“No Limit To Human Sh*tiness”: Art, Emotion, and Immorality

A recent experience has brought new significance to two abstract and subjective concepts that I often find myself considering in conjunction with art: emotion and morality. I’m not attempting to assert that “emotion” or “morality” are necessarily inherent in works of art. It is not my place to ascribe either of those concepts to a piece in which neither may purposefully exist. Instead, I would like to discuss the place of art in regard to human emotion and moral codes. More to the point, and to sound less like the lecturer I am coming across as currently, I would like to discuss one of my best friends and how she made me remember to hold on to the little things in life.

Arriving home at her apartment late last Sunday night, my friend was attacked and sexually assaulted as she unlocked the door to her building. Someone arrived on the scene and succeeded in scaring the attacker off, but not before the attacker had beaten my friend almost senseless (among other horrible things). My friend was in bad shape that night. Her normally pretty face was swollen and covered in bruises, and she had to have her cheek sewn up where the skin had broken under her assailant’s punches. Her entire body ached severely enough for prescription pain meds even days after the attack. Of course, her physical pain is nothing when compared to the emotional trauma she experienced.

Not surprisingly, my friend’s outlook on the world has darkened considerably since Sunday. After what happened to an intelligent, confident, and hilarious woman like her, I’m inclined to agree with the succinct statement she made after her release from the hospital: “Turns out, there is no limit to human sh*tiness”. Indeed, there is little use arguing against the fact that the world often seems like a morally reprehensible place. The goodness we may try to see in other people is too often overshadowed by the acts that unfortunately end up defining our lives and/or the lives of those closest to us.

When we see the world in such a dark light, it’s almost impossible to think what good something as trivial as art can be for humanity. Art can’t prevent the physical pain that my friend is still feeling almost a week after her attack. Art can’t redeem the world. But can the right kind of art help heal us emotionally? Can it help us re-ascribe to humanity some modicum of morality? Do these questions even matter to anyone but me? I respond with a firm “maybe” to them all.

The truth is, I hate art that tries to force me to think or feel something (the exception to this rule is the work of Banksy, whose identity is hidden and whose art is admirably irreverent and thought-provoking in its blatancy).  It is with an equal intensity that I hate art that makes me feel nothing at all with its bland simplicity (here’s to you, canvases that are painted red or paintings that I could do myself with a single brush stroke). I would of course do well to remind myself of the subjective nature of art: there is a place in the world for art both bland and preachy (I believe bland art is most often found in hotels, but I digress). Many artists creating the work I have disparagingly titled “preachy” are trying to bring awareness to social injustices or environmental causes, and I respect that fully. I think we may all agree, however, that art like that is not art that is easily digested. Art that is full of intention must either confront the viewer with garish obviousness or beg the question What does it mean?, which scares away those who think they can’t “understand art” if they can’t decipher a meaning within the first few minutes of seeing a piece or reading the artist’s statement. Art shouldn’t be about deciphering or about message-shoving. At least, the art we want to heal us emotionally or to re-ascribe a modicum of morality to humanity shouldn’t be like that. No, the art that does the most to lighten our load when the going gets tough is the art I fondly refer to as “unpretentious”: it’s the art that doesn’t attempt to tell us what it is or how to look at it or what to feel or believe or wonder. It’s the art we don’t stare at and ask, What? Why?!. It’s the art we can look at for seconds or minutes or hours without moving and feel completely at peace while we gaze. We shouldn’t have to ask What does it mean?. Instead we should want to ask, What does it mean to me?

One of the first questions I asked Jeff when I started working for him was about emotion. I wanted to know what drove his work, and his answer shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his sculptures. He explained that he makes his sculptures purposefully devoid of emotion. He does want them to be something of a foil to the often dark, thought-provoking works I described above, but he doesn’t achieve that goal by instilling any one emotion or moral message into his own sculptures like “happy” or “healthy planet earth”. Instead, he leaves them completely open to interpretation by the viewer. He doesn’t even name his sculptures for fear that a name would force a reaction. The real interpretation, he says, is expressed in the faces of his viewers. It’s one of the reasons he loves art fairs so much. He doesn’t watch his sculptures at his shows. He watches the faces that crowd into his booths, the eyes that follow the movement of each marble down, around, through spiraling metal and across empty space and back up in an endless cycle. When they watch, he hopes, they lose themselves in the movement. They forget the immorality that plagues the world, the people who attack young women outside their apartments and the pain of living that affects us all to varying degrees. They get to feel the emotions that accompany childlike wonder.

This is a picture Jeff took in Madison, WI of his booth full of people.

This is a picture Jeff took at Art Fair on the Square in Madison, WI of his booth full of people.

So, can art help heal us emotionally? Can it help us re-ascribe to humanity some modicum of morality? I think it can. At the very least, good art can give us a moment to realize that the awful truths of humanity are not the only truths, and that emotional fortitude is not unattainable. A moment may be all we need to reset and regroup for the next onslaught of life uncensored. One thing we must be sure to remember is this: that while people suck and bad things happen, there exist pockets of inherent goodness in the world- in a sculpture, in a book, in playing fetch with a cute dog- and we shouldn’t gloss over those things in our rush to drown in the mire. It’s the happy trivialities that keep us afloat, and we should cling to them for all they’re worth.

Speaking of happy trivialities, here’s a video of sculpture #702. As Jeff would say, lose yourself in the movement.

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