Photo by Patrick Sullivan
Tolstoy wrote an essay in 1896 called “Chto Takoye Iskusstvo?” or “What is Art?” At the time, the author was disenchanted with how art was being defined by society at large and took issue in particular with the idea that art should elicit pleasure. Instead, he argued, it should act to “infect” the viewer with some specific combination of emotional qualities, pleasant or not. He argued, among many other points, the more infectious, the better. In the following blog I will be selecting a few of his important ideas and poorly retranslating them into a few brief sentences, then applying them to the performances of post-art school white rapper Ice Rod and cross-dressing karaoke provocateur Neil Medlyn. If the very prospect of this extrapolated literary hoo ha makes you feel a little vomity in your tum tum but has somehow piqued your interest, then I think I am on the way to succeeding in my mission. Let’s begin…
#1 Tolstoy: In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.
Art should not always make us feel fuzzy and warm. It should make us feel SOMETHING, however.
Ice Rod’s got it wrapped up on this one. His backup B-boy dancers humped their exercise balls and one another the entire set. Ice Rod himself let the audience throw beach balls at his face and weathered the barrage without missing a beat in his lyrics. There were definitely some funny feelings roaming through the audience.
Score: 1 for Ice Rod on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
Neil Medlyn made everyone feel excited for the first few songs. There were fists thrown up in the air. Initial giggles popped over the crowd. The crowd loved it when his top slid down and his little nipples shook around with his energetic movements. People love Beyonce and were into Neil’s version.
Score: 1 for Medlyn on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
#4 Tolstoy: The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena.
Poor Translation: One should experience a piece’s emotion in an infectious way.
When Ice Rod spit the words, “I’ll use my tongue as a tampon” on his song Menstrual Flow, my week was shot. The phrase came back to me like a meme, cycling through my brain as I biked downtown, to the grocery store. It came out my mouth like a tic every time my friends asked me what I thought of the TBA performances thus far. He had almost the whole crowd pretending to ride tiny skateboards on “Your Body is a Skate Park.”
Score: 1 for Ice Rod on the Tolstoy Infect-O-Meter.
Neil Medlyn’s performance covering Beyonce is a diffuse memory of sparkle and shake. I don’t remember much but a vague feeling of amusement. The response by members of the audience I talked to was a similar steep decline in enthusiasm by the end of the show. The initial enthusiasm was not exactly infectious.
Score: 0 for Medlyn on the Tolstoy Infect-O-Meter.
#8 Tolstoy: The feelings with which the artist infects others may be most various – very strong or very weak, very important or very insignificant, very bad or very good: feelings of love for one’s own country, self-devotion and submission to fate or to God expressed in a drama, raptures of lovers described in a novel, feelings of voluptuousness expressed in a picture, courage expressed in a triumphal march, merriment evoked by a dance, humor evoked by a funny story, the feeling of quietness transmitted by an evening landscape or by a lullaby, or the feeling of admiration evoked by a beautiful arabesque – it is all art.
Poor Translation: Art can evoke a great variety of emotions.
After Ice Rod’s performance there were a lot of shrugs in the audience. Outside the venue I heard quite a few people say things like “typical art school,” or “I’ve seen it before.” While I was surprised to see such such nonchalance in the face of lyrics like “pee in a cup/raise it up/splash it on your face/you know you love the taste,” there was a widespread reaction of non-reaction.
Score: 0 for Ice Rod on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
Neil Medlyn also drew a wave of shrugs from people in the audience and in the back lot. “Eh,” I heard over and over. Quite a few, “So he just sang Beyonce?”
Score: 0 for Medlyn on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
#12 Tolstoy Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.
Poor Translation: Art is not a beautiful beam from God. It is much much more than that. It unites people into feeling and action.
Ice Rod’s lyrics on the song “Menstrual House” describe how women get their period at the same time as, “the collective unconscious of the bodily process.” I would have liked to have heard a little more of this kind of stuff sprinkled among the pee and blood and flesh and flash of Ice Rod’s lyrics. It’s a funny line, but it also gives a person a little something to hold on to among the taboo confetti of words.
Score: 0.5 for Ice Rod on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
Neil Medlyn delivered no new or original information except his singing and dancing (over the very discernible voice of Beyonce). But the spectacle of a white skinny guy glamming it up like Beyonce may have served to open up some minds in terms of “What Is Sexy?”
Score: 0.5 for Medlyn on the Tolstoy Art-O-Meter.
TOLSTOY ART-O-METER TOTAL SCORES*:
ICE ROD: 2.5/4=63%
*Numbers are to be interpreted however the reader chooses. For instance, one might choose to interpret 38% as a dinosaur or baby succulent, or 63% as cubic zirconia or chocolate.