By Eric Bright
Vancouver is the city that hosts countless ugly sculptures and I am going to prove it to you in here.
I live in Vancouver since 2004. I love the city, the people, and the culture. The city is certainly not amongst the richest of cities in Canada. It is actually a poor city by many standards. The economy is terrible (has been terrible since I can remember), the businesses cannot survive their first two to three years of operation and close done left and right. The minimum wage is half as much as is needed to barely survive, and the city does not look healthy by the look of its tens of pan-handlers, beggars, wandering, mentally ill, homeless people, the Hastings’ front view, or any other measure you might want to take into account.
And yet, one more thing is also terribly wrong with the city: Vancouver has no sense of art, beauty, or elegance.
In part one of this article I am going to first explain what art and artistic expression are, the properties of a piece of art be it visual or auditory or otherwise, and how art is different from modern junk. Then in part two I am going to show you some statues and sculptures installed at different locations around the city of Vancouver that are supposed to be artistic but are not. This way you will clearly understand why I say Vancouver is the city of a thousand ugly sculptures and figures.
What is art? What is beauty?
Art is all in the mind of the beholder, right? Yes and no. If it was ALL in the mind of the beholder, then there wouldn’t have been any artist. Everyone would have counted as an artist to someone. But that is not true. Everyone is NOT an artist, simply because it is not true that everything counts as art.
But, what, then, counts as art?
That is a simple question that philosophers are ready to kill in order to make it appear as one of the most complex issues in the universe. Most of the talks around aesthetics is nonsense and we can safely dispose of them. There are only a few simple observations that tells the difference between what is art and what is junk.
The properties of an artistic piece
Symmetry rubs human cognition the right way. It is an evolutionary byproduct of our bodies. Humans’ subconscious gravitates towards symmetrical properties and features. The reason for why this is the case can be found in evolutionary biology books and I am not going to reproduce them in here.
Even when artists break the rules and make asymmetric presentations, still there is often hidden symmetrical elements that tie everything in the work together. Asymmetry in the form of random presentation of elements on a canvas or any other medium would not impress anyone. Randomness is lame and is such a state in which most things already are or are moving towards. Chaos is not eye catching, nor is it significant.
2. Globally recognized as art
I don’t care if a millionaire in Paris is willing to pay an arm and a leg to get his hands on Marcel Duchamp’ Fountain from the dada period in the history of art. Whatever he might say to justify any price tag for Fountain is nonsensical by default.
There is nothing artistic in this expression whatsoever. The movement itself, on the other hand, had important implications. But, that is all. The piece itself is not art. It is absolutely ugly. It is junk. It is repulsive.
The fact that if most people on earth see that piece of junk in a back alley, they would call it what it is, i.e. a piece of junk, is almost a universal. We can test this hypothesis and see what people would describe a piece of junk such as Fountain that is left next to a garbage bin in a back alley (given there is no label on it saying that it is art). It is a very easy experiment to perfom. Detach an object such as the one in the above picture, i.e. a urinal, from a public washroom. Then write a word or two on it, so it would look similar to the one in the image above. Leave it on the pavement of a street (forget about the garbage bin and back alley). Then take groups of randomly chosen males and females to the scene and ask them to describe the object in one or two words; an adjective maybe. Once you finished the survey, analyze the results and see how many called it a piece of art. As simple as that (then, if you wish, you can kindly report that back to me and I will add the statistics to this article and will give you the proper credits).
As you can imagine, there is a global consensus about the aesthetic values of objects when these values are not distorted by marketing and advertising. A piece of art would be called so by almost everyone, everywhere on this planet. The controversial pieces, however, would not. The reason is that because they do not look artistic to many.
3. Inspires the viewer
Fountain (pictured above) does not inspire me. It does not inspire anyone else either and this claim can also be simply put to test. The experiment would be very similar to the one I explained above, with a few changes to catch the inspirational values this time. So, before anything else, go out and do a field study. That is the only way you might have a chance to refute me. The best way to know how many teeth there are in women’s mouth is not to argue, but to open a woman’s mouth and count them.
Art, almost always, inspires the viewer. There are many reason why. Art inspires and causes envy or even a hidden jealousy. The viewer suddenly feels an urge to own the piece to posses it. The viewer suddenly feels that he or she wants it. His heart desires it, longs for it. Many ideas, images, questions, mysteries, challenges, and possibilities flood the mind of the viewer. New horizons open up before his or her mind’s eye. The world would never look the same after seeing that piece. The viewer wishes that he could do the same, create something as great and elegant, and at the same time he realizes that it is not easy.
4. Detailed, complex
The work of art is more difficult to reproduce than it might seem at first. The details are hard to duplicate even with a model before the eyes of the viewer. The viewer realizes that it takes more skill for one to create such a piece, that it cannot be done by just anyone, that the viewer himself probably needs to work hard to achieve the level of details represented in the piece, that it might even be impossible to achieve such an elegance, detail, or complexity.
