Is all contemporary art political? This question is much easier posed than answered and very much simpler than the solution. In this writing, however, I would like to begin by stating two starting points; the definition of contemporary art and the definition of political. According to Storr (2009), contemporary art is defined by the distinction of ‘practice’ and ‘praxis’, in which, quoting Karl Max, ‘praxis’, in definition, is the transformational act of oneself (Bourriaud 1998). Contemporary art is characterised with cultural expressions and delivering meaning and ideas (Lewis 2005; Goll 2003). William S. Lewis stated that, contrasting from art sphere before Modernism era, in which the meaning of art itself was defined solely by institutions, contemporary art is even more complex and difficult to classify as it is an action that, he believes, is derived from democracy. It is also believed that contemporary art, as based on the desire to liberate humanities and driven by the raw perception of the history, is supposed to transform the culture, living conditions and way of thinking of individuals (Bourriaud 1998; Jenefsky & Russo 1998).
On the other hand, the term ‘political’, I believe, has to do with the movement that one (or collective) performs that brings about an effect to others (or other collectives) within that social body (Mesch 2014). Birnbaum, as cited by Grau (2012), states that the occurrence and involvement of collectivity and the urge to have a say are an act of politics. Art weighs into politics in terms of giving a new perspective of aesthetics, philosophical thinking, and influencing communities (Demirel 2012). Thus, art and propaganda, although separated from each other, is parallel. It is tough to separate art and propaganda (Lewis 2005). Deducing after the points above, I believe that all contemporary art is political. Thus, in this essay, I would like to cover four ideas; the difference between ‘all art is political’ and political art, the political critique of art towards conventional aesthetics, the political movement of art against capitalism and institutionalised ideas of art, and political movement of art through one’s ideas and opinions.
The arguments above, which are a nod to my belief that ‘all contemporary art is political’, may bring about another question: if all art is political, what, then, is political art? Eko Nugroho, an Indonesian contemporary artist, is well-known as a political artist. His works are intended to criticise the government and expose the contradictory state of politics to the function itself (Wang 2016; Arndt 2016). It is true that there is a form of art that is deliberately active in terms of its politicism—a work that is used as an instrument depict one’s dogma on politics using visual arts (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012); however, contemporary art is an act of conveying ideas; whether it contains meaning or it has no meaning at all, which is a political act of actively exposing opinions and communicate one’s view about a particular matter (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Thus, contemporary artists, although do not deliberately identify themselves as political, are political.
Contemporary art, as a work of ideas, was a start of rebellions against authorities and institutions (Bourriaud 1998). Art has been dependent and very much controlled by institutions and bodies of authorities; may they be conglomerates, governments, or religious organisations (Birnbaum 2012). Art sphere was squared by institutionalised perception of social manners, philosophies, and value, and seen through conventional aesthetics, luxury, and currency (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012; Bourriaud 1998; Léger 2012). This movement motivated the rise of capitalism, thus, the supremacy of art was merely dominated by Western artists and was highly regulated by the rich (Bishop 2004; Steyerl 2010). Hal Foster, as cited by Claire Bishop (2004), stated that institutions dominated the artwork itself, and thus, the art became a show that retracted capitalists, and the curator became the main spotlight of the work. As an example, Cattelan’s A Perfect Day (1999) (fig. 3) was a critique to this matter. Maurizo Cattelan literally attached Massimo De Carlo, the curator of a gallery at which he had an exhibition opening in Milan, on the gallery wall as an act of rebellion for the liberation from the institution and authority (Bourriaud 1998; Galerie Perrotin 2016). Another example is a work by Hans Haacke in 1970, known as MoMA Poll (fig. 4), which was presented with the intention that the viewers responded to his question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not voting for him in November?” by placing white paper into a see-through box (Mayer 2009). It is believed that this was not only made as a poll to government; it is no less posed as a critique towards the institution itself, as the institution was also run by the Governor. It is true, that art circle has grown towards dicentralisation by the numerous production of art and the effects caused by contemporary art itself. It is also true, therefore, that contemporary art is political in terms of their movements against authorities and questioning institution’s conventional ideas (Steyerl 2010; Bourriaud 1998).
