Villains

24 06 2012

I am a regular patron of Broken Mic, a performance poetry open mic in Spokane, Washington. The average age of both audience and performers is somewhere in the late teens and early twenties. There’s a lot of angst, altruism, and shock value and even more support from poets and the audience. That support is not, however, unconditional. In April, a poet stood in front of the audience for the first time ever, and prefaced his poem by saying, “I wrote this poem about butt sex and I’m going to do it even if there are little kids here, so fuck you.” By the time he was finished, he was hearing boos as he went back to his seat.

The content of the poem didn’t bother me. Shock and vulgarity are used in many instances to gain attention. While I think his poem lacked in the category of substance, writing about something that is culturally taboo and performing it in an atmosphere that promotes free speech shouldn’t be a problem. The fact that there was a six or seven year old child in the front row doesn’t bother me, either. The mother was present, there is an announcement at the beginning of every event making it clear that poets can and will say things that offend. If she had wanted her son to not be present for this display, she could have left well before the offending poet made it to the microphone.

Where the poet erred was in alienating the audience. Leading off by telling the audience to go fuck itself put the performer at odds with them before they even knew who he was or what he was all about. American audiences hold self-assured artists in high regard, but not before they’ve either paid their penitence or demonstrated their work as being of the highest quality. We may delight in the character of the villain, but we always expect the good guy to win in the end.

LeBron James alienated a nation of basketball fans in 2010 by leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. He compounded the alienation by announcing his decision in an hour-long televised special, the team holding a celebratory pep rally before the newly-formed group had even held one practice, and James telling the crowd that they would win “not two, not three, not four…” but eight championships. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in the streets. The rest of the basketball world decried this hubris, and LeBron, for the first time in his life, found himself cast as the villain.

James and the rest of the team embraced this role as they pursued a championship in the 2010-2011 season. While American audiences take a certain pleasure in villainous characters like Frank Costello in The Departed or The Undertaker in professional wrestling, they have little sympathy for a villain who has not accomplished anything. LeBron, who had come straight into the NBA out of a ridiculously-hyped high school career, had never received any kind of disapproval, certainly nothing on this scale with this kind of vehemence. The villain role was not something James and the Heat could fill, and their loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals was the equivalent to getting booed off the stage after an indignant poem about anal sex.

LeBron alienated the public by very visibly and very publicly demonstrating that he did not care what they thought. Of course, he did care, and was genuinely hurt when the public reprimanded him for his actions. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the poet from Broken Mic in April was hurt by the boos as well. At the heart of the actions of both was a fear of rejection, which was all but guaranteed.

If a kid wants to protect himself form schoolyard mockery, one tactic is to display that he does not care what the mocking children think. If they get no response, the mocking is fruitless and they move on. If a performer is putting herself in front of an audience with the danger of not being approved, she can mitigate the rejection by claiming to not want the approval in the first place. Superficially at least, both sides come away as if they’ve won. The audience has rejected the performer for hubris, and the performer has rejected the audience’s lack of approval by saying she was never seeking it. “Of course they didn’t get it. They’re just too simple to understand…”

We can compare this attitude to the Greenbergian notion of the separation of high Art from the rest of life. For Greenberg, if Art was to progress and advance, it needed to be separate from the rest of society—artists should not worry about the approval of the masses. Non-educated art patrons and popular audiences were to be ignored in favor of focused investigation into the specific area that was High Art. A painting did not exist for the enjoyment of some schmo on the street—it existed for the sole purpose of being a painting.

The authority embodied in the artist (here, Jackson Pollock) and the critic (in this case, Greenberg) made the hubris of High Modernism titanic. In a postmodern age of skepticism, authority isn’t what it once was.

On the one hand, this alienates the larger public. On the other hand, it provides a group for artists to identify with. There is a cachet that comes with being an insider—whether it’s in a dance-club scene, the world of high art, or poets in Spokane. The attitude paradoxically justifies whoever holds it as both an individual (in rejecting the expectations of “the masses”) and a part of a group of artists, writers, performers, or thinkers who hold similar attitudes, education, and experiences. The attitude of specialization inherently creates cliques, and if we remember anything from Junior High School, cliques get jealous of other cliques.

