Monday, October 26, 2009
What is Art, Part IV
October 26, 2009
A few days ago a friend sent me an article clipped from the New York Times, printed on October 16th 2009. It’s an op-ed piece by Denis Dutton and you can read it in its entirety here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/16/opinion/16dutton.html (you may have to copy and paste this link, as I have still not figured out how to get a hyperlink into this blog format….sorry)
It touched me personally because he cites research that identifies Acheulian hand-axes found in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa as dating back some 2.5 million years, long before verbal language existed. Okay, that is pretty amazing by itself, but he also says that scientists studying these earliest of tools now believe they may be the very first art-form created by hominids. According to Dutton’s sources many of these early pieces have been found in un-used condition, as indicated by the freshly knapped delicate edges. Some are too big to be practical as hand-axes, so the inference is that they were made as objets d’art , to be cherished and to express something more profound than an object created purely for utilitarian purposes. I immediately have this image of this being--a half-primate, half-human missing link kind of creature--crouched in a cave, grunting, snorting and chortling as he bends to his work on a richly colored piece of stone, exercising great care and skill in order to create something ever so much more than a simple using tool.
I say this is personal for me because I made edged objects for about thirty years. I was a professional knifemaker, and the pieces I created came into being primarily to express something, rather than to be purchased and used as knives. My final piece had a blade forged from shrapnel found in the forest near Bastogne and was delivered with a complete portfolio, including poetry, photos, and an essay. I always thought—and still do—of the knife/axe, as the first tool, and as the only tool you would really not want to be without in a survival or wilderness situation. And, there were days when I grunted, snorted and chortled as I bent to my work.
Dutton goes on to say that scientists believe what these ancient craftsmen were expressing with these objects had everything to do with the highly developed skills required to make them, and that many pieces were made from extraordinarily beautiful stone, clearly had extra effort and care taken in their creation. In other words, in pre-language hominids it was already recognized that making something with your hands that embodied beautiful execution and handsome materials was a way of expressing themselves. I would dearly love to know how these articles were treated after being completed. Were they given to loved ones…or to dominant members of the band….or held as property in common, as a kind of icon….perhaps the makers used them as a way of bartering? What became of them will never be known, but because the delicate edges of these pieces do at least tell us that they remained out of circulation as tools, this certainly implies that the first art-form had an audience of ‘collectors’ who appreciated them for their aesthetic properties, more so than for their utility.
Amazingly—at least to me—Dutton puts these proto-art pieces alongside the works of Damien Hirst, whom some may recall is the conceptual artist responsible for putting a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde on the market as art. BTW: It garnered TWELVE MILLION bucks at auction. You may already have guessed it was not his one and only such offering. The redoubtable Herr Hirst has most recently offered mocked-up medicine cabinets for sale. And, the most recent auction brought just under $200K for same. Yes, it looks just like a medicine cabinet you would find in many bathrooms, with glass front and typical bathroom, hygiene and health products on display. How coy! But, Dutton’s point is that such inane conceptual pieces actually have begun to seem inane, even to at least some of the anointed cognoscenti, apparently, especially when you begin to compare them with objects made with genuine skill and caring, out of beautiful materials….even those made by our hairy distant cousins who had yet to create words…but whom, I will bet, had more sense than to defecate in their own caves the way the New York art world is.
Along the way Dutton reminds us that these days a conceptual ‘artist’ need not actually have hands-on their art. I must have been dozing off when they covered this part of being an artist in college. He or she needs to merely generate the clever idea and then turn it over to a suitable facility—an atelier, a construction contractor, whomever has the skills, tools and materials the ‘artist’ is lacking—then pay for and inspect (one hopes) the finished product…and ‘product’ seems exactly the right word to describe the result of this process. Damien Hirst is identified by Dutton as being the ‘richest’ artist alive today. And, in terms of the traditional definition of what constitutes an artist, he is nothing of the sort. He is a clever idea man, nothing more. He has learned how to market sly and oddly unappealing items for such massive sums that the salient fact about them has become simply THEIR PRICE. A dead shark in a tank only becomes a real head-scratcher, when you learn that some idiot has paid $12 MILLION BUCKS FOR IT. And the fools who will pay millions for his cunning brain-storms, are accomplices in his scam. It is a house of cards, however. And, as Dutton points out, at some point the obvious will become…well, uh, obvious.
I burst into a guffaw on reading Dutton’s closing remarks: “….I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners, and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner and wondering why.” Congratulations to Denis Dutton for penning such a keenly insightful piece.
And, on that day, those of us who have been pointing at the king all along and remarking on his obscene nakedness will simply smile and walk away. Art is not valuable, nor necessarily even really ‘art’, just because some self-serving artists, gallery owners, and curators have put it in front of us and told us it is.
And, apparently, even cavemen knew this.