A critique towards authorities cannot go too far from a critique towards conventional aesthetics, as Steyerl (2010) believes that it is fashioned by the institution itself. After the Modernism Era, artists started to revise question on the definition of aesthetic and became concerned about conventional aesthetics that are merely made-up ideas produced by media and commercial interests (Groys 2008; Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Bourriaud (1998) states that art has been a piece of luxury in public sphere for centuries. One of the characteristics of contemporary art is that it has something to do with rebellion, controversy, and an ‘alarm clock’ that wakes people up to the issue and persuade society to question the same thing (Rothstein 2007; Mesch 2014). Artist’s Shit (1961), an art piece by Piero Manzoni is one of the examples of the idea that art is a critique towards conventional aesthetics. Manzoni, by this work, questions the philosophy behind aesthetic itself by producing a piece that is made from his own feces, canned it in a tin, and sealed it with his signature; however, Howarth (2000) stated that it was an irony to sum the number of people that purchased his artwork. Groys (2008) states that art and politics are linked by the idea that both parties are monarchies, in which a struggle for credit, identification, and acknowledgement is being respected and appreciated. Contemporary art is an argument, or perhaps, a discourse, to add on a matter of equal rights, including equality in aesthetics. The concern that is expressed by contemporary artist is the reason behind conservative and orthodox idea of beauty. It is stated by Bourriaud (1998) that contemporary art is also a revolt that contradicts the idea of predetermined historical growth and historical criticism. If, and it is true, according to Mesch (2014), that communicating ideas to other people is a political act, then, it is true, that contemporary art is political.
Fig 5 Manzoni, Piero 1961, Artist’s Shit (Merde d’Artiste, tin can, printed paper and excrement, 48 x 65 x 65 mm, Tate London.
To sum up from the arguments above, it is true that contemporary art is an instrument to expose one’s ideas and opinions. The key characters that build up the idea of contemporary art are the meaning, the content, and the context behind the works (Birnbaum, cited by Grau 2012). Politics, as stated before, dwell within the collectives and how one’s opinions and dogmas are prominent and influential to others (Mesch 2014; Birnbaum 2012). There is a large number of artworks in Postmodernism Era that deliver contemporary and issues that, however began as personal matter, have a meaning to be exposed to those who have or have not experienced the similar matter—which, is always a political subject (Birnbaum 2012). Contemporary art wants to be seen. Contemporary art wants to be heard (Steyerl 2010). How can contemporary artists who are unquestionably true to their vision, idea, philosophy, and dogma, and are exposing their inner self and thinking with such outspokenness and frankness, not be seen as uttering a political statement (Rothstein 2007)? Contemporary art, either submissive or offensive against the culture and society, is political.
Fig 6 Ali, Anida 2010, Otherance, 1700 Project, Live performance, Sullivan Galleries.
Figure 6 shows a performance art by Anida Yoeu Ali, titled 1700% Project (2010), which was an attempt to depict her writing about her identity as a Muslim. The work was made with white vinyl-based letters that are stuck on white wall, for her further intention was to hire four persons to cover the wall fully with runny black paint. She stated that on the following day, the wall was ruined with inappropriate doodles with the black paint and offensive words within her writing are highlighted; ‘Islam’, ‘kill’, ‘die’, and so forth. Ali believes that her work is nothing less than a political work. The fact that the work is provocative and contentious, and creates negative attention to society by the presentation of identity and culture of oneself, proves that it is political (Ali 2016; Muller 2005).
