Make It Art (the Sequel)

TAoN No. 91: How to make a (tiny) urban intervention. PLUS: A new missing word, and more

More than five years ago now, while walking the dog, I noticed a plastic, silver-colored letter A on the ground. For no specific reason, I picked it up stuck it over a nail protruding from a nearby phone pole. It fit nicely. I check on it from time to time, and it has remained there ever since — even through Hurricane Ida! I took this picture of it this morning.

I joke (to myself) that this is my public art installation — an urban “intervention,” as they say. I thought of it the other day when friend of TAoN Austin Kleon posted a picture of an empty Bud can that someone had fit snugly into an indentation somewhere in Austin:

Pic by Austin Kleon, from his site.

I declare it art,” Austin wrote, and who could disagree?

This is a riff on one of my personal favorite TAoN exercises, Make It Art. (I wrote about it here; Austin also wrote about it, here.) Short version:

Think of some regular walk or drive or ride you experience often, or even that you’re experiencing for the first time. Imagine yourself a curator. Decide what, among the things you notice, you might declare public works of art.

An artist friend of TAoN once wrote to me that he wasn’t crazy about this prompt, because it ran the risk devaluing the way we think about actual art, and what makes art art in the first place. In the same way that dopey people will take a my-kid-could-do-that attitude toward abstract painting, somebody could just point at a car wreck and claim that it’s just as much an art object as a John Chamberlain.

I understand the critique, but that’s of course not my intent. I think this is more of a game, and suggests a playful way of seeing that’s entertaining and perceptive and, on some level, creative. It’s about seeing with imagination.

I don’t, for example, think whoever crammed that Bud can into that Austin wall had artistic impulses. But there’s some kind of intent there, however fleeting and perhaps ill-considered. There’s even some tension in it: It looks like the can could tumble out any second now! And while I obviously don’t advocate either litter or vandalism, I think the tiny ways we alter our environments can be kind of fascinating. That’s where I was coming from with the prompt. The spirit is: Art is everywhere, if you say so.

That’s why this can that Austin spotted reminded me of my little plastic A, which has outlasted a number of signs and lost-pet fliers on that same pole. I hope my artist friend will forgive me, but I think it’s actually an example of another, but related, game-like gesture:

Create a tiny intervention in a landscape you frequent. Check in with it from time to time. Note whether or not it lasts, and consider why.

Again: I do not mean vandalism. I mean maybe moving a particular small rock to a sidewalk corner, or a leaving a penny on a window sill — the sort of thing a child might do. Aside from not being mere litter, the gesture should ideally be modest enough that perhaps you’re the only one who really notices it, let alone monitors it. This becomes a way of tracking a landscape, tracking time, tracking sameness and change. Art is everywhere, if you make it so.


The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s reader-supported newsletter about creativity, curiosity, work, and staying human. You are reading the free Monday edition; paid subscribers get a Thursday issue, too. Subscribers make all this possible! Thank you!

Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

This week’s missing word is from reader Grant, from the comments:

I attempted to throw away my paper plate from a slice of pizza today, and just as I dropped it into the can, a gust of wind took it away and blew it to the other side of the can. I locked eyes with someone who was walking past and I could immediately tell that they were going to pick it up and throw it away for me. That feels like it fits into the category of the "missing word."

I had to know: Did that stranger throw away the runaway pizza plate? “Oh, yes they did!” Grant reports. “I gave my best possible smile-eyes from my mask as I said thank you.” Perfect. Thank you Grant!

What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.

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Next Monday: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)

Programming Notes

  • This Thursday’s post for paid subscribers: Some thoughts from & about Dorie Clark’s recent book The Long Game.

  • Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.

  • Last Thursday’s post (which was delayed until Sunday) was about What I learned from the Sparks Brothers documentary (about a band I’ve admired for decades).

  • As always, if being a paid subscriber is not in your budget but you’d really like access to those posts, drop me a line, I’m reasonable. consumed@robwalker.net.

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In Other News

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Okay that’s it!

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