Metacritique 2: Anomalous Art
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by Carlos R. Kalinin, Site Member

2. Anomalous Art

We've all seen it happen. A writer pitches an idea involving some sort of anomalous form of artistic expression. The various details get worked out as they do, and the time comes to really flesh out the concept. At some point in this process, the question inevitably comes up: Are We Cool Yet? The question that launches a thousand rage-face reactions each time it's asked. Is my art skip going to be affiliated with AWCY? or is it not? Almost every time I see an article touching on some sort of art-related subject, this comes up.

This edition of wiki-haranguing isn't concerned with the specific issue of AWCY?. That's a spiked-bat and brass knuckles discussion for another time. Instead, I'd like to address the attitude we have in general to art as a subject for our writing. Every single person who contributes to the wiki is an artist, whether they want that label or not. Yet when it comes to depictions of artistic expression, we seem to have a default vision of a pretentious hipster unveiling a magical version of Piss Christ that shoots sharks at people or whatever.

Is it cool yet, or is it not? A limiting premise and the wrong question entirely. The time has come to expand our horizons a bit on this subject.

What is art? Before we touch on the specific nature of anomalous art, some ground rules for what, exactly, art is could be useful to establish.

Without resorting to the dreary skulduggery of dueling dictionary definitions, I thought I would start with how I interpret art. To me, art has several defining characteristics:

  • It contains a measure of the person making the art - An artwork has a piece of its creator in it. This influence may not always be obvious, or even detectable to most eyes, in some cases. But in creating a work of art, a person is conducting themselves in a certain style, making observations and statements in a way that only they can. No two people are exactly identical; it follows then that no two artworks are exactly identical1. This is why humanity has managed to create art for thousands of years, and will continue to make art for thousands of years, without running out of ideas. Even in describing the same exact event, two people can provide at least two radically different descriptions and any number of opposing conclusions to be drawn from it.
  • It is intended to influence the audience in some way - This presupposes that there is an audience for a piece. Many authors claim to write only for themselves, which has always seemed odd to me when they then share that writing with others. To me, the sharing of personal experiences and viewpoints is essential to the artistic endeavor. It is the raison d’être of the thing. To varying degrees of personal nature, when you write, you are saying to the reader "here is something worth stopping your life and considering; here is what is important, here are the things that I have felt that I want to inspire in you."
  • It is different than ordinary persuasion - What makes the above description different than a campaign ad plastered on the side of a bus? Art is not precluded from attempting to lead the audience in a specific direction of contemporary importance (though I find that more often than not this tends to detract from pieces). But, unlike a piece of propaganda or an advertisement, art is not required to lead its audience in a specific direction. The sharing of the experience of the artist, in most cases, is enough, and this lack of forced direction tends to be a hallmark of the most affecting pieces. An example of this that comes to mind is All Quiet on the Western Front. While the book and the film had a clear agenda in showing the world the brutality of modern warfare, in the end, whether or not Erich Maria Remarque hated the idea of war is of secondary importance to the work's immediate effect on the reader. This was no essay lecturing someone on the pros and cons of the situation; this was something that stopped the reader in their tracks and made them experience the lives of the doomed protagonists in conditions of horrifying violence and despair. This is art.
  • It is anything of a creative nature - There is in some quarters a large divide between the "visual" arts and everything else. This divide manifests itself in the tendency of readers, here and elsewhere, to immediately think of painters when they think of artists. And indeed, there is a tendency in the works of the wiki to characterize works of anomalous art as paintings, sculptures, murals and other things immediately recognizable as "art." But in my reckoning, anything that can induce the shared viewpoint and the repeated experience in an audience can lay claim to the title of "art." Writing, performance, music. Storytelling, symbolic acts, lifestyles. These can all be counted as acts of artistic endeavor.

The boundaries of what contains art are fuzzy and shifting, and you will surely disagree with some of the points above, and you won't be wrong. But those boundaries are far more expansive than we treat them in our writing here, and that leads to my next point.

The potential of anomalous art is limitless. I have always found the juncture between the fantastic and the artistic that exists on this site to be fascinating. In the works of the SCP Foundation, the laws of reality need not apply. It is a hallmark of our shared creative space. Art, in some manners, is an exploration of reality, giving the audience a piece of a private realm of existence that they would not have otherwise encountered, hemmed in by the walls of self. This state of reality and being is the nexus for a powerful interaction that our site makes possible.

Just imagine the things that artists could do if the strictures of what is possible are completely lifted. What if Michelangelo were not bound by the practical limitations of the dimensions and accessibility of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? What kind of journey could a Kiowa shaman provide if he had something more powerful than mere peyote to dispense? What wonders could the pharaohs have commanded if the laws of physics were optional? What kind of experience awaits the audience of a Noh school that has adapted its structure beyond the ordinary costuming and staging limitations of consensus reality?