Another example is Andres Serrano and his work, titled Piss Christ (1987), evokes the idea of expressing his religious belief in Christianity by putting Jesus sculpture in his urine; however, his work is not only a controversy to media, it is also a controversy, particularly to Christians, to an extent that it evokes a questioning to his belief and whether his artwork is considered as blasphemy to Jesus Christ (Serrano 2015). On the other hand, Serrano regards it merely as an exposure of his faith and the fact that he grew up being a Catholic. This indicates that contemporary art contributes another perspective, directing communities, and communicate meanings (Demirel 2012); meanings that are not always as expected as the others, but solely dependent on one’s true self. Therefore, I would like to repeat Rothstein’s question again: How can contemporary artists who are unquestionably true to their vision, idea, philosophy, and dogma, and are exposing their inner self and thinking with such outspokenness and frankness, not be seen as uttering a political statement?
Fig 7 Serrano, Andres 1987, Piss Christ, 152 x 102 cm.
Art, as a product triggered by democracy (Lewis 2005), is an act of provocation to influence people (Bourriaud 1998). It is clear that all contemporary art is political. Contemporary art, laying in a midst of thick book of neoliberalism, is an instrument to deliver meaning to collectives; to address critiques and expose rebellions against institutions and authorities, to express questionings against conventional beauties, values, aesthetics, and dogmas, to have a discourse, dialogues, and social exchanges with people and communities, and to speak of one’s ideas and opinions to public.
Ali, A 2015, “1700% Project”, Anida Yoeu Ali, viewed 20 October 2016, http://www.anidaali.com/artworks/1700-project/.
Arndt 2016, “Eko Nugroho”, Arndt, viewed 20 October, http://www.arndtfineart.com/website/artist_8533.
Art Gallery of NSW 2016, “Eko Nugroho: lot lost”, Art Gallery of New South Wales, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/eko-nugroho/.
Bishop, C 2004, “Antagonism and relational aesthetics”, October Magazine 110, Fall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts.
Bishop, C 2006, Participation, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Bourriaud, N 1998, “Relational aesthetics”, Participation, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Demirel, I 2012, “Relationship between art and politics”, Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, no. 51, Elsevier Ltd.
Goll, M, Goll, J 2003, “Democracy is a good idea: on politics, art and activism, idealism and pragmatism”, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, vol. 1, issue 2, November, Los Angeles, California.
Grau, D 2012, “Contemporary art and politics”, The American Interest, 11 September, viewed 20 October, 2016, http://www.the-american- interest.com/2012/09/11/contemporary-art-and-politics/.
Groys, B 2008, “The logic of equal aesthetic rights”, Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge.
Howarth, S 2000, “ Piero Manzoni: Artist’s Shit 1961”, Tate, November, viewed 20 October 2016, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/manzoni-artists-shit-t07667/text-summary.
Jenefsky, C, Russo, A 1998, Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin’s Art and Politics, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
Léger, MJ 2012, Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics, John Hunt Publishing, Alresford, UK.
Lewis, W 2005, “Art or propaganda? Dewey and Adorno on the relationship between politics and art”, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 1, Pen State University Press.
Mayer, M 2009, “Art and politics: an introduction”, Art 21 Magazine, 21 January, viewed 20 October 2016, http://blog.art21.org/2009/01/21/art-and-politics-an-introduction/#.WA8zJZN97Vp.
Mesch, C 2014, Art & Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945, I. B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, New York City, New York.
Muller, A 2005, Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics, and Society, University of Calgary Press, Calgary, Alta.
Rothstein, R 2007, “Art & politics: an unavoidable relationship?”, Art & Perception, 28 January, viewed 20 October 2016, http://artandperception.com/2007/01/art-politics-an-unavoidable-relationship.html.
Serrano, A 2015, “Protecting freedom of expression, from Piss Christ to Charlie Hebdo”, Creative Time Reports, 30 January, viewed 20 October 2016, http://creativetimereports.org/2015/01/30/free-speech-piss-christ-charlie-hebdo-andres-serrano/.
