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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, repairing plumbing 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 bought 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 transparent 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, 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 sloppy paint 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, happens all the time -- sometimes 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 without using language 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.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

take the A train -- the quickest way

Jazz, once a coursing tumbling mountain river full of energy and creative purpose, has spread out into the plain of general acceptance to become ‘jazz-like’ and ‘jazz-influenced.’ The genuine product can still be found on the radio in two hour segments deep in the weekend and traditionalists workshop with students to try to keep it alive, but the notion of the individual statement within a known musical form is becoming an archival art form.
Duke Ellington introduced a body of work which he performed at every concert, and his entire book became recognized as standards, playing on the radio until everyone knew each by heart. This universal familiarity became a starting point for creation of art, the place from which both artist and listener could leave together. Within the framework of these standards, Duke himself, and all other jazz musicians thereafter, modulated and bent, embellished and extended so that their individual contribution became apparent and even personally identifiable. “Your sound is like your sweat,” so said Miles.

To participate required an advanced level of musicianship on the part of the players, not only adept at fundamentals, but able to spontaneously compose their own statements revealing character and wit, all the while maintaining adherence to the original composition. There were requirements of listeners as well, and thorough saturation with those ten or twelve songs, humming through the workday, was the first. The second was enough attention to register when their expectations were being teased and tested, seen in a mirror, driven down side streets, with elements of rage, arousal, pain and conviction all riding along on popular songs practiced by every beginner. Jazz is a thoughtful deep music full of jokes and intimacies, and it’s somewhere on the radio if you can find it.

Visual art doesn’t need the radio since our eyes register the world around us all the time. Even so, the actual world has in recent years been discredited as a source for painting -- ‘copying nature’ it’s been called. With jazz fading as a cultural influence, perhaps some other form of art, perhaps some inclusive style of painting will convey what our language is too dumb to talk about. As in jazz, representational art empowers the viewer to compare new artwork with the cross-indexed library of their own direct experience and come to their own conclusions about the artist’s level of accomplishment, and beyond that the thoughtfulness of their interpretation. Within that conversation they may come to understand the artist and to recognize themselves. Even the less advantaged, poorly educated but observant citizen can do this.


Monday, December 8, 2014

what’s good -- the side by side test

How do we know anything about anything? A team of scientists conclude the human mind‘s basic function is comparison and that’s how we think, how we see the world, how we navigate our lives. Most folks know pretty quickly what’s the best quality for the most reasonable price but they’ll need at least two examples. We tumble through life picking up points of reference -- an exceptional sunset, the correctly fried egg, an epic performance, and whatever comes after rates on that scale. It seems almost mechanical and some say it is. 
For art the question about 'how good' is usually avoided altogether these days, and other ancillary facts and statistics are cited, usually a long list of past affirmations. Consensus replaces looking altogether. The new director of the local university’s art museum landed an artist who’s shown previously at ‘MoMA’ and the ‘Hirshhorn’, “and so deserves a giant show” without mentioning medium, content, or making any reference to the art at all. It’s just not relevant in the scheme of things. Straight up comparison, that most fundamental process for determining quality, has been largely ignored in favor of press clippings and proclamations.

Read once about a nervous Picasso before a national exhibit one on one with another famous spanish painter, Goya. Different styles from different eras, it didn’t matter -- Picasso was afraid of being blown off the wall. He reportedly came out of the exhibit much relieved because he thought his stuff held up. For Picasso, comparison side by side was the ultimate test of any art, and it doesn’t take a scholar to know the difference. Average people making day to day comparisons will eventually come to support the best BBQ in the district, are going to be drawn toward the most well designed automobile, and will be able to tell which piece of art is more compelling when looking at two pieces side by side. It’s all based on the way we think, what we know, and how we make decisions.

Ideally an art museum in the area would provide a context for what contemporary artists are doing, exhibiting objects that have endured unchanged for centuries, each recording the prevailing mentality of their age. Although representing many different forms, together they provide a standard of accomplishment for gaging the work of artists living in the surrounding area. Big cities do it best. Here, if we were lucky, a crew of profit-driven capitalists would import a lot of contemporary art just to sell hotel rooms, and anyone curious could go look. In the end ‘it’s all the same’ -- that’s what Picasso said. Just looking at art engages the machinery and leads down the path to liking some art more than other art.


