Thursday, February 11, 2010

Relative Merits

I was browsing through the "Community" section of when I came across a discussion titled "Is crap art?" Naturally, I opened it, expecting to find longwinded hypertechnical discussions of why things that appear to be crap are actually art ... but found that the entire discussion began with a question relating to this photograph:

This picture was taken by a member of the OvationTV community named Theriff. It is a picture of crap. Horse crap, specifically, that he saw while cleaning up his corral. (A propos of that, he refers to himself as a city boy. But city boys don't have corrals, let alone clean them up. Every city boy knows there must be somebody you can call when you need a corral cleaned up.) He wanted to know what people think of his horse-poop photo. I guess he wanted, really, to know if it was art.

Naturally the discussion included the requisite scatological references, but what surprised me was that only a few of the serious comments that followed implied an appreciation of crap art. This leads me to deduce that the writers are not, at heart, artists.

I say this because of a conversation I had nearly twenty years ago with two friends who played in the symphony orchestra here in town. They were both on my soccer team, along with a third musician who couldn't take living in this metropolitan backwater, and I believe went back to Europe. Oh well. Anyway, I used to have season tickets to the symphony, and when the sideline conversation came to discussing the music, as it invariably did, I mentioned, in a fashion much more sensitive than I am generally given credit for being capable of, that I was noticing more and more pieces that were, shall we say, somewhat discordant. (What I had actually noticed was that more and more pieces were crap, but like I said I was going more for new-age--sensitive-90s-kinda-guy than I was unreconstructed-troglodyte.) The fact is, I don't like discordant music. (It takes all my willpower to avoid putting quotes around the word in that context). I find it discordant. Jarring. Unpleasant. I was ready to refer to a piece I'd heard the previous Saturday night as "a traffic jam in Havana," but there was no opportunity, because these two guys launched into an enthusiastic discussion of the wonders of such music.

I won't try to reconstruct their thoughts; first of all it was two decades ago, and second, it was too technical for me to follow in detail. It had to do with mathematics, and different musical scales, and music theory. I got the gist of it, but that was about it.

But my point is that these musicians, people who make their living performing orchestral music, found things of great merit in this music. I would not be overstating it if I said, based on that one conversation, that they found beauty in discordant music. After my initial inquiry, I had little to add to the conversation -- every now and then they would try to include me, but all I could do was nod, and frown sagely -- but they were gradually transported to a higher plane as they considered the construction and cohesion of these pieces. These pieces of crap.

Of course, the next question in my mind is, who's paying to hear that crappy music? Eventually, the answer was "not enough people," because the orchestra had to go back to performing more of the sort of music that I and my unreconstructed-troglodyte brethren would actually consider music without quote-marks, to avoid losing its public and philanthropic funding. (No one was more surprised than me when the local soi-disant arts community forced that change.)

So it is entirely possible that the universe of crap overlaps the universe of art, in ways that are only appreciated by artists. (The horse-poop photograph, I think, is not art: it is just a surprisingly pretty picture of a mundane subject.)

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