Thursday, July 23, 2015

public and private -- art’s one-eyed jack

Art’s role in public is a grand excuse for endless debate, but mainly it comes down to we have these funds to spend and this stack of proposals, so let’s pick something unassailably consistent with current trends and clear a patch for it. I’m just guessing. I know nothing about it really, and not usually consulted, just like the most of us. There are people who make these decisions for us and I’m sure they all have swell credentials.

Art’s function in private is almost neglected territory, not written about or considered in slick periodicals. Current trends, after all, aren’t enormously important to owned art since its bound to outlast them. Owning and living with original art has a calming and broadening effect, honing perception and fortifying confidence -- a daily presence in your home powered first of all by simple uniqueness. So there it is, this framed cold-fusion reactor radiating on your wall, growing more potent through the years in its seniority and intimate familiarity. Art isn’t just a decoration but contributes to general awareness and well-being over a lifetime, and individuals invest in their future selves when they buy some. Still, there’s not much debate concerning the life-enhancing qualities of owned art. In fact, they’re hardly mentioned at all.

To really be involved with art, as with basketball for example, requires participation. The reason former athletes provide color commentary during games is because they have more credibility than the golden throated play-by-play guy who only sat in the stands. Filling the head with statistics, watching old newsreels, and interviewing the greats will only get you so far. So when it comes to art what does participating mean? Well, there’s making it, and anyone who seriously tries is in the game, but what about the experts, commentators and curators, who know so much about it? Self-sure fans is all.

Many folks look at art, swilling the box wine and crunching baby carrots -- they pause, tilt their head before an interesting use of color, and move on. This is not ‘participation’ all the way up to PhD. Buying and owning is the rest of the game, and living with art and supporting the artist completes the circle, ignites the arc, and eventually artistic expression becomes a viable board member of society’s general awareness, as well as a self-sustaining contributor to the local economy. Can’t really see the need for phalanxes of fixers and fund-raisers, or the cool coded commentary of ‘contemporary’ art reviews. 

Artists and owners, and folks who broker in good faith between them, seem to be the only essential players, the only ones with authentic credibility, and in the end, the only ones left on the floor. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

digital lies -- seeing what’s real

At this point there’s no photograph I’d believe, either by content or graphic quality. Is the flower really that color, is the waterfall really that tall, is there anywhere a human so perfect -- maybe, but you sure can’t be sure by looking at a digital image. This is an interesting point for art because there’s always been, since the advent of the camera and even before, a question of where does the value lie in a work of art? Is it in the quaint antiquity in a misty landscape, the milkmaid’s shy smile, the grandeur of snow-peaks, or is it something about the way it’s painted, whatever it is?

The abstract expressionists sought to answer the question with brutal finality. They removed content entirely so that painting itself was all there was left, and it did make the point but didn’t change the facts. It’s always been the case that quality in a work of art is in its execution and that subject is only the vehicle and not the destination. Once established and accepted all around this makes the original work of art the only visual image you’ll ever see with any claim to individual integrity and inherent value. This can be a tricky, almost esoteric notion in these days of perfect facsimiles, since the original art has value and it’s identical clone won’t ever -- there’s a reason.

So what, these days, has in itself inherent value, and just around the corner from the 3-D printed living room it’s a legitimate question. The answer, since the beginning of time, has been ‘what’s rare, hard to get, only possessed by a few,’ and in the end that will turn out to be anything made by a human hand. The better it’s made the better, because that will make it more rare still. It’s a simple equation. Original art, oddly enough, does not depreciate over time but only becomes more valuable as it becomes more rare, as notoriously in the case of the artist’s death.

