Anyone who’s taken even a single 20th Century Art History course, or done a little reading on the subject, has gotten the simple, take-home version of the lesson of Duchamp’s readymades: that “it’s art because I say it is.” This sophism makes life a lot easier for artists (and perhaps more so, educators) who are faced with the question, “What is art?” Allowing ourselves to accept anything as an artwork, so long as its creator so designates it, simplifies the task of delineating the definition of art by eliminating them. It also opens up a vast field of inquiry, discovery, and creation, by allowing creative people access to modes of expression far beyond pencil, paint, and pixels.
Some challenge the openness of this definition, or rather this refusal to define, as too easy. Objections to it from our students, families, and friends outside the art world are either dismissed as naïve, or lead a conversation down the same rabbit hole of irresolvable issues as Thanksgiving dinner politics or dorm-room theology. It’s easy to forget that the question of what is, and what is not, art, is merely a matter of how we define a word. (Birds didn’t wake up feeling different, the day we decided to call them dinosaurs.) There is a sphere of human activity, encompassing everything from impractical object-making to practical experiments in philosophy, and since the activities in this sphere seem to share some traits, we’ve got to call it something, so we might as well call it art.
The cause and consequence of this open-ended definition of art has been a dizzying range of activities falling within its scope. Rirkrit Tiravanija prepares and serves Thai food. Marina Abramović played the knife game thirteen years before the android Bishop made it famous in the movie Aliens. Bas Jan Ader fell off of things, rode his bike into a canal, and ultimately tried to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, after which he was never seen again. Here in Chicago, Stan Shellabarger goes on 12-hour walks celebrating equinoxes and solstices, and Chicago-based artist Meg Onli walked the length of the underground railroad.
In the name of art, I’ve participated in a Japanese-style game show, played basketball and volleyball, and received a small black tattoo of a dot. In each of these cases, I was a participant in a project created by someone else, but I’ve also done some weird stuff myself and called it art. Stephanie Burke and I had coffee sitting in the chairs people left to reserve themselves a parking spot in the winter, and we’ve taken artists to Indiana and taught them to shoot guns. These projects have been a lot of fun, and have given us the chance to explore avenues of expression other than my usual practice as a painter, and hers as a photographer.
There is a risk, however, inherent to this open, anything-is-art kind of world, and that is that if anything can be art, it is tempting to turn everything into art. If we accept ol’ Douchie’s claim that anything is art if an artist says it is, then an artist can, with a word, turn everything he or she makes or does into art. This power is irresistable. Like Ice-nine, it spreads throughout an artist’s life, turning everything it touches into art. Or at least, it can, if we let it. And it’s hard not to, especially for those of us who are constantly surrounded by and immersed in the art world. If we earn our livings by teaching or working at a gallery, odds are that we have precious few contacts or activities that are entirely separate from our lives as artists.
I would suggest here that it is essential to maintain exactly this kind of separation in some aspect of our lives. Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and as good a justification as any for why we do what we do, as artists. But when one’s workweek consists of making art, teaching art, and writing about out, and then the weekend rolls around and it’s a couple of nights of gallery openings, and maybe a barbecue or party with some art-world friends, art becomes the dust of everyday life. Not art itself, of course, but the infrastructure surrounding it, the networking, the applications, the paperwork…all of the stuff that comes along with the special thing that happens in the studio. And sometimes we need to get away from it all.
One of the advantages of teaching is the relatively open summer schedule it affords one, and both Stephanie and I take advantage of this freedom as much as we’re able. While we do some teaching at community art centers over the summer, we’re still able to get away quite a bit. This past May, we flew out to California and did some camping and backpacking in Yosemite National Park. Then we drove up to Humboldt, crashed an old friend’s party, and then drove across Oregon to Crater Lake, stopping on the way to play with some baby animals at a wild animal park. We explored some caves in Lava Beds National Monument, and then spent a week in Stephanie’s home town of Grass Valley. We wrapped up our trip in San Francisco, where we saw the metal band Rhapsody perform, and then got up the next morning to hike around Muir Woods.
We returned to Chicago for a week, then headed down to Missouri for a few days of camping, canoeing, shooting guns, and watching shitty zombie movies on a jagged rock in the middle of nowhere. We faced sunburn, ticks, and an adorable little scorpion, and ate a strange kind of pizza that is apparently a St. Louis specialty. We came back sore, filthy, and exhausted, but also washed free of the shimmering but sometimes stifling layer of pixie dust that builds up on the soul of we who live this particularly extraordinary life, as artists.