There is a lot of humor to be found in Ian Falconer’s "Olivia" books. One of my favorite little anecdotes comes in the first story in the precocious pig’s series, when Olivia – who I’d guess is supposed to be around 5 years old – goes to an art museum and takes in a Jackson Pollock work. (The work in the book is an exact, miniature reproduction of a Pollock painting). "But there’s one painting I just don’t get," Olivia says, adding that she "could do that in five minutes" or something similar. On the next page Olivia is home in her room creating her own Pollock-like masterpiece – on her bedroom wall. Flip the page again and there are two words: "Time out."
When I was much younger – sometime around 10, perhaps – I’d already realized I had little talent for conventional drawing or painting. So, instead, I’d draw a bunch of lines and try to connect them into some sort of peculiar shape, then color in different parts of the ensuing figure … or else draw a bunch of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines inside the oddly proportioned creation. That was my version of "art," and I remembered at one time believing – in a small way – that if I could create something like that on a large canvas, it would maybe be exhibit-worthy. Then again, on another level, I thought my doodles were decidedly unremarkable, and offered nothing of any kind of redeeming value to anyone interested in "real art" (whatever that was).
As I read a New Yorker article the other night on the career of Andy Warhol, I realized I still struggle with the idea of "real art" today. I recall having a month-by-month Warhol calendar at some point during college; I also remember having posters of at least a couple of Monet painings, as well as Dali’s "Persistence of Memory," on my dorm wall. (I think this was just as much, or more, for the purpose of attracting a certain kind of co-ed than my own, personal aesthetic.) More than 20 years after my undergraduate days, though, I wonder what I saw in Warhol – after all, he painted Campbell’s soup cans, made his own Brillo Pad boxes and created a bunch of things that are really unspectacular individually.
But, as the New Yorker article explained, Warhol’s work was always shown in installations; the famous Brillo Pad boxes, for instance, were displayed as part of an entire Warhol exhibit that transformed the studio space into a grocery store-type room filled with the artist’s creations. I think it’s fair to say that a very small portion of that exhibit (the Brillo part, for example) would be experienced far differently than seeing the entire thing set up in the manner that it was. I’d go as far to say the grander, grocery-laden experience is far more worthy of being labeled as "art" than merely one item. An apt comparison, maybe, could be the famed Christo and Jean-Claude "Gates" exhibit in New York’s Central Park. One "gate" isn’t much to look at in terms of art, but 7,503 vinyl "gates" along 23 miles of pathways must have made quite an impression. (My mom saw it, and loved it.)
OK, I fear this blog is getting a little … something. My main point is that, after doing a little reading the other evening, that art can truly represent all kinds of things to different people, or maybe even one person. What is art? Who knows, and who cares, really? Most of us know what we like when we see it.