Defining art is like defining sexy -- as slippery as it is sure, as ephemeral as it is compelling.
None of our modern techniques for detecting art have made the matter more certain. Our giga-computers and mega-scanners of the 21st century have utterly failed to clarify the picture. And, while generation after generation of human beings stumble their way into learning about sexy, art remains more of a mystery than ever.
It is easy to point at history and argue that the constant presence of art is proof of its essential nature to the spirit of every earthly civilization. Like oxygen, like dance. The portfolios of a thousand dead masters is a solid hook upon which to hang your hat.
It's a Captain Kirk speech waiting to happen. "Art -- is part of...who we are. It's part of...being human, Spock."
This world is full of black turtleneck-wearing pedantibots who can define art in terms of a million high-falutin' ten-cent words, but these are exercises in obfuscation as often as education. Artists are a jealous guild and if you ask them they'll say that it takes a trained artist to recognize art -- it's just that lofty and subtle and contextually sensitive and refined.
It's a waterfall of bullshit.
But let me tell you this: when I was four years old I experienced the real McCoy.
When I Was Young and Ancient Greek
Before we have words we explore the universe sensually. The impressions these explorations leave are the keystone concepts around which we build our notion of the world. It's true.
When I was two years old I slept in a crib. When I was finished sleeping I would stand at the side of the crib and call my mommy. While I waited for her to arrive I would put my mouth around the rail of the crib, and feel it with my teeth and tongue.
The rail was made of wood, encased along the top edge in a strip of smooth plastic. The contrast in textures fascinated me. Frictive below, glossy above; chewy below, yielding but unbreakable on top; intricate and patterned on the bottom, fat and cold and constant on top.
I remember it.
And I remember being three years old and sitting under a piece of lawn furniture. On one of the legs the thick, rubbery plastic skinning had peeled back from the rusted metal beneath. I ran my fingers around the edge of the wound, taking in the simultaneous impressions of the pitted, fractal details of the metal and the broad, clean uniformity of the skin.
And so was born my reoccurring dream, which would visit me throughout my childhood: twin lines of material move laterally -- the bottom element composed of fine, intricately woven strands, the top element composed of a thick, glossy plastic studded at irregular intervals with little domes and coins of lawn furniture material. The dream was far too abstract to convey to my mom, but I did try. "I had my funny dream again," I'd tell her; "about the way the moving stuff feels."
Children are natural philosophers. They have an engine in their heads that compels them to classify and associate, to compare and to formalize. Give them time and they'll run through the early history of metaphysical thought without batting an eye -- they just won't be able to tell you about it, is all.
When I was four years old I decided that there were two elemental kinds of material in the universe, each the complement and opposite of one another. The first material was wide and heavy and simple, and the second material was complex and patterned and light. Broad and Intricate.
I saw the relationship between these two essential materials in all things.
It was clear to me as a child natural philosopher that the most perfect of all shapes was a sphere. Things substantially larger than civilization, like the Sun and Moon, were round. The Sun was a Broad ball of light which turned around the plane of our Intricate Earth.
It all rhymed, in my head. The themes were universal. The harmony between concepts delighted me in a way I could not express.
I didn't have the words, but now I can identify the feeling. As a four year old I was convinced that the interplay of the Broad and Intricate forces in our world of Spheres was holy.
And then one day my parents took me to see Disney's The Black Hole (1979). The movie featured a lot of pioneering computer animated effects, including an opening sequence flying around and through a space-like hypersurface surrounding a black hole, described with warped green wireframe lines on black.
I found the image compelling.
The green lines were accompanied by a slow, pounding bass and brass march scored by John Barry, full of foreboding and doom. It occurred to me wordlessly as I watched that the green lines were the element of intricacy, and the music -- a non-visual, non-textural element -- was playing the role of broadness. What a revelation! I realized that Broadness and Intricacy were not inherent qualities, but rather ones imparted by the observer by virtue of the contrast between things.
It was the way Broadness and Intricacy were proportioned that lent them their beauty, and they could be rhymed in any medium. As long as the proportions were true they would rhyme with the world and so seem right. Or, if done perfectly, even holy.
I didn't have words for any of this. I wasn't yet five. I was quickly distracted by the spaceships and robots on screen. The image of the round, churning black hole surrounded by a halo of spiralling cosmic jetsam riveted me, as well as its inexorable, merciless pull. Only a sphere could be so powerful, I reasoned.
When we came home my parents went to do mommy and daddy things and I retired to the rec room in the basement. I went to my drawing desk and tried to draw the space-like hypersurface from the opening of the movie, but it wasn't nearly as interesting as a still picture. I tried pretending that my eye was a camera and zooming the paper past my head.
