What is Art? Who is an Artist?

Electric kazoo

These are questions which were recently thrown in my face by the work of some “artists” who are doing a gig coming up in my locality. I was referred to the show as something interesting and exciting I should go see. I checked them out online.

They came to Cambridge all the way from Australia (which is a long way) as part of their UK tour. Their work consists largely of experimental and “endurance” art, when the quartet of women do something together to make some sort of a social statement.

One routine on their website has 4 blindfolded girls with a tin can in hand sitting beneath a sign that says “Kisses $1.” They sit there for an hour, and after the hour the blindfolds and cans (with whatever earnings they have) are left onstage. It is somewhat presumed the audience will participate. The commentary is up to the audience.

Another work they did was a 90 hour “performative” (their verbiage) cooking marathon—no sleeping— to celebrate an iconic, woman empowering cookbook. Cake tasting competition to follow.

A third endurance performance consisted of the 4 “artists” standing around in conical, paper hats, and laughing for 1 hour. The point:

“[Artist’s] unsettling laughter parodies the austerity of performance art documentation through overt theatricality and seemingly senseless enjoyment” (copied from the website)

I confess I’ve read that sentence 6 or 7 times, and I still don’t know what it means. But they had a 5 minute video of the event, which was funny (for 5 minutes). Don’t think I could have handled an hour, though.

Now, I’m here to quibble about one thing. I may get some hate on this: But in my professional opinion, this is not art, and these are not artists. The website repeatedly refers to its participants as artists, but as a professional artist I feel that’s… rather generous of a claim.

I know in this post-moderny world of tolerance and general acceptance we’re supposed to applaud even the kids who don’t get it right in school. But let’s face it. These people are not artists. They may be experimental. They may be good presenters. They may even have a good publicist. But they are not artists. They have something to say, and it’s possibly worth saying. But they are not artists.

Art takes skill, among other things.

Monkeys who throw paint on a canvas are not modern artists. They are monkeys. A person who waves at me across the street to communicate an idea about life, such as, “Hello. I’m glad to see you…” may be miming, but they are not a mime. A person who blows into a kazoo may hoot a little tune, but this does not make them a musician. (Trust me: if my guitar skills were at all related to my deft and ability on the kazoo, I’d be in a rock band by now. Wouldn’t we all?)

Now let me throw out two qualifiers before I become repeatedly impaled by post modernists who disagree. 1). I am not saying these 4 Australian girls don’t have artistic backgrounds. They could be classically trained thespians, and I wouldn’t know it (emphasis on wouldn’t know it). 2). I’m not saying these people don’t have something to say, or that they shouldn’t say it.

But by rite of what they have portrayed in these situations they are not artists. They are perhaps public speakers. They could be demonstrators. Maybe commentators. But they are not artists.

Artists are people who have skill or talent, and who craft something either with their body or with a medium that is artistic. It takes time, dedication, practice, usually mentoring, and is generally understood to be something an average Joe-off-the-street couldn’t do.

Give me a couple of cough drops and I could have shown up and laughed for an hour too(with no preparation or previous laughing credentials). But if I really want the title artist, I need to actually have some skill and artistry.

If you disagree with me, then you can come see my 1 hour endurance performance of popular movie themes by kazoo, exploring the dystopian fabrication of thematic collusions within totalitarian documentation. Tickets are £10.

Bring your endurance…

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About doctornogrod

Daniel Cossette is a writer, actor, dancer, and mime originally from CT, USA. He's been writing, producing, and acting in scripts since jr. high. At Mimeistry International, Pasadena, CA he double-majored in Mime and Theology. Afterwards he founded Ambassador Arts and produced the shows Say It Louder! and Christmivest, including all original stories; he danced with Ad Deum Dance Company, Houston, TX, and eventually moved to England where works with Springs Dance Company, and directs Infusion Physical Theatre. He is married to a long time friend from the mime school, and currently resides in Cambridge, England.
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