All Art Is Experimental (My theory of everything…which is mine…)
What if I came up with a unified theory of physics, that holy grail of all scientific theories that reconciles Newton’s Laws with quantum physics? It’s not really hard to come up with a theory. What’s difficult is coming up with a theory that is wholly plausible, even better that is provable, or at least not easily disproved.
But a theory, any old theory is easy. Here goes: My Theory. Which is Mine…that I thought of…ahem…my theory (which is mine)…[Hat tip to John Cleese for that intro but you have to start at the 5:07 mark to get the joke.] The entire multiverse is made out of pixels that all form a coherent picture. They easily fit into the singularity, that pre Big Bang infinite point of density, because everyone knows pixels are really just numbers (ones and zeros), and numbers are an abstract concept, so they don’t actually take up any space, ergo, they fit. The breakdown of Newtonian physics in the face of quantum physics averted.
This is, of course, utter horse twaddle and complete nonsense. If you believe it, I have some trans-water property spanning the East River you might be interested in buying as well.
I made it up to prove a point. (Yes, bad theories of one thing can be used to prove another theory of a different subject. Like I how I flipped that around? Thanks, I kind of do too.)
What if all art is experimental? What if every painting, sculpture, work of fine craft, photograph, or doodle is just an experiment in whether something works, whether the concept holds water? What if all art is just a theory that anyone can make up?
Some works of art will be like Newton’s Laws of Motion. They will stand up to the test of time, which is, of course, on this side of the Big Bang. Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings were wildly experimental. You might regard them as lovely, twee images on your coffee cup now, as safe and obvious as what happens if you drop a feather and an anvil off a tower (wind resistance notwithstanding), but when Van Gogh painted them, the way he painted them, they were wild unexplored territory. They were new, edgy, and game-changing.
Some works of art may be like the Medieval theory of Spontaneous Generation, that weird idea that flies spring into life from the transformation of dung, rather than actual flies laying eggs people couldn’t see because the microscope hadn’t been invented yet. Anyone who has taken high school biology has heard of this weird theory that has been out of date for centuries. In our world of advanced optics, we’re taught it as a reminder of how much smarter we are now, or, even better, a reminder that no matter how smart we think we are, a better theory is likely to come along. Mostly, we’re taught this theory so science textbook authors can act smug.
I’d put most of Picasso’s post-Guernica work in this category. However brilliant Picasso was in his earlier years, for the bulk of his career he painted the same experiment over and over, trying to prove he was right. Those distorted paintings of women’s faces might feel edgy in their disconcerting ugliness, but as experiments go, they get us about as far in art as flat Earth theories do in astronomy.
That doesn’t stop billionaire collectors from buying them or curators from keeping them on the walls of museums or us going to see them. – Sorry, mid-late Picasso fans. I side with Simon Schama. Guernica was revolutionary, but most of what came after was, to paraphrase Schama, the longest, saddest denouement in art history. – We look at these obsolete theories just like we read about the horse flies in biology class: because we’re told to.
What if art is safe, telling us the same thing over and over, that stuff we already know like that the sky is blue or water is wet? Maybe some kinds of art are experiments in money like how much money Thomas Kincaid could earn telling people his repeat, safe (arguably boring and soulless) paintings were great investments? What if Tracey Emin’s rumpled bed at the Tate Modern is an experiment in how much bull shit critics are willing to believe in order to tell themselves they champion the cutting edge?
Those are clearly experiments that, while they might not stand the test of time, at least persist into our present.
But what if the experiment were about being better? What if genius is really about being so willing to passionately throw yourself into risk and not merely, calculatedly toy what the market and collectors will bear?
Leonardo isn’t famous for producing a wealth of paintings or seeing his work to completion in a timely manner or having all his cutting edge ideas built in his lifetime. His two most famous works, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper aren’t even regarded by art historians as his best. The former is famous for the lore around it more than what actually makes it significant: Leonardo’s experimental treatment of the landscape behind her. The latter is famous for its near instant deterioration. The fresco started falling off the monastery wall almost as soon as it was dry. Leonardo was so passionate about exploring better methods of painting that he wasn’t shy of failing even at his patron’s expense. Now that’s edgy.
That ability to risk, to play, to experiment is key. It’s where Khalo and Van Gogh succeed to the end and Picasso merely cashed in on his earlier reputation. It’s also what makes all children artists.
When our son Skyler was about 10 months old, an astronomer friend asked me if he’d started the “physics experiment phase” yet. It took a few seconds for me to get the joke before the images of Skyler purposefully dropping different foods off his high chair tray wafted up to my consciousness. Most kids ask these questions and perform these experiments. “What do mashed potatoes do when they fly? Do they splat on the floor differently from peas?” I probably only did this once or twice before fear of my mother limited me to wiggling Jell-O cubes on my own high chair tray. I remember hating the way green Jell-O looked when it wiggled and categorically refused to eat it as vividly as I remember the way Skyler would strain to look over the edge of his tray to see the potato results.
We start out scientists, and as soon as we can hold a crayon, we’re artists, conducting the same experiments to see how color on every allowable or unallowable surface might help us understand, describe, and define our world.
What happens then, when you’re highly successful, mid-career, and middle aged, and Leonardo’s fearlessness eludes you in the face of risking experiments that might fail? It’s a strange feeling, knowing that almost everything I do in metal succeeds, and even when it doesn’t, I have the skill set to fix it. The only way to up the challenge and lower the boredom factor is to make increasingly complex work that defies the stupid cliche that less is more and also often defies a decent ROI. 30+ years in, and I’m so good at predicting how metal will behave that I even know well in advance where my mistakes will fall. I know, without doubt, precisely how those mashed potatoes will land.
Give me a new blank sketchbook, however, and I can assume all the creative panic of a newbie afraid to make a mark. We all have our fear points. Breathe, Victoria, it’s just ink and paper, and it is extremely unlikely you will ever run out of either.
The solution is to play with that same passionate curiosity as a child, not easy for a workaholic who can turn anything fun into a necessary project by which to mark progress. It’s a sketchbook. You don’t have to post it on Instagram. You never have to show it to anyone. It’s how you sing in the shower or dance when no one is looking.
The trend among the hangers-on of Conceptual Art is to work top down. Come up with a clever idea then crank it out without regard to its longevity or sustainability. If it falls apart, so be it. It’s all about the smugness of the product not the joy of the process. Process is for crafters. In your face, reaction provoking product is for real artists.
If this Conceptual Art is the experiment, is the data really still being collected, or have we figured out that horse dung is merely a medium for flies not their actual creator? Maybe we’ve already proven to anyone with a brain that the Earth is indeed round, so we can move onto more exciting experiments and look closely and often at those instead.
Why then, do we need to keep looking at the theories that we know hold water? Why are those sunflowers just so breathtakingly amazing in person even when we know what they look like before hand. Why is the fact a lightbulb works still fascinating well over 100 years after its invention? Why do we watch movies or read books when we know the ending?
Because we marvel at what it took to get to that end-point. We revel in each scene, note, brushstroke, or hammer mark that makes up the whole. Even as we don’t know or understand each moment of this journey, we seek to make sense of how it got us here. Behind each of those parts lie play and experiment, driven by curiosity, and without curiosity, it’s unlikely our ancestors would have ever come down from the trees.