Thursday, November 26, 2015

lowered expectations -- undemocratizing art

Could you, or anyone, with absolute confidence tell the difference between a painting by some olympian of modern art, say DeKooning, and one by a farm animal, or a three year old? You might guess. Once saw Corbert interviewing art aficionado Steve Martin, asking him if he could tell which uniformly green panel was the Elsworth Kelly worth millions and which was a paint chip. After hesitation Steve said the one on the left, to which Corbert said “wrong,” but even that was probably a lie.
How come we’re having this discussion? No, really. How did it come to this that art has value because of what, faith? At ‘face value’ a lot of big time art falls flat, is seriously ho hum less than interesting. There’s mystery here and major inconvenience, always turns out inconvenient when people get together to ignore the obvious. Art, after all, is humanity’s attempt to see, digest, and comprehend the remarkably pliable corner of the universe we’ve been given, and trivializing it, degrading it, forcing it to perform a silly dance for the obscenely wealthy may not be in humanity’s best interests, by and by.

Let academic friends eat a deskilled breakfast, listen to a deskilled band, take their car to a deskilled mechanic before extolling the virtue of ‘deskilled’ art, because many of the rest of us are simply unimpressed. What’s wrong with old fashioned skilled art, honest accomplishment, astute observation, and general accessibility? The inside chuckle before the big business meeting said under the breath on the elevator -- “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” seems to apply. The time for that is over.

World views collide on the evening news, and the differences between us is not in our genes but in the pictures in our heads, is what we’re asserting here. It’s mortally important what we see and think about, and we get to choose some part of it, not an option for other actors in the field. People who live with art seem to think they can comprehend the world more directly, see more, and bless their hearts, maybe they can. Maybe that’s why people like it, want to own it, and why it’s maybe even important.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

mural amnesia -- revising history

ref. “UK will cover controversial campus mural,” HL nov 24, 15

We here at owning art don’t care for messages in our art, considering them an add-on to sheer visual impact, art’s ability to attract and hold our attention for more than nano-seconds at a time. Religious paintings from a time when wealth concentrated in grand cathedrals come down to us mainly because the eternal institution has preserved them, and the really good ones make it into museums but it isn’t because of what they say. Not many museum goers bother to identify all the heavily symbolic characters, more interested in the depiction of translucent flesh and velvet drapery than heavenly announcements.

To carry that standard forward to our time, it could still be the art itself that’s most important, and not it’s ax to grind no matter how noble. After all, advertisers learned a few generations ago that superior art draws attention to their product, whatever it may be, and they pay top dollar to some very classy professionals -- everything but true love. For that reason, even in the case of fine art it’s more reliable to consider qualities which apply to all art, historic and modern, referential and abstract. Van Gogh painted a pot of sunflowers, but no one looks at it to learn about sunflowers. They look at it because it’s the most interesting thing in the room. 

On the other hand art teaches us about the world. Every documentary about a period from about a hundred and fifty on back uses art to illustrate their story. Almost everything we know and judge about previous civilizations is in the attainment of their artists, and it’s is not for nothing that despotic regimes throughout history have sought to control the minds of their subjects by limiting their art, the worst being the most severe. Somehow this brings us to our own history, about seventy five years back, and the purge of representation from art, an event significant for art and just about everybody. During the great depression the government hired artists to paint murals in post offices and public auditoriums all across the land. What they got disturbed sensitive folks in influential high places, to them a lot of left wing crap, union meetings and strikes, average citizens buying the ‘daily worker’ on a newsstand, such as that. Few survive having made way for abstract art which don’t say nothing, and that’s on purpose. Somehow the painting in Coit Tower in San Francisco made it through neglect and sabotage, and it’s murals have finally been preserved, are even being restored. coit tower murals 

The mural in question over on campus, having drawn so little attention all these years, managed to shyly stand in a corner and so survived the great destruction of WPA sentiment almost everywhere else. It can be read a couple of different ways, and acknowledging a reality which couldn’t be spoken at the time could be seen as quietly subversive, an indictment of the status quo, a clandestine nod to all those who passed by and wanted the world the change. By our universal standards this mural isn’t a particularly strong statement, and compared with the mosaics of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal it's only mediocre, but it does preserve a truth about a time and an appeal for change, and can’t we just help but wonder if these protesters are on the wrong side. Besides, this blog doesn’t trust anyone who wants to censor or destroy art. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

the Pope on pollution -- home remedies

One of the problems with urbanization the Pope’s encyclical cites is ‘visual pollution’, and I guess we all know what he means. Mostly it’s advertising, layers on layers, each billboard plastered on top of the last, faded enticements to buy stuff moldering down to dingy, dirty streets in all directions around any major city. Boarded up fast foods, fluorescent-lit gas pumps, the tumult of ambition and failure in tawdry heaps as we drive by soaking it in -- we can’t help it any more than we can help breathing the oily air. Does it dull the senses, how could it not?

