Art on the brain.

Yesterday, my friend David Topper posted a link to this article on the fashion blog Fashionista, which describes how Francesca Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s daughter) and her boyfriend, photographer Tyler Shields, destroyed a $100,000 Birkin handbag for the sole purpose of shooting a series of photos. The reactions to the photographs and the acts that Clintwood and Shields undertook to create them are vicious.

From Shields’s own website:

I had been a fan of your work for about five years, but, I vow to never give your photographs another glance now. This is incredibly insensitive to those in financial need, and, frankly, an embarrassment for the both of you. This is not artistry; it’s a pathetic attempt at shock value.

fucking spoiled rich fuckers have NO clue what it is to make a dollar. Go and work for a living and see if you burn a 100k bag. Hell you wouldnt even be burning a 50 dollar bag. That is NOT art losers.

I will openly admit that I know jack shit about fashion: I wear jeans everyday and (I can hear David cringing) I live in Birkenstocks. David, however, has been working in the industry for over a decade, so I was intrigued when he posed the question: “What are your thoughts?”

The backlash Eastwood and Shields are receiving evokes a really big question that I, as a literary writer and theatre manager, often consider: What makes a work art? And tangentially, can an individual unintentionally produce a work of art?

Shields is a photographer. There is little doubt that his intent is artistic, though the commenters on Shields’s website disagree, yelling, screaming, and rallying that photographs showing the destruction of a $100,000 handbag is not art.

But is it?

The outcry in reaction to these photos is directed very specifically at the cost of the handbag. I agree that $100k could do a lot of people a lot of good. However, I also profess that the arts are an essential part of humanity and are well worth funding. Would I be angry if an anonymous wealthy donor chose to give $100,000 to my theatre company? Would I claim such a donation “a waste of money” given the economic strife of many around the country? Absolutely not.

But not everyone agrees with my stance that the arts are essential.

The rage this photo evokes among many speaks volumes about the historical and cultural context in which it was produced. Isn’t that part of art’s job, to give society a chance to see itself without excluding the good, the bad, or the ugly? Destroying such an expensive, frivolous item doesn’t make these good people, but it does stir a highly charged and emotional conversation about contemporary social constructs and the way people exist within those constructs. Was that the artist’s intent? Who knows, and quite frankly, who cares? The artist’s intent isn’t what makes a piece art; it is the representation of the human condition and the emotional reaction that such a representation elicits that turns craft into art. So whether the artists are so out of touch with the mainstream “working man” that they can comfortably destroy something worth $100,000 or they are consciously commenting on current economic disparity, the end product is one that points to humans in the present and says “Look at this and think about it.” Is that worth $100k? Perhaps. Is it the art the artists intended to produce? Maybe. And if the reaction and message aren’t those intended by the artist, then is it still art? Absolutely. (Ask any anthropologist or archeologist whether human beings are capable of unintentionally manufacturing art, and you are sure to get a resounding “yes.”)

Don’t get me wrong: I do not in any way, shape, or form believe that Eastwood and Shields should have destroyed this particular handbag for the sake of the photographs. As my friend David puts it, one must understand “the quality and craftsmanship that goes into those bags (an individual must be an apprentice for 4 years before allowed to even touch a bag–which is entirely hand cut and hand stitched).” I craft with words; those making Birkin handbags craft with rare and exotic leather. I will never lust after such a bag, nor would I put such huge sums of money towards such artistry because I don’t believe that fashion, as an artform, is as accessible nor as revealing nor as enduring and timeless as forms such as literature, theatre, and music. However, because I recognize and value the craftsmanship of all artists, I will never profess to be angry over these photographs because the destruction of the bag was a huge a waste of money and is not art. I can, however, be angry that Shields and Eastwood took it upon themselves to destroy one piece of artistry for the sake of another.

What do you think? Does it matter that Eastwood and Shields probably destroyed an extraordinarily expensive piece for publicity and shock value rather than astute social commentary? Is it okay to funnel huge quantities of money (say, $100,000) towards artistic ventures in a down economy? How do you define art, and what qualifiers do you use to assign  both social and monetary value to art?

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