Tuesday, October 16, 2007
ART GALLERY 101
[The radical views of a gallery owner and artist on the state of modern art...]
WHAT IS ART'S PLACE in a society where the contestants and judges on "American Idol" are household names, whereas the average American would be hard-pressed to name five contemporary artists (Thomas Kincaid notwithstanding); where music and art programs are routinely cut from public schools for budgetary reasons. What lesson does this teach our present and next generation regarding the value of art itself and its very reason for existing? Is the education of a largely uneducated public vis-a-vis art the responsibility of the artists who must become de facto teachers as well? Throughout history, art has always been one of the hallmarks of a civilized, progressive society, so what has happened to us here in America at the dawn of the 21st century? How has art become so watered down, so diluted to the point of being as palatable and easily digested as baby food? Instead of an enthusiastic public of art lovers trying to keep up with the latest artistic directions, it is the artists themselves who through self-monitoring, with an eye on marketability, have weakened and in many cases destroyed the very thing that should be unalloyed and pure.
And what of the artists who press on with their singular vision in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform? Instead of being recognized and celebrated as heroic individuals in an age of conformity they are uniformly ignored and often relegated to a marginal existence of obscurity. Well, it is time for both the artist and the public to step up to the plate. For the artist, to forego the cheap and easy successes in favor of the grander vision. For the public, to demand more of themselves (and of the artists), and to realize that art is not made in a vacuum and that they (the public) are a part of this continuum of artistic expression. By supporting the arts and indeed the artists, by buying their work and putting it on their walls they are keeping the artists alive, and helping them and art itself to flourish.
KRONOS Art Gallery Founder & Director
IT'S OKAY TO LIKE ABSTRACT ART...REALLY!
A certain progressive art gallery had an interesting visitor the other day. Her name was Fatima Unbrauchbar. (I know because I'm the omniscient narrator.) What was so interesting about this stranger is that she looked at one of the pieces on the wall and said, "Oh, so that's art now! You break a mirror and glue it back together!" Now, as you can imagine, she was immediately offered a spot on the board of directors of the local arts center.
The altercation with Ms. Unbrauchbar does however bring up an interesting point. How does one behave in an art gallery? (Art Gallery 101? Miss Manners & Modern Art? Art Gallery Visiting for Dummies?)
So-called modern art has been around for awhile, about a hundred years now, and the fifty years before that there were a few radical artists worth mentioning, like Courbet and Monet and Van Gogh and Gauguin, and a few radical departures from the norm of accepted art such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which caused a few raised eyebrows (and hackles) in its day, and forced a few well-regarded critics and a large portion of the public to a position of scorn and ridicule. And yes, Jackson Pollock was in LIFE Magazine (although that was almost 60 years ago), and he still is reviled by many who compare his efforts to that of their 6-year-old. And yes, artwork that is representational (meaning it looks like what it's supposed to look like) is easier to understand, and it follows that the skill of the representational artist would thus be easier to comprehend as well. But what of the splash of paint, the swirls of color, the shapes and textures and lines and everything else that doesn't look like anything recognizable? How does one approach this, art that is abstract? A lesson in art history would be nice, but consider these two things instead:
1. The invention of photography
2. The idea that the true artists are a reflection of their time
It would be ridiculous (or rather, redundant) for an artist of the 21st century to try and paint like Leonardo, just as it would have been incomprehensible for someone to paint like an abstract expressionist in the High Renaissance. Modern art itself came about as the true artists' response to the camera and photographic reproduction, and abstract (or non-representational) art rose from the ashes of two World Wars, a mechanized modern age of speed and flight and dehumanization and carnage on a global scale; of the unspeakable atrocities of Auschwitz and the atom bomb and the new science of Psychology's attempt at addressing the unanswerable: namely the fear, dread, and anomie of our modern existence. And many of the artists, in an attempt at finding their own answers, went inward. How does one plumb the soul's depths or the paradox of our quantum nature (where we appear to be not much more than empty space and existence itself hardly the bedrock we once held it to be)? In an age of worldwide oppression, of an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, of wars and famine and religious fanaticism and a bona-fide pandemic (AIDS) that most Americans have either forgotten about or choose to ignore is it surprising that the artists of our time might find themselves a bit at a loss? For some visual artists, the very nature of abstract art is the language they use to express the inexpressible. Feelings, thoughts, meditations, questions, answers, conclusions, and doubts can all be present, plus a world of things the artist herself didn't even realize (but somehow they're there!). The ambiguity, the nebulousness, the being opened to many different interpretations both for the viewer and the artist is precisely the point. The piece in question at the beginning of our story, the "mirror broke and glued back together", is "The Fragmented Self" and the viewer is asked to look inside. To see the many facets we all have that make up who we are, from the outermost appearance of our skin, to the deepest of our dark places that we rarely see, because through the broken glass glued back together, through the skill and intention of the artist, we are asked to look at ourselves.
DIFFICULT, NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Modern art is difficult. In a way, being in a modern art gallery is like being out to sea in a raft with no sign of land. The eye searches for something safe and familiar: a calm harbor (still life), a dry piece of earth (landscape), a buoy (a face), in fact anything that smacks of terra firma. But modern art dwells in that place off most maps (the place where there be monsters). In Lesson One we spoke of two of the reasons modern art came into being: the invention of the camera, and the artists' response to the world in which they lived. Another reason worth mentioning is evinced by a quote regarding Edouard Manet, quite the subversive in his day: "The artist seizing power over public taste signaled the beginning of modern art." And this is a battle that is still going on, the battle over what is acceptable in the eyes of the public, and the question remains unresolved as to what actually is "modern" art. I believe that the answer lies in the above-mentioned quote. Who after all dictates artistic taste? If left to the public I'm afraid that what we know of as "art" will rapidly devolve into art of the lowest common denominator (LCD) and Thomas Kincaid, Christian Reese Lassen, P. Buckley Moss and the like will be everywhere (Oh shit! They already are!) and any art that deviates from this viewer-friendly mindset will be largely ignored. And perhaps this is because the only art that makes it into the news anymore is pissed-on Virgin Marys and elephant-dung Christs. How can this not polarize an already predisposed public? Predisposed that is to regard "modern art" as pretty much a sham, devoid of any artistic merit. So they seek refuge in the familiar. The picturesque cottage, the happy dolphins swimming in a pool, the quaint renderings of Americana. And to make matters worse, there's the Academy, still here, with its autocrats, its pedagogues, its petty tyrants and tenured professors (who by definition are self-demoted artists) still conforming to a kind of inbred tunnel-vision based on a life too long spent within the ivory tower. And then of course there's the art gallery itself, which like any good business must sell sell sell, so they only handle art which the public will buy buy buy. And there it is again, back to the public and the ever-encroaching LCD. It is time the artists reclaimed art! This is your time, all of you artists out there, the only time you will ever have to live this life that is yours. Do you want to spend it bending to arbitrary public taste, bowing to the Academy and the Gallery? Or do you want to do the art that is your own; the truest expression of who you are and of what you make of this thing called life? It's time to replace the LCD with DIY (do it yourself)! Take a lesson from the punk rockers of the 70's and 80's. If you don't like what's out there do it yourself! Make the kinds of things that you like, the things that are meaningful to you, and if the galleries won't show them then say "FUCK YOU!" and start your own gallery or put on your own shows! You'll find you won't be alone. And this comes back to our initial query as to the nature of "modern art". The artists must be the tastemakers, but to do this they must be leaders not followers. So perhaps the true difficulty of modern art is for the artists themselves, setting out into that great uncharted sea, leaving land behind.
