I bought a geiger counter today. Surprisingly, I was terribly conflicted by this purchase. I was buying a geiger counter for an art piece. In my bootstraps-made-from-scratch mentality, to buy a fully constructed item for an art piece seems, in some way, “cheating.” This sent me down a spiral of conflicted meditation on the history of art—from a means of physical representation (depictions of hunts on cave walls to realistic still lives) to that of meta commentary and abstract expression (found art and other artistic commentaries through abstraction.)
So, what is art? It is possibly the most loaded question one can ask. It can wind one down the alleys of snobbery, egoism, finance, hegemony, and most any other stale sense of “value.” As a child, I could not stand “modern art.” I did not understand paint spatter on a canvas because I did not know how to assess its value without a clear metric. A realistic painting was good, as far as I was concerned, because I could look at it and say “yes, this is realistic.” A portait of a woman was beautiful because I could see the symmetry in her face and say “yes, she is pretty.” A pastoral scene was pleasant because I could look at it and say, “yes, this is bucolic*.” What was I to do with cubism? What were three disfigured musicians rendered by some old Spaniard to me? How could I assess it?
As Sir Henry commented in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Art is a commodity. Every artist wants to make a statement, express a sentiment, move an audience, but, in the end, if an artist is to eat, to find shelter, to clothe oneself, then the role of artist is a profession. Thus, art is a commodity, sold to feed, shelter, and clothe its creator. Either that or art is truly just the indulgence of the trust-fund child who opted out of daddy’s business or the peace corps.
Yet, to fully commoditize art is to exorcize it’s soul. No artist truly wants that. There are plenty of more profitable ways to “sell out.” Artists have already opted to a more tenuous position in exchange of expressive fulfillment. To embrace a dispassionate Adam Smith free market is to deny the ephemeral truth and beauty that is so often the siren call of art. And so we are trapped in abstractions. Art is a profession, but it is also a calling. Art is a commodity, but it is also an emotion, a message, a reflection, and a projection of humanity and where we are going. Therefore, each piece of art is, more accurately, a thesis. Each art work is the artist’s proposal of what art really is.
So, is buying a commercially made object for inclusion into an “artistic” piece a shortcoming in the resourcefulness of the artist? Should I have painted a geiger counter in oils on a canvas so that the audience could admire the subtlety of the brushstrokes—presuming that I posses even the slightest degree of nuance in my wielding of a paintbrush. Part of me screams “yes!” After Marcel Duchamp placed a toilet bowl on a pedestal in 1917 and titled it Fountain, the statement was made, the critics catalyzed, the historians prepared, and the definition of art amended. So what more is to be made in this discussion? What new thesis is to be presented to enrich the intellectual dialogue that is art?
The truth is, art is subjective. Even with profound credentials and history at your back, past artists still remain a subject of debate. Whether one’s commentary is new or clichéd is a matter of individual subtlety. So, the artist is left to throw their body against the canvas, smash their fist into the clay, crack the marble, and leave the rest of the world to find their own meaning. After all, I haven’t painted in years, I’ve never made any pottery worth mentioning, and my work with a chisel is limited to soft woods for utilitarian purposes. So, if you are to judge me by traditional art forms, I am a lost cause. Yet, if you are open to a brave new world of expression, I have a geiger counter, and you just might like it.
* Not that I knew the meaning of the word but I certainly knew the sentiment and I reveled in it.