The Work of Art Work

24 11 2012

While my writing for this blog has waned over the last few months, I have taken up working with another exciting group of writers at Latitude.  Latitude is an unflinching look at global news and opinion from a Spokane perspective.  This particular entry could easily be something I wrote for Contemporary Critique.  Take a look, and take a look at the other exciting and powerful young writers at Latitude.

The Work of Art Work.





Influence

26 08 2012

In the Fall of 2007, I was new to organizing slams.  One night, I arrived at our usual venue early to set up, only to find that the venue (a comedy club that was usually dark on Mondays) had booked an X-rated Hypnotist on our usual day.  I was somewhat disappointed, but I resigned the slam to what I saw as its fate for the evening:  I assumed we’d have to cancel.  When I called the Boise slam-master, Cheryl Maddalena, to tell her the news, she did not hesitate in telling me that there was no way we were cancelling.  “Aren’t there restaurants and other clubs right around there?  Go ask them if we can have the slam there?”

It seemed preposterous, but it happened.  We walked across the street and asked the wait staff at  a restaurant and bar if we could hold a one-night event in their space… you know… right now.  Surprisingly, they agreed and we were back in business.  Never mind that most of the audience was there to eat dinner, not see a slam.  Never mind that a majority of the poets who performed had prepared satirical baby-eating poems, and were now performing them for old ladies trying to eat fish and chips.  This is not the most awkward situation in which I have performed poetry, nor is it the only one to involve Cheryl Maddalena.  In fact, all of them involve her.

We once performed during registration day at the College of Southern Idaho.  The school put us right next to the doors of the registrar’s office and across the path from the LDS student organization.  A group of Boise poets once performed for the city on the sidewalk in front of a parked bus.  The city did not provide us with a PA system or with signage informing passersby why four earnest young people were shouting metaphors at them as they passed.  Maddalena and three other poets were dismissed from the second half of a scheduled workshop and performance by a high school for using the word “dildo” in a poem.  Maddalena had made it a point to clear the content with the school beforehand.  Apparently, it was not sufficient.

Cheryl Maddalena, Isaac Grambo, and Tara Brenner perform “Moustache Poem” at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships (iWPS), Berkeley, CA, 2009

Boise poets have performed at everything from car washes to wine tastings to high-school punk concerts to burlesque shows.  It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always done with a purpose, and it’s always done with heart—and that heart is embodied in the person of Cheryl Maddalena.

Cheryl Maddalena did not invent slam poetry, nor did she bring it to Boise, Idaho.  Maddalena started slamming in Berkeley, California while she was earning her doctorate in psychology.  In short order, she was on teams competing in for National Poetry Slam Championships.  I don’t mean that she was just at Nationals, I mean she was on the Finals stage.

Jeanne Huff and Bob Neal started a slam in Boise in 2001.  As scenes often do, the scene was in a state of flux when Maddalena moved there in 2005.  Some of the novelty had waned, the regular poets were growing out of slam and moving on to other things, and the organization had never been the kind of tightly-run ship that one would see in a slam venue in Berkeley, Seattle, or Chicago.

Cheryl Maddalena is, quite often, the most reluctant organizer I know.  She didn’t want to assert control over Big Tree Arts, Inc. (the non-profit that organizes slams in Boise).  However, she couldn’t bear the idea that a scene wouldn’t send a team to Nationals, or that poets wouldn’t have a way to raise funds to make trips they might not otherwise make, or to not see the kinds of poets she had come to know and love from the Bay Area, New York, Vancouver, and all points in between.  There are times when arts organizing hurts feelings and breaks friendships, and the growing pains of Big Tree Arts left a few former figures of poetry in Boise by the wayside.  This is an unfortunate byproduct of making changes and moving forward, but for any kind of scene—be it slam or visual art, concert venues or literary bongo-circles—changes will ruffle feathers.  Old people will leave, new people will enter.  The most important part is the art, and that is what must be maintained as a constant.

Cheryl Maddalena performing at Neurolux (Boise, Idaho), circa 2010

Sometimes meeting someone who will influence your life is a rather inauspicious occasion.  When I first saw Maddalena perform, I leaned over to a friend who had come to the slam with me and said, “If I EVER sound like her, you have to tell me and I’ll walk away from this whole slam poetry thing immediately.”  At that moment, I had no idea how much she would eventually teach me about performing, organizing, and the inherent value of being an artist.