The idea that people born into the nobility or upper social classes must behave in an honorable and generous way toward those less privileged.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed this. As First Lady she constantly badgered FDR to do the right thing regarding the poor, civil rights, and women's rights. John Kennedy believed this. As President, after reading a book on poverty in America* he publicly declared war on it--a cause championed by Lyndon Johnson after JFK's death. Bobby Kennedy believed this. In his last years he was an enlightened crusader against poverty, injustice, and inequality, and then he was assassinated. And perhaps the idea that those in power have a responsibility to help those less fortunate died as well that early June day in 1968, leaving us to a string of leaders whose actions spoke less of altruism and more of avarice**. Which brings us to the present day, our present regime and its "Fuck You!" attitude towards the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the environment, and anything remotely threatening to their "kick ass take names" approach to making obscene amounts of money--the war in Iraq the apotheosis of this, as the U.S. spends 100 million dollars on the war every twelve hours! So what has this got to do with ART you might ask? Simple. We follow the example our leaders set for us. Nixon was just in the right place at the wrong time. Back then an air of "Sixties righteousness" still floated about--a national conscience, if you will. But now after several decades of doublespeak, disinformation, propagandizing pundits, soundbites, and religious dogma we've devolved into what Hobbes called "a war of all against all" (or "My Hummer's bigger than your Hummer!"). How curious that Bush cronies decry evolution in favor of "intelligent design" but yet their actions exemplify the heart of Darwinism--survival of the fittest! Or rather, survival of the richest! Which brings us back to art. With this redefined Darwinism in mind, most artists are not very fit, and might indeed find that they have more in common with the dodo bird than with the wealthy Republican. So in an atmosphere of wealth at any cost and the devil take the hindmost, how is art and the artist in America to survive? Five hundred dollars for an original one-of-a-kind piece of artwork is rather low-end, as far as prices go for fine art. However, your average middle-class American does not have $500 to spend in such a way (enter Pier One and Michael's Craft House!). Which leaves it up to the rich to keep art and artists afloat. The rich have the money. They have the big houses with the wallspace. Now all they need is taste and a generous spirit--the first I believe a possibility, the second, well... Until a new national conscience is forged, a conscience that is much more Bobby Kennedy and much less George Bush, I think the arts and our artists are in for a bad time.***
*The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington.
**Jimmy Carter notwithstanding, who was well-meaning, but nevertheless knuckled under to public opinion and political pressure generated by the conservative ideologues allied against him. A salient example being his decision on aid to El Salvador.
***This article was originally written in early 2007. Now with Barack Obama in the White House we will hope that things will improve for everyone (including artists).
EROS & ART
Nudity and art have been an item for quite a while now--several thousand years in fact--and still there are those who have problems viewing the naked human body in the context of fine art. (See Nuda Veritas, SAMIZDAT July/August 2007.) So is it surprising that when Eros is added to the mix there are those who instantly transform, and suddenly before the offending painting stands a fire-breathing fundamentalist, a latter-day Victorian, a Puritan witch-burner, an Inquisitor. "That's not art, that's porn!" is the cry, and we begin to wonder what century we are in after all, and if indeed there is such a thing as progress.
Sure, the Mona Lisa's inscrutable smile might be hiding all sorts of naughty thoughts, but it's left to the imagination. But when a few hundred years later someone like Manet turned Titian and Ingres on their ears by presenting "Olympia" to a polite Parisian society it was pure scandal. Obvious, blatant, devoid of artistic discernment critics decried. (It was a painting of a prostitute, after all! And one not unfamiliar to many members of this same polite Parisian society!) Then came Gauguin, fresh from the South Seas with the smell of the islands still in his clothes, on his canvases. His nudes of native Polynesians caused another brouhaha (and gave the next generation of polite Parisian society an excuse for public displays of racism). "They're animals!" some said, referring to the dark-skinned Tahitians. "Subhumans!" Certainly not the idealized female form! And then came Picasso, whose erotic drawings of men and women in all sorts of sexual congress don't usually make it to the Picasso calendars and coffee mugs for sale at gift shops throughout America. But these things were a hundred or more years ago, one can say. Surely after a century which included two World Wars, nuclear holocaust, mass genocide, political assassinations, global pandemics, the sight of two people artistically portrayed in flagrente dilicto shouldn't be a big deal. So why must we always have to reinvent the wheel? One generation's enlightenment fades into another's ignorance, and on and on in an endless cycle. Which I suppose fuels the fire of the artists through negative inspiration (which at times is the only kind they receive). But why must it be this way? If Robert Mapplethorpe is an avowed homosexual who takes beautiful photographs of naked men (and their penises) why should this put the public at large into a tizzy? I guess it comes down to the general indifference (ignorance?) this same public has towards art and artists--the art often incomprehensible; the artists often viewed as loafers and con men who should get a real job; the reason behind what these artists do a complete mystery. Contrary to what some might contend, most artists do not make art to shock and outrage. They make it because it is the result of a personal struggle. The outcome of their own (sometimes lifelong) quest to find that thing that haunts them; to exorcise it by making it visible; bringing it outside themselves and making it real to the world beyond their imagination. As Ben Shahn says in The Shape of Content, "Who can say that this passage of color, that formal arrangement, this kind of brushstroking could have come into being were it not for the intensity of belief which demanded it?" It is indeed a strange paradox: artists demanding everything of themselves, to the point of them painting over or destroying a work which doesn't ring true. But these same artists demand so little from the public; a public which doesn't have to like the art or love it or even buy it. What the artist wants most is simply for them to consider it.
"It's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace."
--George Hanson, Easy Rider
In the old TV commercials our favorite products were pitted against "Brand X" in side by side tests and somehow, like the Harlem Globetrotters always beating their hapless opponents, our favorite name-brand products always came out on top. After all, who wouldn't trust their dirty laundry to TIDE, with its fancy packaging, ubiquitous advertisements, and catchy jingles? But the problems arise when you carry this idea over to the art world, as is happening right now. Granted it's tough making a living these days, no matter what you do, and arguably even tougher if you try to make a living as an artist. We hear about $60 million being paid for a Van Gogh, but remember ol' Vincent only sold a single painting in his lifetime before he met his bad end. And Modigliani usually never got more than $10 for a painting, and one time his landlord used some of his canvasses to patch an old mattress. For every one Renoir there are a thousand Modiglianis, and the age-old question is still as relevant as ever, namely, how to make it as an artist? It's a simple formula: the money the artist needs to survive is "out there" and he needs to get it "in here", in his pocket. But this is where it gets messy. If art were objective then the best works would get the most money, and so on down the line. But since all art is a subjective business (even more so when you consider abstract art) how does one quantify worth and value, especially when it seems that mysterious, arbitrary forces are at work which often determine an artist's fate, be it success or failure? For example, being in the right place at the right time. If Jackson Pollock were in Nome, Alaska in the late 40's, early 50's instead of New York City would the history of art still be the same? It's the "tree falling in the forest", and many artists are painfully aware of this paradox so they do their best to be the tree that is heard. Which begs the question, how is one to be heard above the clamor and din of a thousand other artists all trying to be heard as well, before they fall into oblivion? Since art itself is subjective the answer is to position the individual artwork in a context that is objective*, and therefore more suitable to the black-and-white world of commerce. After all, a ton of soy beans is a ton of soy beans, a commodity to be bought and sold. So the artist creates a "brand name" for herself. "I am the one who does blurry little squares!" "I'm the one who does abstract parallel lines!" And like that, the artist has become a brand like TIDE or LIQUID PLUMBER. The individual works become subsumed into the brand itself and the rich collectors (with the large wallets and lazy minds) plug into the brand name as if they were buying a washer and dryer, trusting WHIRLPOOL over the other ones they never heard of. The problem with this approach is that the more successful an artist's brand is, the more difficult it is for him or her to grow as an artist and (God forbid) do something different. Picasso created over 5000 pieces of art over the course of his lifetime. Imagine how boring it would have been if they were all Cubist! Yet this broader vision is curiously absent in the successfully "branded" artist. I know of one artist who did nothing but landscapes for 15 years and then all of a sudden switched to abstract parallel lines (which he has been doing for the past 15 years and continues to do). "How bold of him!" people still say. Well, it is bold I guess, to chuck a successful brand in order to establish another, but I know other artists who try something new with each new series (or each painting!). But in the art world this of course is a cardinal sin. People just don't want to make the effort to keep up with someone like that. Instead, they'd rather the artist would make it easy for them and do variations on the same theme ad nauseam. (If it ain't broke don't fix it!) And most are happy to oblige, because the thing is, the more successful the brand the more money per painting, the more write-ups in the glossy art mags, the more external validation. And who wouldn't want this, right? But as with everything, there's a price. The price of the individual losing a part of himself, the price of creativity being tethered to a dollar sign, the price of Art with a capital "A" losing out on what this artist might have done if not for his self-imposed restrictions and limitations.
