Let's start with count Leo Tolstoy, and his rather dry, yet more
than occasionally readable polemic, What is Art? In What
is Art?, the good count basically declared art to be an infection.
Your artist has a feeling, he expresses it; at once this feeling
infects other people and they have it too. What is Art?
clocks in at more than two hundred pages, so I am summarizing here,
but essentially, Tolstoy believed that if you had to puzzle over
a painting or a novel, and try, try, try to like it, the novel,
or the painting, was not—repeat, not—art. Art
was something more honest than that, more pure. And Great Art, art
where the capitol G and A applied, was even more rare, more honest,
According to Tolstoy, every so often a man came
along who possessed his time's "highest conception, or
life-conception." This is to say, a man who did not merely
embody the ideals of his age, but possessed a singular and overriding
interpretation—or understanding—that best encompassed
and represented a stratum of the human experience for a certain
time and place. If and when this guy expressed what he felt, Tolstoy
believed, the created work would cause something of an infection,
and this infection would be universal. Not universal in that everyone
in the universe would understand it. Rather, universal in the sense
that anyone could. Lepers. Haughty barristers with powdered wigs
and painted moles. Peasants on a ten minute break from plowing a
field who happen to see a painting through the window of a passing
carriage. Anyone who took any kind of serious gander, they would
have a chance at being infected with the highest vision of life.
Tolstoy was born in 1828 and lived until
1910. Here are some of the machines which were invented during his
lifetime: the telegraph, the teletype, the phonograph, airplanes,
steam engines, automobiles, assembly lines. Tools of the industrial
revolution. I bring this up for a specific reason. What
Is Art, written over a fifteen year period, was completed in
1898. As of 1914, the photograph machine, though available as a
consumer item in most cities, was still enough of a novelty that
traveling salesmen roamed countrysides, visited small towns, and
charged awed farmers for formal portrait sessions. Which is to say
that as civilization moved into the Twentieth Century, the nature
of just what a painting did, the service it provided, the services
it was relied upon for, were quite different than those
which we nowadays think of a painting as providing. Painting was
representational in form. A tree was a tree. Other meanings may
have been attached, but you had that there tree. Surrealism, cubism,
abstractionism, collage, these lay on the horizon. I bring these
changes up because they affected your average leper's ability to
appreciate art. Rotting limbs also affected the leper's ability.
So maybe a leper is not such a great example.
How about we abandon the convention of the nineteenth
century altogether, and imagine a salesman, in the present tense,
the here and now. Let's make him thirty years old or so. Let's
say our salesman lives in one of those square states in the lower
Midwest and is in New York City for the third time. He's thinking
about going back to school for some sort of advanced degree, although
he's not sure what for. Of Tolstoy our salesman knows the
dude was Russian. Wrote a bunch of thick books that our salesman
equates with being hard to read, which means, of course,
not enjoyable, not worth my time, stay the hell away from them. Our salesman is visiting the Museum of Modern Art because he saw
the Statue last time, and he's already been to the Ground
Zero Viewing Pit. He has another day to kill before his plane leaves
for Flatsville and visiting museums are one of the things you are
supposed to do in New York City, and besides, everybody knows that
you are supposed to be able to pick up real hot chicks at museums. The chicks, they love arty shit.
This is maybe our salesman's second extended
stretch in any kind of real art museum, and the first was back in
high school, a field trip, and on that one most of his time was
spent goofing around with buddies. Here and now in the museum of
Modern Art, our salesman stops in front of a painting from Picasso's
cubist period. Picasso is supposed to be important, our salesman
knows this. Our salesman carries a Nokia 3200X wireless phone. That
phone has three thousand monthly anytime minutes and a function
which allows access to e-mail accounts that are both personal and
work related. Our salesman has a relationship with technology, information,
and moving images that is not all that dissimilar to the relationship
Tolstoy had with paintings and the page, methinks.