It should be possible to bring the same criteria to the judging of any work of art, how well it’s made and its final impact, without considering subject at all, and what an interesting faculty to develop as the value of almost everything else dissolves in an ocean of digital open-accessibility. Knowing about art is about to become the new life-jacket in rising tides.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

movies about movies -- art about art

Saw a western starring Ed Harris and it was a disappointment. Expected something pretty good after Harris’s bio of Jackson Pollock, an accurate portrayal of Pollock’s career, including a scheduled six month layoff during production to facilitate a forty pound weight gain so he could finish the movie as the artist after his successes and excesses -- a major personal effort to be true to his subject. His western, however, didn’t reflect the real world as it is or ever was. It was, as one reviewer noted, a movie about movies, and not about real life at all. 
In the movie the hero lawman swaggered around all invincible, clubbing down miscreants and shooting up the town, occasionally staring off to muse about the meaning of it all, and it would all have made perfect sense to someone who’s watched a lot of movies, seen a lot of TV, but might have seemed contrived and artificial to a person with a modicum of historical sense and a little more grit in their carry-on. Movies based not on life as lived but on movies previously seen tend to instill unreal expectations, to project artificial role models, and some would claim they add to the confusion.

Art about art is the special realm of scholars and experts, but inspiration loses focus after many derivations like those old xerox copies. The source, so said Picasso, is always nature and that’s idealistic, but what he really should have said was everyone’s direct perception of the world -- it’s almost the same thing and closer to what he meant really. How closely it’s rendered or how far it’s stretched is the art part, and we revere individual artists for how they say it, even though partly it comes from us -- how we see it with them. It’s this life we’re interested in, most of us, and the world around us, and some art helps us see it better, almost always the art closest to the source. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

nude reveals all -- a parable true

In a small sleepy southern city some five or six decades ago a dedicated group of painters, retired art professors and sincere amateurs, sought a place where they could present their work, mostly to each other. They lived in an area of cultural aridity with only three water-holes of common interest and conversation -- tobacco, basketball, and horses. Best place they could find to exhibit was a doctor’s waiting room, since he was also a painter, a most inconvenient marriage of convenience for both parties. Then one day the little art league got lucky and was gifted with a derelict hulk of a mansion on the parks and recreation’s endangered list.

Even in new digs, it was still a sleepy organization with one modestly paid director and every other officer a volunteer. Openings were dutifully manned by the cookies and punch committee but lightly attended otherwise. Then one year the chairman of the gallery committee declared she wanted to do a ‘nude show,’ right there in traditionalist horse, tobacco, and basketball country, at the edge of the blue-nosed south. Well, why not?

The nude is the perfect theme for an art exhibit. Everyone knows the subject super well having bodies themselves, having grown up and lived in families, and of course there’s the internet. Unlike some snow bedecked mountain crag the television painter just imagines with a flick of his wrist, everybody knows where everything goes on a nude. Along with everyone’s direct experience, the nude is also the most depicted image in the history of art and so becomes the most revealing of the times, of the artists and of their audiences.

First of all no clothes means no indicators of historical period or social status and no embellishment with satin and pearls, just a basic human the way we’ve looked for the last hundred millennia. In that way the nude becomes an universal image, a ‘magic’ two-way mirror in which artist and audience see each other. For example, some people automatically associate the nude with sexuality but that mostly reveals the repression they’ve been taking for granted all along, and seeing the actual artwork would reveal broader and deeper thoughts to consider.

Back to the story. For the first few years the ‘nude show’ was the only opening of the year to draw an outside audience and more people showed up every year -- parking on the grass. Artists applied from all over the country, some from overseas, and the quality of the art was varied and interesting. From the notoriety and response to this one exhibit the art league began to grow and blossom with paid staff and progressive exhibits, in time becoming a non-profit refuge for people with art degrees and, frankly, no profession to go to. As a result of this increasingly academic bias, the nude show began to change. Year by year it was becoming more ‘contemporary.’ 

No longer paintings of humans without clothes, each year the notion of the nude became more and more abstracted and pathologically demented. Body parts were grafted onto kitchen utensils, generative parts specifically were grotesquely parodied, and with implied and explicit sex acts sprinkled throughout the overall aspect was seriously disturbed. I don’t know why the show was finally abandoned, but as part of their recently announced ‘reorganization’ the art league is bringing it back. In this time of transition, consider the lesson of your own living parable, oh art league, and go back to the beginning.