For all of the crazy things Boise poets have done, Maddalena has been a leading voice insisting the poets be paid in some form or another.  Poets are afforded the chance to work as volunteers for Big Tree Arts in exchange for BTA covering the bill to send them to Nationals, iWPS, or WOWPS.  Poets from out of town who lead workshops are paid $150.  At a time when I was altruistically clinging to an idea that art was priceless, Maddalena was teaching me that even that has a price.  Poets who want to live as poets need to be paid to do so.

Cheryl Maddalena taught me the importance of the audience and how the seemingly arbitrary rules of slam are the key to audience participation.  In some cases, I resisted the lesson, telling her “I will swear at any place at any time—these eight year-olds are are going to hear these words on the playground eventually!”  In some cases, it was a lesson she let me learn on my own, sacrificing her own ego by performing “White Lady,” a poem I had insisted on, in a room full of Black poets and people waiting for a Hip-Hop concert to start.

That performance of “White Lady” didn’t turn out like this, but from the dirty looks and the low scores, it may as well have.

I am influenced by artists long dead and by writers so famous I will never meet them in real life.  I am also influenced, on a much greater and personal level, by artists, writers, and organizers I work with every day who don’t have book deals and will never show up in an Art History survey course.  If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that Cheryl is the second-greatest influence on me and my work, next to my own father.  If this essay reads like a eulogy, let me be clear:  Cheryl Maddalena is still very much alive.  She continues to write, organize, and perform and has the unique ability to both inspire and frustrate me, even when I’m eight months and 500 miles removed from Boise.

In some ways, Maddalena is a reluctant organizer and, in others, she is a selfish one.  She keeps organizing slams, writing grants, coaching troupes of younger, less experienced poets to perform in front of audiences as foreign to native Boiseans as performing for Martians, and writing, writing, writing.  She keeps organizing because she can’t bear the idea of slam not being there for her.  Luckily for me and for the rest of Boise, keeping it around for herself has kept it around for us as well.

photo by Benjamin Lzicar, LZ Photography





Failure is Always an Option

15 07 2012

I stole this slogan from Mythbusters, and it applies to pretty much the entirety of life, not just science and not just art.  Sometimes, the best plans and the most professional presentation you can muster just aren’t enough.  Nobody shows up to your event.  Your artwork does not sell.  A judge gives you a 1.3 for your poem.  1.3!  That happened to me once.  The fact that failure is a possibility should not dissuade you from attempting something.  Nobody ever did anything truly great without the very real possibility of falling flat on their face.

On a small scale, this applies to making changes to a given artwork.  If you are working on a drawing and don’t want to make a needed change because you are afraid that you might mess up the whole thing, the whole drawing will suffer as a result.  Poems that you can’t bear to edit even though they are too long or don’t communicate your idea clearly won’t do anything but stay mediocre unless you do something to change it.

This guy does not take a lot of artistic risks.

Great artists take risks and great artists fail.  It’s a fact of progress, and there’s no use being afraid of it.  In my experience the anticipation of failure is more gut-wrenching than the failure itself.

Of course, sometimes failures scuttle careers.  In April, I wrote a blog entry about how Daniel Tosh is Important.  I argued that his satire is more cutting and critical than the dick-jokes and racism it seems to be perpetuating, and I stand by what I wrote.  Tosh now finds himself on the wrong end of the ire of many, especially feminists, after responding to a heckler during a comedy show with a “joke” about the heckler being gang-raped.

From what I understand of the incident, Tosh had been making a point about how there are terrible things in the world, but that doesn’t mean nobody should make jokes about them.  When the woman called out that “rape jokes are never funny,” he responded in a satirical attempt to exaggerate his own stance by cracking that it would be funny if she were raped by five members of the audience right then and there.

His response was a failure.  It did not effectively satirize mindless rape jokes, nor did it satirize knee-jerk indignation regarding humor with violence as its genesis.  Because this one response failed, the entirety of Tosh’s body of work comes into question—is he really just as bad as the horrible “comics” who respond to the Tosh.0 blog posts?

A similar thing happened to Michael Richards in 2006 and public opinion of him still hasn’t recovered.  In 2011, I posted a vitriolic critique of university art education on Facebook.  I am no longer a professor.

My purpose is to illustrate that even big-time celebrities fail.  Whether I defend or vilify Daniel Tosh, he is still important.  What more are we seeking as artists?  Whatever the risks you may take as an artist, the fear of failure shouldn’t stop you from taking them.  Public opinion is something to pay attention to and try to manage as a professional artist, but to attempt to cater to it is not the answer.  After all, if what you’re saying doesn’t make your voice shake, is it really worth saying?

