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.



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.

The When and The Where

13 05 2011

Last Thursday was the first Thursday of May.  First Thursdays in Boise are designated with a special name:  “First Thursday,” and are part of a promotional package for the city to showcase its arts and culture.  Galleries stay open later than usual, the Boise Art Museum stays open later than normal and is free all day, the “Artist in Residence” program (which are a number of unused retail spaces in a downtown building that have been given over to artists for a few months at a time) is available to the public, and various other special events take place throughout downtown.  This is not something unique to Boise—other cities have First Fridays, “Art Walks,” Third Tuesdays, Every Other Fourth Wednesday, etc.  Whatever the city and whatever the day, it seems to be a bit of an attention-getting (and downtown business-boosting) advertisement to remind people that, hey!  There’s culture in this town!

In Boise, the first Thursday of May has taken on a sort of “Super First Thursday” status with the annually growing interest in what is now known as Modern Art.  For this event, The Modern Hotel (originally a TravelLodge motel in the 1960s that was renovated into an über-hip boutique hotel in 2007) turns over all of its rooms to local artists who make temporary installations, one-night-only performances, or just turn the room into their own personal gallery.  Originally, it was known as “Art at the Modern” and did not take up the entire hotel.  It has grown to the point where not only is each room utilized, but the action has spilled into the courtyard, the parking lot, even the street.  This year’s event required streets to be closed down to accommodate the thousands in attendance.

As you can see, it was exceptionally well-attended and even a flash-mob was able to fit right in.  It was a Boise-specific Art Holiday and everyone, it seems, got exactly what they wanted, just like Christmas.  Surely, when art is something this special, everyone involved can appreciate something, even if they weren’t necessarily art-inclined before.  However, when art is treated as something so specialized and unique, it runs the risk of becoming marginalized and, in the long run, less capable of creating a true impact. Art In Boise&flvUri=&partnerclipid=

This kind of news story is not uncommon.  Actually, I think this gives more weight to the art created and the event itself than some other reports, like the bemused curiosity  or even hostility that Morley Safer so expertly wielded on 60 Minutes.  But even though the intent of the story is to promote art rather than marginalize it, it treats the event as a curiosity.  “What are these crazy artists up to?  This guy’s covering himself in dirt and writing poetry.”  Without the anchor saying or showing it, the implication here is a roll of the eyes and a nudging, “Can you believe this?”

But press is press, even when it’s on television or YouTube or some guy’s blog.  Even though it may be treated as a trivial curiosity, when art is reported on as something special, it generates interest and familiarizes the public, in this case, with “alternative media” productions like installations and interventionist performance art.  But with the attention, the frame of “Art” descends on the event and separates it from the rest of life.  Art isn’t just for everyday.  Art is special, like church, and therefore it needs special days.  Church has Sunday.  Art has First Thursday.  It needs special buildings.  Church has, well, a church.  Art has Galleries or Art Museums or Hotels that are turned into galleries for one night a year.  And with this attitude, art, like church for many people, becomes something we don’t think about until those specific times and places.  We go on with our lives every other day of the week, not thinking about art until it’s the right time and place.

But what about art that doesn’t wait for the “right” time and place?  What about graffiti?  Is it only “Street Art” when Banksy and Shepard Fairey do it in London and LA, but vandalism if some no-name does it in Boise or Olympia?  What about activist art?  Is it only art when it’s been canonized in a history book like Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s In Mourning and in Rage (1977)?  What about art that is a public access television show?  A YouTube video?  A low-traffic blog?  A walk along sand dunes?  The dissolution of a township?  What about the 20 year-old man who was arrested in North Boise yesterday for walking around naked?  Might he be art?

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Of course, placing the frame of “art” over objects and activities that exist outside of that frame has the potential to lessen their impact.  To the broader public, Judith Baca’s ongoing Great Wall of Los Angeles may be seen as less representative of the collaborative social impact of the project when attached to the name of Baca as its mastermind or “artist.”  Labeling something as “art” that could also be something else takes the opportunity of the “something else” out of the equation.  The object or action in question becomes simply and solely art.

These examples of Lifelike Art, as Allan Kaprow calls them, work best when they occupy the spaces in between the frames of “art” and, say, “theater” or “social work.”  For instance, I have the opportunity to be a part of a show of faculty artwork this coming fall.  Since my primary works involve television, performance art, or performance poetry, my expectation would be to use something along those lines for this exhibition.  However, my work in television relies on the fact that the viewers who come across it do not think they are viewing art.  The effectiveness of the satire comes in the surprise within their response.  It is the same with interventionist performance.  The unwitting “participants” of Boise Naval Base’s Election (2004) did not see the action as spectacle, as artistic—they were caught up in a goofy action on their way to dinner that may (or may not) have caused them to think a little differently about democracy in America.

BNB members Russ Wood and Flint Weisser campaign on the sidewalk during Election.

When something like this comes into the gallery, it becomes spectacle—it becomes theater. My favorite example of this did not actually occur in a gallery, but within the frame of “art” nonetheless.  Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes staged “The Cruci-Fiction Project” in 1994, attaching themselves to 16-foot crosses at Marin Headlands Park in front of 300 invited guests and members of the press.  The performance was meant to be a critique of the state-sponsored enmity of people of color, specifically Latinos, in California.  Even though fliers were distributed through the crowd, asking people to free them from “their martyrdom and take us down from the crosses as a gesture of political commitment,” it took the audience over three hours to realize that their lives were actually in danger and organize themselves to get them down.  In that time, Sifuentes had nearly fallen unconscious, and Gómez-Peña had dislocated his shoulder.  The internal injuries were such that, the next day a doctor informed them that in another half-hour, they would have died.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña during "The Cruci-Fiction Project"

The invited guests knew they were there for art, and the presumption was that the performance was like theater–that nobody really dies and nobody really gets hurt.  They reality of the action was subsumed into the assumption of the artifice of art. The act as art fell short of its stated goal.

Could this have made a greater impact had the frame of art not been place over the action?  I, for one, do not have an answer.  Perhaps, outside of the frame, a visitor to the park would have asked if the artists were okay and found help to take them down sooner.  And perhaps that person would have thought about his action of helping someone who looked so over-stereotypically like the vilified Latinos of the news stories.  And perhaps he wouldn’t have.  Photos taken of this event have been reproduced as postcards with no caption, Sifuentes’s name omitted and Gómez-Peña’s misspelled.  It’s unclear what impact, if any, those postcards have had on the people they’ve been sent to with stories of a San Fransisco vacation.

When artist friends of mine are hard at work in the studio, I often ask them, “Is it art yet?”  Usually, I’m asking them if they think the work is done, but I am also asking if it’s something that is ready to be set aside as art in its own special place, to be viewed at its own special time.  But what happens when the answer is “no?”  Not that it isn’t finished, but that it shouldn’t be viewed in a special place or at a special time.  What if it’s something that isn’t “art?”  Where can we go from there?

(Information on “The Cruci-Fiction Project” came from:  Gómez-Peña, Guillermo.  “When Our Performance Personas Walk Out of the Museum.”  Dangerous Border Crossers:  The Artist Talks Back.  New York:  Routledge; 2000.  pp. 62-72)

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