20 01 2012

“Art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”  — Robert Hughes

This quote from Hughes’ Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History may or may not hold water in my proposed method of thinking about art not as based on object, but as based in interaction.  Of course, the quote, as presented, is a bit out of context and, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.”

Bernini, Plato and Persephone, 1621-22

In the book, Hughes is discussing the importance of Bernini and the transcendent beauty he ascribes to Bernini’s sculpture Pluto and Persephone (1621-1622).  Hughes has never been shy about decrying the narrow focus of high modernism, as he illustrates with the statement, “The extraordinary character of the sculpture lies in a mastery over carving which transcends the puritanical mantra of modernism about ‘truth to material,’ as though there were only some things that could legitimately be done with wood or stone, and to go beyond them were a sin.”  Hughes revels in Bernini’s skill to make stone appear to be as soft and supple as flesh, leaving the Greenbergian “integrity of materials” in the dust.  “Is it wrong for it to look as though it were modeled rather than carved? Assuredly not, the marvelous surfaces and textures of Pluto’s and Persephone’s bodies tell us.  Is the effect a lie?  Of course, but art itself is a lie—a lie told in service of the truth.”

This kind of representational detail holds the beauty that makes this sculpture powerful.

It might be in that final statement, more than his dismissal of “truth to material,” where Hughes identifies himself as something other than a modernist.  The modern emphasis on authority, on truth with a capital “T,” is not so much that art represents truth, but that art is Truth. For Greenberg, the veracity of a painting was in its ability to be self-referential and self-reliant—art for art’s sake.  Add to that Benjamin’s concept of the aura of an artwork—the ineffable presence of the object itself—and you can see the supremacy of the artifact in modernism.  Art is produced to be an object, and the sole purpose of that object is to be art.

For Hughes, art, at least in this instance, serves another purpose than to be an object that is art.  It is in the service of revealing or communicating the truth.  In the case of Bernini, that truth would be the Biblical Gospel as interpreted by the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.  With this in mind, the art of the Italian Baroque was similar to much of the academic and conceptual art produced today:  it was visual communication constructed by the artist.  One difference is that Bernini had an audience already literate in the iconography he was using as his visual vocabulary whereas contemporary artists rely on artist’s statements to explain the signs that are their works.  Another difference is that Baroque artists imbued their works with an ornate and decorative beauty abhorred by contemporary artists still affected by the modernist rejection of it.

Whether it is based in beauty or based in communication, Baroque Art and contemporary academic art operate on the assumption that art is something else.  So what of art that just is—not in the modernist sense that the mission of an art object is self-contained, but in the idea that art is within the interaction between artist and viewer, not in an object?  Is an interventionist performance art?  If so, is it a lie?  Can that lie be in service of the truth?

Yoko Ono, Box Piece, 1964

As I see it, the “lie” of art is in the idea of representational art. It is representing something else outside of itself.  Bernini’s Plato and Persephone is a lie—stone that is masquerading as flesh. Jeff Koons’ Puppy is a lie—kitsch masquerading as high art with the purpose of communicating irony.  Yoko Ono’s Instruction paintings are lies—words arranged to represent a concept.  Whatever truth these works are in the service of, and whatever importance you may or may not ascribe to those truths, the works are there to represent something outside themselves.

Whether I am modernist or something other than modernist (post-post-modernist?), I think that the true power of art is in the experience of interaction between the artist and the viewer.  In this, no object is necessary, and no representation is necessary. Without representation, there is no lie to be put into service as communication—the experience simply is.  Perhaps the “is” is truth.  Maybe I’m more of a modernist than I thought.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Robert.  Rome: A Visual, Cultural, and Personal History.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  pp. 281.


Super PACs and Satire

13 01 2012

Last night (January 12, 2012), Stephen Colbert announced that he is “forming an exploratory committee to lay the ground work” for his “possible candidacy for the President of the United States of South Carolina.” Colbert is not the first comedian to make an actual run for president in a primary election.  Pat Paulsen pioneered the tactic, starting in 1968 and running again in 1972, ’80, ’88, ’92 and ’96.  Paulsen took second to Bill Clinton in the 1996 New Hampshire primaries, beating out some real politicians.  Pat Paulsen’s campaigns, while legitimate (in that he was really on primary ballots) were, at their core, satire.  He used the platform of the campaign to engage in double-talk and tongue-in-cheek attacks on other candidates which essentially mocked the politicians and the political process.

The idea for Paulsen to run for President was proposed by The Smothers Brothers when he was a cast member of their show.