And what of the tree that falls without a sound, the artist that refuses to be branded? This calls to mind images of the old West, and in fact this particular kind of artist is a modern-day outlaw (in the world of art at least). Someone to be feared, and in many cases shunned (think most art galleries). But this brings to mind another image. In the old West, what were the things that were branded other than cattle and sheep?
*And bulletproof, in the case of "prestigious awards" and the like.
PARIS, NEW YORK, STAUNTON
A hundred years ago, Paris was the center of the art world. But in a small gallery in New York City the axis was already beginning to turn. The gallery was called "291" (for 291 Madison Avenue) and the man was Alfred Stieglitz, rebel, anarchist, and champion of modern photography. In 1905, when "291" opened, pictorialism in photography was the avant garde--representational images that looked like paintings--but Stieglitz, ever on the lookout for the new, the challenging, the modern (and the shocking), introduced American audiences to Cezanne's geometric landscapes, Matisse's outrageously colored Fauve paintings, and Picasso's early experiments in Cubism. And by 1917 when the gallery closed due to the Great War (and maniacal anti-German sentiment), the work shown was decidedly abstract, and the shift towards New York as the artistic Mecca was irreversible.
The question posed now a hundred years later is, in this age of the Internet and the global community, can a place other than New York or Paris become an artistic hotbed? In a way the world has become a neighborhood, physically accessible through thousands of airplane flights a day; visually accessible through the nexus of the world-wide web, so proximity is no longer an issue. And with technology what it is, fabulous images can be sent instantaneously all over the globe, making one's art available to anyone who wants to see it*. So why not Staunton, Virginia? Many of the pieces we've shown at KRONOS the past six months are as artistically challenging as anything I've seen lately in New York City** (if not more so--see "EXHIBITIONISM"). Google "NYC art galleries" if you don't believe me and you'll see an awful lot of work that is decidedly blah, uninspired, and lifeless (yet very expensive). Of course there are what seems like 5000 galleries in NYC today. Stieglitz had it easy. But in this 21st century of ours there's just too damn much of everything (including art)! As a friend of mine once said, "We have an unlimited amount of bad choices." But in a smaller venue the diamonds are much easier to distinguish from the rough. It seems inevitable, that with the cost of living ever on the rise (especially in a place like New York City), and with wages that by no means keep up the pace, people are turning to smaller, more affordable places to live and pursue their dreams. And it makes even more sense that artists who traditionally maintain marginal existences would take refuge in a place such as Staunton. The irony is that we're facing a kind of reverse provincialism, as New York City art galleries continue to behave as if it were 1950 with Manhattan as the center of the artistic universe, instead of recognizing that there's a great big world out there! Challenging art is being made all over the place, New York be damned! And the funny thing is, the next big art Mecca probably won't be an actual place at all, but most likely a website.
*Of course there's no substitute for seeing the actual work in person. I never thought much of Waterhouse's "Lady of Shallot", as it appeared on ubiquitous posters and greeting cards, but when I saw the actual painting itself (surprisingly huge) I was amazed at its beauty and evocativeness. And there's nothing like standing in a room being literally dwarfed by one of Mark Rothko's massive paintings, the harmonies and tensions created by his color fields become a moving, emotional experience bordering on awe.
**With nowhere near NYC prices!
I AM CURIOUS, KRONOS
In the movie "Shaun of the Dead" the hero strolls to the local store oblivious that just 20 feet away in every direction the world has gone to hell and has become inhabited by flesh-eating zombies. And like all good satire this isn't too far from the mark. In a world that is becoming more and more two-dimensional the consequence is that many of us have forgotten how to live in a world of three dimensions. We spend untold hours on the computer, on the Internet, playing video & computer games, watching TV. We send virtual letters to our friends, we shop, bank, and pay bills online, we publish our innermost thoughts in diary-like blogs for total strangers to read, we even select our life-mates through online dating services. In short, our waking lives have become all but two-dimensional. So is it any wonder that a simple walk down the block for many has become a frightening, disorienting experience where one encounters actual live human beings; human beings who cut us off, take up space, block our way, talk obnoxiously on their cell phones, or God forbid, say hello! How does one respond to an actual live human being without the protective filters of Match.com profiles? And what of the world that surrounds us, the world of which we are an inextricable part? A world of sounds and smells and weather and sunlight and darkness and nature and animals and insects and machines of every description and houses and buildings and stores and a million things vying for our attention. There's just too much! Too much information! So we single-mindedly go from here to there like Shaun, unaware of our surroundings, be they flesh-eating zombies or things real and beautiful.
Or perhaps it's something else. Perhaps we're witnessing the death throes of curiosity. Or maybe it's something subtler, something more insidious. To the observant eye a large number of adult human beings seem to suffer from an appalling lack of curiosity regarding the world at large. And being that this is an arts & culture magazine published by an art gallery* I will offer my own anecdotal accounts of people in and out of art galleries in under a minute flat. Gone in 60 Seconds! It's not a question of art so much as it is a question of familiarity. The adult world is a landscape of chaos, responsibilities, bill-paying, fading dreams, and harsh realities. Solace is sought after a hard day in the familiar, the non-challenging, the non-threatening; in entertainment that distracts us from the painful and often unsolvable problems of existence. Curiosity therefore becomes counter-productive to adult survival. And this explains why children and adolescents still see the world with the eyes of the artist. With curiosity that hasn't been discouraged, beaten down, or abandoned. The trick is to somehow hold on. I leave you with a Zen saying I first happened upon in my 20's, and now 20 years later it has finally percolated down to that deep place where change takes hold and lives:
When I saw a mountain for the first time as a child I was filled with wonder. But then as I got older I began to see it differently--as many things and as nothing. And it wasn't until I had lived through many years and indeed many lives that I came to see the mountain again for what it was, through eyes that have seen it all and in spite of this remain open.
*This article originally appeared in SAMIZDAT Sept/Oct 2007.
PROPERTY IS THEFT!
I just learned that an art gallery in Washington D.C. pays $5000 a month to rent their space. Perhaps if you live in D.C. or any other large metropolitan city you are not at all surprised by this, but to me (living in Staunton, Virginia) this came as a shock. This is yet another reason (and granted, a big one) why these so-called "high-end" art galleries are reluctant in the extreme to open their walls to artists whose work doesn't hold the promise of large and immediate payback. But the consequences of this simple action are many.
For the gallery, instead of being a place of freedom--for isn't freedom what art should be about--it becomes a place of constriction, where every decision is governed by making rent. So instead of selling a wide variety of work from a wide variety of artists they must limit their scope to focusing on work that will bring the most money per square foot of canvas (and wallspace). And by definition this leaves out a substantial amount of art from artists whose work should be seen on the national level, but they're ignored simply because they don't have the right cachet, "brand", or resume. And this reminds me of a woman I once encountered. A fine abstract painter she was, yet she proceeded to give me a lecture on the absolute necessity of having a proper (and extensive) resume. She then related a cautionary tale of a young friend of hers, an excellent painter, who approached a high-class white-walled Boston art gallery. The gallery's director after viewing her work told the young artist that it was quite beautiful and would look perfect in the gallery, however she (the director) regretfully had to decline because the young artist just didn't have a "good enough resume". (!!!) My response was that since resumes are so all-important and precious why don't these fancy galleries put the artist's resume up on the walls instead of the artwork! (To any thinking person the word BULLSHIT must come immediately to mind.) Another artist friend told me of a gallery in New York City which can only survive financially by selling work from famous artists like DeKooning, Hockney and the like. But wasn't there a time fifty years ago when DeKooning couldn't get a show, couldn't sell a painting--which means that these art galleries are ALWAYS going to be 50 years behind the times! And how is this good for Art with a capital "A"? It certainly isn't any good for the artists who are not DeKooning and Hockney.
