Toni Basil in Bruce Conner’s “Breakaway” (1966)

Art and expectations

As synchronicity has it, a week before my Cal Art + Design class began, I had the sudden urge to visit SFMOMA for the first time in over a decade. I was excited to see some artists’ work up close and in person — Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Alexander Calder. I had no idea where anything was and had only a few hours to spend, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything. By chance, I got off the elevator on the 3rd floor and went ahead into the first exhibit I saw. It was for a multimedia artist named Bruce Conner, someone I had never heard of before. I ended up spending over an hour going through his entire exhibit; which was composed of drawings, assemblage, short films, sculptures, and photography. None of the art was conventional, easy to enjoy, or very pleasant to look at. But I was truly fascinated. I was especially taken with Toni Basil’s uninhibited dance in “Breakaway”, the decaying assemblages reminiscent of Miss Havisham, and the meticulous and esoteric inkblot drawings. It was hard to pull me away from the exhibit, and even now, months later, I can still recall many of his pieces with clarity, while I rarely think about the more famous artwork that I saw.

Coincidentally, Bruce Conner was one of the first artists we discussed in the class, and the way that his work unexpectedly moved me mirrored my experience with art during the rest of the semester.

Of all the things I’ve gotten out of this class, what I most took away from it is the way that my expectations of art affect the way I experience it. It is strange how some of my favorite memories from class came from ordinary moments and things I didn’t have high expectations for, while the things I was looking forward to occasionally ended up disappointing me. I realized that we don’t simply experience art in a bubble. We come into it with our own personalities, preferences, and expectations; and this affects our subjective experience of art. It is possibly this interaction of our own subjective experience with a piece of art that is most important — maybe moreso than the artist’s own intent.

The first piece of art we encountered in this class that affected me happened unexpectedly. I believe it was the first lecture of the class. No special guest speakers, just my professor giving an overview of California countercultures during the first week of class.

A female artist named Jay Defeo made a work called “The Rose”. It is the kind of bizarre piece that makes us ponder the questions, how exactly do we define art? Where is art allowed? Where do you draw the line between the process and the final product? The medium she uses is paint, but she uses it in an unconventional way; by carving away at layers and layers of it like a sculpture until it resembles a massive rose. She could have used clay or another sculpting material to sculpt a giant rose, but the effect in many ways would be lost. Clay is something that is made to be easily sculpted and exist in three dimensions — but the transformation of paint from a flat, two dimensional pigment to a sculpting material is what brings this piece of art its sense of wonder.

By using paint in a way that it’s not traditionally meant to be used, the rigorous process becomes just as important as the final product. The labor of laying down an 11-foot layer of paint, chipping away at it in a certain pattern, and continuing to lay down layer upon layer until it weighs an entire ton, and keeping this artwork in her home for years, brings a more personal connection between art and artist than I am used to seeing.

The repetitive action of adding a layer of paint while removing part of a layer opens questions of when the process of art ends and when it becomes a final product. Art in some ways could be infinite — there is always something more you could add. I wonder in a piece such as this what exactly caused her to feel that her piece was completed — did it reach a certain dimension of depth/thickness, did she get bored of it, did she have an intuitive feeling that it was time to be done?

Jay Defeo working on “The Rose” in her apartment

I had never found myself so intrigued by one simple piece of art before. I thought about this work for weeks after the lecture, and told the story of it to many of my friends. This is just one way in which the class surprised me — I didn’t expect to be so taken with something that was briefly covered in lecture. Other lectures surprised me in a more negative way.

Since I first read the syllabus, I was excited to see that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights in San Francisco and the publisher of one of my favorite poetry collections, Howl, was going to speak with our class. The day he was scheduled to be there had been a rough day for me. I overslept, missed my first lecture of the day, didn’t have time to go to the gym, was behind in my homework, and was contemplating skipping this lecture as well. But I remembered — Lawrence Ferlinghetti would be there! It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that I wouldn’t want to miss out on.

Now I’ll admit, although I know who Ferlinghetti is from his association with Allen Ginsberg, I wouldn’t be able to recognize his face. When I walked into the theater and saw an old man sitting there on the stage, I assumed that it must be Ferlinghetti. I made sure to get a front row seat. As class began and our professor announced that Ferlinghetti couldn’t make it, I could hear an audible gasp from the audience, who clearly also believed that this man sitting on the stage was Ferlinghetti himself.

