Saturday, January 17, 2015

counting calories -- the visual spoon

First of all, art is everywhere. No one lives without it. Anything manufactured had some stage in its development called the ‘art’, all forms of advertising involve art, and there’s art in what you’re sitting on, in what you’re wearing, and in whatever you’re looking at now. Artists at some level designed everything we see except the trees and grass. Only some of it is finally actually called ‘art,’ but if there ever was a line it’s been well trespassed. 
What’s good or bad art is a difficult distinction. Today let’s consider a nutritional model derived from our community-wide, newly-minted food consciousness, just for its ready-made template. If art was food, someone would argue that some things are good for you and some aren’t, and people would talk about it, read about it, and think about it a lot. All in all, nutritional awareness has been a positive development for our general health, and in the end will be beneficial for all. However, seeing what we ‘see’ through a similar lens is still up the road aways.

You have to give up a certain amount of attention to make art work at all. The colored lights from the TV are just movement to your cat, but you see people, guns, explosions -- maybe even feel a minor jolt of adrenalin, there on the couch. We are visual creatures with the ability to interpret meaning from flat images, and when we engage with visual art we get glossier or we feel depleted, depending on what we’re looking at, let’s say good or bad.

Take pornography. Does the avid fan actually have an improved love-life and are they more likely to convey wit and self-possession at social gatherings, are they more able to concentrate and apply full attention to the task at hand? I wouldn’t know the answer, but I think I can anticipate what nine out of ten of these same folks would say. That’s a cheap example, but what about advertising which uses art to seduce us into buying stuff, and which can, in itself, be borderline porn. Advertising is everywhere inescapable. In visual terms, it’s a fast food world and we’re all on the go, victims of convenience.

There are those who will tell you that people who have healthy diets with fresh fruit and vegetables don’t need the vitamin supplements, but if you’re only consuming big macs better fortify with one-a-days. Or, if you prefer organic, try original art which elongates the attention span, fortifies self awareness, and once owned provides a point of stability and duration in the churning of tables and chairs you’re going to be calling home for the rest of your life. This product is easily available from a variety of outlets, but a word of warning: the labels are all bogus, so you’re on your own deciding what to buy. Compromised government agencies make up daily requirements to reward their buddies. Everyone knows this.

It’s a wide-open fresh market even if you only consider art created in your own area, and you shop by what looks good that day. What you’re seeking is the sort of produce which continues to ripen for as long as you have it, which radiates awareness and commitment if that’s what went into it, and which in time becomes intimately familiar without disappearing. Will it improve the owner’s love-life, inspire wit and conviviality, or make their work day seem more rewarding? I wouldn’t know the answer to that either, but I’d be willing to bet that more than one out of ten would say it did.

Monday, January 12, 2015

the royal paintbox -- privileged insights

Saw a lovely documentary on PBS, ‘The Royal Paintbox,’ hosted by the charming Prince Charles. It seems that royals since way back devoted themselves to disciplines of various sorts, the most personal and revealing being learning to paint. Victoria’s children by her own hand wore crisp colorful outfits and were proportional and recognizable. Not bad for a queen. Others in the royal line became excellent painters with the goal of “being as good as professionals,” although they didn’t need to sell of course. 
Nowhere to be seen were those ‘accidental’ watercolor skies, the opulent still-life parodies, or any self-conscious, clumsy imitation of the famous and familiar at all. Some of these guys, without regard to gender, stretched out, learned their craft and spoke from the heart. They had a chance to travel, and wanted to create their own impressions, to invest the time and effort to see and absorb exotic landscapes so that they could recapture those experiences once back in their very large houses on green and foggy estates. Their work together accurately and evocatively depicts many corners of the world.

All in all, the documentary did a lot to humanize generations of faceless polo-playing nieces and nephews, some trying to find themselves as serious people by following a discipline and devoting themselves to it -- and it wasn’t just the royals. Churchill was a painter, too, and compared making a painting to a military campaign, although he might have been slightly better at the latter. Still, I wouldn’t have said that to him. 

Here’s the point. Any person watching this program gets to judge. Were these people vacuous, empty, and absolutely ruined by wealth? Some probably were but the family, with their interest in perpetuation, expected more. Take a sketch from the program of the mountains in Kashmir, palms in the foreground and snow-caps -- what does it tell you about the self-confidence and decisiveness of the person who drew it? Quite a lot. It’s one of the qualities people admire in art, whether they recognize it in those terms or not, and the art in this documentary speaks well of the character and self-awareness of a class of very privileged people. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

some like it flat -- the endless picture plane

Today any sort of thing can be called art and the contest seems to be just to get there first. The notion of permanence started going away when the abstract expressionists not only expressed contempt for traditional pictorial expression, but held little regard for traditional standards of craft and produced artwork destined to self-destruct due to material degradation in short decades. Since then any standard still standing has become the target, and a posse of the avant-garde has roamed the backstreets and surrounding fields to annihilate anyone’s priggish reservation about anything.  
So now I hear installation is all the rage -- the sodded gallery; the advertising festooned, found refuge, pile; the petulant puzzle complaint about something very large and far away. Not only do I find these exercises sorta uninteresting, I don’t understand the commerce side. Who pays the artists, how does the gallery pay rent, and what does anyone get to take home? If it’s institutionally supported I question. I’m not closed-minded, but if everything is art, nothing is -- look it up.