He stands and takes in the brown cubey Picasso
He tries to like it. Really he does.
Okay. As things are set up, it may seem we are about to take an
alarmist turn. Be assured: nobody is sitting here demanding an end
to, like, television, with mandatory hours of art history for everyone,
and a quiz at the end of each week. Nor is your friendly neighborhood
author interpreting the Great Art theory so as to demand that a
devotee of Islam has, or ought to have, the same reaction to the
Slayer album, Reign In Blood, as a speed metal freak. Your
author may want to make this demand, but he demurs. He knows better.
He understands that our new century is a place at once vastly diverse
and homogenized, simultaneously narrowcasted and demographed and
nonetheless unique. Along these lines, your fearless author also
understands that there is a difference between High Art (Slayer,
Reign in Blood), and Low (Picasso, Van Gogh), and also
that we are in a land where high art often takes upon the trappings
of low, or popular forms. I know that at no point in the immediate
future is Gravity's Rainbow going to show up on a best
seller list, but neither will the small but devoted audience of
people who adore dense and experimental fiction disappear. Your
author—who you should know, at the ripe old age of thirty-three,
happily admits to being something of a grump, and a recluse, and
a heavy metal freak, and a smoking-hot piece of intellectual ass—even
understands that for a long, long time the art world has been something
of a hothouse environ, a place where a great many contemporary painters
and sculptors and instillation-installers rely on theory, or theories,
which is to say that art people borrow from one or many generations
of previous work, perhaps even creating works in response to a specific
previous work, as part of a dialogue. Your author does not necessarily
understand them dialogues, but I have no problem with the fact that
they exist, nor the idea that, whether the dialogue involves subversion
of an existing work, or pays homage to it, or maybe pays homage
through subversion, a certain appreciation and grasp of
the old is necessary to understand the conversation. Fine. Fine.
Fine. I don't really have a problem with there being tiers and levels.
There's room for it all, methinks, the whole shebang, a palette
big and wide and wonderful, an inclusive world, with salesmen and
hipster art snobs and yes, even reclusive metal freaks like me.
That's not my problem. I want to be clear on this: in no way shape
or form am I so much as moderately saying that taking a century
old pronouncement by an overly wordy and religious Russian Genius,
and combining it with herds of ambivalent and confused out-of-towners
who, every weekend without fail, fill museums and stare blankly
and without comprehension, that this necessarily spells the end
of end of art as we know it.
My problem, if you want to call it that, or, rather,
my reason for this essay, lays with the fact that, on any given
weekend, if you go to any major museum in the United States, you
can find the herds. And, yes, their eyes are blank. Go.
Stand behind the masses. Watch as person after person wanders up
to a painting, recognizes the name of an artist, or maybe the painting
itself, and doesn't have any idea who that artist was, or why the
painting is supposed to be so special. Usually, you will see the
person spending, like, between five and thirty seconds, standing
and craning his or her neck, before he or she feels they've done
enough, and moves on to the next painting, which, I will give you
five to one odds, is not understood, either.
I say this not as some superior, detached voyeur
who gets his kicks standing in the back of museums, watching confused
salesmen. Nor as mister alarmist essay guy. Nor as one of those
chain smoking attitude-suffused hipster-types. I don't own a Nokia
3200X wireless, nor any kind of cellular phone, never have been
employed in a job which involved sales (the closest I've come is
selling my soul for rock and roll, thank you AC/DC), and, to be
honest, I am about as far away from understanding art theory as
a person with an essay in this magazine could possibly be. Rather,
I am making my claim as one of the masses, another schmoe who, many
many times in his life, has arrived at the museum on a fine Saturday
afternoon, then wasted half of his day standing on line to get into
an exhibit, and then stood in front of a painting, spending fifteen
to thirty seconds trying to read the paintings on the wall, attempting
to figure out what the h-e-double toothpicks was going on up there.