Turns out what people like is painting. They didn’t attend those early nude shows to see nakedness. They came to see what painters had to say about other people, about themselves, about life -- and mostly to see how good they were, all there side by side so it’s easy to tell. These days there’s a more general interest in art and the nude show had its part in that, plowing the earth and sowing the seed. This time around it might find reward. A new audience is ready to come to openings if exhibits feature area artists in themed exhibits -- interiors, landscapes, people, etc., exhibits that would help to educate and entice a public ready to be interested in art and local artists, a worthy mission.

With price tags up next to each piece, a modest non-profit percentage of art sold could be retained to help supplement operating expenses as grants and subsidies shrink away. Replay the same record, your own history, from the beginning again to hear a different song this time.  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

history resolves -- incentives collide

Owning art isn’t really about art, and doesn’t advocate for any style or taste. If you’re a visual sophisticate capable of appreciating the scribbles of Twombly, the eloquent blotches of Motherwell, I wouldn’t complain simply because I don’t. Spend your millions, I don’t care. What we do here is politics and what we complain about is spending other people’s money on art they’ll never give a damn about while claiming they’re too dumb, too distracted, too visually illiterate to know what’s good for them. Something wrong with that -- fundamentally. 

What we have here is a state-supported art establishment, here in our democracy, with an officially sanctioned style of art purposefully maintained to baffle and confuse the general public, over their heads and beyond their interests. Just another example of the famous “munchausen syndrome by proxy,” causing the patient to be sick in order to keep the caregiver employed. Sounds vile but there’s no reason to ferret out dark conspirators -- the incentives are in upside down is the simple mechanical problem here.

Art made on a salary is different than art made to sell. Who disputes this? Is one better than the other would be a point of view, but that the second is more likely to be an authentic reflection of the tastes and interests of the culture all around seems more like a fact. If you yourself derive sustenance in some fashion from the state system this probably sounds like disaster, but to the rest of us not so bad. Too late anyway since the dialectic cranks, and the two contradictory ideas merge, the skinny one eating the fat one, as we speak. Galleries are changing from something to do on a date with no cover to places where people go to learn about and buy art, and they proliferate. Artists will switch allegiances in droves.

Art made to be sold, purchased and taken home, will simply overwhelm the traditional small town notion of art as a medium of charity, as a campus function, and ‘fund for the arts’ will be able pay the musicians better and leave art alone. According to relevant books of divination and social science, art as a means of exchange, dollars and ideas, is about to flourish maybe for a decade or two, and that hammering sound is the ground floor being built already. More galleries will need more artists, and a greater variety of the home-grown product will reach the surface, to be seen and eventually recognized by fellow citizens. 

Quality will find its own level among a world traveled population, and art produced around here will come to represent who we are as a community and who we are to ourselves as individuals. Barring a meteor strike some part of this is bound to play out, and it’s not the worst thing.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

privileged dependence -- weaning art

Once there was a time when the royal court spoke a different language than the common folk who baked their bread and tilled their fields. The disdain that arose from this privileged dependence, a quite human compensation for knowing you're doing wrong, could be quite freely expressed since it was over the head of all but the house-servants. There have been a few such times on different parts of the planet and it's never turned out well.
The federal government in oh so many ways supports an art that involves maybe one percent of the population -- no, way less than that. Rusting culvert pipe squashing itself atop some building, who looks up, isn’t going to uplift the rest of us. We don’t speak that language. All this gigantic movement of money, bought at auction held in trust donated for tax considerations, doesn’t really trickle down to working artists and their natural constituents, those common folk who bake the bread and till the fields -- everybody else. 

To call it a gigantic money laundering racket wouldn’t be polite, although I have hinted from time to time -- see below. You decide. It’s easier to say that ‘contemporary art,’ without the NEA grants, without foundation tax shelters, without federal and state support for a remarkably dead-ended academic establishment, would evaporate -- finally a contextually relevant outcome. The ‘foreign language’ of the ephemeral installation, the half-baked deskilled assemblage, the mashup of borrowed ideas just wouldn’t be spoken around here any more.

