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Chapter 3: Art is a temporary condition

MilenkocroppedThe traditional Balinese had no word for art because doing something poorly was not an option: every task was completed with the care and excellence we demand from our art.  As we explore the role of the arts, cultural policies and funding, we often leave out this very basic notion: all things deserve to be done well.  Whatever else art may mean to different people, at its core is the notion that human acts can be elegant in their expression, beautiful in form, resonant in relationship to people, materials, and community, and magical in their capacity to connect the part to the whole, whether that part is a brushstroke in a painting, a word in a poem, a piece of stone in a wall, or a single note in a concert. In art, small, attentive steps combine to make an excellent whole.  The process and end result are inseparable; integrity in each step leads to good work.

Because it is simpler to do this work in small doses rather than throughout our entire lives, we humans invented art to remind us how our lives should be.  And soon afterwards, we started to forget that art is about everything and made it into something separate and special.  We pointed at something and called it art, and in the same moment, without saying it, we relegated the rest to not-art.  What was originally meant to roam free, to be a part of everything, was now set apart.  We accepted the notion that while art is exceptional; the rest of the world is not and can therefore become polluted and ugly, violent and wasteful.  So, slowly, art has become a collective counterpoint to the madness of a modern world that glorifies planned obsolescence.  The uglier our doings, the more we repent by putting up another art museum or pubic art project.  (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” “Build a small museum and three public artworks.  Do public art every year. Repeat the museum bit every twenty years. Your sins shall be forgiven.”)  Museums—our artistic zoos—will preserve valuable artifacts done with utmost care, but they will not replace what we are destroying through our careless everyday activities.

These were the thoughts that were running through my mind in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a young avant-garde artist in my native Slovenia, a member of a now quite famous (in Slovenia, at least) group OHO.  We involved many non-artists in our works, asking them to contribute their own creativity.  Our projects were often enacted in public places and in natural landscapes.  Documentations of the events were exhibited in galleries and museums, at first throughout Yugoslavia (Slovenia was then a republic), and later on in other countries.  In 1970, I was one of two members of our group to travel to the USA on the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where we presented in the international Information Show.  I had a chance to meet well known American artists and inquired about their work and success. That experience both inspired and vaccinated me from following the established artist’s path to success.   I was inspired by the grand schemes of artists like Christo who was planning monumental installations and selling numerous drawings and sketches to finance the plan.  I made friends with Walter de Maria who filled a valley in the Southwest with hundreds of metal rods to attract lightning.  The sheer audacity of their projects was impressive, as was their business savvy.  I liked them very much and was initially inclined to follow their path.  What vaccinated me, however, was a growing suspicion that that path would take me away from my deeper desire to push art into life. 

My OHO friends shared similar concerns.  In 1971, we came to a decision to bring our official OHO business to an end and explore individual next steps.  I eventually found myself in the United States, married to my wonderful American wife Kathi with two daughters, and in 1986, 25 years after OHO and after much exploration and learning, I created Pomegranate Center, a non-profit, to test if artists could indeed become more useful to communities.  Now, 22 years later, Pomegranate Center has had some remarkable successes, seeing neighborhoods transformed permanently as a result of our intervention.  Our work is beginning to receive recognition from people working in community development, sustainability and parks.  Recently, we even received an award for our groundbreaking collaborative project in Walla Walla in Washington State.  In the cultural and artistic arena, however, Pomegranate Center is looked at with suspicion.  This is driven home when I get calls to exhibit my OHO-period works in various museums.  I always make it a point to mention my current work with Pomegranate Center.  When the museums hear of the community focus of my current work, their interest vanishes completely.  This, most likely, is due to their understanding that art is about individual genius at work, and their system is set up to celebrate this and only this trajectory.  Participatory community work simply doesn’t fit in that cosmology.

I am grateful for my early years with the OHO group. I am amazed by the continued interest in that history.  But, as I look back, I see an artistic big bang shaping what we did.  The original art-making, the aim of which was to hold the world together, came to an end; it exploded, and artists attached themselves to particular waves created by this big bang.  Success consisted of being the first to catch the wave, and for those fortunate ones who did, prestige came for a short time, until they were displaced by other surfers with a newer, improved board and new tricks, a new wave.  So occupied, we all failed to notice that the waves carried us further and further away from the center.

High art will never disappear. It must do its work to push boundaries, surf new waves, and teach us of new ways of being.  But it can not be the only art and this is what those museums that tune out at the word “community” fail to realize.  I made the decision 45 years ago to try to go the other way back to the center.  This change in direction mandated that I engage in a more participatory and co-creative work that aims for the magical reconnections.  After decades of trying, I have some insights but also a sense that the learning is just beginning, that I am a small boy in a kindergarten learning how to redirect art.  Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  In spite of the bruises, I persist with the notion that in the future we must create communities and cities that are themselves works of art, rather than being satisfied with ugly and wasteful communities with token artworks that show our repentance, asking absolution for our sins. In this future, like the traditional Balinese people, we may have fewer cultural institutions because artistic quality will be expected of everyone and deposited, with care, into more and more things until everything is art. Excellence will be the norm.

Milenko Matanovic
May 31, 2009
Issaquah, WA

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