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Monday, August 25, 2014

art's one way mirror -- the invisible audience

Art folks have some pretty insulting ideas about everybody else. Why if it wasn’t for the progressives in bureaucratic positions passing out grants art would probably die, and the reason so many galleries fail is cretin sports fans are taking up all the parking. In art school students are taught the common folk have no direct interest in petty mind games and that’s probably correct.

‘Contemporary art requires much more from its audience’ intones the resident expert and there’s no doubt. It requires faith, a powerful force shaking the world about now in its more fanatical manifestations, but in art it just entails believing nonsense has significance -- seems almost benign. Damien Hirst has reduced his product line to polka dot and spin paintings done by ‘assistants’, and it’s difficult to compare them to world art and still feel good about our culture, unless of course we just declare ourselves obliviously self-absorbed. Happens all the time.

Not everyone gets on the bus and that includes most people. It doesn’t mean they don’t like art, wouldn’t respond to art, or wouldn’t buy it. They might prefer a more authentic effort from the artist, an image more relevant to their own experience, and maybe a work of art which establishes its presence without a pound of paperwork. Where is this art you ask, and the answer is it’s always been around. It may not have seen sunlight for a while although with recent climate changes a new growth is possible. 

This change of climate is simple exposure to the public, the first imperative of retail markets everywhere, and it’s happening now. More art is going up in businesses and shops, and galleries are claiming spaces within walking distance of the new 21C hotel. As more art is seen in galleries, hotels, and alternate venues all around town, worthy area-produced art will rise toward the surface and become visible to the local population. It would be wrong to suggest quality would go down since artists respond to attention and support and get better. People who spend their own money on art can self-educate pretty quickly too, and almost always recognize the better piece side by side. Eventually the art around here might become more relevant and authentic to the community, and more important to people’s lives.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

unquenchable thirst - whiskey river bottled up

There’s an article in the paper today, here in bourbon country, about the burgeoning speculation in bottles of whiskey. There’s a picture of the proud collector of fifty four bottles of the same whiskey, a different label for each of the playing cards in a standard deck, plus both jokers. Somehow this sounds so familiar. Here are people paying fabulous amounts for whiskey they never intend to drink. The magic is in the bottle it comes in and not in the contents. We are now all required to assume this bottle contains an ambrosia so transcendent that if we ever to taste a drop we would immediately try to punch a best friend, abuse a spouse, and pass out contentedly for a three day coma but it could be just coke and vodka for all anyone will ever know.
Spirits are a product I’m not fond of but the parallel works for art because the medium has so little to do with the message. There’s a peculiar mechanism that takes hold when wealth becomes too staggering, and it’s happened in other cultures at other times as well. Rich folks wind up competing to piss away the most money, and without further discussion it’s blatantly unhealthy. The Northwest territories tried to pass a law against the ‘potlatch’, the celebratory burning of furs and breaking of canoes as a form of hospitality among well-to-do native peoples, but it was more likely hard times that finally made them see the light.

There’s nothing wrong with art, itself, but someone’s going to have to crack the lid, break the seal, pour a drink. Better yet let’s open up the bar. Some folks prefer coffee, juice -- there’d be more customers don’t you see? In fact, what is this investment pitch anyway, collecting art like vintage cars and porcelain roosters. Maybe the conversation should be about owning art, living with art, and support for living artists from around here, wherever here happens to be. What’s in the bottle would suddenly be more important than the bottle, and what’s so wrong with that?

Monday, August 11, 2014

painting by numbers -- square one revisited

So what’s a painting about, any painting? Representational or abstract, it doesn’t matter. Here is a flat surface, probably rectangular but even that isn’t real important. On it is an arrangement of colors and the same questions apply -- does it have presence, does it command the space it occupies, and would a person continue to look at it even though they see it everyday? 

Could be minimal, could be contemporary, might be a visual cliche -- Van Gogh painted pots of flowers. However the artist chooses to get it done, historical or religious references, found labels and ticket stubs, appropriated cartoon characters or any other sort of image, doesn’t matter. It either sticks in your head or it doesn’t. Not only is the subject secondary to the main point of painting, it won’t be made better because a famous person painted it. Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, could paint a raised fist that would read dynamically from a block away, but it was his paint and not his reputation that made this happen.

Might seem strange to knock down all the fences and let all the art mingle, hip to square, museum old to contemporary, famous and unknown, but these distinctions have always been plastic and arbitrary, the province of art bureaucrats and professional experts in their castles made of matchsticks. Does the art convey a message, well, maybe it does but that’s a separate issue. Could be about religious faith, celebrating a sports hero, or selling soap, and being good art would aid those causes, but they aren’t the art.

Starting from the same blank surface that’s always been there, art has it’s own agenda, and a successful work of art is self-contained, true to its own logic, and speaks to the viewer in some fundamental way beyond the subject. It’s up to the individual to find, in the avalanche of visual sludge drifting by, the art that doesn’t get old for them. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

realism in art -- exalting the audience

Just saw a movie about people I’d never meet doing things totally beyond my everyday experience, yet every line and every gesture seemed completely authentic and totally human, based on what I’ve seen in my own life so far. It was a significant work of art and the last by one of the premier actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman, but somehow it seems out of place among the comic book heroes and undead horror-comedies. It was about spies, but Hoffman’s character didn’t leap from a helicopter onto the top of a moving train or do any of the other standard spy-movie stuff like walking calmly away from huge explosions and artfully dodging bullets.

