How Do You Like Your Art–Fixed or Unfixed?

For years, it didn’t occur to me that art could be other than how I knew it: something tangible that existed in a (hopefully) permanent form so that the art appreciator could go back again and again and drink at its well.

I learned that I could have a different reaction at different times, but that the art itself was the same–only I had changed. Or its context had changed.

At the Chicago Art Institute my favorite painting was Caillebotte’s “Paris, A Rainy Day.” Anytime I visited Chicago I could go to the gallery and see it again.

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

At six, I fell in love with Tchiakovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” probably because I knew it from Disney–having seen the movie before I turned four–and when my mother bought me the classical album, I even carried it to first grade class for show and tell. I fell asleep every night to the entire symphony for quite awhile.

There is a difference between the Caillebotte and the Tchiakovsky beyond art form. The Caillebotte is a fixed art form. Unchangeable. The Tchiakovsky is, as well, except that it can be varied upon because every time a new symphony performs it, something might change. I still consider this a fairly fixed form, though, because I am unlikely to notice the differences. It takes a lot of musical education to know.

The ultimate fixed form, to my mind, is the book. It’s unlikely to change and, unlike art, which draws part of its meaning from its setting in a gallery or on a street corner, a book is the same around the world. As a writer, I like the fixed nature of the art I work in. It suits my hoarding, controlling nature.

I was interested in theatre and dance from a very young age, even writing and directing little plays for the neighborhood kids and my classmates. I created puppet theatres with, wait for it, dolls, of course. But I never stopped to think about this form of art.  Is it fixed, especially after the play script is written, or is it unfixed because there are so many variables–actors, directors, costumes, sets, props, technical crew, and even errors change the art. The audience has the ability to change it.

When my daughter fell head first into the performing arts, I shapeshifted into one of those crazy dance moms running around with a video camera, always wanting to record her performances, even tech rehearsal, because I had grown up thinking art must be captured to exist. If my daughter danced and it wasn’t recorded, had she really created art?

Then I read and began to teach Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony about a half Laguna Pueblo / half white WWII veteran with PTSD. There is a very important scene where Tayo visits a Navajo medicine man for a cure. The ritual involves the creation of a white corn sand painting. The shocker for me was that the painting is erased. Yes, erased. The purpose is in the making, not in the hanging onto it. When you think about it, this is a much more spiritual response to art because it takes the need to control out of the picture. It is not goal or perfection oriented.

When I researched the sand paintings, I discovered that the notion of saving our art, rather than erasing or letting it change over time naturally (like the poems of balladeers), is culturally based. It even intrigued me when I finally read about elephants creating art (I’ve written about that before when I talked about the book When Elephants Weep) that they create and then erase. Of course, they do: humans, not elephants, are ridiculous hoarders. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Or does our culture demand it?

Maybe not. Look at performance art. Poetry slams. Improv shows. “The Million Line Poem” by Tupelo Press. Even New York theatre is reaching out to the audience to participate in many plays. Is this a fad that can’t survive? After all, the sand painting survived as art process because it was a ritualized part of the life of a people. Without this broader context for unfixed art, can these art forms survive?

Another reason we might be stuck with mainly fixed art: iPhones and other technology. Did you hear about an audience member setting up a video camera on a tripod to record Adele’s concert? She was pissed and chastised the person. But it’s a losing battle. No venue can police an entire audience–and what kind of relationship would that produce?

What about your tastes? Do you prefer your art fixed, like books and paintings, or unfixed, like ice sculptures? Or do you prefer something in between–a known script in a new production, a live concert of your favorite band’s best songs?



Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Essay, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing Talk

38 responses to “How Do You Like Your Art–Fixed or Unfixed?

  1. Both are beautiful, and I enjoy both. As you’ve pointed out, even fixed media is only fixed to a certain extent. Our experience of a recording or painting or film is influenced by the context in which we encounter it, and that context includes how old we are, who we are (or aren’t) with, and what is happening (or has happened) in the rest of our lives and in the world. Movies that show the skyline of lower Manhattan now evoke feelings they didn’t before 9/11, for example. And each time we encounter a work, we add another layer of context, altering how we will experience it the next time. Barber’s Adagio for Strings carries so many layers of association that listening to it is like being the guest at a feast from the Arabian Nights.

