Thomas Kinkade is Dead. Long Live Thomas Kinkade.

15 04 2012

When Thomas Kinkade died last week, I got a few emails and Facebook wall posts from former students.  “I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to inform you about this.”  I have had a long and complex relationship with the art of Thomas Kinkade, and his death brought him to the forefront of the greater consciousness (however briefly) once again.

This is an example of a Thomas Kinkade painting. There's no need to look at any other ones, they're all pretty much this.

Thomas Kinkade was a painter.  He was a very well-known painter who produced thousands of paintings of quaint cottages in idyllic settings.  Tomas Kinkade was a businessman.  His galleries are in malls all across America.  There are calendars, coffee mugs, prints of various qualities and price ranges, “original” paintings, and even a Kinkade-themed housing development in Northern California.  For most in the art world, this places Kinkade firmly in the category of kitsch, with his reliance on mass reproductions of artworks and an easy appeal to a general populace.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant, instructing introductory-level studio classes, our first-day activity was to have the students fill out a form answering various questions about themselves.  What kind of music did they like?  What other art classes had they taken?  And, of course, who was their favorite artists.  When the TAs would get together after the first day, the conversation always turned to that last question.  How many Van Goghs did you get?  How many Dalís?  Any late, great, unknown uncles?  And the kicker—the question that would make us howl with laughter and wretch with disgust—how many Kinkades?  We were snobs.  We were art snobs.  We were educated art snobs, and we were going to educate these uninitiated undergrads about what was good and what was bad art, and Thomas Kinkade was bad art.

Yes, this is exactly what we looked like. This is what all art snobs look like.

There are several factors that go into dismissing Kinkade outright, and the kitsch argument is only one of them.  His galleries, even if they were not franchised McDonald’s of paintings scattered across America and found next to the Dillard’s north wing of the mall, were vanity galleries.  A vanity gallery is an art gallery that is owned and operated by the artist himself or herself.  While academic art instruction sees itself as operating outside of the art market, the market’s peculiar institutions of legitimation are sacrosanct.

A gallery, in the operation of the art market, is a proprietorship of a connoisseur who gathers the work of a group of artists, legitimized by their inclusion in this stable (yes, this is how the collection of artists represented by a gallery are referred to).  The connoisseur in the form of the art dealer then sells the work to connoisseurs in the form of the buyers.  The connections and collecting history of the connoisseurs provide the provenance for the work, and the connection with that provenance further legitimizes the artist.  They aren’t just making great work.  It’s great because of who owns it and because of what else they own or have owned.  A Jenny Saville isn’t just important because it’s a monumental painting, but because it was purchased by Charles Saatchi, and Saatchi also purchased work by Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood.  Good connections in the primary market lead to even better connections in the secondary (auction) market, which lead to collection or donation to museums, which are the ultimate arbiters of what is important.  What is important to museums is what ends up in art history text books, and it is what is taught to students as high art.  This process, as convoluted as it is, begins in the person of the art dealer.

In a vanity gallery, the artist circumvents the dealer in order to get his or her work to the primary market.  The work is sold, yes, but in the view of the institutions of legitimation, a necessary step in gaining legitimacy has been skipped.  How can these primary consumers know what they like if they don’t have a connoisseur to tell them what is important?  Thomas Kinkade made the vanity gallery into Wal-Mart, selling directly to consumers, legitimation be damned.

Yes, this gallery is in a mall.

Aside from the inconsequential, saccharine-sweet subject matter of Kincade’s paintings, his primary sin in the eyes of the art world is this crucial skipped step.  Other popular kitsch artists are simply ignored:  Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, Anne Geddes, whoever took those photographs of children in adult clothes in the 1980s. For those who hate Kincade, he is more than ignored, he is reviled, and other “sins” are held up as support for this judgment that are allowed to pass with other artists—even artists widely recognized by the institutions as important.

Even as a student myself, I lambasted Kinkade’s use of employees in creating his works.  “They aren’t even his!” I would argue, “He’s just the financier!  He’s a businessman.  Not an artist.”  Many people share the expectation that the genius artist’s hands are the only hands that work toward creating the final object.  The image of the artist’s studio in the heads of art students and the general public alike is one of a lone artist, toiling away at his massive projects.

Art is not made this way.  For an artist to make money, very rarely is this even a possibility.  In pre-Modern art eras, the sole-genius-production ideal was not as closely held.  Renaissance artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo were part of a guild system, where apprentices would do basic work like backgrounds in paintings or rough out the major forms for a sculpture.  The master was the boss in this situation, but the workload was shared.  Four hundred years later, Monet used apprentices and employees to crank out painting after painting of water lilies and haystacks.  In the 1960s, Andy Warhol went so far as to refer to his studio as The Factory, with artists, actors, photographers, and even lackeys all contributing to its output.  Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami do not lay a finger on the massive sculptures and paintings produced and exhibited under their names.  These artists occupy the highest tiers of the art-historical hierarchy (Koons is certainly up for debate—another blog on him later), and their output is directly related to the use of employee artisans to physically create the works.

A painter at work in Murakami's Kaikai Kiki studio in New York.

I have written at length about the dangers of high art alienating itself from the tastes and opinions of culture at large.  The disdain for items produced for a consumer, mass, or popular market is self-defeating.  How much differently would high art be perceived if Alan Kaprow’s Art Store had been in malls all across America?  What if connoisseurship was permanently circumvented and every person’s opinion had equal validity in the market?  What if legitimation depended more on quality of communication than quality of provenance and connections?  Would Kinkade have died an art start?  Would his paintings be in the Powerpoints of 100-level Art History survey courses?

