In Lily Tomlin’s Tony award-winning 1992 play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Trudy the bag lady is convinced she’s in contact with extraterrestrials. “We think so different. They find it hard to grasp some things that come easy to us, because they simply don’t have our frame of reference.” In one of her trances, Trudy gets into a discussion with her alien friends about the meaning of art. She shows them a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, and says, “This is soup.” Then she shows them a picture of Andy Warhol’s painting of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, and says, “This is art.”

When it comes to defining art, we’re as lost as Trudy’s space chums. We may instinctively recognize art when we see or hear it, but find it hard to agree on what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” One person’s Mondrian is another person’s manure. But if “reality is nuthin’ but a collective hunch,” as Trudy concludes, how far are we going to get in figuring out “art?”

There is one kind of art that most of us would agree is bad: the art of the nasty, old, totalitarian regimes. Several years ago while visiting Budapest, I took in Szboropark, (Statue Park), a resting place for huge, pre-Glasnost monuments. It’s a kind of theme park for the death of communism. On a cloudy spring day, I stood on the windswept plain of Szoborpark, surrounded by 42 mammoth figures of Lenin, Marx et al. Concrete workers with raised fists looked to the horizon, accompanied by steel-frame, ramrod-straight soldiers. The figures, along with their leaders, appeared ready to march off in every direction. A souvenir stall nearby played revolutionary era music and offered “McLenin” T-shirts and aluminum cans containing “the last breath of communism.”

Back in ‘89, the Hungarians refrained from smashing the statues to pieces after their comrades in East Berlin reduced the Wall to rubble. Instead, they plucked the figures from their plinths and stored them away. Historian László Szörényi proposed the construction of a museum to house them, but local councils rejected this proposal. Eventually, they agreed on building a park for their display, on a grassy site 15 kilometres outside of Budapest. Although there was an effort in the tourist literature to dispel the idea that it was a “joke” park, it’s undeniable that some of the best examples of bad sculpture – of the most rabidly-ideological kind – were on display at Szboropark. The scale of the statues, some as high as 40 feet, was worthy of the central planning mindset. But I noticed that many of them were anatomically incorrect: the shoulders weren’t set right and the legs launched off the bodies at weird angles. Perhaps this indicated some artistic resistance, a minor protest by artists against regimes that had channelled their talents into sculptural boilerplate. Perhaps they had subversively worked cubistic effects into their social realism, in spite of the official communist stance against modern art. Whatever the explanation, the bodies under these plate-like suits and trousers were as unwieldy as the ideology that had fashioned them.

Oddly enough, memories of Szboropark bounced around in my head during a recent visit to downtown Vancouver, when I got a close look at the Vancouver 2010 Countdown Clock, located across from the Vancouver Art Gallery. Fashioned by Omega, the official timekeeper for The Vancouver/Whistler Winter Games, this wedge-like construction stands more than six metres high and three metres wide and weighs over 2,600 pounds. Two electronic displays count down the time, to the second, remaining until the Games’ opening ceremonies.

Designed to withstand the predictable assaults from protestors, this spray paint-resistant monolith has an oddly anachronistic look, like something designed in the seventies by bell bottom-wearing futurists. It’s easy to imagine it as an upright sarcophagus for Mike Myer’s Dr. Evil, a nuclear device from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or something excreted by a 300-foot, Fisher-Price robot. The redundant purpose of this monstrosity is to count down to the 2010 Games, as if Vancouverites are so shaky with excitement we can’t consult our own calendars. Amazingly, the thing doesn’t even live up to its nominal purpose: on a sunny day, the cyan, digital readout is a little hard to make out on the reflective turquoise surface.

The wedge-like appearance of the countdown clock “quotes” from the other Olympic design misfire: the blocky figure representing the 2010 games that goes by the name “Ilanaaq.” According to the official website for the 2010 games, “The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games emblem is a contemporary interpretation of the inukshuk. It is called Ilanaaq, which is the Inuktitut word for friend.”

