One night a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a H@agen-Dazs store on my way home from the studio. This particular outlet was "proud to announce individually, hand-packed pints of ice cream", which cost a dollar and a half more than the regular convey or belt kind. Far from receiving more ice cream for your money, you would come away with less, as manually packed goods can never be as densely compressed as the factory version.
So, what exactly is this luxurious extra that so many people are willing to pay for? The touch of a hand, the copresence of another human being within our increasingly isolated existences. The same holds true for the visual arts: a painting is by its nature one-of-a-kind, made by a particular person at a particular point in time. I believe that our need to experience exactly this auratic quality of the handmade object lies at the very root of our fascination for art.
The way I see it, the latest tendencies in the visual arts only confirm this point of view. I recently read an article about an exhibition called Just Pathetic, whose intention was to determine an over all trend of art in the 90s. Common to all the pieces in the show, which included works by Richard Tuttle, Tom Friedmann, and others, was an endearing clumsiness of execution: the materials tended to be cheap and simple, there were raw edges galore, and a general lack of polishing, finishing touches. The works all seemed to fall short of the norm of what a precious museum object ought to be. However, their many "imperfections" allow the viewer a peek into the process of their making, and remind us again and again that these pieces are created by human hands. The more streamlined and high tech our living environment becomes, the more messy and organic looking the art. Being a "tight" and meticulous painter is not considered a virtue anymore, because people demand to experience a greater difference between what is created by manual effort and that which is produced by a machine.
However, the virtue of being hand made is not the only quality that defines an art object as such. Crafts differ from the fine arts in so far as they tend to serve some practical purpose the carved wooden bowl contains apples, the ceramic vase holds water, etc. Unique to art is its utter meaninglessness, and this is precisely what confers upon it such infinite value. In our society, the most precious and scarce of all resources is time. From that perspective, the notion that an individual chooses to spend hours, days, a whole life time producing objects that have no purpose, is downright outrageous, and inspires both incredulity, awe and envy. Art is like perpetually skipping class to go for a dip in the river, an exhilarating fling that allows for escape from routine and conformity. The viewer may experience this joy vicariously: the work of art provides a little breathing space between the many perfunctory activities in a day, and enables you to reconnect with simpler times.
In these times of specialization, art-making is one of the very few fields in which an individual is granted full control of every step of the production process. It is a rare gratification to look at a finished product and say: "I made this all by myself." This pride and the intimate connection with the product put forth is described both in Marx and in Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as that mysterious quality that provides the inner calm and paradoxically the sense of purpose after which we are all chasing. After a life time of globetrotting and calamities, Candide found that peace in the act of cultivating flowers in his garden.
Art making is just that: utterly meaningless, manual labor that enables both the maker and the viewer both free-floating morphems disconnected from any context to feel grounded for a minute.