In many ways, Thomas Kinkade fit the mold of the superstar hero artist.  He had ambition, ego, and is even rumored to have died due to alcoholism.  In the pantheon of art gods, those qualities have eclipsed any technical talent since 1956.  Personally, I can’t stand the work of Thomas Kinkade.  I also hate the Rococo.  But the Rococo has a place in art history textbooks.  Maybe Thomas Kinkade should, too.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, "The Happy Accidents of the Swing," c. 1767.
Just... ew.

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Daniel Tosh is Important

1 04 2012

Daniel Tosh is a stand-up comedian and television host.  I doubt many people would describe him as particularly socially-conscious in either of those roles.  His show, Tosh.0, is a hybrid of stand-up, sketch comedy, and internet video commentary and includes potentially offensive material in bits such as “Is It Racist?” and “Rico’s Black Clip of the Week.” I think that Daniel Tosh, and Tosh.0 in particular, is a prime example of postmodern entertainment that pushes the boundaries of social issues in a way that results in elevated discourse rather than crass exploitation.

Tosh.0 is Postmodern

The television show is nowhere near original. Despite my description above, it is inherently a clip show.  Its reliance on home videos posted on the internet make it the America’s Funniest Home Videos of the 21st Century.  The format of a host in front of a green screen commenting on clips owes its existence to Talk Soup (later re-named The Soup), originally hosted by Greg Kinnear.

Of course, something doesn’t have to be original to be entertaining.  Tosh’s style in delivery and class clown grin make the show engaging and somehow personal, and the adult content of both the videos and the commentary give the show a bite not found in either television predecessor.  The show plays like a highlight reel of internet comment posts, weeding out the merely shocking, racist, or pithy and showcasing the truly snarky and hilariously cynical.

The unoriginality of the show seems to categorize it as mere pastiche, but Tosh.0 is unabashedly self-aware.  From the inclusion of the writing and production crew in sketches to the mockingly prophetic sign-offs before the final commercial break of each episode (Tosh signs off with a reference to a cancelled Comedy Central show:  “We’ll be right back with more Sarah Silverman Program!”), Tosh highlights not only the mechanisms of the show’s production, but also the reality that the lifespan of the show itself is limited.  The sign-off was perhaps more prescient in the early days of the show.  As with many Comedy Central shows, its low production costs come with low expectations from the network—cancellation of a Comedy Central show is a foregone conclusion.  That is, of course, until it catches fire like South Park did, or Chappelle’s Show, or even The Daily Show.

Tosh has also made reference to his predecessors on air.  “Hey, I heard there’s some show called The Soup that totally ripped off our format!  The idea for this show came to me in a dream!  With Greg Kinnear, except it really wasn’t Greg Kinnear…”  In this season’s Web Redemption of a horrible sketch comedy trio, Tosh led the segment saying, “Hey, sketch comedy is hard.  If someone brilliant like Dave Chappelle can go crazy doing it, what makes you think you’ll be any good?”

Tosh.0 is Socially Conscious

The fraternity with Chappelle is based on more than that of hosting popular Comedy Central programs.  Richard Pryor paved the way for Dave Chappelle, and Dave Chappelle paved the way for Daniel Tosh.

Chappelle is credited for approaching issues of race in a comedic way on television unflinchingly and uncompromisingly.  He made fun of racism—not just white racism toward blacks, but also black racism toward whites and Asians, and even other blacks.  It can be cynically concluded that Chappelle and Pryor (who did the same thing thirty years earlier in stand-up comedy) could get away with calling out black racism because they themselves were (are) black.  Daniel Tosh proves that the race of the commentator is not the determining factor for this kind of statement.

The clip that spawned the recurring bit, “Is It Racist” was a video of an Asian toddler in a pool, held afloat by his or her head suspended in a plastic floating ring.  Among many jokes, Tosh cracked, “Is it racist if I can’t tell if her eyes are open or not?”  After a brief pause, he said indignantly, “I’m saying ‘Is it?’  Yes… yes, I’m being told by the audience that yes, it is racist.”

Jokes about racism regarding African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jewish people, and even white people are all approached with a level of honesty and self-effacement that makes them engaging rather than mean.  In a web redemption from this season, Tosh interviews a couple who’s wedding was ruined by a sandstorm.  The groom was Mexican and the bride was white.  Rather than shy away from racial comments when in the actual presence of a minority, Tosh addresses it head-on.  Any menace in this line of questioning is deadened by the fact that Tosh is conducting the interview in a heart-shaped hot tub.  He often uses the physical appearance of his own nearly-nude body to neutralize potentially heated or offensive confrontations.  It also helps that during these interviews, he is unabashedly positive, which is unexpected given the bite of the rest of the show.

Context is key for Tosh’s approach to topics like race, sexuality, abortion, and religion.  He is making jokes, yes.  But his delivery and his appearance, as well as the jokes themselves, communicate an awareness of his own place in the larger issue underlying the comedic bit.  In comparison, it is much harder to see positivity in the comments by viewers on Tosh.0 blog posts.  Many comments come across as simply racist, rather than as addressing racism.

Below is the clip of the Asian “Neck Tube Baby” bit from Tosh.0.  Not only is it an example of Tosh’s approach to race, it also includes the show’s characteristic reflexivity, acknowledging the production of the bit itself.

Daniel Tosh is Uplifting

I’ll be honest.  For the first two seasons of Tosh.0, I changed the channel or left the room during the “Web Redemption” segment.  I’ve never been a fan of cringe-inducing comedy, and the idea of taking someone’s most embarrassing moment, already broadcast to the entire internet, and making a seven-minute television segment based entirely on that moment, seemed too mean-spirited and too awkward for me to watch comfortably.  My fears were unfounded.

