Saturday, October 15, 2016

gates of eden -- bob’s noble

Bob and I are about the same age and early on I was awestruck mostly by his sheer audacity, me feeling just a little unsteady about that time. Like Picasso, it was his fearlessness that actually carried the art, just a guitar and harp, common and accessible. His big hits could sometimes sound sorta snide and condescending, b-sides were always thoughtful and deep, but it wasn’t the words, no matter how brilliant, that won Bob the ‘noble.’

After the cultural desert of the fifties in which popular music was born in theft and exploitation, forced through the corrupting turnstiles of limited commercial outlets, and reduced to the cheap emotion and limited horizon of a beach party movie, Bob brought the rain. Simple as that. He crystalized a questioning search for identity that spread forehead to forehead across a generation. Achingly raw and defiant, still he immediately became very popular. People were especially glad to see him, it had been a long drought.

Bob’s thoughts and observations hadn’t been part of the high school vocabulary, lived experience had never been addressed so directly, and the pebble of honesty he kicked off the cliff of a vast cultural malaise became an avalanche of poetry-driven lyrics and musical innovation. His was the first shot fired in a world-wide revolution, whole populations aspiring to a common humanity beyond the low common denominator of commercialism, well you know. He deserves the prize.

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Music is currently suffering too much of a good thing, transitioning from restricted airways and major label dictatorships to way more freedom than they need, with an influence so small politicians use lyrics they like, even if the song goes against them. Visual art, by contrast, can not be broadcast, and a digital-copy no matter how accurate is just not the same. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the very characteristic that makes visual art impossible to reproduce, limits its range, and has made popularity problematic, turned out to offer the one true test of authenticity our age requires? Instead of one performer singing into a microphone miles away, frozen in time by technology, here’s a movement that happens all over all at once, painters in every town. Even working people sometimes feel compelled to make it, and anyone who engages the machinery they’ve been given can understand it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

one art -- artificial dichotomies

Who bans representational art? Various rigid religious and political systems have either suppressed the representation of gods, persons, any living thing, anything at all, or sponsored only art which supported their interpretation of life on earth, and banned everything else. Examples both ancient and modern abound, and there’s a reason why. For humans, earth is a test kitchen, and it turns out there are several ways to bake the cake. Getting along with each other and sustaining ourselves can be done myriad different ways, but in order to obtain anything like law and order it’s going to be necessary to recruit most people to one way of thinking.

Unless some very focused citizen is just loaded with charisma it’s probably going to be easiest to get them when they’re small and groom their minds for one set of rules, and that’s going to mean limiting the ideas they’re exposed to. There was a time it was thought communism harbored some sort of awful verbal virus that infected the minds of anyone it contacted, and speakers were banned from college campuses, etc. Pictures are even worse because they can be seen by about anyone, and translation from one language to another, not a problem. Even the illiterate can see.

It would seem there are two opposing camps in visual art, non-referential or modern art refers to the movement that broke from tradition about the middle of the last century, with earlier antecedents, and derivations still prevail in the courts of the inordinately wealthy, and this genre of non-objective art has also been generously supported by the state. Seemingly opposed is so-called ‘retinal art,’ generally the people’s choice, a term for art which seems to look like stuff, the more traditional notion. Turns out it’s all a big misunderstanding. There really is no argument here, folks, move along. It was all a trick with mirrors in the first place.

All painters take the same chance, start in the same place, and isn’t that one of the charm’s of visual art? Does it illustrate a story, is it advocating for a political idea or a commercial product, or is it speaking to the person inside with intensity and directness, doesn’t matter. Put everything up at once, lose the referees, and see what happens. One thing certain, the state -- the many tiered NEA, universities and such, shouldn’t really be taking sides, particularly against representational art, such a motley crew to fall in with. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

nelson’s remorse -- late term conversions

Multi-billionaire Nelson Rockefeller was early on involved with art, as a fact more influential than the stars he sponsored, a major patron of the abstract expressionists fifty-sixty years ago. His career is archived for the public and would print out in volumes, interests and accomplishments beyond horizons I can’t conceive, achieved with a ruthlessness one might expect from a great baron. I only know him as an artist.

He was there to deliver a groin kick to all of art in the person of Diego Rivera back in the early thirties. Rivera had become the figure-head of a movement which depicted the way things were for common people, and it made the extremely rich uncomfortable. They commissioned a fresco for the Rockefeller Center, allowed Diego and his assistants to work on it day and night for months, paid his fee and then covered the mural, allowing no photographs to be taken by anyone. Before it had been seen it was jackhammered down and hauled away in wheel barrels, and if you think you’ve seen it, it’s because Diego painted it again in Mexico. He had walked into their trap, plying his vanity and with his leftist credentials at stake, they intended this ‘cultural vandalism’ all along, the way it looks to me. They then began a campaign to disparage the representational mode of painting altogether as being too easy, too pedestrian, too commercial to possibly be interesting. ‘We have better things to do with our time than to go around copying nature,‘ became their brusque refrain.