So with outrageous rents in all big cities this is another reason to support the assertion that the most exciting and vibrant art being made today is art that is counter to this mindset (and therefore in venues where there are cheaper rents). What's needed here is the long view. Art as a continuum. After all, doesn't it seem the least bit hypocritical for an art gallery to have a show called "DeKooning's Early Work" (which commands top dollar), yet when DeKooning was actually doing his "early work" this same gallery would have shunned him? But I believe the problem does not rest with the art gallery and its owner but ultimately with the landlords themselves. Proudhon* once declared that, "Property is theft." What else would you call it when someone does all the work to keep an art gallery going (and there's a lot of it!) while someone else just sits back and collects a $5000 paycheck each month for doing nothing. For owning something. This is beyond reprehensible. And yes, it is one of the side-effects of capitalism, that glorious experiment in making a few people really, really rich while the rest of us supply the labor. And how do you change this? How do you rid the human heart of greed? I don't know. But I do know that if history has taught us anything it's that everyone has a breaking point. If you keep taking and taking eventually you reach a limit. And this limit is called "revolution", be it on the personal level or the political and societal level. And who's better at being a revolutionary than the artist? As T.S. Eliot once said:
"The artist is the only genuine and profound revolutionist, in the following sense. The world always has, and always will, tend to substitute appearance for reality. The artist, being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real. His function is to bring back humanity to the real."
*Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th century French anarchist, believed that the common conception of property had two distinct components which, once identified, demonstrated the difference between property used to protect liberty and property used to further tyranny. He argued that the result of an individual's labor which is currently occupied or used is a legitimate form of property. Thus, he opposed unused land being regarded as property, believing that land can only be rightfully possessed by use or occupation. As an extension of his belief that legitimate property was the result of labor and occupation, he argued against such institutions as interest on loans and rent. (!!!)
MY KID COULD DO THAT!
Abstract art got hit with another broadside recently with the story of Marla the 4 year-old, the "enfant terrible" of the modern art scene. For those of you who don't know, Marla Olmstead has been painting since she was a young girl of two--large canvases that call to mind the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950's. As a joke her parents hung some of her work in a local coffee shop, the work was spotted by a keen-eyed art gallery owner who gave Marla her first one-toddler show, somehow the world's media was alerted, and the rest as they say is history as little Marla was compared favorably to Pollock and DeKooning. Then "60 Minutes" went undercover and broke the story that Marla was a fake, that her father was the ersatz painter behind the scenes, that her parents were shameless, manipulative profiteers--a contention not refuted in a documentary made about Marla called "My Kid Could Paint That". And just as suddenly as Fate had smiled upon her it turned away.
This of course raises all sorts of questions. It's understandable why the media, in its cutthroat quest for ratings and sales would blithely ignore a world of legitimate unknown artists to focus on the freakish, the anomalous, the one-in-a-billion that was little Marla. And it's understandable why people came out of the woodwork to pay top dollar for her paintings. Who wouldn't want to be in on the ground floor of something remarkable (not to mention the investment potential)? And it's even understandable why the world would turn on her so quickly as it did. After all, they were buying a painting by Marla the 4 year-old genius! Who knows how much this painting would've been worth in 10, 20 years? But if the work was really by her father, well, that's another matter entirely. Let's say the same show was put up at the local coffee house, but instead of Marla as the artist, her father's name was on the wall. The keen-eyed art gallery owner might still have expressed interest--after all, some of the paintings were quite beautiful--he might even have asked Marla's father to show at his gallery, but it probably would have ended there. It is unlikely that the world's media and the art critic from the NY Times would have shown up in Binghamton, NY for the opening. But this is okay. This is how the world works. And artists know this. The problem is, this is the only time when artists get in the news--when they're freaks or fakes--Marla apparently being both. And since Marla worked in abstraction this opened the floodgates once again to the public-at-large's antagonistic view of abstract art. After all, if a 4 year-old could do it... But this is a wholly specious and misleading argument. They make it sound as if abstract art on the whole is one big con game, implying that every artist who does it makes money hand over fist (much like the argument that the homeless are actually quite wealthy--from all their welfare checks and food stamps, no doubt). Yes, some dead artists' paintings sell for LOTS OF MONEY (regardless of style) but when they were alive most of them had trouble making rent.
The other question is the age-old one of what really is art? A painting at its most basic is paint applied to a canvas. So in theory an elephant may step on some tubes of paint on the floor and the paint might squirt onto a nearby canvas and the result might call to mind DeKooning, but does that make the elephant an artist? Or look at it another way. A wall on the side of a building, exposed to the elements for years, looks very much like an abstract expressionist painting. Who is the artist here? But what if a photographer comes along and shoots it or a painter comes along and paints it? The crux of the issue seems to be one of recognition and intention. A child may paint a picture that seems quite precocious. She may experience joy doing it, yet her recognition is limited by her own substantial limitations--intellectually, emotionally, spatially, and cognitively. And her intention is as limited as her knowledge and understanding of the world and her ignorance of the continuum of art and her place in it. Years ago, someone in Paris dipped snails in paint and then let them move over a canvas. These paintings brought $10,000 or more, yet the human being took credit as being the artist, not the snails--they were simply his medium, in the best case the result of a personal struggle which demanded this as the result. Another artist treats her canvases with certain chemicals and then places them on the roof of her house so the rain and sun will transform them into the completed works. The artists in these cases are using unusual media but their intention is the same: to say something artistically that is unique to themselves in a world where practically everything has been done before. That is the ultimate challenge for the artist today, and something of which little Marla is completely unaware.
A WHITER SHADE OF PALE
White-walled art galleries make me sick. It isn't the color (or rather, non-color) of the walls per se (although certain colors like red or the bright yellow favored by Gauguin make for excellent backdrops for artwork). It's just that most art galleries have white walls because there is a preconceived notion of what art galleries are supposed to be like, and having white walls is an integral part of the formula. In addition, they are pristine places--almost antiseptic--run by well-dressed people who are most likely not artists themselves, and who may or may not know very much about art. Their expertise is more along the lines of knowing rich people who tell them what kind of art they will buy, and they (the gallery owners) dutifully obey like the dog fetching the stick for its master. The white-walled gallery caters to the rich, to the point of it even looking like a place where rich people would feel at home--a place reeking of snobbery and exclusivity. The white-walled gallery is not a place for artists. Sure, there is art in these art galleries, but it is a particular kind of art. I just Googled "NYC art galleries", and of the first ten galleries I clicked on at random, not one had a place on their website for artists to contact them in order to submit work for consideration. Not one. So this must mean that these are sacred places, with rarefied wall space to be occupied by only the privileged few and the anointed. A place so exclusive that an artist out of the loop cannot even contact them. A place so special that most artists to them are invisible.
What is it about human beings that makes us seek exclusivity? An extreme example would be the Nazis trying to "Aryanize" the world. And we see it every day now as religious fanatics focus their attention on (which usually means blowing up or otherwise killing) the other--those that aren't them. The blasphemers, infidels, heretics. Back in high school there were the "in crowds" and those who wanted to be in the "in crowds". Unfortunately, high school never seems to end, as in the real world of grown-up adults there are still the "in crowds" and the rest of us. It takes no degree in Psychology to know that people feel better about themselves if they are part of an exclusive group. They have something that others do not, and this feeling can be intoxicating. But when do we grow up? When do we leave high school behind with all its petty concerns?