It started with the flat blank surface that’s been the same for every artist who ever stretched canvas or gessoed a wooden panel, or confronted a smooth wall in a cave. In a long human history it’s become a magical place. The artist can find the newly prepared canvas intimidating, since once they’ve achieved even basic proficiency they begin to realize anything is in there at the beginning. Every masterpiece ever produced arose from that same white surface, and something even better is possible until the first mark is made. It shouldn’t be thought about too much.

For the average person ready to appreciate art in some form, limiting the area of interest right off has its advantages. Just paintings with ducks is probably too narrow, while everything they call art these days might be too broad. Pretty average myself you understand and for me it’s the flat white panel which gives rise to both ‘big eyes’ and Van Goghs, and is the fertile ground for every image ever seen or imagined. The commerce side isn’t complicated. Would-be artists either apprentice to working artists, if there are any who can afford such, or must be willing to support themselves by other means until they can produce art compelling enough to earn the acceptance of a receptive community, if there is one. This receptive community would have original art on their walls that friends and neighbors would recognize, comment on, and which they would come to appreciate more and more as years go by.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

art and identity -- form in the fog

‘who are you? who, who? -- who, who?’ According to ancient greeks and new-age gurus it’s not question many of us could answer successfully. Oh sure, we can list our profession and annual income, cite educational achievement and awards and such as that, offer testimonials from friends, family, and fellow workers, but the mellow tones of enlightenment assure us, that person could be anybody. Our individual identity, they say, lies elsewhere. True or not, this notion leaves the average commuter feeling lost and unsure, and many seek relief in fervent allegiance to causes, political parties, and an assortment of religions. We all get to choose.
Becoming involved with art is more of a do-it-yourself deal. Art can be as deep or shallow as you need it to be. Soup cans with their glamorous entourage captivate some but it’s a sad reflection to have, is all. For the more thoughtful, art extends as far as humanity has ever been, and comes down to us not in biased ever-changing translations but in pictures everyone sees for themselves. Ancient hunts, military campaigns, and agrarian festivals all go directly into the brain, there to link up with whatever similar experiences the individual viewer has already had. It’s a very neat process. 

In more recent times, some would say since the advent of the camera, visual art has ramped-up its ambition, attempting to express areas of thought and feeling beyond just what our senses report. It’s an unregulated zone, strictly buyer-beware where carnival barkers offer enormous returns on investment side-by-side with serious practitioners, and the naive with too much money are constantly getting burned. Now this is fun -- an endless branching market of stalls and kiosks, a place to stroll and learn and recognize, not what signposts say is good, not the touting of tourist guides, not what anyone else thinks at all, but just what appeals to, say, you. It’s there somewhere in the infinite array of art available these days.

The art a person collects can be very revealing to the observant visitor, but also and foremost to the owner, themselves, who both express and ground who they are by the art they choose to live with. It doesn’t answer the question of who we are, really, but it is a peg on which to hang a hat.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

bad art -- its job to do

There’s a lot of it out there, from senior citizen happy pines to gigantic art fairs in major tourist destinations. Seniors generally never attempt painting the real world and instead make safe little paintings of paintings they’ve seen before. Gigantic art fairs rent booth space by the square foot to freebooting hustlers who present art as a momentary entertainment, a glamorous and expensive time to be drunk. Both extend a magnificent service to the culture which supports them, as midwife to an eventual genuine and thoughtful discernment out among the general population. 
Intelligence seems to flow through humanity like a draft against embers, glowing and fading. The ancient Greeks were smart, not just one or two, but must have been most of them. During the renaissance an educated nobleman might have a conversation with a craftsman who would probably be articulate as well. Although from different sources with different cultural backgrounds the mentality of the today’s society unites in an aurora of electronic media shifting and surging over our heads, reporting back and reinforcing itself. A hard right turn in public opinion is possible, and in fact happens all the time.

Art has been off the view screen, not among ‘most popular picks’, or even much thought about among the general population until recently. That is, by the way, how the self-fascinated infantilism of Jeff Koons, as example (on google), became ‘preeminent’ -- by the default of the culture at large. That’s changing. Movies about artists, both shallow and deep, are being made, but there are also commercials shot in art galleries, more questions concerning art on ‘Jeopardy’, more art written about and seen. That brings us to what’s good about bad art.

