Saturday, July 5, 2008

My Favorite Theory. (A reprise)

Here's another one from the vault.

Original Subject: The Theory of Artistic Masturbation
Original Posting Date: 8/30/2005
Original Posting Site: Xanga


The Theory of Artistic Masturbation.

I know...I know...it sounds so scandalous, but really it isn't. I had a professor in college who told me that all literature was based on a combination of 3 things: Sex, Death, and Food. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. Look back at all of the great works of literature in the history of the world, and you'll realize it's true...Hamlet? All three. The Odyssey? All three. The Bible? All Three...(I can defend if necessary.)

My theory has little to do with any of those things on a literal level, but I do believe that giving my theory a sex-related title makes people more likely to read about it.

So...here it is:


All art falls along a spectrum. Now, please remember that this is not a value judgement. All art has value and merit in it's own way. It just falls along a line. On one end of the spectrum there is art that I like to refer to as "Masturbatory Art" and on the other end there is art I call "Hooker Art".

The premise for this concept is that all art is categorized based on the relative affect it has on it's audience and on the artist. It's really that simple.

If a piece of art is more fulfilling to the audience than it is for the artist, that art leans toward the "Hooker Art" side of the spectrum. If a piece of art is more fulfilling for the artist than it is for the audience, that art is closer to the "Masturbatory Art" side.

What is masturbation? It's an act of self satisfaction. That's it. Some would call it a sin, some would call it a necessary part of life, and for the most part, everyone is right. It's a little bit sinful, and it's a little bit necessary, and the same goes for "masturbatory art". Whether I like it, or you like it, it's necessary in it's way. The tried and true example I've always used for this side of the spectrum is performance art.

For those who don't know, performance art is a genre of art where, more often than not, the artist is the medium for the piece. For example, I once saw a performance art "installation" that featured the artist taking his clothes off, and then writing racial slurs all over himself with a thick black sharpie marker. Oh...did I mention that the stage was dark, so you really couldn't see what he was doing or what he was writing?

Well...yeah...

See...this is what I'd call artistic masturbation. The artist trying to make himself feel better about the world, and trying to convince himself that he was deep and meaningful, and the audience being a true outsider to both the reasoning and the process. This was for him and him alone, and it really didn't matter if there even was an audience, because it's not for them anyway. It was a solitary act of...artistic catharsis, and it really isn't for me to interpret anyway.

Perhaps my favorite example of Masturbatory Art occured while I was visiting an artist friend of mine in Chicago. His name is Paul. He and I were walking toward his dorm in downtown Chicago, and we passed by this homeless person who was panhandling for money. I reached into my pocket for some change, because this was truly the homeless-est homeless person I had ever seen. Paul stopped me and said: "Don't give her any money."

This kind of threw me a little for 2 reasons..first, Paul had always been very generous with the homeless in the past, and second, I was pretty sure that the homeless person was a guy, and not a "Her" as he referenced.

I asked Paul about this, and this is what he told me: "You shouldn't give her any money, because she isn't homeless. That's a graduate student in performance art at SAIC (School at the Art Institute of Chicago), and she's doing her thesis."

Clearly this sounds crazy, but this girl got up at 6:30 every morning, put on the nastiest clothes she could find, covered herself in garbage and dirt and feces, and applied a fake beard, and commenced to pretend to be homeless for 8 hours a day. THIS WAS HER THESIS!!! For a while after this experience, I joked around about it, and I got a little indignant about it too, like "you can go to school for this? You can get a masters degree in this?" The anger has left me now, and has been replaced with appreciation, because I now have the greatest example of artistic masturbation EVER. The audience for her piece didn't even realize there was a piece. They just thought she was homeless. There wasn't any statement the audience was getting...they just got a whiff of stink. So...who benefitted from the art? Clearly, it wasn't the audience. I'm a firmly believe an audience can only appreciate art when they know there is art to be appreciated.

Now..."Hooker Art". What is the meaning of "Hooker Art"? Well, basically I had to come up with a term that would convey the polar opposite artistic value to Mastubatory art. A hooker is a person whose job, in it's entirety, is to please others, without any regard to themselves being fulfilled. I also like the second layer of meaning here, where money becomes the motivator for the artist, as opposed to the joy of making art.

In my theory, "Hooker Art" is art where the artist derives little fulfillment from the creation of that art. It's typically impersonal. Typically homogenized.

Some examples? Wedding photography, sitcoms, school portraits, pop music. "Hooker Art" is art that is ready for mass human consumption. Again, this isn't a value judgement of the artist. There are some amazing photographers who make a great living taking wedding photos, and even some of those wedding photos can be very beautiful. There is some really fun, catchy pop music. However, few wedding photographers would claim to be artistically fulfilled by it. Ask Jason Alexander (George Costanza in Seinfeld), why he did Seinfeld, and he'll say..."Well, I wasn't making any money starring on Broadway." Sitcoms are probably the most universal example of this form of art. There's nothing too deep or challenging, but the audience LOVES it, and the paycheck can't be beat. You'll see sitcom stars in other things, just absolutely killing themselves with effort, and perhaps they may get more spiritually, but nothing compares with that sitcom paycheck. Are we getting the idea?

Art for the artist = artistic masturbation

Art for the audience = artistic prostitution

Somewhere in the middle lies the ideal ground (in my opinion), where the artist and the audience both are satisfied equally. You'll often find things like "Shawshank Redemption" and The Rolling Stones and "Harry Potter" in this area. ****SEE NOTE **** The artist hasn't compromised their art, but the audience devours it anyway. I haven't found a good, universally acceptible term for the middle. As any theory, it's a theory in progress.

Ironically, since no one ever seems to read these things I write, I suppose this very essay would fall into the masturbatory category.


**** In the 3 years since I wrote this, I have since changed my mind about Harry Potter. I still like it. I'm still entertained. It's also created for the masses, and I do think Rowling compromised more than she'll admit. ****

2 comments:

David said...

the middle ground could be 'artistic love-making?' 'consensual art?' 'audience/artist boot-knockin?'

also, can wedding photographers and school portrait shooters really be considered artsits? they use the same tools as a photographer, but can recording something be put in the same category as portraying/commenting on something?

to me there's a distinction between using cameras to document/record/communicate vs. using cameras (or any medium) to express.

...and that's my pretentious musing for the week.

Beefy Muchacho said...

I think your argument is pretty much correct, especially about school portrait shooters, but I do think there is some artistic leeway in Wedding Photography. Certainly not ALL wedding photography, but I have seen good/creative takes.

Also, I really like "Audience/Artist Boot-Knockin'". Well done. Consider it incorporated.