EXPERIENCE IS NOT ART
What, then, is art?
Once the highlight of recess, slides typically lose their appeal by middle school. The metal or plastic shoots that propel children downward frequently cause static shock and splinters. Eventually we are too old or too large to consider the experience worth repeating. That is, unless you work at Google.
Google has adult-sized slides running between floors of their offices. Experiencing a slide in this office context, normally reserved for computers and meetings, can make slides exciting again. Similar interest was generated byCarsten Holler’s exhibition “Experience,” also a slide, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (2011). The experience isn’t so much the slide itself as it is the excitement of sliding in a space normally resolved for reverence and white walls adorned with works of historical importance. While I understand the appeal of going down a slide in an art museum, I am not the only one who has misgivings about classifying the experience as “art.”
Slide at The New Museum, New York
In August, The New York Times Sunday Review contained a cover story entitled “High Culture Goes Hands-On: Visitor Engagement and Participation are Changing the Nature of Museums. And Not Always in Good Ways.” The article described the trend of art museums putting more time, money, and space into experience-driven exhibits such as the The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Big Bambu” (2010), which was essentially a tree house. Judith H. Dobrzynski, the author, argued that this trend is not good for art particularly due to its disregard of the contemplative.
While large institutional support of “experience art” is relatively new, it has a foundation in the Happenings movement of the late 1950s. Happenings were performances in which the audience drove aspects of the performance. For example, audiences would experience and interact with a band playing toy instruments or a woman squeezing an orange. In one famous Happening by Allan Kaprow, the performance started when the artist brought the audience into a room full of ice cubes and didn’t end until all the ice cubes had been melted through touch and time. Compared to the experience art of today, The Happenings aimed to create a temporal, irreproducible experience.
The Fluxus movement followed the tradition of experience-based art through the 1960s into the 1980s. The Fluxus goal was to circumvent museums and the commercial art world by essentially ending art as people had come to know it. George Maciunas suggested accomplishing this goal by making life and art indistinguishable. The Fluxus believed in elevating life into art as opposed to sticking life into an art museum. To the followers of Fluxus, going down any old slide would do just fine.
While there is an interesting historical tradition of “experience art” at the heart of these movements, the idea that experience art should be irreproducible and non-institutional has been lost. The experience exhibits we see today are deeply institutional, controlled, recorded, and documented in ways that past movements rebelled against. It seems, then, that the demand for contemporary experience-based art stems more from our culture’s addiction to experience—Grouper dates, Chuck E. Cheese, Tough Mudders—than from a connection to past art movements.
As a longtime runner, I have noticed the pursuit of experience infiltrating the culture of running. Races have turned into chances to get to profile pictures, opportunities to throw colored powder, the chance to manufacture the intensity lacking in our daily lives by climbing over walls and jumping into ice pits. Races, like art, have become about experience. While it is true that the increase in physical activity is good for our health, it also means that companies are making boatloads of money by marketing something that used to be mostly free.
I believe that art should be a reflection of culture, and that at this moment our culture is being driven by the packaging of experience-as-a-product. If experience art is what our culture craves and is what best reflects our collective desires, then why am I, as an artist, reluctant to make this kind of art? Why am I increasingly drawn to the opposite approach, to making my own oil paint and improving my craft as it is traditionally defined? Perhaps it is because I cannot shake the feeling that art is fundamentally different from experience.
To me, art has always been about the “otherness” of the world. Art is enriching to our lives because through great art we gain a way of seeing the world that is not our own, that which by definition we could not have understood through our own direct experience. Art is the gift of experiences that we ourselves could not have had directly. Through “Starry Night” we get to know the world as Van Gogh knew it, and in that experience we are extended beyond the constraints of our own way of looking.
To claim that all personal experience is art is to imply that everyone’s processing of experience is equally rich. I too have stopped by woods on a snowy evening, but did not experience it in the same way Robert Frost did. My own having been there was not the ultimate. Had Frost simply said “There is a snowy wood over there, go check it out for yourself,” some people may have gone, only to be left confused and cold. Instead, Frost sat down and transformed his experience into art. He labored, and in his labor added meaning to his experience and turned it into art: the only form via which one’s experience can be successfully transferred to another. As another example, a struggle with addiction is not “art” in and of itself, but it was translated into art when David Foster Wallace wrote about it. Edvard Munch created paintings inspired by personal anxiety that we ourselves did not have to suffer, and in doing so he allowed us to feel, if only obliquely, what he experienced. Through art, literature and music the experience of artists becomes our own, a part of ourselves from which we can generate a sense of “newness.”
While art is the gift of others’ experiences, experience as a product fails to add to human language. This is why the highly manufactured genre of “experience art” inevitably lets us down. Thus far no poet has described love as like being in a room of purple balloons in a large institution. What is the point, ultimately, if our experiences come in vacuums and cannot be added to the language of life?
I have started to imagine my brain as a cocktail party attended by the authors I have read and the artists I have seen. Even the lovely gentleman who wrote my Programming in Java textbook from college is in attendance. Some of the guests have arrived, but most of them haven’t had enough to drink yet. They sit on velvety chairs, not just the authors of books but also the characters they have brought to life. Gradually, some of them begin to talk. Their voices and brush strokes merge and become one with my artwork and my writing. By creating and sharing their art, they have made their experiences my own. The invitation list, the unique combination of people at your brain’s cocktail party, ensure that your art is unique. Everything you create emerges from the conversations that just now are starting in your brain between Edvard Munch and Tim Keller, between Patti Smith and Jonathan Franzen, or whoever you have read, seen, and studied. These conversations, these connections, are important. They are the culmination of self; they constitute uniqueness. They are why art will always be new. As culture evolves more figures and images are added to our lineage, and as creators, what and how we create is impacted by their presence. We are the only generation of creators to have known both Picasso and David Foster Wallace.
When I approach a canvas I cannot help but be influenced and inspired by all the experiences I have been gifted through the art of others. This is the point of art, and it is why experience alone is not art. The byproduct of art is an experience that requires us to create something new from it, whether a painting, a novel, a real-life relationship, a career, a life. At Google, the slides are a symbol of a company culture dedicated to creation. Employees ride the slide and then return to their desks where they are busy creating self-driving cars and enabling universal translation. At the New Museum, attendees reaches the bottom of the slide only to exit through the gift shop.
Gretchen Andrus is an American artist living in London.