Each and every sign, label, flyer is trying to get your attention, and it’s a frenzy, all after the ragged remnants of the average persons ability to even notice. A suggestion of cleavage on newsprint, on a turned page in a magazine, might arouse the nervous system enough to register a deal on tires, to realize a sudden need to purchase aftershave, and the competition for the momentary glance is cutthroat. Mostly we tune it out and look for escape, music so loud it overrides the chatter, preoccupation with the hand-held, and an hour in the park, a drive by the lake seems to help.

When I was young the ohio river would leave a nasty black line along its banks every time it went down an inch or two, but now there are fish, you can see to the bottom sometimes. There’s no longer a sign nailed to every tree on a drive in the country, thank you state legislature, and neighbors make an effort to de-uglify their part of town. Still, it’s a toxic environment for our perceptual net, the interface between us and what’s out there, so says the Pope. It’s worse in the slums, where every inch is covered with the belligerent badgering of payday loans and liquor stores, but it’s all over really.

People in densely populated, industrially polluted cities of the east sometimes go out in the street wearing surgical masks to try to filter out the large chunks, and it must help some. An antidote would be handy, when you get home, and it isn’t going to be a quickly fading football game selling beer and trucks. The remedy to apply is an apartment or house full of art, stable and friendly as any environment is going to be all day, a soothing, renewing bath for battered senses. Won’t fix everything, of course, but until the world becomes as beautiful as the Pope says it ought to be, it must help some.

Friday, October 30, 2015

the emperor’s old clothes -- going casual

It’s all about comparison. Some scientists claim that’s all there is, that we ‘know’ about anything strictly and simply by comparing, and those with the broadest experience can be said, all else being equal, to have the best perspective, and are most likely to be proven right most of the time. Things aren’t equal much of the time, and most of us are just following our hearts looking for the easiest, perhaps the most rewarding, the better of the two choices in front of us constantly. Humans will eventually get into everything, go anywhere, think all sorts of stuff unless their choices are limited by some system of thought that controls them. 

Religion, not here of course, but back in the day in various places, gained traction by insisting blocks of knowledge were unthinkable and filling in the gaps with constant rounds of festivals and ceremonies. They aren’t the only ones who would try to manipulate people by limiting their choices, as regional text book controversies make clear, year to year. Keeping people in line becomes more difficult these days and uncouth dictatorships attempt to block the internet, to control the press, and to batten down on artists who are apt to think any way they want to. Balloons carrying leaflets have been tried just to import ideas that haven’t been thought on the other side before, and in the future massive drops of laptops would probably be more effective than bombs if closed-minded societies act up. Human freedom, it turns out, has to do with access to everything comparable there is. 

So who controls art, in the name of what tribe? Well, not any more. Murals on blank walls next to empty lots are becoming ‘trial’ art for cities all over, erected with private money and chosen for public impact, haven’t seen an abstract yet. They won’t last outdoors in wind and rain on caustic concrete, but that’s not the point. The muralists are moving across the world, literally, criss-crossing past each other. They’re that crown of foam at the top of an enormous wave about to crash all around us, a realization of the expressive potency of visual art, long suppressed. The few non-profit galleries featuring subsidized art which have dominated small city art scenes for decades are about to be inundated by every manner of private gallery, art in restaurants, art in offices and in houses down the street. Every person, in the end, will have a chance to decide, among all the possibilities presented, the art that expresses best the way they feel. Could turn out to be a freedom they didn’t know they had. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

to look, to see -- art’s impact

ref. ‘The Brain’, a current ket series, 10pm on wed

Something said here a while back has been technologically verified. It was a theory born of subtle observation, but now they can now show that we ‘see’ through a complicated process of cognition, and it’s a product of what’s out there, maybe only twenty percent, and the rest what’s inside already. They did it with MRI watching the information come in through the eyes, mix all around in back somewhere to produce the final version, what we see. Isn’t that interesting -- it explains a lot. 

The reason we’re all so different is because we live on slightly different planets based on our visual histories, and the amazonian forest dweller and the hipster from the city probably wouldn’t recognize anything through each other’s eyes, at least for while. Folklore has it the native people at Vera Cruz couldn’t see Cortez’s ships, so different from their prior experience, and so imagined he emerged from the sea, strange enough in himself, tall and white. “Lot’s of things are invisible, Joey -- but we don’t know it ‘cause we can’t see ‘em,” so said Dennis. 

Turns out what we see, what we’re capable of seeing, depends on those endless rows of file cabinets we maintain, somewhere in our skulls, of stuff we’ve seen before. Using technology scientists have observed it as it happens, more information flowing forward than comes in through the eyes. Seems it’s the filing system and not the apparatus that has the major influence on what we see, and cataract surgery just makes it clearer. If what we see is determined in large part by what we’ve seen before, just knowing that grants an edge, an advantage, a productive insight to the thoughtful organism. 