An “international judging panel” chose the emblem from “… more than 1,600 entries from every region in Canada.” The design, submitted by a Vancouver communications firm, was unveiled with great hoopla in a Pythonesque stage ceremony last year. As dancers leapt about and flashpots went off, the segments of the inukshuk fell into place, in a government-subsidized anticlimax. The public response was a collective, “Huh?” Not only did this stiff, blocky figure fail to conjure up the image of athletes in motion, it was geographically incorrect. Natives indigenous to the West Coast don’t create inukshuks. Critics immediately seized upon the design’s many flaws, describing the emblem as “Gumby with a rocket launcher.”

If Szboropark’s huge, clumsy statues accurately reflect the spirit of central programming, the 2010 Games’ Legoland designs sum up a more recent, top-down phenomenon: how western cultural output is increasingly the tool of advertising and public relations, media monopolies and publically-subsidized spectacles like the Olympic Games. This is art and design by hyper-capitalism. What totalitarian art shares with hyper-capitalist art is a top-down, horse-by-committee sensibility. In both cases, bureaucratic conservatism and ideological correctness ensure that the approved art is scrubbed free of any personal feel. You are left not with art, but with an argument: a thinly-veiled proclamation of who’s in charge, whether it’s summed up in a statue of a dictator, a civic mega-project or a sport mascot’s celebration of electronic global capital. As Trudy the bag lady might say, it’s soup pretending to be art.

You could stand for hours in front of a hyper-capitalist piece of art and not feel a thing. That’s probably a good thing from the perspective of the sponsors, who don’t want to risk offending anyone – the perennial risk of any viscerally-real art. Perhaps this offers a clue to what “true art” is all about. Does it produce a bodily change, however small, in the witness? Does it alter the breathing or the galvanic skin response? Does it dilate the pupils or produce tears? Is there an audible wow factor?

If totalitarian and hyper-capitalist art represent the spiritually-bogus side of culture, perhaps the subterranean, soul-activating art – the art that actually moves us – represents the real thing. It’s like Zirconium versus diamond. We recognize this kind of art right away because it gives us a shiver or a start.

At the close of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Trudy’s space chums bid her adieu. “We have [been] ordered to go to a higher bio-vibrational plane. Just wanted you to know, the neurochemical imprints of our cardiocortical experiences here on earth will remain with us always, but what we take with us into space that we cherish the most is ‘goose bump’ experience.” Trudy’s extraterrestrial friends wisely link the goose bump experience to the human appreciation of art.

According to Merriam Webster, goose bumps are “a roughness of the skin produced by erection of its papillae especially from cold, fear or a sudden feeling of excitement.” When a person is cold or experiences strong emotions such as fear or awe, the autonomic nervous system produces the fleshy bumps that raise body hairs. This is known as horripilation, piloerection or the pilomotor reflex. It occurs not only in humans, but also in many other mammals.

Trudy’s extraterrestrial friends quite enjoy the pilomotor reflex, it turns out. As we all know, beauty-driven goose bumps feel pretty good. A piece of music, a theatrical performance, a film, architecture, even a photograph may set off a “Wow!” response. As our skin stipples, a subtle tingle travels along the body’s meridian points and we are swept up in a wave of awe mixed with reverence.

This sort of feeling of awe or reverence, although rare, is commonly refereed to as “numinous,” a Latin term coined by German theologian Rudolf Otto to describe that which is wholly other. According to Wikipedia, it is part and parcel of belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and the transcendent. “Otto formed the word numinous from numen, in a manner analogous to the derivation of ominous from omen.”

So why would awe, fear and cold and a near-religious experience with a piece of music or other art all produce a similar physiological response in human beings? Perhaps there is some neural crossover with a spillover of signals in ancient parts of the brain. Or perhaps it indicates an ambivalence of the “skin-encapsulated ego” to a phenomenon that shatters our conceptual boundaries. The experienced shiver can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the nature of the experience.

There is a clue, perhaps, in the earliest-known examples of representational art. In Graham Hancock’s recent book Supernatural, the author examines the latest scholarship on the famous, prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in the south of France. The ochre and charcoal renderings include pictures of chimerical beings, half-human, half-animal. Hancock argues convincingly that the purpose of the cave paintings was to enter into imaginative association with the spirit world. Art has shamanic roots, he suggests, a claim that is supported by a great number of anthropologists and art historians.

