Sunday, March 1, 2015

fundamental fundamentalism -- passing time

Drifting little monads we, each of us alone together in our microscopic corner of the universe. We have group allegiances and group responsibilities but modern life assures us we are each by ourselves in our own little boats, rowing away. Like most of life on earth we respond to light, feel comfortable at a certain temperature, and don’t want to work too hard for food. Once safety and sustenance are secured, the problem becomes how to pass the time. This has become a major dilemma for ‘modern man.’
Primitives of all sorts -- hunter-gatherers, farmers, and almost anyone putting in a full day using their hands won’t generally require a lot of recreation and may not need to be entertained with background music throughout the day. They’re physically and mentally engaged, using their senses, and time passes for them, not a problem. It’s people like you stuck in traffic, eating tasteless lunches, following the circular banter of the news who are starving, staggering, in search of something to make time move along. Sidewalk preaching? well of course, it’s what we do here but don’t expect miracles. Simple mechanics is all we are.

We all like to pay attention, and we feel pleasure when we do, but it’s not so easy. With access to everything in our pocket we are still oh so easily bored, and the fog rolls in. One strategy is to make it really loud, with pyro and strobe lights, but that only takes care of a couple of hours at a time and makes the rest of the week even more of a drab pastel. Travel, sex, and exotic cuisine each inspire enhanced awareness momentarily but have their limits. What’s needed is something interesting enough to pay attention to even when we’re used to it, and that’s a tall order. Almost all of it fades toward the background, and the ‘new car smell’ leaves every possession sooner or later, except for art. Actually, that’s how you can tell you’ve bought a good piece -- because worthy art doesn’t get old like everything else.

Art that’s owned, or a particular painting at the local museum visited once or twice a year, will exert a stronger pull on the senses the more it’s seen, and that’s the very best test there is for art, fame being so unreliable and all. As a fact anecdotal evidence abounds that just looking at art makes paying attention to a lot of other stuff, birds singing in the parking lot, clouds in the sky, easier. Do scales fall from the eyes, only rarely, but if it turns out pleasure, raw and non-specific, can be had simply by noticing each passing moment, art that broadens and deepens perception can be a cheap thing to have around.

Friday, February 27, 2015

slo-mo jokes -- generational ironies

It’s sorta funny really. I wanted to write a commentary about art for people who’ve already decided they didn’t like it. In large part many of us are just put off by the way art’s usually presented, as a particularly pointless way to express excessive wealth or as a sort of state-sponsored tribalism of superior thought. Since the title of the blog references art, it’s most likely going to be accessed by those among us already indoctrinated from an early age in modern art’s sacred mythologies, and so are unlikely to relate as well. Seems self-defeating. Well friends, I’ve been on a peculiar path. Just out of school I sold books door to door, and began to understand how folks can fool themselves, a practical education. When at the university I was taking mostly philosophy and a general array of humanities. Military experience forged of the two a peculiar alloy, a deeper appreciation of the human condition combined with an abiding aversion for hooey. As example, insisting that innermost thoughts and emotional states can be shared by splashing, smearing, or dripping paint has always sounded similar to me to thinking salvation can be had by total immersion down by the river, well maybe it can. It’s a leap of faith that left me standing along with most folks on the bank.

New and exciting can be fun, but that’s really not art’s territory. ‘Up to the moment’ is what goes on in the adjoining kingdom ruled by art’s fickle half-bright cousin, ‘fashion’, who changes everything around year to year. Among art’s inherent attributes are duration, a long perspective, substance and significance, while fashion’s gowns at the awards ceremony will look even sillier by just next year. Art and fashion may seem similar on the surface but they’re incompatible modes of thought. This distinction could be called my bias, although I don’t feel alone. Articles abound these days questioning the arid lack of meaning in contemporary art -- “well, that’s the point, don’t you see?” is what gets said back, and most serious people occupied with daily existence, the natural audience for serious art, won’t bother.

I couldn’t pretend to turn this thing around from here, pitching pebbles in the pond, and I’m not attempting conversions either. If Andy’s already bitten your neck, soup cans on the wall, it’s too late anyway. I just imagine, somewhat as a leap of faith, similar free-range apostates lurking in the bushes. If by peculiar chance they stumble into my recurring drumbeat that art is essentially intended to express the innermost feelings and aspirations of the owner who chooses it, and that the key to understanding art is to buy some and participate, well, maybe they’ll have a head start on the coming new age in which artists are the jocks, a further leap of faith. I also wanted to document by date saying stuff I expect to be taken for granted someday, a last laugh destined to last forever somewhere.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

degree of difficulty -- bonus points

This happens to be the NBA weekend when professional basketball takes a break from team play and individuals compete in separate skill sets. There are contests to determine the ‘best there is’ in ability to pass, to shoot, to handle the ball. The most highly anticipated and least relevant to the game itself is the ‘slam-dunk’ contest, a zen-like exercise in which contestants are asked to make a routine ability, in the NBA, as difficult as possible. Each contestant has a ball and there’s the metal ring ten feet above the ground. The object is to get the ball to go through the ring in the most inventively difficult way possible, and they keep expecting more every year. The winner will be the one who does the it the hardest way yet. 

