… Is playing at life, life? Is playing at life, “life”? Is “life” just another way of life?
This is from Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life; Expanded Edition by Allan Kaprow (2003; 1993). Today’s essay is ‘The Meaning of Life’ first published in 1990:
… The un-artist, as the name implies, started out conventionally, as a modernist, but at a certain point around the fifties began divesting her or his work of nearly every feature that could remind anyone of art at all. The un-artist makes no real art but does what I’ve called lifelike art, art that reminds us mainly of the rest of our lives.
… That word ["art"] and all the countless paintings, sculptures, concerts, poems, and plays it briefly calls up were part of the un-artist’s earlier commitment. So art, for a while, will linger as a memory trace, but not as something that matters.
This may make sense if we recall that the profession of art itself has played a major role in its own unloading. The innovative side of its history in the West is marked by repeated inclusions of nonart: junk, noises, pop themes, mass products, new technologies, perishables, fleeting events, politics, streets, deserts, bathrooms, telephone booths … The un-artist, therefore, is the offspring of high art who has left home.
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… Lifelike artists are either Harry or Mike, or both at once, playing at life’s daily routines. They find life’s meaning in picking a stray thread from someone’s collar. And if that isn’t it, they find it in just making sure the dishes are washed, counting the knives, the forks, the cups and saucers as they pass from the left hand to the right.
How different this is from “artlike artists” whose art resembles other art more than anything else. Artlike artists don’t look for the meaning of life; they look for the meaning of art. And when they think they’ve found it, they become very discouraged if told they’re wrong. They don’t go willingly on to some other answer, as Harry did; and they’re hardly free of doubts, like Mike. Most of the time they stick to their guns and even fight.
A man commits a crime and is sentenced to life in prison. When he arrives at the prison gate, he is met by an older inmate who has been assigned to supervise his adjustment to prison routine. After he has checked in and been given a uniform, they proceed to the mess hall for lunch, where the new inmate is introduced to the other prisoners. They begin eating, and after a few minutes he hears someone say “Fourteen!” Everybody laughs. Then he hears “Eleven!” followed by good-natured groans. Then “Ninety-two!” and giggles. Then “Twenty-seven!” Howls and tears. This goes on through the whole meal.
The new man gets more and more confused. So he leans over to his mentor and whispers, “What’s going on?” The older man replies, “We’re telling jokes. But we’ve told them so many times that we know them by heart. So to save time, the jokes have numbers. That way we can tell a lot more jokes.”
The new inmate nods and realizes he’s going to be eating with these men for a long time and might as well learn the ropes. So he says, “Sixteen!” and looks around at everyone. Dead silence. He leans over again and says, “What’s wrong?” The older prisoner says, “Simple. You didn’t tell it right.”
It is serious business telling jokes by numbers. A person needs a lot of knowledge and training in joke history to tell a joke by announcing one plain number. Do it properly and it becomes a whole world. Just hear a “five” or a “two hundred and seventy-eight” from a real jokester and you’d know it was a scream.
… What happens when you pay close attention to anything, especially routine behavior, is that it changes. Attention alters what is attended. When you wash your hands in the bathroom, for instance, do you wet your hands for three seconds, four, or longer? Do you pick up the soap with your left hand or your right? Do you work up a lather with three revolutions of your hands or more? How fast do your hands turn? How long do you rinse? Do you look into the sink or at the mirror as you wash? Do you lean backward to avoid the splashing water? Do you shake your hands to rid them of excess water before reaching for a towel? Do you look at yourself in the mirror to see if you’re presentable?
If you began accounting for all these operations in sequence while you were still washing your hands, you’d notice that they seem to take longer than they should and that everything happens awkwardly, or at least disjunctively. You may never have given any thought to how many movements you make automatically, or to their physical sensations. You might become fascinated with soap bubbles, with the drying motions of your hands, with looking at these in the mirror rather than directly. Soon you realize it is all very strange; you are in a territory of the familiar unfamiliar.
How, you may wonder, does someone else do it? How do you find out? Could you ask an acquaintance, “Please, may I watch you washing your hands?” Would you propose this in a private bathroom or a public one? If the proposition were accepted, could you depend on the “normalcy” of the demonstration? Where would you stand, close by or behind? Would you copy the washer’s movements in order to remember them, with your hands in the air, looking in the mirror at him looking at you? Or would you put your hands in the same sink with his?
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Two commercial housecleaners want to do something nice. They arrange to clean each other’s kitchen floors. The plan is to do this by using only Q-Tips, and lots of spit. They have to work on their knees, with their eyes close to the floor. Crumbs, hairs, dead bugs, and other interesting things appear.
Finally, both kitchen floors are spotless. Later, when they tell a friend about it, she says, “What, you cleaned your floors with dirty spit?”
Q-Tip [image from Wikipedia]
These events, of course, are themselves the meaning of life. Inasmuch as lifelike art participates in its everyday source, purposely intending to be like life, it become interpretation, hence “meaning.” But it is not life in general that is meaningful; an abstraction can’t be experienced. Only life in particular can — some tangible aspect of it serving as a representative, for example, a ripe summer tomato.
… if you asked about the meaning of the preceding events, you could consider a number or reasonable answers. Cleaning a friend’s kitchen floor with Q-Tips and spit, for example, instead of doing it more efficiently, could mean (a) seeing life from another perspective; or (b) testing your friendship; or (c) making the simple complicated; or (d) putting yourself (your spit) wholly into the job; or (e) being free to cheat since no one will see you; or (f) being on the track of something big; or (g) getting some exercise …
… Is playing at life, life? Is playing at life, “life”? Is “life” just another way of life? Is life playing, or is my life playing? Am I playing with words and asking real-life questions?
Life in birds, bees, and volcanos just is. But (to paraphrase an earlier point) when I think about life, it becomes “life.” Life is an idea. Whatever that idea might be — playing or suffering or whatnot — it floats, outside time, in my thoughts. But actually playing at life in any form happens in real time, moment by moment, and is distinctly physical. I scrub my friend’s kitchen floor with Q-Tips, my knees hurt, I run out of spit, I look for beer … If I think about life under those conditions, it begins to resemble a hair, a crumb, a dead fly. And that’s another idea.
So lifelike art plays somewhere in and between attention to physical process and attention to interpretation. It is experience, yet it is ungraspable. It requires quotation marks (“lifelike”) but sheds them as the un-artist sheds art.
It seems to me that what Kaprow is saying that un-artists do is no different from what artists everywhere have always done: observe closely. What he’s leaving out is any subsequent “making” but for this un-art (or, in my opinion, truncated pre-art or prep-art process) to do its work, a claim (by someone) has to be made — that that is what is being done. Without a claim, the processes described could just as easily (usefully, intentionally) be forensic or scientific or little children’s observations (just to name a few candidates).