Art does not have to be visual. Take music for instance. Start playing a piece composed by Vivaldi. It immediately proves to you that not only you are not the match to reproduce any piece of music as good, but also the majority of the population of the earth probably would not be able to match it, in a century either. It is not only the complexity of the piece that matters, but also how a similar work can be created with the same level of high quality. Humans can almost immediately evaluate such things: Can I do that? Hell, no! In a million year, no! It is so delicately interwoven that I cannot even imagine myself duplicate it in my life time (or even in ten times the length of my life) let alone to create something with the same quality, from scratch, all by myself. Hell, no!
That is what an artistic piece will induce in the viewer or the listener. It shows off in such a striking way that immediately knocks out any hope of rivalry in the mind of the viewer: “How could he make this?” one might start asking himself. It is because the viewers’ mind cannot even start to fathom how so much complexity and details could have been put together in a piece so masterfully.
“I cannot do that!” is the right expression when the viewer first encounters a piece of art. “It is masterful!” is another way of looking at it. The precision and proportions of a masterful piece of art is that it cannot be achieved by just anyone at will. This sets a masterpiece apart from a piece of junk. Anyone can make junk. How many people, however, can make Beethoven 9th symphony? You tell me. Most people can learn how to play simple pieces of melodies on a piano, but, you tell me, how many people do you know who can play the following piece?
Now, how many people do you know who can compose such a piece? You get the idea now.
6. Has been researched
This might not be so obvious at first but art, the way I am describing it in this article, cannot come without years of practice, research, and studying. Gaining needed skills is one thing, but in order for one to become an artist, merely having great skills is not enough. One needs to find novel ways of expressing himself. This latter element comes only after years of trial and errors. That is the only way to test ideas, to sort the bad ones from the good ones, and to discover the great ones. That is called research and development.
To create junk, one does not need to come up with genius ideas. Anyone can duplicate junk as soon as he sees it. A bit of persistence might be needed to get you through the pain of wasting your time at generating a junk piece of modern nonsense, but that is all what you need, plus a lot of mindlessness and self-righteousness. Anyone can cultivate these with or without a brain.
7. Harmony, dynamics
Most pieces of genuine art are harmonious, not only in the way they are put together, but also in the many ways they are embedded in their environment and context. Context is a big part of any piece of art. In some cases, context is what makes something artistic. The artist, the ones I am talking about in here anyway, are very well aware of what surrounds their work. He masterfully uses the environment he is making his art in into the canvas that carries his work. His canvas, therefore, is not limited to the medium in which the work materializes. It makes sense in the context of the environment of its presentation as much as in the medium of its presentation. They all go together masterfully. They match. They dance together. One, usually, is not easily separable from the other.
This is specially true about architecture, sculpture, large wall painting, architectural decorative elements, and many physical objects that can be seen and touched. Smaller paintings and those that are confined in a frame do the same thing within their confines. They are still harmonious nevertheless. They make sense in the frame they live in.
8. How closely something resembles reality or an idea
Not every artist follow a realistic perspective and not every piece of art is done in the spirit of realism. That is obvious. What is not obvious is that we, the beholders, the mind of human beings, work in a special way that is molded by evolution. This framework is usually what dictates what attracts it and what repulses it. This is not arbitrary in any way. Most of our humanly inclinations and aversions are rooted in our biology. It is not an accident that we find the faces that are proportionate and symmetrical way more attractive than those that are disproportionate and asymmetric. It is no accident that we find ourselves preferring more saturated colours over washed out ones. Some sounds makes us irritated whereas some others don’t. Younger women are a lot more sought after than older ones. Masculine males get more girls than puny ones. The list goes on and on. There are reasons why these patterns repeat and why we find ourselves choosing some properties over others. These properties are not random. They are very predictable. The reason is clearly discussed in evolutionary biology.
The topics in evolutionary biology are out of the scope of this article so I leave them to the reader to investigate the details in the relevant literature. The lesson I am going to use in here is that these evolved properties, affinities, aversions, attractions, and repulsions are there, deeply embedded in every single cell of our bodies. These also are the same factors that determine what we find pleasurable, desirable, and beautiful (or painful, undesirable, and ugly). These subjective feelings and emotions are very solid and have objective origins in our biology and environment.
This fact makes aesthetics objective. There is almost nothing arbitrary about what we, humans, find beautiful or ugly.
One of the things that strikes humans as attractive is an artifact that mimics real objects. The alleged “abstract art” is not detached from reality. For it to even be recognized as anything, let alone as art, it has to meaningfully interact with our physical being, with our nervous system, and our mind. This interaction is anything but abstract. If no pattern can be detected in a presentation, it is perceived as meaningless and random. Random is not seen as artistic by our species. That is a simple observation.