Monday, December 1, 2014

one and a quarter seconds per -- museum marathons

Listening to a ‘great conversation’ on the public tv station between the urbane critic from the times and a newly-retired museum director renowned for spending copious amounts of someone else’s money acquiring trophy art for ever more prestigious institutions, a brilliant career. Some of the stuff they said I liked and any serious friend of Velasquez can’t be all bad, but museums like full parking lots and the bored attendance counters at the front desk and returns from the gift shop may not be the best judges of art for posterity.
The museum guy was lamenting the fact that the average museum goer’s average time in front of any particular work of art timed out at about one and a quarter seconds, really not enough time to comprehend what’s there. Well, there’s just an awful lot to see all accompanied by little tags of learned explanation, and it might be too much information for just one afternoon. The former director with his weeks, months, and years wandering the world’s major museums has had time to gaze at many illustrious works of art and so can speak with authority, but his day job is acquisition and funding.

Museums hoard all the great art available and ambitious directors take a chair in an ongoing game of monopoly -- rolling the dice, upping the ante, betting real money. They amass a big pile of really good art in big buildings on expensive real estate and they justify it all with projected attendance figures in great footstep-echoing halls. Their actual function is to serve as a reference library displaying what’s been achieved elsewhere, and raising the bar for the population in the surrounding vicinity, if the sports besotted six-packs would just show up. Well, with a bit of sympathy for the common man, everything all at once might not be the best way to experience art.

Paintings take time and physical effort to produce and they don’t give back much in one and quarter seconds. Try sitting on a park bench and see how long it takes to begin to hear the birds, to notice children playing, to consider the light and shadows under the trees. It doesn’t all enter consciousness right away. In fact, unless you’re distracted staring at your devise, there’s more to be aware of fifteen minutes in than when you first sit down. Paintings also require looking. Every feature was consciously put there to contribute to the final image, and new information, even a kind of unspoken understanding, will float to the surface if you can manage to look for more than a moment.


An easier approach than making the museum guards twitch while you sway on your feet trying to absorb some great work of art all at once, would be to buy something worthy and live with it day to day. Doesn’t have to be reproduced in books and worth millions. It just has to be the product of the commitment and practice it takes to become an artist, and engaging enough to you in the long term to spend money in the moment. Time at the museum might help you make such a choice. Instead of squinting for a second and a quarter at masterpiece after masterpiece pushed along by blockbuster crowds or simply hurrying to take in as much as possible in one afternoon, just live with four or five significant works of art, perhaps purchased over decades, for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

art -- capitalism’s high-wire act

In capitalism a raw material is extracted far away, shipped, refined, and extruded into all the stuff around. It’s complicated bringing a product to market and involves the efforts and livelihoods of many people in many places. The people who make the real money never lift a brick, far away, high up in the sky -- just the way it works.
Here is a person for whatever reason attempting to tame the enormously complex economic system directly, to remain independent while playing by the rules. They are going to try to take raw material, in this case canvas and paint cheap and available to anyone, and transform them into a product of so much value they can sell it and make a living. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing to pull off?

It’s both an amazingly egotistical and yet humble approach to living here, both a ‘calling’ and a sly attempt to bypass the fine print in the social contract. It’s egotistical obviously because someone thinks their talent and commitment could provide them with roof and sustenance, and modest because it’s a trade that traditionally involves scraping by doing other stuff.

All the same questions apply bringing any product to market -- will it be mostly sizzle, will it be substance? Quality is a conversation between the artist and the prospective owner, and the more knowledgable the buyer the nicer the chat. Exposed to the spectrum of art from around here a community could find its own true level of sophistication and taste, develop its own artists, find its own regional voice, and it’s a transformation which builds slowly and yet seems sudden when it happens. Long experience shows the most authentic, accomplished, interesting art is found when people make their own choices, buy for their own reasons, and spend their own money -- capitalism’s better self and democracy’s genius.


