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.

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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.





Avant-Garde, Kitsch, and The End of Art

19 08 2011

I was having pizza with two friends who were discussing the song “Let ‘Em In.”  Not being familiar with the song by title or their description of the lyrics, I asked who it was by.  “Wings,” said one.  “So, typical McCartney drivel,” chimed in the other, and they both chuckled.  “Ah,” I thought, “music snobs.”

But this isn’t just an example of music-snobbery.  It’s more specifically pop music-snobbery, and even more so than that, Beatles- or John Lennon-snobbery.  These types of music fans (and there are many of them) place Lennon-scribed Beatles tunes or his solo work on a higher level than the works of his partner Paul McCartney, and have a particular disdain for Wings.  The reasoning?  Though it is often hard to get them to admit, it has to do with the perceived simplicity and popularity of the songs.  McCartney writes simple songs that are catchy and everybody likes and understands what they’re about.  Lennon writes deep, poetic masterworks that take time and education to truly appreciate.  McCartney writes “Back in the USSR,” while Lennon writes “I Am the Walrus.”

It’s an attitude that carries over into all areas of artistic evaluation:  that which is more difficult to understand or appreciate is of higher value than that which is easily grasped.  Clement Greenberg crystalized this attitude regarding visual art in 1939’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he described kitsch as low art, the ersatz culture of the newly literate, but uneducated masses. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”  Kitsch is mass-produced for easy consumption by people who like it because it seems like art, but is easy, convenient, and plentiful.

What is kitsch? This is kitsch.

The Avant-Garde, on the other hand, creates art that is forward-thinking, that is moving toward new ways of creating and thinking and is therefore inherently more difficult to understand.  Greenberg saw the Avant-Garde as a necessary product of a move away from what he called “Alexandrianism,” an attitude that looks to past masters and tradition for answers regarding questions of taste. Writing in the Twentieth Century, at the cusp of the pinnacle of High Modernism (indeed, Greenberg championed the King of High Modernist Art, Jackson Pollock), Greenberg’s emphasis on progress and originality is typical of the modern mindset.  Greenberg also saw the isolation of the Avant-Garde as necessary to move culture forward as a whole.  Modern art had to be separate from Kitsch, from the popular aesthetic of the masses, in order to bring about true originality and create a more pure form of art.  Ultimately, this led to abstraction and non-representation in works, divorcing them from even representing anything outside themselves. Greenberg’s “High Art” was art that was self-referential, art about art, art for art’s sake.

Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31), 1950

This detachment of art from the rest of the world is not something that was new with Greenberg, however.  It extends as far back as Arthur Schopenhauer, who expounded on the idea that aesthetics and utility are separated from one another, “we rarely see the useful united with the beautiful.”  For a work of music, philosophy, painting, or poetry to be a work of genius (and therefore high culture), it must be “nothing for use or profit.  To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of works of genius; it is their patent of nobility.”  For art to be genius, noble, or of high cultural standing, it must exist for no other reason than to be art.

While ideas about beauty changed in the time between Schopenhauer and Greenberg, and the notion of making beautiful work was all but rejected in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century, the idea of a work of art having no other purpose than to be art remained.  We see this in Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, surely.  We also see it in the attitude of many regarding the legitimacy of Duchamp’s readymades—that a readymade changes an object into art by denying its function.  You can no longer use the urinal for its original purpose, so you are forced to contemplate it as a purely aesthetic object—as art.

Another area where we see this attitude is in what is rejected from or marginalized by institutions of legitimation such as art schools and university art departments, museums, art history texts, art magazines and galleries.  Despite the continual visual dialog contributed by contemporary ceramics, art metals, illustration and graphic design, these areas are typically defined as craft.  Their primary purpose is not simply to exist on their own, but potentially as vessel in the case of ceramics, as visual embellishment of a text-based source in illustration, as a vehicle for sale of a consumer good in graphic design, and as personal adornment in the case of art metals.  Rarely are these given much serious consideration in textbooks for Art History Survey courses, and while from time to time there are museum exhibitions focusing on them, they are often treated as curiosity or as a method to lure the masses to see the other, more serious works of painting or sculpture.

In art schools and universities, these subjects are taught alongside the more expected topics of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture.  It is tempting to say that this is creating (or has helped create) a more egalitarian attitude regarding these forms rooted in craft.  But while every art department surely includes painting, not every art department includes Graphic Design.  Where I earned my Batchelor’s Degree, that program was housed in the same department as Engineering and shop classes.  Many small (and not-so-small) universities do not include Illustration or Art Metals at all.  Even in departments that do offer these subjects, there is an unspoken prejudice among the students at the very least.  Go into any department and ask a Fine Arts major what he or she thinks about the Graphic Design emphasis.  Ask the Graphic Design students where they think their area of study ranks within the department.

