This text is by Sarah Rose Sharp in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the author's employer and/or other author affiliations.
Preface: Art as a Living Practice
Sarah Rose Sharp
Art is a living, vibrant thing. We need not avoid touching it. We need not shush children around it. Museum culture places a hermetic seal on works of art, which is understandable in light of the potential degradation to important works, but presents an alienating separation from the experience of the object’s making and its viewing. Painters have quite a tactile relationship with paintings. Makers touch things, get their hands dirty. It is that physical interaction which facilitates the communication of meaning from their work into their life, and their life into their work. Hands at one with their purpose leave the spirit free to transcend the ordinary. Museums and galleries are repressed environments; to view them as the natural repository for works of art is the same as considering a city zoo the natural environment of the tiger.
The art world has the feel of a rarefied environment. Fine art institutions are hushed, sanctified places, gracefully lit and preternaturally clean in ways that the real world can never replicate. Artists are viewed as opaque and eccentric creatures driven by voices unheard by other kinds of people, their existence devoted to the pursuit of an elusive kind of meaning that may justify their lack of conventional purpose in other aspects of life. The nature of that meaning and the ideal method for its communication is the subject of the conversation that art has been having with itself since its inception, and like most longstanding conversations where the participants feel a passion and intensity for their subject, it can be a hard one to break into. But break into it we must, because to lose art as an accessible tenet of society is to lose society itself. This should not be taken as an argument that art should avoid complexity or specialized pursuit, but rather that in order to be useful and influential in society as a whole, art must be practicable and appreciable by anyone—and ideally, everyone.
The long view of art history reveals a general trending toward greater inclusion of that which may be considered art. The debate that raged over that rascally upstart photography versus the venerated institution of painting is long behind us. The distinction between “arts” and “crafts” has increasingly settled into a respectful understanding that differing process and methodology do not necessarily deprive a work of its meaning. The advent of Pop Art has brought about the shattering conclusion that it is possible to lift regular objects to the status of Art merely by declaring them so. The power of art’s meaning has taken precedent over its materiality.
Unfortunately, we largely reside in a material world. Even the most starving of artists must eat a little. With due respect to the philosophical implications of bringing a can of Campbell’s soup into the art gallery, sooner or later we’re still left with the question of “What’s for dinner?” I suggest that rather than invite an ever-widening scope of household items into the art gallery, we must find a way to coax art out into the world, and to this end we must encourage the artist within every person. If a urinal can become art because someone has declared it so, then surely anyone may rightly declare herself an artist. I began my fledgling art career not in the years that I studied black and white film photography, and not when I received a Bachelor of Arts, and not when I had a longstanding daily practice of photo-cataloging and captioning my life; I became an artist the day someone at a party said, “Oh, are you a photographer?” and rather than hedge or editorialize, I said, “Yes.” This small and seemingly inconsequential step triggered a progressive shift in the balance of my priorities. Art has grown to touch all corners of my life, and in a very real sense, anything I am doing is done in service to artmaking. This may include things that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with art, but as I have material needs for food, shelter, warmth, and workspace, and there are things that must be done daily to secure these necessities. It has served me greatly not to think of those things as what I do to support my art, but a contributing part of my artistic process.
In his work of art philosophy, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,” Arthur Danto states in quite an offhand manner that, “not everything touched by an artist turns to art.” I believe we should consider if the need for a distinction between art and life is serving the purpose of bringing art closer to the human experience, or farther away from it. Urination, for example, is a decidedly human function and most people would argue that it is not art, regardless of the artistic nature of its producer. However even this base element, common to all humanity, can become art, as Andres Serrano proved with his scandal-inciting work, Piss Christ. Danto furthers his point by stating that a fence painted by an artist is only a painted fence. I have to wonder what it would take for him to reconsider this position; were he to encounter the same fence installed in an art gallery with a card on the wall stating the title of the fence, would it then become a work of art? Having grown up in a post-Pop era, it does not strike me as an impossibility that I might encounter a similar work in a gallery setting. Let’s take the art-fence a step further, and install it as a work of public art, titled and erected on the lawn in front of the Museum of Modern Art; would it continue to be art? Again, having come of art awareness in the presence of Oldenburg statues, to encounter a work of this nature does not seem out of the question.
In fact, this work might require the installation of a fence around it, in order to protect the art from being destroyed. Having done so, what is the difference between the actual fence and the fence-art it is protecting? Only utility.
I encounter this conundrum regularly within the discipline of folk art or crafts. We have progressed to the point of recognizing that a quilt can be a work of art, therefore we recognize that a quilt may possess meaning just like a painting or sculpture. But we are only comfortable assigning the designation of art to a quilt if the quilt is taken off the bed and hung on the wall, thus stripping it of its use. If a quilt is meaningful as art when it is hung on a wall, then I argue it remains meaningful as art when it is covering a bed. Things need not be useless in order to be meaningful, and art need not thrive on its meaning alone to be art. Rather, what would life look like if every attempt were made to incorporate art into lifestyle in a utile way? I suggest that to the extent to which an individual has a hand in crafting and shaping the environment they occupy, the greater the meaning of their life in general. If art is conventionally considered to be something that is defined by its meaning, I suggest craft is a method by which life itself becomes defined by its meaning.
I have tried to cultivate more of a housecat relationship with art and its making. We encounter each other daily. Sometimes these interactions are cozy and gratifying, sometimes they are thorny and difficult; often they leave my house a mess. But always I am driven to care for and highly prize this aspect of my life, and whatever reasons art has for hanging around me are mysterious and appreciated. The process of becoming empowered as an artist requires merely a beginning, but it is a beginning that I see increasingly few people feel inspired to make. I suspect this is a part of the collateral damage inflicted by the progressive stripping of practical knowledge from public education. At one time, a basic high school education included at least a turn in shop class or home economics, producing the average American graduate who understood the inner workings of a lawn mower engine or a loaf of bread. I suggest that an understanding of the making of a loaf of bread invests any (every) loaf of bread with greater meaning. Suddenly there are vast implications to a visit to the grocery store—an activity that may be considered the most mundane and common activity.
The educational standard of home economics was long-gone by my time, but art and music were still a highlight of the curriculum, and I believe that early access to the humanities as a daily practice fostered the notion within me that I am entitled to think, feel and participate in art. This can become a controversial notion when one attempts to participate in art around those with a higher art ‘pedigree.’ I concede that art education may engender deeper insight into the context of a given work of art. However, the experience of art resides within the viewer or the maker, and this uniquely qualifies everyone to create their own context and assign their own meaning to the works they make or the responses they have to art as they encounter it. The more that people feel empowered to consider art and their response to it valid, the greater a role art can play in society. And the more people can come to understand and apply an art practice within their own lives.
What that could mean for society is the counteraction of a culture driven increasingly to consume, rather than to analyze and contribute. As the majority of people take a passive approach to their sources of food, entertainment, and government, those who attempt active participation can stand as guides for progress. If this work of art philosophy can provide anyone with a road map toward empowerment through artistic expression as a living practice, then I will consider it a step toward a healthier society and a more hopeful future.
***this preface is a segment of a larger work in progress about the role of art in society in general, and Detroit in particular.