Then I spotted my mother's basket of yarn. The yarn was green. Eureka!
I could not replicate the image of the thing, but I could replicate the thing itself. I started unravelling the balls of yarn. I wasn't allowed to use scissors by myself, so I sawed the yarn against one of the metal arms of the mechanism that reclined my dad's easy chair.
I made a grid of yarn that stretched from one end of the room to the other, tying it to furniture and light fixtures, toys and doorknobs. It was fun to look out at the web and choose which parts to tie together next, or connect with a bridge of smaller stringlets. It was fun to crawl around underneath it, and look at it from the floor.
Next I tried dropping balls of various sizes into the middle of the yarn network to make it bow and warp as if a black hole were there, but they were too light. I tried using heavy toys, but they kept falling through. I thought the yarn might be heavier if it were wet, so I filled up my plastic space-helmet with water from the washroom and then poured it on the centre of the web (and all over the carpet).
Then I just got into pretending I was a movie camera, closing one eye and moving around the mesh from various angles. Tilting my head for a dutch shot I panned along the flattest part, skimming in close to the strands and then pulling back to take in the whole scope of my creation.
It was a grand, grand thing.
But the sudden shout from behind me was not congratulatory. "Cheeseburger Toad Frankfurter Brown! What are you doing?"
My mommy was not impressed. I was not able to convey to her what I was trying to accomplish. She couldn't understand the association between my mess and The Black Hole. I wasn't yet five, and my oratory skills were still developing. I tried to patiently make my case but I got a spanking. I had to clean up the basement and go to my room.
In my room I thought about this: the intricate element was the thing-place I had made. The broad element was the unfettered joy it filled me with.
Yes, and I once attended an imploding school. It was a million years old and run by dying hippies. It was all lead paint and asbestos and the grime of decade-stains, lit by incandescent lamps on long, dirty cables. The windows were thick and irregular, the outside world convoluted into whorls of coloured light.
Inside was chaos, too. I've mentioned all this before.
One day my friend Cowboy and I were farting around in the abandoned Humanities Room, playing Jenga with stacks of chairs. We were thirteen years old. A snotty girl wandered in and asked us if we had seen her lost book. It was white with a bunch of blue people on it, she said. We knew the book -- we'd seen other kids from her home-form with the same assignment, carrying the same paperback. We hadn't seen any lying around, no.
She left. And then Cowboy found the book. "Let's hide it and then make her look for it. We'll go like hot-hot-hot, cold. You know?"
But once Cowboy had hidden the book in a cupboard we decided that the game was too easy. "We should make an obstacle course," he said. So we dragged the tables and chairs around and made a kind of maze. But it still didn't seem to contain enough latent amusement to satisfy us.
That's when I spotted the box full of rolls of masking tape. I said, "Hey, I know -- let's make a giant spider-web."
Yes. Something rang true in it. I was consumed by the task. I was drunk on the joy of the creation, and gave no thought to any consequences. Cowboy and I wrapped up the masking tape strips into heavy cables, and then hung them across the classroom. Then we each took a roll and set to creating connecting strands that dropped down near the floor, and tied them together with more tape.
When we were done we were both winded and sweaty with the effort, but we'd made a wondrous thing -- a three-dimensional labyrinth of webbing that described tunnels and awnings leading from the floor, over and under tables, and finally creating tiny pockets near the cupboards which could only be explored on hands and knees.
It was Cowboy who came up with the inspired touch of making it like finding pirate treasure. We drew a rough and misleading map, and marked an X. "We should burn the edges, to make it more piratty," I said, so Cowboy pulled out his lighter and singed the edges of the map. He put a few little holes in it, too, trying to brown the paper. It looked cool.
I took the lighter and crawled through the maze. The afternoon light shining through the windows created stripes of shadow over my hands as I crawled. I came to the cupboard and pulled out the book, and then I singed the edges of the pages as we'd done to the map. "Now everything looks piratty," I called.
I replaced the book and crawled out. We went to the Common Room and found Snotty. Cowboy cleared his throat. "The good news: my colleague and I have solved the case of the missing book. The bad news: we're pirates."
I presented the map. "Arrr!"
Snotty looked snotty. "Where's the stupit book?"
Cowboy cackled. "Avast! Ye must follow the map to finds the treasure!"
"Arrr," I said again, for emphasis.
