Understanding like a sledgehammer: getting art from the other side.


Apropos of a conversational snippet I shared last month about finding heritage commonality in creative endeavor, I was recently reminded of this previous ditty via a beer and music fueled conversation about Buddhist monks with M and in responding to comments about an article about not “getting” a retrospective exhibit of British contemporary artist Tracey Emin’s work. There are a couple references to authors not explained but it shouldn’t matter much. It’s mostly kind of true anyway.

For most of his adult life, my father poured concrete for a living—sidewalks, walls, swimming pools, a variety of physical structures with which people still interact. Through a combination of design, tool and material mastery, and intensive labor, that work remains an aesthetic and functional part of their everyday lives.

When I was about 12 years old, he created what he still believes to be the most significant piece of work of his career. It was a retaining wall commissioned by a local doctor. The doctor had been successful in his own career and wanted the design of his property to reflect that success. As such, my father constructed the type of wall one rarely sees serving a function as mundane as holding back a small piece of earth from a driveway. It was approximately sixty feet long, composed of an exposed aggregate mix so that the rocks in the concrete could be revealed, polished, and sealed, and was highlighted by a series of undulating curves that mimicked the surrounding landscape. It took him a couple of days to work out the design, several more to soak sheets of plywood until they were malleable enough to radius the curves without breaking, and still more to brace the entire form structure to be strong enough to hold the concrete while it cured.
Once the concrete itself was positioned in the forms, my father monitored it around the clock until such a time as the curing process reached perfect pitch and then hurriedly but delicately removed the support structure to facilitate the washing away of excess surface cement to reveal the aggregate, rubbing it down until it shined, and then sealing it from the elements. When he was finished, it was legitimately flawless; work of a quality possible only through years of applied imagination, trial and error, and hard won experience. And then the doctor didn’t pay him for it.
Accordingly, I found myself alongside my father a few months later, sledgehammer in hand, taking the meanest Little League cuts I could muster at the wall that was his masterpiece. It was around midnight on a Tuesday and I was convinced it might be the first time I saw the old man cry. It just made me swing harder.
After a short series of expletive-laced “how dare yous” from atop his porch – a smart move on his part as I generally avoid my father in a bad mood with a sledgehammer, too – the doctor called the police. When the officer arrived, my father produced a stack of unpaid bills, a notebook documenting unreturned phone calls, and one cancelled check, showing only that a deposit to cover some of the materials had been paid some months ago.
The officer asked how much of the work was covered by the check. “About half,” Dad answered. “Well,” the officer said, “it looks as if you’ve knocked down about half of it. As far as I’m concerned, you guys are even. I’d suggest we all stop here before this escalates.” And so we did, leaving a pile of rubble behind a Mercedes in the driveway bearing an “ARTS” bumper sticker.
Unsurprisingly, when Bedoya concerns himself with the inclusion of artists and ethnic groups in formal arts policymaking, I can appreciate it for what it is but I wonder where the plumbers, plasterers, and computer programmers fit in. They certainly figure into his notion of composing the world and the cultural “We”. I understand, too, they may be outside the scope of his particular research but to consistently not consider them as a part of the creation system as the arts often do is to reinforce art and cultural realms in general as elitist and unrelated to the populace at large.

Further, it inadvertently reinforces the idea that product rather than process is a primary determining factor in valuation. If one uses a creative process to produce a painting, one is an artist. If the same type of process is used to design and build a packing crate, one is a worker of another sort.  The delineation is forced by the context of product reception rather than any real difference in process. In not focusing on the similarities in those processes, art demands to be held and considered separately rather than be assimilated into normal support mechanisms. It’s in those similarities, though, that I believe art can prove more valuable to mainstream America.
As Campbell points out, arts funders and artists themselves have failed to engage the public. In thinking about what that means in terms of funding and support, we have to begin with a simple question asked of Jill Public: “Why don’t you value or support the arts?” The easiest answer for most people, I think, is “Because they don’t have anything to do with me.” Unfortunately, that answer is too often correct in addition to being easy.
It’s very often artists and arts groups themselves who assume (incorrectly) that their work is very different from other supposedly more practical forms. As a society, we are literally trained by arts organizations and funders to think that what they do has little commercial value, practical application, or common appeal. What they fail to realize, though, is that people actually believe them, even in instances where their natural inclination is to find similarities relatable and transferable to their own professions and experiences. The arts are often subject to inequitable treatment precisely because they choose to be. Until they change and choose differently, any expectation of the broader public changing is somewhat misguided.
Having told the earlier story about my father, one of my current interests is taking him to the types of contemporary art exhibits that even trained artists sometimes find challenging. It’s an educational process because he asks what I’m sure to some seem like wildly unsophisticated questions, most often directly of the artists. While he admittedly doesn’t always understand or even care about the conceptual underpinnings of particular works, he’s very clearly intrigued by the decision making processes and materials involved in creating such work. And as he verbally relates the artists’ answers back to his own work experiences, it’s most often the artists who learn something about their work that they’d never considered. As we move toward a more democratic participation in the arts and otherwise, it’s those conversations that perhaps matter most.