Monday, August 21, 2006

Apples and Art

I had a strange moment here a couple of weeks ago. It was already a surreal day. For one thing, it was a Monday, when the gallery doesn’t come in, and the printers weren’t around, so it was mind-numbingly quiet For another, it was a cold day in the middle of July, which to me is always weird enough on its own. (Sometimes I think it’s the totally unpredictable weather that keeps San Franciscoans so much more youthful than the New Yorkers I know—you have to be ready for the most drastic changes; you can’t settle into the comfort of expecting the seasons). So when a man named Terry wandered into the gallery with a friend, asking questions I didn’t know the answers to, I was caught off-guard. After wandering through the gallery and then back out into my bookstore area, he commented about a piece of my lunch that was sitting on the shelf behind me, “That apple is better art than anything in the gallery.”

Not simply, “better.” Not, “more beautiful.” Not, “more tasteful” (but that would have been funny). “Better art.”

“What is art?” is a tiresome question that has been asked too often for it to have an answer—too often to have just one, for sure. My thoughts were more along the lines of “what could he have meant by that?” So it was with some (small) consideration that I gave my lame little joke of a response: “Too bad God isn’t an artist represented by Crown Point Press.”

It’s a dumb comment, but it reveals a difference between the way Terry (who, I later found out, is a mathematician at MIT) and I think about art. For Terry, art can exist in the world without being consciously created, a product of someone’s thoughts. For me, art has got to be the product of a thought, a feeling, a style, and something left up to chance. It’s a constant balance of meant-to-be and something an old teacher of mine used to call “the happy accident.” It is about setting up a situation with the best of intentions and then watching what happens, allowing yourself to have a give-and-take conversation with your work of art, where you listen to what it needs to say and allow it to go where it wants to go, but where you ultimately get to choose who gets the final word. That apple was pretty (it was a Pink Lady: my favorite kind). But it was certainly not the product of any sort of process like that.

...Or was it? Let’s give Terry’s offhand remark a little credit.

Pink Ladies are the product of a 1979 tryst between 2 apples named Golden Delicious and Lady Williams, at the Stoneville Research Station for a company called Apple and Pear Australia, Ltd., located near the Margaret River in Western Australia. High-maintenance as their name suggests, Pink Ladies require 120 days of pure sunshine in a temperate climate to get the blushy color they are bred for. In fact, all Pink Ladies fall under the category of Cripps Pink apples (named after their inventor, John Cripps), but only 45% of Cripps Pinks meet the marketing requirements for Pink Ladies, which are quite strict.

Terry probably didn’t put that much thought into a jaded comment about my lunch, but if he had, he could have argued, maybe, that my apple is what art is all about: some unsung apple geneticist (not John Cripps, it turns out, who just picked the first Pink Lady out of its litter after it was born) saw the opportunity for the conjunction of two great ideas: the Lady Williams and the Golden Delicious. What’s more than that, this person had to have known that the Golden Delicious has a recessive gene that, when it’s bred with certain other varieties, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, causes its offspring to be pink.

Whoever invented the Pink Lady must have taken the time (Secret no. 2: Use a Lot of Time) to understand what he had to work with. He tasted the parent apples (no. 1: Cultivate Sensuality) and was struck with a great idea (no. 4: Have an Idea). Then he must have experimented over and over (no. 3: Get into the Flow). He set up a situation where there was room for experimentation, saw what the apple ‘wanted’ to be, and guided it toward a lovely, purposeful product

But at the end of the day, the Pink Lady is not art. It’s a delicious apple. It’s pretty. It is an impressive experiment in marketing: at you can see the tireless efforts of Apple and Pear Australia, Ltd. to make Pink Ladies “the UK’s fastest growing apple brand,” including recipes, games, tee shirts, even a competition to win your own ice cream maker. But however original the idea of promoting an apple as if it were a candy bar, however skillful the breeding of the apple in the first place, however beautifully and delicious it turns out (and I am a huge fan of these fruits!), the apple itself is not art. It can be seen as symbolic, but its meaning will not change over time. You might enjoy eating it, but it won’t “move” you. And you can think about it all you want (excessively, even), but it won’t change anything about the way you think. “Art is a speculation of possibilities,” writes Kathan Brown in her Magical Secrets, and I have to agree with her: the only art about that apple was contained in the moment that Terry responded to it, and I responded to him. With his comment, which really meant next to nothing except, maybe, that that he was jet-lagged and jaded, Terry opened up an avenue of speculation for me, a new possibility, changing ever so slightly and suddenly the way I think. The art of the apple was in the moment.

- Rachel Lyon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rachel, I really enjoy this website and your blog! In regards to this entry about the apple - I agree that it is not 'art' in our current definitions, but I might disagree with a couple of your other comments (all in friendly banter, of course). Eating an apple may move you if it brings back a memory, the same way listening to a particular song can flood the mind with memories. The senses of smell and taste involved with eating an apple (or anything really) could possibly trigger certain recollections, depending on who the 'eater' is, and what they may have experienced while eating apples in the past. For someone like me, who is allergic to all raw fruits and vegetables, just the thought of having an apple for lunch is a foreign world which I'll never get to experience the way others do. (I thank God every day that I'm not allergic to chocolate!) If I were ever able to eat an apple without getting sick, I can assure you, it would indeed open my mind, move me and change the way I think! Keep up the spectacular work on a wonderful website!

3:02 PM  

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