Necessary Luxury

by Dave Munger

Sculpture4It's almost impossible to come up with a pithy statement summarizing the age-old struggle to define “art” and “artist.” Yet for my stepbrother Mark, for whom daily existence is a struggle, wrestling with these concepts takes on a new dimension.

I can still remember scoffing in my Intro to Art class in college, when the professor told us about objets trouvés and showed us works like Duchamp's Fountain—an unmodified urinal displayed as art. That's not art, I muttered to myself. If I can do it, it's definitely not art. Picking up some random object and putting it in a museum does not make something art. Art is something more than that (Of course, maybe it's not, but at the time I was quite convinced I was right).

When we were kids, Mark was always picking up sticks and shaping them into amazing things. I was particularly fond of a knotted piece of driftwood that he carved into a hydroplane with his pocketknife. Hydros are like Seattle's version of stock car racing, and here Mark had transformed a bit of flotsam into something any ten-year-old would love.

Eventually one of his parents gave him a set of real carving tools, and he started to make sculptures out of wood. “Wood is interesting to me because it had a previous existence,” Mark says. “Then it ends up dying and being made into something completely different. What it went through in its life affects how it grows, which affects what you can make out of it.” Mark created the sculpture above to represent metamorphosis; as you rotate it, the magical person he's depicted seems to change, to lose its skin and express its inner self. But the act of creating the carving mimicked the work itself (or is it the other way around?), as he transformed a piece of wood into into a work that expressed what he wanted.

The more difficult transition, the one he's still struggling with, is making himself into an artist. It's something I share with him, because I struggle with it too. The differences between the two of us are primarily due to chance. I've never had the physical ailments he's had, and unlike me, he wasn't lucky enough to marry someone who can support the irregular career of an aspiring artist (Once again, we're back to definitions—you can of course dispute whether a writer is an artist).

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