Satire, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “trenchant wit, irony or sarcasm used to expose or discredit vice or folly.”  While satire often employs humor, it does not always have to be funny.  A classic example of literary satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he mocks the political stances on Irish poverty of the time by suggesting that the indigent Irish eat their children.  The pamphlet is not exactly a knee-slapper.  He is not truly suggesting this as a solution for starvation, he is proposing this exaggerated solution in order to expose the hypocrisy of how the situation was being treated.  For satire to be effective, as Swift’s was, it needs to be exaggerated enough to not be taken as “real,” and be targeted enough that the viewer or reader knows exactly what is being ridiculed and why.

Colbert is not the first to run for President as satire.  This isn’t even his first time running—he ran in the South Carolina primaries in 2008 as well.  While he and others, like Paulsen, are certainly out to mock the policies and campaign hypocrisy of politicians overall, Colbert’s run this time is more specifically targeting the anonymous and unlimited corporate funding of campaigns made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  This decision held that a corporation is legally defined as a person, and is therefore entitled to the right to free speech, which it exercises through money.

Since early in this election cycle, Colbert has been satirically exposing the folly of this decision which culminated with the establishment of a Super PAC (Political Action Committee).  Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow has already used its considerable funds to run campaign ads encouraging voters in the Ames straw poll to write in Rick Parry (rather than the actual candidate, Rick Perry).  But more than simply purchasing air-time, Colbert has exposed the ease with which these organizations are formed by doing it on air, with the help of legal (and on-air) advice from Trevor Potter, former FEC chair and general counsel for John McCain’s 2008 campaign.

Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert, and John Stewart celebrate after handing over control of Colbert's Super PAC to Stewart on The Colbert Report, January 12, 2012.

In recent days, polling results have shown Stephen Colbert with a higher percentage than actual candidate John Huntsman, which has prompted this move to “candidacy.”  It has also provided the opportunity to show the fuzziness of the requirement that Super PACs cannot coordinate with any one candidate.  Last night, before announcing his exploratory committee, Colbert transferred control of Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow to Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show (which airs immediately prior to The Colbert Report, both on Comedy Central, and is where Colbert was employed before his current show).  The transfer takes only one form and two signatures, and making the transfer to his friend and business partner, on air, serves to highlight the laughable “lack” of coordination between Super PACs and candidates across the board.

Through exaggeration, sarcasm, irony and humor, satire can expose the folly and hypocrisy that underlie day to day life, whether it is in politics or business or interpersonal relationships.  But, as with deconstruction, it stops after the attitude or behavior in question is dismantled.  Colbert and Stewart can point out the abuses by various politicians and corporations of the Citizens United decision, but as comedians and satirists, they would be equally obliged to mock whatever hidden ideology might be behind any proposed solution.

Of course, this is an idealized view of satire—a definition of what satirists are supposed to be.  But they are also people.  Colbert and Stewart have deeply held beliefs about the direction politics should take, about corporate involvement in campaigns and how that should be regulated.  Moral satirists, like journalists, have a fine line to walk between deconstruction and activism.\

At the moment, Colbert seems happy to pick apart.  In the past, he and Stewart have sought to build up.  Their October 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive,” had a fairly direct message after all the satire on stage:  one of civic unity in an era of divisive politics and soundbites.  Jon Stewart’s own behavior at times makes more of an impact as an example regarding this sentiment.  On January 11, 2012 he interviewed Republican Senator Jim Demint and managed to have an exceptionally civil discussion even though the two disagreed on the economic solutions Demint was proposing.

The power of satire is not something that can be found in and of itself.  It needs both behavioral and activist support to make quantifiable and effective changes in the folly it seeks to expose.  If you’re looking for examples of how this can work, you don’t need to look any further than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Vote Colbert, South Carolina!

Note:  I did not include any links to video clips from The Colbert Report or The Daily Show mentioned in this blog.  They are available online at and at www.colbertnation.comBe warned, the clips contain advertisements (Comedy Central is, after all, a commercial enterprise).  Contemporary Critique in no way endorses the Jumbaco.

Pure Art Sells Out

6 01 2012

The specialized treatment of art education at the university level separates art from other aspects of life. As I have stated before, a qualification for something to be considered “High” or “Fine” art is that the entire purpose of the object is to be art and art alone.  This is the culmination of the modernist mandate for authority and therefore for purity.  To be an expert in something, one must study it extensively and exclusively.  To become an authority in art, an artist must be entirely focused on art and therefore what is produced is art for art’s sake—a pure art.