This is not the man that was on the stage.

As disappointed as I was, I decided to withhold judgement and figured that this man might be the next best thing to Ferlinghetti. I was even more sorely disappointed. His poetry wasn’t bad, but it was very disjointed, unorganized, and difficult to decipher the meaning. He had a commanding, theatrical voice, but the purpose of his poetry was not easily conveyed aside from a few punch lines near the end of a poem that tended to ring loud and clear. I felt that to have someone who was so associated with the counterculture movement, we could have benefited a lot more from hearing his own personal stories and opinions, rather than having him read poem after poem to advertise his own work.

The hour and a half became more and more bizarre as he started to reference a philosophy of his called “schmoogadoo”, which later turned out to be his own term for marijuana. His ramblings about schmoogadoo were not insightful, and ended with a not particularly meaningful witticism of his, “I’m sure a lot of people here smoke schmoogadoo. But I want to emphasize the importance of moderation in everything… except for those things which you are most passionate about.”

Despite the odd ending to the Q&A session, this part was much more interesting than the previous hour of him reading and promoting his own poetry. I believe that, had we seen Ferlinghetti instead, we would have gotten more of these personal anecdotes and opinions, and less of him just reading his own work. I did wonder though, if our professors had told us that this was Ferlinghetti, how many of us would go along with it? Would I have enjoyed the experience more, simply because of who I believed the old man was?

So I guess you could say I felt disillusioned with the class at this point. It was midway through the semester, I was not having consistently mind-blowing revelations of art like I thought I would, and I didn’t end up seeing any incredible guest speakers that I could brag about to my friends and family. There was a dance performance coming up soon that we were required to see, and I decided to go into it with no expectations.

It was odd coming to Zellerbach Hall for such a performance, when merely days before, I had been dancing on that same stage myself — for a lip-syncing competition with my sorority. It was a strange experience to see something of such a different caliber happening in the same place where I stood (and danced). It was hard to comprehend the fact that it was the same space. The stage felt so small when I had been on it myself; but it seemed so large, grand, and otherworldly during this professional dance performance.

I had never heard of “dance theater” before, and was expecting to get bored without a storyline to follow like in traditional theater. I wasn’t even sure if I would stay for the entire show. I was quickly drawn into the first performance, however. The music had lyrics, which gave it somewhat of a narrative, but it was something suggested and felt rather than explicitly stated. The dancers’ facial expressions, gestures, and movements together were so striking and emotional that I felt it was expressing something common to the human experience. Although there wasn’t a plot per se, it suggested some sort of romantic quarrel, heartbreak, separation, longing. I felt absolutely entranced by it. I had never seen this kind of dance before, where the movements seemed so natural and intuitive to the dancers and like they were using their bodies to communicate. I’m used to viewing dance that looks very rehearsed and artificial.

Since the performance went late into the night, and I had a lot of other work to get done, I kept telling myself that I would leave after the next segment, and the next, but each performance captivated my interest enough to stick around a little longer. Before I knew it, I had stuck around for the whole show. I think the first piece felt the most emotionally resonant to me, and the last one was the least accessible (I didn’t like the archaic style of the outfits and couldn’t figure out what was going on exactly). I also enjoyed the short segment with the two girls dancing to Ella Fitzgerald scatting. Rather than having some sort of plot like the other pieces, they did something along the lines of scatting (or doodling) but with dance. Just playing around with their bodies to the rhythm of the music.

Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”

I liked how eclectic the performances were. There was a variety of styles, genres, even time periods. It was like a nice smorgasbord of dance theater for someone like me who knew nothing about it and would not have gone to see something like this on my own. Alvin Ailey won me over that night, and I may just go to something like this again in the future.

So in the end, what I learned most from this class, is that art should be something that opens you up, expands your mind, makes you curious, and resonates with you emotionally. It’s important to go into an artistic experience without your own expectations. Throughout the semester, the experiences that stuck with me the most are the ones that showed me something new, surprised me, and gave me a sense of wonder. The experiences I will forget are the ones that were too familiar, conventional, or that I went into with too many expectations. I believe that the same could be said of life experiences in general too.