What Art Is

Oct 22, 2019

While studying at Bard College in the early 1970’s I joined Via Theater, a group of likeminded theater majors founded by fellow student Ossian Cameron. The company began as an active investigation into the work of the Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, specifically around his seminal book Towards a Poor Theater.  After many months of grueling physical work five mornings a week in the basement of an old college dining hall, Ossian made a left turn and proposed that we use the summer months to “take theater to the people.”  And so, very much in the ethos of the day, this is exactly what we did.Seven of us and a dog named Godot climbed into a chunky Ford van and traveled, first north into Canada, and then across the United States to the west coast, camping out and stopping to perform at every opportunity. Early on in our nearly three-month journey we arrived in Montreal, climbed out of our van and began a free-form improvisation in a nearby park.  People gathered to watch. It was going well until a man, studying us quizzically, suddenly declared in a loud voice, “Oh, it’s theater!”  Satisfied that he had identified what had been bewildering him, he walked away, as did most of the remainder of our audience. 

In the moment that the audience evaporated, I understood that the art experience requires the audience’s participation in solving a slightly elusive mystery. Initially, it was probably curiosity that caused an audience to gather around us. As long as we maintained the attraction of a somewhat undefinable experience, the audience was able to engage imaginatively in our offering. When an encounter or an object is too easily identified, if it does not offer a bit of a puzzling challenge, the audience may dismiss the experience and indeed walk away.  

Generally, our lives are contained within the biological imperative of the systems, methods and arrangements that make up our daily lives. And yet, unlike in the animal kingdom, humans are also puzzled and even confused by this captivity and disturbed by the very modes and mores that allow them to move, to communicate and to negotiate their own survival.  We humans seek some kind of escape.  It is art that allows us this flight from the captivity our customary drives, our ways of moving through the world and relating to one another.

What makes something art?  What is the difference between artistic expression and boogying to music on the radio or sketching a map onto a scrap of paper to help someone navigate to your house? In considering these questions, I am buoyed along by a remarkable book written by philosopher Alva Noë entitled Strange Tools – Art and Human Nature.  For Noë, art is rooted in life and at the same time is a reflective and epistemic practice in its own right. In life we talk together, we dance, we write, we make pictures. All these activities are shared and culturally shaped. Choreography begins when we reflect upon the nature of dancing and visual art when we reflect upon the human propensity to draw and present our reflections within the medium itself. Art is not simply something to look at or listen to, rather it is a challenge, a dare to make sense of what it is all about.  Art aims not for satisfaction but for confrontation, intervention and subversion.  

The “strange tools” of Noë’s title address how works of art engage the very inherited systems that allow us to move through life, including talking, moving, perceiving, signaling, dancing, writing, etc., and at the same time strip them of their ordinary functions.  What artists do is an investigative research, a philosophical practice and what they create is a meditation on and disruption of the very systems that organize our lives. Art is an activity that requires us to ask: “What is this? What is this for?”, thus revealing something about ourselves and our habits and traditions.

According to Noë, to be alive is to be organized. “Our lives are one big complex nesting of organized activities at different levels and scales,” he writes. And our lives unfold within the systems within which we function. He compares art to philosophy: both are practices that ask us to examine how we organize ourselves and open up the possibility for reorganization.  Art, then, is a re-organizational practice, a field of research, an investigative and a philosophical practice.  Art exhibits us to ourselves and gives us the resources to change ourselves. Art, he writes, “investigates or exposes by destabilizing.”  He believes that the “aesthetic attitude is thoughtful and inquiring … natural and universal.”

Artists make things.  Whether a poem or a staged production of a play or an installation or a painting or a sculpture, art is about putting things together, producing, building or manufacturing.  But what makes art distinct from craft is that art seeks to disrupt and destabilize; it is a method of investigation, a form of research, aiming at nothing less than transformation and reorganization.

Choreography, for example, is not really about the steps or the moves, rather it does nothing less than reveal the impulses that make us dance. We dance naturally in our daily lives, but dance does not become art until it undergoes a process of reflection, investigation and rearrangement. And so, choreography explores the movements in which we casually engage and in doing so, transforms them. Choreography is re-organized activity provoked by reflection upon the activity of dance. The expression of choreography conceptualizes, captures and displays aspects of what we do naturally in life. In visual art, pictures become an instrument for seeing. Literature and poetry conceptualize and reflect upon the act of writing and storytelling.  This looping structure is what creates the presence of art.

In the theater we attempt to illuminate the act of being a community in front of another community (the audience). We do this by putting actors’ bodies on display, by exhibiting an array of social interactions, sensory potentials, patterns of thinking, feeling, speaking and acting. The theater allows us to lose ourselves and then to retrieve our bearings, to make sense of how we have been affected and where we find ourselves by questioning our inherited values, rules, conventions and assumptions and the structures in which we live and relate to one another. 

Ever since that summer day in the park in Montreal when the man who had been watching our improvisation said, “Oh, it’s theater,” and then walked away, I have been attempting to learn how to keep him from leaving.  I try to wield the strange tools of our art form in a way that engages the imagination and alters our expectations about how we might live and thrive together.