Jean Michel Basquiat's studio: a working temple of art

This isn’t an attitude that is limited to art.  Other disciplines follow the pattern:  music, religion, philosophy, science, etc.  It is in science, and the Enlightenment approach to science that so influenced modern thought, where we see how specialization is so important.  I could use Theoretical Physics as an example of a form of science that is almost entirely detached from any aspect of the everyday existence of an average person living on planet earth.  String Theory and inquiry into the status of light as a particle or a wave have little bearing on the day-to-day work of a plumber.  However, I think the scientific method itself is a prime example of how specialization and singular focus work in science, which we can then see echoed in larger areas of study like art.

The television show Mythbusters is a fantastic pop-culture example of the use of the scientific method.  The cast will start with a myth or bit of urban lore.  Say, for this episode, they are taking a scene from the movie Lethal Weapon 2 where Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) discovers explosives under his toilet, knowing that if he stands up, his house will be blown to bits.  The solution, in the film, is for Murtaugh and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to jump into the adjacent cast-iron bathtub, which will shield them from the force of the explosion.  The question the Mythbusters pose is, “Will a cast-iron bathtub shield a person from the force of a C-4 explosion like it did in the movie?”

The scientific method requires focused inquiry.  Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman aren’t looking at the plausibility of Murtaugh and Riggs’ car chase which leads to the discovery of South African Krugerrands and the subsequent attacks by “South African thugs,” or into any of the other spectacular stunts depicted in the film.  The scene is picked apart, with one specific aspect tested after another.  They test how easily one man can pull another into a bathtub from a toilet if the man on the toilet is unable to use his legs due to numbness.  For the show-finishing test, they focus on the shock protection of a cast-iron bathtub.  After determining what variables are acceptable in their experiment and which need to be removed (namely, actual people and a real house), they construct a bathroom on a bomb range with pressure-sensors and a ballistics dummy to record how much of the shock wave reaches inside the bathtub.

This photo isn't from the same episode, but it's still badass.

The Mythbusters engage in solid science, and in solid science, each experiment is designed to test one hypothesis.  If the results confirm the hypothesis or disconfirm it, the science is still solid.  In fact one of the defining factors of so-called “hard science” is that 50-50 possibility for failure.  If a hypothesis is tested in a way where a result could be produced that neither confirms or disconfirms it, the science is faulty—there are too many variables that must be eliminated from the experiment in order to make the hypothesis falsifiable.

The results of hard science carry absolute authority:  a hypothesis is either confirmed or disconfirmed, there is no way to argue for one or the other once the experiment has been carried out.  It is the singular focus of science that gives it this authority, and therefore other areas of study echo that kind of inquiry.  The study of art focuses on art itself—to be an authority is to be an expert, and to be an expert is to study something solely and exhaustively.  This is how we have modeled education.  High school specializes by class (1st period, you study Science, 2nd period, you study Latin, etc.), while trade schools specialize by, well, trade, while universities specialize by major and therefore department.

In art, an education focused entirely on art produces artist who make art that is, at its core, about art.  Though we think ourselves to be past the “art-for-art’s-sake” mantra of Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism, the work we produce is referencing other works, other periods of art history, and is a product of our focused education.  An artist like me might propose that anything can be considered art, which is true.  In a bizarre paradox, the supposed non-art activities that artists bring into the fold as art are justifiable as such because our sole area of expertise is art.  We are artists, so anything we do is art.

What this produces, as Howard Singerman and others lament, is a circular production of artist-educators.  The non-art activities produced as art—the “Alternative Media,” the “New Genre,” the weird, out-there, crazy stuff like performance and video and installation and earthworks and sound art—do not have much of a place in the art market. These artworks are difficult to quantify and commodify, and are therefore difficult to sell as objects.  Since they can’t really be sold on the primary market, there’s little to sell on the secondary market (auction houses frequented by collectors) and therefore the path to the institutions of legitimation, namely, museums, is obstructed.

With a lack of accessibility to the market, the path to legitimation instead leads through the institutions of education.  Enter the artist-educator.  Enter the visiting artist.  Enter the special lecturer.  The majority of students graduating from MFA programs are qualified to make art, certainly (really—how much qualification do you need?  More in another blog), but they are qualified for little else in a world that requires “employment” in order to have enough money to live.  Since many graduates focus on the ephemeral or the experiential rather than on saleable products, their education seems to limit their job possibilities to education.  MFA graduates become art instructors, teaching a new generation in a manner as focused and limited as the one in which they were taught. They can also become visiting artists, touring the lecture circuit of universities and art schools, earning not only stipends and lecturer fees, but also legitimation and a place in the pantheon of art history.  The most obvious example I can think of is Chris Burden, who is not an artist who produced much in the way of art objects, but is nonetheless immortalized in textbooks thanks to his performances and perhaps more, arguably, because of his personal qualification of his performances and installations as an instructor and visiting artist.

