I have a friend, Mark, who pays most of his attention to himself. I once made a joke that Mark’s world was like what John Malkovich finds when he goes into the tunnel. “Mark Meves?” “Mark Meves!” Well, it happened that some friends and I were eating breakfast at CafĂ© Zola, which happens to be Mark’s favorite restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. While we were eating, I noticed what appeared to be a tiny door at the base of the wall, with a six-inch tall door frame, and even a shrunken doorknob. At first, I thought I might be mistaking an electric junction or something for some half-remembered figment of prior nights’ dreams, but no – we all agreed that it was, indeed, a door, or at least an intentional facade of one. I declared that it was the door to Mark’s brain. Weeks later, in an overheard conversation, I learned that there are many such doors around Ann Arbor, all done by the same artist, and that they are fairly famous – which is to say, there’s a website about them. People call them “fairy doors.”

Within a matter of months, the fame of these little violations of the mundane had grown to the point where they essentially became mundane themselves. Specifically, I realized there was one such in a coffee shop I occasioned, only to immediately discover the informative brochures atop the nearby table dedicated to this purpose. Such attention, of course, destroys the foundation of the doors’ aesthetic – they must by seen in the context of the everyday, not removed and put into the context of an “attraction.” Art of this kind – I suppose it falls under the umbrella term of “street art” – depends vitally on its context. Indeed, outside of that context it ceases to be art at all. The context is the point. I saw a picture of a photo-realistic bird, perhaps made from an elaborate stencil, at the edge of a row of houses in London, looking like it was flying it away. I laughed when I saw it; it’s perfect. I was in love. But the same bird put on a movable medium and displayed on the wall of a gallery would be worthless. In thinking about this, I realized that this is what makes street art different from “studio art”: one draws on a canvas rather than a wall precisely so that it can be moved about, and viewed anywhere. A canvas is “context free,” at least in the sense of location as the context. I know some people in Philadelphia making a documentary about the Toynbee Tiler. I foresee the day when cities will install plaques next to the Tiler’s works, and send in restoration crews to “fix” them, and perhaps even cordon them off, or remove them to a museum. This is when beauty becomes history. I would like to see beauty last as long as possible, but it seems there is more money in history than in beauty, so the odds are against me.

This is the difference, I think, between contemporary art, and most of the rest of Western art: it is heavily context-dependent. In this case it is not the context of location, but the context of art history, that is essential. If the audience lacks an acute understanding of the topical subjects in modern art theory, they are lost. They may as well be looking, as the cliche goes, at the drawings of a child. Older art is different. Whatever the philosophical arguments to the contrary, older art is less tied to context of any kind, be it geographic, historical, or academic. Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait proved this to me on my recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. Though I had seen reprints of it a thousand times, to the point where it was more than familiar, I was stopped dead in my tracks when I came upon it in the gallery. Though it is not a realistic painting, Van Gogh somehow imbued it with such life, such a reality unto itself, that I felt as though a creature from another universe were standing there, gazing at me through a window. And that is not an exaggeration. I cried looking at the thing. Now, I am aware that the painting has some kind of significance in the history of art, which is why it is reproduced in every general book on art that exists, but I have to admit my ignorance of any more information than that. While I am sure van Gogh was, in some sense, making statements about the nature of art, his country, and so forth, I nonetheless “got” the painting. I assure you that I cannot say the same for anything in the Contemporary gallery. One piece in that particular hallway was a group of vertical fluorescent lights, arranged on the wall in groups of three. OK.

In light of these ideas, I have concluded that independence from context is an essential characteristic of art. For example, why do we not consider criticism art? It is not true that the critic does not create something. He creates a critique. Some are so brilliant that they are given prestigious awards, sometimes even the same awards given to writers of great fiction. But they are not art, because they depend entirely on another work for their meaning and beauty. So why is context-independence so essential? Because universality is a measure of greatness. If you make a brilliant point in a conversation with your best friend, and you do so eloquently, you still have not created art. To create art, you would have to transform the conversation into something that can be appreciated by people other than your friend. Otherwise, you are merely a good conversationalist – one with a narrow audience, at that. In this way, art and science are the same; what we call the scientific method is actually a way of communicating experiences (of a certain kind, to someone else. One need not follow the scientific method to know something; that is a falsification engendered by precollegiate teachers who have never done science. The purpose of the scientific method is to enable others to prove to themselves what you have already proved to yourself. That is why you must keep a precise record of your experimental methods, prove your mathematical results rigorously, and so forth. You must make the discovery universal for it to be science. Likewise with art.

So, the more universal something is, the more it is art; or, the better a work of art it is. What, then, of street art? That’s the elegance of the medium – it depends on context, but it is the most universal of contexts: the everyday. Anyone walking around London has seen countless rowhouses; most have probably grown up with them. Anyone can appreciate the bird that is forever trying to escape; let us be thankful that, at least for a little while, it will not.