Steyerl, H 2010, “Politics of art: contemporary art and the transition to post-democracy”, E-Flux Journal, no. 21, December, viewed 10 October 2016, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/21/67696/politics-of-art-contemporaryS-art-and-the-transition-to-post-democracy/.
Storr, R 2009, “Saying & doing”, Frieze Magazine, 17 September, London.
Wang, N 2016, “Focus: artist Eko Nugroho”, Luxuo, 15 June, viewed 20 October 2016, http://www.luxuo.com/art/focus-artist-eko-nugroho.html.
That day the strings were in my head
Sharp blades were, too, that day
Blemishes were written on my forehead
How could that be?
A name of mine
coming out of those edges
blown as a soft butterfly bumping my nose
and appears as a new sense
not a sight
nor a touch
A piece of white satin, then, wrapped me
and the violin started screaming
I followed my feet taking the lead crossing the ocean
I was searching for Brighton
but Washington remembered my name
but not too long
the black coffee I recall was abstracted on my rough invisible canvas
made a mark
If it is invisible
how could I ever erase it?
World War I clearly evoked a whole new set of movement into the art world. A large number or art historians do not believe that Dada is merely another art. It is strongly believed that Dada is a beginning of questionings towards so-called ‘traditions’ and ‘cultures’ (Chipp 1984). The exact year was not specifically identified, but Dada movement brought shock to the world with its ‘brutality’ between the years 1916 and 1922 (Eimert 2013). Most art historians believe that Dadaism is a movement that is culturally reliant to the traumatic response of World War I (Prager 2013). It raised up nihilism, disappointment towards politics, and a confrontation towards moral bankruptcy. It was stated by the Dadaists themselves that one was simply a Dadaist once they sensed anger as an effect of World War I (Watts 1980). Top Dadaists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Grosz, and many others, succeeded in making a huge attention and a massive change through art and introduced a new history. Dada is an art of critiques. It is not the aesthetic that Dadaists tried to convey, but it is the meaning behind it—the revolution (Maftei 2010). These factors escort my belief that yes, Dada is a work of critiques. It is believed that there are three categories of which Dada tried to critique: social conventional norms, political structures, gender differentiation, and art itself.
Dadaists put on an indirect offensive argument in order to achieve shock and attention from the society. Dada is a movement of strong hatred against those that breathed by ‘universal feelings’, bourgeois, stereotype, and morals (Maftei 2010). World War I played a big part in Dadaists’ ideology to stop believing that everything has moral values. Maftei (2010) stated that artists who communicate ‘universal feelings’ through their artworks, even when portraying a sense of helplessness and defenselessness, are considered as bourgeois. There were masses who desired to end the idea and origins of bourgeois lifestyle and wished to reconstruct a new page of new society. The exaggerations, abrasive speech, uniformity, and attention seeking were addressed as an anti-bourgeois movement (Kristiansen 1968). In 1919, Marcel Duchamp brought a controversy by his ‘work’ called L.H.O.O.Q, (1919) (Figure 1). It is believed that it was a cheap postcard picturing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1517) that he remade as a new form of art. Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and a goatee on Mona Lisa’s (or as Duchamp called as Joconde in French) face with a pencil and wrote “L. H. O. O. Q.” (Spector 1991). Several interpretations of the meaning of “L. H. O. O. Q.” have been made. A few interpretations suggested by historians stated that “L. H. O. O. Q.” could simply be a word of English pronunciation ‘look’, that obviously shows a deliberate connection made between the artist and the viewer by the artist himself. However, most art historians believe that the pun “L. H. O. O. Q.” is a world-play in French, which is read “elle a chaud au cul”, of which meaning in English is “she has a hot arse” (Spector 1991). It is stated by Maftei (2010) and Hjartarson (2004) that Marcel Duchamp used the painting of Mona Lisa as a representative of the bourgeois. Thus, it is clear that through this particular work, Duchamp rigorously ridiculed the bourgeois by putting mockery on renaissance aesthetics and altering it into androgyny. It is also a nod to Kristiansen’s statement (1968) that Dadaists had lost their values of morality, societal structures, sense of self-respect and dignity.