I am a lover of big fat novels, yes, a recreational reader of experimental
fiction; not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying smarty-pants,
but at the same time, I'm not exactly drooling on my shotgun and
voting Republican, either. And innumerable are the times I have
stood before Yon Great Painting, flummoxed. Not asking to be let
into some private conversation. Not wanting the keys to the elitist
hothouse. Frickin' Picasso here. Something I know to be
classic. Right now, as I type this, I have the tactile memory of
a specific visit: standing and staring and craning my neck and simply
not knowing where to begin, how to even go about the process which
might make that, or untold other paintings, accessible. They ended
up seeming willfully unreadable to me. I ended up feeling nothing
so much as shame, or perhaps inferiority. Like I was missing
It wasn't always that way for me. As a child
there were drawings that gave me great joy. Images I was more than
able to read and interpret.
The art I grew up on was comic books. Twice
a week I used to go to Page After Page comics, on Charleston Boulevard,
and blow whatever cash I had. The Elektra saga from Frank Miller’s
Daredevil all but obsessed me for a time.
I am not exaggerating when I say that my love
of that series was so great that I used to spend spare time trying
to imitate the villain Bullseye, and flick a playing card as if
it were a weapon. Really, I did that. Nonetheless, even Daredevil
took a back seat when it came to Wolverine and Nightcrawler, Storm
and Colossus and Cyclops and, to a far lesser extent, the annoying
teenaged girl, Sprite (real name, Kitty Pride: my older brother
used to call her Kiddy Porn).
Yes, my favorite series was The Uncanny X-Men.
I am not alone in this. Indeed, if you are like
me and also like the esteemed editor who commissioned this essay;
if you are of a generation that with a squeamish shame recognizes
references to +3 swords, eighty-eight sided dice, and graph paper;
if, during your adolescence, you were prone to loneliness and sulking
and feeling very different from the rest of the world; then, my
fine and lonely young outcast, the odds are more than good indeed
that with baited breath you followed the monthly goings-on at Professor
Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. You likely loved Wolverine's
berserker rages. You surely were swept into the cosmic drama of
Dark Phoenix (she gave her life that the universe might live).
You really, really appreciated the skimpy tops favored by female
For everyone else, that is everyone who not only
missed out on the comic but also the 2000 summer blockbuster film:
the basic premise of the X-Men was that mutants, children with special
powers, were born into our world, and that the general public feared
these mutants. Professor Charles Xavier, a middle-aged, bald, wheelchair-bound
mutant with telepathic powers, ran a school in Westchester County,
NY, where he took in wayward mutants and taught them to use their
The X-men of my adolescence (Wolverine, Nightcrawler,
et al) were in fact known as The New X-Men. They were replacements
for The Uncanny X-Men, a comic started in the Sixties by
Marvel pioneers Stan Lee and John Kirby. Uncanny never
found any kind of widespread or even niche readership. Save for
a few carryover characters, they were phased out after ninety-three
issues. The New X-Men were written by Christopher Claremont
and illustrated, during their heyday, by John Byrne and then Brent
Eric Anderson. Be it skyscraper-sized government agency-controlled
robots, bitter mutants pledged to enslave humanity, an exclusive
ultra-rich club of industrialists bent on world domination, or slimy
reptilian aliens that planted slimy reptilian alien babies inside
humans, The New X-men fought all sorts of evil. The idea
was that mutants protected the same human race which lived in fear
of them and even hunted them down. Indeed, there were all kinds
of what seemed like subtle messages about acceptance and individuality
in the stories. And, obviously, the idea of extraordinary young
men and women who were singled out and picked on because of their
abilities was the kind of thing that resonated with an awful lot
of alienated adolescents, myself among them.