In 1989, Piss Christ, a photo by Andres Serrano, became the flashpoint in what would come to be known as the Culture Wars. Without simplifying the issue too much, the photo was given an award that was funded partly with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This enraged conservatives who used the image and the award as reasoning to cut funding to the NEA.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

The fact that it was a photo escaped some politicians. The fact that it was among a series of other photos of different objects and figurines submerged in a mixture of urine and cow’s blood escaped almost everybody. The formal or conceptual considerations of Serrano were moot points in the larger discussion—the shock was all that mattered. It was an inflammatory image with an inflammatory title. This, combined with the already entrenched attitude of the art elite dismissing the approval of wider audiences, meant little sympathy and little resistance to the evisceration of the NEA’s funding of the visual arts.

In 2012, the political climate again has public funding for the visual arts on the ropes. In Spokane, there is much hand-wringing over the fate of the Spokane Arts Commission, which has already seen a long series of cuts which has left it a shell of a “commission” with only one employee and a handful of volunteers. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (known as the MAC) has fired its director for undisclosed reasons and is facing the ire of the public for this decision and a demand for an explanation. The MAC has also been forced to look for private sources of funding as public money for visual art in the region has dried up.

Outside of the people actively involved in the arts in Spokane (which consists in no small part of artists themselves), there has been little protest over the possibility of doing away with the Spokane Arts Commission. The Commission oversees the acquisition and maintenance of public art projects in the city from the Harold Balazs sculptures floating in the river to the garbage-eating goat to the murals on railway underpasses. It is an organizational hub for small non-profits from Saranac Art Projects to Et. Al. Poets, and, yes, it helps those organizations find, apply for, and get government grants.

Sister Paula Turnbull, The Garbage Goat, 1974

The Spokane Arts Commission is on the precipice of nonexistence not because of anything it does, but because of an attitude perpetuated by those involved in High Art. We ignore mass audiences at our own peril. By continuing to isolate ourselves and dismiss the larger public, we make what we do appear to be something other than necessary. What’s worse, the expectation of government funding has led to ignoring potential customers. If we do not expect them to pay to see what we have to offer in person, how can we expect them to think it is necessary to pay via taxes if they don’t (or aren’t even invited to) see it?

The problem isn’t with the product: poetry, art, music, and plays are as vibrant in Spokane now as they have ever been. The problem is in perception—it’s in marketing; it’s in public relations. If we abandon the idea that art should be separate from the rest of life, those people who decide how art is funded and therefore how artists can live will see it as a necessary part of life. This change in attitude starts with the artists and performers. It starts with conversations. It starts with including anyone who is even remotely interested and alienating no one—even if what you are saying with your work is confrontational.

With inclusivity, art can be a valued part of everyday life, and everyday life can be a valued part of art. We aren’t going to force anyone to pay attention to our work by telling them we don’t care what they think. We have to care. Without an audience, what are we doing any of this for?

‘Broken Mic, June 24, 2012’ Photo: Michael Schomburg





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.





Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong

4 03 2012

I like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I think he is a warm and engaging face for science on television.  He’s no Adam Savage or Jaime Hyneman—I have yet to see him blow up anything.  To my eyes, he’s no Bill Nye.  That is one titanic bowtie to try to fill.  But, as celebrities of the hard sciences go, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a shining example.

As host of Nova scienceNOW on PBS, he has proven to be engaging and photogenic.  He makes astrophysics something that at least seems accessible to a large audience.  He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a research associate in astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History.  When it comes to astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson knows his stuff.  However, when it comes to the cultural mindsets of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, he is mistaken.

Clip of Feb. 27 Interview on The Daily Show

I am basing my criticism on an interview he gave last week with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, promoting his book, Space Chronicles:  Facing the Ultimate Frontier.  Stewart characterizes the book as lamenting the fact that the United States, as a culture, no longer prioritizes space exploration.  Tyson acknowledges that the Cold War, fear, and the military industrial complex were the driving force behind the rapid advancements in space exploration from the 1960s until 1972, the last manned mission to the moon.  I will add that moon missions stopped around the same time the Vietnam War ended, drawing to a close the hot part of the Cold War.

Tyson claims that it was the space race that inspired society to “think about ‘Tomorrow’—the Homes of Tomorrow, the Cities of Tomorrow… all of this was focused on enabling people to make Tomorrow come.”  This is where he is wrong.  The space race was a symptom of this mindset, but it the mindset of modernism he is talking about, not just of the space age.  A focus on technological progress is one of the most rudimentary tenets of modernism, with its roots in the Enlightenment.  We see it in the Industrial Revolution, we see it in the advancement of movements in Modern Art, and we see it in the development of technology for war, transportation and communication before, during, and after the space race:  from airplanes to telephones to ipods.  Tyson even cites The World’s Fair as an example of an event geared around the space race.  While the World’s Fairs of the 1960s certainly reflected the interest in space exploration in particular, the institution itself has roots in early modernism—in the Nineteenth Century.