That’s pretty basic. In essence the basket and the ball cancel out, since it’s the same for all of them, and all that’s left is ‘hard to do’. That’s what we admire, really. It’s pretty obvious the hardest thing to do in any competition, on any level and in any arena, is to be the best. Da Vinci isn’t remembered because he painted a Madonna, since it was long ago and what it represented has fallen away. What’s left is a level of painting, creating an image on a flat panel using ground minerals suspended in oil, that no one has ever really surpassed coming forward or going backward in time. Leonardo remains at a pinnacle of human achievement because he took simple means and made something so good it bordered on impossible. Now that’s hard to do, and, deep down, that's the part we admire, no matter in what endeavor we choose to find it.

Remember that when you look at art. Difficult doesn’t stand by itself and even though a scale model bridge made of matchsticks can be impressive, it may not rate as art. On the other hand, pouring, dripping, and slinging paint is sure easier than trying to make a picture of anything, and comfortably less vulnerable to outside criticism. Farm animals and children can do it, and the biggest experts around couldn’t tell the difference without the little tag. So what is the average person left with? Not much to look at in the repetitious trademark monograms of artist/celebrities they neither understand or respect.

Without resistance it’s hard to imagine where traction comes from. These days the digital camera has gotten so good, so easy, and the image so malleable that folks look for ways to make photography seem hard again, and the camera itself will have a couple of settings to degrade the photo as though work was involved, even if charmingly inept. Photography, once the test of truth, now has less credibility than a disgraced news anchor, and a photo of godzilla sitting at a lunch counter would surprise no one. All the art photography out there that anyone takes seriously seems to have been made on film, in a dark room, by the hand and eye of the artist.

This is not a moral distinction. The musical instruments most difficult to master are the ones most capable of the greatest expression, emotional depth, and mindful connection, and this is easily tested simply by listening. Is it possible to rival Beethoven on a synthesizer, well maybe, but where is it? Degree of difficulty turns out to be a tool, a means to an end, and the steepest climb reaches higher in the end. A work of art is a transformation from a state of universally available means to one of singular uniqueness, the product of one human in the universe, and moving back the starting line makes it easier to accomplish, strange as it seems.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

pictorial efficiency -- life lessons

What makes good art? There can be several elements conjoined in pleasing proportions that make for a compelling piece of art. There’s pictorial efficiency. So what is this quality shared by dancers and athletes we call ‘grace’? It’s a lack of extraneous effort, every muscle responding to exactly the right command and all of them together accomplishing a common goal, a jump, a turn, a burst of speed. This quality of efficiency is admired in other arts as well. In ‘GF1’, Marlon Brando as the godfather looks down into the coffin of his suddenly deceased hothead son, and after a long neutral contemplation only moves an eyebrow a quarter of an inch. Monk seemed to play just the black keys, using the fewest notes absolutely necessary. Back in the day of silent movies, Lionel Barrymore transformed himself on camera from Jekyll into Hyde. 

Pictorial efficiency asks how much can you do with how little? Saw a Picasso of a grecian head at the Los Angeles County Museum on a big white panel. It was all done in a single line in thin brown ink, no mistakes, no do-overs. There couldn’t have been more than a thimble full of ink in the whole thing, yet it commanded its wall space with weight and dignity. Velasquez, from about four hundred years ago, might turn out to be the best there ever was when it comes to agile application. His portraits full of exotic fabrics, laces and translucent pearls upon close inspection are all constructed with broad swaths of loose color seemingly applied in slashes and dabs. He was an ‘action painter’ who made his canvases speak in long sentences.

Traditional training for artists these days has included day-to-day field work in basic efficiency, like trying to maintain a household and a studio on a meager tradesman’s pay. Without outside support every piece of paper, each square of cardboard, and all purchased art supplies don’t leave the studio until every inch has been used up, squeezed dry, covered on both sides. From grocery store to the mall, this notion of efficiency, sometimes called bare-bones frugality, enters each decision made, but in the studio is where it gets gritty. When nobody’s buying it, when it isn’t even being seen by anyone, there’s not much immediate hope of recouping even the cost of a role of tape so every resource is treated with respect. Independent artists don’t throw away uncovered dried-up paint, neglect their brushes, or give up on anything that can still be used for something.

