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There’s no such thing as art

July 2, 2016

I don’t have a whole lot to report on the book stuff (the proposal is mostly written, but I’m waiting for a couple more eggs to hatch before shopping it around, since the hatching of those eggs will dramatically affect the book’s commercial viability and thus its appeal to a potential agent or publisher), so I thought I’d write a little about how I’m approaching this subject. As usual, I’m not going to give away any of the book’s actual content, but I think it might still be useful to broadly explain part of my philosophy.

One of the things I’d like to convey with this book is what makes the Elephant 6 important, which is a little different from what makes it interesting, unique or influential (and I hope to convey all of those things, too). I’d like to write about that importance, but I’d also like for the ideas that make Elephant 6 important to also be implicit in the work. That is, I want to both show and tell this significance.

Of all the things that make Elephant 6 important to me and thousands of other people, their approach toward art stands out. It’s one of the most consistent unifying elements from band to band and person to person, and in my opinion, it’s the key to understanding their entire worldview. Typically, most people view art as a type of thing. It can include paintings and music and film and whatever else, and no two people are likely to have the exact same definition, to the extent that nobody can really define it. It’s a “know it when you see it” sort of thing for most people, and even within a given form, sound minds can disagree. Art doesn’t have to be a painting, not all paintings qualify as art, and every single viewer will draw the Is and Isn’t lines a little differently. It gets tricky.

The key to understanding art, especially art created in the last hundred years, is context. The circumstances from which a work arises are as crucial to its meaning as the work itself. One of the most illustrative examples of this is Marcel Duchamp’s iconic 1917 work Fountain. 

Fountain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fountain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The origin of the piece is the subject of debate, but the basic idea is: there’s a urinal sitting in a museum. The fact that it’s in a gallery as opposed to a men’s room subjects it to a different approach from the viewer. In a different context, the viewer will inevitably regard it differently and draw from it a different meaning, in the same way that someone might stop and consider a painting in a gallery when he wouldn’t stop for a second look if the same painting were hanging in a hotel room. Since the very submission of Fountain, people have argued over whether or not the piece itself or even the gesture of putting it in a gallery is “art.” My suggestion is that the very premise of the question “Is it art?”—here and whenever it’s asked—misses the point entirely.

The piece itself undergoes no transformation whether it’s in a bathroom or an art gallery or anywhere else. Physically, neither does the viewer. What changes is the viewer’s framework for consuming the piece. The lesson I get from Fountain is that context is important, but the logical extension of this lesson is that you can view absolutely anything as art. A given thing—regardless of what it is, where it is, or who made it (if anybody!)—cannot rigidly be “art” (likewise for the inverse). It is a choice the viewer makes. On a case-by-case basis, the viewer decides to regard a thing as art or not, and she usually does so subconsciously based on cues she’s not even really thinking about.

But what if you lived your whole life like this? What if, instead of just viewing explicitly “artistic” works as art, you viewed everything through that lens? What if you looked for beauty and wisdom in not just paintings and music but also kitchen appliances, household chores, and conflicts with a neighbor?

This is, broadly, how the sharpest minds of the Elephant 6 seem to go about their days. In a time of great cynicism and negativity, it’s a radical decision to look at the world aesthetically and optimistically. To make music from non-musical objects, or to prefer the sounds and character of someone’s bedroom to a studio, or to conceptualize an entire album around the genocidal murder of a teenage girl. It’s obvious from their work that this is how the Elephant 6 operates, and it becomes even more apparent when you spend time with these people. This is how they see the world.

And this is how I am trying to tell their story, to find beauty not just in the things they made but in the lives they live. My book is a narrative work, not a critical one, so it’s not a matter of judging any of it. Nor is it a matter of burying anything negative and mentioning only the fun stuff. It just means that I’m viewing their community (and all of the things that emerged from it, including music but also pot lucks and Orange Twin and everything else) the same way I’d view something hanging in a gallery.

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