And so Snotty and a half dozen other kids from the Common Room followed us to the Humanities Room and were bedazzled by the magnificence of our creation. Snotty wouldn't go inside the maze but everyone else did. More wandered by, returning from afternoon field trips, and marvelled and gawked or shook their heads and laughed. Most crawled around and played a little or a lot. The sheer improbability of the thing made them giggle, and feel young.
"It's not just vandalism," Cowboy announced. "It's a ride!" He then jumped into the thickest part of the net. It held his weight momentarily before pulling over several tables and chairs, collapsing in a chain reaction, rippling outward from his position.
The noise brought complaints from below, and someone was sent to check on the commotion. Principal Poopoolopolis was not far behind, the matted hair covering his body standing out through his white shirt. We'd all cleared the room by that point, but he found us in the urine-stinking locker gallery trying to pull tape out of Cowboy's hair. "You boys have been warned before," said Poopoolopolis.
We attended a trial by hippie.
MoonChild, the queen of the school, sat across the table from Cowboy and I and stared at us with a sad half-smile. She held a pen, and was fingering a lock from her massive gush of unruly hair. She was trying to get her head around the whole "art project" angle of the thing, and was eager to seize on a non-barbaric explanation.
Cowboy said, "We know it was stupid, MoonChild. Both CheeseburgerBrown and I have jobs, and we want to pay the school back for the cost of the tape we wasted."
This was very satisfactory to MoonChild, but then her face became graver. She leaned back in her chair, further away from us, the beads around her neck jingling. "What's more troubling here, however, is this." She put Snotty's copy of the assigned paperback on the table, with its singed edges. "Who did this?"
"I did," I said.
"Cowboy, you can go," she said quietly. Cowboy pushed back his chair and left. MoonChild turned back to me, chewing her lip for a moment before speaking.
"Why did you do this?"
"So that it would look like a pirate map, kinda. You know, like browned and ragged at the edges? That's all it is, just the edges. If you think it's ruined I guess I could pay for it, too."
"That's not the point," she said.
I was pretty sure the point was going to be about having fire in the school, if nothing else. They tend to be strict about that sort of thing. "There was hardly even a flame," I said quickly. "It wasn't really on fire -- just getting brown."
She shook her head and played with her pen and then fixed me with another long look. "It's not about how much fire you used, CheeseburgerBrown." She leaned forward and said with dire seriousness, "It's about burning books."
I blinked. She continued, "Books are ideas, and nobody's ideas should be censored by you, or by anyone. Do you understand? Burning books is a crime against ideas, a crime against humanity. Do you understand that?"
"But MoonChild," I protested. "I didn't burn the copy -- I just singed the edges. It's an artistic effect! I didn't ruin the book. You could still read the ideas in it."
"CheeseburgerBrown," she snapped harshly, "you cannot get away from the fact you burned this book. You burned these ideas. Do you know what this book is about?"
"No. My home-form is doing Interstellar Pig this term."
MoonChild looked down, leafing through the singed paperback. "This is Night by Elie Wiesel. It's about Auschwitz."
"It was a Nazi Death Camp."
"Oh. Like from the war."
"The Nazis committed unspeakable atrocities, including book burning. And a lot of people get very upset when they're reminded of that kind of thing, especially Jewish people. I'm a Jew, CheeseburgerBrown. And, God, when I saw that room, saw that giant swastika made of masking tape..."
"What are you talking about? There was no swastika!"
"Well, there's one version and then there's another. I'd like to believe you, CheeseburgerBrown. But with the book burning on top of it, we have no real choice here. That sort of demonstration can't be tolerated, I'm sorry." She sat back again. "You are suspended from school. Is there someone at home right now?"
"Who's at home right now?"
"The nanny. I'm suspended? For singing the edges of a book?"
MoonChild smacked the table hard with her open palm. "No!" She shook her head and stood up. "You can play naive all you want, but I'm making clear now to you and to all the students here that book burning will not be tolerated. It is a hate crime, CheeseburgerBrown. Think about that."
I was suspended for three days. Sometimes the broad strokes wipe out the intricate detail. Data is lost.
This piece is a triptych. It comes in three parts, like the classic Star Wars Saga. The Empire dealt the Rebellion a mighty blow, but that couldn't stop the return of the Jedi. Fueled by a new hope, every dog has his day.
I was twenty. I was at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. My major was a field called "Intermedia." Don't ask. No one was ever able to produce a satisfactory definition of the course of study, including the instructors. They were artists who worked in the field professionally, so when pressed to describe the genre they would point to their own work and say, "Well, there's one example."
Our class had space in the old Morse Tea Building by the harbour, industrial space converted by the school into small clusters of studios, connected to a larger conference room where we sat around a wooden table and watched slides and videos.
