There really is no field of "work" more subjective than the arts, relying entirely on the reactive impact of the viewer for its validity.
"I like it."
"I don't like it."
And artists....hoo boy... they will do some crazy things in the name of "art."
Sometimes for attention.
Sometimes to communicate an idea.
Sometimes to wake the great slumbering beast that is the public.
Part of the magic of art is that it pushes at some and pulls at others. What is tragic is when someone takes the word of another on how they should feel about a certain piece. It is easy to do. We can do it without thought; never delving deeper to examine the "art" in question to develop our own opinions.
I almost made that mistake this week after reading a letter to the editor of the New York Times that popped up on my news feed entitled "Madness Disguised as Art."
In reaction to a story in the NY Times about Teching Hsieh, the author of the letter said,
"Art, it’s generally understood, is a carefully executed endeavor that enhances the emotional or intellectual experience of the viewer or audience, giving pleasure and, perhaps, a greater understanding and appreciation of the human condition. As I read about Tehching Hsieh, I sought insight into what his masochistic exercises might mean to anyone else. This poor fellow locked himself up for a year behind bars in virtual isolation, then for another year deprived himself of sleep and most human contact by punching a time clock every hour, then for another year shunned shelter. And much, much more, including jumping out of a second-story window and breaking both ankles. The article rattled on about Mr. Hsieh’s “art” instead of his obvious mental illness."
My initial reaction was complete agreement. The "so-called" artist sounded like another nutcase seeking attention by "acting out" in ludicrious and dangerous ways. I almost moved on. My perception on the artist was signed, sealed, delivered and wrapped up in a nice little package with someone else's opinion stamped all over it. But for some inexplicable reason I clicked on the link to the original story that had inspired the empassioned rant. And discovered a fascinating story about a struggling asian artist trying to communicate, through performance art, the complete alienation he was experiencing as an illegal immigrant to this country. If that was all his performance work conveyed it would have possibly made it as a footnote in the art history books, distinguished only by artistic extremes.
But when you delve into the pieces he created, look at how they relate to isolationism in humanity, to despair, to the "rat race" at large, they begin to take on relevance and significance.
"For decades he was almost an urban legend, his harrowing performances — the year he punched a time clock hourly, the year he lived on the streets, the year he spent tethered by a rope to a female artist — kept alive by talk."
In performance art, the artist themselves are the work of art and Mr. Hsieh created art out of extreme action in a very calculated manner in order to communicate his concepts. It is ironic that he is receiving recognition at museums such as the Museum of Modern Art thirty years later, after he has denounced himself as no longer an artist. Apparently the decision has been taken out of his hands by the art world. The irony ties in so very nicely to the bleak fatalism behind his work.
"“If art good, people remember. If art bad, history clean up.” - Teching Hsieh