Thursday, November 8, 2007

Petition for Dissolution v. Negative Space

Recently, I was forced to consult an attorney on some unpleasant matters. I had been given, by the Circuit Court of Cook County, the task of completing and filing a sizable stack of legal documents on my own ("pro se" they call it) within a certain deadline, yet it sat on my desk, a coded mystery, as the deadline approached...and went. I poured over the whereases and wherefores many, many times, the words of another attorney ringing in my head like the non-chalant rap of a knife-juggler: "it's really simple". This is never true, except for a lawyer. And it shouldn't be, considering the weight of responsibility inherent in legal documentation. (Legal matters, like knife juggling, should always come with a disclaimer: Don't try this at home. Consult a professional.)

Now, I'm not always a stupid guy and have done a lot writing and filing of business papers over the years. But there was enough confusion that my eyes continually lost focus and frosted over with a thick, waxy haze, while certain areas of my brain went black, and I would regain consciousness, wandering with hollow purposelessness down Clark Street muttering "zoo!" So I sought a lawyer. I just didn't know if I was doing it correctly. I didn't need much from her really, only the equivalent of a cheatsheet to crack the code and a tissue to wipe the wax from my corneas.

"All right" she said immediately, automatically, as I handed her my papers, "first, you need to do this, this, and this, plus file two other documents..." rattling off notes rapid-fire.

"Wait, pretend I'm stupid" I said, (well, I didn't really say that, she already was.) "Slow down and write those out for me."

"This is Law 101" she replied.

"Yes, and you went to law school, not me."

"True" she smiled.

"That's why I'm here. What I do I do well, like you."

Knowing my occupation--I had had to write it on many of the forms--she sighed, shook her head and said "yeah, I've a close friend who's an artist. She keeps explaining it, but I still don't know what 'negative space' means".

"At least you know the term 'negative space'."

"But, I just cannot wrap my head around it"

From this moment our conversation changed tone. We were talking now as one professional seeking advice from another. This doesn't happen much. Too often I'm treated as an outsider--usually fine with me--even though most of my work is mainstream. But this instance of respect was welcomed as it eased my anxiety. I'd even say became a very pleasant meeting, despite the subject at hand. She mentioned her knowledge of the design profession and I my experiences with lawyers and law students. I got my questions answered.

As we shared stories of "the other side" it immediately brought up memories of another encounter many years earlier. I was standing in line at a cafe with a young woman I worked with. On the wall next to us was a painting. Next to the painting was a price tag. The young woman squinted at the tag and exclaimed "two-hundred, seventy-five dollars! That's SO expensive!"

"Not really" I replied. In my opinion it was too expensive for this terrible piece, but generally not for a painting of it's size.

"That's incredible!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Art should be free! Given to the world like a gift to be appreciated!"

"So" I said, "an entire lifetime of skill, knowledge, education, talent and personal progress should be given away for nothing?"

She laughed, embarrassed. "Yes!" Then she confessed she never thought of it that way

To her art was in impulse borne on something intangible called "talent". The thought process behind art stopped at the 'idea' and spilled out into the world with unfettered action, the depths of its meaning to be divined after. Though this may be true for the rare few, and though artists often strive for that level of immediacy it is a deep injustice to believe that because you don't understand how art is created and how the artist's mind works, it is not of worth.

I'm not talking about the commoditization of art when I say 'worth' (though I believe artists should be able to make a living doing what they do.) I'm talking about the impression by too many that art is superfluous to basic living, too ruled by things that lack structure like desire and the subconscious.

This attitude is most alarming to me in the area of education. When school budgets are tight the first to be cut are classes in the arts. Seen as extracurricular, entire departments disappear. Art is deemed unnecessary. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Art--wether it's music, painting, dancing, theater, sculpture--is an essential language of our species. When we discuss the history of mankind, it is art that guides our knowledge and inquiry. Sculpture and drawing appeared at the dawn of man as a way to express the intangible, make sense of the real world, and create a bridge between thought, sensation and action. It is too simplistic to say that drawing and carving was the precursor to written language. Whatever it's purpose--fertility goddess, self-portrait of pregnancy, paleolithic pornography--the Venus of Willendorf was certainly not created solely of a lack of written language. It was meant to be held, not discussed. It was an expression unto itself.

At the highest level of thought is the highest level of artistic endeavor. The complexity of human life cannot be expressed well in balance sheets. It must be novelized, sung about, painted, banged out on the skin of a drum, needled into the skin of the arm, dramatized, carved out and made tangible. We create bridges between our thoughts, relationships and emotions through art. We make the slightest details of our world better through aesthetics. Anyone who scorns the 'creative' or 'artsy' should always remember that progress is fueled by creativity.

A good friend of mine has a better way of saying it: people don't realize we live in design. Everything we use, wear and dwell in has been made with aesthetic consideration, from modern loft space to military uniforms to street signs to books. In even the simplest cultures aesthetics are inseparable from practical considerations. Aesthetics give us cues to gender, political change, status, warn us against danger, provoke thought, examine the internal and external, change environment, describe God...

We cannot continue to cut budgets for arts education and expect a well rounded human experience. We cannot claim art to be a subculture. That would be false. We cannot dwell on the most narcissistic, or most over-payed as typical examples of the culture of art. That holds true for any industry. The appreciation of art is not pretension. Art relies on great skill, inutuition, thoughtfulness and experience. The professional artist is as valid a professional as any other. The nurturing of the arts in education is as essential as learning language.

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