Thursday, September 15, 2011

Art since the Garden of Eden

If you want to return to the Garden of Eden, head to Kansas. It's right there in the town of Lucas on the High Plains.

It's a quirky place, built by S. P. Dinsmoor, a Civil War veteran, who can only be described as a crank. The yard of his hand-built house, front and back, is filled with his own bizarre sculpture, expressing his own peculiar philosophy.

The climax of the tour is viewing the Body of the Artist as a Dead Man. You may peer into his crypt, in which S. P. Dinsmoor is laid out exposed to gawkers. For this privilege you must pay one U.S. dollar, per the terms of Dinsmoor's will.

The fun part about seeing the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas is that it's such an off-the-beaten path adventure. The sad part is the locals pretend this kind of thing is "folk art".

Well, it may be "folk", but it ain't art.

Chesterton's famous quip, "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly" only applies to amateurs - and you might say, always applies to amateurs.

There is a thing out there called "community theater". Now if you read Chesterton and only Chesterton, you might get the impression that community theater, being a thing worth doing and a thing done by amateurs, would be a thing done badly. And you'd be right.

But in Chesterton's praise of the homespun generalist, in his praise of motherhood and education (from which his "thing worth doing" quip is taken), he overlooks sacrifice, the painful side of love, the love to which the word "amateur" refers (from the Latin amator, lover). An amateur, I would say in a more cynical quip, is someone who does something out of love, but a love for which he has yet to sacrifice. A professional has "paid the price".

For example, the reason we don't go to amateur brain surgeons is because if a man really loves brain surgery, he becomes a professional, he "professes" it - he spends a dozen years in school and countless sleepless nights studying it and perfecting it. If, by contrast, it's his "hobby" - well, a hobby is like a mistress, you might "love" her, but you ain't gonna marry her.

And an amateur actor loves acting the way a married man loves his mistress - indeed finding a mistress is one of the motivations of married men who do a lot of community theater.

By contrast, for those of us who are wed to a vocation of drama - well, here's what happens.

A winery in Southern Missouri expresses interest in our murder mystery dinner theater productions. I go down and meet with the owner, a woman who informs me that the community theater troupe out of Cape Girardeau is "a lot cheaper" than we are and she's thinking of using them instead.

Now, there's almost no answer to this. To point out that the reason we have been performing monthly shows at some wineries for twelve years straight with a loyal following, some of whom have seen over forty of our productions, is to point out the obvious. She'll get at most two performances out of the amateur troupe before word gets out that the mysteries aren't worth the $35 per ticket she'll be charging for dinner and show.

But in acting more than in any other profession, people on the outside say, "I can do that! How hard can that be?" And they pick up the scalpel and perform the do-it-yourself lobotomy and the patient never wakes up.

My point is, yes we should do things out of love, even the things we can only do badly and can only dabble at for fun. But let's not pretend "folk art" is "art" or the girl behind the counter at Wendy's who flirts with us is the woman we'd die for. The woman we'd die for is the woman we married.

And a vocation is not a hobby.


Tom Leith said...

You have admitted that it is a visual expression of a particular and peculiar philosophy -- why ain't it art?

Kaiser Johnson said...

Amen, amen, amen!

Kaiser Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin O'Brien said...

Tom Leith, I was being poetic. Clearly it's art. It's just not good art!

Tom Leith said...

Hmmmm. How is it bad art? Labor is crucified. Making a goddess of Liberty and placing the ballot in the hands of woman will destroy Chartered Rights as surely as was done during The Terror of the French Revolution. A Suffragette (Eve?) points to a and vague utopia in the clouds.

But as for the art, even the technique communicates "Populism". What makes the art bad?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Tom, the ideas aren't bad, it's the execution that's bad. I've got great ideas for a symphony, you know, but my only instrument is the nose whistle and my execution on it would leave you less than impressed, despite my ideas.

As they say, "I may not know much about art, but I know what I don't like."

I mean, look at the photo of the angel or whatever above the guy or whomever. There's "execution" and then there's "let's execute whoever made this".

Tom Leith said...

The angel (or whatever) is a witness to the murder of Abel by Cain.

You are making an argument that I have made -- folk art is by definition bad art -- Michelangelo is the example of "good" sculpture (the enormous hands of his figures notwithstanding) and anything less is "bad". Reinhardt is the example of "good" jazz guitar and anything less is "bad". Of course, jazz is "bad" because Desmond and Porter aren't Dvorak and Paganini. Woody Guthrie represents the nadir of popular music, even worse than Dylan. I am not so sure about this idea any more. How come everyone can sing "This Land is My Land" and nobody can even identify the "New World Symphony"?

In Dinsmoore's Garden of Eden, the medium is a self-referent expression of the message itself (which is pretty clearly communicated and you have identified as good)...

Art isn't so simple.