Tosh brings the people in question to Los Angeles and interviews them to begin the segment.  The interview includes the cracking of jokes, of course, but Tosh is truly laughing with the interviewee.  The redemption part of the segment is typically cheesy.  The person gets a second chance to complete whatever task when awry and got them internet famous for some sort of mistake.  A girl gets a chance to walk down stairs in a prom dress without tripping.  A guy gets a chance to park a Ford Mustang in a garage without running it through the wall.  Typically, in these bits, Tosh is the main point of comedy—often employed through the use of a goofy costume such as the Pope outfit worn for the redemption of the married couple mentioned earlier.  Most of the time, the person succeeds in their attempt to redeem themselves, even though that redemption is a little low in the area of a pay-off.  They still have the internet embarrassment out there, though by now they’ve probably come to terms with it.  Heck, they did agree to be on a show knowing full well that the embarrassing moment was the reason for their appearance.

In some cases, however, the person fails in their comedic-sketch attempt at redemption.  Tosh uses this to aim the humor away from the person involved, however.  An appearance by Ron Jeremy after a girl falls down the stairs in a prom dress for a second time becomes a joke about Ron Jeremy (Ron Jeremy is his own joke about himself).  Dennis Rodman appears from nowhere to block a man’s attempted trick basketball shot.  That was perhaps my favorite save.  On returning to the set (these bits are shot on location and shown as clips during the hosted show), Tosh points out that for $5,000, you can have Dennis Rodman show up at your house and do whatever you want… for about five minutes, which mocks the show for paying that much for the cameo and Rodman for shilling himself out so shamelessly.

Daniel Tosh is Important

Daniel Tosh is not what I would consider an activist comedian.  He’s not out to make some great social change in the world.  He’s out to make people laugh and, if you believe his shtick, make a lot of money doing it.  But performers don’t necessarily have to be performing ABOUT an issue to make a difference regarding an issue.  It’s often a matter of bringing the conversation up.  If that approach is comedic, the conversation is that much easier to start.  Tosh’s approach is more high-brow than it may seem at first glance, and for that, we thank you.





Inside/Outside

18 03 2012

Howard Singerman opens the sixth chapter of Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University by pointing out not only the primacy of language in university art education, but also the place of the artist in the work and in the instruction of art itself.  In an age of conceptual art, with language being a large factor in both the construction and understanding of a work, the artist’s statement and the artist’s talk are not just addendums to the work—they are the work.

Rirkrit Tiravanija speaking at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010.

Universities and museums become a sort of circuit for conceptual and alternative media artists, like night clubs for a band or book-signings for an author. Since large municipal museums are unlikely to show the work of lesser-known artists, and galleries have a hard time promoting their work due to a lack of physical commodities to sell in many cases, the most ephemeral, most conceptual kinds of artwork are promoted through the institution of the university.  In these cases, artists come with the work—it’s not just a bunch of paintings in a crate.  They help with the installation (in some cases the work is actually produced at the university), visit studios of upper classmen and graduate students, and typically give a presentation on their work.

This kind of interaction with the artists has a powerful effect on students.  When they are so intimately involved with the artist and with the creation of the work (when that occurs), the possibilities of conceptual and non-object-based work can seem very exciting.  They are, indeed.  It is those possibilities upon which this blog is based.

The problem with this model for art legitimation is that it ends up being a circular system.  Conceptual artists have too small of a market on which to sell their works, thus getting them into the primary market of collectors, the secondary  market of the auction houses, and finally the legitimization that comes with the acquisition of their work by a noted museum and the textbook recognition that comes with that. They, in effect, cut around the market part of that system and are injected directly into the legitimization of the curriculum by becoming an active part of it.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971

The market for conceptual work is not the art (commodity) market.  It is the university.  So students inspired to work this way then go into the market that exists for it:  the university from whence they came.  They want to become an artist like Chris Burden (see page 161 of Art Subjects for an amusing example of one of Burden’s artist’s visits), getting stipends for artist’s talks.  They want to become university art instructors—to be able to make a living involved with art while producing the kinds of work they themselves are legitimating.  Quoting Raymond Parker, Singerman states, “The taught art world determines the status of the teachers in the eyes of the students:  ‘The teacher distinguishes himself from the student by the authority with which he acts as a part of the art world (p. 158).’”  While Burden was teaching at UCLA, a student (not in one of his classes), payed homage to this iconic performance by seeming to run out of the classroom and commit suicide as a performance. Burden resigned as a result, not wanting to inspire further and perhaps more reckless actions by students. The incident highlights the kind of influence instructors have over students in what they produce and in what they promote.

The problems with this system are twofold, but they both center on the insularity of the system.  First, the legitimation of artists taking place within the university alienates those outside of the university, more specifically—those outside the university art department.  While the intimate interaction with the artists is indeed powerful for the students, faculty, and the relatively small number of community attendees involved, it is not a part of the experience of those who just come into the gallery to see the exhibition.  A video projected on the wall of crowds of people bustling about their day might have been an intense and rewarding work of collaboration for a visiting artist and a group of students, but it has no power for the pre-med major wandering through between classes who wasn’t present for the artist’s talk the day before.  To her, it may just be another weird video installation in the art department—they’re always doing strange things over there.  As I’ve stated elsewhere in this blog, when art is treated as a curiosity rather than as essential, its place power in the larger society is greatly diminished.

Secondly, this system produces graduates who are trained to make artwork for this insular system.  Students get BFAs in order to get MFAs.  They get MFAs in order to teach.  They teach students working toward BFAs, and the circle continues.  This system may not be a problem, if not for the small size of the pool of instructors.  At the university where I taught for five years, there were over 900 declared art majors Fall Semester of 2012.  There were 24 full-time art faculty.

The odds of becoming a big, rich, rock star are recognized as small—there can only be one Metallica out of the millions of metal bands playing shows in dive bars in small towns.  The odds of becoming an art star are similarly small (maybe even smaller) and even art students, as optimistic as they may be, understand that.  Of the tens of thousands of MFA graduates in the United States every year, there are under 1000 graduate programs, and each may be hiring one to three full-time faculty in a given year, if any.  The turnover rate for tenure-track professors is not high.

