“IT CAN BE SUBJECT MATTER OF A RELIGIOUS NATURE. A SCENE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. WHATEVER THE SUBJECT, THE PROFESSIONAL ARTIST MAKES EXHAUSTIVE STUDIES OF IT…”
Solving Each Problem as It Arises, 1966-1968. John Baldessari. Yale University Art Gallery.
A few weeks ago at the Yale University Art Gallery, I was taken with this acrylic on canvas by John Baldessari. I love the stoic font, all caps, marching across the page in time to indomitable logic. Art = solution to problems. Get it, people. Get it! We only stop for hyphens as unstoppable reason storms forth.
Art = reason? Art as solution to each problem as it arises? The first thing that strikes me about this artistic statement is how it runs contrary to the artist mythology: that art is all muse, all inspiration, all the time.
Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s scathing and ever-incisive review of social networking when compared to face-to-face civil rights activism of the fifties and sixties. I agree with him that status updates and tweets aren’t the true stuff of revolution, and that led me to think how my efforts larger than 140 or 420 characters were weak and apolitical, too. Sitting alone in my office spinning yarns does not feed the poor or challenge systems. There is no way that art matters the way hard-core, in-the-streets activism matters. No problems are solved. That’s what I said to myself.
“Human nature is the problem, Wendy.” That’s what one character tells another in my novel. He’s explaining that so much evil in the world can be explained by the twisted desires of human hearts and not by big, inhumane systems. He believes he’s pointed out the root of the problem, and through him, through Wendy, I investigate the source of evil and how people survive it.
When I finished the first draft of the novel, it wasn’t anywhere near perfect, but I did say to myself, “I’ve ‘interpreted the subject to the extent of (my) capabilities…I may have a one-(wo)man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem.” (I take liberties with Baldessari’s own words here.)
Some think art is useless, just another form of wallpaper or furniture, and maybe with some art forms and certain artists, they are right. Is the solo work of a mind, fashioned in clay or pulp or ink or paint, worth considering? Even if a solution isn’t found?
I found the postcard of the painting for purchase as I left, but I had already copied down the message. This will haunt me for a while.