Bad art -- cloying, ingratiating, poorly executed bad art implies by its very existence good art somewhere, it’s like a law of the universe. It may not be around here and might not have been seen by many, but it’s got to exist somewhere, and people being people will look for it. Logic and human nature have done great things together all along, and finding a mode of expression so individual it speaks in universal terms, so personal it provides connection with the many, and so handsome and well made it enhances the living space where it’s hung would be another feather.

Monday, December 29, 2014

big-eyed art -- so helpless and appealing

I haven’t seen the movie, just the trailers and read some reviews, and since I’m not usually a fan of the director I doubt I’ll get there. I know about ‘Big Eyes’ because I was once sitting on a stool wondering why these pictures of odd alien children were hanging in this bar. I understood it was a west-coast fad flowing eastward, but the peculiar side-show appeal of the images was somehow too creepy to analyze. Mammals grow into their eyes which are pretty much the right size to start with. This leaves human babies and the babies of all our furry friends with big eyes at birth. This big eye association is wired in, and sympathy, nurturing, and the desire to protect all come awake when eyes are too large for the head, even though these inborn inclinations rarely make it to a conscious level. 
So what would happen to our built-in ‘baby-sensing circuits’ if someone made a painting of a waif with really big, absolutely enormous eyes? Guess they’d scream with all their subliminal might, and folks everywhere would vaguely register some sort of emotional tug, although not consciously of course. As a hook for art this is in itself a cheap trick, but there’s darker implication. This isn’t a pleasant world for the orphans in city slums, wearing ragged little tops and looking up ‘so helpless and appealing.’ This ‘big eyes’ business isn’t just kitsch sentimental, it’s poignantly unwholesome, but it isn’t Walter’s fault he got famous. Not really.

The movie, as I understand it, is primarily about aggressive salesmanship, personal betrayal, and their frequent association, who knew, but along the way there’s also some mighty snooty disrespect for any culture which would support such tripe. So who here today, I wonder, can afford to feel superior watching “Big Eyes”? Walter Keane, that trailblazing precursor to the whole ‘Warholian Era,’ arose from the primal ooze of breezy california abstraction, as barren and unyielding as the freeways. Even if it was repetitious and mindless, at least it was a picture of something. 

The folly of fashion inevitably becomes visible just a few years down the line, but the next big thing can seem so beguiling at the time. The real issue for our purposes here has to do with the sheep-like mentality of a public that can be herded and penned by the whistles and clicks of cheap hustlers, past and present. Can anyone say 'well that was the way it was then, but it’s wonderfully different now?' The actual answer to Walter Keane and his goofy art would have been, then as now, to buy something else.

Friday, December 19, 2014

artist as genius -- it’s just a gift is all

I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of artist as genius. There have been a few over a long span of time, but auditioning for the part takes an audacity makes me uncomfortable. Not intending to brag but I’ve been out there, working for wages, unclogging drains in rentals, using the once plentiful wire coat hanger under the car. Humility is the password out in the world of physical work and hostile landlords, and it turns out a great deal of the world’s population use it regularly as a badge of recognition. 

When Fidel came to the UN and stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, he and his compadres went down to the market and brought back live chickens to grill on their balcony. They refused that glorious room service, so they said. This 'performance piece' was entirely opaque to his rich hosts, but brilliantly and eloquently spoke to poor people, all over everywhere. In the more rarified world of avant-garde art, there was an italian artist who had his own excrement canned and labeled as such, and the British Museum paid six hundred thousand pounds for one a few years back. Not only a titanic sendup of elitist gullibility and inbred institutional imbecility, numbered individuals from the edition have been known to explode spontaneously adding a potentially kinetic element.

I’m not talking about the humility of shuffling feet and downcast eyes. I’m suggesting that spilling wet sloppy paint on canvas and using a squeegee is fair enough, but then pretending that this sad accident of an offhand afternoon is worth two decades of a pretty good income is sorta grossly ego-maniacal insane. Did I say that out loud? I don’t know where you get off with that. It takes a bloody genius to be able turn out one masterpiece after another, each like the last, or hiring a crew somewhere else to do it. In the world of big-time brand-name art this happens all the time -- often in the open. Say what you will about the corn-syrup sensibilities of Thomas Kincade fans, what about the people who like that stuff? Are they as shallow and vacuous as the art they buy, is that possible?

Contrary to what the media has to report that isn’t all there is to art. In fact, it’s fairly irrelevant. Art is the voice of connection with other minds and you get to choose your channel, just the cool kids at the moment or the mass of human-kind, backward and forward in time like stuff in the museum, and anyone can listen in. Painting as a secular and remarkably plastic medium for direct communication transcending languages goes back six or seven centuries, and the actual examples endure -- it’s an old conversation. To take part, artists don’t need to be geniuses, just to do their best with what they have. We’ve all been there.