Recently, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday. I took her to lunch at a restaurant we’d frequented over the years. The proprietor doesn’t open in the afternoons, but for us he did. To make the occasion festive, I brought a balloon and birthday cards sent by my friends who knew this was her special day. After a 100 years, none of her peers remain.
As we waited for our meal, the two of us made light conversation. By now, we know each other so well, words aren’t really necessary. Still, she struggled to find them, and when they evaded her, I noted the despair in her eyes. The best I could do was smile and fill in the gaps, behaving as if losing the capacity for speech were as common as air.
Forgetting words represents a special hell for me, a struggling writer. Other art forms, music, sculpture, painting have no need for language — which is why, I suppose, critics exist: to translate the artist’s medium into a message for the rest of us. In my opinion, it’s a futile effort. In his latest book, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, the author agrees with me, describing the critic, of which he is also one, as, “somebody who judged and pontificated about things he knew a little or nothing about.” (“Outside the White Box,” by Mark Kingwell, Harper’s, Feb. 2016, pg. 93. )
Having settled that matter for himself, Berger goes on to ask what art is by examining the conclusion of others. Some say art is whatever the artist says it is. (Ibid. Pg.91) A urinal filled with candy is art if it resides in a museum. Or, “art is a call to arms or for spiritual improvement.” (Ibid pg. 91) Perhaps it’s “revelatory of the human condition.” (Ibid pg. 94.) Or it’s truth: a way of reconfiguring what we suppose we know into something fresh. At its very best, Berger summarizes, art “conjur[es] up the presence of something which is not there.” (Ibid pg. 94.)
Though it may seem like buck-passing, I agree with the first proposal. Art is whatever the artist says it is. Didn’t Warhol teach us that with his soup can? Once created, the audience can wrangle about whether or not the experience is revelatory or magical and whether or not the work should be buried or immortalized — a decision not to be relegated to keepers of the cannon alone, or Catcher in the Rye might never have seen the light of day.
To be honest, all I know of art is that it’s fluid, like language. Catching a falling star would be easier than pinning art’s intention to a mat, like a butterfly. To be art, it must soar. At the very least, art is an attempt to escape our inner world and touch others. For a writer, words create that revelatory or magical connection. That’s why, on the occasion of my mother’s 100 birthday, I went home and cried.