‘List of Shit I Can’t Do’ by Michael Decolvenaere


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This piece needs a little explaining because understandably it might come across a little confused otherwise. I consider myself a bit of an artist; throughout my life I’ve written poetry, drawn extensively, and have enjoyed composing musical pieces. On top of this I was an extremely active young adult; I played football for my high school, loved walking and running with my dog, was fairly socially active, and was successful in my academic endeavors. To make a long story short (and hopefully to contextualize all of this and the forthcoming piece of art), I suffered an extremely traumatic head injury in October of 2008, fracturing my skull, splitting my ear canal, and causing a condition known as ‘Post-Concussion’ syndrome. While there was a lot of physical agony that came to me as a result of my head injury, the part that hurt me the most was the inactivity. In order to let my skull fracture heal properly I quite literally had to lay completely still in a bed, head facing forward, elevated by three pillows for twelve weeks. The discomfort caused by my ear canal made sound extremely painful, and I was extremely photosensitive from the post concussion syndrome (this is why they let me wear sunglasses in my Hunter ID Photo), so I spent most of those twelve weeks by myself in a quiet, dark room.

I was used to always to doing something, you know, I hated that feeling of wasting time and needed to be occupied or engaged in every waking moment Suddenly, instead of thinking of my endless possibilities- of the litany of things I should be doing, that I could be doing, that I would be doing- all I could think about were those great many things I couldn’t do, wouldn’t do. A great many of my waking moments were spent ruminating over these things that I wasn’t able to do, that I couldn’t do; so often I was brought to tears at the thought of it, at other times I would become very angry and wanted nothing more than to thrash around and scream. The only tangible thing I could do was write, but as Higgins suggests on Page 283, “At times…we see artistic beauty as thoroughly inappropriate.” There was no muse for me to draw beauty from, no morsels of aestheticism from which to forge that sense of ‘beautiful sadness’  we experience when reading Walt Whitman’s “O’Captain!” or Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The world in which I belonged to was abjectly devoid of the beautiful.

This was my inspiration for “List of Shit I Can’t Do”- I wanted to capture the redundancy of the fact that all I could was write a list of all the things I could do. The piece is literally a list of three hundred and fifty things I couldn’t do at the time of its inception. It was the culmination of my need to create a work of art, my desire to communicate to my friends artistically the experiential starvation I suffered day-in-and-day-out without eliciting a false sense of beauty that had no forbearance on my artistic process.

I was immediately drawn to use this example when I started on Higgins exploration of the notion of beauty being internal to a work of art. Danto’s notion of inner beauty being ‘internally connected with the reference and mood’ (p. 281) sums up the artistic characteristic of “List of Shit I Can’t Do.” I wanted my audience to feel the same aesthetically devoid stupor that was the source of inspiration for the piece. I didn’t want the audience to commiserate with me in the face of a beautifully sad poem that engenders such emphatic feelings; I wanted the audience to feel my same frustration in having to read the list from beginning to end- that mundane, ascetic means through which the entirety of the piece of art had to be processed: one line at a time, in 12pt Times New Roman. Some elements of the list were quite grave and referenced directly to my deteriorated physical condition, while others were whimsical contrivances or specific allusions to movies, poems, and the list itself.





Pablo Picasso- Grapes and Violin (Pippin, Pg 22 on Cubism)

Grapes and Violin by Pablo Picasso is archetypical of the Cubism style developed by Picasso and Georges Braques. Picasso and Braques developed the Cubist style of painting in 1912 while sharing a summerhouse in Sorgues. Turning away from both the traditional artistic tecniques of perspective and shading, as well as the historically mimetic conception of art as copying nature, Cubism embraced the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Only by exploring and embracing the two-dimensionality of the canvas are Cubist artists able to capture the fundamental essence of the painting’s object insofar as a Cubist painting, however distorted it might be, still can be said to elicit in the audience an image of the painting’s subject matter.


Put another way, the cubist painting I chose, Grapes and Violin, can be said to capture the essence of a violin by revealing to the audience the visage of a violin out of the distorted vestiges of such an instrument. I think Pippin would be fond of this piece of art and Cubism more broadly because it fits Pippin’s definition of abstract art perfectly. That is to say, Pippin contends that abstract art is about exploring the freedom of intersubjectivity; that a good piece of abstract art is ultimately attempting to capture the myriad of perspectives one could take towards the modern condition of life, and that the direct representiality of the piece of art is of little significance. As Pippin himself puts it on page 22, “painterly and indeed sensible representations cannot be understood on some sort of mimetic model of seeing through the image (or sensation) to the object itself and that, without the work of (historically variable) meaning making in perception, the constituents of meaning are shapes, borders, dots, frames, and so forth.”

Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest” (Carroll, 588-90)

I chose this modern rendition of Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest” to encapsulate the ‘Cunningham Technique’ alluded to by Carroll. That is to say, this dance piece is iconic of Cunningham’s unique approach to dance expressionism whereby the late choreographer asked dancers to “change direction within the body and in space” in order to embrace his notion that “dance and music should be able to exist independently of each other while sharing the same time and space” (dancespirit.com). In this clip, the dancers employ the Cunningham Technique through what I can only describe as sporadic, inorganic motions of the body akin to Beardsley’s notion of expressive dance as requiring a “superfluity of expressiveness” (Carroll, Pg. 589), and in turn, the music has a similarly inorganic quality that evokes in myself a similar sense of anomic angst as the dancer’s do. Interestingly, the mylar balloons in the background of this piece are actually a piece of Andy Warhol’s art titled “Silver Clouds” (mercecunningham.org).

Carroll actually makes mention of the “Cunningham Technique” on page 590 to counter Beardsley’s expression theory. Carroll is right in saying the ‘Cunningham Technique,’ as seen in the clip above, is devoid of “any inkling of overt affect” but in my opinion she errs in going on to assert that the “Cunningham Technique…banish[es] any superfluities of expressiveness”(Carroll, Pg. 590). To Carroll’s point of the invocation of an overt affective state, I don’t mean to argue that their is any specific emotion being superfluously expressed, however, it is hard not to consider the sporadic gyrations seen in the clip above as being superfluously expressive of SOMETHING (and in my opinion the feeling being expressed is that sense of anomic anxiousness which is a hallmark of postmodern art, such as the music of Shoenberg and Ligetti).