Art that simply cannot be art

About a week ago I gave this article by Allan Kaprow to the people I am teaching this semester. The piece is called “Art Which Can’t Be Art.” In the article, Kaprow talks about the experience of brushing his teeth and wonders what it might be like to give that activity the attention of art making. This attention would not be given in the context of a gallery or museum, like Duchamp, but would rather be right there, in the bathroom, as he is actually doing the necessary act of brushing his teeth. As a result of this attentive brushing, he thinks:

“I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, non-conscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it as a child. I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ignored. I guessed also that most people were like me in this respect.”

I gave this to the class because their final assignment is to create a personal narrative of sorts and so many of them told me their lives are boring. Maybe they are, who am I to say? But I, like Kaprow, think my body is sending me thousands of signals and maybe I am not exactly ignoring these signals, but I have certainly turned the volume down on them. Sometimes, through a sort of severe act, the volume comes back up. I told the class about how when I have sprained my ankle I get kind of angry with everyone else walking normally–like, don’t they know how good they have it? I told them this because it is (kind of) funny and I know at least a couple of them will laugh. It seems to be good way to get the point across without being overly didactic or emotional. But this time, I carried it a little further.

I don’t remember when or how I learned to brush my teeth. But here comes Miles. Over the last couple of years Shannon and I have been working with him on this whole process. We bought an electric Winnie the Poo toothbrush (this was as about as corporate and gender neutral as I could stand) and appropriate kids toothpaste that can be swallowed. We showed him how to hold the toothbrush and helped him put the toothpaste on it. It was kind of a train wreck. Toothpaste would go everywhere and he would just sort of hold it on is tongue or in one spot and then claim he was finished. Shannon or I (mostly Shannon) would have to come back in and do the whole process again. Slowly, he caught on. Now he can kind of do the process himself, especially since the dentist walked him through some of the finer points of the whole endeavor just a couple of weeks ago. Miles also got his picture on the no cavity wall, so everybody is happy.

So I told my class about this a little bit and how, truth be told, this has been almost a 2 year plus process to get Miles competent at brushing his teeth. Hopefully, one day Miles will be sitting some place like they are right now and have no idea how he brushes his teeth, he will just know that he can do it without much thinking at all. And then, because everything is always right under the surface for me, I started to tear up just a little bit. I thought about his effort and I how proud I was of it. I also thought about Lena and how she is experiencing everything still for the first time and her resilience in the face of so much that appears daunting. I guess they don’t really perceive much of a choice in all this right now, but I am so proud of them nevertheless. And all this effort and pride is in the service of something that will someday be second nature to them. I also felt pride in myself. I never really thought of myself as being patient, but being a parent has granted me the ability to practice being patient time and time again. It has also asked me to be quicker to forgive. Maybe I could have eventually gotten here on my own but I have little doubt that the kids largely made this a quicker possibility. Out of the ordinary experience of something like brushing your teeth I found something that is so simple suddenly so profound. It dawns on me: Allan Kaprow is a genius.

Maybe this is art. Maybe its mindfulness and Jon Kabat-Zinn books. Maybe its being present in the classroom or at home or in the studio. Maybe it’s philosophy, or good fiction or those sublime moments in John Jeremiah Sullivan essays. Maybe its just being kind to others and myself. Art as a term holds the most capacity for me professionally so I use “art” here, but I am working on becoming increasingly comfortable with it just meaning that I am being human. It’s not perfect because there are flaws present, its just that the flaws don’t really seem like flaws.

Again, words fail me.

I guess this means I have failed.

Well, I need to pick myself up and look towards the youngest person in our house and draw inspiration from her slow, defiant, steady attempts at walking. There is a art lesson there too.

Gratuitous Picture of the Day (Skeleton babies are the scariest babies/This kid has no cavities edition):




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One response to “Art that simply cannot be art

  1. Your thoughts (or Kaprow) of the banality and staleness of our conscious life reminded me of the following work done by a Graphic Designer named Nicholas Felton. this work is a record of the nine years of this man’s life. As much data that was measurable about his existence he collected. It is a different look at “brushing teeth” but the narrative is strangely similar.

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