'Shoot,' by Christ Burden (1971) was entirely experiential. Even the documentation is lacking. Yet, it is a seminal work, and is known by any student studying performance art.

As I can tell you from experience, finding a place in the ivory tower of academia is no easy task.  There are few positions available for the thousands upon thousands graduating with MFAs every spring, and in an economy like this, with budgets slashed and art budgets the first on the chopping block, even those positions are dwindling.  Young graduates and emerging artists are force to cope with existence in a world where their newly-gained and accredited expertise will not get them very far.  Outside of Graphic Design courses, little mention is made in university art curriculum of self-marketing and business practices, even in courses with such promising titles as “Professional Practices.”  Outside of the miracle of gallery representation and excessive sales, how is a given artist expected to make it in a work-a-day world and still have the time, resources and opportunities to both make and exhibit their work?  While the chances of being an institutionally-legitimized “successful” artist are low, how does one still manage to be a success?

It may be that the definitions for success and legitimation for artists needs to shift for our current age of art.  I am certain that the qualification for art as something that is only made to be art has to change.  For someone to be successful at making art, one needs the support of both other artists and a community that finds the art both accessible and important.  High-minded artists and afficianados might argue that what I’m suggesting is that artists sell out and dumb-down their work—that they make kitsch in order to survive.  The pugilist in me wants to quote Lars Ulrich of Metallica:  “Yeah, we sell out—every seat in the house.”

Just because something is good business doesn’t make it bad art.  Metallica earned the scorn of purists by suddenly gaining mass-market appeal with their self-titled 1991 album, also known as The Black Album.  It wasn’t “metal” enough if it appealed to people outside the “educated” and the “specialized.”  But Metallica’s music, when looked at over the span of thirty years, is a continually evolving thing—and I argue that the band has always been unafraid to take risks in order to explore a new idea musically.  Sometimes it appealed to a large audience and thus brought more people into the world of heavy music than may have become interested in it otherwise.  Sometimes it failed—I give you St. Anger.  However, the exploration that Metallica engages in, however popular or unpopular, is an example of the kind of thing you’re taught to do in art or in music.  The problem is that it is seen as being less than pure by those more focused specifically on metal.

Remember how upset "purists" were when the members of Metallica cut their hair?

Metallica’s wide success depended upon appealing to listeners outside of the pure focus of metal music.  They eschewed the institutions of metal legitimation (whatever those may be—sweaty sets in dive bars attended by 50 people?) and adopted a new institution, in this case, mass approval (this was a tactic adopted by pop music long ago, moving away from the academic approval implied by classical and even academic jazz).  The success of artists may too depend on appealing to audiences outside of the institutions of legitimation as we know them. This may or may not include “selling out,” and will certainly require an attitude toward producing art that veers from the purity of art as taught in an academic setting.

As a suggestion for a possible route to take in this regard, allow me to relate a conversation I recently had with a friend.  While he was, one point, an artist, this friend has been involved in business for 8 years.  He was suggesting a way to earn money toward an artistic venture that, initially, seemed too tied to marketing to be acceptable in an art setting. He wanted to use a crowdsourcing site (like Kickstarter) to raise enough money to buy a CNC router.  He proposed using the router to create images on plywood.  Buyers would select from stock images that were provided or would have their own images to be created on the wood.  To me, this sounded like a very basic, kitsch-based business scheme: make images of peoples babies or dogs on plywood and charge them $300.  His business model seemed sound, but it seemed like just that:  business.

Using a computer program, the router bores different sized holes into plywood that has been painted black.

Here you can see both the texture of the holes and the image itself.

“I don’t want to just make crappy kitsch prints for people—where’s the art in that?”  I complained.

“You don’t get the router just for that!”  He explained.  “You need to offer people who are investing on Kickstarter something in return—they aren’t getting dividends for this investment.  You make them the 4’ by 4’ half-tone image of their grandmother and you then have this awesome router that you can make anything you want with and you didn’t have to pay for out of your pocket!  Now that you’ve got it, you can make, like, a topographical map and fill all the lakes with fiberglass resin, or crazy computer-designed three-dimensional sculpture or whatever this tool is capable of.  The kitsch stuff is just what you do to pay for the tool.”

In this model, the artist is engaging in creative production albeit half of it in the realm of the “low,” the “kitsch.”  He or she isn’t becoming lost to art in the world of the work-week, nor is he or she becoming lost to the wider world in the insulated baffles of academia. Is it “selling out?”  From the viewpoint of pure art, yes.  It may also be an option for success as an artist outside of academia and outside of the art market as we know it.

