Don't let the title fool you. It is, in fact, totally another art paper.
Last week, I went to Gadsden to find a work of art. I scoured the Cultural Arts Center and the Gadsden Museum of Art for that single perfect work that would truly speak to me. I saw numerous paintings and photographs of portraits and landscapes, sculptures, abstracts, and drawings, but there was always something missing. I had all but given up when I saw one that evoked stronger emotion than any I had ever seen. It was called Mama Bird.
It held more color than any painting I had ever seen, had more moving parts and texture than even the most dynamic sculpture in town. It was a curious thing, in the diverse reactions it generated. Personally, I felt horror and disgust at the sight of it, while others didn't seem to react at all. I daresay that nobody around me was even aware of this masterpiece's existence. There was a certain mock naturalism to the lighting, as though machines were trying to simulate sunlight. The pieces moved without thought or motivation, yet it was remarkably structured and industrialized. If you looked closely, you could see that it was a pointillist monster built of hundreds of tiny people trapped within the skin. The pinpricks of color were masterful, to the point that you had to really draw yourself back to see what the work truly was.
Machines worked across its skin, operated by slaves, the faces of which were dramatic caricatures of misery and shame. These men and women were made to look the same, to blend in with the machine. It almost seemed to be making a statement about the shame of individuality and humanity as a whole. The grand focus was on the Machine, the mechanism for which they all lived. The dredges pushed and pulled, dragging vain people down the belts to the juicers. These braggarts and swaggerers were no different than the workers, were made from the same materials, yet were glorified as they were robbed. The workers fed them into the Machine where they were squeezed of their very lifeblood. The liquid gold was toted to the top of the work and it finally became clear that you were looking at a pyramid of meat. At the very top, perfect and beautiful, wearing only the finest clothes, were vampires.
They drank of their willing victims, eschewing all dignity and drinking like dogs from their buckets. They gorged themselves until they made themselves sick, and would purge their stomachs into the mouths of the overseers beneath them. The overseers, in turn, would sick into the mouths of the underseers beneath them, who would feed the seers beneath them in such a horrific manner. By the time the blood reached the slaves, the feeding had been reduced to a few oily drops.
I looked at this artwork, this “unstill life” and wondered why nobody else could see it. They stared with glazed eyes and empty hearts, stepping through the artwork and feeding the Machine. I wanted to tell them that this was insanity, that nobody should ever help make such a monstrous and foul work...but I felt the tidal pull, that drive that dragged me inexorably down those belts to the slaves and their juicers. For all of my pomposity and assumed wisdom, I had inadvertently contributed to Mama Bird by going to Wal-Mart with the rest of them.
Some would say that what I saw had nothing to do with art. They call me pretentious and vulgar and a fool, telling me that I have no concept of real art. Art is painted, art is sculpted, art is performed, art is written. But these aren't art, merely the methods of artists. Much like biology, geology, and physics, art is one of the highest sciences. Art is, at its very core, the science of metaphor. Going all the way back to the most primitive cave paintings, it has served as the most beautiful lie of human existence: The statement that this is that.
It's easy to look at the Mona Lisa and the Sistene Chapel and declare it art. You have to, because you're told to. To compare an abstract to the works of Leonardo and declare them equals borders on heresy, but an honest man can't help but do so. The observer may be able to more easily identify what the “great works” are, but that doesn't mean a thing. Anybody can paint a dog and make it a dog. A computer can print a dog of such detail that no human artist can match it, but a printer was never declared an artist. Art is the ascription of meaning. Any copy machine can draw a dog, but it takes an artist to say the dog represents faithfulness.
Oftentimes, it's not even the creator that intends the meaning. Sometimes a dog is just a dog and a knife is just a knife. Abstracts are truly beautiful in this way. A brushstroke here, a brushstroke there, and you have a pretty picture. It's colors on a canvas, nothing more. You show it to your friend and he sees an expression of anger. You show it to another, and they see the texture of flowers. From cave art of mammoths to the realistic and grotesque skulls painted by Bob Eggleton, we lose sight of the big picture: Both are nothing but paint. Whether the viewer (or even the artist) can readily identify with the work, it doesn't matter. Art is what is made of it. What moves one man to tears or laughter or shrieks of terror is another man's everyday life.
All men are artists, whether they admit it or not. From dullards to pragmatists to pretentious toffs, we all see the world as metaphor. Nobody looks at a painting and dismisses it as nothing but paint. It's obviously people in a boat. The pixels of television and computer screens are pointillism at its most basic level. To make sense of any of this requires imagination. The goal of the artist is to only take this further. To see Wal-Mart as a menagerie of horrors only requires a slight change of perspective.
Then again, maybe it doesn't.