Big abstracts went up in large banks and government buildings while Rockefeller was governor of New York, and representational art was banned from the kingdom, problem solved. The ability of progressive artists to influence common thought had been eliminated without the obvious drawbacks of direct censorship, even though the culture had lost its feelers like a lobster in a tank. But Nelson eventually got old, played with the grandkids, spent time on his boat, and he softened as he reminisced, began to feel guilty. Then he did something very strange.

He opened a gallery on 57th to sell state-of-the-art reproductions of his own collection, old masters don’t you know. Seems the the abstractionists never quite made it to over the mantel up at the old home place. One would guess he had become concerned with the drift in culture toward non-consequential things, and had the ego to feel somehow responsible. To make amends he decided to offer two centuries old dutch paintings of rich guys like himself to tourists, thinking he could restore their humanity at least a mite. The family must have nodded and smiled.

Wiki says -- In 1977 he founded Nelson Rockefeller Collection, Inc., (NRC) an art reproduction company that produced and sold licensed reproductions of selected works from Rockefeller's collection. In the introduction to the NRC catalog he stated he was motivated by his desire to share with others "the joy of living with these beautiful objects."   

That’s all they’ll say about it, his odd aesthetic u-turn, but we can bet he didn’t do it for the money. I was surprised at the time that this great champion of living artists would open a gallery of reproductions just up the street to compete with them, but it was only his own legacy that filled his mind late.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

panel on attention -- had to leave

Attention is the new commodity, the next big 'wish I had,' and in the end the holy grail of existence on the planet. The environment will get worse before it gets better, but they’re working on it and making progress, cleaner air and water some places. Water, itself, will become more valuable than oil as time goes by, so they say, but it’s possible to convert sewage into drinking water with prototype treatment systems already, so we’ll figure it out.

One thing we’ve all seemed to notice, that as our intellectual capacity extends to encompass everything that was ever written, sung, or thought about, the floor comes up. It all gets shallower, time evaporates, and all that stuff ends up pushing us down. Everyone still here? It doesn’t need explaining. Went to a panel discussion concerning “attention,’ and they all agreed it was a big conundrum, media addiction and attention erosion
, outdid each other with scary typical examples, but before long everyone was checking email.

Complain if you want about it texting while driving, typing away as the microwave hums, but you’re not getting out of it, a bunny in a briar patch of scotch tape. The component that’s lacking, it would seem, is real-time actual experience, and the way events are witnessed these days some dazed bystander is there telling the cameras it was like inna movie. Could go on but the point is this -- life is becoming vicarious, sensation is becoming digitalized, and reality itself could probably be manipulated by about anyone who knows, popups and porn adulterating every dose.

Couldn’t fix it myself, but can offer a cough drop for the fever. There’s a device you can purchase that will at least slow it down, the black hole descent into a vortex of homogenized goo, digital group mind and the sugar water and caffeine diet of drones, and it’s art. Original art didn’t used to be that much different from other stuff in the living room, a rookwood lamp, the hand-woven carpet, all the woodwork installed without power tools, such as that, but times have changed. Original art, and not its indistinguishable digital reproduction, is an object with the weight of time built in, and the subject, sailing ships or bowls of fruit, is just the outfit it wears. Suffice it to say it probably took at least a few days to make it, that it embodies the the artist’s history back to their first beginnings, and once made it shouldn’t change at all until you’re gone. Sounds like a time-trap to me, an anchor for your little boat, a token to help you remember who you are. 

Art slows you down. If you don’t slow down you can’t look at it, won’t be able to see it, simple as that. Living with it pulls you back, fights for your attention, and builds its attachments with your mind through slow unchanging repetition, so different from everything else you have. That’s the pitch. Don’t really care what was in the magazines last year, or ever, and Damien Hirst is a brat, millions smillions, look him up online. Seeing art as a sort of machine, a household appliance, like an oxygen generator freshening up the climate and supplying a few nutrients, is a nutty way to think of art that might catch on as folks start eyeing the exit signs.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

words vs pictures -- modes of thought

Let’s drop back in media to the days of magazines, physical pages we turned with pictures and captions.  ‘Life Magazine’ was largely full page b&w photographs with four five lines of explanation underneath, posing the ever present if unspoken question, ‘which will you believe, what you see or what you read?’ Saw a travel ad once with the caption ‘discuss the weather with a friendly native’ below the photo of one pissed amazonian with death by spear and liver eating in his eyes, a bit of dissension on the shoot no doubt. Folks went on the cruise anyway, I’m guessing.

