Sunday, April 13, 2014

presidential prophesies -- the future from the present

What harbingers do you take seriously? President Carter was an introvert who turned outward and embodied a concern for community felt in the hearts of many in his time. Bush, the backslapping extrovert quoting ball-scores and telling crude jokes, turns inward and becomes a painter after his stint as national ego in-chief and I wonder what it means.

George is really pretty good for a rank beginner and I wouldn’t deride him for that -- too bad he gets all that attention. He has the courage to be judged, takes that chance and comes out miles ahead of all those condescending noted authorities who ‘never played the game’. I’ll try to be more clear. There are people who assume rank and position in the art establishment with too few dues in the pot, professional chameleons who look all directions and change color with the crowd. They can’t decide if Norman Rockwell was an artist, a great artist, or not even and the tide moves back and forth every ten years or so. They don’t know what art is.

George will probably never be good having started way too late, but he’s put himself on that highway and something about it is so compelling, some part of himself was so thirsty for time in front of an easel that he’s willing to humbly accept an avalanche of ridicule and scorn just to be able to do it. His persona has softened and ‘decider’ no more, he devotes himself to looking at things and noticing stuff, trying to figure out how to make flat canvas say the same thing. Well, that’s George’s thing and we move on but he was a man of his time elected to represent all of us, and in the arc of his presidency somehow he did, ending in a bankruptcy no one expected. 

Still at the crest of a wave of national consciousness our most recent ex-president has concluded that self-discovery was the missing component, and so does a nation suddenly interested in art. It isn’t just him. Oh I’m as rational as the next but history with art as its expression can be read a couple of different ways, and the way things are going looks to me like artists are going to be the ballplayers in another generation or two.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pussy Riot -- facing down the iron fist

Saw members of ‘Pussy Riot’ on Charlie Rose last night. Worst musicians and most fearless artists I’ve ever seen. Art stares back into the face of brutal soul-crushing authority while everyone else examines their shoes, and it’s the vulture who turns away. This is after journalists have been publicly poisoned, political opponents bogusly charged, tried, and sent to prison, and under the constant surveillance of the secret police. Art may in the end be the only solution. 
Pussy Riot is not about subversive lyrics, sly derision of those in power tolerated from above as feckless even useful dissent. It’s courage and defiance they personify, and they’ve willed it to ripple out from them through performance because they understand art isn’t passive. Art both reflects and directs self-image, the realm of possibilities for the individual and for their community, as totalitarian regimes have understood well enough. Those who would control minds fear art more than foreign armies, and their feeble attempts to subdue and bend it trace a real yet unwritten history of the twentieth century. Well documented are the darkly hilarious machinations of fascist and communist national cults trying to limit and restrict art only to make it more virulent and powerful.

Art in the west has been buffeted by different forces. Here art sells stuff and even sells itself. Ask Andy Warhol about politics and he’ll talk about carpeting the streets (saw the interview) but walking through his shop he’ll order more ‘Lisa’s, “we can always sell those” (from a documentary). At least in a democracy there’s no attempt to control art from above, unless you count the NEA, myriad foundation grants, and state-supported teaching institutions everywhere. Here the artist doesn’t fear heavy footsteps followed by loud knocking in the night, but still there are challenges. The first is an almost totally alienated audience. Squeezed on one side by the vulgarity of commercialism and from the other by an academic establishment passing out honors and grants and hiring teachers from within a state-supported farm system, the general public opted out, walked away, and the vested interests said good riddance. Each takes a much bigger chunk from a much smaller pie.

Pussy Riot is a hard act to follow. Artists here can’t count on one sorta goofy performance resulting in a gigantic state show trial seen all around the world, and which in effect puts the state, itself, on trial. That’s a lot to ask. Here artists need to be honest with themselves and hope their example will endure, as paintings do, and ripple out at least a sense of independence and some notion of purpose beyond money. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

W shows his art -- the burden of fame already

W’s art is met with derision by all who opposed him politically, and they revel in his struggles, his vulnerability, his naive honest attempts to make images. It’s the same for all of us but he get’s pilloried as stand-in for every painter who’s taken those chances but never received even ugly reviews. This is a time of reflection he’s never known before, an attempt to struggle with limitation and doubt, and one can only wish he’d tried it sooner.
He claims as his inspiration Winston Churchill who took his painting quite seriously. He compared the strategy of making a painting to mounting a military campaign and it had more credibility coming from him than, say, me. Still, I’m pretty sure I know what he meant. Painting will teach W something about delayed gratification and cause and effect, even unintended consequences, and that’s all before he leaves the studio. He’ll also learn something about the hollow horn of art criticism from people who find profundity in a drip, a smear, some petulant display of ego-inflamed/such genius.

W just started and for that he isn’t so bad. Given a couple more decades at the easel he might be posing and resolving deep universal human issues, and who could doubt he’d make a better president?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

bureaucratic art is to art -- art on assistance

Kids in art school pick up elitist notions. It’s only that old institutional insularity really, but they internalize it. Civil occupations are usually based on knowledge rather than performance, and the secret knowledge of the art department is what brings home their bacon. They teach some strange stuff.
One is that worthy art really didn’t begin until the ‘year one’ of the modern art era, about 1950. Before that it was just the churches that bought art and of course there were portraits of industrialists' wives and other sorts of decorations for houses and such. Art wasn’t very interesting back then, just copying nature with no imagination, so art had no support or interest from anyone until the advent of the great funding entities, governmental and private/tax-deductable -- the NEA and the foundations.