    I guess all this is to say that I don’t see art as either fixed or unfixed, but as sitting somewhere along the continuum between those two poles. 🙂

    • Yes, no art is completely fixed because of context, but even so, there is a big difference between a book that can list in multiple copies and sand art that is purposefully erased. So while all art fits somewhere on that continuum (and isn’t everything a continuum ;)), some is right there at the end–erasable art or meltable art or eatable art. I remember completely losing a story once. I felt grief for it. But then again I was able to recreate the story pretty close to the original (I believe). So then what does that say about impermanent art? Was I recreating the story or the process of writing the story?

      • Hmmm…fascinating question. Now I’m wondering if we’ve got it backwards (wouldn’t be the first time): what if the process of creating is the art, and the resulting paintings, recordings, books, etc. are like fossils, residual impressions in matter, time, and space?

  2. Jennifer above said so well what I was thinking. I don’t think I see art as fixed or “unfixed.” Paintings and sculptures can change over time–the paint darkening, fading, or the stone chipped. The works evoke different feelings from each viewer. A written play is much different from a performance–think of the many versions of Shakespeare. And Jennifer is right, that we experience various works differently each time we see them. For example, perhaps watching a movie that you love with a child who is seeing it for the first time.

    Also, I wish I had recordings of my daughter’s college performances, but I know that recorded versions are never the same as live somehow.

    But on impermanent art, have you seen this?

    • Well put about the changes that can occur in art, Merril. I agree with both you about the changes in context that can change the art. But I still think that there is a huge difference between a book (and that same book I am reading might be one on your shelf) and food art, ice sculptures, improv, sand paintings, etc.
      You’re SO right about recordings NEVER being the same. There is a flattening of the performance, right? And a loss of the energy felt in the room at the time. That said, if you were there for the original performance, the video can bring back the memories of your feelings at the time.
      Thank you for the link! it’s so magical!!!! I love it!
      What do you think about what Adele did, by the way? Was she in the right or was she being obnoxious?

      • I hadn’t heard about the Adele thing, until you mentioned it. Most shows say you can’t take photographs or videos, don’t they? It seems to me that the woman was being obnoxious. Setting up a tripod? I would think that would be annoying to the people around her who had also paid to see the show–and if the tripod was in the aisle, then that’s hazard. It seems like some people think it’s their right to take photos or videos whenever they want.

  3. First of all, I, too, love that Caillebotte! It is my second favorite painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I wonder if you can guess it? It too, features umbrellas.
    I like my art fixed.
    I don’t like good things messed with.

  4. Nice post. I have always enjoyed the sand castle artists who create elaborate beach sculptures and then watch them get washed away. I prefer the fixed art, especially books, though I can appreciate the impermanent art. Even hair styles could be in that category, I suppose? Love the comments about your childhood and your encounters with music and books. 🙂

    • Carla, sand castles are a wonderful image. Yes, I had forgotten them as beautiful, transient art. Hair styles, yes, by true artists. And what about the makeup artists who paint on people’s skin!

  5. Fixed art definitely! I do enjoy events and such but I like to capture things and keep them with me (not quite a hoarder).

    • Hah, I think I am becoming a hoarder of old photos and documents because nobody else in my family wants them! The more they don’t want them, the more I do.

  6. I like the huge Impressionistic wall art at the Cleveland Museum of Art with Monet’s lily pads in a pond. I can sit there and see different elements playing in the paint and scene.
    Luanne, I like your more detailed, almost photographic but atmospheric Caillebotte painting.
    I think so much of life reminds me of art. This is a thoughtful question. I think both unfixed and fixed art have their emotional impact and value. I think the timeless quality of “fixed art” helps preserve our memory and allows us to share it, too. You mentioned this by including the fact your children may view the same painting in the museum, even their children may.
    While sand art and ice sculptures are only visions held in our memory (as long as it lasts); not unless we take a picture may we completely “see” every detail later. 🙂

    • Wow, Robin, I really think that is important: “not unless we take a picture maybe we completely ‘see’ every detail later.” Yes, I cannot notice all the details without time. That is so true. Maybe more so for some than others (and that would include me!). I love photographing as a way of capturing all the transient beauties and interesting things. But hubby thinks the photos themselves are just more stuff that isn’t necessary. He thinks I can’t possibly ever look at all my photos again and so what is the point.

