Saturday, March 28, 2015

cults and conspiracies -- gimme some truth

Scientology is about to get whacked with a big expose on HBO this weekend -- just saw the promo. Somebody’s going to claim it’s all about mind control, that they introduce innocuous mental routines that override free will so they can bleed away a disciple's cash, and it will be convincing, probably. This after a recent play on broadway won awards for a fairly straight forward, with singing, portrayal of Mormonism. It’s all pretty amusing from the outside. 

Not so fast. Who’s been programing the big machine, the baseline reality we mostly all accept and swim around in? The evening news isn’t really about what goes on in the world, just some highlights, but instead is being crafted all afternoon to shape public opinion concerning war readiness, class consciousness, and all of it tuned to a calibrated level of anxiety. Is this news?

Most folks figure being slightly ahead of the game is sufficient, safe and warm, and after seeing the evening news the status quo seems fine. Still, it’s amazing what some folks take for granted and think is real. Religious schisms within all denominations denounce next door variations as totally wrong, economic principles which have been shown to cause financial disaster are fervently adhered to, and cultural elites continue to support a contemporary art which exposes a grasping furtive ambiguity on their part, naked and unsure before centuries of human accomplishment. Well, in defense of all, it’s tough to say what’s real. 

Just gimme some truth can be a tall order, and there’s only so many places to look. It seems to have been discovered just recently that naturalistic television in which production companies attempt to portray authentic situations with believable human characters, no matter how bizarre the setting, finds resonance with an intelligent and hitherto unknown public. Who knew? Even big money is letting the artists lead because it turns out there’s an unfulfilled appetite for authenticity, honesty, and truth no one counted on before. 

Is there truth in art? It’s an antique notion to this modern crowd, but reasonable to ask when up to our asses in convenient lies, maybe higher. The first truth is that lies travel both directions, deceit and belief pairing up in little knots difficult to untie. Art leads out, creates dissonance and finally begins to unravel those invisible bonds which burden free-will -- scientology’s lie becoming genuine. Visual art enters the brain direct and so conveys what can’t be said, breaking old habits of thought and opening the mind.

Truth gets into visual art in the first place the same way it does in the other arts, through the sincerity, dedication, and selfless pursuit of excellence of the artist. In plain language, they probably could have made more money doing something else but chose to make art with those values instead. If some hitherto unimagined general audience can discern these qualities on HBO, it seems reasonable to expect they’ll be able to find them in other forms as well. Visual art contains a ‘time-release’ truth that goes up on the wall and stays for as many decades as its owner has left, helping them to stay free, open-minded, and ‘clear’ to the end. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

why buy? -- collecting is for china roosters

Why buy art -- there aren’t that many good reasons on the market these days. The main ones usually presented have discouraging downsides they drag along with them. Say the reason you want to buy art is to impress the in-laws, your social set, the gardner who peeks in the window. No matter what you put up your insurance adjuster brother-in-law will say something snide, moron, you can shake it off, but what if the nephew with glasses is laughing behind your back because there’s something wrong with Thomas Kinkade that you don’t know about? Substitute any other name, even Picasso, and the gnawing insecurity remains. It has to do with buying art to impress, and nothing to do with the art at all is what I’m suggesting.

Buying art for investment is a trip to Reno without the lights and bells. Oh they proclaim on billboards how some tourist went home with fifty thousand, but on the sidewalk young couples weep uncontrollably. It’s like that. When some dealer drops his or her voice to just above a whisper, you’re in big trouble because you’re about to hear how this prodigy is on the verge of skyrocketing to the top dragging your paltry ‘seems-like-alot-now’ along. With enough documentation the client’s greed could eventually cloud their vision for this contrived mediocrity, no buybacks. It would be better to go to Reno and hear the news straight away.

Many people just collect, anything. On TV shows experts pronounce the current collector’s value for vintage pewter spoons, faded autographs, slightly chipped grandma vases from the attic. Everything older than a minute seems to plug into some unseen metering machine counting up the dollars of its ‘collector value’, even after its useful life is through, your very own mint-condition cream separator. They say this applies to art but that's demeaning. Collecting art would be like collecting anything else, always looking to trade up to more perceived market value and more fame no matter how acquired. It can be an exciting and expensive hobby, but not essentially different than a private mania for dime store ashtrays.

