for encroaching on the land you stole from them. I would hate to be a Native American living in North America because of the systematic discrimination you face on a daily basis.”The white man”, to be non-PC, has been raping Native Americans since day one, and government policy to this day still discriminates against Native Americans.
But like young Germans in Germany today, at what point do we say, o”k, we’re sorry, now let’s move on”? I, personally, had nothing to do with the European conquest of North America, and I think very few of my readers did as well. The argument can be made that our presence is just a reminder of that, or we contribute to it daily, or whatever, but I don’t make my living or spend my spare time oppressing Native Americans — but every day, by virtue of my whiteness, I’m reminded of what we did to them. In British Columbia especially, every major public funding announcement or building construction (or even on occasion, university lecture), we begin with the almost cursory declaration that “we acknowledge that we are on Unceded Coast Salish territory“. It is necessary, in BC, for us to begin by acknowledging that the only reason we’re standing where we’re standing is because we stole the ground we’re standing on. It can go beyond that. Take for example the recent Missing Women’s Inquiry here in BC, which was an investigation into why police forces didn’t do more to investigate the disappearance of women, the majority of whom were street people and/or native. The thing began with a prayer from a first nations elder. Sure, it is somewhat appropriate maybe, but they likely would have caught hell if they prayed to Allah or Christ. One just has to Google “unceded coast salish territory” to be bombarded with public shamings, ranging from press releases that begin with “VANCOUVER, Unceded Coast Salish Territory” or speeches from the government recognizing that this bridge/bank/park/convention centre/whatever is on unceded Coast Salish territory. It manifests itself in crazy ways, such as renaming the Queen Charlotte Islands (named after a boat named after Queen Charlotte) the Haida Gwaii or the recent proposal to rename Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC (named after the same Stanley for which the Stanley Cup is named) to Xwayxway. To me, the constant platitudes we lob towards Natives (as though renaming a bunch of islands people fish off of to Haida Gwaii is going to undo centuries of oppression) is insulting to both parties. At some point, whether we’re talking about The Crusades or the Crucifixion of Christ or Japanese internment camps in WW2 or genocide in Germany and in North America or Pearl Harbour or, well, 9/11, eventually we have to forgive and move on, maybe.
My point with “The Cloud” thing was several-fold: firstly, what you see is what you see. Everyone sees something different when they look at the world. Perception is inherently flawed, and anyone who suggests otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As a mundane example, I have major astigmatism in my left eye and minor in my right. While I can function just fine without glasses, the world does appear to me a bit different without glasses or contacts. You can look at an ink blot and see a man with a knife or look at a cloud and see a bunny: that’s perception. And, when it comes to perception, you can’t be told you’re wrong to some extent. What you see is what you see. If you see a ghost, you might be crazy or you may need to make a phone call, but the undebatable fact is that you saw x. If you look at The Cloud and see the World Trade Centre towers engulfed in flame, that is what you see. That may not be what the designers intended, but that’s what you saw. Language obviously has a huge role in what you see: had I (or anyone else) just posted the picture sans words, you may not have “seen 9/11”. As it stands, I introduced the buildings as having that appearance. It’s like lawyer-speak: the difference between did you see that car? and did you see that blue car run that red light? are two very similar yet very different questions that, by the nature of their formation, imprint information into the mind of the person receiving the question.
My second point was, isn’t it interesting that North Americans instantly see 9/11 in these buildings? I am sure that people from Norway or Spain or Australia or China or South Korea or Zimbabwe or England would be more likely to see something different. As it stands, I think it would be very interesting to take the picture and present it to various people of various ethnicities, living in various jurisdictions, and asking them what they see, because I guarantee you, people from different regions are likely to see different things. My girlfriend (an American) instantly saw the WTC buildings. As a Canadian, I did not instantly see them but after I read an opinion piece saying that’s what they look like (and S. Korea et al were being insensitive, etc), I saw it. And I think by virtue of the fact that 9/11 is a bigger deal in America than it is in Canada (though many in Canada still recognize 9/11 with a moment of silence), and obviously a bigger deal in America than it is in South Korea or Iran or North Korea or Taiwan or the Ukraine, Americans are more likely to see 9/11 than any other nationality. Again, I don’t have any scientific evidence, but to suggest otherwise is to argue that nationality has nothing to do with one’s perception, which seems easily debatable.
Thirdly and finally, and this is why I opened with a thousand or so words talking about tragedy and it’s evolution, at what point can we, as a society, move on? Let’s assume that x% of Americans, when seeing the picture up top, “see 9/11”. In ten years, will that percentage go up and down? In twenty, thiry, forty — when will people not see 9/11? Three weeks after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried famously complained that he attempted to catch a flight but couldn’t get a direct flight because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” He was heckled, and though he won back the crowd, took a lot of flack for his joke. Holocaust jokes, Nazi jokes, Native jokes, and jokes about 9/11 are OK in some circles, but obviously not in others. I ended on “Too soon?”, if only because, well, when isn’t it too soon?
I don’t know what else to say about MVRDV’s project, The Cloud. On the one hand, it looks kind of cool and I’d imagine living in one of the luxury suites would be pretty awesome. On the other, it sorta resembles… well, the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11, 2001.
While it is supposed to look like a pixellated cloud, and while it does incorporate all sorts of green space and cool, eco-friendly stuff like that, it really kinda does look like, well, 9/11.
Noted media hasbeen (or neverwas? or stillis? I don’t know) Glenn Beck pointedly asked if it “this building – which is still on track for construction – a purposeful slam on America? Is it a celebration of the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 innocent Americans?” And while the question is
a bit pretty ridiculously extreme and really not worth addressing because Glenn Beck is insane, the soul of the question is essentially, don’t they realise how insensitive this is?
And I guess so. They apologized on Facebook:
A real media storm has started and we receive threatening emails and calls of angry people calling us Al Qaeda lovers or worse.
MVRDV regrets deeply any connotations The Cloud projects evokes regarding 9/11, it was not our intention.
The Cloud was designed based on parameters such as sunlight, outside spaces, living quality for inhabitants and the city. It is one of many projects in which MVRDV experiments with a raised city level to reinvent the often solitary typology of the skyscraper. It was not our intention to create an image resembling the attacks nor did we see the resemblance during the design process. We sincerely apologize to anyone whose feelings we have hurt, the design was not meant to provoke this.
So, I guess, what now? I’m torn, myself.
On the one hand, I think it’s hard to deny that it looks like the twin towers. On the other, it was designed innocently enough and, to be frank, what does it matter? It’s not like the thing is being built on Ground Zero or anywhere in the US. At what point would something like this be OK — will something like this ever be OK? It’s not an intentional jab at 9/11, and if the firm set out to “reinvent the often solitary typology of the skyscraper”, they definitely achieved it. I mean, it is a really cool looking building.
I guess, too soon?