Now, a comic panel by nature must accomplish
certain things. First and foremost it is a drawing. A fixed image,
representing an instant in an evolving story. There are ten to twelve
panels on a normal comic page. One of the joys of comics is that
these panels, fixed drawings though they be, are great at conveying
movement. Not only flight or battle, although they also are great
But panels also allow for an almost filmic ability
to draw out tension, or build drama:
Explanations and exposition, by nature, are a
huge part of the comic medium. Most panels have to incorporate thought
and dialogue bubbles, in order to keep the narrative followable. This doesn't change a basic principle. Whether the panel is
an image of a fixed head thinking all kinds of stuff we need to
know so as to be able to understand just what Cyclops is doing at
that computer terminal, or whether it is a full page glory shot
of the knockout blow in the climactic battle, each of these panels
must fulfill its function—must properly convey movement,
pensiveness, fury—whatever is specifically called for at that
point. The panel must do this in a way that not only keeps the story
moving, but also sustains the willing suspension of disbelief this
medium demands, as your story is basically destroyed the moment
a reader thinks, hey, he's the head of a billion dollar
corporation, he already dominates the world, there's really
no reason for him to build a secret robot army.
Here's where our two roads start to diverge. While
comic books and contemporary paintings are both, fundamentally,
visual experiences, a comic book has a series of pictures in it,
whereas a contemporary painting is a picture. A comic book contains
art, yet the comic is as much a storyteller's medium as an artist's.
This means your comic panel must be followable: not only must it
keep the reader visually engaged, but the panel must do
so in a way that reflects, and indeed conveys, even enhances
the story's emotional and narrative marks.
On the other hand, a piece of contemporary art
does not need characters, storylines, thought bubbles, plots. The
scaffold of a narrative thread gets knocked away for your contemporary
or modernist painting, and the image relies only on itself. Certainly,
an intellectual point or storyline can be used, character can be
explored, but it will be done without having a recognizable, discernable
narrative logic, and/or the scaffolding of a story, or an essay. Indeed, a painting may be nothing so much as evocative, bringing
forth a complex reaction that the viewer does not understand, but
which kind or runs around somewhere in his subconscious. I look
at the painting—It's an image, sure, but of what?—and do not know what it means, but feel something. Something complex. With longing maybe, hints of sensitivity and
rage. Or maybe I don't know what the hell the reaction I am
feeling is, but am affected nonetheless. Do I know if this feeling
I am having what the artist wanted? Does it matter? Well, to some
degree, it has to, right? There's a reason the painting is
in a museum, after all, presumably there is. There's got to
be some difference between a surrealist painting hanging in a museum
and the finger painting a third-grader brings back from finger painting
class. Doesn't there?
I'm not the one to answer this. Even now,
I don't really know how to recognize the clues which might
allow me into the artist's world, am not familiar enough with
the process of reading a painting to do such a thing, confident
enough to trust an emotion, follow an instinct.
So, you ask, why not take the museum tour?
Dude. Tours suck. After standing on line
all afternoon just to get in the place, like I want to stand around
even longer with a bunch of folks I don't know, and get a
Well, you say, what about the rental headphones
with the recorded guide-thingy on them?
I don't care if they're free. They're still a scam.
I'm joking here, kind of, I guess. Either
way, when I manage, momentarily, to put aside my natural contrariness,
what emerges is a legitimate question: how much of the responsibility
for comprehension was mine? When there was such a rich and tenable
history to a painting, when the ideas behind a painter's work were
potentially available to me, did thirty seconds of staring actually
qualify as a worthwhile effort?
Not long ago you read a whole bunch of mess
about my inclusive mind and how I like experimental fiction. But
if I wasn't at the very least willing to read the posted statement
next to the painting, or listen to the tour, or in some way make
myself available to information which will help me, could I honestly
expect to gleam a modicum of understanding as to the cube painting?