Chicago World's Fair, 1893--long before the space race

Despite being incorrect about its origins, Tyson is correct in pointing out that the drive for progress was the great economic engine of the Twentieth Century, and that careers in science and technology were essential for that progress.  The combined factors of fear, war, and modernist pursuit of progress meant that those careers were celebrated as important for the betterment of society.  Little Jimmy wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist because it was a glamorous and important part of society, an attitude that was reflected in films, news broadcasts, and federal funding.

Stewart assumes that the diminished interest in space exploration had to do with expectations of achievements were not matching the pace of their execution—that we expected to be on Mars by 1970 and since we weren’t there, we got tired of waiting.  Tyson augments his assumption, saying that the diminished interest came from not advancing a frontier.  “The Space Shuttle boldly went where hundreds had gone before.”  This is not the frontier exploration that gains headlines in a world looking for better, faster, stronger, bolder, and further.

Aside from being wrong about the societal motivation behind the space race and the connected advancements in technology, Neil deGrasse Tyson clings to that modernist mindset.  His solution for society is to increase funding for NASA in order to mount a manned mission to Mars, which he believes will excite the populace to value the activity of scientists and technologists, thus fueling the economies of the Twenty-first Century.

Maybe Tyson just wants to revive the careers of Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins. It does promise to be thrilling and exhilarating.

As I have written before, I am skeptical about the notion that we are in an era outside of modernist influence.  While originality in art or even in invention is not necessarily the hallmark of progress that it used to be, advancement is nonetheless necessary for success in our creative, corporate, and governmental evaluations.  A person only needs to look at one very celebrated company—Apple—to understand that advancement and progress are still very much parts of our ideology, and that is the second instance where Tyson is wrong.

Contemporary society does value the activity of scientists.  It might not value the same kinds of scientists that made big, physical advancements like space exploration or the atom bomb, but it does value the kinds of scientific advancements that power the new economic driver: information.  According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, the purpose of science is no longer the “pure” goal of its Enlightenment origins. “Instead of hovering above, legitimation descends to the level of practice and becomes immanent in it.”  For Lyotard, scientists are no longer trying to find an absolute “Truth” about the universe (that might come from the exploration of, say, space), but seeking to advance the commoditization of knowledge—the consumption of information.

In a way, Tyson one-ups Lyotard.  By acknowledging the driving force of fear in the space race, he acknowledges that the societal motivation for scientific advancement was outcome-based (winning the Cold War), rather than ideologically-based Truth-seeking.  Even at the height of modernism, pure science was a myth.  Nonetheless, the ideas of Lyotard underlie the entire undertaking of contemporary science.  It isn’t about an authoritative Truth, it’s about consumable truths. For scientists, those consumable truths are technological advancements—however minute, however arbitrary. We do value scientists, as long as they are working toward something we can consume.

The fact that, in this photo, the iphone resembles the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey is pure coincidence.

The space race produced consumables—Tang, Velcro, the Tempur-Pedic bed—those were indirect in reaching the consumer market.  Today’s advancements directly aimed at consumers with tablet computers, smart phones, and cars that park themselves.  These advancements aren’t a byproduct of some high-minded pursuit of pure scientific exploration, but directly researched, experimented upon, and produced for us.

I sympathize with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He wants a modernist society where the pursuit of Truth motivates a populace and advances a culture.  But, as he acknowledges, that pure science may never have been the real motivator at all.  Science is now inextricably linked to product value in technology.  The advancements are more accessible, but they are less tangible.

Works Cited:

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Interview by Jon Stewart. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. Comedy Partners, New York.  Feb. 27,2012. Television.

Fraser, Nancy and Nicholson, Linda.  “Social Criticism Without Philosophy:  An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism,” Universal Abandon:  The Politics of Postmodernism.  Ross, Andrew, ed. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 87.





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.





Lies

20 01 2012

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

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

Bernini, Plato and Persephone, 1621-22

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

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

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

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

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

Yoko Ono, Box Piece, 1964

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

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

Works Cited:

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





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.








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