But is it Art?

This Wednesday’s #litchat session on twitter turned into a very interesting discussion on creativity, and the boundary, if one exists, between art and literature. There’s enough in that for a book – and I hope the comments will begin to explore the question – but it made me think that whilst we’ve said a lot here about the relation between literature and music, and about our links with some amazing musicians, we haven’t said – aside from in regard to the talented artists in our midst – much about our links with the art world.

This is, in part a plug. We have two amazing events next week, both of them in collaboration with the super fabulous Katelan V Foisy from Knickerbocker Circus. You know about the big gig we have at the Covent Garden Poetry Cafe. But Katelan is also coming to Oxford to do a pop-up show at The Albion Beatnik Bookstore that will incorporate an art installation. Lilith Burning: Perceptions, Reflections, and Deceptions of the Eternal Infernal Feminine will take all kinds of approaches to perceptions of the myths of the feminine, and will involve the creation of a piece of art from voice recordings, photography, fiction, and probably a whole lot of other things.

The art we create will go to OVADA, the organisation that runs the OVADA Gallery, where we held our fantastic Open-Armed and Outcast event last month. I was recently at a networking event for artistic collectives that OVADA ran, and what amazed me was just how many exciting possibilities there were to blur the boundaries between art and literature, to use words and art together in practice in a way that I had always thought should be done more (I was a student through the golden years of young British Art, so I grew up with the art/text thing).

I also want to mention The Project Room, a fantastic organistaion in Oxford run by urban artist Emma Titcombe, who, along with OVADA (who are letting Katelan and I use their space to create, er, whatever we make) has helped immensely with putting together this event. The Project Room is a great studio space that artists can apply to use for work in progress, microgigs, pop-ups, all kinds of exciting and creative things, by submitting their proposals to Emma for how they want to use the space. It allows people in the arts who need a studio for a brief period access to top facilities for just a  £10 admin fee – all of which goes towards outreach projects.

What’s so great about organisations like OVADA and the Project Room, coming back to topic and our gig on Wednesday, is that “art” is defined in its very broadest sense. Rather, it is not defined at all. Litchat brought some interesting definitions of where the boundaries lie – does something hit the imagination first or the conceptualising part of the brain first. But, ultimately, I have to say no to anyone who will say “House of Leaves is literature not art” or “Magritte’s pipe is art not literature”.

I don’t think we can talk of a spectrum, either. That’s too simple, and ignores the way music fits in, or film, or dance or theatre. Rather, like the inflationary model of the expanding universe, what we have is a myriad similar yet not so similar interconnected points that stand in unique relations to each other – but relations nonetheless. And surely to think of oneself as a writer, or an artist, rather than just “doing what we do” can only serve to limit, to close off, and ultimately render the possibilities for one’s work less rich.

I hope next week, both in Oxford, and in London, we’ll be able to bring something of this boundaryless work to our audience, and have a kicking-off point for the next phase of our individual and collective work. And in the meanwhile, a thank you to Dale and Sarah, and Marc and Penny and Daisy who have already revealed possibilities beyond what I would have thought possible before I got to know you all.

Oh, and watch this space for my next *big* project.

~ by yearzerowriters on May 15, 2010.

22 Responses to “But is it Art?”

  1. Not sure how to answer that intelligently but there *is* a fine, thin line. A delicate balance that almost lends to an abuse of the word art when required and when it fits to get past ethical situations.

    • Do you mean the way someone can be more provocative in “art” than literature and then hide behind the label, in a way they couldn’t with literature, because, in a way, there is something more stark and less ambiguous about the written word? And maybe the way “art” allows the artist to change their mind and be more slippery?

  2. There’s only a line when it comes to actual definition — in the words used. Like it’s been said before, it’s all subjective. I see most things as a type of art, but there will always be pure “art” art and “literature” literature, things that don’t cross the lines. It’s only when we stop having pure art or pure literature that the distinction will truly go away. I don’t feel like I want the distinction to go away though. Sometimes I just want art, just the visual, and sometimes I just want words.

