What is art? One man’s treasure, another man’s trash? It’s a philosophical conundrum for the ages.
The definition of art is even more elusive than that of porn. And the definition of porn is pretty elusive. In a Supreme Court decision in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart laid down what stands to this day as the legal definition of obscenity. “I know it when I see it,” he wrote.
When I was in college, back in the Paleozoic era, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a place that would now be characterized as a blue city in a red state. In those days (OK, the ‘70s), that meant -- for the times – such progressive amenities as co-ed dorms, imported beers, head shops, falafel carts, block parties and indie rock.
Such social liberalism, back then as now, is generally accompanied by predictable downsides. Addiction. STDs. Nihilism. Homelessness.
On Madison’s main drag, State Street, there was an omnipresent, bellicose, foul smelling – and oddly beloved -- vagrant whose soul possessions seemed to be a squeegee and a 5-gallon bucket full of dank water. He spent his days arguing with God and extorting the owners of local shops and restaurants, offering to clean their windows in exchange for a handout, a meal or preferably a beer. His thirst was as legendary and imposing as his girth. And if he was refused employment, he would remain on the premises, waging a silent war against public decency – and hygiene -- until his terms were met.
His name was Art and he was a fixture on the downtown scene and the butt of many jokes and epithets by all of us privileged students into whose orbit he had been deposited by providence or by fate. Everyone knew him, but very few engaged him, such were the furies of his unpredictable moods, virulent outbursts and volcanic public tirades against dark forces that only he could see.
He lived in a cardboard box under a stair case behind a Turkish restaurant. Then one day, the lead story in the local papers delivered stunning news: Art had been found dead of exposure in his cardboard box on a frigid winter night.
There was an immediate collective sense of mourning, and regret, among the student body. We all realized that we had spent years treating him as some sort of ironic totem for our amusement, rather than realizing his humanity. His obituary did not report a last name.
The University of Wisconsin is a large public land grant university whose student body has forever been consumed by a collective search for the meaning of life, liberty and Bukowski. From this crucible of existential dissonance arose a fitting tribute for the invisible man who everyone saw every day.
Shortly after his death, every clothing store, record shop, book store, drug store, head shop and local bar was selling a T-shirt, a novelty still available in specialty shops in Madison to this day, nearly 40 years later.
WHAT IS ART? the shirt says on the front. On the back, it says: ART IS A WINDOW WASHER.
Art is a legend. Art is mythic. Art is eternal. Art is nostalgic. Art is big, Art is misunderstood. Art is controversial, intimidating, divisive and sometimes frightening. Art is a con. Art is an inside joke. Art is omnipresent, bellicose, foul smelling and oddly beloved. Art is a window washer.
Where does art come from? The unlikeliest of sources, to be sure. The pictures are of my girlfriend’s two work tables, one at her home, one at mine. She is not a window washer. She is an artist. And, as close inspection of the photos would suggest, an artist of singular vision and theory. O.K, and pretty twisted too.
She makes art out of old stuff. Found stuff. Discarded stuff. Broken stuff. Headless dolls. She makes one man’s trash into jewelry, wall hangings and sculptures that people treasure forever.
That’s what art is. Stuff you make into other stuff. Paint into pictures. Guitars into music. Clay into pottery. Marble into busts. Food into meals. Ink into calligraphy. Gems into jewelry. Cotton into tapestry. Pipe cleaners into unbearable Fathers Day gifts.
Words into poetry, stories, allegories, prayers, lessons, fables, explanations, pronouncements, indictments, diatribes, screeds and manifestos.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but art brooks no such arbitration. Particularly the art of words. Adjusted for current monetary value, each one is worth a thousand pictures.
When properly assembled, words comprise art as comforting as Seuss, as discomfiting as Rand, as puzzling as Camus, as stirring as Angelou, as blunt as Didion, as elusive as Faulkner, as grandiose as Mailer, as cryptic as Pynchon, as challenging as Joyce, as haunting as Poe, as defiant as Parker, as vulnerable as Plath and as arbitrary as, well….Bukowski.
And you do know, don’t you, that newsprint mixed with vinegar or cleaning solution makes for the most simple, effective and affordable means to clean glass?