The Cup Exercise

Like many people, I have a coffee cup collection—rather had a coffee cup collection. It was not a conscious collection; I didn’t scour shops for the correct cup to add to my assortment. Instead, it sort of built itself over time: a gift here, a souvenir there, a gimme at a conference. Probably it was much like your collection. But recently, I decided I really needed the cabinet space other uses. Since cups hardly ever lose their utility, I decided to give them away, and as I pulled them off the shelf I tried to think about who, if anyone, might find a particular cup interesting or engaging.

Most of the cups were dated or lacking in potential appeal to my target group of recipients. As I took down one cup, however, I immediately thought, “This belongs to Freddie.” The cup is white porcelain with an enameled rainbow wrapped around it. The rainbow ends in cup-colored bricks with no fill colors. Beside the unfinished structure is a little sign that says “Under Construction.” Why the immediate connection? Freddie (not her real name, of course) is a young, very talented, multi-disciplined artist, who day-by-day is building her future in art—and who also happens to be transsexual. The cup, over 30 years old, was originally an idealistic statement about building a beautiful future. It still is, but because the rainbow now has additional connotations, it has acquired an overlay that both enlarges and modifies that meaning.

The larger thought that came from this exercise is about how art stands up through time, or doesn’t, or, as in the case of this cup, takes on different meaning. It’s worth thinking about, because art, good art, lasts. Good art, while it decidedly speaks to its immediate audience, continues to speak through time.

This is the reason that we make pilgrimages to see the Pietà, or Starry Night, or any number of other works. It’s why we marvel at the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, not because he was able to do such excellent work with such primitive equipment (although that too), but because his images still speak to us. It’s the reason that we keep coming back to stare at The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Ongoing appeal is certainly not limited to visual and plastic arts; we find it in performing arts as well.  It’s the reason that Jean Anouilh was able to make the story of Antigone have a special significance for the people of occupied France in 1944. (Why the Nazis didn’t pick up on it is completely beyond me—it’s not all that subtle.) And it’s why theatre companies continue to produce the plays of Shakespeare—in a variety of settings, time periods, and styles. Aside from amazing language, the stories and characters speak to people of all times.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the appeal of any of these will continue, but I suspect that it will. And that is because these works exemplify the epitome of artistry and because they continue to touch on issues important to humans and the human condition. Whether an artist can set out to create art that does that and be successful at it is open to discussion, but I doubt it. Those attempts usually come off as abstract and not very engaging. Instead of trying to make “art for the ages,” we should, like all of the artists mentioned above, focus on making the best art we can, very specific art that will speak to our own time and culture.

Some of it may live on.

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Date: Sunday, 11. August 2013 23:09
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Communication, Creativity

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