The Power of Ugly Art
The Talking Suitcases seminar opened up my understanding of art and storytelling, as well as revealed to me the importance of storytelling in bringing art to life. Previously, I only thought of two kinds of art. There was the kind of art that was in museums; the snooty kind of art that never made much sense to me. Regardless, so many people seemed to rave over this kind of art that I couldn’t not include it in my conception of art. Then, there was the more accessible type of art; the kind of art that I really enjoyed. This kind of art was the murals painted in cities, or the paintings and drawings that I did at home. This art was usually a visible expression of some emotion or situation, and it was the kind of art that was interesting and appealing even to someone with no education in “fine art.” However, what both types of art have in common is that they are aesthetically pleasing in some way. As much as I might not care for the art in museums, I would never call it ugly.
Talking Suitcases showed me that art can be ugly, and still be powerful and meaningful. The objects we created in this class were simple objects, made quickly from simple materials. Yet, we call them art objects; how can that be? If it is not the beautiful appearance that makes art what it is, then what is it? I came to realize, through this seminar, that the story that hides within the art is just as important as, if not more important than, the appearance of the art itself. The story is what brings the art to life, and gives it meaning. What made our ugly little objects art was the stories that they held.
For example, my first object tells of my childhood. I loved to read as a child, so my object is a little book made out of some cut and folded cardstock. It is not much to look at; the “cover” is plain black, and there only a few hastily cut white pages, and all of the edges are rough and uneven. There was originally two butterflies flying out of the pages on some wire, however, one of them fell off and was lost. There are some scribbles and words on the pages; there are words like “dragon” and “castle” and “fairy.” The words aren’t coherent, there is no actual story present in this object. Given that this object is already falling apart, it is not some high-quality art piece. However, it represents a happy part of my life, and the ultimate influence books had over the course of my life. Its value lies in its representation of my life, not in its actual appearance.
Similarly, some of my other objects were hastily done and are somewhat “ugly.” One of my objects is a plain white box, with the only outside decoration being sparkly clear beads in orderly lines. This was meant to represent how I appear to the outside world: neat, orderly, and perhaps a little boring. However, once you look closer, there are so many little details that are messy—glue blobs and string here, a bead slightly out of place there—in no way was this box any kind of artistic perfection. The inside is even worse. It was purposefully chaotic, with little paper drawings spilling out. The drawings themselves are not my best work—they were done in a rush and just meant to be rough representations of the things that I love. However, the red paper, which is supposed to be the Targaryen crest from Game of Thrones, hardly looks like a dragon at all. I have drawn Pikachu a hundred times, yet this one was a bit misshapen and strange looking. Let’s not forget my “plane” that looks rather awkward and misshapen. Despite the many flaws and mistakes of this box, it still reveals an important part of my story, and that is what makes it art. The adding of meaning and story is what gives such a strange and imperfect object its artfulness.
The quality of the story often ended up being greater than the object itself. One of the best experiences of my life—studying abroad in Barcelona—resulted in my least favorite object from my talking suitcase. The object was a large, rolled up piece of blue paper (that has since been squished in transportation) and a “pop-up” skyline of Barcelona. While this object had potential to be really cool, the skyline ended up being rather messy and not as impressive as I would have liked. The experience behind the object was amazing, while the art literally went flat. However, in retelling my experience, I was taken back to Spain and all the beauty that I saw and experienced there, and found that, despite the ugliness and imperfection of the object itself, I felt so much happiness and nostalgia. The haphazard sketch of Barcelona became art through the story that it told.
My suitcase itself was also not art—I didn’t even make it or decorate it. It was just my old hiking backpack that I took with me when I traveled to Europe. However, it again represented all of the travel that I did; there were weeks when my entire life was in that bag. The backpack itself is even falling apart—there are little holes and tears in some of the pockets. However, these flaws actually become part of the story that it tells—those tears are from the adventures that I went on; they would not exist is the story had not happened. Thus, even a simple backpack can be art when it holds meaning and emotion like mine does for me.
A few of my objects however, were closer to what I might have considered art before this class. One such object represented a story from my childhood, when I used to be afraid of the monsters in the dark. The object, then, is all black on one side, with 3 pairs of scary green eyes that almost seem to glow. While this may not be a piece of fine art, it is still conveys the creepy tone in a strangely beautiful way. The other side provides a pretty contrast, with a white background and lighter, prettier colors; the scary eyes have turned into friendly monsters. This object is closer to something “artful” than the other objects were, but it is still enhanced by the story behind it. The contrast makes sense when given context: the dark side is when I was terrified of the monster, while on the light side, I have made friends with the monsters. Nighttime turned from something dark and scary into a time when I could chat with my monster friends. This switch is reflected in the object itself, but is enhanced by the story.
Similarly, my last object is of a cherry blossom tree. The flowers are made out of cut up tissue paper glued on the drawn tree branches. This object, out of all the others, is the most visually beautiful. If it was bigger and on an actual canvas, it might be the type of thing I would hang up in my room. Again, however, this object becomes even better once the story behind it is revealed. My dream is is the future to someday go to Japan to see the cherry blossoms bloom. Making this object then is so much more that creating something pretty. It is a representation of my strongest desire, my most important dream. Despite its relative simplicity, it makes me smile to see as much as any other piece of art I have ever seen or created.
I found that the idea of stories enhancing art (especially art that is otherwise somewhat simple or ugly) to be true when others did it as well. In our peer workshop, many of the pieces people created were hastily thrown together and rather messy in their appearance. However, hearing people talk about their objects was fascinating, and beautiful in how it revealed what was important to these people. My friend, for example, made an object that had all of her pets in a line. The “pets” were little wooden shapes with strange wire tails—it is nothing I would ever call cute or beautiful or even all that interesting. However, what made it interesting was what it revealed about my friend. Making an entire object about her pets revealed how important they are to my friend, and that is what turns a strange little object into meaningful art.
Ultimately, I am taking away from this class an appreciation for “ugly” things, because what appears ugly may actually be part of a wonderful story. I suppose it is much like the cliché saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in a way that applies to art. Art for me used to be all about the cover; it is not as if art can be opened up to reveal pages of an amazing story within, right? Wrong. I learned through this class that art is much like books; there is a deep meaning behind so much of art, even the most simple and ugly of art. In learning those stories, the ugly becomes beautiful.