Fig 1 Duchamp, Marcel 1910, L. H. O. O. Q., rectified readymade: pencil on reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, 19.7 x 12.4 cm, Private Collection, Paris.
Critiquing social conventions cannot go too far from critiquing political structures. The beginning of Dadaism started to rise when the Dadaists, such as Marcel Janco (1895-1984), Hugo Ball (1886-1927), and Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) had lost faith on the society’s ideology. Marcel Janco (cited by Lippard 1997), one of the most-known visual artists of Dada movement, stated that he had given up on the culture, and that was how he (and Dada artists) began to shock the society by attacking common sense and questioning the ideologies. The Dadaists held on to their liberty because they believed that the world had not been defined and it was run and controlled with unworthiness (Kristiansen 1968). Criticism was too common and useless—Dadaists used difference as a medium to wake people up to criticism: absurdity and idiocy (Lewer 2009). One of the meaningless works by Dada artists that were made to address disagreements is Karawane, c. 1916 (figure 2) by Hugo Ball. Karawane, which is a German poem that consists of meaningless words, presents a destructive indirect attack against political structures (Lewer 2009).
Fig 2 Ball, Hugo 1917, Karawane., sound poetry lyrics.
Hugo Ball (cited by Lewer 2009), as the writer of The Literary Manifesto (1915) (figure 3) theoretically stated that they would control the intellectual governance, and destroy the thirst of culture, intellect, and socialism. The intention of the absurdity and idiocy in artworks was to each the audience by sending interruption and surprise (Maftei 2010). Hugo Ball (cited by Maftei 2010) uttered that the expectation brought with the World War ended was to have tranquility and liberty, and to have no more outlandish thoughts. However, by the reign of capitalism and bolshevism after the World War, the number of slavery and class differences between two worlds exponentially increased. In the early Dadaism era, Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, as Dadaists in Zurich had been communicating solid political opinions in contradiction of nationalism, imperialism, war, and capitalism. Maftei (2010) stated that as a nihilistic-based movement, early Dada was an exclamation among the zone of corruption, meaninglessness, and sycophantic submission. However, nihilism was not enough for Dadaists to manifest the attack. Chipp (1984) believes that Dada exposes a response of disgust: disgust to scholarly leadership, disgust to the false procedure of power, disgust to the dissociation of good and evil, pretty and ugly, and disgust to the obtuse ideologies disgust to the hunger of beauty, money, pride, culture, etc.
Fig 3 Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, Literary Manifesto 1915, pamphlet programme. ã Nachlass Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings/Robert Walser Stiftung Zurich.