I don’t have a prescription for how to be successful as an artist in an age after art.  It may be a matter of each individual working out a way to continue creative production while at the same time making some sort of a living.  The art market is not treated in the “traditional” manner of speculative production and sale through the use of a dealer and eventually historical recognition in the hands of a museum.  Likewise, the closed system of academia loses its power of legitimation as artists in so-called “alternative” areas find venues and audiences outside of the ivory tower.  The idea of legitimation is all but ignored, so a question remains as to how history will immortalize what is produced in this age after art.  Although, if we accept that we are in an age after art—where art is no longer something to be isolated and produced in and of itself—it may be that history is in the same boat.  In an age after history, the question of legitimation may be moot.

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

10 12 2011

Carl Wingate taught Latin at Kelso High School in Kelso, Washington for 31 years.  As his students, my siblings and I would often relay his personal stories to our parents–his childhood sledding accident where he met an all-steel bumper with his chin, living with a monkey that didn’t like his music and ate his fluorescent paint, which resulted in glow-in-the-dark “jellybeans” all over his apartment, or taking deaf students to dance clubs with light-up floors for an education in psychedelic music.  The stories seemed so fantastic, and our admiration of the man was so all-encompassing, that my father began jokingly referring to him as “Saint Carl.”  Carl Wingate died Saturday, December 3, at 72.

To see Carl Wingate laugh was to know what true joy really is.

As an instructor and as an artist, I look to Carl Wingate as an example of what is possible in terms of making meaning in interaction.  Walter Hopps defines art as providing “the possibility for love with strangers.” Wingate created an atmosphere of love in every classroom he entered, with every group of students he taught.  But once you were in that atmosphere, he wasn’t a stranger anymore.  He was an old friend even if you’d only known him for a few minutes.

Mr. Wingate’s students learned more than Latin, Ancient Culture, Greek and Roman Mythology, or even his amazing life stories. His lessons weren’t limited to slides, lectures, and translating documents; he taught by example. Through his infectious joy, his patience, his ability to engage with students, and his willingness to listen, we saw what we are all capable of as people. Carl Wingate isn’t just a pillar of the Kelso community, he is a pillar of the human community.  He will be missed.

To learn more about Carl Wingate, please read the following stories from The Daily News (Longview, WA).

Educator, Philosopher, and Pigeon Benefactor Carl Wingate Dies at 72

Obituary, Carl Wingate

Programming note:  Contemporary Critique will be on hiatus for the month of December.  Posts will resume January 6.  See you in 2012!


25 11 2011

Cultural figures regarded as heroes often follow a similar path to other, mythical heroic figures.  From Superman to Hercules to Jackson Pollock to Kurt Cobain, there are components that we tend to latch onto in order to label the person as “great.”  Aside from a skill in a particular field, are that the hero must be, in some way, separate from society.  In mythology, the hero must make a trip to the underworld.  “Real world” heroes, it seems to follow, must also take a trip to the underworld, but they don’t end up returning.  “Real world” cultural heroes must be dead.

Even Superman made a trip to the afterlife.

In the classic Western, the man without a name shows up in a seemingly sleepy town that is overrun by a criminal cattle-rustling gang (Tombstone), or a corrupt mayor (Unforgiven), two families vying for its control (A Fistful of Dollars).  The hero is a symbol of something from outside of society, as represented in the town.  Superman is outside of the society of Earth, as Superman is from Krypton.  Spiderman is a little bit of a trick to fit into this mold—Spiderman is a teenage boy, not necessarily something outside of the society of New York.  However, Stan Lee purposely created Spiderman (and many of his heroes) to be a teenager—teenagers, almost without fail, feel alienated from the society of which they are a part.  Since they feel themselves to be outside of society, they see society as an outsider—even if they really aren’t.

With real-world cultural heroes, it is a similar stretch to see how a given person may exist outside of society.  However, it is often what is glamorized about the person.  Take Vincent Van Gogh for example.  If a person on the street knows nothing else about Van Gogh, they will know that he was in some way crazy and they will certainly know the story about his cutting off of his own ear—which is a crazy thing to do.  A person afflicted with mental illness is outside of the normal boundaries of societal expectations.  This also shows up in the chemical dependency of many cultural heroes.  Earnest Hemingway was an alcoholic.  So was Jackson Pollock.  Sigmund Freud was hooked on cocaine.  For Elvis Presley it was pills, for Kurt Cobain it was heroin, for Hunter S. Thompson it was every drug under the sun.

Proof of the cultural influence of the counter-cultural.