    With a lot of the genre crossing work, the idea of it becomes the art. Like with a lot of modern art, the artistic value of it is elevated beyond the actual piece or the actual aesthetics; it becomes about the idea behind it, and the meaning. So we’re used to art as a medium for ideas, which in turn has led us to accept the medium as the art itself. I’ll admit that I’m old fashioned in my categorising of art, sometimes, so some of you may disagree.

    So for me there’s a definite art boundary. I see many things as an art form — but not as the traditional art we’re used to. There is very little, however, that I refuse to see as an art form.


    • Do you think that “art” was ever really about the image more than the idea behind it? I wonder if maybe that’s actually the Modern idea (capital and little m) – that the image can stand alone. If you take the oldest images, and early religious painting, it’s all about meaning.

      • There’s certainly art that’s just aesthetic. I mean, I do that kind of stuff all the time! But, yes, I see what you mean. I think with modern art, though (big and little M I suppose) the importance of the visual art has become less important. I don’t see it as the image standing alone. If I don’t hear the meaning or the idea behind most modern art, I hate it. I still kind of hate modern art, and in turn, myself for wanting something that pleases me on a visual level.

        I can say, though, as a painter, that even if something is symbolic, the visual aspect is still just as important. In the context of commissioned artists of the Renaissance, the visuals were, at least to them, more important than the meaning. The meaning is sort of the backbone on which to display true artistry. So what I’m trying to say that with modern art, the idea is as important, if not more important as the visuals. This isn’t an entirely solid thesis, and I’ve not put much thought into it — but, you know, vague impressions, I suppose.


        • I guess by “modern” I was thinking of early twentieth century rather than “conceptual art” – then again the modernist manifesto of divorcing form and substance is itself an idea.

          An interesting point, of course, is that both alphabets (for those societies that have them) and characters (where they are used) evolved from representative pictures. I wonder how this affects the way we view literature’s conceptual roots

          • “An interesting point, of course, is that both alphabets (for those societies that have them) and characters (where they are used) evolved from representative pictures. I wonder how this affects the way we view literature’s conceptual roots”

            it’s something I’m very keen to explore as you know

            marc nash

            • absolutely – and something I am getting more excited about as I continue to work with the Chinese language – I believe Daisy has some thoughts on Sumerian as well.

              • I’m sticking to humble old English, via Phonecian, greek & hebrew of course.

                But I don’t want to ground it in the ancient. I want it to resonate in the here and now. Modern glyphs and runes.

                marc nash

              • Sumerian = the most perfect language that ever was. It’s been nothing but downhill since then, my friends.

                • I don’t doubt that is true. My mission is to probe the imperfections that we are left with our current language

                  marc nash

  3. To me, art is what you want it to be, objectively–a pretty vase, a sublime landscape, a combination of words describing something indescribable. But it is the *meaning* of the art that has held the poignancy to me. The most poignant art is a protest. Sometimes that protest can be in the form of “traditional” art, like a canvas and paint. Other times it can be an album, London Calling, for example.

    An artful discussion about the perception of feminine. An artfully arranged platter of antipasti. An artful speech explaining the coup. An artfully blended mixture of lethal drugs to inject in the doomed prisoner.

    Metaphor in many cases must stand in for protest–or as the protest itself–when the true and meaningful intention is muzzled or censored.

    Ok, that was a tangent. But it’s funny you raised this. I missed the #litchat talk (as usual) but was glad you pointed this one out to me, as opposed to the housefrau discussions about using cursewords in novels. Blech.

    Thanks, Dan, you’re awesome.


    • I like the art as protest idea – that takes one back to the arguments about foundation myths and revolution, though – art revolts, but that revolution also forms the foundation myths of the new order and becomes establishment (Social Realism in the USSR is the obvious example, but the hero narrative marc refers to does the job just as much)

  4. Modern art is dead and literature faces a similar fate. There, I’ve said it. Sarah is correct about modern art being wholly about the idea (singular, never any depth) and not about connecting it to the aesthetic as it used to. Impressionism, Cubism & Abstract Expressionism exhausted all possible fresh ways of seeing as they deconstructed our visual/emotional perception. Nothing fresh has come since then.

