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Arts Council of the Central Okanagan
Arts Council of the
Central Okanagan

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Elke Lange, Executive Director
Telephone: 250.861-4123

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Okanagan Arts: Summer 2008

Jarrod Thalheimer: The Art of Friendship

Sleazy bastard. This is the first thought that comes to my mind when I hear that someone is polished in the "Art of Friendship." I hear con artist, a grifter, a garden variety, skeevy opportunist who has perfected the dark art of faking genuine affection in pursuit of some personal gain. Everyone knows that friendships can't be forced or coerced. They have to be real and sincere. So somebody practiced in the "Art" of friendship sounds a little bit like he got his black belt in putting folks on. This thought is an unfortunate byproduct of my use of the term as it is absolutely not what I want to believe at all. The true art of friendship I see as honorable, beautiful and something we should most certainly practice as much as possible.

It might serve things slightly better to break it down a little. As far as the art aspect goes, Arthur Danto, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation, believes that these days "you can't say something's art or not art anymore. That's all finished." In his book After the End of Art he argues that once Andy Warhol exhibited simulacra of shipping cartons for Brillo boxes in 1964, anything could be art. By his actions Warhol made it no longer possible to distinguish something that is art from something that is not.

So basically, because Uncle Andy and his star-struck disciples ruined it for everyone I, and many others, are now free to subject you the reader to discussions on the "Art of" whatever asinine topic we can dream up and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. In that vein, look for next issue's The Art of Sucking Maldavian Leeches through a Pink Bendy Straw. Hurry and reserve your issue now before they run out!

So, if anything can now be considered art then I'm halfway home in my thesis. The next question is what exactly is friendship? What is its most distilled and easily grasped truth?

For me it was Bill Cosby who captured once and for all the shorthand of what real friendship was. In his bit "Revenge" Bill recounted sharing his orange soda pop with another kid and that when he took it back for a drink himself he did so "... without even wiping it off." I challenge Merriam or Webster to define friendship better than that.

With the terms defined I feel I can move on to what the art of friendship is. Specifically, my desire to write about it comes courtesy of two very different triggers: One, my own tortured background concerning the making and keeping of friends and two, the rise of Facebook and its supposed summary improvement and whiz-bang modernization to the care and feeding of our world's friendships.

Personally, I never really felt that I was all that successful when it came to making friends. It all seemed easy enough at first. The story my mother told me was that to have a friend, you had to be a friend ­ sound advice without a doubt (which I have since been told came from Ralph Waldo Emerson versus la mére). I suggest that if that's truly so then he probably got it from his own mother. It just
sounds like something a mom would say.

My own quest for friends began thusly: I was told a story, about myself, that when I was quite small I was very lonely for other kids to play with me. My brother had either not come along as of yet or was so small that I dismissed anything he had to offer. Whatever the reality was I decided that I needed friends pronto. My parents observed me hauling each and every single ride-on toy, large truck, fun ball, bike, and whatever out to the sidewalk that bordered our home. I set all of these items up in a very long line taking special care to ensure each item could be appraised in its own right. I then took a seat and waited far too patiently for someone, anyone to take me up on my offer. Everything I had was on offer but there was a price ­ friendship.

Things never really got that much better for me. While I am unsure as to whether it was something imagined on my part or simply a misunderstanding of what I thought a friend should be, it made certain periods in my early childhood and my school years difficult and at times quite painful. Witnessing first hand my seeming lack of skill at engaging others. I in turn gained a tremendous appreciation and respect for the process, for the Art of Friendship, as it worked around me.

Is a Facebook Friend Really a Friend at All?

So in the face of what I deem the Art of Friendship flies the flag of Facebook. I fear what they are currently doing to friendships will move us all away from the craft of the friendship itself ­ a rejection of the type of journeyman efforts good friendships require.

Before I go any further I will offer something of a layman's Facebook primer: Officially, Facebook explains it self like so: "Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you."

And it does. You sign up with your email address, make up a basic profile for yourself, include a photo and you are then officially free to hunt for folks you know via a little box that says "search." You type in the names of those you know, or once knew. Most start easy, typing in a friend they see every few days, maybe some family. When their name comes up (if they are "on" Facebook) you then have the option of sending a message or adding them as a "friend."

Here's the sick part.

You click "Add as Friend" and your request is sent at warp speed across the good old information superhighway.

And then you wait. You wait until the person on the other end sees your message, considers your request and consents to adding you as a friend of theirs. Which she does ­ because she knows you, and she thinks you're more or less okay. So she says "okay ­ add as friend." You now have officially one friend ­ you know this because it says so on your homepage. You feel warm. There is now definitive, everyone-can-see proof that you have a friend.

Now that someone has consented to being listed publicly as a friend of yours you look again at the number ­ one friend. You see other folks with twenty friends, or two hundred friends or even more. Slightly jealous, you decide you don't want to look pathetic so you immediately go to work and start sending out friend requests like they were job applications. You're sending "Add as Friend" requests to every Joe you ever worked with, went to school with or even met for more than eight seconds. And you hit 'em all because now you want to see some high numbers in your friend count. The friends don't matter as much as the sheer volume of them does.

Once accumulated, your "friends" on the Facebook site give the illusion of contact. You read with interest the school locker-like contents and utterances posted generally and liberally by each of those on your friend list. But it's all silent, antiseptic and decidedly voyeuristic. You can look in and poke around in their lives but it's like you were never there. This is not friendship. It is friends with out effort. You feel like you know their lives but you play absolutely no role in them. You get an auto-reminder of their birthday and you send congrats ­ feeling pride at sharing some love but knowing down deep that had the computer not announced the big day you would have been personally clueless as to the special event at all.

However shallow my feelings thus far, they point to a reality that demands we see friendship for what it really is: A complex meeting of individuals that is forced yet natural, easy yet stimulating, familiar yet somehow new ­ all at once. When you think about how many ways there are not to connect with another person it's downright astonishing that people manage to find close friends at all. This then is the art.

All of this is deeply personal, and almost certainly subjective. Obviously, to me that points inescapably to a very real similarity between art and friendship.

It may start with an introduction, a casual hello, or some sort
of moment shared. There is a spark, a notion of similarity in some cases or even a shared understanding in others. It seems random, and it is, but we're not at friendship levels yet.

Friendship comes much later down the road. It exists only after the events, the parties or after the circus of the new and exciting has packed up and moved on. It comes when a bonifide effort is made and repeated many times over, not with a goal of specific friendship but an unyielding determination to know and appreciate another as you do yourself.

Consider the efforts of a sculptor in crafting a piece. The hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of painstaking forming, sanding, buffing, correcting, changing, reforming and so on. The piece has an end eventually. The form will emerge and the artist will set it free to be judged. Not so for friendship though. This is something without an endgame. Friendship is a lifelong concern for another that is decided on unilaterally. You can
not maintain this kind of commitment due to reciprocity alone. There has to be a genuine feeling, a desire to keep the friendship real and alive. A plant that must be watered and tended to - forever.

That it is hard sometimes, or even painful is what rises friendship to the level it enjoys, to the art I claim it to be. I can think of no truly artistic task that does not employ similar doses of feeling, deep emotion and basic creativity as being a friend does. Elbert Hubbard is credited with saying "Your friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you." What is more artistic than finding and appreciating the beauty locked inside of someone else? Not much room in that endeavor for any sleazy bastards now is there?

Jarrod Thalheimer is a freelance writer living in Kelowna. He was a winner in the Province Newspaper's Sunday Serial Thriller fiction competition. He can be reached through his website at littlebluetruck.com

Wild Blue Yonder at Thursday Express