I've been thinking a lot lately about what the difference is between art and just a good idea (or bad idea, for that matter), especially since going down to the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C. a few weeks ago. One of the exhibits that sparked this internal discourse was Yoko Ono's Wish Tree. There, in the museum's sculpture garden, near Rodin's exquisite "Burghers of Calais," is a tree that has been planted ("installed"), to which people attach little notes describing what they wish for. A tree. That has been "installed." Which has tiny slips of paper all over its branches.
Still, I can't begrudge the fact that at least it's a tree, which is beneficial for the environment. And that wishes in and of themselves are not a bad thing. It may qualify as a piece of art, even within my own exacting perspective, since one of my definitions of art is something that people respond to. My daughter ran from the museum, across the street and back to the tree, when I told her she could post a wish if she wanted.
Harder for me, in trying to acknowledge what is art, is the museum's interior Panza Collection exhibit. This includes a whole wall of nothing but "REDUCED" painted on it and a large room in which a rectangular slab of white broken rocks is set out (the rocks are called"Carrara Line"—from 1985; I wonder how they manage to set it up exactly the same way each time since the rocks all look almost the same). It would all have an Emperor's New Clothes feeling to it except that I stood there in the large room and wondered how many homeless people could be sleeping in the space at night. It could have easily have held 20 or more cots, which would have been a worthier use of the space, in my opinion. All that heat and space and light for a bunch of rocks in the floor.
I really don't know why it is there. I'm sure an art expert could justify it to me and I might be, eventually, convinced that it is worthy of the space. But that would be after days and nights of talking on their part, given little sleep and little food, worn down finally by such an argument. Otherwise, I think I would remain pretty resistant and unswayed. Especially when I think of artists more deserving of the space, who aren't there only because they aren't known.
I don't think there's any way that Yoko Ono's Wish Tree would be standing in the garden if she hadn't married John Lennon. I know she was somewhat well known before she hooked up with John, but I'm thinking maybe she would have receded into some kind of thankful obscurity by now, save for her marriage to a famous man.
So how does a piece of writing or art become visible? Is it the loudest artist whose work gets known, and survives? Or, is it the artist who can hone his work down to one clear idea/theme/object, or who is best at self-promotion or has the most connections?
I am trying to hone down what it is that I do and want to do, but ideas keep popping up in my head and sometimes I let myself pursue them just a little; I abandon them only when reality calls me back—dirty dishes, things I do to make money, children who need attention. If I were Yoko Ono, I'm wondering if my collaborative blog on places people have lived would be thriving by now. Or Ullysses as a Seinfeld episode would have been produced by an experimental theatre.
As a joke, a long time ago, I created a character in my little magazine named Margarene Crisco. I described her hanging up laundry on a clothesline in cities all over the country as a feminist statement about women's oppression, which of course was also a rip-off of the more famous Christo hangings in wide-open spaces. Since then, I've read of several such clothesline art projects (to broadcast renewable energy, exhibit unmentionables, showcase the clothesline itself, etc.). Was my idea also "art," though it wasn't tactile, just a description?
I have a lot of writing in notebooks and on scraps of paper, tucked into boxes and file cabinets. I'm not sure, sometimes, what to bring out and put on display, what to spend my time on developing. Perhaps the successful artist also knows how to select and hone, how to find and concentrate on a few things, and has the assurance that this is what the world has been waiting for.