Form? Function? Does it Matter?

Form? Function? Does it Matter? It makes us stop and take a look.

Cildo Meireles, Thread, 1990-95
48 bales of hay, one 18-carat gold needle, and 58 meters of gold thread
First time on view at MoMA

I saw this sculpture at MOMA a few weeks ago in New York City.  Here’s what is written about it:

“Meireles creates sculptures and installations that tie everyday materials to larger political and philosophical concerns. ‘Thread’ is a modular cube, a form evocative of the geometric rationality of Minimalist art, but it is constructed of a material generally associated with agriculture. At one end of the wire, a single 18-carat gold needle is inserted into the cube, recalling the common expression, “Like finding a needle in the haystack.” The pairing of substances with different monetary values but that here are nearly indistinguishable visually suggests the precariousness of economic relationships, and the minute needle embedded in the massive cube may call to mind the place of the individual within a larger social system.”

A pile of hay in Montana at a horse ranch.  circa right now.  Artist unknown.  On view most every day for the last 50 years.

Here’s what comes to my heart and mind:
The hay stack at MOMA was ridiculous to me, and as open as I am to receiving art and what it might teach or inspire, I scoffed at “Thread.”  Scoffing is not my usual practice at an art museum.  I am the one who walks around the piece a few times, no matter how “ridiculous,” giving it a chance to touch me.  I once watched a woman sucking her toe in an art installation in Paris for a good fifteen minutes.  There’s always something to learn or feel.  Violent aversion is better any day than scoffing.  Scoffing, yes, is a reaction.  But not one of any elegance.  It feels limited and akin to someone looking at a Pollock and saying, “My three year old can do that.”  “Yes, but your three year old DIDN’T do it,” I like to say. 

I suppose this brings up ye olde form follows function argument.  The very act of taking a tube of toothpaste– the commonplace, and being deliberate enough to put it into a museum, out of context, to inspire some sort of new relationship with that tube of toothpaste, is the kind of stirring-the-pot-of-perspective that art is all about.  But hay?  Good hay?  Do they know what the price of hay is these days?  Do they know how many people are being forced to get rid of their horses because of the price of hay?

I guess that’s what’s happened to the once art history major in me– after 17 years, I am a country girl.  Maybe that’s what I was scoffing at on some level.  I couldn’t “go” with this one.  It seemed wasteful and stupid.  Why not show a film of my farmer friend climbing all over her three story stack of hay, risking her life twice a day to feed forty head of horses, solo.  To me this hay sculpture was wasteful, or almost a mockery of farm life. 

All I could think of was this Montana friend, who works so hard to pay for and care for the hay which sustains her horses, standing there looking at this “sculpture,” and no, not scoffing.  But feeling kicked in the face somehow.  Some people don’t have time for this kind of perspective-pot-stirring.  They don’t want to see their livlihood on display; played with; wrapped in gold thread, and not orange baling twine– an example of the “precariousness of economic relationships.” Worse: “The minute needle embedded in the massive cube may call to mind the place of the individual within a larger social system.”  They know they are within a larger social system– one which doesn’t often offer much help. 

But here I am scoffing on their behalf.  Maybe I’m the problem because I need to report on it.  Truth is, my friend wouldn’t find herself at MOMA.  And most probably, this “scultpure,” wasn’t meant for her.  Hers is a different consciousness.  Her perspective gets stirred by the bald eagles who ride thermals above her while she climbs up this three story stack of hay and ties down tarp in wind storms. 

Maybe it’s because I don’t see hay as form and I don’t want to. I see hay as function.  Hard won.  A lot harder won than toothpaste; I don’t mind trying to see a tube of toothpaste out of context and receiving the lessons therein.  And even calling it art. But when I see my friend up on that hay stack, risking her life twice a day to feed forty head of horses, and never complaining about it…when I see her up there, I feel the passion and hardship of farm life.  And yes, my perspective is stirred.  Because when I offer to help, she declines.  She has her system.  I would be in the way.  Maybe then, you could say, that she has her “art.” And it’s not important that it’s witnessed.

Once I got over my initial scoffing that day at MOMA, I walked around the sculpture a few times– reminding myself that it is best to see where we are in our own way, and let go of it. There’s no real power in scoffing unless we’re going to do something about it. And really, this wasn’t one of those times. And finally, this stack of hay, erected there in a museum, was benign.  In fact, I decided that I would have liked it more if it wasn’t wrapped in gold thread and if it was missing its gold needle.  I would have liked it more if it was just the same as what stands tall in my friend’s field, waiting to be eaten, threatening to rot in its place.  Because at least in that form, it would be like an animal in the zoo– sacrificing its freedom to educate those who would otherwise never see it in the wild. 

That’s it!  I thought. The reason for the scoff.  It was clear to me then. Having lived in Montana for 17 years, I realized that I am protective of wild things.  Or just rural things.  They don’t belong in museums and zoos.  The sacrifice I just described is the only justification I can think of.  As a city person in origin, I guess that I have become defensive of the country, as if it needs me to be.  And then, I scoffed at myself. Because we all know that the country does just fine on its own without some woman standing in an art museum in New York City trying to save it from art rape. It’s being raped in all sorts of ways that are way worse “crimes.”

And I wondered in that moment, if that means that I am finally at home here in the rural west.   I don’t think I was looking to find that when I paid my $20 to go to MOMA the other day.

In the end, I sat on a bench, deflated.  People were walking around the stack of hay, looking at it as sculpture.

And then, as it usually does when I take myself too seriously, the funny part came in like a MC with a hook and a hat telling me I’d been on stange too long: I felt a tickle in my nose.  That old familiar tickle that means I’m going to sneeze.  Over and over and uncontrollably so.  You see, I am allergic to hay.  Badly allergic.

