Art requires a visual rhetoric with skill, not hypocrisy

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Of all writing clichés and gimmicks that exist, the one that bothers me the most is the kitschy use of an introductory statement in which a writer admits something to the effect of, “I tried to think of something to write, but couldn’t.” The first few times I saw someone use the I-don’t-know tactic, I liked it — I thought it was endearing. And in reality, it does function as such: Admitting a weakness is a good way to connect to a reader; to confess, “I’m an average Joe, I don’t know everything,” establishes a kind of camaraderie with the audience. But the more I read, the more I began to see that the use of I don’t know is a cop-out. It’s used for shock value — a writer is writing because he knows what he’s talking about; to admit he doesn’t is to provide a surprise and generate a reader’s curiosity in the piece. It’s easy to draw a reader in by riffing on the topic of not-knowing, while it’s hard to think of something good to use to truly relate to an audience.

If you want something to be good, it takes effort — and this doesn’t just apply to writing an article. My beef du jour is with art.

Last year, Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas found something that is indeed worth talking about: the number of stray dogs left to die in the streets of Costa Rica. I’m glad that Vargas had a cause to bolster, and that it was a unique and otherwise rarely discussed problem. Even better, the logistical problem — streets littered with dog carcasses — is something with a feasible solution.

So Vargas picked his topic, and then he picked his artistic solution: He paid children to capture a stray dog, and then he tied it up in a gallery and left it there for days without food or water. People paid to see exhibits in the gallery, and walked past the dying dog.

I think there are obvious problems with this. The man knowingly killed a dog in an effort to make a statement against the people of Costa Rica. But not everyone sees the problem in Vargas’ preferred method of  animal torture art — Vargas was in fact asked to repeat the exhibit in Honduras at the Biennial of 2008 for South America.

Hypocrisy abounds in Vargas’s display of insensitivity. While his complaint was against a country that passively lets dogs die, Vargas actively let a dog die.

If art is an exercise in creativity, an artist should be respected as such for just that — displaying skill and imagination. What Vargas did, though, wasn’t art. Like a weak but attention-getting intro to an article, Vargas relied on shock value to make a statement, with little attention to the message made past the initial impact.

Dead dogs aside, the problem is that Vargas chose the artistically easy way out. He defaulted to an easy-opener and skipped over artistic skill. I don’t suggest that Vargas needed to revert to a DaVinci-style painting depicting dead dogs — that may have made less of an impact than his gallery show — but there comes a time when the intended message and physical manifestation of said message needs to be evaluated against the pointlessness of it.

I fail to see how this was a worthwhile pursuit of his time, when instead, Vargas could have set out to start a foundation (among any number of other alternatives) to take care of strays. To save a dog would have been a far greater feat of artistry than to kill one.

Vargas’ “art” — and that of many of his contemporaries — is just stupid. These artists are so focused on making statements and shocking their audiences that they don’t think beyond the superficial statement they’re trying to make, and therefore, many of the statements are presented with a complete lack of refined skill. Being an artist is about more than just having complicated thought processes and causes; it’s about trying to make other people understand those processes and making those people want to fight with you, prompted by your visual argument.

I am not saying all art should be literal, but that more art should be accessible to more people, require some amount of craftsmanship and skill (aside from contemplation), and have a depth and breadth beyond its initial element. If people cannot understand any part of an art piece, then the art has not done anything and the thoughts on display are not actually on display.

Of course art should require contemplation on the part of the onlooker. Of course art can just be something visually astounding. But no matter what, art should be capable of establishing a visual rhetoric that effects change, and most certainly not just the change from a dog that’s alive to a dog that’s dead. Successful visual rhetoric requires practiced skill, and is not attainable by everyone. Art doesn’t have to be stupid, shallow, and hypocritical in its attempt to reach everyone by reaching only a few. Art is not a dead dog. Art is an art.