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.





Daniel Tosh is Important

1 04 2012

Daniel Tosh is a stand-up comedian and television host.  I doubt many people would describe him as particularly socially-conscious in either of those roles.  His show, Tosh.0, is a hybrid of stand-up, sketch comedy, and internet video commentary and includes potentially offensive material in bits such as “Is It Racist?” and “Rico’s Black Clip of the Week.” I think that Daniel Tosh, and Tosh.0 in particular, is a prime example of postmodern entertainment that pushes the boundaries of social issues in a way that results in elevated discourse rather than crass exploitation.

Tosh.0 is Postmodern

The television show is nowhere near original. Despite my description above, it is inherently a clip show.  Its reliance on home videos posted on the internet make it the America’s Funniest Home Videos of the 21st Century.  The format of a host in front of a green screen commenting on clips owes its existence to Talk Soup (later re-named The Soup), originally hosted by Greg Kinnear.

Of course, something doesn’t have to be original to be entertaining.  Tosh’s style in delivery and class clown grin make the show engaging and somehow personal, and the adult content of both the videos and the commentary give the show a bite not found in either television predecessor.  The show plays like a highlight reel of internet comment posts, weeding out the merely shocking, racist, or pithy and showcasing the truly snarky and hilariously cynical.

The unoriginality of the show seems to categorize it as mere pastiche, but Tosh.0 is unabashedly self-aware.  From the inclusion of the writing and production crew in sketches to the mockingly prophetic sign-offs before the final commercial break of each episode (Tosh signs off with a reference to a cancelled Comedy Central show:  “We’ll be right back with more Sarah Silverman Program!”), Tosh highlights not only the mechanisms of the show’s production, but also the reality that the lifespan of the show itself is limited.  The sign-off was perhaps more prescient in the early days of the show.  As with many Comedy Central shows, its low production costs come with low expectations from the network—cancellation of a Comedy Central show is a foregone conclusion.  That is, of course, until it catches fire like South Park did, or Chappelle’s Show, or even The Daily Show.

Tosh has also made reference to his predecessors on air.  “Hey, I heard there’s some show called The Soup that totally ripped off our format!  The idea for this show came to me in a dream!  With Greg Kinnear, except it really wasn’t Greg Kinnear…”  In this season’s Web Redemption of a horrible sketch comedy trio, Tosh led the segment saying, “Hey, sketch comedy is hard.  If someone brilliant like Dave Chappelle can go crazy doing it, what makes you think you’ll be any good?”

Tosh.0 is Socially Conscious

The fraternity with Chappelle is based on more than that of hosting popular Comedy Central programs.  Richard Pryor paved the way for Dave Chappelle, and Dave Chappelle paved the way for Daniel Tosh.

Chappelle is credited for approaching issues of race in a comedic way on television unflinchingly and uncompromisingly.  He made fun of racism—not just white racism toward blacks, but also black racism toward whites and Asians, and even other blacks.  It can be cynically concluded that Chappelle and Pryor (who did the same thing thirty years earlier in stand-up comedy) could get away with calling out black racism because they themselves were (are) black.  Daniel Tosh proves that the race of the commentator is not the determining factor for this kind of statement.

The clip that spawned the recurring bit, “Is It Racist” was a video of an Asian toddler in a pool, held afloat by his or her head suspended in a plastic floating ring.  Among many jokes, Tosh cracked, “Is it racist if I can’t tell if her eyes are open or not?”  After a brief pause, he said indignantly, “I’m saying ‘Is it?’  Yes… yes, I’m being told by the audience that yes, it is racist.”

Jokes about racism regarding African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jewish people, and even white people are all approached with a level of honesty and self-effacement that makes them engaging rather than mean.  In a web redemption from this season, Tosh interviews a couple who’s wedding was ruined by a sandstorm.  The groom was Mexican and the bride was white.  Rather than shy away from racial comments when in the actual presence of a minority, Tosh addresses it head-on.  Any menace in this line of questioning is deadened by the fact that Tosh is conducting the interview in a heart-shaped hot tub.  He often uses the physical appearance of his own nearly-nude body to neutralize potentially heated or offensive confrontations.  It also helps that during these interviews, he is unabashedly positive, which is unexpected given the bite of the rest of the show.

Context is key for Tosh’s approach to topics like race, sexuality, abortion, and religion.  He is making jokes, yes.  But his delivery and his appearance, as well as the jokes themselves, communicate an awareness of his own place in the larger issue underlying the comedic bit.  In comparison, it is much harder to see positivity in the comments by viewers on Tosh.0 blog posts.  Many comments come across as simply racist, rather than as addressing racism.