Every time I conceptualize an idea for depicting an anomalous artwork, I stop and consider. What vision can an artist have that is so great that it must transcend the hard limits of reality? What must that artist do to adequately convey the fullness of their piece? What is it that they have to show us, that the universe must bow to their work, rather than the other way around?

Think of every time you have seen a work of art that just floored you. Completely changed your outlook about something, made you re-examine how you saw the world, kept you up at night turning it over in your mind. Think about something that could go far beyond that. The untouched frontiers of all the possible thoughts and emotions that could be reached with such tools as we can imagine.

Overly grandiose? Probably. Not everything is the pinnacle of human achievement. But the possibilities of anomalous artwork are staggering.

Not every artist is an obnoxious poseur. In fact, most aren't. The expansive possibilities of what constitutes art dictate that, on some level or another, most people can be considered artists. Even among professional artists, the vast majority are spread out through different disciplines, countries, languages, purpose, experience, and every other variable you can think of. There are as many types of artist as there are types of people. So when someone writes the latest in a neverending parade of lip-pierced trustafarians, whose idea of artistic merit is a meaningless assortment of random imagery that when you look it at right says "YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME MAAAAN," I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, we're overepresenting a pretty small portion of this particular community.

Of course some people would use anomalous means to act like a fuckwit or create works of dubious merit. People are people, and will use the latest means available to them to create trash or just generally be annoying. And if the point of your article is to showcase these kinds of individuals, then I guess there's a reason to write about such people. More often than not, however, the ultimate effect of writing such an article is "wow, guys like this sure are annoying, huh?" Which, yeah, I guess. But I knew that already.

One of the main factors that contributes to this kind of depiction is the stereotype of "modern art" (in its definition of being anything made recently and shown in a museum, which tends to serve as the default in most cases) being inherently random and meaningless. This interpretation of art and what some consider to be the artistic temperament lead to mental images of the usual perpetrators of such pieces, namely annoying douchebags knocking around in a trendy part of a major city somewhere. Again, if we are properly expansive in our considerations of what constitutes art, then we are not limited to this narrow trope.

Don't be afraid to depict art that says something meaningful. So many times, I have read pieces from authors that went out of their way to have the art in the story be stupid and meaningless. I think I've addressed my issues with these kinds of stories. But in other cases, I've gotten the rebuttal that "well, the art is supposed to not really make sense" or "the message is supposed to be silly and puerile" when I have criticized the intent of the art appearing in these stories.

I've long suspected that "well yeah the artists making the piece don't really have much to actually say" is a defense from having to acknowledge the message of an anomalous art piece, or even the presence of an overt message at all. The writer distancing themselves coyly from the story itself is a long, long, loooooong tradition, so I can't really blame people that much from resorting to it.

I wish for two things related to this point. I would like it if writers spent more time working on depicting the motivation for the anomalous art that they are describing. What is moving the artist to transcend reality? Why is it necessary for them to go these lengths? What reaction are they truly seeking? These are questions that interest me about art; the same goes for the art-within-art that is an article about an anomalous piece.

I would also like it if authors gave a little more purpose to the artists in their works. I understand that it's much easier to be silly or humorous when it comes to writing things. If it goes wrong or it gets picked apart, it's very easy to save face and be able to say "oh, I didn't mean it anyway," "I wasn't being serious," or "well yes, it wasn't supposed to make sense." The temptation to shield oneself with these rationales is hard to resist. But I would like to see more people resist that temptation. If the people in your story have something important to say (and, by varying degrees, you yourself through your characters), own that message. Flesh it out. Make me believe that someone learned how to be a goddamn wizard from scratch simply because their artistic vision demanded it. It may not always work out, but I always respect ambition. Sincerity counts for a lot.

This isn't to say that everything needs to be Serious Cat-approved before it's deemed suitable for the wiki. But I feel like we've had plenty of dialogue from the peanut gallery when it comes to artists and their work. I'd love to hear more from the folks going out with the intent of moving people, not trolling them.

This community takes a certain measure of pride in the degree that it has deviated from its roots on 4chan oh so many internet years ago. As well it should. Writers here have contributed works expanding into all the genres of fiction, not letting things like cliches, counter-cliches and the limitations of the written medium stop them from pushing the limits of what it is that we do here. When we write, when we review works in progress, when we critique, I think it would benefit us if we applied that same ecumenical outlook to the topic of art itself.

Always remember. You're an artist too.

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