The art of subversion, or the subversion of art

July 15th, 2007

What is Art?

I think about this quite a bit, as I have a few friends who are visual artists.

When you stand before a painting or photograph, framed and hung in a gallery, perhaps bearing the creator’s signature and a title or description located next to it on the wall, of course we know this is art because all the signs are there, no matter what – if anything at all – it stirs within us .

When we come across a bronze sculpture on a street corner or in a park, again we are clear: it is art – I can literally put my finger on it. Big, metallic stillness where otherwise all around is buzzing movement; it proclaims to us its conceived, designed and crafted nature.

And what if these things arouse nothing within us? Are they therefore not works of art after all, or are we in fact the deficient ones?

I do believe art should arouse something within us as viewers, as I also hope it is forged from something aroused within the artist. I want art to make me aware of something new, to make me question, to make me see or think or feel differently about something. I want it to change my consciousness in some way, or at least to be a catalyst for this.

You will notice I have interspersed this piece with photos of street name signs. They are as you would find all over Melbourne. There is nothing special about them at all. Their form will be familiar to you and indeed they are so much in the background of our lives as to be practically invisible (except, perhaps when we’re lost).

What have they to do with art?

Well …

… behold …

. . . . . . . . THIS!

When I saw it I had an incoherent feeling that something in the world was not right, yet I couldn’t identify what it was.

Most unsettling.

After a while I pinpointed the source of it: this street sign was very different. Over the next few moments the realisations unfurled: the letters of the street name were all lower case . . . in a completely different typeface . . . and serif!

I was actually stunned.

Not by the audacity (yes, audacity) of the sign’s presence, but by the thoughts and feelings which now started tumbling within me:

“Wow. That’s different. It’s a serif typeface . . . Is it Times New Roman? And lower case letters . . . . Very cheeky! I think I like it. Do I like it? Yes, I do. Definitely. But what do I think of the all the other regular ones? Wow – I’ve never stopped to think about it. What do they look like again? I don’t know, I’ve never paid them much attention and now I can’t visualise beyond this cute little serif-o-rama of Times New Roman. I was blind but now I can see! What sort of a person am I – what sort of an unconscious haze have I been walking around in – that I have never noticed the forms around me every day, let alone come to some appraisal of how I feel about them, about whether or not I find them pleasing?”

Within seconds I was not only evaluating for the first time a small (and, you would agree, insignificant) aspect of my world, but I was also in fact re-evaluating my very way of being in the world in quite a broad sense.


It’s big stuff.


And that, in my opinion, truly is art.


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