I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.
On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.
And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”
As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.