[Arteology] Is It Anything?

Arteology: A new monthly Artomatic column by DC based artist and gallerist at The Cabinet, Claudia Vess.


 AOM Is It Anything photo

That Art is Something we can all agree. What it is, is another question.

Watching a Letterman Show one night I saw a skit called “Is It Anything?” Letterman explained that the stage curtain would rise for 30 seconds to reveal a tableau that he and his estimable bandleader Shaffer briefly would discuss and then, “based on the facts,” determine whether what they had seen was “Something” or “Nothing.” That evening, the curtain rose revealing several lovely ladies in high-wire-circus-like costumes and headdresses, spinning hula-hoops while standing in a large rectangular, transparent, half-full swimming pool with band accompaniment. Then other performers walked, or maybe rolled on, in skates. They were careening around the pool, not bumping into each other. It has been a while since I saw this and I don’t remember exactly what these performers were doing. Two bumped. Maybe some of them had hula-hoops too. There may have been one on a small bicycle. The whirling ladies were waving. As the curtain came down Letterman and Shaffer looked at each other amazed, chuckling with disbelief. It had been absurdly surprising with a certain charm. So absurd that it could not have been “Nothing.” They commented on the beautiful women, the energetic performers. They had no choice but to decide that, well, yes, in spite of being bizarre, it was, indeed, not “Nothing” but “Something.” I was surprised and amazed, too. First I had thought no way: costumed ladies in a pool must be Nothing. But gradually the stage had become weirdly alive. I hadn’t looked away. The 30-second vision was brief; the absurd delight of the Dadaesque half-minute of whirling movement, music, and smiling women in the pool making Queen’s waves remains. Not “Nothing.” I agree with Letterman and Shaffer, definitely “Something.”

One afternoon I was looking at a painting to see whether it was finished or whether it needed more touches. It had something going for it. Was it finished? If not how close to being finished was it? Was asking the question a sign that it wasn’t finished? I sensed indecision knocking and did not want to wander into overly serious pondering. Arbiter of composition, artist Luciano Penay would say, “Just look at it. What does your eye tell you?” Then, I remembered the thirty-second, essentially “Just look at it” test: “Is It Anything?” I refreshed my eyes looking around the room and then looked at the painting for thirty seconds. The gavel came down, “Nothing.” The painting really didn’t go to the beyond place. It had something, it was on the way, but had not yet arrived.

This test also proved useful one day last year. Paintings by an artist acquaintance were included in the sale of her household effects. I called Cabinet co-gallerist Lucy Blankstein and we went to record the paintings in the name of art history as we have done for other artists. We recorded about 35 paintings, from 6’x 6’ to 18” x 24”. They were moderately priced to sell. We agreed on some that were Something and bought them. A group of smaller paintings, we were informed, had been donated to a second-hand shop because the sale professional thought that they reflected mental instability and were “Nothing.” We wanted to add them to the record and arrived at the shop a few minutes before closing time to find twelve “Nothing” paintings. Most of them were painted within the previous five years in the artist’s colorful, linear mature style. Two that had been stored in an outside shed were pale from having been cleaned of mildew with a Clorox solution; we left them out. We had to make some other quick assessments, sorting the finished from the unfinished. “Something” or “Nothing?” With years of looking, thinking, and making paintings behind us, we sorted quickly, photographing and measuring the “Somethings.”

What is that “Something?” Artists recognize it. It is the moment when the stars align: the jump from an idea to something with an internal operating logic. “More than the sum of its parts,” says Aristotle. Is it the particular something when Form and Content are so construed that they cannot be disentangled without a loss? If so, the forever Rule of Unity, nothing extraneous and nothing that can be removed without changing the Something, prevails. Or is “Art is anything you can get away with?” Often attributed to Andy Warhol because of his commercially derived imagery, this is a Marshall McLuhan-ism from Understanding Media (1964). The truth about art is, now that Truth is no longer a sufficient Art qualifying characteristic, that there are many more opinions on this subject than there are books and essays with titles such as What is Art? like the one Leo Tolstoy finished in 1897. He says “Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs.” No doubt these serious tomes were undertaken in an investigatory spirit to parse out just what Art is. It is a slippery subject.

The quest for a Universal Theory of Art is ongoing. How can we know that something is Art, when we can’t agree on what it is? Peter Selz, in Art in Our Times (1981), says “If one general statement can be made about the art of our times, it is that one by one the old criteria of what a work of art ought to be have been discarded in favor of a dynamic approach in which everything is possible.” (Selz was the founder and Director of the Berkeley Museum from1965-1973.)

What you think art is, your comments and your ideas for the Theory of Everything that is Art are welcome. Send to news@artomatic.org

–Claudia Vess, Washington, DC, January 2, 2014