Below is the clip of the Asian “Neck Tube Baby” bit from Tosh.0.  Not only is it an example of Tosh’s approach to race, it also includes the show’s characteristic reflexivity, acknowledging the production of the bit itself.

Daniel Tosh is Uplifting

I’ll be honest.  For the first two seasons of Tosh.0, I changed the channel or left the room during the “Web Redemption” segment.  I’ve never been a fan of cringe-inducing comedy, and the idea of taking someone’s most embarrassing moment, already broadcast to the entire internet, and making a seven-minute television segment based entirely on that moment, seemed too mean-spirited and too awkward for me to watch comfortably.  My fears were unfounded.

Tosh brings the people in question to Los Angeles and interviews them to begin the segment.  The interview includes the cracking of jokes, of course, but Tosh is truly laughing with the interviewee.  The redemption part of the segment is typically cheesy.  The person gets a second chance to complete whatever task when awry and got them internet famous for some sort of mistake.  A girl gets a chance to walk down stairs in a prom dress without tripping.  A guy gets a chance to park a Ford Mustang in a garage without running it through the wall.  Typically, in these bits, Tosh is the main point of comedy—often employed through the use of a goofy costume such as the Pope outfit worn for the redemption of the married couple mentioned earlier.  Most of the time, the person succeeds in their attempt to redeem themselves, even though that redemption is a little low in the area of a pay-off.  They still have the internet embarrassment out there, though by now they’ve probably come to terms with it.  Heck, they did agree to be on a show knowing full well that the embarrassing moment was the reason for their appearance.

In some cases, however, the person fails in their comedic-sketch attempt at redemption.  Tosh uses this to aim the humor away from the person involved, however.  An appearance by Ron Jeremy after a girl falls down the stairs in a prom dress for a second time becomes a joke about Ron Jeremy (Ron Jeremy is his own joke about himself).  Dennis Rodman appears from nowhere to block a man’s attempted trick basketball shot.  That was perhaps my favorite save.  On returning to the set (these bits are shot on location and shown as clips during the hosted show), Tosh points out that for $5,000, you can have Dennis Rodman show up at your house and do whatever you want… for about five minutes, which mocks the show for paying that much for the cameo and Rodman for shilling himself out so shamelessly.

Daniel Tosh is Important

Daniel Tosh is not what I would consider an activist comedian.  He’s not out to make some great social change in the world.  He’s out to make people laugh and, if you believe his shtick, make a lot of money doing it.  But performers don’t necessarily have to be performing ABOUT an issue to make a difference regarding an issue.  It’s often a matter of bringing the conversation up.  If that approach is comedic, the conversation is that much easier to start.  Tosh’s approach is more high-brow than it may seem at first glance, and for that, we thank you.





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.





An Extended Conversation

26 02 2012

This week I was interviewed by Wyatt Trull of Spoke Journal, a start-up literary magazine here in Spokane. The interview was conducted by email, which has produced a record of the conversation in full. Topics ranged from the open-ended themes of the journal’s first two issues to discussion of ideas I’ve put forth on this blog. The point of this blog is to think about art as something different than an object-making enterprise, but an endeavor of meaning-making between artist and viewer. Sometimes the line between the two parties blurs, as it does here. For more information on Spoke, please visit the website: Spoke Journal.

Topic: Place/Displace

Trull: What constitutes one’s place or origin? How does your concept of origin or place mold your identity and art?

Grambo: “Place” is the community an artist (or any person) identifies most closely with. This community is shaped by the landscape, climate, and culture of its physical location. At times the community sets itself against these factors, and at times it is in cooperation with them. The relationship is similar between my own identity and my identification with a place or community. At times, I identify with the prevailing attitude and create work in conjunction with it, and at other times I create work to satirize and critique that prevailing attitude. As much as I love the people and poems that come from slam poetry, I enjoy skewering the tropes and cliches that are employed through satire.

Team Boise performs the satirical "Rape is Bad: The Musical" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009. For a time, the identity of Boise poets was linked heavily to high style and sarcasm.

Trull: What is the process of this interaction between a place and a person? How does each entity change as the relationship ebbs and flows?

Grambo: I had a professor in graduate school who would ask, “What about your work is original” in critiques. It’s a very frustrating question, especially when one is 23, in graduate school, and thinks they are the most unique artist on the planet. There isn’t a very good way to answer that question, because, in a postmodern view, nothing is original. Originality isn’t a prerequisite for art status. Nonetheless, the modernist ideal of uniqueness is still a part of how we view art and artists, so the question is pertinent. The only answer in a postmodern era is that the work is original because I am making it–not a person who made it before.

