By my sophomore year of high school I was attending a weekly course at the Glassel School of Art in Houston. I had won a four year scholarship two years before, my mom drove me downtown on the weekends and everyone involved in the program assured me it was very prestigious. Courses alternated between projects, review, criticism, and occasionally attendance of the surrounding museums, galleries and shows. I consider this the window of my life in which I was exposed to “high art”. We had taken the second half of the day to attend one such show - this one was particularly exciting because one of our instructors was having an opening for his most recent work.
After picking out a few carrots, some crackers and a possibly too much of a beige balm that I assumed was for dipping, I meandered around the gallery. The show featured twelve prints of the exact same image - a close-up my instructor’s mouth, with a large block of charcoal inserted into it, and a little bit of dribble flowing down to his chin. For the first fifteen minutes or so I walked slowly from image to image, trying to spot the difference. “One of these is probably ever-so-slightly different than the others - wouldn’t that be interesting?” Sadly, upon finalizing my third go-round I realized they were all the same. My instructor was off in the corner speaking to a ring of friends and fellow artists who had shown up at 2pm on a Saturday for cheap Chardonnay and a peek behind the curtain.
Even at that age I had a feeling that has since become a sort of rule for me - I don’t like asking artists why they made their art. If I ask an artist for a meaning in a work of art it isn’t to understand the art, it’s to understand the person. The art should speak for itself. I don’t like it when artists talk about their art. When I have done it - I usually regret it. The expression of art - like most of the virile, vigorous virtues in life - vanishes the minute you try to speak its name. I may experience the lilies of the field in all their splendour and beauty - but if I have to ask God why he made them, it’s likely I haven’t seen the lilies yet at all.
It was there in that room, staring, as I had been for the last forty five minutes, at that soggy block of charcoal that I realized (without the slightest temperament of pride or malice) that I was learning from a man who had nothing to teach me. I would occasionally look to a person standing next to me - they would stand and stare scrupulously, taking in one image before passing to the next. There were the others that were obviously bored, but patiently making their motions, biding their time until it was safe to go. On the whole - it was an absurd experience. I’m sure I had a massive smile on my face as I looked around the room - at the people pointing, talking, eating. The images surrounding us seeming more like some kooky wallpaper with every passing moment, in a room lined with silly people - empty in the center. (Actually - in most gatherings of many people in large open rooms, people seem to group at the edges - why is that?)
It was in that silly room that I realized if I were going to keep making things I had better arrive at a good definition for “art”. If I could come up with a satisfactory definition it might help me to identify it when I saw it. The one I ended up adopting was simple:
Art is a mode or kind of human expression, present whenever and wherever the viewer says it is - on the condition that the viewer is being absolutely honest with themselves.
Armed with this definition, it was easy for me to look at the wallpaper and understand that there may be others in the room who were having an honestly artistic experience. There were likely others deceiving themselves or those around them into thinking they were having an artistic experience, and there were still others like me who would never have approved the swatch in the first place and decided to exploit the punch bowl.
But then I thought I may be getting a little too smug - surely these images - this effort - all this work - was art. Surely! It must be. I think it was. I then had to confront the actual question - what is GOOD art?
Why was this art bad? What were the properties of its badness? Can those properties be attributed to all “bad” art? I had found a way to stay occupied for the remaining thirty minutes, so I sat on a bench, stared at one of the images and tried to peer into the mysteries of its awfulness.
The properties of “badness” couldn’t be merely aesthetic - I knew that on intuition. I had arrived at a subjective definition for the mode itself - so the value of the mode must have its roots in subjectivity. But values are, by definition, gradations of an objective position.
I thought back to another show we had seen at the Contemporary, in which the artist drew on massive white cavasses in crayons. 10 by 10 foot canvases with six or seven little scribbles in differing parts of the frame. The canvases were mostly blank space. I balked, with my classmates, at the racket this guy was running - as the price tags for most of the paintings were five figures long. One in particular stood out - a single line of crayon, about 2 feet long, on the lower left of the canvas. A drop of paint on the right. $12,000. I don’t remember the title. Maybe it was titled $12,000. I laughed (very) quietly with a classmate at the absurdity of the show. “A kid could do this! Kids DO do this.”
What followed was what follows most jokes - serious thought. I thought about kids doing this. I thought about drawings on fridges. I thought about how valuable that drawing must be to the owner of the fridge, to be displayed like that. $12,000 valuable? Maybe not. But what if that kid did what all great artists must in order to become truly great? What if the kid (forgive the thought) went away? What if he died? What if he was taken in a divorce? How valuable would that drawing be to the owner of that fridge? $12,000? Granted, to some $12,000 is not as valuable as it is to me - but the comparison can be maintained.
If a kid can make a drawing so GOOD, someone would exchange the goodness of $12,000 for it… than this piece of crap I’m looking at in this gallery might just be worth that much to someone too. Not out of a desire to have it - out of a desire to not let it go.
It was then the definition struck me! It is the definition I maintain to this day: GOOD art is any art that FORCES me.
Did I cry? Did I laugh? Did I feel? Did I get angry? Did I have to ask myself questions? Was I offended? Was I disturbed? Was I elated? Was I entertained? Was I overjoyed? Was I FORCED to go somewhere - anywhere? Did I have a choice in the matter, apart from exposing myself to the work itself? Then it was “good art”.
(This definition could also be called “effectiveness”. “Effective” art doesn’t necessarily translate to “good” on a moral level, or relating to enjoyment, human goodness or flourishing.)
The reason my instructor’s show was so bad was because I had been in the room for over an hour and had gone nowhere else. The pictures on the wall had not taken me anywhere. If I tried to take these images with me toward any meaning it would be up to me to drag them along myself, as others were so obviously trying to do. Finally! I had done it! I had come to terms with the suckiness of this whole experience. I was satisfied.
Then I realized - I had completed a journey of sorts. The satisfaction I was feeling would have never come had I not come to this show, seen these images, and stayed long enough that they could have their full affect on my consciousness. Could it be - I was forced? This art was so bad that it was actually, by my own definition, good???
Apparently. I still remember it to this day. It made me question the mode of art itself. It changed the way I perceive, view and talk about it. It ended up being one of the most powerful moments of creative exhibition that I had ever experienced. It was good art…. no - GREAT ART!
Would I recommend it? Nah.