I Could Do That | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

A few weeks ago
we got a question from Trey Willetto, who asked
how we respond to people who say “I could have done that. It’s so simple” about art, for
example, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. John and I answered that
A, you probably actually couldn’t do it. And B, you didn’t do it. But some of you, like
Becky, were dissatisfied. She said doesn’t that imply
that the artist has no merit outside of some guy thought
about doing this first and now we care about it? It just seems like a
really lazy answer. Challenge accepted, Becky. I’ll give you a
less lazy answer. OK, if you’re looking at
a work of art and feel compelled to say I could do
that, or my kid could do that, the first thing you
want to do is assess if you really could do that. Take some hard edge
abstraction, like this painting, by Piet Mondrian that
may, at first glance, seem fairly easy to execute. But if you’ve tried to
use oil paints before, you’ll know that
it can be really tricky to create such smooth
lines and a consistent, flat application of color. There’s also a little
details, like a line that stops just short of the edge
of the canvas that clues you in that no amateur did this. Or Cy Twombly’s work
gets a lot of heat for looking like a bunch
of kid’s scribbles. But take a closer look. The quality and character of
his line work is astounding. The restrained use of
color is exquisite. This isn’t Crayola crayon
on construction paper. This is pretty masterful
handling of paint and pencil and crayon. They may be scribbles. But they’re freaking
amazing scribbles. And if you still think you could
do it, I say give it a try. It could be a really
productive exercise to see how something is made. And it may help you
learn a new skill or take your work or
life in a new direction. But let’s move on to what
happens when you really could have made the
thing in question. If you think about
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the example Trey
brought up, we can look at work like
“Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) from 1991, that pairs two
commercially-available clocks and synchronizes their time. Yes, you can go to a
store, buy two clocks, and hang them on the
wall, just like this. And you know, it would still
be a pretty cool experiment to see how long they
stayed synchronized and which runs out
of batteries first. But you’d be missing
something key here. The title clearly
asks you to consider these clocks to be a
metaphor for lovers and how two individuals
with hearts beating, like the ticking of clocks,
can be in perfect sync and then inevitably
fall out of sync. The title further suggests
that the lovers remain perfect, even after they’ve
fallen out of sync. But there’s even more. Because this work wasn’t just
made by any person at any time. It was made by Felix
Gonzalez-Torres, who was openly gay and who
made the work after his partner Ross was diagnosed with AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres’s work was
overtly and strategically political. And this lovely and
heartbreaking work is unquestionably
made more resonant when you know that his
partner died in 1991 and he died in 1996. His battery lasted just
a little bit longer. And if you think a work
of art should tell you everything you need to know
without the help of wall labels or the like, then
I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise. But for me, whether it’s
the “Mona Lisa,” a landscape painting in a thrift
shop, or an iPhone, every object is created
within circumstances that are important and
is distributed in ways that add to its meaning. But back to Gonzalez-Torres
because we’re not quite done with him yet. Many of his works depend
on reproducibility– stacks of paper or piles of candy
viewers are invited to take. He wanted his work to spread
and to be in multiple places at the same time and to be
created in participation with you, the viewer. With this work, it’s
not that you could do. It’s that he wants you to. You’re invited to. And that’s part of the work. It also means his art
can exist in perpetuity, beyond the confines
of his own life. And you can still experience
it today, and maybe take it home with you too. When you say I could do that,
what you’re really saying, and what I would encourage
you to say next time is, this doesn’t display
a remarkable amount of technical skill. And that’s what I
really look for in art. I think it’s perfectly fine to
have a preference for art that displays manual talents
unavailable to most. But there’s a
history of artists, beginning in the early
20th century, who took on new approaches to
material, purposefully avoiding showing off technical skill,
and for lots of good reasons– to upset the dominant
art trends at the time, to question the value
of unique objects, to undermine the
commercial system of art by creating work that is
unlikely to be trophies for the rich, or to reconsider
the separation of art and life. There’s been some theorization
about the so-called de-skilling of art in the 20th
century, a word first used to describe the
replacement of skilled laborers by technologies and less skilled
workers who operate them. Industrialization also had
a profound effect on art, introducing new methods
of reproduction. And we can’t forget about
the dawn of photography that certainly called into
question the relevance of spending loads of time
learning how to paint something realistically. Rather than devote
their lives to mastering a particular
medium, some artists began to push the
boundaries of those mediums and even forgoe
them all together. There’s sculpture that is
purposely unmonumental, paintings purposefully
non-virtuosic, drawings purposefully simple. It’s not that these
things don’t take skill. They just take different kinds
of skill– research, deduction, collaboration, exploration of
new materials, radical thought. Just as we value professions
other than skilled labor, we should also value
work by artists focus not just on craftsmanship but
on the effective execution of good ideas. It’s the thought they
bring to the form, or have others bring
to the form, and not just the form itself. Next time you’re
compelled to say I could do that I think you
should stop yourself and ask why did they do that? What are the
circumstances that led me to not doing that
and them being so driven to make the thing
that they not only thought of the idea but
then completed it and found an audience for it? What are the social, political,
and economic circumstances surrounding their
doing this thing? You can still admire
impressive technical skill. But you can also open
yourself up to appreciating a much wider world of art.

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