To complicate matters more, there is also art that owes its existence to the conceptual work of Duchamp but also reaches into the social realm.  The experientially-based work of Fluxus artists like the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the written instructions of Yoko Ono are relatively safe as “art for art’s sake.”  While they are not objects or images to be venerated, they are experiences separated from the rest of everyday life to be experienced as art, not as, say, exercise.  Activist art, however, is an aesthetic product made specifically for the purpose of societal interaction.  How is one to evaluate the work of Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping as art?  Its purpose is not simply to be art, but to provoke change in American consumption habits.  Evaluating the work as “art,” as something with no other purpose but to be art, ignores, and thereby negates, its social purpose.  Once this work is legitimized by a museum, it loses its use-value as a societal agent and becomes simply, and solely, art.

Bill Talen, aka "Reverend Billy," simultaneously engages a willing audience and the greater public.

Art at the service of a socially oriented program can be benignly dismissed as illustration or graphic design or, in the case of Reverend Billy, “fringe street-theater.”  It can also be more ominously feared as propaganda.  Both Greenberg and fellow cultural critic Walter Benjamin expressed concerns about the tools and methods of high art being used to influence masses through mass-produced kitsch productions (especially film, in the case of Benjamin).  One can easily see aesthetics put to malevolent use in the time that both of them were writing with the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels, and especially (and infamously) the films of Leni Riefenstahl.  As a German Jew writing in 1936, Benjamin was justifiably pessimistic about politicization of art.  But he also saw the potential for mass-produced and therefore easily accessible art forms like photography and film to bring at least some of the experience of “true” culture to the viewer, to meet the common viewer “halfway.”

The notion that “true” culture or high art are somehow separate from the rest of society damages the potential art has to affect as many viewers (or readers, or listeners, or participants) as possible.  Work that is purposely obtuse and aloof leads to disinterest and even distaste from the general public.  Moreover, insisting that an object of true high art has no use value other than to be art marginalizes it and leads to societal and political dismissal.  When NEA budgets for visual art were slashed in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there was little public outrage because art, with no use value, isn’t necessary to the everyday existence of taxpayers.  In our current economic climate, arts budgets are the first to be cut again.  Perhaps a public more invested in art—more connected to work because it means or does something in their everyday lives—would be less apt to accept the financial dismantling of government assistance for the work.  Art can and should engage the public.  Social projects like Judith Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles are community-based artwork that is integral to a greater population, not just art existing to be art.  However, this crossover creates problems of classification, which I will address later.

Conservative politicians like Jesse Helms used outrage over the display of controversial images, partly funded by the NEA, to spearhead devastating cuts to the visual arts budget of the National Endowment for the Arts during the late 1980s

To dismiss kitsch, as Greenberg does, is alienating and unhelpful.  Works of kitsch can, at times, influence works of “greater” culture.  Many viewers come to an awareness (and subsequent appreciation) of art through kitsch-influenced works like the Pop Art of the 60s or even Jeff Koons.  Say what you will about Thomas Kinkade, but his method and level of production has similarities to that of Monet.  Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime,” but he also wrote “Helter Skelter.”  John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” but he also wrote “All You Need Is Love.” They didn’t get to “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first recording “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” What’s more, as much clout as we might give Lennon or The Beatles, they are still a Pop group—kitsch—when compared to the “true” high-art music:  Classical.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. And yes, I am comparing Koons to Lennon. Get over it.

I argue that accessibility in art is necessary not only for its survival, but also for its advancement, and the advancement of culture as a whole.  In my post, “Art, Meaning, and Language:  Part 2,” I pointed out that art can be everything.  In comments to that post, other bloggers pointed out that if art is everything, it is also nothing.  The story goes that once Duchamp decided that everything could be art, he stopped producing any art whatsoever—because playing chess could be art, and he would rather have done that, so he did.  Since we currently view art as being something that exists only as art, to think that art is also everything negates its status, its special place as some sort of beacon of (or for) culture.  The term itself implies separation—isolation.

Arthur C. Danto makes the argument that we are currently in a period of historical time After the End of Art (which is the title of the book).  I don’t know if I’m in total agreement with him that we are experiencing that epoch in history at the moment, but I do argue for the viability of that change.  The “Era of Art” is the historical period where we as a culture have separated art from religious, merely decorative, or use-value and place it in its own sphere to be art alone. We are now entering (or have entered, or should enter) a period where cultural production does not have to be isolated or legitimated through academic institutions; where, say, a social experiment aired on YouTube can have more of a cultural impact than a painting.