For the audience who sees both it must require an enormous shifting of gears. The action movies seem so joyously filled with conflict and mayhem following plots that lurch along made up on the go as all manner of jagged 3-D objects fly out into the audience, and folks seem to love it. As guilty pleasure some of this stuff is pretty guilty. You’d think real life wouldn’t stand a chance. Real life is slow -- waiting for elevators, smoking a cigarette, talking in a car.

What we have here are two different visions of art and life. The fantastic movies are called escapism, meaning real life is tedious and stagnant so stimulate me so much I’ll forget for a while. Afterward the traffic leaving the parking lot seems to stand still and the burger from the drive-thru tastes flat -- no kaboom, no chases. The other point of view, called realism, uses its resources to recreate a situation and plot that people with common experience can self-verify as plausibly true. They leave the theater thinking about the story, the motives of the characters, and maybe even their own lives. A fair number seem to like it this way too. 

Side by side, box-office vs box-office, it’s hard to say which one wins since they compete for the same production dollars, in the end based on ticket sales. Wouldn’t it be interesting if realism began to kick fantasy’s ass, although this isn’t a prediction you understand. Just something in the breeze suggests that an appetite for authenticity and self-verification along with the dedication of serious actors and writers might turn the tide. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

saturday on the square -- close to the source

Owning art is about an organic approach to art consumption. It advocates for ‘farmer’s market’ style alternative venues in salons, restaurants, and local sourcing of free-range art. The appeal is health, of course, although the range of the our senses and the depth of our thought might be less apparent than the girth of our waistline. Like consumer advocates everywhere, part of the job is to deride the stuff in a can for being over-processed and lacking in nutrition. 

Department store art might pick up the color of the drapes but it will not register to anyone entering the room and they won’t remember it. Original art from a local hand will continue to gain attention, in part just because something handmade presents itself differently than a room full of manufactured furnishings. Some folks wouldn’t like this, much the same way those only used to fast food might balk at home-cooking, but that’s usually only at first. Original art imparts oxygen to a room, puts worn spots in perspective, maybe even expresses the owner’s attitudes and sensibility, and everybody notices.

I don’t know about art that sells for millions on some planet where the only way to prove your worth is to light your cigar with the biggest bill. I'm pleased to say it’s over my head. Here in our little community get used to the idea of ripe tomatoes perhaps with blemishes, beans you might have shared with bugs, and feeling good about your house, your day, your life because the art you own and look at everyday brightens everything else. The wave of the future is back to basics. 


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hope at the Hopewell -- the art of Paris

They almost tore it down, the 1909 Beaux-arts post office in Paris, KY, long known for tobacco and race horses. Instead they renovated it into the Hopewell History Museum with a big first floor gallery. In it they are currently displaying a recently assembled collection of all Kentucky based artists mostly from just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. 

Posted next to each painting is small biography -- academic training, trips to Europe, and the general arc of their careers, and that’s all interesting stuff but the paintings tell their own tale. The fact that some of them are first rate, more resolved and effective from across the room than up close for example, contains its own subtext. These folks made a living at it and it wasn’t because they were good since no one is in the beginning, but because they evidently sold enough work to eventually become good. Still, this isn’t about them. 

Somebody bought their art. Since many of the artists lived here, came back to here from other places, and seemed to thrive here with full time studios wouldn’t one suppose there was a native appetite for art. Not just that, but some buyers must have had pretty sophisticated taste since some of the artwork is. Stone fences lined dirt pikes and water was carried when these paintings were hung in parlors and admired by those who had traveled and seen the world. These paintings tell the story of a culture that supported her artists and through them expressed the outlook of their generation. 

This is a different time. Does any current generation cycling by see the value of engaging the world of the senses directly and honestly in images made by hand? Well, yeah. Back when these paintings were made building stone walls was winter work for field hands and now it’s a pretty good trade. Back then hand engraving was an art but a common one, and making paintings to be bought and hung in houses provided a living. With new technologies some occupations have become obsolete while others have increased in value and making paintings to buy and take home is making a comeback. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

shots fired -- seeking the source

It’s amusing that this community gets all excited about art but thinks of it as a sort of life-style accouterment, a finer thing, an uplifting diversion. It might suddenly seem more important if we were to realize art shapes our world and that Bruce Willis has more influence on our peculiar gun laws and our casual attitude toward violence than all our politicians. We seem to enjoy our dramatized mayhem but recoil when it leaks out into the real world.

This ain’t no game. The machinery you inherited gets you through the day and it works pretty well, but it processes just what you see and that pretty much decides what you look at. Within this looping and limiting mechanism lies the possibility of intervention. If your society seems caught in a self-destructive downward spiral we recommend fifteen minutes in the park every morning on the way to work just looking at trees, your green salad. On TV catch an occasional nature documentary or listen to an objective commentator, a healthy entree, and on your walls hang the original art of artists you know or care about, your vitamins. Avoid Bruce Willis. Let’s all get healthier together.