Recognizing the human investment that’s already been made in a work of art might make the exchange seem more worthwhile. This painting, drawing, limited print isn’t the artist’s first attempt. That happened long ago, was awkward and crude, and looked that way to them at the time. They’ve walked every step from there to what you’re looking at in this moment, the art they’ve made. Labors undertaken without compensation are embedded there, and of all the options possible they chose to say this, their personal response to life in general. Maybe in some part you agree, and if you do they would probably sell it to you so that you can incorporate this shard of their journey into your own, and so they can acquire more tubes of paint, visit more ethnic restaurants, and purchase more renewable fuel to go looking for neat stuff to paint. The object around here is not to collect -- it’s to understand, to truly appreciate, and to actually own art.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

this world was never made -- Vincent’s birthday

Time to talk about Vincent again, so close to his birthday. He’d be right around one fifty if he was still around. He left early, and his peculiar life story has come to embody our ambivalent attitudes toward art, or maybe our attitudes have conveniently adopted him. There have been several movies, each with a slightly different Vincent, but generally he’s thought of as tortured, just plain crazy, with some sort of savant’s ability to paint. That might be wrong. 

Somebody floated the notion recently that he didn’t really commit suicide by shooting himself in the torso, three days to die, but that he took the blame for boys who had teased him with a gun and shot him accidentally. It also might turn out that having a drunk roommate who owned a samurai sword, Gauguin, could cause one to lose an ear, and he might have taken the blame for that, too, at a cost to his own reputation. Simply being generous and forgiving isn’t quite the crazy we like in our movies, but you can sorta see it in his work. 

The letters between the brothers, Vincent and Theo, a big bound book, chronicle the weird symbiosis between the commercial side and the creative, the yin-yang of art in one family. Theo, the art dealer, tipped the tea cup while Vincent burned in squalor and they wrote letters back and forth. In a certain respect they exploited each other, trading for life’s essentials right out at the existential edge, times were tight. Theo vicariously lived a creative life through Vincent’s almost tedious descriptions of applying the paint, and Vincent received a few bucks for art supplies and ate beans with the rest. This is fertile ground for screenplays but they both had personal motives and may have each embellished, conned, and persuaded once in a while.

More to the point, I say more to the point, would be to look at the work, itself. It’s probably the case that in general crazy people don’t paint, or at least wouldn’t paint with oils since it’s a fairly organized activity. Vincent didn’t during periods of confusion, but when he felt brilliant and crystal clear he made paint transmute directly into tangible poetry. No one else, maybe ever, has been able to cause color and texture to resonate so deeply in an ordinary person’s brain, a perpetual knot of viewers in front of his paintings in any museum. I wouldn’t attempt to explain how this works -- no one could. A person needs to use their own eyes in front of his actual paintings for his century-old admiration and respect to really make sense.

So he didn’t sell stuff. In the long run that’s not the final test. He painted from the heart and that meant more to him. Turns out the public loved him from the time his work was finally seen, shortly after his death. It was the dealers, his brother included, who rejected his work and refused him space in a gallery. They wanted something smooth and predictable, like that painting of the berber souk they sold last week. The market isn’t fond of originality still, and the typical gallery director is more interested in who else sells it and what it sold for than in what it looks like, whatever it is. Vincent couldn’t, or wouldn’t, please them.

Somehow he left just at the point of being discovered, suddenly to be hailed as a genius and expected to appear at social occasions, openings -- black tie, nails trimmed, wearing cologne. I don’t think he killed himself, that his aim was that poor, but I do think he took the center cut and left the fat, committed his turmoil and joy to canvas and moved on. Each day when the Van Gogh Museum opens in Amsterdam people from all over the planet are standing in line, a long line. They’ll forget how much his paintings are worth once they’re in there, and see things differently when they come out. Happy BD VVG.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

dark side of the moon -- shouting

It’s peculiar to be out of step. At first it seems like conversation, but when the other party just looks off there’s a tendency to talk a little louder, to use more colorful language, finally to shout. No one seems to hear. It’s sorta liberating really. 
There’s just stuff people don’t want to hear so they won’t. This can be particularly disappointing in the professionally open-minded. Bread usually comes with butter on one side and most folks lean toward self-interest before they apply logic, and so it’s always been. Art, of all fields of human endeavor, glorifies in the absolutely unfettered, uncensored freedom to say, think, or do anything -- in the studio, in the gallery, in the street. Heard such testimony on the radio from a big time artist who became famous doing the same tedious pastel protractors on and on, an essentially identical example in art museums everywhere, and one of the most austere, unrelentingly unimaginative bodies of work ever. Why am I confused?

In actuality, the consensus-driven art establishment is so astoundingly close-minded that it’s only through gossip in the trades that it’s possible to know if Norman Rockwell is legitimately going to be an artist this scholarly ten year cycle, or just a sentiment-slut magazine illustrator. It’s hard to keep up. Chunks of cash reputedly spent on the work of grad student geniuses to be warehoused until matured as even bigger bundles of bank notes, are the gas flares burning above the refinery of grossly accumulating wealth, excess cigar-lighting money. Legitimate or not, it looks like a truckload of butter on 'sixty minutes', and the office staff doesn’t want to hear it’s going rancid in front of them while the culture yearns for substance.