Monday, November 17, 2014

solid state art -- no wires, no batteries

What does a work of art do? We’ve gotten over the notion that art is a pointless luxury purchased with what’s left over after closets are full of furs and seven car garages stuffed with exotic iron, but what is its function day to day? Oh, the smart set may drop a couple of hundred thou on some smear any talented grad student could reproduce, and probably did, but such trade seems frivolous and silly to the average citizen. Art as an investment seems cavalier even to those who value risk, and without any control, really, regarding authenticity it makes no sense at all. 
As decoration all that stuff in frames that ‘looks like art’ from factory outlets claiming to represent starving artists has that look about it, and for good reason. At the other end are sweat-shop conditions for people who, as a fact, are paid rather poorly. Even high quality reproductions of great works of art don’t lie very well, and aren’t likely to draw attention away from tasteful drapes and carpeting. Original art, on the other hand, exerts an influence over the room it’s in.

Does it compete with sixty inches of hyper-intense, slo-mo replay, guns a poppin’, burgers and pickups -- not much does including sunsets and waterfalls, but sometimes it’s off and art on the wall is a constant presence, drawing our attention and influencing how we see. With no wires or external source of energy art offers the example of directed focus and applied attention, and that’s not without value in a land of digitalized mass-produced everything. As a fact it’s this 3-D printed, special effects enhanced, hand-held ‘looking-glass’ reality we’ve wandered into that makes original art so potent. 

Art is a bit of protein in the high-fat, artificially sweetened comfort diet of modern living, and it’s going to taste pretty good even with a mediocre cook. Excellent art, you get to choose, will help stave off the soft bones and ego-depletion that being caught in traffic twice a day, endless tail-chasing conferences, and office pecking orders can bring on. This quality of visual art, this rejuvenation of the senses and grounding for the personality haven’t been emphasized much because salesmen are generally uncomfortable with those issues. Salesmen would rather refer to bluebook listings and cite reputation, prices at auction, and maybe offer you a deal because you got this special appreciation -- such as that.

Art is a machine, a technology from a different era perhaps, but one that still operates, still influences and enhances its owner’s perception and thought process, and all it needs to work is to be seen everyday.  


Friday, October 31, 2014

preparing the way -- art in public

I must have been out on the back forty when it happened. Oh yeah, I’d seen it coming decades ago and told everyone who would listen but that was nobody. Somehow the artist in this community went from social nonentity, a dreamy wastrel who won’t take a job to cultural superhero whose ideas, utterances, and public creations are inviolate, beyond community approval, official sanction, and you better not paint over nothing even if you own it. Where was I? 

Where was everyone else? Some local booking agent all of a sudden is contracting with world-trotting gunslingers who ride into town, emblazon their enormous creative expressions on any convenient blankness, and on their way rejoicing while the community sorts out conflicting feelings about what they’ve left behind. I personally couldn’t complain about any of it because this public painting asks all the right questions, and citizens have to sort out their own answers. It represents a mighty transition, like when evolution turns a corner.

Public painting itself doesn’t have a great future. For one thing there’s only so many blank walls that face the public and they’ll soon be covered, and then there’s the technical side. What does it take to prep a concrete or brick wall for a painted image and did they all do it? In any case, paintings normally shouldn’t be left outside in all sorts of weather, and without regular maintenance they won’t last long. It doesn’t matter. They will have done their job and faded away.

This infusion of international euro-pop mentality will arouse an awareness of what’s already here, what has been here all along, but off the view screen, under the radar, out of mind. These very large paintings are immensely impractical from the individual’s point of view -- they can’t be moved or even seen except when parking, but regular sized paintings in galleries, or for sale in restaurants and salons, can be taken home and hung in the living room. 

From this jump-start, artists will rise in the community mind from being the decorators of public utilities and providers of raw material for charity auctions to serious self-employed contributors. The quirky genius who flaunts society’s norms is slightly beyond the ambition of most artists, and simply being included in community life would satisfy many. All the grating controversy that accompanies public art is overcome when someone buys a piece and expresses their own opinion through ownership. 

Stars align, ancient locks begin to turn, and some new state of community self-concept is at hand, as has already been seen in several quarters. Art is about self-concept first of all, and owning some can ease the friction all this change can cause. Outside ‘public’ art will blossom and fade but the seed will germinate indoors, all around the town.