This confrontation with the harsher end of reality informs their approach to their art as well, and big results are going to be attempted with whatever comes to hand, simple and cheap. When pictorial efficiency goes off the chart, when the transformation of humble to unique is so extraordinary it leaves other artists wondering how it was achieved, you’re in the vicinity of interesting art. Doing a lot with a little is one of the pillars, always has been, in art as in life -- or is it the other way, no matter. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

the war of art -- diversionary expeditions

Tracing headwaters is never absolutely definitive but it was Duchamp, whose monumental arrogance found the perfect groove in the self-absorbed gullibility of the leisurely wealthy, who started it. From his olympian uptown perch he hurled bolts of searing contempt down on ‘retinal art’, any pictorial image that reminded the viewer of anything. He and vast minions to follow, rank upon rank, made it a point of disparaging any art that seemed to represent something actually seen as “illusionary”, as though somehow tainted by common accessibility. 

Duchamp decried the illusion in favor of the ‘allusion’ -- an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly. He yanked art out of the realm of direct sensual experience and made it an intellectual, even a literary enterprise, a high-minded inside joke, which by now has almost no physical manifestation at all, just a pile of stuff or a smear or two. Duchamp it turns out was not much of a painter, not enough to be remembered, but the taste of his sour grapes has never left.

His influence not only increased but compounded, advanced geometric, and his incestuous progeny over-ran the place. Pollock and his crew practiced the ‘happy accident’ notion of creativity, while Andy ‘borrowed’ things in broad daylight. Big corporations like mute art and support a lot of it, and cultural institutions of all stripes hide behind it, but conditions change. It seems the original tenants have returned and squatters muttering must exist left. A new need arises. 

There never was an ‘illusion’ in art in the first place. No one ever tried to eat the grapes or was frightened of the bear. Painting as an art is not really about the thing depicted and never was. When Sinatra sang a song no one insisted on believing all the words, especially if they knew Frank, but the intimacy of his interpretation made the lyrics seem momentarily sincere. He gets great respect for that, as is his due. Is painting like singing? In that regard yes, just like that. 

Painting reveals the artist and their time, and it’s an open conversation. For example: depictions of the human form, the most common and the most familiar of all subjects since the beginning of time, tell us very little about the human body which we know well enough already, but do tell us much about the skill, the vision, and the humanity of whoever made it. It’s like some sort of communication capable of overcoming languages, and cultures, and centuries to go right into your noggin -- a direct kind of knowing. 

I’m not sure there ever really was an argument. Visual art is visual, and it all stands side by side. In the end, it’s up to the viewer to see what's actually there. 


Thursday, January 29, 2015

entitled dependency -- art’s albatross

Art gets a lot of help. Grants fly for painted hydrants and bus shelters, socially relevant outreach classes, and for the public-art edification of everyone. There’s a layered bureaucracy in art-oriented non-profits not to mention a vast teaching apparatus with no track record for graduate employment whatever, except for more teachers. Lots of public money flows to art.

Does it help -- it’s hard to tell. Money into rockets and we go to Mars, into research and we cure disease. The benefits of public money for art and artists tend to be more surreal. Kafka wrote a story about a man who supported his entire family, all helpless and dependent wretches, but when he becomes incapacitated they all seem to find a way to do wonderfully well on their own. It’s just a story. Does it apply, who knows? In any case, the rewards of this formidable public investment in art are not equally shared by everyone who forks over and that’s baldfaced realism.

What would happen if suddenly all that money metamorphosed into serious art classes in public schools where future audiences are spawned, into public exhibitions which truly represent the spectrum of art produced across a region, and into efforts toward compromise and reconciliation with the local audience instead of the academic’s advanced-degree condescension? Would 'progressive' art as we know it wither and disappear without its massive subsidies, grants, and tax exemptions? Maybe, probably, but I’d expect something new to arise. Each region has a character expressed best by the artists who live there and by their recognition within their communities, a two step process. Given the chance they’d find each other. Together they’d forge an authenticity of expression which would both represent and inspire regional cohesion and identification, enliven dinner conversation, and tune the eyes of everyone to register the details and features of the world around as they encounter it. 

There’s a movement afoot to make more area-produced art available in offices, in restaurants, in salons and galleries, and the inevitable result will be a rapid acquisition of knowledge and art awareness by lots of local people. It’s been a long drought.

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 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 that 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 that it did.