To the surprise of no one at all, I nearly failed grade eight art. I could pretend that I was one of the greats that were denied critical fame with avant-garde masterpieces, but I won’t. I think back to the artwork I submitted over the years and I remember them as bubbling masterworks of creative fervor and passion – whatever the heck that means. But this is just an abstraction of the past, where time makes complex situations simple and memories into ideals.
What they were, and what they will always be, are the deranged scribbles of a young boy whose brain moved faster than his hand, whose reality was a diluted failure to capture his imagination, and whose artwork was the result of grand ideas that lacked consistency and practise. In short, I got a D.
Maybe I’m still trying to justify the mark. I don’t think so, however. I am very aware that I’ll never be a great artist. I am no Van Gogh; two attached ears give me away. I’ll add that I’m not Picasso either – my best attempt at stenciling out a life portrait looks less like a caricature and more like a blunderbuss to the face would.
Yet despite lacking the panache necessary to paint or to draw, somehow and for some reason I am given the chance to comment on art as a whole. With no more weight than a feather, I can brutally, unrelentingly, dim-wittingly, shamelessly vocalize all my qualms about a given piece. We all can.
That is not to say my, nor your, opinion is worth a flying fuck, of course. In a cacophony of voices, I’d hope a voice as self-indulgent, prone to misspellings, and ridiculously exhaustive as mine would drown at the first instance. But it is as though by just being human, by just breathing, eating, and shitting like the animals we tend to grown into, I can judge all things human.
It is a metaphysical assertion at best. No more than some innate predisposition guaranteed the day we are born, even though everyone else we know was born once, we find our judgment. Whether it be the in the tomes of literary jargon, academic highfalutin, or those who believe that by tilting one’s head to look at a painting ruins the “regal elegance” of the whole piece, we criticize the world and its fruits as if we own both.
For the record, fuck those people. I’m sorry for such a vulgarity, and I should probably elaborate, so I will. Listen: fuck us humans. We’re no more entitled to judge art, books, or anything for that matter. We aren’t experts on anything. We aren’t even amateurs. We are all just chewing on broken glass while staring into the never ending abyss, hoping, praying, to make sense of it all.
Sure. We can read. We can write. But that doesn’t mean diddlysquat in a Universe, a World, a damn bedroom that is so much more complex than we can imagine. We are not the Rulers of the Universe, even though we can type that we are. Instead, as humans, we are worse than diseases because at least a disease looks after its own kind.
But some hope at an egalitarian diatribe is not what I’m trying to get at; rather by suggesting humanity’s limitation in judging art – a limitation that is both found and originating from our own birth – I am attempting to determine what makes great art. Undoubtedly my pieces in elementary school were far from it. As is this writing. But there seems to be some general consensus that such and such by so and so is great art.
Maybe it is. Who the hell am I to say different? But maybe in the same line of thought it isn’t. Maybe works are no longer reviewed but revered, and simply the name suggests an unquestioning greatness. Of course, I am not implying that Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, and the like aren’t great. To be honest, showing those three artist alone to an alien race would be enough to make it look like we were bragging. What I am saying, though, is that there comes a point when our paragons are accepted simply for being paragons.
Certainly I can say that Shakespeare was a twat that forced his plots and character foibles and didn’t damn near mean the things we attribute to him, but would I be right? Most likely not. Nor would any expression of my most outlandish statements about a given work be merited. I’m a nincompoop, and even that may be an insult to nincompoops.
Yet even though such works are unperturbed from any of the foolish and poorly worded assaults I could muster, are they still great? And if so, what makes them great?
I think there is no simple answer, and I won’t dissolve the discussion into some vague abstraction about human values and potential and the works. God knows I do that enough. Instead, I’ll admit that great works differ by great margins and great people will have greatly different opinions on the matter. There will never be a sliver of agreement, and that is something you can agree on, dear reader.
But at the same time, great art is great for the same reason it is created: because we are human, and in between two milestones that are no more in our control than anything else, we feel, we need, and we die trying to digest an overwhelming amount of information in such a short amount of time. Most of us are lucky if we can even find a matching pair of socks in the morning.
For this reason, I purport that art is not know for its artistry, but for its humanity. A great piece – whether written, drawn, sung, or whatever else it could be – will not simply move you. A fart moves you, for heaven sakes.
Rather, a great piece of artwork will make you close your eyes and imagine that you were having breakfast with the author of the piece and they just told you a funny joke and oh how you both shared in the laughter and they decided to make a day of it and they told you why they painted this and that and why they didn’t paint that and this and why both really don’t matter anyways.
In the little time that you’re drawn into the microcosm of their work, you’re convinced the two of you are friends, author and audience, much longer than your gaze will last.
I have been lucky enough to have a handful of such occasions in my lifetime. The first time was with Kurt Vonnegut. Since then, I have drank with Heller, laughed with Bradbury, cried with Dostoyevsky, triumphed with Dante, entered hyperspace with Card, died with Camus, questioned with Burgess, danced with Bach, wallowed with Kafka, hummed with Chopin, wondered with Sagan, loved with Orang, and more. I have spent the few moments I could control with a lifetime of people who devoted themselves to something greater than themselves, and in that pursuit, became themselves a greater thing than they originally intended.
That is great art. It is a feeling like one’s time isn’t wasted despite living in a Universe that is as much as a hysterical accident as we are.
This is a picture from grade four. I should of told you to shield your eyes, but the proof of my failed artistic prowess is in the pudding – because I am pretty sure that the brown smudge on the left is supposed to be pudding. That, or a goddamn sea monster.