C’est fou! C’est l’art. N’est-ce pas?


I only had a few moments to read anything on the interwebs today. But this, from Le Huffington Post (yes, the French version) caught my eye. The FB status: Au nom de l’art, des étudiants allemands soumettent la vie d’un mouton au vote sur internet (“In the name of art, German students put a lamb’s life to a vote on the internet”). You can read the English version here.

I didn’t have time or bandwidth to read the full article or watch the video link at the time, but I thought about the article again this evening while at a chamber music concert. I remembered these pieces by French artist Ben Vautier in an exhibit I saw at MOMA last fall.

OK, I get it: Vautier is being ironic. He says that there is a word for art, but he doesn’t say what that word is. He suggests that “art” is not art. That isn’t really all that revolutionary of an idea: that the artifact of “art” is not the thing, but a representation of a thing. That is what makes it art — or so the argument goes. One piece contains the words: Art, my ass! How many people, without knowing the translation, expressed the same thing upon viewing this? Or were they just translating? It is the artist painting a picture of an artist painting a picture of an artist painting a picture of something that has blurred so far in the infinitely regressing landscape that we can not tell what it is. But we assume that we know what it represents.

Art: Ce n’est pas l’art. It is what you do. It represents what we do, what we feel, what we think. It is ironic. Or is it?

But are the German art students being ironic? Is this really a representation of democracy in our world? Does it need to be to be art? Even if it is representative, it begs the question: is it art? Does that make it NOT art?

I’m sure that there were some that said that Vautier’s Total Art was not art at the time that he created it. That it would later hang in a renown museum is still probably an art travesty to some, although the day that I was at MOMA last October, these works, hung in what is essentially a hallway at the top of an escalator between two galleries, stopped most people. I didn’t poll the visitors to get their opinions, although I did observe several trying to translate to be sure that they understood the words. That many tried to understand the words suggests to me that they were trying to understand the work. It makes one think about the artifact, about the work, about the concept, about the nature of art.

But the sheep guillotine? That’s crazy, right? Is that art? Would it be art if they decided not to kill the sheep? Or only if they decided not to kill it despite the results of the online vote?

Listening to the string quartet, accompanied by a pianist, this evening, I liked the first piece. The second piece sounded to me like a couple of six-year-olds banging on a piano to drown out the cellist, sometimes in harmony with the violin and viola, sometimes not.

What do you think? a friend asked me at intermission.

The second piece is not my thing, I replied. I get it. There were a few parts that I liked and I know that they are very good musicians. But I didn’t like it.

She laughed. You are such a classicist!

During the final piece, a more traditional work, by Brahms, I thought about her comment — and about the poor little lamb whose life is hanging by a thread spun on the internet. I can appreciate the music, even if I don’t like it. Instrumental music, especially “classical” music, (to use — or misuse, if you prefer — the term in its broader sense) is an art that I don’t know how to critically discuss, beyond my personal likes and dislikes. I don’t know enough about it; I don’t know the language. I can only react on a visceral, experiential level. Though I have little formal training in art or art appreciation, I feel more grounded in my understanding of art and art trends. Having acquired some of the critical vocabulary and a limited understanding of art movements, I have a different level of appreciation and, therefore, a way — a means differing from simply an experiential reaction — of viewing and judging a work.

My emotions tell me that killing an animal for sport is wrong. A corollary is killing an animal for art. My immediate reaction is that this is NOT art. And yet….

And yet.

Isn’t art, in part, about stretching the boundaries? Can’t it be about making us think? About making us evaluate what it reflects — a society that would even think to participate in such a cruel endeavor? About shocking us with our own realities? Those seem to be not just lofty goals but also functions of art. Art both represents how we are as well as how we might be — both good and bad.

And yet. I could never justify Sheep Guillotine for any purpose. If the artists just want to fuck with us, well, I think they’ve made their point. Perhaps we are the sheep, duped into participating even if we don’t intend to. To be completely clear and pretend that I am refraining from cleverness: I’m writing about this, although I did not watch their video or go to the site to vote. Am I not, however, a participant in the larger context? I cannot help but think of the wonderful short story by Nick Hornby, Nipple Jesus, that deals in a literary way — dare I say an artful way — with just such a deception by an artist. (If you haven’t read Hornby’s story, go get a copy of Speaking with the Angel and read it! I wrote about it briefly here in 2006, back in another internet eon.)

Could you argue that the sheep doesn’t know about his fate and therefore this is a harmless trick? Yes, you could, but I think that a guillotine is not a normal sort of environment for that sheep and that it must feel, if not fear, at least discomfort in his surroundings. There are reasons why we don’t run certain scientific experiments on people, even if the results might be astoundingly significant or even beneficent. We should evaluate what we do as “performance” art in a similar manner. Crossing a boundary is one thing. But crossing every boundary is not necessary or desirable. It’s cheap trickery at best.

It is not art: it’s cruel madness.

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8 responses to “C’est fou! C’est l’art. N’est-ce pas?

  1. I love philosophizing about these kinds of things. Thank you for this. And thanks for the follow, as well.

  2. I agree with you too. Art should not be confined to beautiful subjects and happy thoughts. Some things that pose as art make beautiful things ugly, but art makes even ugly, painful things beautiful and pleasing without the subjects losing their message.

    Or am I just digging myself in? :-)) So I’ll just stick to that sentence, cruelty ruins art. 🙂

    • No, I don’t think that you are digging yourself in. I think you say it wonderfully — that art can make something ugly and painful beautiful. I think we’re in agreement here!

  3. I agree with you.
    I always thought that art is something that elevates our souls and minds to the infinite and sublime, because art is a participation in the creative powers of our Maker.
    I will not call art that which calls for cruelty and disorder – it crashes rather than uplift the mind and soul. Just my opinion.

    • I think that art CAN elevate to the infinite and sublime, but my problem is that position carries the connotation that it is positive and optimistic, always a thing of beauty. This is too simplistic, of course, but I think it is a trap that is easy to fall into. I don’t think that art needs to be beautiful to be considered art. Sometimes it is the chaos that it is depicting as its subject that is central. But, I suppose, it can be that chaos that lifts us to infinite truths, that contains the sublime. Have to think about this more to really frame a sensible argument, but I agree about the cruelty.

  4. I agree with your assessment of “cheap trickery” and “cruel madess”. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I like your thoughts here.