April 20, 2009

Hay is for Horses: Don't Overthink Art

Print More

If you happened to gaze out at the Arts quad last week, you would have observed some quite mystifying rows of red bags of hay sprawled across the entire quad. My English professor, bless her soul, pronounced the bags to be an “enactment of an Emersonian metaphor made literal.” My first (poorly surmised) guess at the meaning of these bags’ appearance was that the grounds department was preparing for some sort of refurbishment of the quad, though I couldn’t figure out how or why that would involve hay. I then considered the possibility that some animal science majors were scheming, not so tactfully, to transform the quad into a giant farm — and ardent though those animal science majors are, this scenario, too, seemed unlikely.
Curious and vexed, I turned online to the Cornell website, where I discovered the true meaning of this peculiar display. According to a University press release, the installation on the Arts Quad was neither a landscaping project nor an animal science revolution, but instead the work of a few visiting critics at the School of Architecture, Arts and Planning (AAP) and 50 AAP students. The release explains, “The project is intended as a translation of the geometrical geography that was and is still necessary for productive agricultural labors and will depict the overlap between this original morphology of the cultivated land and an idealized and abstract pattern of the Cartesian knowledge.”
Wade your way through that swamp of a sentence and you will discern that the installation is about — well, really, your guess is as good as mine.
[img_assist|nid=37000|title=Installation art quad|desc=Visiting critics and AAP students covered the Arts Quad in red hay bags last week.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]To many of the perplexed students who treaded along the quad’s outskirts, the exhibit was more an obstruction and a mystery than anything else. Of course, to the visiting critics and all the professors, scholars and students more discerning of the abstruse than I, the exhibit (installation / project / whatever) represented an earnest artistic endeavor intended to stimulate intellectual discourse, an aspiration for which I surely can’t fault them.
There is danger, however, in intellectualizing such a seemingly banal thing as a bag of hay: Everything then becomes liable to artistic interpretation, and distinguishing the artist’s work from the fool’s mimicry becomes impossible — one of art’s knottiest conundrums.
Consider the following story involving Paris’s early twentieth century avant-garde art community and the Lapin Agile Cabaret, a café in Montmartre frequented by Picasso, Renoir and other prominent artists and writers of the time. As a prank on some critics, the patrons of the café attached a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail and submitted the resulting work as an “abstract painting” entitled “Sunset over the Adriatic.” The critics, as the patrons had predicted they would, loved it, and the painting was sold for a hefty price.
The question this story begs, it seems to me, is to what degree we value the context of art in relation to the art itself. Had it been I or any other shlub who had arranged bags of hay on the quad and attempted to lay an artistic claim on our work, we would have been laughed off of East Hill. But take the same exhibit, slap a fancy qualifier on it, back it by a few professors with institutional cred and well, lo and behold, we have art.
Perhaps though, you might say in protest, this is how learning happens. We look at the world around us and find the meaning in the meaningless, the extraordinary in the ordinary — after all, the plebeian and Galileo marveled at the same night sky, yet one saw only bright dots, while the other saw the universe. To be fair, there is some credence to such an objection; to excoriate art merely because it can be misconstrued seems hardly a compelling case. On those grounds, we would have to disqualify nearly every form of intellectual pursuit.
Still, we should be mindful of the dangers of over-intellectualizing or just simply searching too hard for meaning, because, paradoxically, our rational pursuit of knowledge often begets irrational devising — tarot cards, horoscopes and conspiracy theories being just a few of the abundant examples.
Now, though, as I look out at a bag-less Arts Quad, I find myself almost missing the bags; they were, if nothing else, aesthetically pleasing, soothing in a way, like stargazing. Indeed, examining this past week’s exhibit evoked in me a very similar series of emotions. I found myself confounded at first by the mystery before (or above) me; upset then at my own ignorance of these matters; and settled finally by the knowledge that some things truly are unknowable.
From now on, I say, let’s just let stars be stars and hay be hay.