Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Saturday, May 8, 2010

R. Mutt

I’m one of those people who are “interested” in things like the origins of art and questions like “what is art” and so on.

I put “interested” in quotation marks to indicate that my interest in these topics isn’t all that serious — I haven’t made a career or a profession out of them, which seems to be a requirement these days for having anything to say about anything — but that it’s still interest enough for these things to be have been on my mind with some frequency for a good part of my life.

Baxter Street & Grand Street, Southeast Corner

So here’s what I think (this is not a scholarly blog, so I’ll just tell you, minus references, bibliography, arguments with others who think differently, etc.):

Art has its origins in decorating the human body (e.g., body painting, tattoos, scarification, hair styling, jewelry, etc.) and, equally, and from this point of view, equivalently, in ways of designing and decorating ordinary everyday artifacts (e.g., clothing, pots, housing, tools, weapons, etc.).

These designs and decorations serve partly as kinship markers and partly as sexual selectors.

Sexual selectors in much the same way as the male peacock’s tail (though artifactual rather than natural in their production): sexual attractiveness (and, ultimately, differential reproduction) is favored by their possession and by their size, complexity, expense, etc.

Kinship markers in the sense of identifying who is related to whom, and in what degree, at least to the extent of marking the boundaries of forbidden and permitted sexual partnerships — the location of this boundary being itself social/consensual in origin.

In short, these designs and decorations told us — how many hundred thousand years ago? if not still today? — who we might legitimately include among our prospective sexual partners, and who among them were the most attractive?

I would imagine the differentiation of designs and decorations among different kinship communities emerged in much the same way as linguistic differentiation: a natural consequence of the course of linguistic change in more or less closed communities.

And perhaps the decorations of the human body served the same purpose to begin with (as if there were any specific “beginning,” which I’m sure there was not) and only later began to take on the role of differenting sexual attractiveness within a kinship group.

In any event, the twin functions of “art” (as we’ve come to call it): regulating reproduction by artifactually creating or augmenting differential sexual attractiveness and by marking the boundaries of legitimate sexual partnership surely developed together, over the long transition from whatever we once were to what we now can recognize as unequivocally “human,” i.e., like ourselves (which always, apparently — not to also say, “alas” — depends a great deal on how we understand ourselves too).

We may even have “co-evolved” along with them, i.e., our responses to “art” may be so to speak “wired into us” by now — but I’m not sure that that’s a necessary consequence of the preceding propositions (which isn’t to say that it might not be true).

Eventually — when? how? — decoration became a separate domain of human endeavor (another example of the division of labor), though not one that has ever really lost all contact with its roots, and people who could do so made things for the (apparent) sake of the decorations themselves — “art for art’s sake” has surely been with us for tens of millenia — and one that could connect with, support, and be supported by, the new regimes of social organization that then emerged along with sedentism, agriculture, cities, industry, religion, "spiritual values," and so on, and that are still very much characteristic of our lives today.

The idea of a non-decorative art — sometimes called "anti-art" — which arrived in 1917 under the signature “R. Mutt” (= German “Armut” = “poverty,” among many, probably equally valid, though not mutually exclusive, interpretations) has added a new wrinkle to our sense of art, and gradually the question of “taste” (the ability to read in a nuanced way the social implications of art/decoration, so eloquently discussed by the 18th century Scottish moral philosophers) has been displaced by the question of “art.”

The new, post-R. Mutt, career of the art work is to make the transition from being, at its creation, “not art” in the judgment of the reigning art-world, to being recognized as “art” by a suitably transformed or reconstituted art-world.

The job of the would-be artist is, accordingly, to make something that isn’t “art” and then to change the existing art-world, or create a new one, or both together, in which it will be “art.”

Without, of course, challenging this paradigm or its results.

What might have been “revolutionary” 100 years ago — or in some cases, possibly even 200 years ago (I’m thinking of Beethoven here, and yes, music does fit this paradigm as well) — is now social mobility, or at least entrepreneurship.

But then, when wasn't it?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or people do (or don’t).

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