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Brian D. Cohen

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Things

Posted: 09/14/11 05:53 PM ET

"As an artist, I sometimes feel no urgency to make more art because I am surrounded by throwaway images, piles of inexpensive objects, and lots of noise."
--Ernesto Pujols

I have a profound ambivalence about things. I love to have my things around me and wouldn't choose to part with any of them, but they impose a psychic burden on me. More than anything, I love to make things.

The English word "art" emerged from its root "to make" or "to put things together" and morphed into "artifact" and "artifice," always implying the making of "things," sometimes clever or tricky things.

Have all artists at some point realized that what we make is a fabrication, in two senses of the word? This is obvious, because we know we make something, but if we value sincerity, genuineness, purity of purpose and unaffectedness, it can be a difficult realization, and reconciling yourself with this self-consciousness is a necessary and painful creative condition. It can make it uncomfortable to call yourself an artist. The best things artists have made exist in the world in a dual state of obvious artifice and undeniably penetrating presence. Great art is at the same time false and the often only avenue to basic truths; an artist simultaneously lies to you and moves you, and you let it happen. You willingly suspend disbelief.

Picasso got this: "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies." I like the Picasso in his late 20s, when he openly embraced painting's artificial conventions (its lies), in Cubism, and the Picasso in his 80s, when he mocked his own loss of virility, his inability to keep lying to himself, his unaccustomed vulnerability (he was unexpectedly telling the truth). In between, except for Guernica, he lied to himself all the time.

I, and many artists I know, much as we love art, are drawn to things that don't call themselves art, and hence don't lie. Marcel Duchamp, in the guise of R. Mutt, wrote, "The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges." Duchamp was avenging the insults and indifference of the provincial American art world of 1917, and passing a rather astute aesthetic judgment as well. But he was fed up with artifice, pretense and self-delusion -- he was disarmingly honest. In excising both the "art" and functionality from objects he revealed their unseen beauty. And he stopped making things pretty much altogether.

The creation of much art is a result of compulsion, and we may not need all the things that come of it. A while ago I learned to engrave copper, and I enjoyed doing it so much (I was also pleased with myself for having acquired an anachronistic and highly specialized skill) that I engraved every hard surface I could find. I realized that I couldn't stop and that what I created in exercising this manual compulsion didn't matter. I enjoyed what I was doing and didn't think a lot about what I was making.

The flip side of compulsive creation is compulsive acquisitiveness. Actor Hugh Laurie muses about acquiring his 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible: "In a funny way, the biggest difference now is not that I have the car, but that I lack the coveting. I genuinely love the car -- it puts a spring in my step -- but the coveting was almost more beautiful." The thrill is in the chase, never the capture, says my cat. The object is a vehicle for desire.

We should get the compulsive creators and compulsive acquirers together. I guess that's consumer capitalism.

William Morris in the mid-19th century became alarmed at the products of industrial mass production and their lost or decaying aesthetic standards: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.'" Industrialization created inexpensive things in formerly impossible quantities. I love all those cheap 19th-century things and the industrial aesthetic he hated, maybe just because to me they're now old and not made of plastic. But I don't like the unimaginable quantities of things in every endless aisle of Wal-Mart. I'm good with fetishism, not so much with planned obsolescence and rapid disposability. Consumerism creates trash, lots of it and very quickly, and also inevitably bad art, and crafts (formerly useful things made inutile and unaffordable by their presumption to be beautiful).

Picasso (again) saw the commodification of art happening, and inveighed against the objectification and superfluity of "art," calling a stop to it: "Enough of Art. It's Art that kills us. People no longer want to do painting: they make art."

There are lots of things and lots of art in the world. The best things stand quietly apart from the world, take us away from it, then recall us to the world, mirror it, model it, intensify it and reflect it. The unique object is indispensable, irreplaceable and irreplicable (that is not a real word but should be). What do we see in it? Certain things become projections of images, ideas and analogies. We don't see the "thing"; we see what it makes us see. Art historian James Elkins says, "No two people will see the same object; we change along with the object, we see a new experience ... A picture is the ways and places it is viewed, and I am the result of those various encounters." Elkins savors the perception of the "betweenness" of objects rather than their "thingness." This betweenness is a numinous layer; it is why we want to possess things, and why we can't.

I love my stuff, my found objects and artifacts (wood type, sea shells, bird's nests, model airplanes, vintage motorcycles, books, ship models, an old Mercedes, engraving tools, measuring devices -- things for the most part not made by an artist, or no one calling himself an artist), and I wouldn't want to part with any of them. Their materiality is inherent, but our experience is immaterial. I can keep enjoying my things without wearing them out, using them up, or throwing them out. I would like to keep my things forever.

Vasari records, "It is said that Piero de' Medici ... often used to send for Michelangelo, with whom he had been intimate for many years ... and one winter, when a great deal of snow fell in Florence, he had him make in his courtyard a statue of snow, which was very beautiful..." I'm no Michelangelo, but maybe my engraving was a more durable version of the same thing.

Is art "doing" or "making?" A verb, or a noun?

I have this post-apocalyptic image -- that all we have made to endure is trash, permanent mementos of brief appetites, very, very briefly useful, disposed of, then surviving forever. We would do better to make statues in snow and leave nothing.