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 seem 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 what we should want according to experts, but inspiration degenerates 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 were 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

Remember 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?

Friday, April 24, 2015

domesticating art -- rebuild it and help with rent

Independent artists have always been the earthworms of urban renewal, finding cheap housing and studios, aka live-in studios, in any town’s neglected areas. They confront old plumbing, drafty windows, security issues, while improvising habitable and productive spaces, a long tradition of living and working for cheap. This is not gentrification in itself, but soon slick bars and boutiques invade as artsy folks come around. Shopping carts and abandoned washing machines start to disappear, perrenial vagrants just aren’t there. Before long landlords decide to upgrade, and the poor people, including the artists, move out. 'Over-the-Rhine' in Cincinnati is a classic example with the greatest income disparity of seventy-six thousand areas in the US surveyed, transitioning from urban blight to destination for the young professional, porsches in litters, like a renovating tide, due in large part to artists moving in twenty five years ago, now all but gone themselves. 
Here, might be happening everywhere, progressives with grant dollars want to seed low profit real estate with enclave artist communities, hoping to shortcut straight through to urban chic just in time to make a killing for someone. Maybe it works, but sure seems unnatural somehow. I suspect they're really just setting up a tourist stroll with bead work and plywood roosters, as artificial as its roots, and populated with the entrepreneurial bottom-line sort of artist. Seen it other places is all. 

Here’s something they possibly just don’t know. Finding your own way is part of it. It’s an interesting assignment, to survive as an artist here in our sports loving, media-addicted land. To an aspiring artist driving an old car isn’t romance. It requires mechanical skill or at least understanding, and thoughtful and efficient maintenance squeezing out every mile, just like every tube of paint is squeezed. Goes for everything. A person learns to cook, to repair, to negotiate with not the nicest landlords. This is all a part of making art that connects to that larger pool of human experience, and it works. Did they not tell you this in art history class? The city, the state, the united nations making it easier actually defeats the process. 

Consider all the money every civic entity of a certain size spends on art already in the hopes of cashing in on creativity, luring the youthful professional types who'll make that money churn. Now they think they can build birdhouses for artists like they were swallows and real estate around soon becomes desirable -- new paint, new traffic signs, clean sidewalks. Good luck with that. Being an independent artist requires independence, and roosting on shotgun row may not suit them. They probably wish you’d get out of their way, and devote your urban renewal energy to fixing up neighborhoods for the people who already live there, and by the way raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars so artists can afford their studios in some still rundown part of town.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

art so handy -- the nonfunctional finds purpose

Now here’s a local writer making the points we’ve been harping on around here all along. Art opens the eyes, retools the senses, and brings the present moment into focus. Seems like a revelation when someone else says it. Don’t feel the need to say it again myself just now, but will mention the best part. It doesn’t have to be good art to be effective.
A heightened attention burns anything you put in front of it. Since the machine we’ve been given knows the world only through the agency of comparison, someone’s recently delivered new theory of knowledge, all that’s required is that you see good art sometime. It’s automatically recorded and kept for comparison with all the other art you’ll see, until perhaps you see something better, and so it goes. Thereafter you can look for the qualities you admire, and whether you find them or not, at least you looked. You’ve exercised your immediate attention, and will be rewarded by the new stuff you’ll notice throughout day.

It is necessary to see good art once in a while to prime the whole enterprise, and by good art we mean compelling enough to make you want to look. If you try to see a fair array of all the art available you’ll find most of it boring, but not all of it. Some artists are able to make images that evoke honest sentiment and intelligence and reflection, somehow, and you just want to look at them. On the other hand, there’s also an awful lot of art that’s derivative, poorly made, and uninteresting out there, and you’ll have to look at it too to decide which is which. See how this works?

Art is on its way -- the 21C Hotel, due this fall, is a riverboat of art pulling a wide wake, and pocket galleries, independent studios, and local artwork up in local businesses are about to become visible, as the local population starts to pay attention, to make comparisons, and to take some home. This thoughtful writer, Tom Eblen, having observed the present has projected a future in which art is invited in, taken seriously, and given respect for the contribution it can make to community awareness and individual realization.