Dumpster Diving for Art

“Dumpster diving”, in the context of art, suggests that valuable things can be found anywhere, also in the garbage of others. I came across the expression in the chapter “No guilty pleasures” in Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work (2014). As Kleon mentions, we all love some things that other people think are garbage.

I’d like to try out the idea that looking for art in “garbage”, those things we don’t really like to admit we experience as pleasurable, might even make us more interesting and independent as artists. There’s no good reason to define specific experiences as “guilty pleasures”, and therefore exclude them as not suitable sources of influence.

“Dumpster diving” for art is not the same thing as to say that anything goes, or everything’s subjective. Or that there isn’t any quality or value attached to the work. Quite the opposite. To dear to look for artistic inspirations from places where you believe you’re not supposed to go (pop music, trashy novels, design magazines…), demands both bright intuition, analytical skills and courage.

A key is to take one’s own reactions seriously. Not because they are interesting as such. Not because YOU are interesting as such. But an artist should ask what it is that appeals to her, and why, and perhaps study it properly by applying it somehow to her work. Her explorations might inspire everybody else some day, too.

In music (contemporary classical music), this means not to be too afraid of exploring the unconventional. As John Cage points out in Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with Cage, the problem of the “schools” is that everyone reads the same books. Thus, the students can compete on who understands a book the best, but there’s no room for unpredictability in the dialogue.

Cage’s strategy was not only to find influences from other places than music, but he also turned music into “garbage”. How could one fight the “aura” of the sound of a concert piano? Cage turned it into a percussion instrument by preparing it, every key individually. (And the result is, of course, not actually garbage). Just like he explored the “aura” of a musical work by creating musical silence in 4’33”.

The role of a composer is contradictory, as it is both being an artist and professional. This, Kyle Gann points out in his article “Morton Feldman: In Dispraise of Efficiency” (2008): A professional learns his craft, applies it, and conforms to the standard of the profession, while an artist tries things that have never been done before and takes risks. An artist enlarges and rearranges perspectives.

There is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure”. There is no reason to feel guilty when experiencing pleasure, no matter if the source is popular culture. It doesn’t automatically turn one into an unreflective consumer. Rather, it gives one the opportunity to study, in an honest way, different aesthetic appeals. Keeping an open mind might help one find the right types of “garbage”, and to make accurate and deepgoing observations about the society.