Dada was not just a beginning of anger towards social conventions, especially in the eyes of women in the era of Dadaism. It was a movement of liberty for women’s human and political rights: liberty from social norms, liberty from gender roles, and liberty from traditions (Sawelson-Gorse 1996). Dada, as stated before, is a work of revolution iconoclasm, and rebellion (Lewer 2009). It means the same thing to women Dadaists, such as Suzanne Duchamp, Amelia Jones, Hannah Hoch, and so forth, however, it is expressed in different forms. Sawelson-Gorse (1996) stated that Dadaism was the gradual birth of feminism. It is believed that women Dadaists conveyed the seeking of gender equality and the rebellion against gender roles through their art works. Feminist activities began to arise in the era of Dada, but art historians believe that women Dadaists did not bother to unite with them; but on the other hand, demanded for woman’s rights on their own through different forms (Sawelson-Gorse 1996). Women Dadaists set a new standard and conditions for modern women in order to change the stereotype of the society towards female. Sawelson-Gorse (1996) believes that they were against the categorisation by which women’s affairs and involvements were merely vanity and superficial commodification. They believed that, against the society’s concerns that women were made only as machines of satisfaction for men, they had the rights to have the same rights, equality, and liberty. Hannah Hoch depicted this request of freedom perfectly through one of her art works, called Mutter: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum, c. 1930 (figure 4). The photomontage presented by Hannah Hoch portrays a pregnant woman whose face is covered with a tribal mask and whose one eye is replaced. Hannah Hoch, in fact, readjusted, metaphorically, the face of maternity by suggesting a working-class mother (Sawelson-Gorse 1996). The working-class lady itself represents a symbol of a fight against the outlaw of abortion in Germany. By historical context, Hannah Hoch herself had been through illegal abortions twice along her life and she demanded to legalise abortion as her financial deficiency caused unwelcome pregnancies (Sawelson-Gorse 1996). Art historians debated whether this request was political. Nevertheless, regardless of it being political or not, Sawelson-Gorse (1996) believes that the meaning behind Mutter, and what Hannah Hoch was trying to convey is clearly a defense for women. It clearly has changed the view of publics that women’s concerns were limited to vanity. Women Dadaists demonstrated political and also societal concerns.
Fig 4 Hoch, Hannah 1930, Mutter: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum, photomontage, 18 x 24 cm, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris.
As a work of critiques that expresses disgust to social conventions, it is not shocking that Dada movement did not stray too far from criticising the art itself. According to Maftei (2010), Dada is an act of disrespect and mockery towards the modern standard of beauty and the beauty of art itself. It is believed to be a huge attack against the aesthetic ideologies, thus it became a negativistic critique against modern art. Maftei (2010) believes that Dadaists destructed not only art itself, but the theory of art to a revolutionary point. The mockery and parody made by the Dadaists were to address ‘anti-art’ and ‘anti-artists’ movement (Lewer 2009). At this period, Marcel Duchamp withdrew another attention by sending his art work which he called as Fontaine, c. 1917 (figure 5). It was a porcelain toilet accessory on which he signed ‘R. Mutt’. Hugnet and Scolari (1936) believe that he intended to show an expression of disgust to art through his work he sent. Naumann (2012) stated that the fountain could be something by itself, but it was not supposed to be sent to New York exhibition. It was a mockery. Another work that was deliberately intended as a response of disgust to art was a work by Francis Picabia, called Still Lifes: Portrait of Rembrant, Portrait of Renoir, Portrait of Cezanne, c. 1920 (figure 6). This piece of art shows a chimp mounted on a board, holding its tail which is put pointing forward through the crotch, with the writings as a frame. Chipp (1984) believes that the chimp represents the artist, holding a brush, which, in this case, his own tail, that is intended to be shown as a penis. Without hesitation or other concerns, Picabia wrote the names of well-known artists on the board which indicated that the artist (or the chimp) was the artists of which he wrote (Watts 1980).
It is clear that Dada is an art of critique. World War I has brought Dadaists to revolution. Dada artists succeeded to withdraw people’s attention by producing works of parody and mockery with the intention to criticise social conventions, political structures, gender differentiation, and the meaning of art itself.
Chipp, H 1984, Theories of Modern Art, University of California Press, United States.
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Sawelson-Gorse, N 1998, Woman in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity, The MIT Press, London, England.
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Present-minded sigh after the wind bumps
The door is back open and I'm ready
Today the four-string is silent
Buried deep again, what happened?
Less than a month always passes
Going back to where the papers are heavy raining
Too much of a sign but never a sight
Too much of eye contact but never a talk
Erasable, but it sticks like a used gum
That day the ray of the sun was a beaut
How does one measure love
Or a day?
Is 24-hour always a day?
Or a day always 24-hour?
"This is different"
No, it was, it was
It was a gaze instead of a glance
One more letter added to the end of cup
but until that day comes again
it will be the same
Present-minded sigh after the wind bumps
The door is back open and I'm ready
Today the four-string is silent