For a response to the Daniel Tosh incident, please read this remarkable post by Lindy West:  How to Make a Rape Joke.





Presentation is Everything

15 07 2012

While I spend a great deal of time and effort in this blog proclaiming the values of thinking about art as an integral part of everyday life, I am well aware that the products of art are commodities and if a person is going to live an “everyday life” as an artist, that person is going to need to have some level of monetary success result from those commodities.  Like anything else, art has real, monetary value—despite the notion that works of art are “priceless.”

However, artists trained in the Modernist mindset to make art for art’s sake inevitably have some level of resistance to looking at art as a business.  Like the relationship between art and society, each decision that an artist makes about his art—how to create it, how to display it, and how to (or not to) profit from it—is also the artwork.

I have written about the danger in thinking about art as something that exists outside of society.  In doing so, we are thinking about art as something that is not essential, trivial, and easy to marginalize.  If we expect to make our living as artists, we need to present what we do as something that is both necessary and of monetary value.  Nobody questions Apple for charging money for iPods.  It has presented the product to us as a valuable and necessary part of our lives, and we are prepared to pay handily for it.

Charge money for your art.  In The Dark Knight, the Joker says something to the effect of, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  Don’t give away your artwork, don’t hold events that ask for nothing at the door.  Your work is important and the person who is consuming it should be prepared to compensate you for your time, effort, and skill.

Of course, market forces apply here.  You may not be able to charge $1.5 million for a painting just because you feel like it’s worth that.  A poet’s chapbook is not going to sell for much more than five dollars, and you won’t be able to charge $45 at the door for a rock show in a dive bar unless your name is Mick Jagger.  But $5 is $5, and art patrons need to get used to the idea that art is something that costs real money so it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to have their tax dollars go to the NEA to support artists.

The road goes both ways.  As an artist, spend money on art.  Pony up the $5 to see your friend’s open mic performance, even if they say they’ll get you in for free.  Put a couple bucks in the donation jar as it’s passed around, even if you’re performing and trying to win some of that money back at a slam.  Buy (don’t trade) the work of other artists; even your friends, even if it’s expensive.  This is how economies work.  If cash isn’t circulating, it isn’t doing anybody any good.

If you are charging money for an artwork or for an event, present it like it is worth money.  Hang your artwork properly.  Make sure it is lit well, that the wall is relatively blemish-free, that the painting is dry (even though people aren’t supposed to touch the art, they touch the art—don’t give away souveniers of paint on fingers).  If you are producing a performance event, make sure your PA system is set up and working before the doors open, have the chairs arranged how you want them… START THE EVENT ON TIME.  If you want people to value your work, you should value their time.  Respect your audience.

Patrons aren’t the only people involved in an art event.  There are also other artists, venue owners, and journalists if you’re lucky.  Treat these people with respect as well.  Buy a drink from the bar.  If the bartender buys it for you, leave the bartender a tip.  Look at and discuss the work with the other artists in your exhibition.  Stay for and listen to other performers in your event, even if you go first.  Especially if you go first.  If you are a performer, leaving a concert, open mic, poetry slam, or play in which you are involved before it is over is the height of rudeness.  (Of course there are exceptions, but at the very least you should explain why you are leaving to an organizer and apologize—even if you don’t mean it).

Steve Buscemi’s character is the only one who maintains professionalism in Reservoir Dogs. He’s also the only one who makes it out alive.

By making a livelihood out of being an artist, you are positioning yourself as a professional.  Act like one.  Professionals don’t have to be boring, they don’t have to be stuffy, they don’t have to be snobs and wear cravats.  A professional conducts himself with the same respect for others that he expects from them.





Villains

24 06 2012

I am a regular patron of Broken Mic, a performance poetry open mic in Spokane, Washington. The average age of both audience and performers is somewhere in the late teens and early twenties. There’s a lot of angst, altruism, and shock value and even more support from poets and the audience. That support is not, however, unconditional. In April, a poet stood in front of the audience for the first time ever, and prefaced his poem by saying, “I wrote this poem about butt sex and I’m going to do it even if there are little kids here, so fuck you.” By the time he was finished, he was hearing boos as he went back to his seat.