The white-walled Manhattan art galleries are not about art. In fact, one can make the case that they are "anti-art" galleries, since the true spirit of art is only there by accident. And what do we make of those artists who are a part of this gated community? Money and prestige have been known to change people, sometimes quite dramatically. And if an artist panders his talent for a ready sale or lives and dies by his accolades his integrity must be called into question. This is why such galleries are dangerous. The white-walled gallery is a place of predictability by definition (since rich people like what they like, and if the gallery offers things too divergent from this then the rich people take their checkbooks elsewhere). And predictability and art is not a good match. But, some might argue, don't these (so-called) high-end galleries offer the artist something to aspire to, something to work towards? This argument completely ignores the fact that these places are not really about art, or are about art "after the fact", meaning that they would salivate over a Van Gogh while being oblivious to the Van Goghs of today (who can't even contact them to submit their work). The galleries set themselves up as ultra-exclusive, which gives them a self-bestowed cachet. And therefore, the lucky artist who is accepted by them receives their "imprimatur" and this entree into a rarefied world whose singular distinction is that people here actually buy art for lots of money. And for the average artist, this is hard to resist, so they ignore the rest, like any good co-dependent relationship.
At this point I would like to offer up a viewpoint not shared by many. I don't believe that exclusivity in art does anything to advance art and culture. One, because I don't believe that the white-walled gallery owner has something as noble as the long view in mind. Two, that since most artists exist outside of this world then by definition the good and great art they produce will be separate from it as well. (Until of course, they somehow become known.) And three, that since the white-walled gallery typically values an artist's credentials above all things, this makes it a place where one is not encouraged to think for oneself. A Guggenheim or a MacArthur in one's resume renders critical thinking redundant. And few ever question how exactly these awards are bestowed. In conclusion, I'll say that if art galleries are about art, then they must be about artists as well, and this means that somehow they must make discovering new and unknown artists a vital part of their raison d'etre. This will lead to inclusion and better art, since it will no longer be inbred but chosen from a wide and varied gene pool. And who knows, it might even lead to a red, green, or yellow wall or two and an art gallery that the average person can stand to be in, and might even enjoy. After all, is art for the rich, or is it for everyone?
ART & THE MX MISSILE (or, ART's REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM)
How did we get from the Mona Lisa to a canvas that's completely white? Or from Michelangelo's David to a Mason jar full of excrement? The answer lies on the continuum of art that began in that cave at Chauvet over 30,000 years ago when a human being first decided to visually express himself. For millennia this continuum could be likened to a simple tower built from stone, piece by piece through the ages, each stone placed on top of what had gone before it. The Greeks led to the Romans which led to the Dark Ages which led to the Renaissance--each level a response to what had preceded it, the High Renaissance a culmination of form and artistic virtuosity (with the sculpture of Michelangelo, the painting of Leonardo, the architecture of Bramante). But when something appears to reach its pinnacle the question is inevitably raised as to what happens next? Where do we go from here?
It was at this point that the tower began to look different. Instead of continuing upward in this simple uniform shape as it had for thousands of years it started to resemble a tree, with branches sprouting from all sides. Separate from the trunk, these branches each took on a character of their own (Baroque, Rococco, Mannerist, Romantic), yet they were still a part of the tree, and they continued on, each in their own way, to grow upward. But as the years went by, some of the branches began to grow far from the trunk, and people began to question whether they were even a part of the tree anymore (with Impressionism, Post-Impression, and on into the 20th century). The tree no longer seemed to grow upward, but instead became overgrown with branches, all growing outward at bizarre angles, at incredible rates, making the tree appear as if it would collapse under its own weight. But the thing that kept it from doing so was that no matter how different each branch seemed, they all shared something in common artistically, that being the human form and recognizable shapes. But as the 20th century dawned this began to change. Perhaps the many unruly branches dropped seedlings which over the years took root, because the art that was suddenly being made appeared to have nothing in common with the tree, and certainly nothing whatsoever with that original tower that had led to the High Renaissance. Cubism was the missing link between art that centered around the human form and complete abstraction. And from that point on, modern art to the traditional eye became almost unrecognizable. Where once religious icons were the only suitable subject matter, artists of the 20th century delved beneath the surface. They strove to find the "essential", what Kant called the "noumena". Instead of painting an object in motion they painted motion itself. Instead of sculpting a flying bird they portrayed the essence of flight. Some even had the audacity (like the Dadaists) to challenge what in fact was art. And with the advent of Freud and modern Psychology, other artists began looking inward--emotions, philosophical inquiries, existential crises, as the question of why we are here took on profound significance. 500 years earlier the answer was easy: God. But now modern man began to question even this. Add two World Wars, a Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the H-Bomb to the mix and the modern artist faced a very different world to respond to from that of his counterparts in the Renaissance. By mid-century, abstract art ruled the day, but by the 1960's new branches sprouted from the tree trunk that now had become abstraction. Among the questions that occupied this new generation of artists was how to express themselves uniquely when it appeared that everything had already been done. And this is Art's reductio ad absurdum (which began in the 1920's with the Dadaists). Art as comic book (Liechtenstein). Art as pop culture (Warhol). Art as pure color (Rothko, Newman). Art as no color (Ryman). Art as a blank canvas, an empty gallery, a random event, with each step, art broken down into smaller and smaller parts until there was virtually nothing left. So where do you go when a valid expression of art is a Mason jar full of excrement? And this is where the metaphor changes. Postmodernism declared a break from the past, from history itself. No longer the tower, no longer the tree, art was now an MX missile. Inside the missile casing was everything imaginable, and after sailing through the air for a while it released a thousand little missiles from its nose-cone, all different from each other, shot in every direction, and when they landed they exploded on impact. And the aftermath of this is where modern art is today.
EAT THE RICH?*
The other day in New York City, Christie's the famous auction house set a new record: 71 million dollars for an Andy Warhol painting. It seems that every few months Christie's or Sotheby's or some other auction house around the world gleefully announces a new record price paid for a painting, while those that happen upon the story in the news shake their heads in wonder at how a piece of art could possibly be worth so much. Well, the reality is that they're not. Let's call these high-class art auctions what they are, which is nothing but a glorified excuse that rich people have concocted to publicly enhance their status and declare how much money they have to the world. (Regarding the bank accounts of the super rich, size does matter.) After all, after one of these phenomenal bids is accepted doesn't the audience burst into applause? And it's not for the painting, it's for the money, that one person can so boldly, so publicly pay 71 million dollars for a work of art! What an art lover! What a patron of the arts! What BULLSHIT! It's a sham and for God's sake it's not about the art. If it were then Joe Blow's painting (which is much better than Andy Warhol's) could conceivably get as much or even more at Christie's. But here's the rub: since Joe Blow is working as a waiter at a cafe on Mott Street and can barely get his stuff in a gallery he's not on the rich people's radar. How does one get on the radar, you ask? Well, they must first do two things: 1. Become Famous 2. Become Rich. You see, the rich only regard fellow members of the club. Art is decidedly not the point, unless it is by some famous dead guy, and then they arbitrarily agree to elevate his work in the public consciousness by paying ridiculous sums at auction. And this is done for two reasons. The first is that if they paid 70 million, this means that two years down the road someone else might pay 100 million! ($30 million profit!**) For the rich, EVERYTHING is looked at for its investment potential, and this is especially true in the world of high price art where what they're really buying is the artist's "name". The second reason is perhaps the more despicable of the two: that by paying 70 million dollars at auction for a painting, the rich person reclaims the virility they never had in the first place and which they compensated for all these years by becoming extremely rich. For them, to publicly flaunt the size of their bank account-cum-penis is their summum bonum. And this brings us back to Joe Blow (the truly great and inspired artist living a life of obscurity making ends meet as a part-time waiter in the Village). There's no cachet to supporting such a nobody--no investment value, no Viagra-like boner from putting his work on the wall (unless like Basquiat, the arbitrary forces conspire to make him a viable investment opportunity), but for every Basquiat there are tens of thousands relegated to anonymity. (And besides, look what happened to Basquiat!) Which brings me to my final point. Who actually makes the money at these art auctions (besides the auction house itself)? A recent event at Sotheby's netted $91 million for a Klimt painting, however the heirs of the Klimt estate received not a penny. It turns out that a rich person bought the painting from Gustave himself for a song back in the day, and now the heirs of this rich person, not the heirs of Klimt, made the 91 million. What else is new? The rich get richer, the artists get by as best they can.
