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What is Art?

What is Art?

by James Mickens

There is nothing more horrid than a painting made by a child. There is no suffering more complete, more unyielding, than hearing a child say, “I made a painting of you!”, and then looking at that painting and seeing your humanity represented as some kind of monster tree with googly eyes that’s wearing a hat you never purchased, and would never wear if it were received as a gift. “That’s lovely,” you tell the child, “really, it’s quite lovely,” but you silently pray for a meteor to strike you down and end this hideous mortal folly. The insolence of that child, that bumbling assemblage of preposterous confusions---how dare a toddler claim any insights about the rich tapestry that is your face, your body, your experience? You do not spend 30 minutes with a Shake Weight™ every day so that you’ll be depicted as a scarecrow with a thyroid disorder and a cowboy hat. You soak your face in mango juice and rare seahorse milk to remove wrinkles, not so that your visage can be portrayed as some kind of shriveled, lonely carcass that even scavenger beetles would mock. You are attractive to scavenger beetles. You know this, and your truth shall not be denied. The painting will be thrown into a fire, and the child will be thrown into a vocational school.

In his groundbreaking manuscript “Superficially Deep Observations,” art critic Leonard Saint-McJoffrey said “art can never be loved, only hated.” The fact that Saint-McJoffrey was later revealed as the co-founder of Scientology is no reason to dismiss his powerfully shallow wisdom. How, then, do we understand the abomination that is a child’s painting? If we hate it, Saint-McJoffrey says that it is art. Indeed, he is correct---the child’s painting is art. It is bad art. Only by adding a nuanced layer of pretentious judgment to Saint-McJoffrey’s framework can we finally achieve a provably correct theory of art. We must hate all art, but for the right reasons. Think about this as you fall asleep tonight.

Examples accompanied by rambling, opaque commentary will clarify. Consider the following sculpture:


This menacing, non-European object threatens a viewer’s sense of Christopher Columbus-based privilege. As such, this wicked statue must be rejected on general principle and placed in the Vatican with a placard that says “THINGS THAT WE FOUND DURING THE CRUSADES LOL.”

Now consider this sculpture:


This is much better. It depicts a fictional Greek history in which everyone was noble and had fantastic helmets which they wore as they defeated barbarians and learned how to cure syphilis using leeches and burnt offerings to dramatic superbeings who lived on Mt. Olympus. We must hate this sculpture, but only because it reveals that we should be playing fewer X-Box games, and reading more timeless plays written in the obscure, chicken-scratch-based alphabet of ancient Greece.

Hello there! What is this?


Answer: this is just a square. There’s nothing else. If this thing robbed you, and the police said, “Describe who took your wallet,” you’d just say “a square” and then you could leave the police station. Why would anybody want to look at this painting? Who needs a remedial course in what a square is? Everyone knows that a square is the shape that is not a triangle and not a circle. Boom! You are now a master of squares. Surely this painting is a fiendish joke created by the liberal media elite. I see the trap and I escape it with the feline grace of an Iberian jaguar.

For an example of real art, look at this:


Now we’re getting somewhere. This drawing is functional and practically useful. It speaks to the formulaic, mechanistic world which years of advertising have convinced me is ideal (p.s. McDONALDS IS DELICIOUS). This drawing is a pragmatic solution to my everyday widget problems; if I ever need a left-handed elliptical gasket dongle, I will know exactly how to build it, assuming that I already have all 27 pieces and the necessary training in arc welding, circuit design, and not being decapitated when I accidentally turn on my hobbyist gasket dongle using 183 volts instead of 120 volts (BTW WHAT’S A VOLT). Regardless, these details would only distract a tiny mind. My expansive imagination is free to wander where it pleases, as long as my wandering destinations do not challenge the commercialization of Valentine’s Day or my deep fear that I may not actually need a new smartphone every two years.

In conclusion, art is something that can only be understood by highly trained intellectuals who have years of experience with cocktail parties, Ikea, and book clubs that take Malcolm Gladwell seriously. Only by harnessing an expansive set of aesthetic prejudices can one truly discover why a piece of art is worthless, and whether it is more or less worthless than another piece of art which is also probably worthless. In a world filled with confused MFA recipients, it is our job, nay, our responsibility to explain why “big data” and exotic financial derivatives are the only true foundations for creative expression. The time for action is now, and we are the people we have been waiting for to act for themselves at others. That monster tree painting is not going to throw itself into a fire! I mean, it might, because it’s so hideous that it has probably gained sentience and convinced someone to build it robot legs. However, I trust that you understand my superficially deep observation.

About the author

James MickensJames Mickens is a researcher in the Distributed Systems group at Microsoft’s Redmond lab. His current research focuses on Web applications, with an emphasis on the design of JavaScript frameworks that allow developers to diagnose and fix bugs in widely deployed web applications. James also works on fast, scalable storage systems for datacenters. James received his PhD in computer science from the University of Michigan, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech. James Mickens is also the funniest man in Microsoft Research.

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