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Just Say No

Post #1681 • April 17, 2014, 7:11 AM • 1 Comment

[Image: Kevin Edson. (]

Kevin Edson. (source)

The day before yesterday, one Kevin Kayvon Edson showed up at the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of last year's bombing to execute a work of performance art. CBS reported,

Edson, according to police and witnesses, was barefoot, wearing blue and yellow face paint and a long black veil while screaming “Boston Strong” in the middle of Boylston Street at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday. It was a short time after the city marked the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. ... When Edson was stopped by officers, police say he told them he had a rice cooker in his backpack. That’s when the area was evacuated, the bomb squad was called in and Edson was arrested. Bus and subway service was also suspended. ... A source told CBS News that the rice cooker in the bag was full of confetti. ... Prosecutor Susan Terrey said Edson told police he knew what he was doing, calling the incident “performance art.” Edson is a student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston.

This is puerile even by the generous standards of performance art, his beleaguered family (the patriarch is battling Stage Four head and neck cancer) is scandalized and apologetic, and all involved confess to Kayvon's bipolar disorder. Having lost someone suffering from bipolar disorder to suicide, I hesitate to make too much out of his work or imply that it might mean something about the state of art in general, even in light of the fact that it's about as sad-making as The New York Post makes it out to be. (Edson also expresses a distressing but widely-shared crush on the surviving Tsarnaev brother that prompts me to fret about the state of civilization in general, but I'm trying to ignore that as well.)

Instead I note the public statement from Edson's brother TJ.

What [my brother] did at the finish line earlier today is absurd and shameful. It should not be considered art or condoned in any way. Do not play into that. He is a sick person with multiple diagnoses. Unfortunately, no consequences of his abnormal behavior were dire enough for him to shape up before he thought something like this could get him that fame he always chased.

This ought to settle a longtime argument I have had with Ed Winkleman about the designation of things as art. It's his position that it's authoritarian and censorial to answer a claim by an artist that something is art with "No it isn't." My position follows Darby Bannard's that saying that something is art does not make it art. Calling something art is really nothing more than a request for a certain kind of response, he explains. To which I add, whether and how we go about answering that request is entirely up to us. That response can only mean anything when offered in the same spirit of freedom that allows the request in the first place. At that point, No is an acceptable answer. Like in any market transaction, artist and audience are obliged to come to terms about value for an exchange to take place. Winkleman doesn't trust that free exchange when it comes to designating art as such—to prevent the audience from exercising authoritarianism, he believes in essence, it has to be granted to the artist.

Mentally ill or not, Edson was fully cognizant of his actions.

According to a police report read aloud in court Wednesday, Edson told an officer: "I knew what I was doing, it was conceived in my head. It's symbolism, come on. The performance got the best of me."

As his brother—who also identifies as an artist—says, do not play into that. We get to say no, you didn't make art. You failed your way out of the honorable category of art and into the tragic category of clinical narcissism.

No doubt someone is going to come along and say that Edson's right to free expression was hindered, or that his performance was art because he says it's art. I'm sure of it because of the inexhaustible supply of human folly. To him I reply, say no to that as well. If art is everything then art is nothing. Make some things not art so that art is something worth being.



John Link

April 20, 2014, 9:10 PM

In a vague way this relates to something I've been pondering lately.

Abstractionists more or less detached their work from subject matter or content or whatever one wants to call it. This was, for some, a path to making better art. But for many centuries before this development, great art was made and most of it included subject matter. One approach to this fact is to say what made this art great was not the subject matter but something else, something distinctively "else". Not all crucifixions are equal, even though they have the same subject, which illustrates this separation. Another approach, which I'm finding more and more compelling, is to accept the obvious - the subject matter of great art is part of that great art. Better crucifixions are those that one way or another make better use of their subject matter in whatever it is that the art is about. The crucifixion is not merely a neutral lever with which to conjure up some art.

Edson illustrates this in a negative way. When his art work fails to integrate its subject matter, it fails at art. Miserably, in his case. So miserably, it is reasonable to say the result does not warrant being called art. Whatever his work was supposed to do with the Boston Marathon and its recent history, it fell apart, flat ... on its face. Similar to a joke that isn't at all funny. At a certain point of failure, we no longer refer to it as a joke.

Likewise, a work called Piss Christ many years ago presented a similar circumstance. On the surface, it was a mildly alright picture of a crucifix in a golden environment, nothing great, but not obnoxiously bad. But when the title made the components in the picture more clear, the picture began to disassociate from its subject. Christ, all theology aside, was still a noble man who suffered great, almost immeasurable injustice. Dunking his memory into a vat of decomposing urine destroys the connection between the subject and the resulting picture. Instead of not-that-bad-not-that-good art, it breaks up into a juvenile aberration.

Both these episodes suggest to me that subject matter, when an artist chooses to use it, must be included in a positive manner into the work if the work is to succeed. It is not a case of isolation, where the subject exists on one plane and whatever makes art good, if it is good, on another. The artist is not free to pursue the goodness of his art completely divorced from his subject, once he decides to have a subject. The subject, just like the other components, must work as part of the whole. Ultimately, it is artistry that is used to accomplish this feat.



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