The content of the poem didn’t bother me. Shock and vulgarity are used in many instances to gain attention. While I think his poem lacked in the category of substance, writing about something that is culturally taboo and performing it in an atmosphere that promotes free speech shouldn’t be a problem. The fact that there was a six or seven year old child in the front row doesn’t bother me, either. The mother was present, there is an announcement at the beginning of every event making it clear that poets can and will say things that offend. If she had wanted her son to not be present for this display, she could have left well before the offending poet made it to the microphone.

Where the poet erred was in alienating the audience. Leading off by telling the audience to go fuck itself put the performer at odds with them before they even knew who he was or what he was all about. American audiences hold self-assured artists in high regard, but not before they’ve either paid their penitence or demonstrated their work as being of the highest quality. We may delight in the character of the villain, but we always expect the good guy to win in the end.

LeBron James alienated a nation of basketball fans in 2010 by leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. He compounded the alienation by announcing his decision in an hour-long televised special, the team holding a celebratory pep rally before the newly-formed group had even held one practice, and James telling the crowd that they would win “not two, not three, not four…” but eight championships. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in the streets. The rest of the basketball world decried this hubris, and LeBron, for the first time in his life, found himself cast as the villain.

James and the rest of the team embraced this role as they pursued a championship in the 2010-2011 season. While American audiences take a certain pleasure in villainous characters like Frank Costello in The Departed or The Undertaker in professional wrestling, they have little sympathy for a villain who has not accomplished anything. LeBron, who had come straight into the NBA out of a ridiculously-hyped high school career, had never received any kind of disapproval, certainly nothing on this scale with this kind of vehemence. The villain role was not something James and the Heat could fill, and their loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals was the equivalent to getting booed off the stage after an indignant poem about anal sex.

LeBron alienated the public by very visibly and very publicly demonstrating that he did not care what they thought. Of course, he did care, and was genuinely hurt when the public reprimanded him for his actions. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the poet from Broken Mic in April was hurt by the boos as well. At the heart of the actions of both was a fear of rejection, which was all but guaranteed.

If a kid wants to protect himself form schoolyard mockery, one tactic is to display that he does not care what the mocking children think. If they get no response, the mocking is fruitless and they move on. If a performer is putting herself in front of an audience with the danger of not being approved, she can mitigate the rejection by claiming to not want the approval in the first place. Superficially at least, both sides come away as if they’ve won. The audience has rejected the performer for hubris, and the performer has rejected the audience’s lack of approval by saying she was never seeking it. “Of course they didn’t get it. They’re just too simple to understand…”

We can compare this attitude to the Greenbergian notion of the separation of high Art from the rest of life. For Greenberg, if Art was to progress and advance, it needed to be separate from the rest of society—artists should not worry about the approval of the masses. Non-educated art patrons and popular audiences were to be ignored in favor of focused investigation into the specific area that was High Art. A painting did not exist for the enjoyment of some schmo on the street—it existed for the sole purpose of being a painting.

The authority embodied in the artist (here, Jackson Pollock) and the critic (in this case, Greenberg) made the hubris of High Modernism titanic. In a postmodern age of skepticism, authority isn’t what it once was.

On the one hand, this alienates the larger public. On the other hand, it provides a group for artists to identify with. There is a cachet that comes with being an insider—whether it’s in a dance-club scene, the world of high art, or poets in Spokane. The attitude paradoxically justifies whoever holds it as both an individual (in rejecting the expectations of “the masses”) and a part of a group of artists, writers, performers, or thinkers who hold similar attitudes, education, and experiences. The attitude of specialization inherently creates cliques, and if we remember anything from Junior High School, cliques get jealous of other cliques.

In 1989, Piss Christ, a photo by Andres Serrano, became the flashpoint in what would come to be known as the Culture Wars. Without simplifying the issue too much, the photo was given an award that was funded partly with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This enraged conservatives who used the image and the award as reasoning to cut funding to the NEA.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

The fact that it was a photo escaped some politicians. The fact that it was among a series of other photos of different objects and figurines submerged in a mixture of urine and cow’s blood escaped almost everybody. The formal or conceptual considerations of Serrano were moot points in the larger discussion—the shock was all that mattered. It was an inflammatory image with an inflammatory title. This, combined with the already entrenched attitude of the art elite dismissing the approval of wider audiences, meant little sympathy and little resistance to the evisceration of the NEA’s funding of the visual arts.

