Intention

29 04 2012

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

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

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

Barbara Kruger, Your Body is a Battleground, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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.





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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