Archive for September, 2010

But Is It Art?

September 23, 2010

It brings me great delight to announce that another guest columnist has come forward! The following essay has been written by our own Daylily. [In case anyone doesn’t know: to view the photos at a larger size, just click on them.] With deepest thanks to her, here it is:

But Is It Art?

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” — Allen Saunders in Reader’s Digest, January 1957

Art or art-like constructions may happen in the same fashion. I was planning my errands. I habitually group errands so as to save time and gas and reduce auto emissions. I would be passing by the dry cleaners, so why not recycle all those wire hangers? They seem to multiply like gerbils (but really, it’s because my husband has his shirts laundered and gets them back on hangers). So. Take the hangers out of the closet, stack them up, rubber band them per usual. Easy. Umm, no. The hangers had other ideas. It certainly looked as if it would be easy to remove them from the rod, but they were seemingly bonded together into an amazing tangled mess. I began to wonder, could I purposely build a structure, an artwork of wire hangers? I certainly had plenty of material. I wonder, I wonder . . .

My first construction was in the living room, on the carpet. My self-imposed parameters were that the hangers must not be purposely bent and that nothing must be used to fasten the hangers together. In addition, I purposed to make a freestanding structure, i.e., with no support except from the hangers themselves. I succeeded within a reasonable length of time. Then I found that said structure did not photograph well, because of the patchy sunlight in the living room and the dark couch as background. I might have succeeded with the photo later in the day, but, alas, I brushed against one of the hangers at the base of the creation, and the structure collapsed flat!

"Wire Tree One" in process

Since I would have to start over, I moved the field of operations to the foyer. I draped sheets to make a good background for photos and began construction on the hard tile floor.

"Wire Tree One" -- a three-foot high structure made entirely from wire hangers

 I got nowhere. The hangers could get no purchase on such a surface. After some experimentation, I found that an old nubbly rug, covered with the sheet, made a good surface. After that, I failed several times to build anything with height to it. My technique needs work, evidently. Building the base of the structure, however methodical one might attempt to be, remains an inexact science if one is not going to wire the hangers together to stay precisely where one wants them. Achieving height requires some hangers to be added simply for balance. Hence, the hangers sticking out in various directions. Of course, those help to make the thing more treelike, as well. The technique is something like building a house of cards and something like the game Blockhead, where one must always be aware of the center of gravity of the tower.

"Wire Tree One" with ornaments

Eventually, I succeeded in making what I call “Wire Tree One.” I was forced to compromise on the last parameter. It was either that or start over. I compromised. The tree is supported from the base and from one point at the back, where a hanger leans against the draped antique chest. I thought that the tree lacked definition, so I added some Christmas ornaments.

But is it art? It felt like making art. To me, making art is an adventure. It involves cooperating with the materials, letting the materials dictate what happens next, starting with some sort of idea, but letting it change as the work progresses. Yet, really, how much skill does it take to create something like this? I have seen no classes in creating wire hanger sculptures. Isn’t art a matter, in part, of training and skill? Perhaps this is not art, but rather, doodling with wire. Perhaps if I made many of these wire trees, I would arrive at one so good that it could be called “art.” Or perhaps the photos of the tree, particularly the one that includes the shadows of the tree, are art, while the tree itself is not.

Close-up shot of the top

Here are two pictures of my raw material. You may recall seeing paintings made from dropping paint onto the canvas. If I drop a pile of hangers on the floor, is the result art? How about if I entitle the results “Wire Pile One” and “Wire Pile Two”? Just how much purpose and design does a construction require before it can qualify as art? (Believe me, dropping a pile of hangers on the floor takes considerably less time, patience and skill than “Wire Tree One”!) Maybe if I were to drop the same pile of hangers on the floor numerous times, photographing the result each time, the series of pictures would be art? I could call it “Evolution in Wire.” If I were to start with a small pile of hangers and add a few more for each picture, the title would be even more appropriate. (If you run across this particular invention in an art museum someday, remember, you read it here first!)

"Wire Pile One"

"Wire Pile Two"

Is art, perhaps, a continuum? A beginner’s effort, like a child’s drawing, satisfies the artistic impulse, whether anyone else likes the result or not. Perhaps beginners’ efforts fall on the low end of the continuum, and Matisse and Picasso are at the high end.

"Wire Tree One with Shadow"

Here are some more questions. I am an artist, so if I make something with purpose, is it therefore art, simply because I made it? Furthermore, most people have some sort of creative impulse to make something. Is whatever they make, whether a poem, a song, a painting, a cake, a scarf knitted from a pattern, or a flower arrangement, art? Does one have to be an artist to make art? Or are we all artists, to some extent? What about the distinction between art and craft? If one knits a scarf from a pattern, with the only original feature being the choice of color, is that art or craft? Is art dependent upon originality? Or is art dependent upon whether anyone is moved by it, i.e., appreciates it or is edified or uplifted or amused or horrified by it? That is, is it art because it means something? What about beauty versus ugliness? Is art dependent upon the measure of its beauty? I would submit that there is such a thing as ugly art, though we may not want it in our living rooms.

