Hello fellow space-time travelers. My name is Roger Jones and I am coming to you from steaming Pensacola, Florida. I am here to discuss big ideas in science, art, and society with you. Our last conversation was about (Not Art). That’s (Not Art) like a single word. (Not Art) is what you think it might be. It is what somebody thinks they are talking about when they look at an artifact and make the claim, “That is not art.” Our last conversation was all about what you say to that person, next. You might simply retaliate, “Oh yes, it is.” Then your counter-party might say, “Prove it.” At that point, you lost. You might as well go home and take a nap.
The last conversation, which you can find a link to somewhere on this page, was about language, not just the natural language we speak, but also other types of language, such as music and sculpture. My suggestion was that to find out what something is not you must express your investigation in the language of the something you are investigating. That cryptic sentence is actually very simple. You cannot investigate what is (Not Art) by using the language and logic of natural language. You can only find out what is (Not Art) using the language of art. I gave some examples from science and mathematics to illustrate the point. In this conversation I would like to continue the thought but in the language of art, not the language of logic or natural language.
You might say, however, “Why am I interested in (Not Art)? I am an artist, I think I am interested in Art not (Not Art).” My response would be that surprises lie on boundaries. Surprise is the essence of irony and humor. And great insight, of any flavor, is simply a very high-quality joke that gives us tremendous childish pleasure. So, there you have it. One studies the boundaries between Art and (Not Art) for puerile reasons that make us laugh childishly.
But, before we get any further into the conversation, we need to check out my tee shirt. It says simply, “Bazinga!.” The symbols, however, are Greek and mathematical symbols, such that the word appears to be an equation. Many people will recognize this neologism as the word the character Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory uses when he tells the punchline of a joke. Sheldon would like to make sure that the audience realizes that his latest utterance contains irony. This is an example of what we meant in the last conversation when we discussed self-referential systems, systems that examine themselves. My tee shirt is ironic. It is also self-referential. It is irony commenting ironically on irony. The ironic system is studying itself. If we want to understand what is (Not Irony), we need to use the language of irony, that is jokes, to identify where the boundaries of funny are.
Let’s look at an example of popular culture in which the limitations of self-referential systems were recognized. I am talking about pornography. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court wrote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Stewart realized that in the identification of (Not Pornography), one could not use the language of legal logic. I guess Justice Stewart was advocating for judges to watch more pornography before they ruled on what is and is not pornography. But then again, maybe I am having too much fun with this line of thought.
At any rate, let’s get back to why we are having this conversation. We are here to use the language of art to search for a boundary between Art and (Not Art) in a real example. Surprises occur at boundaries. Surprises are the basis of humor. So … we might know when we are close to a boundary between Art and (Not Art) when we start laughing.
I will tell the story without commentary on the meaning of the story. I will try to let the language of art do the talking.
We need some history of Pensacola. Pensacola’s heyday lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The city experienced significant growth. Victorian neighborhoods were constructed; roads were built; and storm drains were buried. I am currently sitting and living in an old honeymoon cottage that was built in 1899. The historic African-American center of the city is two blocks from my house. I have a little art studio in that neighborhood, which you can see in the photo. Teri and I also owned a vacant lot in the neighborhood. I was planning on setting up an urban art project on the lot, but I was having trouble getting a good idea for it. The problem solved itself.
One day I noticed that the lot was filled with parts of storm drains. Apparently, the storm drains under the street had not been replaced since it was constructed in 1911. The contractors thought that our lot would be a good place to store the new drains while the old drains were removed. A casual attitude toward private property exists in the Deep South, particularly if shootable deer live on the property.
Well … all the blank vertical surfaces on the lot solved the urban art dilemma I was struggling with. We were not going to have an urban art project. We were going to have a Sub-Urban art project. Within hours I had started painting monsters and such on the storm drains. Also, within hours, a parade of Ford model 5 thousand and 50 (or higher) pickup trucks parked on our lot and the driver of each truck asked me the question after he turned off the engine, “What are you doing?” I thought it would be obvious what I was doing. I was holding a paint brush and standing in front of freshly painted concrete vertical surfaces. Finally, the biggest Ford pickup truck of all parked on the lot and the president of the company asked me, “Are you the artist?” How great was that? That was just the question I was trying to address. At any rate, we worked it out, and the contractors became active participants in the project making various suggestions. So, I could have responded, “You will become one for the artists,” but neither the president of the company nor I knew that at the time.
The puzzling thing to the contractors was that I was spending so much effort to paint drains that were going to be buried out of site underground. I said that was indeed a shame, yet, here I was doing just that. They suggested that I also paint monsters in the space under the manhole covers. Then workers will be surprised when they go down to work on the drain. They will find large eyes staring at them in the dark. This great idea, of course, was immediately implemented.
Some reporters started snooping around. I avoided them assiduously. Finally, the drains were placed under the street, which is where they are now, and may be for another 100 years.
That’s the story make of it what you will.
That’s it for today fellow space-time travelers. Be safe.