In that sense, a person can impact their community (or place) by being present and being involved. In some cases, there is a firm and identifiable effect on a community by an artist. In Boise (where I lived for eight years), the music scene is undeniably effected by Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. The sound, stage demeanor, and even fashion of indie musicians in Boise are all influenced by Martsch. Of course, they are all also influenced by each other, and by the community of Boise at large, just as Martsch was. Sometimes, people embrace their regional identity as part of their own. Other times, people want to distance themselves from their own region as much as possible.

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

In that area, Spokanites seem to be somewhat split. There are many who lament the “smallness” of the city—who think the conservative politics that affect local government, the limited number of artists within the community, and the lack of large-market media exposure. They want to get out of Spokane. Boiseans wanted to go to Portland. Spokanites want to go to Seattle (at least that was the “Xanadu” when I was here as an undergrad from 1998-2002). I like the smallness of the market. I like feeling like I have an opportunity to be on the inside of the scene. There are many Spokane artists (especially ones I’ve met since I returned) who feel like Spokane is a great place to make an effect and to be effected. They are creating co-op galleries, having basement exhibitions, reading poetry in bars and burrito shops, and publishing photocopied Zines like crazy. What is the deal with Zines in this town? While I’m thinking of it, what’s the deal with photocopied (rather than printed) handbills for benefit concerts and underground shows? I’m not putting it down, but it’s certainly something that is cool in Spokane that is not visible in Boise.

Trull: What makes Spokane unique as a place or origin? What role does the artistic community play in generating the essence of this place? How can the art community as a system be improved to better suit this role?

Grambo: A small city like Spokane can be at the same time very accessible and intimidating because of the small size and high familiarity of the people within each community–be it athletics or business or art. As in other areas of cultural production, the self-pride of the artistic community is the engine that drives it as well as fuel for the pride of the city at large. Spokane artists have the opportunity to set Spokane apart from other cities and define Spokane itself. Spokane is great because it isn’t Seattle, and it isn’t Portland, and it isn’t Chicago or New York or anywhere else. Spokane can be whatever its artists make it, they have to do just that: make it.

Topic: Signal/Noise

Trull: How do you differentiate between the concepts of signal and noise?

Grambo: The purpose of a signal is communication; noise is purposeless.

Trull: What role does noise play in your art? In your identity?

Grambo: Noise is essential, but it must be controlled. A performance or poem or painting can seem to be haphazard and purposeless, but that is in service of the overall message–there must be purpose to purposelessness.

Trull: How does Spokane, as an artistic community, manifest both signal and noise? Does art need to be louder? Or simply expressed through a better forum? Is the problem systemic?

Grambo: Art should be loud–volume can get attention. Noise for the sake of noise alone can be alienating, however. It is the task of artists to walk along that line in order to make the most impact with their work. Since I am new to Spokane, I can’t say how well this community balances signal and noise with any authority. I will say that I don’t think it’s a systemic problem–it may be something that artists must experiment with before they can find where they fit on an individual level, and that in turn affects the outlook of the community as a whole. In what I’ve seen of the performance poetry scene, many poets are trying to find their voice–in large part due to the fact that they are at the dawn of their careers. As a result, the anarchic noise that is performance poetry in Spokane has become a kind of siren for young poets and artists–a Bacchanalian refuge of chaos. This isn’t a “problem,” it’s simply the identity of Broken Mic.

Mark Anderson, organizer of Broken Mic

Trull: You’ve written a lot on your blog about the qualifications of great art. I find it quiet amusing that we’ve both used Miranda July to clarify our conceptions of art (that may be an overstatement on your part). (Unintelligible ≠ Poetic) Watching Me, You, and Everyone We Know and The Future completely transformed my conception of art. I had a profound inexplicable reaction to that film. I actually felt a profound confidence in my reception of her film, though I walked away unable to articulate a single theme. In fact, that experience is what ignited some recent passion for the dichotomy of Signal and Noise. So along the lines of this shared experience that we’ve reacted to in seemingly opposite ways, I have a few questions: for you, what is the nature of meaning? Do you think there is a type of meaning that is ineffable (an essence, shape, or flow of thought) or a type of noise that can be meaningful without any relation to a signal? Does one have to understand to perceive the articles of communication?

You wrote in a blog post that “one of my maxims in art is that ‘presentation is everything.’”(A Tale of Two Exhibitions) You also make the distinction between the existence of art and the potential for art. Can one quantify the leap that is made to bring art into existence? What is this leap in your artistic process?