For each of these, and for many more, we see the figure as being outside of the normal confines of expected social behavior.  They are, in some way, “other” than us.  Hunter S. Thompson might be close to the perfect example because, not only did he exist outside of society, he did it in a purposeful manner.  He plunged headfirst into Gonzo journalism and brought the rest of us along for the ride—to see the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas not as a participant, but as a mentally altered, “objective” observer.  His writing is from the point of view of alienation, and through that, we can put ourselves in the position of the hero, if only for a short while.

The real world cultural heroes I have listed here have something in common other than substance abuse.  They are all dead.  Classical Greek heroes make a trip to the underworld.  So did the Roman copy of the Greek hero, Aeneas.  So did the American version of Hercules:  Superman.  So did the basis for the Christian faith:  Jesus.

Non-mythical and non-religious figures have a difficult time returning from the dead, but figures who leave some sort of artifacts have a way to continue “existing” after they have died, even if they are not technically alive.  Van Gogh’s paintings draw crowds and high prices well into the 21st Century. The songs of Presley and Cobain continue to get airplay or to be downloaded onto ipods, even the work of Sigmund Freud, largely abandoned in professional psychology, finds its way into literary, artistic, and academic production.

The longevity of the work of these individuals is the indication of their heroic impact. However, the impact of the works themselves is largely dependent on the fact that they are dead.  Once an artist is no longer capable of creating new work, their oeuvre is complete.  They won’t be around to create new work—so the supply is fixed (hence, with increased demand, prices can go up—see sales figures for Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Warhol’s collection of kitsch cookie jars).  Also, the work is static—unchanging. We can think of Jackson Pollock’s work as the drip action-paintings of the 1950s and not have to worry that he may have been influenced by Minimalism or Pop or some postmodern abhorrence later on in life.  He wasn’t around to be affected by those.  His work can remain pure in his death.

In poets, artists, and musicians especially, (and certainly other professions who heroize historical figures) the pattern of substance abuse and death influences the behavioral patterns of students and young professionals in the field.  In ways, it seems that art students want to find some sort of chemical dependence in order to be like the artists they are taught to revere.  On the flip side of that, one might argue that the “creative mind” is already inclined toward such behavior, since to be truly creative requires an ability to think outside of the accepted confines of societal thought—to exist outside of society.

Personally, I am wary of any broad generalizations made about “creative minds,” as if they are sentenced to be artists and addicts and have no way to behave as, say, an engineer or someone with a “scientific mind.”  While some truly creative people are truly troubled mentally or chemically, many, many more are wannabe hipsters who think that if they drink enough or take enough drugs they’ll be able to be like their heroes—addicted, then dead.

To that end, I am reminded of Sid Vicious.  Sid was no great bass player and really didn’t have an ounce of musical or poetic talent in him.  He was recruited to be in the Sex Pistols because he had the punk look—he seemed to embody the attitude of a group desperately rebelling against society. Maybe that’s all that punk truly was (or is)—an all-encompassing, willful effort to exist outside of society, not necessarily to change it in any way or to contribute some “great” work of art to make general progress.  If that was the goal, Sid Vicious can certainly be seen as punk’s patron saint.

Sid Vicious: A whole lot of style, very little substance

This attitude of nihilism, however, doesn’t line up with the notion of the heroic cultural figure.  Heroes, in existing outside of society, in some way progress or protect society as a whole.  The good guy in the Western chases the corrupt officials out and the city can be civilized again.  Superman fights for “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.”  Jackson Pollock influences the direction of abstraction in art, and the reaction against abstraction, to this very day.

Kurt Cobain existed at the intersection of the outsider and the cultural paragon.  He wanted so much to be outside of the popular culture he was so much an influence on that, in the end, it killed him.  Rather, he killed himself.  True cultural heroes, whether they want it or not, are as much a part of the greater culture as anything they project themselves to be apart from.  Perhaps it is that paradox that drives them further away.  Perhaps it is the paradox itself we end up elevating as heroic.

The “Act” in “Activism”

11 11 2011

One of my all time favorite movies is The Departed.  I could go on for an entire blog about why I think it’s not only Martin Scorsese’s best work, but ranks high among any film ever created. But that is material for another post.

As Frank Costello proves, appearances aren't the whole story.

In the film, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) asks Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), “Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to pretend to be a cop?  It’s a simple question.  A lot of guys just want to pretend to be cops.  Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.”  It’s a question I want to pose to many people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests (and affiliated “Occupy” protests all over the country).  Do you want to be activists, or do you want to appear to be activists?  A lot of people just want to appear to be activists.  Sleep in a tent, smoke some weed, chant about how some fat cats have “got to go.”

