26 08 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Benjamin Lzicar, LZ Photography



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.


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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