Allan Kaprow writes of a project undertaken in the 1970s in which artist Raivo Puusemp became mayor of Rosendale Village, a small community in New York.  The Village had serious financial and infrastructural problems, and, in the end, Puusemp provided an atmosphere in which the citizens of the village themselves made the decision do dissolve and become part of the larger Rosendale Township.  Puusemp himself did not refer to the venture as an art work, nor did he see it as a purely political act.  It was what Kaprow would define as a meaning-making activity, somewhere between the two.  And that is where the power of the story is:  that it is in between.  By putting it into an art text book (or an art blog, perhaps) the story becomes art, the frame of “Art” descends upon it, and it becomes solely art, no longer viable as public action.  It is the label that isolates it, not the action.  Perhaps it is time to discard the term itself.  This is something after art.  It’s something other than art.  It is something more pervasive, more connected.  I don’t know what to call it.  Perhaps it is best to not call it anything at all.





Amish “Keep On Truckin'” Dude Goes to New York

8 07 2011

Throughout this blog, I have been advocating a shift in the presumed purpose of art from that of communicating meaning based in language to being something more based in experience.  Two weeks ago I argued that if we accept the place of beauty in art, we can accept most any beautiful experience as art, whether it is object-based, as we now think about “Art,” or not.  I plan to address a new method of thinking about art—one not based in an object at all, perhaps not even something we could call “art”—in later blog posts.  Today, however, I want to examine some of the history of the object of art and the relationship of the object to the motivations for making art.

Even before what Arthur C. Danto refers to as the “Age of Art,” craftsman and artisans already attached a monumental nature to their decorative works.  The paintings on the walls of caves in Lascaux or the dragon-headed prows of Viking ships were not made with the purpose to be “art” as we now understand it—something autonomous, an object created with the sole purpose of being art—they were created for communicative, decorative, and in many cases ritual purposes.  However, whatever the motivations of the artisans creating these objects, they have ultimately served as monuments to the cultures they came from.  These cultures have lived on through these objects that we now hold as venerable artifacts of history.

A culture is immortalized by what art remains.

Monument and immortality are more apparent as motivations for artists during the “Age of Art.”  The works of great artists act as memorializing objects of their accomplishments.  In a sense, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol live on through their works as they hang in museums and are reproduced in textbooks.  Their impact on society was temporary in their physical lives, but infinite (or at least seemingly infinite) in the fabric of the history of our culture.

If I argue, as Allan Kaprow does, for a “Life-like” art—one that abandons the notion of art as object and substitutes instead “meaning-making interactions,” how does this affect the immortalizing power of art?  Even if the experience is somehow documented, its existence becomes immaterial in the fabric of memory rather than artifact.  Memories become distorted over time; memories fade.

David Saling was a friend of mine.  We earned our BFAs together at Eastern Washington University in 2002.  David died on July 2, 2011 due to complications from acute promyelocytic leukemia; he was 51 years old.  His paintings (at least as an undergraduate) were rife with sarcasm and irreverent humor.  He also has two public artworks to his credit in Spokane, Washington, and taught at Spokane Falls Community College.

Maybe it's a joke that only David and I would get, but how can you not laugh at this album cover?

I remember my experiences with David:  blasting Loverboy or Blondie records in the second-floor painting studio while the two of us played air-instruments with comic fervor, passing jokes back and forth during our graduation ceremony, and a road trip to Moses Lake for an exhibition installation, during which we gave names the rock outcroppings in the otherwise bland Eastern Washington landscape.  David was an intense painter and it wasn’t unusual to hear him muttering, or even yelling, at his paintings when frustrated or throwing brushes at them from across the room.  We hadn’t spoken for quite some time, but a friend of ours put it best, saying that the absence of “such a big, distinct personality creates a vacancy in life.”

Another friend pointed out that we have “the work of his hands and heart to live with.”  This is true.  With David gone, we do have our memories, but we also have his paintings and his public sculptures to help to reinforce those memories.  These serve as his monument—maybe not on a grand, societal scale like a Mondrian or Murakami, but he is nonetheless immortalized in his work.

Jaques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

For me, his personality was the strongest part of any visual composition.  In one massive painting, he quoted Jaques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii.  The figures are painted in David’s loose, flowing style in bright, cartoon-like colors.  Instead of swords, the paternal figure is holding giant dildos, to which the brothers are saluting.  In another, we see a city skyline from a very low angle—the skyscrapers rushing away from our view.  In the distance, very small, a plane heads toward one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  However, in the foreground, a man clad in black wearing a wide-brimmed hat carries a fishing pole with a fish at the end of the line.  The fish is swimming through the man’s massive shoe.  In Amish “Keep On Truckin'” Dude Goes to New York, David Saling takes a traumatic incident fresh in our minds (the painting completed in 2002) and puts a comic, almost hopeful, spin on the matter.

All I have to remember David is a slide of that painting.  Sadly, at the moment, I don’t have access to a working slide scanner to reproduce it here for you.  Perhaps this is fitting.  Memories and slides can fade and get lost in the wash of time and technology.  That painting, wherever it is now, is the lasting monument to David Saling.  It is the concrete artifact through which we can hear his laughter for years to come.








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