    Literature is stuck in 19th & 20th Century paradigms. Instead of tackling head on language’s paucity of expressing emotions, it has got obsessed with story telling. Underpinning the collective consciousness, instead of probing the individual consciousness in any meaningful way. The hero is the primary archetype in literature. I say there are no heroes in modern Western society.

    I will draw on art, typography & design to try and freshen up the visual aspect of my texts. But it still comes down to exploring language.

    All art is a mixture of an aesthetic resonance for our inner senses, plus offering new ways of seeing and potential new ways of being. Like I say, visual art has nothing left to offer these drives and literature better pull its bloody finger out or it too will be sidelined as an irrelevancy.

    marc nash

  5. For me, there is no boundary. I just can’t see it that way. But, I grew up idolizing the Surrealists and the Dadaists, and actually, punk rock. The reason I throw punk into the mix, is because it really was, at its core, iconoclastic. Yes, there are pure art forms, and there are those that fit into those pure categories. But the most exciting stuff, to me, is the stuff that refuses to be categorized.

    I’ve come to realize, through talking with Dan recently, that the direction I want to go in can only be described as art, because I prefer to work in medius that can express everything at once. As such, I’ve really started to throw myself into the video work. It combines everything – music, words, imagery, aesthetics. I simply didn’t have the courage to throw myself in that direction until, speaking with Dan, I came to realize that I wasn’t the only one who was excited about merging art forms.

    There is a tendency with writers who are reluctant to term themselves as artists, but I would disagree with them. We are artists – the words convey images, they are signifiers, they are paint, they are clay. And in the end, if we are any good at all, the story we’ve created transcends the very words that hold it together.

    I suppose I sound rather convoluted, but that’s not my intention. My intention is to say that I feel like the strongest way forward is through merging and blending. At least, for me.

    • What’s so interesting about punk as well, Daisy, is the way it combined everything – think God Save the Queen or Never Mind the Bollocks – the words on the album covers, the art, the music – all worked together. and the most important punk statement of all – that iconic magazine cover proclaiming that everyone could DIY with 3 chords – how can that be understood fully in any one category?

      • It can’t! And that’s the beauty of punk – it smashed every boundary that people tried to fence it in with.

        • Oh god. Even the word “punk” is too broad. When people use the word, I don’t know what they mean anymore. They could be talking about the sex pistols, or they could be referring to a posh car .

  6. Also, I need to say it again and again: THAT IS THE BEST GIG POSTER EVER!

  7. ‘There is a tendency with writers who are reluctant to term themselves as artists, but I would disagree with them. We are artists – the words convey images, they are signifiers, they are paint, they are clay.’ – spot on, Daisy!

  8. I went to see an exhibition by a guy called Simon Birch today, and there was a video playing of an ‘America’s got talent’ style show where famous artists show their work and get judged to see if what they’re showing is art.

    Tracey Emin – said fuck a lot. Showed her meesy bed, and got rejected. Tried to fuck a judge on her way out.

    Basquiat – couldn’t say one sentence that made sense. Got approved for his painting alone.

    Damien Hirst – walked out mid-way through the judging. Asked whether or not he caught the shark for his shark in a tank piece. He said no.

    Takeshi Murakami – talked in third person. Murakami did this because…etc Got rejected for being an arrogant prick.

    Julian Schabel – quite funny. Judges said his picture looked like something a child could’ve drawn. He said, yeah, if the child were a genius then he could’ve. Rejected, but voted a yes for himself.

    Marcel Duchamp – approved for taking risks.

    Rachel Whitethread[?] – talked shit about not being able to paint, but could fill stuff with cement. Laughed out of the room.

    There were more but i can’t remember them. Overall, what did it all mean? No one has a fucking clue?

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