As an undergraduate, I was inspired to work in conceptual and performance art by the work of my Alternative Media professor at Eastern Washington University, Tom Askman.  Visiting artist Rirkrit Tiravanija got me excited about exploring the experiential and the idea that anything—even cooking for strangers—could be art.  A studio visit from Juane Quick-To-See Smith encouraged me me to go to graduate school.  An extended graduate studio visit from Joanna Frueh and the knowledge that the artists I most admired—Allan Kaprow, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Enrique Chagoya—had experience teaching while producing art stoked my optimism when I graduated.  It seemed very possible that I would one day be able to have a stable income while making art and even potentially making a difference in art.

For all the talk of conceptual, interactive, alternative media-based art and its potential to reach outside of the institutions of art and engage the larger population, both the inspiration and the occupational stability for those artists comes from within the institution.  Here, the university has replaced the gallery and the museum.  An art artist creates work within the educational setting, which inspires students to work in similar ways in order and end up legitimized by that educational setting.  For all my rhetoric about operating outside of academia (yes, I talked about it even as a student), my plan was to seek employment within.

I was not doused with confetti when I graduated from BSU. Now I feel cheated.

For five years, I taught as an adjunct instructor at the university where I earned my MFA.  In those five years, I applied for so many tenure-track positions, I lost count.  In those five years, I was never so much as interviewed for a position.  I do not know the reasons for my unemployability in the academic field, and to guess at what they may be would be misguided.  The point is that I have finally moved to a different field.  Last week, I got a “real” job.  Outside of the university, outside of the art world—this job is far from thinking about how everything and everyday can be an art experience.

My training and expertise in Derridean Deconstruction and Semiotics mean little in my current position, and by “little” I mean “nothing.”  After twelve years as either an art student or an instructor, it’s strange to go to work every day in that “real world” I always talked so passionately about.  My challenge is to continue to incorporate the ideas of Kaprow, Singerman, James Elkins, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur C. Danto, Lucy Lippard, Suzanne Lacey, Rachel McKibbens, Cheryl Maddalena, Nick Newman, and the other artists, writers, theorists and poets who influenced me into my own experience of everyday life.

The cliché goes, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”  For five years, that was my life.  Now, I have to work.  Make no mistake:  this is not a self-pitying blog post.  I am not resigning from performing poetry, writing blogs, organizing events, or critiquing every form of cultural production that crosses into my field of vision.  I will continue to make art.  I now have the challenge of making art truly outside of academia—in the “real” world.

Works Cited:

Singerman, Howard.  Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.





Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong

4 03 2012

I like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I think he is a warm and engaging face for science on television.  He’s no Adam Savage or Jaime Hyneman—I have yet to see him blow up anything.  To my eyes, he’s no Bill Nye.  That is one titanic bowtie to try to fill.  But, as celebrities of the hard sciences go, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a shining example.

As host of Nova scienceNOW on PBS, he has proven to be engaging and photogenic.  He makes astrophysics something that at least seems accessible to a large audience.  He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a research associate in astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History.  When it comes to astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson knows his stuff.  However, when it comes to the cultural mindsets of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, he is mistaken.

Clip of Feb. 27 Interview on The Daily Show

I am basing my criticism on an interview he gave last week with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, promoting his book, Space Chronicles:  Facing the Ultimate Frontier.  Stewart characterizes the book as lamenting the fact that the United States, as a culture, no longer prioritizes space exploration.  Tyson acknowledges that the Cold War, fear, and the military industrial complex were the driving force behind the rapid advancements in space exploration from the 1960s until 1972, the last manned mission to the moon.  I will add that moon missions stopped around the same time the Vietnam War ended, drawing to a close the hot part of the Cold War.

Tyson claims that it was the space race that inspired society to “think about ‘Tomorrow’—the Homes of Tomorrow, the Cities of Tomorrow… all of this was focused on enabling people to make Tomorrow come.”  This is where he is wrong.  The space race was a symptom of this mindset, but it the mindset of modernism he is talking about, not just of the space age.  A focus on technological progress is one of the most rudimentary tenets of modernism, with its roots in the Enlightenment.  We see it in the Industrial Revolution, we see it in the advancement of movements in Modern Art, and we see it in the development of technology for war, transportation and communication before, during, and after the space race:  from airplanes to telephones to ipods.  Tyson even cites The World’s Fair as an example of an event geared around the space race.  While the World’s Fairs of the 1960s certainly reflected the interest in space exploration in particular, the institution itself has roots in early modernism—in the Nineteenth Century.

Chicago World's Fair, 1893--long before the space race

Despite being incorrect about its origins, Tyson is correct in pointing out that the drive for progress was the great economic engine of the Twentieth Century, and that careers in science and technology were essential for that progress.  The combined factors of fear, war, and modernist pursuit of progress meant that those careers were celebrated as important for the betterment of society.  Little Jimmy wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist because it was a glamorous and important part of society, an attitude that was reflected in films, news broadcasts, and federal funding.

Stewart assumes that the diminished interest in space exploration had to do with expectations of achievements were not matching the pace of their execution—that we expected to be on Mars by 1970 and since we weren’t there, we got tired of waiting.  Tyson augments his assumption, saying that the diminished interest came from not advancing a frontier.  “The Space Shuttle boldly went where hundreds had gone before.”  This is not the frontier exploration that gains headlines in a world looking for better, faster, stronger, bolder, and further.

Aside from being wrong about the societal motivation behind the space race and the connected advancements in technology, Neil deGrasse Tyson clings to that modernist mindset.  His solution for society is to increase funding for NASA in order to mount a manned mission to Mars, which he believes will excite the populace to value the activity of scientists and technologists, thus fueling the economies of the Twenty-first Century.

