Art City: Holy places

Art City
Art is in the simple details that stand out, and that’s why you remember it. — photo by Rachel Jessen

Art, like people, often fragments mysteriously, like light into a prism. And that prism can be a little trickier to observe in a place like Iowa City, with its rich art scene that at times can feel equally rich in its inaccessibility to the general public. Where can definite lines of meaning be drawn, if nearly a century ago Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art space, if today, in our own City of Literature, “galleries” of graffiti mark the alleyways? How does one learn to appreciate art when anything can be art? As summer begins and Iowa City goes through its annual resetting, with the majority of its student population leaving and new people arriving for summer workshops and community events, I’ve thought about the artists and presenters of all kinds who come here, and I think that art all comes down to a fundamental spirit that places—special, holy places—shake from us.

Holy Places

The stuff of memories is also the stuff of art. Whether it’s a splatter-painting you think your kid could have done, or a Romantic-with-a-capital-R portrait, art is made from memories, and these are themselves colored by emotion.

Consider your memories of specific moments. You may recall a childhood friend or a recent conversation, but there are usually visuals, too. Maybe not just a store, but a specific corner, an angle, a square of a sidewalk. Consider again Duchamp’s urinal on the wall. Maybe then a pile of hot sauces and napkins on a table at Sunny’s Restaurant or a city view from the roof of a parking garage can become a folk-art collage. Art is in the simple details that stand out, and that’s why you remember it. Thus, the memories that create art are themselves the stuff of holiness: Meditative, reflective moments that we can return to in vehicles that let us transcend the inexpressible.

Art Bomb

Readers, you may know by now…

…that a piece of my artwork placed in an art-sharing newspaper box by an art lover intending to pass it on caused a bomb scare just recently, an ironic twist of an end to Arts Fest ’13. While my art was involved, the placement and timing had nothing to do with me. It was a happy accident.

No one was hurt, the cops and the local news and myself and hopefully you are happy. Art—appreciation, collection, cultivation, etc.—is about questions, not answers. We can, through art, see pieces of our culture, our social fabric and ourselves. Since art challenges us, I think the challenge in the aftermath of the not-bomb is to think about what this art bomb scare says about where we live (in every sense) in 2013. Removed slightly from context, art can be a weapon. It can also be better glasses through which to sharpen a gaze upon ourselves.

Difference For Differences’ Sakes

We need to appreciate things sometimes simply because they are different. Without difference, we are left with an information monoculture, and we lose a basic understanding of what ‘special’ truly is in a landscape where nothing stands out.

Go to insane gallery shows and street festivals. The more nutrients you give your brain, the healthier that brain is—you cannot neglect the expansion of your uninhabited empire of holy places. Every kind of art is worth a look because it forces us to skew the world by profoundly individual means, that is, we must provide our own specific interpretation of ideas to which we may not immediately relate.

Critical Danger

Criticism of art is a very human thing, but do not let it deter you from seeing art yourself. The danger of criticism in the world we live in is that it too can become a monoculture. Criticism can be broken into two central hunks: evaluation and assessment.

Assessment is about yielding positive results and continuing ongoing creative processes. It takes into account that best-case scenarios in anything are still only temporary in the face of a constantly shifting ground of contexts. Evaluation, on the other hand, is about finality. It’s about judgment: success or a failure. And evaluation can be highly toxic if unfiltered and applied to art or other forms of the humanities.

Imagine art as a web of communication that people use to better understand themselves and the world around them. That’s assessment. Art is a constant dialogue between artists and the worlds they inhabit, and also between their audiences and their worlds.

Now imagine a bullet ripping straight through that web. That’s evaluation. Never mind the fact that at the very least, there’s something beautiful to behold in the communication created by this web.  At best, evaluation can give audiences and artists conversations about the economic business of art. At worst, the act of judgement can introduce distrust into the equation, ultimately distancing the artist from his or her most important creative nirvanas, and closing the minds of audiences who might otherwise have communicated with the artwork in question. That’s how we lose the holy reverence we need to appreciate art. And we also lose out on a lot of fun!

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Outer Space

Remember, if you’re seeing art, you’re participating in art, and if you’re remembering something, you’re enacting the process of art. From the Iowa Arts Festival to Poetry in Public, sometimes it takes vast expanses of space and time to realize the ways in which something may have affected you. Memories—and art—are the planets floating in the big, holy voids of ourselves. Some are long dead and some are absolutely teeming with life. With a quiet Iowa City summer upon us, it’s the perfect time to man a mission into the art world. Walk in parks. Look in bookstores. Hit aesthetics, strike holy gold.

Russell Jaffe is a true man doing true things.