There is a simple test for this if you have any doubt. Turn on an old TV set without tuning to any channel and then look at the statics on the screen. When was the last time you heard anyone describing the statics on a TV screen as beautiful, inspiring, masterful, or desirable? That is as close as you can get to a readily available representation of a very random visual appearance. That is, I dare to say, ugly. Not because thing can be beautiful or ugly per se. There is no such things as beautiful or ugly aside from human interpretations of things. But, within our human realms, the TV statics is not perceived as beautiful. Not only that, but also it is perceived as annoying, irritating, and ugly. You never see anyone making a paining of pure TV statics and hang it on the wall of his living room.
The more distance an artifact gets from randomness, and the more it resembles the world as humans are usually capable of observing (physical things or meaningful ideas), the more appealing the artifacts get.
Resembling reality is not a necessary property of art, but when it is present, it certainly helps a lot.
9. Awe inspiring
When we put all of the above-mentioned properties together and distill them into an artifact, then the result would most probably be something that makes us pause and observe more attentively. The more we have each of these element, the more the artifact appears attractive to us. Then, when a certain level is reached, our feelings and emotions are stimulated so much that we find ourselves in awe with the artifact, the way it is produces, and the entity that has made it. It becomes awesome.
As a byproduct of artistic properties, being awe-inspiring is an inevitable part of any artistic work. Itself, it is not a property, but a sign. By no means it is sufficient to label anything as art, but truly artistic pieces of work all share invocation of awe in the viewers. Most junks are not awesome or awe inspiring, but most pieces of art are. We should not be surprised why. When we see an artifact that is made in such a way that reproducing it for us seems to be nearly impossible or magical, then we feel humbled and we feel awe by looking at the work (or by listening to it in the case of music). Even those of us who are artists and can produce pieces of art would feel the same when a novel idea is masterfully employed to produce a unique artifact. The artists actually are more sensitive to the nuances than regular observers and can get more pleasure by their exposure to masterfully crafted artifacts. They know what it takes to create such a work. Unless you are Mozart who might not be easily impressed by the performance of a Beethoven guy, we all get impressed by Beethovens of our times.
Is that all?
There is more to art than what I can describe under nine titles. But, the details, that fill up libraries with no visible walls in sight, are mainly immaterial to our perception of beauty. There are thousands of events that occur in our brains before we can perceive anything, and thousands more before we can call it beautiful. There are hundreds of artistic styles, paradigms, systems, and schools that each emphasize on different aspects of their subject matter. There are thousands of treaties and tens of philosophies that each claim to hold the key to the answer to this question: What is beauty?
One cannot claim to know all of these, not even a big part of this mountain of discussions, interpretations, and claims. However, time sieves out the ones that are significant and the ones that are so irrelevant and out of touch with reality that they are ignored altogether. Because of this, the relevant and alive part of this issue, i.e. what beauty and art is, is actually manageably big. It is, indeed, possible to read most of the relevant opinions and philosophies on topics of art and beauty that are up-to-date and relevant. Even this literature is large alright, but it is manageable. It can be studied by anyone who is interested.
When we search through the literature of the philosophy of art and demystify its language filled with jargons and mouthful terminologies, then we get to the point where we are faced with a few possibilities:
- Either there is absolutely no way to define beauty and art, and everything related to these are only personal interpretations, or
- There is absolutely nothing subjective about art and beauty and it can eventually be defined as mathematical formulae
- Or something in between
‘Something in between’ is usually the case with most of the things humans come to know. Biology plays a definite role in how we perceive things, what we take as beautiful, how that happens in our brains, and how our minds construct our realities based on the underlying physical world out of which we have emerged.
What is junk?
Most junks have the following characteristics in common:
- Chaos and randomness
- Lack of awe
- Something that can be accomplished by a 3 or 4 year old (in principle)
I am not going to explain every one of these items, because most of them are the opposites of what makes something a piece of art anyway.
The litmus test for sorting junk from art in here is item number six. A big chunk of what constitutes modern art, abstract art, and most of the postmodern artifacts can be generated by an average 3 or 4 years old child. As it happens, such artifacts, i.e. the ones created by a 4 years old child, is highly chaotic, very careless, thoughtless, almost entirely pointless, and invariably awful. There is no sense of harmony one can discern, very asymmetric, no precision, no details or almost certainly wrong details, and poor resemblance of reality or ideas. These, magically, fit incredibly well the description of many modern pieces of so called “art.”
We can safely take it for granted that if a similar artifact can theoretically be produced by a 3 or 4 years old child from scratch (not reproduced, but produced), then the artifact is most certainly junk and cannot count as a piece of art. Reproduction of art is a different issue in here because many average children might find it possible to reproduce a piece of music for instance. Reproducing someone else’s creation is not what I am concerned about in this article. Even I can play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. That does not make me an artist; not even close.
I am almost done with part one of this article. Now I can move on to part two. In part two I am going to mentioned a few examples of what a visitor might see in Vancouver as manifestations of art.