One of the things Chris Claremont did when
he was writing the X-Men was to keep tons of plot lines
going at once. In some ways it was ingenious because every character
had their own life, a life that seemed to be continuing in full
no matter if it was being shown on panel or not. Therefore when
you cut to, say, Kitty, she might be on a date with Piotr, or taking
dance classes. The problem was, we never knew exactly where
she was in terms of her relationship with Piotr. This was the case
with dozens of characters, all kinds of themes. Claremont just kept
introducing more and more. Meanwhile, at a certain point he'd been
writing the X-Men for over a decade and started to burn
out on them. When he finally agreed to hand over the book to new
writers, those writers—some of them longtime X-fans, others
newbies—spent a long time trying to figure out all of the
plotlines. They never did. Hardcore fans at conventions knew the
plots better than they did. There were charts and graphs to explain
it all. It was a big mess.
Meanwhile, the X-Men had become
a monster industry, spun off in about every possible direction.
In addition to the X-Men (formerly the New X-men)
there were The New Mutants. Nowadays there are New
New X-Men. There are Ultimate X-Men. X-factor,
eXtra, eXile, X-treme, and X-treme
X-men. Individual characters Cable and Sabertooth (to name
two) have their own titles. Wolverine has like nine different series
of his own. There are novels and E-novels. There’s an animated
Saturday morning series that I’ve heard doesn’t blow.
There’s Mutant X, a truly unwatchable television
show syndicated to would-be networks needing to fill holes in their
Saturday afternoon programming. There’s the 2000 summer blockbuster
X-men movie and its sequel, X2, out this coming
summer. There’s even an X-men on Ice. And, of course,
XXX-MEN, an all male adult film which I’ve, ah, heard
about. There is even the X-Men Encyclopedia, or something
like that, some stupid title. This hardbound, illustrated gobstopper,
whatever it's called, weighs in at like five pounds and includes
illustrated biographies of each character. I spent a little time
perusing that tome, and was stunned, repeat, stunned by
how little I recognized. Characters that I had literally grown up
with were changed beyond measure. Wolverine—whose unbreakable
skeleton and claws of adamantium steel had been of the former bright
spots in my otherwise bleak adolescence—had not only had the
adamantium ripped from his body (how can this be? It was his
SKELETON for Christsakes), but now had grown natural claws
on his own accord. Phoenix—she gave her life that the
universe might live? Brought back to life. Then cloned. Then
a bunch of other garbage, none of which deserves to be documented
An obvious parallel can be drawn, one between
the complexities of modern cubism (which to the naked eye, seems
on first glance, esoteric and impenetrable and, well, hard),
and the complexities of an X-universe (which has grown wild and
out of control, and has too many facets to possibly follow).
Thankfully, there's also a way through it.
Fairly recently, in the space of about seven months, I was fortunate
enough to serve residencies at two different artist colonies. Along
with working like hell on my stupid novel, I made friends with painters,
sculptors, even an instillation-guy or two. There were nights, after
we creative-types finished our serious creativity, when someone
might open up his (or her) studio, show the rest of the inmates
around. Let us in on projects both finished and in progress. Early
in my first stay, maybe a week in, an Argentinean sculptor, Luis,
gave a slide show of his exhibited work. I sat in the back, munching
on chips, listening and watching. Luis explained that he believed
in art that could be played with. He flipped through slides of stone
and wooden sculptures that looked like intricate miniature houses. Luis said a particular house was inspired by the writer Julio Cortazar,
and the novel Hopscotch, whose opening page came with instructions
for an alternate sequence to the chapters. If I remember correctly,
Luis had designed the house in a similar fashion, with stairwells
leading into one another, and a logic to the room order and arrangement
that, while apparently random, had an order to it, which he breezily
I remember how fascinated I was with Luis's
mind as he guided us through slide after slide, all these miniature
homes, which were also games, which were inspired by various books
and paintings. How easy it was to fall into sync, to empathize with
the things which caught Luis's attention, inspired him, and
how he responded, interpreted them, created.
Over the next weeks we frequently talked
at dinner, or played Ping-Pong late into the night (he always won).
