Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Last week, while lazily shopping online for a second-hand vacuum cleaner, I found a box of empty picture frames for sale on Facebook Marketplace, 20 dollars, most apparently in standard sizes: 5x7, and 8x10 inches. I’m not positive what compelled me to click the button thereby instantly messaging the seller “I’m interested…” maybe it was just that. The auto-filled response applied, conveying my intent as a potential buyer. Having moved into my first real apartment only a few short months prior, I imagined that even if my carpet would continue to gather layers of dirt and dust, perpetually unclean, my walls could at least be adorned with art.
My aim here is to broaden the scope within which we conceive of artwork, and by doing so maximize, or at least increase, the proliferation of appearances perceptible to the common eye, and opportunities to encounter them, thus constituting a shared understanding of reality. I’d like to explore the importance of engaging with our world, with our own constructed movements and spaces in accordance with the idea that all of it is art. I am encouraging the amateur maker, the craftsperson, the fabricator, even the living room decorator, and I am affirming the handiwork, however uncertain, of anyone with an artist’s intent, as worthy of the name.
With such an intent in my heart and mind, I drove out in pursuit of bargain treasure.
Owning dozens of unfilled frames gives the unparalleled inclination to frantically sort through old tucked away photographs in search of contenders for living room exhibition. I started learning how to operate an analog camera early in high-school. Soon, endowed with a hand-me-down Pentax Program Plus from my old man, I became fascinated with the process of making pictures in a box with a lens. The photography practice has resulted in several boxes of pictures printed on paper, each representing a particular memory of time, place, and people. The images-as-objects serve as a reference point only when seen, so I decided to display a few. Selections included examples of attempts to reckon with light, line, texture, and perspective. Another criterion might have been color, but I had used black and white film, not venturing to engage with that next vital component of aesthetic consideration. Maybe I’ll pick up paints one day.
After resigning myself to the fact that I now owned many more frames than photographs I would ever be willing to show, I then looked with a new eye through long-ignored sketchbooks, poster-board collages, an ever-growing collection of various ephemera. The more numerous the frames, and therefore more daunting the prospect of filling them all, the lower the bar becomes about what might qualify for display. This shift in perspective proved freeing.
Next thing I know I find myself envisioning experimental mixed media collages made from found objects: the plastic ring six-pack holder, empty, now the poster-child of this-will-end-up-in-the-ocean trash; The useless laminated paper tape measure, ordered online from China, whose measurement in inches on one side proved wildly inaccurate, while centimeters on the reverse held perfectly true; the gold lapel pin I pocketed as a souvenir during my last visit to the local masonic temple. I figured anything could be arranged on canvas, or even cardboard, and then framed, thus rendering the object art.
Just like within the viewfinder of a camera when we press the shutter release button, whatever finds itself within the frame is automatically designated an object of significance, be it a person place or thing. Any image in a frame can be a work of art and any collection of objects in one’s living room can be a gallery — the act of gathering together images and objects imbued with meaning is by definition a curatorial undertaking. Questions worth asking next: What story are you telling to the guests who enter into your space? What story are you sharing with yourself?
As the decorations in one’s home become commonplace, their significance may bleed into the subconscious. We might notice their presence less and less overtly every day, but their role as real-world manifestations of our notions, feelings, longings, and memories remains vital.
Art need not even exist in the material realm — music, poetry, and dance can express the most profound sentiments using the languages of sounds, words, and movements of the body. These media are almost an inverse to the art object, insofar as their impermanence juxtaposes with the indefinite lifespan of a painting or a sculpture, whose non-degradation distinguishes a work of art from an everyday use object such as a table or a piece of kitchenware. Despite this incongruity, a deeper commonality lies at the source. The work of art, be it bordering on eternal like a carving in marble or transient the performance of a concerto, is marked not by any aim to serve a particular utility, but rather by the processes of thought, consideration, and feeling — human stirrings — that bore it. Most important is the attempt to communicate meaning to another person.
“For us, appearance — something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves — constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life — the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses — lead to an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized, and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experiences.”
I find this passage from Hannah Arednt’s The Human Condition eye-opening in its emphasis on shared-ness as a fundamental component of reality. It’s like the formal metaphysical analysis equivalent of my feeling that I need to throw a housewarming party in order to believe that I’ve truly moved into a new space — underpinned, among other reasons, by a strong inclination to show off the art that hangs on my walls.
Arendt goes on to describe the utter uselessness of art as one of its inherent characteristics. These objects which we call works of art are the physical manifestation of thoughts, feelings, and ideas — intended to not to wear away by being touched or interacted with at all, but merely to exist in the world as a product of human handiwork. Art is not productive nor does it carry utility, but it can be a vehicle for subjective humans to communicate abstract, otherwise private, ideas via the simultaneous perception of a material object.
Collecting, and showing, art can be viewed as the radical act of seizing back control of a metaphysical aesthetic. In other words, what your does reality like? Who gets to make this decision? Shouldn’t that someone be you? These days, ever greater proportions of our waking hours are being monopolized by the extra-small screen, and this is by design. Technology corporations are buying and selling your attention via addiction-maximizing algorithms and content that is trying and increasingly succeeding at advertising to you things you don’t need. By these sinister forces, we are drawn deeper into the illusion of shared space upon the virtual platforms known as social media, which mimic the satisfaction provided by mutual recognition of a common object by distinct individuals. a process which, according to Arendtian logic, in fact affirms the very creation of reality.
Social media, unfortunately, allows only representation: images and recordings. Posting and reposting results in inescapable levels of metareference. The internet is a place and process of hyperreality: the increasing and confounding inability to discern between real and simulation, as coined by Jean Baudrillard. Art, quite to the contrary, is avowedly and unavoidably real. The very act of ascribing significance to a material object is grounding. The spinning top in Christopher Nolan’s Inception isn’t just a lofty metaphor, it’s a literal reminder that tangibility is essential to our understanding of life and our place in it as actually extant. Beyond pictures, however pretty, (or not), the mere existence of an art object, when declared as such, is enough to remind us the we exist as subjects to perceive it.
Our less-formal methods of carrying ourselves through the world and expressing ourselves to others can abide by the same ideas as the creation and display of artwork: ideas of collectively recognizable appearance, foundational to a shared understanding of reality. We can look upon our everyday actions with the same logic: If a work of art is a totem to represent the possibility of communicable meaning in a God-forsaken world, then if we act with intentionality, maybe mere behavior, as it appears before others, can have the same effect. Such an outlook can run the risk of being burdensome to the psyche, when every item in the home takes on the significance of a museum artifact and every social encounter is construed as an elaborate performance… but maybe the burden is worth shouldering for the sake of possible enriched human connectedness.
Well, I finally got a vacuum cleaner for my apartment. The place is a little cleaner now, though some dust still gathers on the frames from that 20-dollar box, those yet unfilled. I like to think their emptiness represents the promise of future artwork, images to be conjured by hand or moments in the life to be captured on film. It would probably do me, and all of us, some good to continue making art instead of pontificating; to put these notions about metaphysics into play in the physical world, where they can be observed, handled, discussed — shared with others, rendering them, and maybe me, more real.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Ch. II, The Public and the Private Realm, Sec. 7, The Public: The Common. p. 45–46. The University of Chicago Press, 1958.