Like Queenan, I am challenging those involved in Occupy Wall Street to do something to change the situation, not just make a big noise about it.  Costigan has to be thrown out of the force, be convicted of a crime, then fall in as a criminal with Boston kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).  He has to not be the hero.  In fact, he doesn’t even succeed in bringing down Costello.  However, by denying his own glory, he provides the conditions in which justice can be served.

Occupy Wall Street (and Boise, and Portland, and Olympia, etc.) appears to be activist.  It’s very public, very apparent, and very eye catching.  While corporate zombies and pandas against police brutality appear to be grand statements, they are little more than that:  statements.  It is only in sustained and focused action and organization that any tangible change will come from these protests.  For that, the activists need to take off the costumes, stop the posturing, and get down to the business of electing the people who best represent their interests, promoting the causes they hold dear, and raising funds to raise awareness of those not convinced by buckets and costumes.  They have to not be heroes.  They have to take action outside  of notoriety.

This was taken at an Occupy Boise march during October. Photo: Lexy Leahy

I have volunteered at Treasure Valley Community Television for seven years, and I am deeply committed to its mission to provide a forum for non-commercial access to television broadcast and video equipment to all members of the community.  This provides the freedom of speech in a very pure form—unmitigated by corporate interests who seek ratings in return for funding through advertising.  This free speech is not limited to cable television—we stream online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  What’s more, community producers have access to video equipment they can use to put their own video content online—on vlogs or YouTube or wherever might best serve them.  These community members have access to equipment that most of them can’t afford.  I count myself among one of those. We have been providing a method to “Occupy” television—to combat the messages of corp0rate interests on their own turf, for ten years.  We’ve been doing this since long before the term “occupy” was applied to this kind of action.

Tonight, TVCTV is holding an on-air fundraiser to help to buoy the station in these trying economic times.  It will air from 7 to 9pm Mountain Time, and will be in the form of a talent competition.  Acts will perform for 15 minutes, and viewers can “vote” for their favorites by donating in their names.  In the end, the act with the most money collected will win 20% of the total amount raised.  The winner, of course, is beside the point.  The real winners of this fundraiser are the members of the Treasure Valley Community, who will continue to have this forum for their unencumbered free speech.  The acts that are competing are the real activists here–but they won’t appear to be activists.

Watch the fundraiser here:  TVCTV Online  Donate with a credit card by phone at (208) 343-1100; or using paypal at the website; or in person by coming to the station at 6225 W Overland in Boise.

A Tale of Two Exhibitions

7 11 2011

In this blog, I have repeatedly advocated art that exists outside of the confines of the institutions of art—outside of galleries, auction houses, and museums.  I have gone as far as to propose the idea that anything can be art.  This does not mean that I believe that just because anything can be art that everything is art, and certainly I don’t advocate a notion that everything is good art.

Last Friday I went to two gallery openings in the Boise area.  Each of these focused on its own particular kind of art, and each form was something a bit outside of the category of “high” art.  One, in a college gallery setting, was concerned with meaning and therefore relied heavily (too heavily, as we will see) on language.  The other, in the setting of a commercial gallery, was commodity-based and displayed artwork that was more concerned with appearances than any coherent meaning of a body of work.

Pagans, Pigeons, and the Architectural Index is an exhibition of prints and photos by Benjamin Love in the Rosenthal Gallery at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.  The work centers on one aspect of the history of the building the gallery is housed in:  Blatchley Hall.  Cursory research into the building (at this website: reveals that, while it was originally constructed with Ionic capitals on the columns on the porch, they were removed during the 1950s.  Campus legend has it that “a president’s wife” had them removed for various reasons:  a. the reasons are unknown; b. “to deprive pigeons of a perch;’” or c. she was trying to “rid the school of evidence of a pagan culture.”

There should be scrolled Ionic capitals on the top of these columns. There aren't.

The entirety of Love’s exhibition is based on this one paragraph in the Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project website.  There are a few series of three prints.  One triptych is simply the text from the website, with the individual reasons inserted as the last sentence.  Another triptych consists of recreations of photos of the alleged “president’s wife,” Martha Pitman, with text at the lower part of the picture plane.  Each print is nearly identical except for the text giving the reasons for removal of the capitals.  The larger portion of the gallery contains small, 4” by 6” photos of various structures in and around Caldwell that include Ionic columns.  I presume this is to refute the idea that “pagan culture” could have been chased out of the town or even the campus (many of the photos are examples on the College of Idaho campus itself).