At a certain point, Luis invited me to his studio.
"Come," he said. "Let me
show you my balls. "
There was a chainsaw outside his studio. Instead of miniature houses, Luis was heading in a new direction. One new project involved using his chainsaw to carve five small
balls and a ring out of stone, all of which could be stacked or
positioned together. Another involved shaping, out of wood, these
massive spheres, like six feet tall and just as wide, which could
be spread across a large lawn.
Visiting and having Luis explain these things
to me was like a little lesson. Taking cues. Following prompts. When there were slides, I listened.
The physical presence of someone, the opportunity
to spend extended time with a person, to hear them talk about what
interests them, and why they do certain things, this in effect gave
me the willingness to look really hard at those sculptures, those
strange houses and balls. I can't honestly say I got them. I can't say that I went so far as to see the paintings through
Luis's eyes. But I do know that I was able to move, however
slightly, in the directions that Luis wanted me to move.
Another guy was doing these paintings, I
guess they were paintings. His name was Tim and on weekends when
the cooks had off, he would grill up some excellent food and was
in general a lovely man. He did his paintings, or maybe they were
prints, very intricate patterns on a white fiberglass canvas. Tim
used white paint and on the white background, the prints looked
very futuristic and computerish and at the same time ghostly. I
did a studio visit and Tim explained that he would take objects,
say an old lace tablecloth, and print the tablecloth pattern. But
he'd do it in a way so the ink or pattern (or whatever) was
layered somehow, I guess, and refracted light. Part of the idea
was that as you, as a viewer, walked around the painting and saw
light hit the pattern in its various places, because of how the
light refracted, the pattern would appear to change.
If I had seen those balls and white ghost
in a museum, I wouldn't have known what to think. Probably
would have walked right by. However, as an act of friendship, I
was willing to try. To see.
So there you have it. Just dig up Picasso's
body, reanimate it, and bring it to the museum with you! Then the
undead corpse can explain what it was thinking when it was painting
Okay. It's hard not to be sarcastic. The world we live in nowadays is not geared toward standing still
and trying to figure out a painting, at least mine isn't. It's fairly unrealistic to believe laypeople with no real
training in how to view this stuff, no personal attachments to some
dead guy from a hundred years ago, and who are given no overt or
obvious instructions in how to look at a piece, are going to be
able to meet that work, or the work next to it, or the one next
to that one. Not halfway. Not a quarter of the way. There's
a definite gap here, a real problem. Extend this problem to its
logical conclusion, you find that, as our new century becomes even
faster and more interactive and integrated, the problem gets bigger. This is not something for which I have an answer. Hell, to this
day, when I attend a friend's opening at some gallery, I rarely
know what's going on. Invariably I get impatient, and jumpy,
and find myself hoarding carrot sticks from the food tray.
More and more, it seems to me that Tolstoy's
idea of Great Art, of any single person on the earth standing and
looking at the same object and being moved, is naïve and romantic
and quaint in a way that our world no longer is.
Having said this, I also know that I did
not go from comic books to Pynchon overnight.
And I know that the steps I took on the
way from comics to Pynchon—i.e. the process of learning to
read and enjoy prose that was gradually more and more complex—are
among the most enjoyable and productive steps of intellectual growth
At the end of the graphic novel God Loves Man Kills, there's
a moment where the villainous mutant Magneto is trying to get the
X-Men to join him in a war on humanity. The X-Men have been victorious
in one battle against an anti-mutant senator, but Magneto points
out that soon others will take the senator's cause. It's inevitable,
he says, and cannot understand why someone would fight an uphill
battle such as this when the odds are as stacked as they are.
"Mebbe," Wolverine answers. "But
by the same token, chum...the world's got no shortage o' windmills
t' tilt at. "
Charles Bock teaches fiction
at the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC. He is working on a novel.
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2002 ArtKrush, LLC & Max Winter. All Rights Reserved.