On Nick Cave’s “Feat.” at the Frist
Published in Blog Archive. Tags: Live, Nashville.
We each went in, M and I, tied by agreement that we would only be allowed to take one — no: five, no: three — pieces with us when we left the Frist. For each of us, our first pick was the first piece we encountered: Nick Cave’s “Architectural Forest.”
The installation piece is massive, intricate, and so very impressive — bamboo, wood, wire, plastic beads, acrylic paint, screws, fluorescent lights, color filter gels, and vinyl. I’m trying to think back to what it was that was most captivating about it… maybe the size of it all or the incredible weight of creative investment. It was beautiful.
Several multimedia works and a video installation (“Blot”) followed, but it was Cave’s “soundsuits” that closed the tour of the artist’s work. A placard explained the initial inspiration for the series as a reaction to “the beating of Rodney King by policemen in Los Angeles more than twenty-five years ago.” “As an African American man,” the explainer went on, “Cave felt particularly vulnerable after the incident so he formed a type of armor that protected him from profiling by concealing race, gender, and class.”
We sat down on a bench in front of the exhibition’s signage and M raised a question surrounding limitations of reason as it relates to the meaning behind a piece of work, or maybe as it relates to expression in general. I don’t recall the specifics of her idea, but what I remember deals with the connection between a work of creation and its inspiration not always aligning, and the authenticity of the piece directly relating to the observed distance between the two. I wish I remembered that moment more clearly.
In a 2012 PBS feature, Cave spoke to this a little – “this” being: how does a bizarre ornamental costume represent racially-targeted violence – and he addressed it by challenging viewers to ask themselves what they’re engaged in when they experience a piece. I take this to mean that if you’re engaged in a work, and are exposed to its stated motivation, to then recognize the feeling within yourself as the meaning. This isn’t to take away from prescribed or inherent meaning of art, but maybe just this sort of art. If I don’t participate in the artist’s defined meaning of what they created, there’s no way that thing is going to bear that same meaning to me. Maybe that’s what M meant.
None of this is to say artists can’t be absolutely packed to the brim with bullshit, or that someone’s claimed motivation shouldn’t be challenged, but to debate someone’s artistic intention is an awkward proposition: Doing so risks stripping that individual of whatever fundamental experience it is that pushed them to create their work in the first place, and further limits how they should be able to react to that experience and express their feelings. I feel embarrassed about the simplicity of my naivety with this, but had that line of thinking dawned on me a decade ago I could have saved myself several hundred blog posts worth of grading an artist’s assumed intention in the name of critique (or more specifically, with blogging search engine optimization in mind: in the name of “reviews”).
I don’t know how much much emotional benefit there is to be gained in researching creation and intention, and comparing the manifested work with its inspiration, weighing the two against one another to see if what someone made was any sort of success (let alone if it was “good” or not). Yet that’s my default behavior in this online space — I want to fall into that track of googling just enough about who Nick Cave is and what he’s about to write the skeleton of a profile piece, laying the occasional reference over top of which that might reflect how I personally feel about the man or his work in the hope that a reader would determine my words something of value as they relate to the grander work(s) at the heart of the matter. I’ve gone through that process so many times in the past, not because I’m any sort of journalist, but because that made me feel like I was part of something — that my two cent were somehow worth more than face value.
I took something away from this or I wouldn’t be here, trying to sort through it all, though what I gained seems to have little to nothing to do with the spark of inspiration that originally led to the creation of what we saw that day at the Frist. By the standards of everyone involved, though, I believe that’s exactly what makes it a “success.”