Sunday, October 4, 2009

This I Believe

I believe in the difference between art and not-art. I walk down the street, into a bookstore, out of a restaurant, mentally accepting or rejecting every house – is it carefully crafted or cookie-cutter? – novel – the best-sellers aren’t usually the ones that change my life – culinary creation – a hamburger can be so thoughtful, while the linguini pasta with shitake mushrooms, tomato confit and ginger broth sometimes tries so hard but… can’t.

I was born with this propensity to toss my every encounter into the art or not-art pile, though my categories aren’t as black and white as you might think. For example, the boneless buffalo wings at Applebee’s are frozen hunks of processed fat and sodium, yet they never claimed to be anything else, and so they are art in that they are perfect at being just what they were intended. Thus, whoever says art is pretentious is mistaken. Art is by definition unpretentious.

I don’t know how to tell you exactly what makes a thing art or not-art. I just know, when I see a thing, which it is. Art is a leader, and while it evolves from its predecessors and draws inspiration from tiny moments – like a gum wrapper blowing across a deserted parking lot, or a construction worker zipping up his toddler’s winter coat, it must be original, or else it isn’t art. By the time the French Country decorating trend reached the manufactured trailer homes, it had long, long ago stopped being art. Red toile curtains, for example, are one of the most extreme current examples of not-art, because not-art actually derives from exploited art. In this way, artists are the visionaries who unwillingly determine what sort of not-art you will consume.

I seek out artists. I want to leave the salon with a piece of the person who touched my hair. My accountant, if I had one, would be an artist, fully engaged in the process of minimizing my taxes.

Art is functional. If it isn’t functional, it is not-art. A white hand towel that gets used, tossed in the laundry, washed, and hung back neatly on the bathroom rack is art. The matching seashell print hand towels, which go with the nautical theme and are not intended for use, are not-art. The artist’s painting evokes its intended emotion when I stand before it; it is art. Mass-produced and hung to fill a space, it’s not-art, and you can find it at Target.

The truth is, I’m afraid of not-art. Because not-art is like a band-aid, hiding a deep wound. It is the latest big-screen TV, the Miley Cyrus pop song, the prostitute, the line of cocaine. We consume not-art for its illusion of happiness, but it will be gone tomorrow. In contrast, art – like rocking my sister’s new baby girl, or a rocking chair worn by time – sustains me. Art is real.

I’ve built my life around my belief in art and not-art, yet I can’t tell you why I see the world in this way. Why the view from a dilapidated porch can be so much more beautiful than the manicured lawn unfolding before a million-dollar mansion – or vice versa. It just can be. This I believe.