*This article originally appeared in SAMIZDAT June/July 2007
**SAMIZDAT was right on the money (forgive the pun) with this article! For further proof of the worth of the rich, check out the December 24, 2007 issue of Forbes (the Playboy magazine of the rich and powerful), the cover story entitled "Art of the Deal" in which a rich person bought a Modigliani for $18 million and sold it five months later (!!) for $39 million. (Vomit!) Usually poor Amedeo made around $10 per painting while he was alive, and many times he would trade a painting for wine, food, or rent.
YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION...
REBELLION AND ROCK MUSIC have gone hand in hand since Elvis. A stick-it-to-the-man, question authority, fuck-the-establishment mindset that has been part of the wellspring from which so much great music has arisen over the past sixty years. It's an odd symbiosis. The musicians originally rebel against the status quo with something diametrically opposed to it. Their art speaks to others like themselves, the disenfranchised and disaffected (who are usually the young people, who by definition have little vested interest in a society run by those opposite themselves, namely, the "old people", "the squares"). And then an interesting thing occurs. This product of the counter-culture becomes a hit, it makes money and a lot of it (to translate into the language of the establishment), and this same establishment then goes out of its way to embrace it. And of course the musicians are swayed by suddenly becoming rich and famous, and eventually they succumb and "sell out", they break up over "creative differences", they die or commit suicide, or they form their own record label (like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin) to retain creative control and make even more money. (Today we have Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead pioneering the selling of their albums over the Internet, bypassing record companies altogether!) And as far as present-day rock rebellion goes, it's still very much alive in alternative, industrial, hard rock and heavy metal (check out the artisdangerous.com landing page!), not to mention rap (which can be the most rebellious of all).
So what about art? Where is that same kind of fierce rebellion in the visual arts? It still exists in isolated pockets (Joroko*1 is a great example), but overall today's artists remain a pretty timid bunch, especially the more they strive to become "known" and accepted into the "art world", doing things that we've discussed at length in other ART GALLERY 101 lessons, such as "branding themselves" and making art specifically for the "white-walled art galleries", which in turn pander to a rich clientele. And here is the fundamental reason why rock musicians are more rebellious, while so many of today's visual artists are rather tame. Young people are the ones who buy a rock band's CDs, whereas today's "known" artists must rely on rich people to survive (or to get rich and famous in the first place). In today's art world the rich call the tune. (And haven't they always since before the Renaissance?) And of course, the very nature of the products of art and music are factors as well. An original work of music is usually best represented aurally by the wonderful technology inherent in today's CDs, whereas the best visual example of a piece of artwork is the artwork itself. Original artwork doesn't lend itself to being mass-produced. And since young people don't traditionally spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on art, an artist must look elsewhere to make money. And this brings up another crucial difference. Rock musicians realize their work, their music through performance, primarily through playing live before usually enthusiastic audiences of young people (who in turn buy their CDs and the tickets to their shows). Therefore their music and their radical behavior are reinforced on a regular basis by their fans, to the point of most rock musicians echoing the sentiment that while record companies indeed suck, if it weren't for their fans they (the rock bands) wouldn't be able to keep going, both literally and emotionally.
Visual artists have nothing of the sort to rely upon.**2 Their artwork is realized on the public level through being displayed in the gallery, and of course the more "high-end" and "big-city" the gallery the more of a rich clientele they possess, the more chance there is of the artist selling her work and making money. And unfortunately the art world is still governed by this iniquitous mindset (the few upstart galleries like KRONOS notwithstanding), artists and galleries being suck-ups to the rich, in a closed environment that doesn't encourage rebellion.
So how can today's artists become more like rock musicians? (Dare to dream!) The answer is to bring young people into the equation, first by getting them into art galleries in the first place, and then having them think that art galleries are a place that's happening, that's vital. Young people recognize bullshit almost instantly, which is the reason why they don't traditionally flock to art galleries, so we must make the art gallery a relevant place. A place of new ideas, of fearlessness, and indeed of revolution where the spirit of art itself hasn't been co-opted by a pandering to the marketplace as defined by the rich. After all, what is art really about? The next step is that artists have to start mass-producing their artwork in the form of very affordable prints (or other such things) so that young people can buy them. (And it would help if they [the artists] could give up the idea of being "rich and famous", because this idea is perpetuated by the "white-walled gallery". To be a rich and famous artist today is to be either very lucky or to be a slave to an oppressive and creatively-stifling mindset.***3) Granted, an original piece of artwork is unique, one-of-a-kind, and as such should be valued accordingly. Its three-dimensionality, its color, size, and texture cannot be realized in a mass-produced facsimile. But that doesn't mean that vital, beautiful, affordable art cannot be made available to a brand new public, especially with the advances in today's technology. But this is where it's up to the artist. He must make the effort to make at least a part of his artwork accessible as though it were a CD, which is not to devalue the art, but rather, open it up to an entirely new audience. After all, revolution never originated from the rich.****4 And of course this will be a slow process, as there is no infrastructure in place for distributing artwork en masse as there is for music. (Perhaps the Internet can somehow be used in this regard.) Because it is visual, art can be just as powerful as music. Look at the enormous posters of Stalin and Chairman Mao. One glance can speak volumes, and if a picture is indeed worth a thousand words then let's make our artwork actually say something that matters, and then get it out there to the people. It's possible, but it will take a radical shift in thought on the part of the artists (followed by action) to make it happen.*****5
**2. Whereas rock musicians have fans, artists have the gallery owner!
***3. Refer to what Malcom X said about "house Negroes" vs. "field Negroes" (artisdangerous.com "FILOSOFEE/Quotes").
****4. B'lee dat!
*****5. Through radical art galleries, guerilla art shows, artistic anarchy and the like in order to reclaim our power as artists. Anything is better than the way it is now.
THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Today our neighbors had their driveway resealed. Now from the point of view of the artist this seems right up there on the "Top Ten Colossal Wastes of Money by Americans" list. That someone would think about their driveway at all, let alone worry about it enough to pay someone to reseal it is indeed mind-boggling. Extending my vision further down the street I see several brand new GIGANTIC pick-up trucks. And when I say GIGANTIC I mean Godzilla could ride in back; I mean, I've had apartments that were smaller. And if I could extend my vision even further to the local miracle mile, I would see huge flat screen TVs for sale for thousands of dollars each. Yet we are of course in a Recession. Rent, food, gas prices are all sky high. And of course in a Recession nobody has any money to buy fine art. Art, after all, is a luxury, and art galleries are suffering dearly. So my question is, what's up with the $60,000 pick-up trucks? With the flat screen HDTVs, with the resealed driveways? People obviously have money enough or credit enough to spend on these necessities! I worry about my fellow Americans. I wonder if they have any self-awareness at all, or if they are pod-people whose souls have been snatched away, whose minds have been so infiltrated by TV commercials and celebrities and media propaganda and religious dogma that their thoughts are no longer their own. I mean, what, do you wake up one morning and say, "I must buy a pick-up truck that's 40 feet long and gets four miles to the gallon!" Or "We need a four foot wide flat screen HDTV so we can have the best TV with the best picture and sound on the market so we can watch 'American Idol'!" I fear that the LCD--the infamous "lowest common denominator" has perhaps won the day. Decade upon decade of the bombardment of images, of how we're supposed to look, act, feel, live and what we're supposed to buy, it's all become part of our consciousness to the point of it becoming who we are. We are what we think. And if we don't think for ourselves then someone else will gladly step in and think for us. It's like the old Dracula myth, that Dracula cannot come into your home unless he is first invited. I want people to think for themselves; to be aware of what things want to be invited into their minds. The world needs its artists now more than ever because of this. Because if they're worth their salt, our artists are the ones who point the way through all the detritus to the authentic, to the truly necessary.
