June 16, 2006

Is it Art? Or is it Memorex?

More than a decade ago I attended a very sad funeral for the brother of an old and dear friend. The funeral was not sad for the reasons one associates with funerals, but rather because of its lack of those things. The man in question was young, and there was a deal of doubt as to whether the action that caused his passing was accidental or deliberate on his part. What we did know was that his life had been short, lonely, and quietly desperate - that he had been touched by few other lives, and had touched few lives himself. His father, his stepmother, his brother and I were the only attendees at his funeral. The presiding minister had never met him. The service was short. I was the only one to cry - and I cried not for his loss, but for the loss of what his life could or should have been and wasn't. The tragedy was in the waste, rather than the loss... and that others should feel that way about someone, that seemed a tragedy as well.

We wanted to do something after the service that would have been more meaningful to the man himself, as a sort of celebration of his darkly ironic sense of humor. Luckily the church was right next door to a local modern art museum, where we knew we'd find plenty to mock and deride... and we weren't disappointed. We arrived to find that the museum in question was featuring a special exhibition of a nationally touring collection of award-winning avant-garde works, and it was opening that very weekend. Lots of very serious people were frowning thoughtfully at various objects, such as the extremely expensively displayed weathered board with the rusted nails sticking out of it. That is, when they weren't frowning at *me*.

Really, modern art is valuable if for no other reason than that it provides an egalitarian environment in which *everyone* is offered the opportunity to enjoy a good laugh at the expense of both artists and audience.

Keith would have appreciated it.

Which helped me put to rest a bit of the lingering resentment I held towards the studio art teachers I suffered through in my college days. To be honest, I resented the lazy, self-involved and outrageously puffed-up teachers less than I resented the university itself for taking outrageous amounts of my money - and the taxpayers' money, in many students' cases - in order to line the pockets of talentless charletans who offered their students not one tool, not one skill, not one useful insight, not one moment of even mild inspiration.

But now when I see a modern art installation, or a rusty nail, I think of Keith and of the good healing laughter his brother and I shared that day, and at least for me it all has gained a little more meaning and value thereby.

I offer you this entry with insincere apologies to the Walker Art Center, and true gratitude to Sis for bringing this article to my attention...


Blogger mrspao said...

I used to work at an Art college and some of the "art" was truly appalling - badly made, unimaginative, and downright bizarre (decapitated Barbie dolls!) so I wholly embrace the sentiments of your post. Some of the work was clever, well-though out and excellent but you had to wade through a lot of dross first!

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Amy said...

That's a beautiful story about the funeral.

7:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful essay about waste and puffery. It is too easy to become dejected about the sort of foolishness this world seems to thrive on. Those who point out that the Emperor has no clothes are either scathed or ignored. A pointed and critical visit to a modern art museum was the perfect tribute to the lonely skeptic whose funeral you were kind enough to attend. He would indeed have appreciated the gesture (as would Tom Wolfe!) :D
Fittingness of goodbyes...

2:40 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Heh, I spend most of my time at the Walker going "hmm - that's... interesting."

1:30 PM  

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