“What is an artist?”

“What is an artist?”

I had never heard of the Darwin Awards before this past year, when recent recipients were announced. It’s given to people who do humanity the favor of removing themselves from the gene pool by doing something stupid. One of the all-time winners is the terrorist who mailed a letter-bomb and who thoughtfully inscribed his name and return address on the package. While he could have worked up a fictitious residence, I guess he wanted the recipient to be cognizant of who was getting the most pleasure out of the explosion in the instant it happened. However, the package got returned for insufficient postage and one can only assume that some very pressing matter distracted the terrorist from paying close attention to that day’s mail, since he opened his own thoroughly efficient device in a moment of undue haste.

Oddly enough, I remember a cartoon from a number of years ago that showed a terrorist working as an instructor in a suicide bomber school. He’s wearing a vest and has his hand on the detonator. “Watch carefully,” he says. “I’m only going to do this once.”
It seemed funnier at the time I first saw the cartoon. Writing a description of the cartoon, in fact, only leaves me feeling despondent about the contempt for human life that seems so prevalent. Why are the war machines still so well funded? People don’t put bumper stickers on their cars anymore. Back in the days when they did, one of my favorites was “It will be a great day when schools get all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale.” Or something close to that.

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I’ve been reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in Three Acts as part of my on-going inquiry into the willingness of modern societies to fund ever more sophisticated weapons for combat. The key question that Thornton asks each of her subjects is: “What is an artist?” My guess is that unless a society is willing to devote enormous energy to coming up with an answer to that question, those of us who dislike warfare have little hope of human beings ever growing tired of hunting other human beings.

An artist is like a hunter, but the difference is in the simile itself and in the way an artist extends that simile, for the artist is not only tracking the unusual, but is leaving behind a record of her own tracks in doing so. In thinking of leaving footprints behind, I recall that the huge retrospective of Gabriel Orozco’s art at MOMA in New York City back in January, 2010 included what appeared to be a simple shoebox. Here are my notes from my visit to that exhibit, which I originally typed up as a letter to Stephen Motika:

I had more or less circled the entire main portion of the exhibit upstairs when I arrived at a shoe box on the floor, which seemed to be viewed as a prop by an unusually aggressive guard. He sidled up to a couple ahead of me and said, “You see the beauty in it?” and then scooted back a few steps. The man and the woman didn’t reply, but gazed at the shoebox, uncertain of whether to take advantage of the guard’s cue-line and move on to another piece or to challenge his dismissal quietly by lingering at the taped border of the sculpture.

As I studied the shoebox, the issue of sex and gender power in Orozco’s art only now became visible. The shoe box seemed to be a neutral signifier, but the size of the box was anything but neutral. It was far too big to have served as a box for women’s shoes. It was definitely a man’s shoe box, and when I read on the plaque on the wall that this particular piece was Orozco’s response at the big Italian biennial to being given a “closet-size” space to exhibit his work, I realized that the shoebox was far more than a sarcastic critique of the curators, but also an assertion of his “masculinity”: “I’m a big man,” the box seemed to say, in every sense of the word “big,” at which point sex impinges on gender.

At that point, I went back to the “bicycle sculpture,” which proved to be exactly what I remembered: men’s bicycles. I had liked this piece very much when I first saw it, and my admiration for it remains undiminished. For one thing, I didn’t think it was possible that someone would be able to take on using a bicycle as an armature for sculpture after Picasso had made such deft use of one, but Orozco’s piece more than beats him at his own game of modernist transformation. (The kickstand, in fact, evoked Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.”) Even with its pediment of retro aesthetics, however, the piece conveys the urgent pleasure of self-generated motion that is indifferent to physical condition. The age of the bicycles only makes them more attractive, although I wonder if that would have been true if they had not been men’s bicycles.

At a minimum, though, the bicycles were unambiguous in at least this point: while it would be possible to debate the “sex” of the shoebox (“Are you saying that no woman could ever have feet that big?”), the bicycle sculpture privileges masculine public mobility. I guess my question concerns what the response to the piece would be like if he had used bicycles conventionally designed for women; in fact, I wonder if he even considered that alternative. Somehow, I doubt it.
(Side-note interjection: Thornton mentions Orozco’s bicycle sculpture in passing, but makes no comment on the issue of the sculpture’s explicit gendering.)

At least one other piece was less subtle: the three large white balls encased in mesh, in a piece called “Seed,” for instance, were in full phallic display, with the mesh vertically poised in an ejaculatory state. This third piece I cite is a minor work and more of a footnote than thesis, but it serves to confirm the overall heft of Orozco’s work. The masculine inflections in Orozco’s work (at least in this exhibit) are not surprising as such; indeed, his ability to rearrange what we assume we’re familiar with seems rooted in a playfulness that is all too often squelched by patriarchal authority, and his response affirms his value as a transmitter of well-defined strength amidst temporal uncertainties.

In a letter sent to Kevin McNamara shortly after I sent my comments to Stephen, I noted that “my favorite portion of Orozco’s show was the large room, on one of the lower floors, filled with posters which revolved a set of colors (yellow, white, blue, red, if I remember correctly), according to a move on a chess board. I wish I could have spent more time there. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded at all being able to sit on a mat on the floor in that room with a small group of people engaged in some form of meditation. Or even chanting, quietly.”

My definition tonight (January 6, 2014): An artist is a person whose work within the realm of imagination removes them from the gene pool of imitation. Emily Dickinson is an artist because she is impossible to imitate. Ironically, an artist’s work serves as a termination point and as a primary discharge of continuity.