FineArtForum vol.15, issue 8, August
First Word Art / Last Word Art
Art means many things to many people, but I know of
one cut that neatly divides the art world in two, and ultimately relates
to other worlds such as business. One might call this "first word
art" and "last word art." At least thats how I first
heard it. As a grad student long ago, I discovered a resourceful and eccentric
engineer named Brad squirreled away in MITs famous Building 20,
a funky wood-frame structure left over from World War Two. Building 20
housed the Radiation Lab, the Research Lab for Electronics, Noam Chompskys
first Linguistics Lab, and the MIT Council for the Arts. Brad was the
optics and electronics engineer for RLEs Jerry Lettvin, and occupied
a space filled to the ceiling with gear in various stages of assembly,
and with gerbils. He looked like he was somewhere between 35 and 65 years
old, and once told me he never got out of bed before noon. He seemed to
enjoy helping over-stimulated wildcard types like me.
One day, in an effort to calm me down, he asked what
I thought of the composers Haydn and Beethoven. He said their art was
not only different but opposite. Franz Joseph Haydn, he continued, invented
the classical symphonic form. People heard it and found it new and novel.
Critics had little basis for comparison, or for rating its quality. "First
word art," declared Brad. Years later, after the symphony became
an accepted format, one of Haydns students, Ludwig van Beethoven,
composed his Ninth Symphony. "A hard act to follow," said Brad.
"Last word art."
And there you have it: First word art is groundbreaking
and exploratory. Its playing outside any rule structures. It side-steps
competition. People often dont know how to react to it. Last word
art is virtuosity after the rules have been fixed. It accepts the established
form, and is judged by comparison.
Some folks consider first word art as the only true
art and believe last word art isnt art at all. Why bother if its
already been done? Doing something better or more beautiful is merely
entertainment, not art. SF MOMA Director David Ross likes to say that
"artists always need to ask themselves whats my job now?"
Other folks consider last word art as the only true
art and believe that first word art isnt art at all. How can anyone
do anything well if the medium is still evolving? Dont confuse exploration
with expression. Rudolph Arnheim wrote in his 1932 "Film as Art"
that when cinema went from silent to sound, the level of art went down
since everyone was interested in the novelty more than anything else.
A filmmaker friend once told me that he works in 16mm
film for all the opposite reasons that I work in new media. He said he
likes his medium because "all that experimentation stuff has already
been done and now I can simply use it." Its noteworthy that
16mm film once occupied the niche of the experimentalist until video came
along, and video held the niche until the Web.
First word art and last word art may ideologically divide
the world in two, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For
several years I asked my students to bring in examples of art in any medium
that they believed were both first word and last word art. Though
such lists are often all over the map, some examples recurred:
The Wizard of Oz. Tommy (the rock opera). Stravinskys
Rites of Spring. The Beatles Sergeant Pepper. The Pantheon in Rome.
Cubism. Pointillism. Anything by John Cage. Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.
Kubricks 2001. Early Martha Graham. Early Disney. Brecht. The geodesic
dome. M C.Esher. Hunter S. Thompson. Abel Gances 3-screen Napoleon.
Debussys symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Melville
and Hawthorne. The Frisbee.
Then, one of my students asked "doesnt last
word art require surviving the test of time?" Everyone was astonished
that something so obvious had been overlooked, and no one disagreed.
So perhaps the distinction between first word and last
word art is in the priority of the timeframe. An electronic arts festival
needs to show whats hot now. A museum collection curator needs to
select whats worth saving for future generations to experience.
This distinction may be a healthy one to look at today
in the world of high-tech business. Weve just come out of a viciously
first-word moment, where people cut down the trees for the apples. Now
everyone wonders whats next, with a general acknowledgement that
seeds need to be planted and nurtured as well as short-term opportunities
need to be seized. If life follows art, it may be possible to do both.
Then art can move ahead meaning many things to many people.