Let’s say that someone is sitting in a house and playing the clarinet.
And, another person is in some other house brushing paint on a canvas.
And a person in a cafe is typing a text on his/her laptop computer which s/he considers to be a poem.
And, in one of the bigger rooms in a building, three people are doing bodily movements which they call “dance.”
These are four out of numerous types of activities known to be “artistic.”
What is it that makes these activities artistic and other activities in life non-artistic?
What are the similarities between these activities that allow us to group them together? In other words, what is the common denominator among them?
What is similar between the acts of painting and clarinet playing? Couldn’t we say that there are more similarities between the painter and a street-sweeper outside? – both rub bristles against a surface.
The most common, easiest, truly “fabricated” and (thanks to its indemonstrability) most often used justification for putting all such activities in one bag is the claim that they constitute “expressions”: one artist expresses himself/herself (often his “feelings”) with his/her brush, another with his/her body, another through his/her clarinet. This is a meaningless view that equates writing with painting, sounds coming from a clarinet with words coming out of a mouth, the sign language with abstract bodily movements. I would generalize the “simple-minded” question John Cage had posed in the name of dancers: If these people have thoughts they want to express, then why don’t they use words instead of taking such indirect routes?1
So, don’t artistic activities have anything in common?
I see three common aspects:
Artistic activities are unnecessary activities.
If the street sweeper does not sweep the street, accumulating dirt will begin to affect daily life. Yet, if the painter does not paint the canvas, if the clarinetist does not play the clarinet, if the dancers do not feel like dancing that day, cars will keep running, electricity will be produced, hearts will keep beating, people will get hungry as usual and look for food, and the trees will keep growing. Artistic activities are not indispensable, we can very well live without them.
Then, why are such activities performed? Because the activities which we call “the arts” have been thought up by humans to temporarily free themselves of the necessities, obligations and anxieties of survival. The most necessary and indispensable feature of artistic activities is and ought to be their unnecessity.
Artistic activities are necessitated because of their unnecessity.
Freedom is the primary outcome of unnecessary activity.
That is because unnecessity minimizes the risks, the likelihood of losses that may occur as a result. Fear from the consequences and sense of freedom tend to be inversely proportionate.
The idea that art, in essence, is “play” is repeated often but its conception in the minds and its determining role in practice are ambiguous.
I think that play is the fundamental trait of artistic activities and that this concept implies the avoidance of serious, dire consequences in order to protect the aspects of unnecessity and freedom. We can liken this to the fences that separate and secure a playground from its surroundings and the clearing of objects in the park that may injure the children. The main point is the risklessness.
Here is a simple example: Let’s say that a person is standing in a kitchen and slicing onions. Another person who sees it says “that’s not how you hold a knife.” Let’s assume that the first person says “what if I do?” and the second person replies, “you may cut your hand.” That is, s/he points at the possibility of a serious consequence.
Now let’s imagine a student at an art school smearing paint on a canvas using an unusual object as opposed to a brush. This would no longer happen in modern times but let’s assume that his/her teacher sees this and says “that’s not how you should paint the canvas” and the student says, “what if I do?” What would be the teacher’s reply to that? Probably the most “logical” answer would be “that’s against what we teach here, I won’t give you a passing grade,” because there happens to be a system that sustains itself through production in accordance with specific criteria (similar to the firing of a worker in a factory who alters the product and renders it unusable). Let’s assume that the student insists on his/her method, at the expense of failing the course, not getting included in the exhibition at end of the year, weakening his/her chance of getting in the “market” in the future: It happens to be quite likely that his/her painting will become the most different, notable and thought-provoking work of that semester.
In order to live more secure and convenient lives in the entropic order of nature, we try to leave as little as possible to chance. We try to minimize the arbitrary by forming predictabilities through “techniques” such as the creations of sameness, uniformity, repetition and perfection. There ought to be no place for such concerns in artistic activities that are determined by unnecessity and freedom. Indeed, the arts environment is and ought to be the only area where such anxieties about the outcome are invalid.
Whether they are personal, institutional, social, regional or national, all motives in artistic activities other than the optional urge to experiment with an idea will chip away from the said freedom to some extent.
Before one undertakes an unnecessary and harmless artistic activity, I am certain that one should ask the question “why not?” about his/her idea. The answer to that question will be determined by the communicability of the idea and whether it will be deemed worthy of perception or not. Because,
artistic activities are undertaken to be seen or heard by at least one other person. That is, they are intended to communicate. The unnecessary and harmless activities not intended to be shared by others are usually called hobbies or leisure activities.
Communication among humans consists of exchanges of meaning through the transmission of messages. There are two determinants in the accomplishment of communication – that is, in the perception of the meaning as desired: the “readability” of the message as intended by the sender and the interest of the perceiver in the content and form of the message. These are the key criteria which need to be considered by the person who conceives and performs an artistic activity. They are the primary factors that force the person to judge the worthiness of the undertaking and restrain him/her from doing whatever comes to his/her mind.
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The readers who have read up to this paragraph must have noticed that I separate an area which I call “artistic activities” from the rest of life. This view falls in line with Mikhail Bakhtin’s proposal for the world of arts under the term “carnivalesque,” which refers to the carnivals of the Middle Ages when hierarchies and rules were temporarily suspended. Similar to Bakhtin’s idea, I am talking about a non-mandatory, free and safe communicative play area where anything can be experimented with. Naturally, the physical and conceptual materials of the play do not come from the outer space, they are what one knows from and uses in daily life.
On this website I try to explore the artistic activities (with focus on “temporal” (live) performance) as forms of communication: the making and sharing of meaning between presenters and perceivers. Each essay on the site is intended to have a wholeness in itself but the order of the essays is arranged to reflect a “zooming in,” starting from the widest angle I can think of.
The readers may also notice that I try to use the term “artistic activity” wherever possible instead of the word “art.” The futile “what is art and what is not art” argument never reaches a conclusion but the arguers keep it rolling while they very well know that it will never come to a conclusion. I call the activities that bear the characteristics I have described above “artistic activities” but it is up to the addressee of those activities (or any activity) to decide whether it is art or not, if that is really important for some reason that I am not familiar with.
1 John Cage, Silence, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979. p. 94.