Until recently I thought graffiti artists were about as "outsider" as you could get. First of all they literally worked outside! And second, what they did was and is illegal. Vandalism. Defacing public property, such as the outside (and inside) of buildings, bridges, subways, and trains. And this made them more like outlaws than artists. They had to work when people weren't looking (specifically the heat), and they had to work fast because you never knew who was about to come around the corner. So there was an element of Zen to their work, like ink drawing on rice paper. The spontaneity, the here-and-now, the fact that you couldn't linger or go back and correct your mistakes. There was danger. And I imagine no other artist would get the feeling of exhilaration upon completing a work as did the graffiti artist. So it was indeed surprising, when trying to curate a future show at KRONOS of New York City graffiti artists, that they weren't as "outside" as I thought. As the saying goes, "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all become respectable if they last long enough." I'd like to think that when they were young Turks in the 1980's, dashing around NYC like invisible super heroes, leaving their mark, their tags wherever they went, that they would have looked with derision on the establishment, at the snooty, stuck-up art galleries of Manhattan, for they weren't about that, were they? But now it appears that the mainstream establishment has embraced these one-time renegades, and made "NYC graffiti artist" and "outsider artist" a good thing to list on one's resume. And the sad thing is that these one-time renegades are returning the embrace. If an "outsider artist" (who by definition shuns the mainstream) ends up coveting the mainstream you can call him a hypocrite, but if he ends up cheerfully accepting the mainstream then by definition he is no longer an "outsider artist", and you can rightfully call him a sell-out.
In trying to set up my show I discovered that these five particular one-time outlaws like perks, such as a free place to stay, gas money, having all their expenses paid, and one of them (I'll call him "Prima Donna") said he was even used to having art galleries fly him all over the world in jets so he can attend his own openings. Consequently, this guy didn't even want to come to Virginia because we were so low rent. So I asked another one of the graffiti artists if they might know some young, hungry, up-and-coming graffiti artists in New York. Someone trying to make a name for himself who wouldn't mind loading all the artwork in a van, schlepping it and the other artists down here, and kicking in for gas money. "We don't hang around kids," our 40-something outsider artist sneered. I guess if you're 20 it's cool to be a rebel, an anarchist, an iconoclast, a struggling artist, but when you're pushing 50 you gotta get real and re-prioritize. If you're struggling in your 50's you're a loser. And I understand this, the erosion of the artist's soul. I even understand them wanting to tap into that mainstream river of money for a change. I mean, why not? But the thing is, that they are doing so by trading on their having been true outsiders once, back-in-the-day. And as reprehensible as this is (the word "sell-out" comes back to mind) it's the same reason there are Van Gogh calendars, coffee mugs, and mouse pads. If something's dead it can no longer be dangerous. It can no longer rock any boats so therefore it can become a commodity. The selling of their outsider status to the establishment for money and recognition may be justified by a crappy economy and a hard life lived in need of payback, but it's still being a sell-out and a hypocrite. I guess the question comes down to "Is one an 'outsider artist' simply because they can't get accepted by the insiders (as much as they might want to be accepted), or is one an 'ousider artist' because their art is their own, and they truly don't give a shit about what anyone (especially the establishment and its money-making machinery) thinks about them or their art?"
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
The other day I thought of an old flame. In third grade we were childhood sweethearts. We sat next to each other in class, we walked home from school together, we sat side by side on the bus during our class trip to Turtle Back Zoo. We were the two smartest kids in class, smitten with puppy love, and everyone assumed we'd eventually get married and have a brilliant future. But then in fourth grade she moved away and I never saw her again, and years later I ended up as an artist and ne'er-do-well. Wondering what became of her I Googled her name and was surprised at what I found. She had recently been named by one of the top investment banks in the world as its chief of European mergers and acquisitions, the only woman to head a mergers business at a bulge-bracket investment bank (whatever that is)*1. Obviously quite the muckety-muck, rolling in dough, elbow-rubbing with the rich and super-rich. Which got me to thinking about the paths that people take, the callings that summon us.
I would never recommend being an artist to anyone. First of all, the hours are terrible, being constantly on call to the Muse who oft times wakes you in the middle of the night with an inspiration that must be heeded. On top of that the pay generally sucks, which forces you to have a second job (one that actually pays the bills). You don't get much recognition, and if you diverge from the marketable and refuse to "brand" yourself, then there's a good chance of everlasting anonymity. In addition, this working all the time for little or no pay and recognition is not that great for the morale. For some, depression is as much of a companion as the Muse. For others, it's addictions (and other self-destructive behaviors). For others, suicide (be it fast or slow). And needless to say, relationships are a challenge--the instability of the artist's life an impediment to all but the most steadfast. And a life spent as an artist is at times like being a building on the edge of the ocean, understanding erosion on a daily basis as the tide ebbs and flows, as one's foundation is undermined. So why does one do it? The poet Robert Bly says that someone who spends 20, 30 years in their art "goes down to the countryside of grief"*2 where they become a friend to sadness. And this somehow sustains. I think of what the Brazilians call "the sadness that is beauty"--an intuition of the very nature of things that is all-encompassing, between nothingness and eternity; a glimpse into our humanity and the maddening transience of our existence. For someone who has spent a lifetime in their art this feeling is the drug, the high, the reason--at times almost godlike.
So what of someone whose calling is to make money? Personally, I have as much insight into this as a rock would have into doing the breast-stroke. I am sure there is a passion to it, in amassing great wealth, but I wonder if there is humanity? I think back to the article about my third grade girlfriend's success. The very next paragraph began with an announcement, about her bank laying off 300 people, accounting for 15% of its investment bankers. I wonder where the humanity is in this.
*1. Her latest success is being named recently in Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in world finance, routinely brokering billion-dollar deals.
*2. "When anyone seriously pursues an art--painting, poetry, sculpture, composing--over twenty or thirty years, the sustained discipline carries the artist down to the countryside of grief; and that descent, resisted so long, proves invigorating. As I've gotten older I find I am able to be nourished more by sorrow, and to distinguish it from depression."
THE TREE FALLS... (Part 1)
It's a sad fact that some art galleries depend upon a rich clientele to keep going. It is also a fact that other art galleries charge their artists a membership fee to stay afloat (some in the neighborhood of $10,000), while still others declare a non-profit status and thus depend upon grants to keep their doors open. The questions that this raises are "Where is the public in all of this?" and "Who after all is art made for?" In those moments of wishful thinking does the artist see her work out there in the world for all to see (regardless of bank account)? Does she see art itself as something sacred, both the process and the result; that it can both soothe and outrage, and perhaps shine a light on something that others try to hide? That it can be a mirror for the artist herself, as well as for society at large; a reflection of the present, as well as a hope (or a warning) for the future? With all the artists who have ever lived and all the artwork that has been made, why do some people still feel that irrepressible need to express themselves? Instead of saying that it's all been done before, their actions speak resoundingly that some things still need to be said! The true artists at times cannot help but feel the vastness of Art, the gravity of the continuum of which they themselves are a part. So what does it mean when the platforms for presenting their artistic statements to the world are ignored (or at least not supported) by the very people for whom the artists create, namely, the public? And yes, there are artists who say that they "do it for themselves". But yet there must come a moment when they want to reach beyond their own skin. After all, if the work is universal then there is a longing on some level to present it to the universe! And this brings us back to our opening contention, that the majority of the public fails to give artists its support, which forces the above-mentioned vicious cycle upon the artists and the galleries, and forces us to ask, "If the public ignores our artists then is the art itself meaningless? And how do we respond as artists if those for whom we create are oblivious to our creations?"
And this begs another question as to what actually constitutes meaning. Many (including artists) need a roadmap to find this thing called meaning. And this roadmap consists of accolades, awards, grants, fame, fortune and the like, but upon examination is this really it? When we rely on the extrinsic for our validation, have we not traded in a concrete foundation for a house of cards? When we put our faith in the external as our raison d'etre, do we not mortgage our souls for the arbitrary and capricious; for that which goes on behind the scenes (in oft-times shadowy places)? The million dollar question: Is a work of art only great after it has been recognized by the so-called experts? Or in other words, is its worth dependent upon these outside forces, its intrinsic qualities invisible until pointed out by others?