In 2012, the political climate again has public funding for the visual arts on the ropes. In Spokane, there is much hand-wringing over the fate of the Spokane Arts Commission, which has already seen a long series of cuts which has left it a shell of a “commission” with only one employee and a handful of volunteers. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (known as the MAC) has fired its director for undisclosed reasons and is facing the ire of the public for this decision and a demand for an explanation. The MAC has also been forced to look for private sources of funding as public money for visual art in the region has dried up.

Outside of the people actively involved in the arts in Spokane (which consists in no small part of artists themselves), there has been little protest over the possibility of doing away with the Spokane Arts Commission. The Commission oversees the acquisition and maintenance of public art projects in the city from the Harold Balazs sculptures floating in the river to the garbage-eating goat to the murals on railway underpasses. It is an organizational hub for small non-profits from Saranac Art Projects to Et. Al. Poets, and, yes, it helps those organizations find, apply for, and get government grants.

Sister Paula Turnbull, The Garbage Goat, 1974

The Spokane Arts Commission is on the precipice of nonexistence not because of anything it does, but because of an attitude perpetuated by those involved in High Art. We ignore mass audiences at our own peril. By continuing to isolate ourselves and dismiss the larger public, we make what we do appear to be something other than necessary. What’s worse, the expectation of government funding has led to ignoring potential customers. If we do not expect them to pay to see what we have to offer in person, how can we expect them to think it is necessary to pay via taxes if they don’t (or aren’t even invited to) see it?

The problem isn’t with the product: poetry, art, music, and plays are as vibrant in Spokane now as they have ever been. The problem is in perception—it’s in marketing; it’s in public relations. If we abandon the idea that art should be separate from the rest of life, those people who decide how art is funded and therefore how artists can live will see it as a necessary part of life. This change in attitude starts with the artists and performers. It starts with conversations. It starts with including anyone who is even remotely interested and alienating no one—even if what you are saying with your work is confrontational.

With inclusivity, art can be a valued part of everyday life, and everyday life can be a valued part of art. We aren’t going to force anyone to pay attention to our work by telling them we don’t care what they think. We have to care. Without an audience, what are we doing any of this for?

‘Broken Mic, June 24, 2012’ Photo: Michael Schomburg





Legend, Myth, and Street Cred in the Image of the Artist

2 06 2012

In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life.  I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.

Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam.  Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves.  They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it.  As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.

6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) performing “Her Name”

This is not something that is limited to slam.  We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs.  The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work.  In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.

Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people.  When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering.  The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other).  Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.

An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House.  Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago.  The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson.  He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain.  Everyone in the audience has experienced pain.  Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological.  Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain.  Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture.  However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience.  He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.

Yet, House is a fictional character.  Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent.  We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain.  We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took.  We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about.  As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.

In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat.  He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York.  He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11.  His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone.  His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.

Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous.  It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle.  This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.

Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for.  Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton.  But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:

Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it

No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references.  But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.  Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.

Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell.  His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father.  Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.

Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer.  Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances.  Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets.  The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.

Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem.  A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view.  The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder.  The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience.  But even this can backfire.

Alvin Lau

In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam.  One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister.  As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister.  It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from.  It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.

Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?”  McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation.  To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself

I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post.  Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article.  Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.”  Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.”  DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer

Sierra DeMulder

As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis.  My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others.  We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it.  Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence.  No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit.  It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer.  To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist.  To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.





Intention

29 04 2012

Artists, critics, and academics insist that the defining factor for any object or action to be art is intent.  Even in a postmodern mindset where anything—any act, any work of cultural production, or any object (any thing)—can be art, what makes that thing art is the intent that it is art.  This, of course, is rooted in the Modernist ideology of authority.

Modern thought places the utmost importance in authority, because it is through authoritative figures, statements, and processes that we can determine Truth.  And capital-T “Truth” is the utmost authority.  For this purpose, fields of study are singled out and highly educated experts spend their time investigating and advancing their knowledge of these fields, producing work that is True Science or True Music or True Art.  By designating himself as an Artist, a person then declares his intent to make art.  From then on, what he decides is art—what he intends art to be—is just that.  His justification is manifest in his position as an Authority on Art, an authority granted by specialization and expertise.

In the period of High Modernism (namely, the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), the intent of being art was enough justification for a thing to be art. During the Postmodern period, however, simply being art was not enough justification for an object.  Beginning in the late 1960s, art gained (or re-gained) the requirement of meaning.  In order to have impact, the work needed to do more than just be art, it needed to mean something.

