ART IS WHAT WE MAKE IT: take sides, people

(Evan Karp)

It was 2pm on the sunny day of the opening night of Litquake XII and instead of working ahead to meet deadlines I took my advance copy of Josh Mohr‘s Damascus [out this Tuesday] and Roberto Bolaño’s  The Savage Detectives into Precita Park. This time of year is my New Years, after all, and I wanted some time to myself. I don’t do this often; I don’t have a job, and haven’t for the 2.25 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. Despite that, I don’t take advantage of what might be considered “free time.”

I came across this passage from The Savage Detectives:

I would show him my paintings and he would say fantastic, I love them, that kind of thing. I’ve always found that oppressive. I know he meant what he said, but still, I felt oppressed. Then he would be quiet, smoking, and I would make tea or coffee or bring out a bottle of whiskey. I don’t know, I don’t know, I would think, I might be doing something right, I might be onto something. … The truth is that one day it was all over and I took a look around me. I stopped buying so many magazines and newspapers. I stopped having shows. I started to teach my drawing classes at the high school with humility and seriousness and even (although I don’t make a big deal about it) a sense of humor. Arturo had disappeared from our lives long ago.

Essentially, for those who haven’t read this book, a couple of poets start a new literary movement amongst their friends and roam South America and other parts of the world in search of anyone who might know more information about an obscure poet upon whose legend they have largely based their movement, unheard-of or otherwise disrespected. The effects they have on the many people they interact with range from adoration to denouncement; told mostly in a series of encounters with the two (or one of the) poets, The Savage Detectives is a sprawling debate about the genesis and function of art.

In the passage above, we see one clear example that runs through many of the ‘narrators:’ the effect of their encounters was—if nothing else—an increase in the conversation about the meaning of art. Is their movement a revolution? Is it a legitimate form of art?

I argue that art is what we make it, only as meaningful as we make it. The generations after us will pay attention—on some very real level—to the degree that we pay attention; they will engage with art to some extent in reaction to how we engage. This is true of the people we come into contact with, too. The poets who go around saying “fantastic, I love them, that kind of thing” encourage people to take themselves and their creative works more seriously.

Is there anything more valuable than this? I have a really hard time declaring any of my time ‘free,’ at least in the conventional sense. As Nietzsche says: “Free from what? What does that matter to Zarathustra! But your fiery eyes should tell me: free for what?”

Free to spend my time engaged in self- and communal improvement. I think it’s rather important you know about Josh Mohr’s novel.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a part in Damascus when an art installation has been completed with the participation of a live audience. The installation involves the nailing of live fish to wooden boards beside illustrations of soldiers who died during the Iraq War. Syl is the artist.

“Let me remind you of something,” Syl said. “This isn’t the art show. The show hasn’t started yet. You all are a part of its genesis. The show starts once the fish begin to decompose. It starts once this room stinks so much of death that you can’t think of anything else except mortality. There’s nothing in your mind but the fact that twelve people hanging here all died because of that one single lie. All these massacres in the name of oil. “You,” Syl said, and pointed at a young woman, “you’re next.”

One by one, the public helped Syl nail a dozen fish to the wall—one for each portrait. Read it! But after the bar closes, Syl remains with a couple of friends.

“Art should stir shit,” he said.


“Once it does, then people can take their side. Art should be an accusation. That’s what it’s all about.”