And I did.  I sneezed. People avoided me like the member of the Great Unwashed that I was to them then, letting loose into my shirtsleeve.

So in that case, the hay, in whatever form it presented itself, was NOT benign.  In that case it was purely itself, whether it was wrapped in gold thread or not. 

Here are some comments on modern art.  What are some of yours?

“What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”
–Octavio Paz

“It is not hard to understand modern art. If it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture.”
–Tom Stoppard (British Playwright, b.1937)

“Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea.”
–John Ciardi

“Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask.”
–Robert Motherwell

[Abstract art is] a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.
Al Capp (1909 – 1979)

“The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
–Jackson Pollock


Filed under City Hits, Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

12 Responses to Form? Function? Does it Matter?

  1. During the years I was enmeshed in urban New York culture I got tired of everything being ironic. Nothing was sacred. I don’t miss it.

    When it comes to modern art, I like some of it. If I hadn’t read your piece I probably would have gone with the artist’s sense of irony because I expect to see irony in modern art. Also, there is a kind of nod to the passion of agriculture in contrasting it with the minimalist cube.

    However, I see your point, and cringe to think of your friend enduring hay as irony.

    Love the John Ciardi quote.

  2. Great post Laura! Country scenes are visceral. For some, hay is more than art. It’s a livelihood. I love how you express that here. My largest reaction to hay is the smell–dusty and tangy. Or twangy. Like Donny and Marie would say, “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll”.

    • lauramunson

      What I love is that there is no right or wrong with art. That it’s in the eye of the beholder. The hay challenged me in this regard. I so wanted to make it “wrong.” In the end it had the last laugh! yrs. Laura

  3. My son Sam said “It is hay bails. Modern Art often lets people with no skill make something and say it is art. It’s wierd, dumb stuff.” Sam wants to major in art and takes hours to perfect drawing anatomy-like noses or flowing hair. I wanted his opinion because he is passionate about art-what he considers really good art. He takes a lot of time to create something from an idea. I love that about my 17 year old soon to go to college (boo hoo) son.

    • lauramunson

      Hi, Sam. Thanks for sharing. I used to be such a pain in the ass about loving EVERYTHING that was in an art museum. I was, then, a bit Adult-a-fied this last visit. I’m so bummed. I want to be Sam’s age… ox Laura

  4. I admit a preference for more traditional forms of art. The world offers all kinds of beauty and we can find art in the form of everyday things, but for me, traditional art like Realism, Romanticism and Impressionism is what makes me stop and want to look.

  5. Patty Viers

    Your reaction to this hay reminds me of my reaction to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. When my Professor asked my opinion, I said that I was sort of disgusted that someone could wake up and be changed into a giant bug. I felt relieved when he told me that my reaction is perhaps what Kafka was trying to create. So maybe the hay artist was trying to evoke a reaction of critical thought. I like this piece of work – - but I also really like your photograph of hay in its natural “functional”

    I am a big fan of modern art, and also love Pop art (I’m a big Andy Warhol fan). Did you know that Josef Albers did over 1000 paintings over 25 years (1950-1976) titled “Homage to the Square”? I am a big fan of him and his work.

    Here’s a quote to add to the art quotes (although who knows if he was talking about modern art – it’s really all subjective):

    “A Masterpiece of art has in the mind a fixed place in the chain of being, . . Every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good. Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
    – - Socrates

    • lauramunson

      “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good. Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
      – - Socrates

      This is what I might use now as my shield, if there is one. Thanks, Patty! Laura

  6. I totally agree with Sam. I have been a commercial artist since 1980 and take considerable time in drawing and painting! That is the “skill” and Art! Not hay bales (I too am a country girl, had horses etc. etc.) So, feel free, tell your opinion maybe the public could be educated in what “art” should be…(you hit a nerve with me on this type of @x!** ) Then like you said is that what this so called “artist” (I use the term very lightly!!!) wanted from us?

    • lauramunson

      Hi, Barb. I just went to the Picasso show when I was in Chicago, and it was so interesting to see all his representational work. So skilled was he in that regard. It somehow justified some of his other work for me. So I guess that is a question worth asking– do I only respect an artist if I can know them in the sense of their many hours of studying and developing of craft– such as you described with your own work? I used to think not. But, as a writer, I’m only now giving myself permission to write in incomplete sentences. I believe that the spirit moves the artist and what makes the artist an artist is how he/she answers that call. I’d be lying if I didn’t think that years of studying theory wouldn’t improve the depth of the artist’s answer. It’s a huge argument that many people have had, and perhaps why I took myself out of my art history major and into the act of being the artist. Hmmmm. I guess I’m old enough to admit what I like now, and not get bullied by the word “should.” Art was such a huge wide open field for me as a younger woman. I wanted to fight for the vastness of that field. This trip to MOMA felt different to me. I gave myself permission to me honest. Maybe that’s what moved me to write this blog post. Maybe that’s when the artist emerges authentically. When they’ve given themselves that permission. Thanks for sharing, Barb. yrs. Laura

  7. Truly, art is everywhere … even a wonderful cake or pie can be a work of art, I think. Here in Dakota, on the prairie, the fall crops are a work of art — hay is amazing! And by dropping labels, as Eckhart Tolle suggests, we can admire whatever speaks to us … calling it art whenever our spirit suggests the same.
    Modern art works for me, but anything intriguing finds a home in my heart. Lovely post, Laura! — Daisy @ SunnyRoomStudio

    • lauramunson

      I had a dream last night that my grandmother was serving me pie, and she said, “That’s our family word for love. Pie.” Thanks for this, Daisy. If art= love, I’ll be okay with that! yrs. Laura

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