Independent artists can be insightful, even prophetic, largely because the economy, society, even the art establishment leaves them out, and it’s this bread without butter on either side that allows a certain objectivity. To be clear, just remaining outside is an obstinate position, a naive insistence that words and actions meet, or that they at least bend toward each other. It could be shouted or painted but until the society at large is ready to listen it won’t be heard, or seen. 

In the future works of art will be bought by people seeking their own inner expression, their own solace, and they won’t really give a damn about splendid resumes. The turnstiles of art’s academic certification will be flattened and artists will be free to seek an audience from within their own communities through numerous private galleries and alternative venues. The vast teaching establishment leading art students toward a professional cliff will be bypassed by the talented and driven, and the charity model of non-profit art dependency will dwindle down to dusty basket-weaving backwaters. The business of art will be between artists and the communities where they live, and all those who presently make a living from art without making art, buying and selling art, or even owning art, will have to go get jobs. Who has ears?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

the art life: on creativity and career -- a talk

a talk given by museum director, Stuart Horodner

An interesting talk in an interesting setting, surrounded by the most recent exhibition under soaring cubic feet of empty space, up to a thirty foot ceiling. The current three person exhibit baffled me, as usual, but the assorted groupings of raw plywood pieces on the very tall left wall was particularly challenging. Pieces stacked or pinned at different levels did have that spontaneous, casually assembled from mill leavings kind of edge about it, splintery straight edges everywhere. It was presented here as some sort of artifact of a big international career, or maybe that’s the art. In any case, turns out it well illustrated points made. 

I’ll admit to a slight unease, a non-believer visiting Mecca in disguise. It was a university crowd mostly, comfortable profs and eager students. What I heard was make friends, keep contacts, dive in and swim around, everyone’s welcome here. Just dig what’s up right now and you’ll see what we mean. The event was well attended and with acknowledgements and testimonials, a positive and pleasant church meeting of a faith not my own. Too shy to stand up and ask among those like-minded parishioners, facing all those briefly turned icy stares at once, but I really wanted to know from where comes the loot for these glamorous ‘international‘ careers? Did the artist bring his plywood to our little town for a line on a resume, does the museum pay for the privilege of showing plywood, or maybe they expect commissions to ensue, but I sat silent, considering who really pays for all of this. I don’t know all the ins and outs, who could, but I think in the end it’s us.

The source of funds for creative careerism is important, although it didn’t come up in the talk. This is because large wads of undifferentiated money are the medium the establishment exists in, the air they breath, and no one questions. I’m thinking without somebody’s subsidies I’m not sitting here looking at scrap plywood, and neither would anyone else. So I contacted the museum director who gave the talk next day alluding to my reservations, knowing he might not be as open-minded as he claimed -- it’s something art people just say. He graciously replied to me twice, I followed up, and I don’t doubt his sincerity, but we talked past each other. Thought we might. I’m trying to suggest the vast tax-supported establishment that pays his salary uses public money to move the goal posts, to repaint the lines, to fabricate a whole new arena for art, and the sensibilities of the vast majority who pay the freight are disregarded, maligned, and condescended to. Not surprisingly that’s not what he heard.

He heard me complain about importing art and artists from far away, and assured me that local artists were going to be represented in his exhibition program, too. I would say back that acknowledging only those local artists who emulate the ‘deskilled’ ‘found-object’ ‘repurposed’ aesthetic dear to the NEA, all those tax sucking foundations, and university art departments everywhere isn’t really acknowledging local art and artists or their potential patrons, but it would be rude to impose serious complaint on his polite generosity. He’s not likely to hear no matter how said. Frankly the notion that it’s only depictions of horses that can support local artists, from his lips, has a colonialist ring to it, a note of benevolent condescension, a predisposed nullification of regional art that attempts anything else.

No hard feelings. I can see when I’m outnumbered, in this audience probably seventy five to one, and I can’t argue with jet-setting international careers, waterfalls of cash, glamorous studio repartee  -- it all sounds great. Still I’d like to ask, if you wouldn’t mind, would you please take your big tax-supported foot off the garden hose of media coverage and public awareness and let local artists and their natural constituents have some water, maybe some sunlight now and then. It’s just a rhetorical question which will in time answer itself since a critical threshold has already passed, and art produced around here has started going home with people. The real engine of artistic dynamism and authentic expression comes out of studios in underdeveloped properties all over town, and goes up in houses, offices, and open-to-the-public businesses -- what’s happening now almost everywhere. Once the practice of art ownership ignites, creative careers will flourish without benefit of the government paycheck, the fat foundation grant, or the committee-chosen institutional purchase, and a more authentic and regionally grounded art will clear its throat.

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 that 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 when 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 an insurgent 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 on the bank along with most folks.

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, 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 the 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 one day, a last laugh destined to last forever somewhere.