Maybe Tyson just wants to revive the careers of Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins. It does promise to be thrilling and exhilarating.

As I have written before, I am skeptical about the notion that we are in an era outside of modernist influence.  While originality in art or even in invention is not necessarily the hallmark of progress that it used to be, advancement is nonetheless necessary for success in our creative, corporate, and governmental evaluations.  A person only needs to look at one very celebrated company—Apple—to understand that advancement and progress are still very much parts of our ideology, and that is the second instance where Tyson is wrong.

Contemporary society does value the activity of scientists.  It might not value the same kinds of scientists that made big, physical advancements like space exploration or the atom bomb, but it does value the kinds of scientific advancements that power the new economic driver: information.  According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, the purpose of science is no longer the “pure” goal of its Enlightenment origins. “Instead of hovering above, legitimation descends to the level of practice and becomes immanent in it.”  For Lyotard, scientists are no longer trying to find an absolute “Truth” about the universe (that might come from the exploration of, say, space), but seeking to advance the commoditization of knowledge—the consumption of information.

In a way, Tyson one-ups Lyotard.  By acknowledging the driving force of fear in the space race, he acknowledges that the societal motivation for scientific advancement was outcome-based (winning the Cold War), rather than ideologically-based Truth-seeking.  Even at the height of modernism, pure science was a myth.  Nonetheless, the ideas of Lyotard underlie the entire undertaking of contemporary science.  It isn’t about an authoritative Truth, it’s about consumable truths. For scientists, those consumable truths are technological advancements—however minute, however arbitrary. We do value scientists, as long as they are working toward something we can consume.

The fact that, in this photo, the iphone resembles the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey is pure coincidence.

The space race produced consumables—Tang, Velcro, the Tempur-Pedic bed—those were indirect in reaching the consumer market.  Today’s advancements directly aimed at consumers with tablet computers, smart phones, and cars that park themselves.  These advancements aren’t a byproduct of some high-minded pursuit of pure scientific exploration, but directly researched, experimented upon, and produced for us.

I sympathize with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He wants a modernist society where the pursuit of Truth motivates a populace and advances a culture.  But, as he acknowledges, that pure science may never have been the real motivator at all.  Science is now inextricably linked to product value in technology.  The advancements are more accessible, but they are less tangible.

Works Cited:

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Interview by Jon Stewart. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. Comedy Partners, New York.  Feb. 27,2012. Television.

Fraser, Nancy and Nicholson, Linda.  “Social Criticism Without Philosophy:  An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism,” Universal Abandon:  The Politics of Postmodernism.  Ross, Andrew, ed. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 87.





An Extended Conversation

26 02 2012

This week I was interviewed by Wyatt Trull of Spoke Journal, a start-up literary magazine here in Spokane. The interview was conducted by email, which has produced a record of the conversation in full. Topics ranged from the open-ended themes of the journal’s first two issues to discussion of ideas I’ve put forth on this blog. The point of this blog is to think about art as something different than an object-making enterprise, but an endeavor of meaning-making between artist and viewer. Sometimes the line between the two parties blurs, as it does here. For more information on Spoke, please visit the website: Spoke Journal.

Topic: Place/Displace

Trull: What constitutes one’s place or origin? How does your concept of origin or place mold your identity and art?

Grambo: “Place” is the community an artist (or any person) identifies most closely with. This community is shaped by the landscape, climate, and culture of its physical location. At times the community sets itself against these factors, and at times it is in cooperation with them. The relationship is similar between my own identity and my identification with a place or community. At times, I identify with the prevailing attitude and create work in conjunction with it, and at other times I create work to satirize and critique that prevailing attitude. As much as I love the people and poems that come from slam poetry, I enjoy skewering the tropes and cliches that are employed through satire.

Team Boise performs the satirical "Rape is Bad: The Musical" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009. For a time, the identity of Boise poets was linked heavily to high style and sarcasm.

Trull: What is the process of this interaction between a place and a person? How does each entity change as the relationship ebbs and flows?

Grambo: I had a professor in graduate school who would ask, “What about your work is original” in critiques. It’s a very frustrating question, especially when one is 23, in graduate school, and thinks they are the most unique artist on the planet. There isn’t a very good way to answer that question, because, in a postmodern view, nothing is original. Originality isn’t a prerequisite for art status. Nonetheless, the modernist ideal of uniqueness is still a part of how we view art and artists, so the question is pertinent. The only answer in a postmodern era is that the work is original because I am making it–not a person who made it before.

In that sense, a person can impact their community (or place) by being present and being involved. In some cases, there is a firm and identifiable effect on a community by an artist. In Boise (where I lived for eight years), the music scene is undeniably effected by Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. The sound, stage demeanor, and even fashion of indie musicians in Boise are all influenced by Martsch. Of course, they are all also influenced by each other, and by the community of Boise at large, just as Martsch was. Sometimes, people embrace their regional identity as part of their own. Other times, people want to distance themselves from their own region as much as possible.

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

In that area, Spokanites seem to be somewhat split. There are many who lament the “smallness” of the city—who think the conservative politics that affect local government, the limited number of artists within the community, and the lack of large-market media exposure. They want to get out of Spokane. Boiseans wanted to go to Portland. Spokanites want to go to Seattle (at least that was the “Xanadu” when I was here as an undergrad from 1998-2002). I like the smallness of the market. I like feeling like I have an opportunity to be on the inside of the scene. There are many Spokane artists (especially ones I’ve met since I returned) who feel like Spokane is a great place to make an effect and to be effected. They are creating co-op galleries, having basement exhibitions, reading poetry in bars and burrito shops, and publishing photocopied Zines like crazy. What is the deal with Zines in this town? While I’m thinking of it, what’s the deal with photocopied (rather than printed) handbills for benefit concerts and underground shows? I’m not putting it down, but it’s certainly something that is cool in Spokane that is not visible in Boise.

