Here is a very specific memory: my mom and I are walking through a museum, my brothers lagging behind to see who can slide farther on the slick, wooden floor, making echoing squeaks ring through the hollow halls. My dad is “hmm”-ing to himself in front of a giant painting of red and blue rectangles, and my sister is standing with him, too young to leave her pink stuffed bunny at home, but tall enough that the presence of the tattered, stinky toy is starting to get weird. That bunny won’t last the year; she will start “big girl” school in the fall.
My mom and I are walking and stopping in front of long canvases mounted on these too-white walls. I love when I get to be alone with her. I’m twelve and anxious about face wash and hair clips and tennis shoes, and my mom is so beautiful and sweet-smelling and shiny. Our steps are noisy as we stroll through the paintings into a modern art exhibit. I know it’s a modern art exhibit because I immediately have to stifle a laugh. The first room is filled primarily with a giant, bloated, naked man statue. It’s grotesque and beige and I’m slightly disappointed that I can’t see its penis because I’m still trying to figure out things like penises and that’s something I absolutely refuse to discuss with anyone but my best friend, Zuzu.
The art only gets weirder as we walk through the bright rooms together: a beat-up car door, a giant piece of cardboard painted black, something that looks like a nest made out of hair. By the end, we have stopped trying to “figure it out,” we just want to get back to oil-paint landscapes.
The last room of the exhibit looks empty. The walls are so piercingly white they almost look blue. My mom laughs, “Is this the art?”
Then we turn around and see that the art has been looking down at us from the opposite wall. A plump Cupid, cut perfectly from smooth, black paper, floats, glued onto the white, suspended by a 2-D paper chain that ends with a ball cut from the same paper. He is so perfect and so smooth and so solid that he looks like a sticker or stenciled graffiti. Somehow, the ball and chain look heavy. As I look up, the fat winged-boy appears small, but he must have been huge to take up that much space on the vast snow bank of that wall.
I wonder if I’m supposed to feel something specific.
“I don’t mean to sound ignorant,” my mom whispers (it still echoes), “but why is this art? You could do this.”
Here is something I’ve realized in the decade that has passed: no I can’t. I can’t do that.
I’ve tried to cut out shapes, even really simple shapes like rectangles, and ended up with nothing but paper shavings and jagged edges on some unidentifiable … thing. I saw a video of a Rhub-Goldberg Machine playing at the National Museum of Art in D.C. and tried to make one by myself. Two hours later, I was tangled in yarn and had nearly broken our kitchen window with a tennis ball. In college, I took a basic painting class, and ended up with fifteen canvases of hunched tea cups sitting on tables so badly shaded, it looked like they were artifacts from some arson spree. I never pull hair out of my brush and think, “Wow, this should be in a museum.”
It’s not like art has to be perfect. I mean, Pollock clearly made some oopsies that he covered up fairly well, and Picasso obviously didn’t care about depth or perception or using a color wheel.
Recently, I went to an event where an artist showed a video project in progress that really got me thinking, thinking hard, thinking things like, “Huh?” and “I hope no one just heard me burp.” The video showed college students, some dressed as refs and cheerleaders, running in a circle on a beach. Sometimes, they ran in slow motion. Sometimes, the screen split, showing them running backwards and forwards at the same time. The sound was muffled so much that the room felt muted. In front of me, an older man nudged the young one sitting next to them. I wondered if they were inspired or confused. Worried that I was missing something, I focused hard on the video: the way the girls’ hair moved, the sound of feet hitting water, the vast forever-ness of the ocean. I still didn’t understand. My mom’s words came to me, “You could do that.”
This made me uncomfortable.
But I wanted to “get it.” I had found new appreciation for scissor skills and mismatched faces by trying to cut rectangles and painting teacups, so I headed out to the beach that weekend with some friends. I told them to walk into the ocean and run back toward me a few times while I recorded with my iPhone – the only camera I own. They had a hard time taking it seriously. The girls didn’t even want to get in the water because it was too cold. At the end of the “shoot,” I had a minute of “footage.”
Editing was like trying to cut down a tree with a nail file. I had no idea how to make a split screen or slow-motion. The sound from the beach sounded like a Wet Willy in your ear – muffled and sickly wet – so I tried to cover it up with what I thought was “artistic” music. Not only was the song too short, but it turned the video into a depressing piece that is trying way too hard to be a metaphor for death. Since the music didn’t cover the last segment of the video, I had to make sound effects myself with a plastic bag. My boyfriend saw my shoddy editing, sat down with the video for ten minutes, and turned it into something very similar to what I’d seen at the event.
Do I have a new appreciation for what I saw? Absolutely. Do I get it? No. Not even a little bit. But Cupid and cheerleaders running in circles both have things in common: they made me think, and they made me create. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Here is the video. Special thanks to Jordan McKittrick and these gorgeous, European models who just happened to be at the beach.