A Food for Thought Post:
I started a professorship this fall, so I’ve had little spare time in the last two months. But as I’ve been keeping my antennae tuned for the perfect topic to resume my reflections here at ArtVoc, I came across the mural above at Gizmodo. Eureka.
Where to begin? In a sense, the piece produces a certain kitschy titillation, similar to the effect of work like this. Giant cats shooting laser beams from their eyes into a cityscape — this seems to be a piece made for the Meme Age. But like all cheap titillation, like all things aimed at more at stimulation (as opposed to another goal from which stimulation is a natural effect), the effect is short lived — the climax comes quickly, and is utterly unsatisfying.
In short, experiencing works like this in the form of an Internet meme is the artistic equivalent of an anonymous, dorm-room hookup. You might tell your friends about it, they might think “Dude!”, but soon, you’ll forget it, and later, you’ll probably regret it.
Of course, how we experience this piece, even here on this blog, is terribly unfair to the artist. Charity demands we assume he did not intend his work to be viewed on blog screens but on a street. And in this way, it is more difficult to discuss the work if we are not there on the street to see how the work folds into its context. This is something I think is important in all art, but especially important in street murals. Equally relevant to murals is, I believe, Roger Scruton’s point about architecture (from Beauty):
“Ravishing beauties are less important in the aesthetics of architecture than things that fit appropriately together, creating a soothing and harmonious context, a continuous narrative as in a street or a square, where nothing stands out in particular, and good manners prevail.”
Taking this as our guide to understanding the mural above, we should first be wondering what positively wonderful (frighteningly abhorrent?) architectural context would have to exist for this mural not to draw attention to itself, for it to weave itself into a consistent, architectural narrative. One could imagine such a square or street, but I don’t know that I’d want to live or work on such a square or street. Perhaps I’d like to play there. Perhaps.
But I doubt the street on which this mural appears shares its aesthetic. The context for this piece looks to be an old theatre (possibly abandoned?) making this, presumably, a work designed to “spruce up” a neighborhood, or to distract from what is there, or perhaps a way to put a building to a new use — not as a functional and formal contribution to a particular neighborhood-civilization, but as an empty palate for some artist to play, to create an image without regard to its harmony to what is currently there, as if individual expression itself contributes meaningfully to context apart from any consideration of context.
Oh well. I haven’t found much information about this piece and so can’t exactly say what the truth of the matter is (it seems to be a part of this initiative in San Francisco). But here are some possible takes on the piece.
I said above that this piece seems made for the Meme Age. And unless the mural is rolled into an architecture context of similar aesthetic, I cannot see anything here that convinces me this piece not only seems to be made for the Meme Age, but is certainly from and for the Meme Age. It is a piece made to be forgotten. It is transient, made to be forwarded as a part of a “Sweet, huh?” email chain. It is a spectacle enough to titillate, but not enough to contribute to or manifest the cultural development of any neighborhood I can imagine. It is not a part of its civilization, but an invader of sorts. It is feral art, taking up residence in a context, the rules of which it ignores.
Perhaps Feral Art, Meme Art, is one effect of the shrinking attention spans. Give me something that excites for a moment, but requires no further attention. And when you do, give it to me in the City Square of my email inbox or the Alleys of my Twitter feed. This is, after all, where I experience my civilization.
There is another interpretive possibility, one that gives the artist the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we are to take it (as most modern art expects to be interpreted) as ironic. Its name might be “Meme Kitsch Destroys the City, Center of Culture.” Seen this way, perhaps the piece is very helpful indeed, if only in that it announces its own apocalyptic aesthetic.
But on the other hand: it’s Giant Laser Cats Attacking a City.