Trull: What makes Spokane unique as a place or origin? What role does the artistic community play in generating the essence of this place? How can the art community as a system be improved to better suit this role?

Grambo: A small city like Spokane can be at the same time very accessible and intimidating because of the small size and high familiarity of the people within each community–be it athletics or business or art. As in other areas of cultural production, the self-pride of the artistic community is the engine that drives it as well as fuel for the pride of the city at large. Spokane artists have the opportunity to set Spokane apart from other cities and define Spokane itself. Spokane is great because it isn’t Seattle, and it isn’t Portland, and it isn’t Chicago or New York or anywhere else. Spokane can be whatever its artists make it, they have to do just that: make it.

Topic: Signal/Noise

Trull: How do you differentiate between the concepts of signal and noise?

Grambo: The purpose of a signal is communication; noise is purposeless.

Trull: What role does noise play in your art? In your identity?

Grambo: Noise is essential, but it must be controlled. A performance or poem or painting can seem to be haphazard and purposeless, but that is in service of the overall message–there must be purpose to purposelessness.

Trull: How does Spokane, as an artistic community, manifest both signal and noise? Does art need to be louder? Or simply expressed through a better forum? Is the problem systemic?

Grambo: Art should be loud–volume can get attention. Noise for the sake of noise alone can be alienating, however. It is the task of artists to walk along that line in order to make the most impact with their work. Since I am new to Spokane, I can’t say how well this community balances signal and noise with any authority. I will say that I don’t think it’s a systemic problem–it may be something that artists must experiment with before they can find where they fit on an individual level, and that in turn affects the outlook of the community as a whole. In what I’ve seen of the performance poetry scene, many poets are trying to find their voice–in large part due to the fact that they are at the dawn of their careers. As a result, the anarchic noise that is performance poetry in Spokane has become a kind of siren for young poets and artists–a Bacchanalian refuge of chaos. This isn’t a “problem,” it’s simply the identity of Broken Mic.

Mark Anderson, organizer of Broken Mic

Trull: You’ve written a lot on your blog about the qualifications of great art. I find it quiet amusing that we’ve both used Miranda July to clarify our conceptions of art (that may be an overstatement on your part). (Unintelligible ≠ Poetic) Watching Me, You, and Everyone We Know and The Future completely transformed my conception of art. I had a profound inexplicable reaction to that film. I actually felt a profound confidence in my reception of her film, though I walked away unable to articulate a single theme. In fact, that experience is what ignited some recent passion for the dichotomy of Signal and Noise. So along the lines of this shared experience that we’ve reacted to in seemingly opposite ways, I have a few questions: for you, what is the nature of meaning? Do you think there is a type of meaning that is ineffable (an essence, shape, or flow of thought) or a type of noise that can be meaningful without any relation to a signal? Does one have to understand to perceive the articles of communication?

You wrote in a blog post that “one of my maxims in art is that ‘presentation is everything.’”(A Tale of Two Exhibitions) You also make the distinction between the existence of art and the potential for art. Can one quantify the leap that is made to bring art into existence? What is this leap in your artistic process?

Another one of your qualifications for great art seems to be the idea that great art is only exist in dialogue, or the communication between the artist (piece of art) and the viewer. Is it possible that a piece of can born from signal but develop into noise as this conversation proceeds? Is this undesirable? If so, what’s the artist’s burden?

Grambo: I’m going to the three previous questions (or paragaphs of questions) here. I think there is absolutely the possibility for open-endedness in art. Art as communication can be art as dialog, without a set “message” to be delivered, and I prefer this approach to art. It can work with one-way communicative art forms (like films or paintings or poems), though in a different way than in a truly interactive art form (like interventionist performance, or even a discussion via emailed questions). The lynchpin is intent. What kind of meaning are you trying to create as an artist or a writer? Are you intending to be inclusive and provoke thought, or are you intending to be perceived as clever or deep in your opacity?

Isaac Grambo performs "Airport Love Affair" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009

My problem with this approach is that it is alienating to a broad section of potential art viewers–those who don’t like art because they don’t get it. It appeals to a small subset of society that seeks out the hard-to-understand and the open-ended. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad, but it does add to the perception of high art as being outside of society–something for the rich or the over-educated or the weird. This is the small subset of society that deems art important, but still regards it as nonessential. (If it’s something only for a few and not for everybody, it is not essential). When artists themselves contribute to the notion that art is not essential, they are self-defeating. This attitude contributes to the greater marginalizing of art in school curriculum, in federal and private funding, and in the place of art within culture. When budgets get slashed, the arts are the first to go, and when arts budgets get slashed, visual art is the hardest hit. Nobody complains about movie stars getting paid millions of dollars because their profession is culturally thought of as important (if not completely essential). The marginal position held by art leads to frustration and dismissal by a greater public who wants to know why any of their money (tax or otherwise) should go toward something “that my kid could do.” I’m not saying that we have to make Norman Rockwell/Thomas Kinkaide crap. I’m saying we have to meet the public halfway if we expect them to be willing to understand and support performance art or installations or interventions.

The intent of the artist has to be inclusivity, not exclusivity by power of opacity. This goes for arts patrons, too. I performed a satirical poem last Wednesday that was laden with metaphors. I purposely wrote the metaphors to not make any sense. Three people (the three people who had been to a national poetry slam and seen the precise kind of work I was satirizing) got the joke. On the one hand, the audience was all-too ready to look for and find meaning where there was none. On the other hand, my satire fell short, because there was a meaning: a critique of gratuitous metaphoric imagery.

The artist’s intent is made apparent through the presentation. If the intent is clear, the communication can be clear, too–even if that communication is open-ended.