      • I am glad you agree with what I was saying, Luanne. I understand how things you may miss in the experiential art of Life, may be found while studying photographs later. I like the way one if the kids may have been doing something I didn’t notice until looking back at photos. Isn’t it great how Derrick digs out his negatives from the 1980’s and shares them with us? 🙂

  7. I absolutely adore Paris, A Rainy Day. No wonder you want to keep going back to look at it. I also happen to love the Sleeping Beauty Waltz too. And you post some great questions here Luanne, really got me thinking. And you really had me thinking about the sand art, as a memory shot out at me of a programme I watched about some monks who spend days, weeks, months, making such art, only to then ritualistically brush it all away. As you say, the purpose is in the making not in the keeping. Fascinating how you mention we are hoarders, controllers, and so we want to keep things fixed. But if they aren’t fixed, how shall we enjoy our visits to the same art/music/writing over and over again? Fixed it has to be for me…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change, in some ways xoxo

    • Sheri, I’m so it took me so long to respond. I am listening to the news about the Orlando shooting and now a suspect arrested on his way to the LA Pride parade, and I am so heavy hearted. But I wanted you to know that I read your comment here. I love what you say about the monks spending so much time making temporary art. I too favor fixed, but there is a place for both. Hugs to you and to all the kind people in the world. I am having a hard time with this new massacre.

  8. From a personal perspective, once I have created something, I am done with it. I once made a crocheted bedspread. It took two years. I carefully selected the colors. Then I gave it away because I was tired of it. I can say that about many of my creative pursuits. So….I am good with having something that isn’t etched in stone but in sand with the wind and rain altering and perhaps even erasing it.

  9. Very interesting Luanne – I generally prefer my art fixed (though you could say that no art is fixed because we all bring our selves to the equation), but I’m starting to fall in love with landscape art, which I’m planning to write about at some point!

  10. FROM DERRICK: You raise fascinating questions Luanne. Perhaps it depends on whether one is the creator or the consumer. I know that for me, when drawing, photographing, or printing, the process is the important thing, although, of course, I do like to share the results. What is the significance of the fact that today most people do not make prints of the thousands of photos placed on electronic media?

    • Ah, two GREAT points. one that the consumer likes the product, whereas the creator cherishes the process. The other is this notion of all the photos that are only available on a temporary platform of unknown duration. Not even art we ourselves erase, but some pieces will last forever, some only a day–and out of our control once on the internet.

  11. This is a question near and dear to my heart, Luanne. For two years, I lead workshops based on my book “Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God.” The practice uses broken and found objects to create art, in this case a cross, with the emphasis on the intentionality of the making. I always encouraged people to use things of impermanence or objects (such as living plants) that would change over time, to better focus on the experience, not the product. People usually didn’t take me up on it—even if focusing on the product, I loved the idea of time being a part of the creation, but again this didn’t much catch on. On the other hand, people today still tell me where their cross is hanging in their home—it brings back the experience to them. So the fixed art matters too. Thank you for always posting such interesting blogs. <3

    • For me using objects that will change drastically in a way that shows death or dessication might make me sad. Plants that will die, for instance. But then there is something right about that in some cases.
      It’s hard for me to talk about art today because I am listening to the news from Orlando. I’m sorry I can’t respond in a manner that your comment really deserves, Ellen.

  12. I love it all Luanne I am amazed by the street side chalk art and sometimes it is that good I wish it was fixed but the joy of seeing something that will only be there for a short time gives you a drive to appreciate it more. Have always been captivated by ice and sand sculptures too. As an artist I enjoy seeing my art leave me I don’t like to hold onto it. Some art you put so much of yourself into that its good that it is fixed, but I rarely keep anything I create.

  13. There’s room for it all, Luanne. Even the written word is unfixed in that it’s subject to the interpretation of the reader. I do worry about my obsession with ‘fixing’ images with my photography, but hey… life’s rich pattern. 🙂
    Stay well!

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