View of "Wire Tree One" from my study


So, dear readers, what is your definition of art? Is “Wire Tree One” art, art-like construction, doodling with wire, or something else? Whatever it is, it is not destined for long life, except in the photos. It now resides in the place of honor usually reserved for my Christmas tree. One would think that if anyone slammed the front door, that would be the end of the wire tree, but it has proved to be remarkably sturdy. I will dismantle it soon. I plan to time the process of taking it apart, and I will count the number of hangers at that time, for those who want to know! In the meantime, when I see the tree from my chair in the study, it makes me happy. There is something cheerful about its crazy angles and its resemblance to a Christmas tree. Is it the ghost of Christmas trees past? Is it a pleasant foreshadowing of Christmas joys to come? What IS this thing?

Top view of "Wire Tree One"

Sweeping the Clouds Away

September 15, 2010

Once again, Mr. Brown Snowflake has provided us with a guest column! With gratitude to him, and for our enjoyment, here it is. It originally ran on the Editorial pages of the Perry Chief on November 6, 2009.

Forty Years of Sunny Days on Sesame Street

One of the greatest gifts ever given to the children of America will be celebrating a birthday Tuesday.

A little experiment that was years in the making originally aired on New York Public Television on Nov. 10, 1969, sprightly singing “Sunny day/Sweepin’ the clouds away/On my way to where the air is sweet/Can you tell me how to get/How to get to Sesame Street?”
For four decades the geniuses at the Children’s Television Workshop (created to maintain artistic, non-commercial control over their productions) have taught untold millions their ABC’s and basic numbers, encouraged multi-ethnic friendships, offered assurance in times of trouble and provided a wholesome, safe haven where every day is a “sunny day.”
The seed that became Sesame Street first took serious root when driving force Joan Cooney first met Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation. Morrisett happened to notice one day in 1965 that his three-year old daughter, Sarah, happily sang back commercial jingles from television.

Cooney, who had spent years working with Bob Keeshan on Captain Kangaroo took it from there (to cut it quite short) and Sesame Street was on its way.

It so happens that, born in the summer of 1966, I was the perfect age — the exact beginning audience — when Sesame Street survived its first season (the show was trashed by a majority of critics, though the educational establishment was largely ecstatic).

WILL-TV 12, the PBS affiliate operated by the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, was one of the first midwestern PBS stations to latch on. I do not recall whether it was mom, dad, the baby-sitter or fate, but something plunked little Jeffrey down in front of the big Zenith one day and, well, he was hooked.

At 43 I still am, though I must confess to not having much tolerance for Elmo.
Jim Henson’s genius, was, of course, hugely instrumental in the success of the program and the Muppets remain so today. Henson never wanted his creations tied to Sesame Street, and went on to launch The Muppet Show in the late 70’s.  Naturally, I have that entire series — aimed very much at an adult audience — on DVD. You should, too.
The casting of Sesame Street has usually been perfect, too. Luis, Maria, Bob, Susan and Gordon, Mr. Hooper . . . all have been some of the more enduring characters ever created and several of the original cast are still there, helping Big Bird overcome various anxieties and still hoping to convert Oscar into a lovable lug.

That Oscar — irascible, bitter and negative — would immediately be a hit with children was one of the biggest surprises to early critics of the show. His inclusion, at Henson’s insistence, was a source of intense conflict in the early stages that ended up a gem, a pattern that has often been repeated (the baker who falls down a flight of steps while carrying a tray of various numbered items and the Snuffaluffagus are two other examples).

Anyone who spent a portion of their childhood watching Sesame Street is likely able to sing at least a considerable portion of at least a dozen of Joe Raposo’s brilliant musical creations. All someone needs to do is hum a bar of “The People That You Meet” or “Sing” or “Rubber Duckie” or “I Have Five” in a group of similar-aged adults and the fun begins all over again.

I still shed tears of laughter at the Yip-Yips looking in the Earth Book to figure out how to talk to a telephone or a grandfather clock. The manic energy of Cookie Monster is an undying hit, too, and who can forget looking skyward with Bob and Big Bird and some neighborhood children as Alphabet Bates uses his plane to spell a capital letter in the sky?

There is a wonderful kaleidoscope of programming on television for children now, but almost none of it would be there if we had not been asked for directions to Sesame Street.

While the idea may seem simple — puppets and people interact and sing songs to educate kids — take a moment to ponder what it must have been like to start from scratch, with no money and little support beyond encouragement from friends.

Sesame Street spent the better part of three years in labor, and it was not at all certain to live to be a toddler. Now CTW’s gem is 40 and shines as brightly as ever.

Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away. . . .

Much of the information in this column is courtesy of Michael Davis’ magnificent 2008 book Street Gang: The Origins of Sesame Street. It is a detailed trip through the early years  to the current day and comes with my highest recommendation. — JW.