Things that are definitely not art:
An enormously obese man being chased through a hedge maze by a flock of angry pelicans
When your dog comes in from running around outside and he looks like he’s smiling but really he’s just overheated and panting
A pile of human bones found under an abandoned house
My grandfather asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him I wanted to be an artist. He choked a little, coughed, asked me why I would say such a thing.
Because, I said, art is in my soul. I can feel it rattling around inside me, wanting to come out. Maybe I feel things a little more, a little deeper than most people do, and all that feeling builds up inside me and I think I’ll explode, explode and die if I don’t find some way to express myself.
Indigestion, my grandfather said. Or constipation. Either way, there’s medication. You need money? I’ll give you money, run down to the drug store and get the medicine and some of those kettle chips. Forget this art business.
Art is the spark of creation, I said. Art brings people together, gives life meaning. Makes the world more beautiful, more easily bearable.
That sounds more like fuckin’ to me, my grandfather said. Maybe you need a woman. A girlfriend. Maybe a couple girlfriends, you’re young, why not?
Art shapes history, I said. Art gives culture context. Art builds empires, art tears empires apart.
You’re thinking of war, my grandfather said. Join the army. Or Air Force, if you don’t want to work hard.
I told him, Art is the antithesis of war.
Sounds like fuckin’ again, my grandfather said. Although fuckin’ can feel a lot like a war. He paused, then said, When you’re young you fuck like you’re in the midst of battle, when you’re old getting someone to fuck you is like storming the beaches of Normandy.
See, I said, reaching for connection with the old man, That’s kind of like a poem, what you just said. That’s art.
That’s not art, my grandfather said. That’s not a joke, either.
Things that are definitely art:
Noting the fervor with which folks paid for paintings done by elephants at a traveling circus—brushes clutched in trunk-tips and mindlessly swirled around a page—this businessman asked himself, What other kinds of animals make art, or more specifically, what do animals make I can call art, and sell.
He spent the next afternoon spying on the squirrels that lived around his home. Perhaps that chirp they make can be recorded and sold as music, he thought. Or maybe some meaning can be found in the patterns their nibbling makes as they work through a nutshell. The only discernible pattern in any of the nutshells the businessman scavenged looked strangely like swastikas, which was probably, hopefully, coincidental; their chirping, once committed to tape, was shrill and frantic and deeply unpleasant.
Squirrels are small potatoes, the businessman thought. Vermin, basically, totally lacking in that important X factor that real artists have. He thought about tracking big birds of prey—if you presented an eagle or a falcon with a large lump of wet clay in the rough shape of a mouse, could you sell what resulted as sculpture? But birds were too hard to track and impossible to catch. He thought about bees, maybe sections of hive dipped in plaster or bronze, but abandoned the idea quickly when he remembered his fierce allergy to beestings. He thought about deer, he thought about cats, no angle sprang to mind. He thought about narwhals, but they lived impossibly far away and were anyway possibly mythological or extinct.
One night he spotted a fox prowling around his backyard and decided to follow it—he’d purchased night vision goggles earlier that year for an unrelated, unrealized business venture—back to its den. For over and hour he tracked the fox through the woods, the entire time marveling at the sure way the fox moved through the world, they way it held itself, the way it examined its surrounding with a quiet charisma. The X factor, the businessman thought. I’ve never seen a better example. This fox is what I’ve been waiting for.
Eventually the fox arrived home, a burrow dug between the roots of an ancient tree, and slipped inside. The businessman carefully crept to the opening and peered inside, and to his amazement saw the fox booting up a laptop computer. In fact, there were several foxes inside the den, all of them sitting at laptops, all of them furiously typing lines of code, and in the back of the den a few foxes sat in front of a large television screen. On the screen the businessman saw a blocky representation of a fox wandering through a crudely rendered forest, hopping over obstacles, gobbling up hedgehogs and mice. The foxes in front of the screen seemed to be controlling the action with a joystick, and occasionally the images on the screen would glitch or freeze and all of the foxes working on laptops would stop coding to observe and take note.
Slowly it dawned on the businessman what he was seeing, and he turned from the den and slowly began the trek back home. Unbelievable, the businessman thought. All that charisma, all that skill, and instead of committing themselves to becoming artists they waste it manufacturing video games, which are not art and never will have any artistic merit at all, ever.
Things that might be art (under the right circumstances:)
A pile of human bones (arranged in a perfect likeness of Ringo Starr) found under an abandoned house
A pizza (made by Pablo Picasso)
(A poem by William Butler Yeats about) an enormously obese man being chased through a hedge maze by a flock of angry pelicans.