The entire exhibition is based on a single concept.  This kind of single-issue art leaves very little for a viewer to do, especially when text is relied upon so heavily.  The prints are literally telling you what they mean—there is no need for further investigation on the part of the viewer and the communication between artist and viewer is decidedly one-way.  Once the message is understood (and it doesn’t take long when it’s spelled out for you), the viewer has little reason to have continued interest in the artwork.  Perhaps the less text-reliant portion of the exhibition, the photos, could have at least provided something aesthetic and visual to the collection.  But the photos were small with uninspired compositions; many of them were of houses and seemed to be taken from across the street—making it hard to see the columns in question.  What’s more, their display—tacked to the wall with small thumb-tacks—seemed to be an afterthought.

I think any artist is striving to make a sustainable connection with a viewer—whether it’s purely aesthetic or vehemently polemic.  If art is created to establish a meaning-making interaction with a viewer, this exhibition falls short.  As I stood waiting for a connected presentation on the history of ionic columns in Idaho, I noticed that there were upwards of 30, maybe 40 people in attendance.  Not one of them was looking at the artwork after 15 minutes of the show being open.  Not one person.  Now, certainly, art openings are as much, if not more, about socializing as about artwork, but typically the conversation at least touches on the subject of the art, or what print or photo may have been someone’s favorite.  I did not overhear any of those conversations.  If I were asked to pithily summarize the work exhibited in one sentence, I would describe it as “Hack crap and bad photos,” a summation that could encompass many conceptually-based shows.

The most engaging part of the evening was Dr. Lee Ann Turner’s presentation entitled, “The Iconic, the Ironic, and the Ionic.”  During this lecture about the history of Ionic columns in Greece and in Idaho, the collected audience was engaged fully, and not just with the history being presented.  In this scripto-visual slide show, again heavily reliant on language, Dr. Turner augmented and expanded upon the issues Love was only hinting at with his small photographs—specifically the notion that columns are used all over American architecture, with varying degrees of historical accuracy or awareness.

I came away wondering how much more engaging the exhibition could have been had the presentation been a more integrated part of the work.  One of my maxims in art is that “presentation is everything.”  In that, I’m not singling out lecture-style presentations like this one, but I’m focusing on the fact that the entirety of an artwork—from what it is representing to how it is framed, hung, and contextualized within a gallery (or street corner, or theater).  In this case, Love’s didactic prints and photos, with their bare-bones presentation in a spare space, fell short of fully engaging the viewer.  However, Dr. Turner’s presentation proved that a deeper connection with viewers was possible.  It took more attention to presentation and a willingness to engage the audience on a personal, even conversational level.

The same night, I went to Visual Arts Collective, which was holding the opening reception for Bloodwork.  The exhibition featured new works by Noble Hardesty, William Kirkman, and Kelly Knopp.  The work here is quite some distance from the conceptual, language-based work at the college gallery earlier.  While the paintings and neon wall pieces had some sort of content to each, there was no overarching theme encompassing the three artists’ work, or even different works of each individual artist. Hardesty and Knopp’s paintings are graphic and stylistic and fall into a category some refer to as “low brow.”  The works of Hardesty in particular stood out to me, partially because of the large size of the paintings.  There was a painting of a “wave of pigs,” as described by one viewer, one of an unidentified Norse Goddess in battle, and a monstrous version of Grape Ape skateboarding on a city bus.  Included with these (and others) were sketches that led to the paintings, all done on what appeared to be cardboard bar coasters and the backs of postcards.

Noble Hardesty, Grape Ape Exits Shady-Vibe Town, 2011

Hardesty’s work doesn’t “mean” anything. Grape Ape wreaking havoc is not some allegorical painting regarding corporate consumerism or an investigation into ancient architectural styles as revived in the United States.  It’s a painting that looks cool.  And the viewers were looking.  And buying.  Visual Arts Collective sold somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,500 worth of artwork at the opening alone.

If you’ve paid any attention to my previous posts on this blog, you know that sales do not define quality in artwork for me.  But, in this case, they are a hard-number indication of the interest the work was generating on the part of the viewer.  Not only were the viewers looking at and discussing the work, they were purchasing the work in order to continue their relationship with it at home.

These are two wildly different exhibitions.  On the one hand, you have the language-based, conceptual work of academia, and on the other hand, you have the image-centric, commercial art of the low-brow market.  Both are working to make a sustained connection with the viewer.  In this case, on this night, in this location, it was the non-academic—the low-brow, the illustration—that was doing the better job.

Benjamin Love:  Pagans, Pigeons, and the Architectural Index will be on display through December 16, 2011 in the Rosenthall Gallery on the campus of The College of Idaho in Caldwell.

Bloodwork:  New Work by Noble Hardesty, William Kirkman, and Kelly Knopp will be on display at Visual Arts Collective (3638 Osage Street, Garden City, Idaho) through December 3, 2011.

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