Art Here and Now
Daring creativity happening now around the world
If You Get Points, Is It Art?

I went to an afternoon of flat track roller derby, and even though it’s a sport, I could care less who won or lost. A lot of us were there to be entertained. Roller derby is dramatic and theatrical. Lots of players and whole teams have strong characters (whether real or mythical), and the opening and half time shows are fun and over the top. You could see a lot of artistic types in the audience who don’t go to many other games. There’s something creative and entertaining drawing them in.

But when the main purpose behind a performance is to get points and be the winner, is it art?

Figure skating, ballroom dancing and DanceSport, color guard and some forms of gymnastics are all artistic performances where the main goal is to get points and win. In most cases, performers are required to play certain types of music, wear certain clothes, and use certain prescribed moves.

Most of the performers are clearly exceptional athletes, are very dedicated, and have great artistic skill. But many people, especially the “real artists,” look down on all this. For me the problem has always been the limits put on the work — why would you limit yourself to only certain moves or, for instance, being required to twirl a fake wooden rifle?

A lot of people have trouble with the motivation. If you’re there to get points, based on how well you perform predefined and accepted moves, where is your artistic voice, your unique viewpoint of the world? Another motivation is money. Money motivation also brings the artistic merits of TV shows, films and albums into question, even beyond TV art sports like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and On the Lot. Artistic authenticity and innovation are often the measures of success for modern artwork. Motivations for money, points and winning are contrary to real art.

You might say authenticity and innovation are the point system for modern art. But who are the hidden judges? What are the secret rules?

When artists apply for grants, panelists often look for predefined forms that, to them, define great art. When ballet dancers come on stage, the audience looks for a limited set of predefined moves that add up to what they think of as ballet. When donors give money to a theatre or opera, they vote with dollars for work that most fits what they think art should be. Curators, promoters, producers, executives, politicians, grantors, donors, boards of directors, ticket buyers, book and music lovers and others are all doling out points. Many artists don’t like to admit we’re influenced by these points. We are trying to win money or notoriety.

The perfect modern artist is someone whose work pops out like flower buds, for no other reason and purpose than the artist wants it to. Money or status have no influence whatsoever. These are people like Henry Darger, who painted in secret his whole life. He was pure, untainted by desire for money or fame.

But if you are authentic, and you aren’t influenced by your audience or worldly temptations, how do you know your art is doing what you intended? Are puppies and shaving creme really disturbing and life changing, or only to you? Do dinosaurs make everyone think of birds, or just paleontologists? Maybe your art is just boring, confused and badly made. How will you know if you don’t listen? How will you make better work if you aren’t willing to change and learn?

In modern art, forming a fake rock band or standing on a street corner and shouting curse words at drivers can both be art. Dressing like your grandmother while impersonating Nixon might be your authentic voice. Maybe in this confusing open ended anything-goes arena, the points we get are the only barometer we have for whether our work is to other people what it is to us. Once we get those points, we can decide to change, to work for more points at the possible smogging of our clear intents. Or we can decide to remain steadfast, and risk pulling a Van Gogh – dying penniless with no recognition. It seems Van Gogh was right. I think the key is that, after collecting the points, Success or Winning is just ultimately affecting the world as you wanted to, regardless of what other rewards that might come your way.

Maybe the art athletes have it all figured out. Get the rules in writing. By the end of the night, be called the winner in front of a cheering crowd, and get paid decently for all your skill and effort.

Get In the Realms of the Unreal, the fascinating documentary about Henry Darger; or From Ballroom To Dancesport: Aesthetics, Athletics, And Body Culture

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posted by Trout Monfalco