I don’t remember who said it. It was later in the week at Burning Man in 2000, it was dark, and we were in the middle of the playa surrounded by the ring that is Black Rock City. My company for the evening was a motley bunch of individuals from Colorado. Some of the art on the playa was not well lit, and depending on the evening, you could count on tripping on something that wasn’t properly lit or marked. While we walked from one side of the city to the other, I heard a male voice say, “There’s some bad art over here!” There was a lot of giggling involved as we tried to make sure we avoided tripping over any art, and carefully avoided the even the spectre of art as we continued on. It didn’t take long before we all were muttering that there was bad art somewhere.
Bad art is everywhere, included in well-curated galleries and museums. Contemporary art movements of the 20th century was to art what Free Verse was to poetry: a few skilled people doing it well, and many more people doing it badly. It begs the age-old question, “what is art?” To me, art is largely contextual. Anything can be art, but not everything can be good art.
Last weekend I had the immeasurable treat to see the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit, Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-1978. The show takes from some of the best works of that period that challenged the art world by using atypical media to paint and create. It included the art of some of my personal favorites, including Jim Dine and Jaspar Johns. There were even a few Yoko Ono pieces. It was a breath of fresh air and made my spirits light. Granted, whoever the new curator of SAM is, they’ve changed the museum for the better, making it a place I want to live, much like MoMA used to be, or the Art Institute of Chicago is.
Installations are a tricky piece of work. Not everyone can do it well. One of the best works I’ve seen all week was at a gallery last night, the Lawrimore Project where just a few days before a fire lit by a transient burned a piece that was parked behind the gallery titled “There Goes the Neighborhood.” Though it is no doubt a tragedy that the piece was set alight, charring the outside of the gallery building, whether on purpose or not – the unintentional creation was art in itself. Maybe I appreciate the cinders because they lack the irony that infuses so much art these days. Like the collection of found objects arranged in an arbitrary space, the remains of this little trailer house that was dropped off in neighborhood after neighborhood had been transformed into a charred shell that had the unmistakable smell of burnt wood and petrochemical furnishings, ready for our experience.
While mixing with some other gallery goers in the “bar area” by the cinders, the question came up as to whether the fire created a new, better work of art. It is, after all, infused with more emotion and drama that is easily palpable compared to some of the other works in the gallery, which are arguably more subtle in their meaning.
The best art on the playa at Burning Man in 2000 was the art that wasn’t there. You see, with my new friends from Colorado, we experienced together a piece of art that we were more than positive was there. I remember the structure well, and it was a massive piece of work. Later on, though, as we dared to get closer, we couldn’t actually find the art that we had been trying to avoid.