Trull: In another post, you write that in modern world we can “communicate with everybody and yet we talk to nobody.” (Musing on Methods of Communication) Each successive advancement in communication makes our language more and more sterile, but our message remains just as human (though that’s debatable). I think this a great example of the logical extreme of the typical western understanding of noise. I would like to think that as artist we reject this sterilized conception and affirm a human condition, but how can we be sure? When does the intricacy and density of one’s message turn into a disordered clutter? Does a line even need to be drawn?

Grambo: I think I’ve addressed this a little bit in the previous answer. Too much intricacy, as you put it, leads to confusion. Reading even friendly correspondence from eras of flowery language drives me to distraction–it becomes tough to remember what the writer is trying to get across.

That said, your mention of advancing forms of communication as a contributor to noise brings another thought to mind. I can’t cite an author on this idea, though I’ll mention that it isn’t mine. The more freedom of speech we assert, the less we seem to be saying and the less communication seems to happen. It’s apparent in politics. Even in the age of up-to-the-minute twitter feeds acting as short news releases, nuances in politics in America get assigned to Right or Left. Once a given politician or person aligns him or herself with one side, the rhetoric becomes more and more shrill in order to try to be noticed above the din of similar soundbites. You get the mouth-foamers: Limbaugh on the Right, Maddow on the Left; Hannity and Olberman; Fox and MSNBC. While the two sides have plenty to say, they aren’t saying much of anything. Neither side listens to the other, and those in the middle are ignored on-air and alienated in their living rooms. For all the advancements in communication, American politics haven’t changed since the days of partisan newspapers and Tammany Hall.

To “affirm a human condition” in terms of communication, I think we have to communicate on a personal level. I think this happens in poetry. I think it happens in emails. I think it happens on Facebook and I think it can happen on twitter. I think that communication–that mutual creation of meaning–is art, so I think all of these are art. As before, intent is the key. If we seek to use these methods to include each other, we create art. If we create art, we are affirming the human condition.





Unintelligible ≠ Poetic

10 02 2012

As one might expect of a performance poet, I go to many poetry performances.  As with art, or movies, or, say, basketball, when one sees a lot of a certain thing, the individual utterances of that thing can start to blend together in one’s memory.  At a given National Poetry Slam, I will easily witness the performance of 150 poems—and that’s just at the official events. Upon returning home from NPS, I’m often hard-pressed to relate a story of a single poem that struck me. Keep in mind that these poets are the top poets from their respective cities from all over the world.  After a week of poem after poem after poem, their similarities and “slamminess” start to blend them together.  The list poems, the persona pieces, the team performances about rape or cancer all merge together in memory to become one massive lump of slam. For a particular poem to stand out at an orgy of performances like NPS, it needs to be exceptionally unique.  In this way, the poems that make impact are often either very good or very bad. The following poem is the best poem I have ever seen at Nationals.

I once had a photography professor with a peculiar grading rubric.  There were five total points possible for any given assignment.  One point was issued based on “impact,” two points were possible for “theme,” and three points were possible for “technique.”  The impact point was the most interesting part of the rubric.  If there was something about the photo that made it stand out, it got a point.  It could be that the photo was the most original out of the group.  It could be that it was mounted on colored matte-board.  It could be that the photo was obviously over-exposed.  It could be that it was egregiously offensive.  The impact point could be assigned if the photo was very good, or if it was very unique; it could also be granted if the photo was very bad.

Since poets have to qualify to compete at NPS, there are very few examples of very bad poems that stick out there, and the predominant “good” poems are what blend together over the course of the week.  This doesn’t mean that all memorable poems at Nationals are “exceptionally good.”  Sometimes they are memorable for being unique.  Sierra DeMulder’s “Mrs. Dahmer” is a good poem, but when I saw it first in West Palm Beach in 2009, it was the first true persona poem I’d seen.  In a form that is predominantly viewed as true-to-life confessions of the performer, it was refreshing to see her speak about someone other than herself while remaining within the first-person narrative convention of slam poetry.  It stood out because it was unique.

Uniqueness is not necessarily synonymous with good.  A truly unique and high-quality poem or artwork has the capacity to make the viewer think—to ponder the possibilities of meaning and the connection to his or her own experience.  However, poets and artists often confuse “thought-provoking” with “unintelligible.”  Some seem to think that to be poetic, one must be obtuse.  Metaphors can be used to help communicate an idea, but too many too thick can obscure any cohesion whatsoever.

Anis Mojgani is an example of high-quality obscurity.  His work is popular; he has won national individual competitions, and is an incredibly nice and intelligent person.  It may be that I am the one falling short in terms of understanding.  Miranda July is an artistic jack-of-all trades, but it is beyond me to try to elucidate what exactly she’s getting at in her work.  Her website is as open-ended and confusing as anything (mirandajuly.com).  The entry page asks for a password, “You know the password, just clear your mind and look within… If that doesn’t work, try looking at a candle for a few seconds.”  No password is actually needed.  On the next page, the bold heading announces that, “You obviously know what I’m talking about.”  There are two videos clips from “’It Chooses You,’ wherein I share with you the part of my life where I was interviewing people selling things through the Pennysaver classifieds as a sort of open-ended visionquest that I secretly hoped would help me finish my screenplay (The Future) and teach me how to be a better liver of a finite life.”  No offense, Ms. July, but I really don’t know what you’re talking about.

This kind of non-sequitur amalgamation of words or images or metaphors or symbolic actions can seem to be the stereotypical requirement for qualification as art. Performance artists and poets seem to prepare by standing around in a warehouse with a methed-out David Sedaris, asking questions like “When I bleat here on page seventeen, do you want me to just bleat or really let go and ‘bleat, bleat…’ I feel like ‘bleat, bleating,’ but if Mother/Destroyer is going to be crawling through the birth canal of concertina wire, I don’t want to steal the focus, you know what I mean.”  Bizarreness and shock value can be harbingers of uniqueness, but they can also be ultimately alienating to a larger audience.

