August 23, 2010

The Love Song of Holly, Rose and Violet

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Just the other day, a friend of mine was telling me about a piece of performance art. In the piece, the artist lies naked on a block of ice, a radiator dangling from above. She cuts a star in her stomach, searing it with the radiator.

And if you recognize that as art, then you’ll understand that Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is cutting-edge, even avant-garde. I’m sure you have some friends in CALS. You can spot them in the dining halls, carefully watering every plant while the dining staff looks away. They’re the ones secretly growing their own garden on North Campus, the ones who keep dead bugs in their rooms. On the Ag quad they come and go. Talking of Michelangelo … wait, I mean animal reproduction … Or do I? Don’t let them fool you. Those farmer wannabees — the ones who get credit for learning to drive tractors — are not what you think. While CALS might try to pass itself off as nothing more than an innocent petting zoo, it is really none other than an elite movement at the vanguard of the art world.

CALS’ secrets lie buried in a nondescript barn, somewhere on the outskirts of the Vet School. You can find them among the hay, dung and fleas. They might feign ignorance, udder boredom and indifference. But don’t let them fool you. Though they can’t walk down stairs and are heavily targeted for delinquent tipping incidents, they are the best-kept secrets of the art world: Holly, Rose and Violet — Cornell’s three fistulated cows. I mean, didn’t we establish that cutting your stomach was art?

While the fistulated cows are an extreme example, they show the dangers inherent in conceptual performance art. If anything, performance art is an exercise in blurring reality and art. When art was purely descriptive and realistic, there was no such distinction. Art imitated life. But as these relationships have become obscured or reversed, art has consistently moved away from realism and created a distinct divide between life and art that we’ve never quite eclipsed. In the so-called decorative arts, the divide was solidified: Art was for art’s sake, nothing more. Essentially, performance art breaks down this divide. Unlike in traditional art, the art piece is not an object but an event, not a product but a set of actions. When an event — rather than an object — becomes art, the line between art and reality gets blurred.

This is generally a good thing. Art and reality should not operate on totally separate planes but should have some overlap. Art should have a decisive influence on reality. However, such a blurring becomes problematic when anything counts as art — even self-mutilation. In such cases, the division between art and reality must be maintained. Pain is all too real. In labeling pain and self-mutilation as art, we discredit that reality. When it comes to physical pain, blurring the lines between reality and art is both unnecessary and irresponsible. Art can depict, expose and express pain. It can propose solutions to ending pain or act as a vehicle for resolving such pain. However, while these are all valid artistic motives, art should never mock or discredit suffering. Above all, art should never create pain.

Yet, such art exists. And what it reveals about our culture is much more disturbing than sticking your hand in a cow’s stomach. If art imitates life, then we are a society of pain. If life imitates art, even worse: We aspire to such pain, we crave it. This is not a new trend, just one we don’t readily admit. However unacknowledged, this morbid fascination has historical precedent — from watching executions to cheering on lions eating gladiators. The modern equivalent is more subtle though no less gruesome. We slow down to look at the car wreck. We mercilessly beat each other to a pulp in violent video games. We become invested in fictional television characters whose lives are a series of complicated misfortunes we milk for all they’re worth. And yes, we even tolerate such pain as art.

Are we so desensitized to suffering that we can view self-mutilation as art? Or, are we so relativistic that — like the depressed cutter — we mistake pain for some type of release?

Such “art” is neither enlightening nor moo-ving. Not when there are real stomach scars from emergency appendectomies, from stab wounds or gun shots. Not when you’re just minding your own business munching on grass only to have a bunch of Aggies stick their grimy, germ-infested hands in your stomach, your only defense an udderly helpless “moo.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg