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June 2009

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. 

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