Art, what is it?

Who knows? Nobody. The Woke are redefining gender, marriage, education, history, politics, manners. What counts as art these days is anybody’s guess.

The poet Phillip Larkin said, “The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”

When we value something, we want to save it, to protect it, to make it last. Thus, we protect our own lives, the lives of those we love, certain poems and paintings, certain photographs, and our children’s homework. Art is an object or a performance that defies time—even if it lasts only a minute or two, like a song or a tapdance.

I have just read Henriette Roosenburg’s memoir of her days as a prisoner of the Nazis, The Walls Came Tumbling Down. (Good used copies are available on ABE Books and Alibris.) Henriette and three other girls in the Dutch resistance were caught and condemned to death. But the bureaucrats screwed up and the girls weren’t executed. They were moved from prison to prison, and the paperwork never caught up with them. Freed by the Russians in Eastern Europe, they had no way to get home, and nobody to help. The four scarecrows often sang together. One of their favorites was “Show Me The way to Go Home.”

To preserve a record of their time in prison, Henriette (code name Zip) and the other girls cut squares from their underwear and collected strands of colored thread. Somehow they got hold of needles, and Zip embroidered her square with the name of each prison they passed through, her cell numbers, the dates, her friends names (in Morse), a gun, to show they could hear gunfire, and around edges of the square she embroidered the song title: “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going Until We’re There.” When she got home, she gave this to her mother, who declared while weeping with joy, that Henriette couldn’t have made it, because she never knew in which hand to hold the needle. My contention is that Zip’s embroidered square of underwear is a work of art. We have no aesethetic standards anymore. Consider Duchamp’s urinal, Hirst’s embalmed shark, Manzoni’s cans of excrement, or Judd’s philosophical boxes. Today’s art doesn’t have to be beautiful in a way that Renoir or Rembrandt understood that word. Art in our deconstructed, fragmented, godless age is whatever a person choses to save, protect, and return to. 

However, wealthy people who choose to save, protect, and return to urinals, dead sharks, tins of an artist’s shit, or painted boxes exist beyond the limits of my old fashioned imagination.

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