Painting by Katarina Countiss
Excerpt from Timequake By Vonnegut, Kurt (Book – 1997) pages 143-145. Note: I shortened some parts in this story to eliminate tangents that would require more explanation.
Question: What is the white stuff in bird poop?
Answer: That is bird poop, too?
So much for science, and how helpful can it be in these times of environmental calamities. Chernobyl is still hotter than a Hiroshima baby carriage. Our underarm deodorants have eaten holes in the ozone layer. And just get a load of this: y big brother Bernie, who can’t draw for sour apples, and who at his most objectionable used to say he didn’t like paintings because they didn’t do anything, just hung there year after year, has this summer become an artist!…
He would not sign his pictures, he said, or admit publicly that he made them, or describe how they were made. He plainly expected puffed-up critics to sweat bullets and excrete sizable chunks of masonry when trying to answer his cunningly innocent question: “Art or not?”
I was pleased to reply with an epistle which was frankly vengeful, since he and Father had screwed me out of a liberal arts college education: “Dear Brother: This is almost like telling you about the birds and the bees,” I began. “There are many good people who are beneficially stimulated by some, but not all, manmade arrangements of colors and shapes on flat surfaces, essentially nonsense.
You yourself are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, and again essentially nonsense. If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs, and say to you that the racket I made was philosophically on a par with The Magic Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and upsetting debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be, ‘I like what Mozart did, and I hate what the bucket did.’
“Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don’t. You don’t have to say why afterward. You don’t have to say anything.
“You are a justly revered experimentalist, dear Brother. If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, ‘art or not,’ you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens.”
I went on: “People capable of liking some paintings of prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?
“There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France.
“I dare suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.
“Pictures are famous for their humanness, and not for their pictureness.”
I went on: “There is also the matter of craftsmanship. Real picture-lovers like to play along, so to speak, to look closely at the surfaces, to see how the illusion was created. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ball game a second time.
“Good luck, and love as always,” I wrote. And I signed my name.