Shock performance artists like Bob Flanagan (pictured) and Carolee Schneeman paved the way for the stereotype. Yes, Flanagan is hammering a nail through the head of his penis.

Slams have a built-in qualitative evaluation mechanism.  If a poem doesn’t connect with the audience, it won’t score well.  There are those who disapprove of this kind of evaluation of art, but any viewer or concertgoer or reader of poetry is evaluating the work, whether or not it is publicly attached to a numerical value.  In slam, poets who lay on the metaphor too thick or become incomprehensible in a Gordian knot of aphorism won’t get past the first round.

In other art forms and in other venues, the dictates of politeness limit how demonstrative audiences can be in their evaluation.  I have never heard an audience openly boo a poet at an open mic.  I have, however, seen audiences with their heads down, desperately looking into their phones waiting for the convoluted epic monotonously recited onstage to come to its conclusion.  Perhaps the most effective evaluation is the strange silence between when the poet has stopped speaking and the audience starts politely clapping—not yet realizing that, yes, the poem is over.

I have been to multiple open mics where the audience looked exactly like this.

I have said repeatedly that art is communication.  For communication to work, both artist or author and viewer or audience must understand the message.  In a presented form like poetry or painting, it is up to the artist to make sure that message is at least understandable. The audience can only meet them halfway.

The David Sedaris quote is from “Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist,” in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).





Macho!

3 02 2012

Some time ago, in a venue that preceded this blog, I made a call for more “macho” artists.  The essay (or perhaps rant) included several topics and demands, and could have been described at best, as “pithy,” but was perceived more as “vitriolic.”  As offended as people were by my original statement, I stand by my platform, though I hope to make a more reasoned argument here.

In an art world heavily steeped in content, meaning, and explanatory artist’s statements, the stereotype of the artist (at least the kind of artist produced by the university) is detached, erudite, and, to be blunt, effete.  Artists occupy the same position as hipsters (many artists are hipsters), seen as purposely obscure and disdainful of mainstream culture.  Artist/hipsters don’t like sports, use Macs, and avoid manual labor.  One might argue that the primary figure emulated by these stereotypical artists is that patron saint of postmodernism, Andy Warhol.

It's Hipster Andy Warhol!

But Warhol was just as macho as any other major artist of high modernism.  The authority afforded to the modern artist was a primordial ooze of machismo.  Picasso, Rothko, Pollock, deKooning, Serra, Rauschenberg, Kienholz, and even Warhol were all titans of art—men of supreme authority and confidence.  Their works were the gritty, raw material of canvas, steel, plaster and paint and were monumentally large to match their egos. Ego showed through their personalities as well, transferring to the reviews, publicity, photos, and even to history books.  Yes, these artists were important, but they also thought they were important and behaved as though they were important.

There are pre-modern examples of artistic machismo.  Michelangelo is one—an artist who not only thought highly of himself, but dismissed artists he deemed himself above, which was just about everyone.  In the postmodern frame, we can look at the egotism of Julian Schnabel, though it may be (arguably) misled.  With Matthew Barney, we see not only the monumental scope of his artworks, but also his own physical virility on display, especially in several of the Drawing Restraint series and in Cremaster 3.  The title of the Cremaster series itself is a reference to masculinity:  the cremaster muscle raises and lowers the testes.

Machismo and masculinity are closely tied, and when one combines the two, often misogyny is a result (or at least the presumed result).  From Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Valerie Solanas, we can readily see examples of macho artists marginalizing, dismissing, and openly debasing women.  Additionally, in response to my original essay, I received an email that said, “As a gay man, I see no need to be ‘macho.’” In my call for a revival of macho art, I am not condoning misogynist behavior, nor am I promoting homophobia in art or any other venue.

There's nothing that says you can't be gay AND macho!

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of machismo is, “a strong sense of masculine pride:  an exaggerated masculinity.”  Since the origin of the word is Spanish for “male,” this definition is unavoidable—it’s linguistics.  But words can change in meaning over time.  The second definition is, “an exaggerated or exhilarating sense of power or strength.”  Artists can and should exhibit power and strength, regardless of gender, sexuality, or race.

Mainstream Western culture elevates those who exhibit power and strength.  We see it with athletes, we see it with politics, we see it with rock stars, and we see it with the artists we canonize.  These figures are important, in part, because they behave as though they’re important.  Lady Gaga is macho; her theatrics command attention.  Barack Obama is macho; his statements proclaim his strength.  Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are macho for the same reasons.  Perhaps my favorite statement of female machismo comes from slam poet Cheryl Maddalena’s “ExtenZe:”  “I’m the biggest hardest dick you’ve ever seen!”

Cheryl Maddalena performing at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009

Machismo is a state of confidence.  For an artist’s work to hold cultural weight, it must get the viewer’s attention.  An artist cannot gain a viewer’s attention if she doesn’t believe the work has the strength and power to do so—that she, as the artist, doesn’t have that strength to put into the work.

As an art instructor, I banished qualifying statements from critiques.  Students were not allowed to present their works with opening remarks like, “This didn’t turn out like I wanted it to,” or, “This isn’t very good.”  These are statements that tell viewers to not look at this work, that this art is not important.  If you, as an artist, believe this, then why did you make the work?  Of course you think it’s important!  Act like it!

A currently common term for what I am proposing is “swagger.”  I hesitate to use it as it may bring to mind song lyrics invoking Mick Jagger, simply because it rhymes.  However, it does serve my point.  A macho artist has swagger, she believes that what he has produced matters.  If she doesn’t believe it, no one else will.








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