Of course we can’t change the world, but we do have discretion when it comes to what we look at, pay attention to, even think about. Implications abound, but the influence of significant art should be clear. Mostly mysterious to be sure, but seriously considering art, owning and living with art, is probably going to have an influence on everything else, everything seen at least. Someone could claim that’s art’s purpose and function, here in the early twenty first, and right or wrong, they’d at least be scientific.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

where were you -- museum musings

ref. ‘Art museum downtown......,’ HL, oct 11, 15

For years the University of Kentucky Art Museum has been hiding under and around in back, essentially a service entrance, of a gigantic, all-brick fortress of performance, huge spaces dedicated to music and sound. Surrounded by a moat of ‘no parking available’ two or three blocks deep, with arbitrary hours, they weren’t trying to be friendly. So one day I stroll in, probably to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, a brilliant little painting even if you didn’t know who Washington was, and the person behind the desk calls out as I walk by. She says,”Who are you?”, just like that. I’m feeling wary at the impertinence so I offer that I’m a citizen of the fine state of Kentucky. She says that’s insufficient, and if I’m not student or faculty that’ll be eight dollars to walk around and see our stuff. I declined.

There was almost never anyone in there, anyway. I’ve heard they’d sometimes count janitors and even themselves coming back from lunch just to pretend someone was utilizing the real estate, and at eight bucks a head the true costs of the white elephant on campus must have been revealed. Well, suddenly there’s a new kid in town, in fact, there’s lots of them. The hotel is going to assume your function, the one you were too shy, too insular, to self-satisfied to fulfill. They’ll present an array of art you can’t match, set standards for achievement and currency in a profession space you’ll never get our citizens to provide for you, not now. All around the hotel the city has engineered a pedestrian friendly area in anticipation of private galleries popping up in store rooms, over bars, in any empty space with walls, all seeking a niche in the spectrum of interests and tastes of a suddenly engaged public, as well as those of world travelers passing through. 

Losing the admittance fee could be seen as a friendly gesture, although rather meek and inconsequential, an ego adjustment decidedly late, but you won’t see crowds because of it. Your space in neither user or art friendly, and your commitment to a contemporary sensibility which only a tax-adjusting foundation could love makes a move downtown into your own stainless-steel, squashed-can architectural icon just something to think about while a fly buzzes somewhere in your tall empty space. Where were you?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

professional offices -- seedbeds of change

Being a mature citizen entails visits to offices, legal, medical, and various civic usually with a period of quiet time sitting in a room as part of the routine. Along with magazines they all have art, mostly as inane as the sit-com on a loop in the corner. The art was delivered in corrugated cartons leaved with foam, having been packed at the end of an assembly-line somewhere. Inside the frame are swatches of color, suggestions of landscape, maybe a few steaks of gold, almost totally like thousands of others shipped that week. 

No need for concern, this is totally adequate because at this time no one expects any more than that. Art in a waiting room is the decorating decision that comes after choosing the carpet and what kind of chairs? It’s not amazing that no one seems to notice, no one cares. It is possible to spend more and get a little nicer, sometimes featuring reproductions as familiar as the magazines, and almost on the verge of expressing something -- sailing ships at the dentist, stiff formal portraits and thoroughbreds in those 19th century-like law offices. You would think with big personal incomes they might invest in real art and maybe they do for their homes, but that’s private business in a private space, and this is about their offices, those interfaces with the public, those intersections of a diverse public’s concerns and interests, all of them with a bit of time to kill before their business gets done. Isn’t this a fertile ground for art?

So here’s what happens. Someone in charge of the office budget for maintenance and occasional upgrade sees a surplus, and suggests to the boss they buy a piece of art from some local artist, might be someone they happen to know. Well why not, and they hang it in the waiting room, behind the receptionist, somewhere everyone sees it. Chances are people will think it’s strange at first. Original art has a quirky fresh sort of feel about it that people tend to notice, however a word of caution -- it runs the out-of-the-box stuff off the wall. Instead of mutely decorating, the real thing wants attention, draws the eye, has something to say. Not everyone will like it at first, but it’s too late. 

Somebody’s going to say I drove by that guy’s studio the other day, he has a sign, and someone else chimes in, maybe later in the week, that they saw his work in a gallery, in a restaurant, in the home of a friend. Then some colleague, some associate, some competitor from across town will notice the response and buy a piece of art, maybe from some other artist in the area, and hang it in their office -- same thing again. Before long a native species has made a comeback, and area produced art will begin sprouting in offices all over town. For those unfortunate enough to visit several of these offices a week, the effect will be to make those wildlife and floral prints look lazy, the vague abstracts seem mechanical, and on the chance of finding themselves with actual art, to make their interminable waits more palatable and interesting. The eventual effect on the entire community will be the reseeding of a native interest in art and art ownership, everyone just a bit more considerate and thoughtful, more relaxed and satisfied.