This is an ironic assessment of the original purpose of representational art, considering where we’re at today. For respectable, secular-minded artists, the idea of any world beyond this one is a convenient fiction cooked up by superstitious cultures. They may pay lip service to such quaint notions through cleverly referencing ancient myths in paintings, poetry and prose, but it is mostly an intellectual exercise, far removed from first-hand experience.

Not surprisingly, an artistic sensibility that has forgotten, or even negates, its source in the sacred often results in work as empty as the eye sockets of a three-story Stalin.

Is this one reason why so much of North American cultural output these days is as forgettable as a disposable razor? Whether you’re puzzling over a heap of bricks in a civic museum or picking through the gross-out comedies at your local Blockbuster, you’re in the twilight zone of empty cultural constructions. And how does a culture fill a spiritual hole with artsy head games, subsidized shell games, psychic violence, infantile distractions and corporate fairy tales? Quite simply, it can’t.

Luckily, plenty of living artists are working against this century-long, retrograde trend. Beauty of any variety has had a tough time, but it still finds its way into our galleries, concert halls and movie theatres. And every once in a while, thanks to committed artists who have mastered a technique or discipline, we get tantalizing glimpses of something bigger.

As Keats insisted, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” We may be thrilling to a passage of music, grokking a piece of art or architecture or losing ourselves in a theatrical performance, and suddenly something grabs us by the hairs of the neck. Call it the oversoul, the body-mind, or what you will; something inside us resonates like a plucked string to a beautiful truth. Some part of ourselves momentarily awakens to a memory we can’t even place.

Still, “art” as a cultural phenomenon is too mercurial to be contained by definitions, including my own. I wish things were that simple. But after trying to fashion a net to catch “art,” I realize the big one has gotten away on me.

For example, through the creative use of spotlights and architecture, Hitler’s architect Albert Speer hit an archetypal sweet spot among Germans with his massive Nazi rallies. These rallies, attended by thousands of awestruck Germans, and recorded by the talented filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, played no small part in manipulating Hitler’s audience. These were, by all accounts, beautiful, soul-stirring events. Similarly, the horrors of the Inquisition were inspired by the same faith responsible for the magnificent interiors of Gothic cathedrals. The more things change, the more they stay the same; check out the chilling 2006 film Jesus Camp, where fundamentalist adults send young children into ecstatic trances through the clever use of music, chants and oratory.

As for the blocky figures at Szboropark, I’m sure they once struck a transcendent chord in many observers. Across Russia and the East Block, the original revolutionary impulse was fed, in no small part, by a heartfelt belief that people could collectively rise above class and income extremes. To confuse matters further, some of the greatest graphic art ever conceived dates from pre-Stalin, Eastern Bloc revolutionary posters. Only later, when Bolshevism hardened into orthodoxy, did the art become clumsy propaganda.

As real as the wow factor is, we still need that small doubting voice inside to ask who or what is served by our lofty feelings. So, in the end, I have no answers for what “art” is or even what it should be. I conclude in that demilitarized zone between skepticism and faith. Words fail me. Instead, I leave you with the wise words of Lily Tomlin and her scriptwriting partner Jane Wagner, describing Trudy the bag lady’s last night with her extraterrestrial friends:

“Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theatre, standing there in the dark; all of a sudden I feel one of ‘em tug my sleeve, and whisper, ‘Trudy, look.’ I said, Yeah, goose bumps. You definitely got goose bumps. You really like the play that much?’ They said it wasn’t the play that gave ‘em goose bumps, it was the audience.

I forgot to tell ‘em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience!

Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things. . . that just knocked ‘em out.
They said, ‘Trudy, the play was soup… the audience… art.’

So they’re taking goose bumps home with ‘em. Goose bumps! Quite a souvenir. I like to think of them out there in the dark, watching us. Sometimes we’ll do something and they’ll laugh. Sometimes we’ll do something and they’ll cry. And maybe one day we’ll do something so magnificent, everyone in the universe will get goose bumps.”

Geoff Olson