This is not the time to increase funding for a self-chosen court of art insiders, income dependent bureaucrats all mannered and intrigued, and for an art which interests so few of us. Civic officers let your discretionary dollars flow to where they’re needed more, somewhere else, and let art -- production, distribution, appreciation and ownership, manage on its own. This will eventually happen, is happening, anyway, and your well-meaning helping hand just gets in the way.   -- and note the comment attached.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

sunshine of the open mind -- casting shadows

I remember art school just out of the service -- a readjustment I guess I never made. Students in from rural high schools who had dreamt of becoming artists spent their first year bewildered, wondering why their dreams were turning out so strange. A group of them, four or five, actually came to me only because I was a vet and slightly older and asked me what was going on, and I could only say it certainly was educational -- the military having left me guarded and ironic. In the end most of these same students sanely moved on to other fields of study. I was more detached but no less chagrinned, as the graduate students, surly and dismissive, seemed to be running everything.

What they didn’t like was anybody trying to draw anything, paint anything, or make anything recognizable to anyone in favor of stuff that was just stuff, the more unrecognizable the better. Remember a bfa show in which the artist had taken ladies undergarments, soaked them in dye that didn’t take and ran them through a wringer, I’m guessing, leaving purple and blue caked in all the wrinkles, and then hung them on a line laundry style. People would stand and look and offer, “sure looks like a lot of work,” not knowing really what else to say. No one was willing to say out loud it was a total waste of time since that would have blown the whole game, turning the art building back into a warehouse, but that’s what every rational person was thinking.

That’s how they all start out, these cul-de-sacs of thought, and whether they’re religious, political, or cultural, the technique is the same. Seemingly harmless little transgressions of conscience are allowed to take over the garden, suffocating all the beneficial stuff that used to grow there. If it’s art, it’s called ‘open-mindedness,’ which means all academic/contemporary art resides in a sanctified zone where critical thought is suspended. We cheer. Mother church insisted parishioners ignore abuses by clergy all around, for the sake of the revolution patriots aren’t supposed to notice the labor camps and firing squads, and in exchange for the security of a fine career art bureaucrats embrace the notion of the ‘open mind’ -- anything goes.

Problem is it isn’t true. Met an artist once who told me the only way her representational paintings could be reviewed by the class was upside down. Academics spent a couple of generations heaping harsh disdain on any art that attempted common accessibility, and any student who dared try it anyway. Fellow academics who might occasionally attempt to appeal to the public, or just felt the need to create their own most natural art, went straight to the woodshed. That is true.

Somehow it’s the art that isn’t covered by the ‘open mind’ mantra that seems most interesting to me, since whoever makes it hasn’t been just trying to get along. It’s tricky. The genre markets are as closed-minded as the academics at an opposite extreme, wanting everything predictable and standardized, and sometimes it doesn’t seem there’s much real estate between. That’s the tricky part, that’s the independent part, and that’s where there’s a cutting edge that actually slices anything. 

A culture’s self-expression comes through in the art people support by wanting to possess it themselves, art’s most authentic and legitimate jury, and they’re open minded to a degree. Artists just have to come half way, and those nice folks will bring up their speed to meet them. I’ll say that another way -- nothing breeds sophistication quicker than spending personal out of pocket money. Once that first purchase is made, for best results might need to sacrifice a bit, suddenly an automatic process takes over, and every similar piece of art seen thereafter gets mentally compared. It just happens on its own. Given a decent array of styles and levels of accomplishment, people considering parting with part of their paycheck grow up quick. For any artist who would feel sullied by working toward such an exchange, who would rather keep their civil service position and ‘open mindedness,’ I mean no harm nor find fault.... 

The ground shakes, and winds blow. Lord aren’t we tired of moronic comic book movies, and wouldn’t it just make us all feel better, help us see farther and to think more clearly, to have some locally-sourced user-friendly art up on the wall around here?