And this calls to mind the proverbial "tree falling in the forest". Let us imagine a hermit living in the woods, far from the maddening crowd. He keeps to himself and only goes into town once a month for supplies, his life spent in his shack and the woods around it. When he no longer comes to town the storekeeper becomes curious, and after six months he ventures into the woods, to this place hidden from the rest of the world. Inside the shack he finds hundreds of paintings--beautiful, daring, original paintings that have never existed outside these simple walls. And the question then arises, "When is that moment when these works of art will be granted their existence?" To the world outside this may be a great discovery, but what did it mean to the hermit-artist? If something truly is does it need anything else? Or better, can we as human beings be satisfied without that echo from outside? For our mythical hermit-artist in the woods, the tree fell, and it was deafening.
THE TREE FALLS... (Part 2)
T.S. Eliot said “the artist is heterodox while everyone else is orthodox.”*1 The problem though with being on the outside is the seemingly inescapable longing one has to one day fit in. Kierkegaard maintained that the minority is stronger than the majority because the minority is made up of those who think for themselves and actually have an opinion*2, whereas the majority is oft times the product of monolithic thinking. But the paradox of the minority is that it is born from the majority—the majority’s orphan child, its unwanted bastard. Throughout history, in art as well as in politics, the minority has struggled for acceptance, which ultimately has meant to be allowed back into the majority. They (the minority) want what the majority has and what they (the minority) are subsequently denied, and this is human nature, this craving for acceptance. Few want to be rejected. Few want to be outcast. The slave wants freedom. The woman the vote. The writer the publisher. The artist the gallery. Think of the Impressionists—rejected by the Academy they got together and put on their own shows. Think of the punk rockers. In a world of rock stars with castles and private jets they had three chords and borrowed (sometimes stolen) equipment, and with this they revolutionized music. And for a time these rebels exist in a charmed space defined by their own passion and conviction (and the rejection of the world at large). But then comes the ever-encroaching entropy of the majority. The majority may be stupid but it’s no dummy. Eventually it sees what’s going on in that seedy club, in that makeshift art exhibit, and then, like all powerful entities in charge, it wants a piece of the action, and it goes about it the only way it knows how, by acquiring as it would any other commodity. And the next thing you know there is elevator music of the Sex Pistols and Van Gogh coffee mugs. To return to Kierkegaard, as the majority subsumes the minority’s truth the truth must once again retreat to a new minority*3. Truth exists, but it prefers the demimonde to Fifth Avenue. It can’t survive for long as a commodity to be bought and sold. And this is the problem with art—the problem that has existed for millennia and exists to this day--the virus-like craving for acceptance from the world at large, felt on some level, at some time, by the artist. And nowhere is this paradox more striking than with what is now called “outsider art”. In order to be accepted something must first be defined. Critics of the day didn’t know what to make of the Impressionists’ splashes of color and seemingly improvised anti-compositions. But eventually a new generation was able to redefine Impressionism until it not only became accepted by the masses but its paintings today command some of the highest prices on the world market. The paradox itself is that this “definition” is the entrée to acceptance for the artist and her art, and in the process of being defined the work and the artist are thereby changed*4. Like trying to observe a molecule. Like Schrödinger’s cat. In the unopened box the cat—or in this case, the art--can exist in its charmed space. But once the box is opened... So we have “outsider art” at the fancy Manhattan gallery, in the glossy magazines, at the Venice Biennale, and the majority appears with checkbooks in hand.
The question that must be asked though, is how can a work of art be known, be recognized without this process taking place? Is it even possible? Is it not human nature to want to distinguish oneself, to stand out from the masses? The initials after one’s name, the resume, the awards, the renown, the bank account. Intrinsically these things have nothing to do with art, but we have spent centuries convincing ourselves that they in fact do, to the point that we cannot look at a piece of artwork without this somewhere in mind. Here’s how it works: There is the artist. There is her art. There is someone who sees the art. And this is where the trouble begins. How to look at art without comparison, without categorization, without the awful weight of the continuum of art and consequently art criticism and the opinions of society and the marketplace hanging above one’s head? How to see something for what it is, intrinsically, without rushing headlong to that next step, the Pandora’s Box of acceptance which leads to commodification? And the question this raises is what is art’s true purpose? Is it personal or is it cultural, or can the personal be cultural (which is a heterodox notion in an orthodox mindset). I think of what the Spanish call duende. In the Spanish arts, duende is difficult if not impossible to define, yet it is recognized instantly when it happens. A guitarist plays flamenco. Something about the musician, the audience, even the night itself suggests that something rare may occur. Something beyond all definitions. Something risen from within as well as without, coaxed into existence by the entirety of the scene as if from a sacred space. Something that won’t be repeated and whose lifespan might be but a moment. “Eso es!” people call out. “That is it!” And in that moment all who can hear and can see and can feel are forever transformed*5.
1. "The artist is the only genuine and profound revolutionist, in the following sense. The world always has, and always will, tend to substitute appearance for reality. The artist, being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real... His function is to bring back humanity to the real." –-T.S. Eliot
2. “Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion—and
who therefore in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole train and numerus [big numbers] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority” –from The Diary of SØren Kierkegaard (#128)
4. “Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark that it is this or that it is that, but do not use the rotted names. Throw the lights away, nothing must stand between you and the shapes you take when the crust of shape has been destroyed. You as you are? You are yourself.” –-from “The Man with the Blue Guitar” by Wallace Stevens
5. Since I heard faintly the voice of the first wild goose, upon mid-sky alone my thoughts have been fixed. –-Mitsune, Japanese c. 900
THREE SECONDS BEFORE THE LIBERMAN
The painting itself is spare. Abstract. Black and white. From ten feet away the composition becomes clear, what looks like a charcoal eye staring out from the center behind a milky cloud of gauze, the paint itself tenuous, as if the white and black are filmy ephemera vanishing and emerging with the play of light. And then, the bold strokes of black scratched across a window pane to further obscure the eye. Like calligraphy—India ink flashed on rice paper in an improvisatory testament to immediacy and of going forward beyond thinking. Lines of another language, cryptic and old, and there’s the feeling of happening upon something most intimate. A close-up of an emotion itself, but what does it mean? What does this say? The lines dance as if blown by a forgotten wind and yet they are immutable as a cave painting on ancient rock.
From four feet away the texture is revealed. The canvas with swirls of paint in contradictory motion; huge slashes through plaster through cement through rock as if the unstable surface itself was scraped and gouged with a chisel before it had a chance to solidify. This had been alive once—liquidy and hot, captured in the first moments after it began to cool. Moving closer there are ridges like mountain ranges, raised fingerprints, scars. Thick paint of white and gray in web-like counterpoint to the black which seems deeper now, almost sinister in its blackness. The closer you get the eye disappears.
From two feet away there is a rip of white in the upper left corner. A wound showing the paper-like skin in its fragility. Small stones are embedded in the paint, the surface a slice of rock a sixteenth of an inch thick, this weathered paper which seems at once still wet and older than papyrus. There are colors now, the whites give way to grays to the color of sand to a shadow of blue to the blacks like bamboo reeds obscured by mist, blending into the thick viscous air. Another glance, a gaze at the eye which seems now to be an opening through trees, a dense snow-covered forest. A step closer, the cold can almost be felt.
There are people now. The museum’s piercing stillness is now the blank canvas to footsteps on thick carpeted floors. Four people walk as in procession. Their words are as spare as the paintings: “Hmm...” “Look at that...” Closer they get as they continue their pilgrimage around the walls. A Frankenthaler, a Cárdenas, and then the Liberman, no more than three seconds before each until they pass to David Smith and continue on.
“Hmm...” they say. “Look at that.”
Kevin Postupack fecit.
--all work copyright 2009