I was assigned the theme of "space" for my next project.
While each of the other major students were dealt out their themes I rocked back and forth on my chair and looked at the space we were in. It occurred to me that much of the space was unoccupied by human beings. Like the space beneath the table, or above people's heads. The space could be roped off, and no one would find their navigation impaired.
It came on me of a sudden: my experiments at four and thirteen had been mere preamble. This was my chance to make my greatest web ever.
I did not want anyone to see my web in progress, so I pre-tied great spans of it at home with white string. I cut off the loose fringes after tying, giving the arrangement a nobbly but clean look. The night before my presentation day I had my friend Gimli give me a lift to the Morse Tea Building, the back-seat of his rusted Jetta overflowing with bundles of string.
And I spent the night webbing up every nook of unused space on our floor, from the elevator lobby through the hallways, on through the conference rooms and into studios. I laid out tendrils leading from one room to another, tied along the walls, meeting and separating, pausing to array into a geometric arrangement, moving on. I networked the windows, I connected the pillars, I bridged floor and ceiling.
Lastly, and most importantly, I strung the path of filaments out across the square outside, over the street and into a window of the next building, in the textiles department. First I tied a string to the windowsill of my studio, and wound it around a bundle of popsicle sticks. I dangled it down to the dark sidewalk and let it rest. Then I crossed the street and used Gimli's key to get into the textiles department. I said hello to a couple of students who were working all night to finish an assignment. To the windowsill I attached a second string and bundle of popsicle sticks, and let them dangle down to the sidewalk. Then I ran outside, picked up one string-end and then the other, and tied them together.
Once back in my studio I hoisted up the slack until a taunt line was formed. I had prefabricated a thick, hollow cable of interwoven string, and I untied my end of the cross-square line and put fed the cable on. More tossed bundles of ballast, pulling strings across the street from four storeys below, more trips up and down the elevator back and forth between the intermedia studios and the textiles department. "What are you doing, exactly?" one of the sleepy textile students asked me, furrowing her brow.
So now the fourth floor of the Morse Tea Building was ensconced in webbing, with a thick profusion of strands flying out the window and across the square, into another window and tied into the innards of a cracked, disused loom in the corner. Gimli had told me about it. This was to be the supposed origin of the strands. It was against its face that I put the carefully printed card that showcased the title of my piece:
Yes. I was fed up with taking the rap for this kind of mucking around. This time, it was the loom's fault.
I smoked a cigarette and felt unbelievably good. I watched the sun come up, illuminating my creation from ruddy orange to harsh white.
Come morning it was a beautiful scene. Cars slowed, pedestrians pointed, students gaped. At presentation time I met the class in the string-jungle conference room, and had them follow me across the street to textiles. We reconvened beside the source of the string, and there I told them the story I'm telling you now, beginning with black holes and concluding presently.
Like most wonderful things, it could not last long.
The fire department came and cut down the cross-square cabling, and that sort of depressed me so I cut down the rest of it, too. I wanted to preserve it as a gem memory for the occupants of the building, not to be sullied by the decaying reality. So within two days it was all gone again, as if it had never happened.
Which is just how magic should be.
In a writer's world a thing is wrought that attempts to ring true with reality -- a thing that cannot be reproduced, but can be hinted at with just the right peppering of broad and intricate strokes to harmonize with patterns we remember from the world. A writer can create a thing that rhymes with reality enough to feel true, without the infinite complexity (and ambiguity) of life itself.
It's a compression algorithm, and it causes people to feel.
So too the gifted painters, the sculptors. It is in these clumsy forms that we attempt to encode the wonder of experience to artifacts.
It is my desire to recreate for you the circumstances that lead me to feel moved, so that you might be moved too. This is the essence of why I tell stories, or create virtual abstract spaces to fly through and explore, or attempt to engineer a moment of improbability with string.
This is the feeling that seized me when I was seized by the image of the space-like hypersurface. I wanted to bottle that gooseflesh, and re-experience it at will. I wanted it to enjoy it myself, and I wanted to share it so that I might enjoy myself vicariously through the eyes of others, to re-experience the wonder second hand.
Does that make me a wonder-ghoul?
Maybe, but it also makes me some kind of artist, or like anyone else who is so overwhelmed by the beauty or the horror of the sheer awe of existence that they cannot help but respond somehow.
I am the god of a very small universe, but that universe rhymes with ours and that makes me happy. When I can export a slice of that universe to others so they can taste a glimmer of that wonder, I am ecstatic. I feel alive, and tall.
So, anyway, that's what I figure art is. Exported awe.