Another one of your qualifications for great art seems to be the idea that great art is only exist in dialogue, or the communication between the artist (piece of art) and the viewer. Is it possible that a piece of can born from signal but develop into noise as this conversation proceeds? Is this undesirable? If so, what’s the artist’s burden?

Grambo: I’m going to the three previous questions (or paragaphs of questions) here. I think there is absolutely the possibility for open-endedness in art. Art as communication can be art as dialog, without a set “message” to be delivered, and I prefer this approach to art. It can work with one-way communicative art forms (like films or paintings or poems), though in a different way than in a truly interactive art form (like interventionist performance, or even a discussion via emailed questions). The lynchpin is intent. What kind of meaning are you trying to create as an artist or a writer? Are you intending to be inclusive and provoke thought, or are you intending to be perceived as clever or deep in your opacity?

Isaac Grambo performs "Airport Love Affair" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009

My problem with this approach is that it is alienating to a broad section of potential art viewers–those who don’t like art because they don’t get it. It appeals to a small subset of society that seeks out the hard-to-understand and the open-ended. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad, but it does add to the perception of high art as being outside of society–something for the rich or the over-educated or the weird. This is the small subset of society that deems art important, but still regards it as nonessential. (If it’s something only for a few and not for everybody, it is not essential). When artists themselves contribute to the notion that art is not essential, they are self-defeating. This attitude contributes to the greater marginalizing of art in school curriculum, in federal and private funding, and in the place of art within culture. When budgets get slashed, the arts are the first to go, and when arts budgets get slashed, visual art is the hardest hit. Nobody complains about movie stars getting paid millions of dollars because their profession is culturally thought of as important (if not completely essential). The marginal position held by art leads to frustration and dismissal by a greater public who wants to know why any of their money (tax or otherwise) should go toward something “that my kid could do.” I’m not saying that we have to make Norman Rockwell/Thomas Kinkaide crap. I’m saying we have to meet the public halfway if we expect them to be willing to understand and support performance art or installations or interventions.

The intent of the artist has to be inclusivity, not exclusivity by power of opacity. This goes for arts patrons, too. I performed a satirical poem last Wednesday that was laden with metaphors. I purposely wrote the metaphors to not make any sense. Three people (the three people who had been to a national poetry slam and seen the precise kind of work I was satirizing) got the joke. On the one hand, the audience was all-too ready to look for and find meaning where there was none. On the other hand, my satire fell short, because there was a meaning: a critique of gratuitous metaphoric imagery.

The artist’s intent is made apparent through the presentation. If the intent is clear, the communication can be clear, too–even if that communication is open-ended.

Trull: In another post, you write that in modern world we can “communicate with everybody and yet we talk to nobody.” (Musing on Methods of Communication) Each successive advancement in communication makes our language more and more sterile, but our message remains just as human (though that’s debatable). I think this a great example of the logical extreme of the typical western understanding of noise. I would like to think that as artist we reject this sterilized conception and affirm a human condition, but how can we be sure? When does the intricacy and density of one’s message turn into a disordered clutter? Does a line even need to be drawn?

Grambo: I think I’ve addressed this a little bit in the previous answer. Too much intricacy, as you put it, leads to confusion. Reading even friendly correspondence from eras of flowery language drives me to distraction–it becomes tough to remember what the writer is trying to get across.

That said, your mention of advancing forms of communication as a contributor to noise brings another thought to mind. I can’t cite an author on this idea, though I’ll mention that it isn’t mine. The more freedom of speech we assert, the less we seem to be saying and the less communication seems to happen. It’s apparent in politics. Even in the age of up-to-the-minute twitter feeds acting as short news releases, nuances in politics in America get assigned to Right or Left. Once a given politician or person aligns him or herself with one side, the rhetoric becomes more and more shrill in order to try to be noticed above the din of similar soundbites. You get the mouth-foamers: Limbaugh on the Right, Maddow on the Left; Hannity and Olberman; Fox and MSNBC. While the two sides have plenty to say, they aren’t saying much of anything. Neither side listens to the other, and those in the middle are ignored on-air and alienated in their living rooms. For all the advancements in communication, American politics haven’t changed since the days of partisan newspapers and Tammany Hall.

To “affirm a human condition” in terms of communication, I think we have to communicate on a personal level. I think this happens in poetry. I think it happens in emails. I think it happens on Facebook and I think it can happen on twitter. I think that communication–that mutual creation of meaning–is art, so I think all of these are art. As before, intent is the key. If we seek to use these methods to include each other, we create art. If we create art, we are affirming the human condition.





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.








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