Small Rant About Modern Art

This essay was triggered by a post on [1], by Eric Mitchell, wherein he talked about a painting called "White Curve" at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. One of those very large, very simple canvasses, and there were tourists earnestly interpreting the symbolism of the white curve.

Here's the thought about art which has been floating around in my head for the past couple of weeks. This was also triggered by the Hirshhorn[2], which is where I met up with David Dyte and Adam Cadre and Kiz on David's "IF Across North America" tour.

I like going into the Hirshhorn (although on that day we only walked around it) because modern art very often strikes me as funny. Sometimes attractive, sometimes not. When it is, it's sort of a side effect. Modern artists (I generalize) are clowns; they pull out the stops on absurdity and exaggeration in order to be memorable.

That's not a disparagement. The point of art is to communicate memorably. And, while the idea of building an entire room and covering it with Cheezy Poofs (furniture and all) is good for a chuckle -- actually doing it (with care and skill and dedication) is worth a solid belly-laugh. I respect someone who does that, and I'll go to see more of her work.[3]

(Note that this is not what Eric mentioned above, which is laughing at silly people who try to interpret modern art. Although I'll do that too, if they go too far.)

On the second hand, there's whaddayacall "classic art". This is sometimes attractive, but rarely interesting to me. The West Wing of the National Gallery[4] has endless ranks of paintings by French people, and I never go look at them. When the IF group was wandering around the Smithsonian, we didn't go in there.

Where we did go in, where I dragged the group after walking around the White House and making ObIntern jokes, was the Renwick Gallery.[5] It's... I don't think it has a formal subtitle, but the description here says "decorative arts and crafts from early America to the present". And this stuff (again, I generalize) is by people who are working with stuff. "Craft", not "art". Glass (I love studio glass); carved wood; jewellery; clothing. All sorts of stuff. There was a bell which was a curved bar balanced on a stand, so that if you hit it it would spin around ringing. (All sealed under glass, dammit.) There was my favorite Renwick exhibit of all time, the Ghost Clock, which I can't explain without spoilers. There was a swordfish made entirely of discarded toys.

I think what I like is the challenge of working in a medium. Well, oil paint is a medium too, and I don't really care that Vermeer made it look like light. I don't know exactly what I mean. But someone who take wood or glass or clay and just pushes the hell out of what she can do with it; these things I find beautiful. (Or iron, Rubik's Cubes[6], or telephone wire, or one's living space.) The more ornery the material, the more I like the result.

(Utility is in there somewhere, too. But not necessary. Most studio glass is entirely useless, and I wouldn't dare eat off even the pieces that I could eat off of. Maybe I mean toy-facility, like the bell.)

I started this with the intention of getting back to IF, and I've forgotten how. Well, IF -- an IF program, I mean -- is a hell of an ornery material. A game is an awful medium for telling stories; we have to strain and strain and implement pages of code to make a single effective moment in an entire game. And we're all horribly ignorant amateurs who haven't figured out the fiftieth part of the techniques that must be available.

This is obviously why I like it so much.

I started this with the intention of going from IF to to Doe's IF art show[7], and I still don't know what I'm going to do when I get there. I haven't even had time to look at the entries (and that after a week-long vacation, I apologize to say.) It's perfectly obvious we need more exercises like that; never mind my quibbling over how to define the rules most effectively.

It would be easy to say the moral is: "Don't get caught up in modern art, lest ye be silly, nor yet in classic art, lest ye be boring; dig your fingers in and make craft." That's not what I want to say. (Because this is a prose form, not visual, and different things interest me in prose.) (Also because I like silly IF too -- "Lists and Lists" was nothing if not a room covered in Cheezy Poofs -- and some of you folk certainly enjoy Impressionism a lot more than I do.)

I have no moral. I have a desire to see what people can do with IF. This is why I keep trying to improve the raw materials, in between playing with them myself.


[1] : Message ID <>, or Dejanews reference.

[2] : Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

[3] : Sandy Skoglund. I've never been to an installation of hers, but see her on-line gallery for some pictures, including the Cheezy Poof one.

[4] : The National Gallery of Art. (Turns out to not be a Smithsonian museum! Wacky.)

[5] : Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art. They have a small page on Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock. But it's still better to see it in person.

[6] : Rubik's Cube Mosaics and Custom Designs.

[7] : Interactive Fiction Art Gallery.

Updated June 1, 1999.

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