Barbara Kruger, Your Body is a Battleground, 1989

In some circles, this “meaning something” depended on shock—a tool inherited from early Modernist painters who seemed intent on forcing the advancement of society, which was another topic of Modernist importance.  High Modernists like Picasso and Pollock aimed their shock inward—the shock of non-representational painting pushing art to a more advanced, more specialized place.  However, like Realist painters such as Manet, Postmodern artists like Barbara Kruger and Ed Kienholtz aimed their shock outward, putting society itself in the crosshairs.

Activist artists like Judy Chicago, Mel Chin, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Sue Coe made artwork with dual intent:  to be art and to disrupt.  The requirement for rupture seems to have become inherent, especially in art produced and justified in an academic setting.  Disruption  may not always be readily apparent, and thus artist’s statements emerge as a way to explain what is disruptive about a particular work or a particular artists’ oeuvre.

What is peculiar about the supremacy of rupture as a requirement of art is that the intent of rupture seems to have the capability of being granted after the fact.  Artists who do not intend to their work to be disruptive in the present to be dismissed, and artists who created rupture in the past, whether or not they set out to do so, are elevated.  A reader commented on my last post (Thomas Kincade is Dead.  Long Live Thomas Kincade) on Facebook, arguing against my comparison of Kincade to Andy Warhol:

Even if he claims that he did not intend to, Warhol’s imagery (as banal as it was) at the time forced an examination of the boundaries of art (rupture). That’s pioneering. Kinkade’s imagery (although his methods of production and commercialism could be argued as similar to Warhol’s) does not hold the same power of rupture, just based on content alone.

Warhol was famously non-committal about his intentions regarding meaning in his work.  He made works with a popular appeal in a businesslike way that seemed to challenge the accepted specialized, reified nature of art. Critics, history books, and hero-worship have assigned the intent of rupture to Warhol, not Warhol himself.  If intent is all important in the status of an artist, is assigned intent just as powerful as declared intent?

It appears that this is the case.  The reader concluded her comments by writing, “I believe Kinkade’s illuminated cottage scenes are more along the lines of an allopathic art—an easy sell.”  Kincade was about business and selling, and Warhol was about critiquing the art world and/or society. However, Warhol’s own statement on the matter was that “Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

The figure of Andy Warhol has been ascribed the role of sly critic of mass consumer culture and big-money art markets even with the facts and trappings of his fame and wealth readily apparent.  A similar statement can be made about the work and person that is Jeff Koons.  My favorite statement regarding Koons comes from Robert Hughes, “If cheap cookie jars could become treasures in the 1980s, then how much more the work of the very egregious Jeff Koons, a former bond trader, whose ambitions took him right through kitsch and out the other side into a vulgarity so syrupy, gross, and numbing, that collectors felt challenged by it.”

Hughes goes on to say, and I agree, that you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the art world who claims to actually like Koons’ work.  But because it is ultra-kitsch and still presented as art, we assume the intent is to critique the vulgarity and simplicity of consumer or of the art market itself.  Koons is a businessman, and a shrewd one at that.  He makes a lot of money by “challenging” collectors while stating directly that he is not intending to critique or challenge art, beauty, or kitsch.

Of course, he is challenging them.  It is not his stated intent that is accepted as fact, but it is the intent we as viewers and critics have assigned to him.  In a postmodern view, the authority has shifted to the reader, to the viewer—to the end consumer of a cultural product.  We are no longer interested in a Truth of art, but instead we accept the personal truths of our own subjective views.  Saying you didn’t intent to go over the speed limit does not mean you didn’t do it, and Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, or even Thomas Kincade saying they don’t intend to create disruptive art work doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it.

If rupture is the new defining characteristic of art, then intent no longer can be.  A child doesn’t intent to disrupt a funeral, but it will because it wants attention.  Attention is the intent, but rupture occurs nonetheless.  Kincade just wanted attention and fame, but that shouldn’t stop us from viewing the work as a disruptive critique of the market.  It hasn’t stopped us from doing the same with Warhol.

Jeff Koons next to his own sculpture, Pink Panther (1988)

The reader’s comment used the word “allopathic.”  Allopathic, according to Merriam-Webster online, is “relating to or being a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated.”  In this case, the system of art critique is allopathic.  Typically, critique is aimed at works of art that intend to be art in a certain way.  Here, we are critiquing work in a way different or incompatible with its supposed intentions when being produce.  In a world of relative truths, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.








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