The contempt shown for representational art, and the art department’s full disapproval for any student who insisted on pursuing it, shaped institutional instruction for decades. Recall being told about a class critique where the only way a representational painting would considered was upside down. In the outside world the people who paid the freight didn’t like abstract art, never liked abstract art, but that was just their problem. ‘We have words that apply to them, philistines and sports fans, and ways we feel superior wandering between studios peeling an orange while they grind away nine-to-five to provide our income.’

Well to heck with all y'all and your demented installations trailing ribbon and tinsel like abandoned carnivals, your publicly-funded ‘board-game tokens’ around town, and your bias for a style of art only a bureaucrat could justify or support with other people’s money. That’s not art. It’s some sort of imitation of art process that qualifies for a grant but would never survive on its own outside its incubator. Believe it or not the common folk are not too dumb for art -- they’re too smart for that stuff.

The culture has shown its capacity to discern quality when a full array of options are available, although the system can be rigged to limit choices. It’s over. Once a certain amount of art is seen by the public the cloistered peer group reviews for those fat regional grants, all the public money pumped into art production will seem like just another ‘farm bill’, just a pointless giveaway to those who may not deserve it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

cash flowing backward -- art’s secret subsidies

According to my email art expos around the planet will sell booth space to anyone who pays, and competitions all charge a fee just to look at your stuff. Myriad art publications offer inclusion to artists willing to buy a quarter page of advertising, and wouldn’t one assume that’s a policy that goes all the way to the top? Seems contemporary art must be largely a vanity industry driven by dollars from behind rather than aesthetic achievement, and with a sprinkling of third-hand tales of instant fame and riches as a backdrop the desperation to be noticed becomes intense -- the perfect setup for a grift.
Early on found myself among a crew of shady door-to-door salesman, adepts at a low risk, tried-and-perfected confidence routine that could be applied to a wide range of gadgets and literary fare. It worked for a couple of generations before they finally burned down the territory. Big money was all they talked about in their expensive suits but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pay their rent, and did they lie? It was their profession. I don’t know a thing about big art, never been there you understand, but there’s this smell.

Where is art a legitimate business? The gallery owners perpetually complain about the poor economy and the general philistinism rampant in their hometown. Independent artists work at menial, unrelated enterprise while attempting any avenue to have their work at least seen, what with all the non-profit, tax supported galleries devoted to the kind of art made on a salary at the nearest university. There is no money and no actual market because the industry feeds off itself, stealing the seed corn, pretending to be a charity and key to riches and fame in the same breath, and living off the aspirations of artists rather than the exchange of legitimate value.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

hearing the visual voice -- how ‘speaks to’ becomes ‘speaks for’

Art reveals the personality and character of the artist, the values and beliefs current in their society, and other layers of the human dialogue which can usually only be seen in the long term. This universal meaning and significance appears like a hieroglyphic subtext behind each work of art, and it can be felt and recognized by anyone who simply looks. 

Consider ‘photo realism’, the sector by sector replication of a photograph. The camera made that image already, but inevitably when the picture goes in through the eyes and comes out through the hand it carries extra information. Along with being a precise and remarkable rendition of a photograph, these paintings are also plainly saying ‘I am a highly skilled technician of enormous self-discipline and yet totally without emotional affect, with nothing else to say.’ This is information you can know about the artist by seeing one of his paintings that isn’t available in the original photograph, even though both images are almost exactly the same. (, read his statement)

At an opposite extreme, Jackson Pollock suffered intensely from mid-western self-consciousness and doubt, over-compensating with the roaring egoism of deep and chronic alcohol intoxication which when painted expresses itself all dark and incoherent. He managed to convey the impotent and nihilistic rage of drunkards so articulately it’s visually repulsive. That isn’t, interestingly enough, what scholars have said about his work at the time or since, but next to thousand year old Chinese calligraphy, paintings in caves and under pyramids, maybe beside someone’s earnest attempt to paint a horse, it’s clear enough.

When the viewer begins to realize that the classifications and subdivisions that make up the secret-knowledge of experts has all been imposed from the outside much of the mystery in art disappears. The general attitude of the artist toward themselves, toward the viewer, and with regard to the present state of the culture all around are plain enough just for the looking, and it’s up to the person who intends to buy and own to find the art that expresses what they intuitively feel and that says who they are right up there on their wall. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

American Hustle -- a con job of a movie

There was no hustle, just a lame sting with hidden camera to entrap some faceless politicians into taking bribes. The wife, introduced as a stay at home recluse, turns out to be a loose stupid slut, and the quick montage of hustler’s backstory wasn’t remotely plausible. I claim no special knowledge. In this movie the old gangsters at the bar are charmed by the slut, but really, why would they be with twenty three olds by the dozen just a part of the life? The authorities were children, the drunks were obviously just pretending, and the hustle didn’t make any money. This movie is much nominated for awards, the director has been fawningly interviewed by Jon Steward, yet nothing in it faithfully reflects real life experience. Out of business and bereft of bankroll our dejected hustlers wind up dealing art, sitting in front of a collection bought in a used furniture store.
Dealing art is thus identified as the lowest hustle, the fallback of the defeated conman, an enterprise as pointless and shallow as this con-job of a movie. I don’t know about dealing art, but I do know about art. There are examples, even on TV, of characters believable as people doing plausible things, even in extreme situations, and it’s by comparison that this movie is revealed as just a hustle, awards notwithstanding. Isn’t it just that way with all art?