Randomly switch all the captions, William Burroughs style, and see if anyone notices, maybe not. Visual thinking isn’t ‘thought’ at all around here, teachers intoning ‘if you can’t say it, you can’t think it,’ or is it the other way around, the point is -- we use words. We be a literate culture and there are both advantages and costs. We’ve been taught since preK that what we hear, reading is decoded through our hearing circuits, is more important than what our eyes tell us, and it hasn’t been easy for any of us, like trying to force the left handed person to eat and write with the other hand.

We teach reading, linear thinking, cause and effect because it’s so handy for building bridges and communication systems, but we also live with top-down authority structures, gender and class distinctions, and the immense weight of our biased reading of history determining a narrow, restricted future. Using the eyes, and the fifty percent of our brain devoted to sight, leads to more associative and parallel thinking, shared insights and collective understanding, would be the suggestion

Picasso said we all start out as artists and are talked out of it year by year, consider your own school experience. If there are two modes of thinking in competition, words rule for the moment, even in art. At the Art Institute of Chicago there’s a large room devoted to the work of Robert Ryman, an infant of an artist who never applied a color or made a mark, never got past the stage of forming a foundation, and yet there are three or four paragraphs there by the door that justify this use of downtown real estate for his big white squares. You might have to read it twice.

Words don’t like visual art, can’t describe it, are never going to understand it really. Art as just an analogue for cosmic thoughts and olympian insights, the fever dream of contemporary art, is often downright difficult to look at. Consider Jean Michel Basquiat, on a rocket ride of stardom that started when he met Warhol and only accelerated when he OD’d, my god is his stuff expensive. He’s also easy to google so pick out a piece you’d like for the living room, skulls and scrawls mostly, and a chorus of commentators sing his praises, all in words. Try looking instead. 

The age of aquarius, we’ve been waiting, is going to be more visual, more open to parallel thinking, and we’re going to need more art. We’ll still be able to build bridges, but a bit more balance in our lives, in our thinking, could prove helpful. Sorry if that sounds indefinite, in words, but since words won’t go the places paintings take you, writing has to stop. If you want to go there yourself, you have to exercise your forgotten left handedness, your ability to think visually, and you do this by looking at art -- in large part that’s it’s job. Art speaks in its own language, with its own voice, when you ignore the explanations posted on the wall, muttering in your ear buds, not because they’re wrong but because they’re words.           

Sunday, September 25, 2016

changing lanes -- choosing highways

Art can change overnight. Consider movies in the thirties, an era of individual deprivation and amazing collective endeavors, roads, parks, and great monuments. Plots of popular movies were inane, preadolescent adult romance somehow meshed with visually spectacular, manically-drilled dance numbers culminating in overhead kaleidoscope abstractions featuring actual arms and legs. Entertaining no doubt, as well as worthy accomplishments considering the special effects were all staged, lit and performed on the spot.

There was a great war, a subsequent reevaluation, and people almost overnight saw themselves and thought of their lives differently. Gritty reality broke through on stage, later to become movies -- ‘long day’s journey,’ ‘streetcar,’ and ‘death of a salesman,’ a play about feeling used up and discarded by a corrupt and demeaning commercialism, such as that. Did art suddenly get better is the pretty good question, and from the outside it’s just a point of view, but at the time, in that moment, the answer was definitely ‘yes, tell us more about life as it’s lived. We don’t care about robotic showgirls anymore.’

When evaluating art, ‘good or bad’ is often not as good a question as is it appropriate for its time, and times change, tremors all around at the moment. How art changes is only conjecture at this point, just like every other thought about the future, but one thing sure, the whole ballpark is going to change shape, new lines, new scoreboard. Redefinition of the self will find reflection in what art goes on the walls, and lordy there’s room for almost anything up there now. The fifteen percent of us who ‘care’ about the arts have been using everybody’s money for their own pet projects, leaving walls in our community mostly blank, scattered posters, wildlife prints, and mall abstracts, just place-holders for original art, maybe someday.

Enigmatic contemporary art may just be a passing fancy, along with its public funding, and a better bet for actual community support would be the product of area studios, appropriate to this time and place, and it’s happening all around everywhere, or just emerging. There’s a reevaluation going on in politics, in personal identity, and the desire to own and live with art might turn out to be part of its expression, the way rock was for hippies, or words and jazz were for the beats. All the components are lining up like that’s what’s about to happen, galleries popping up in broom closets and art for sale on the walls of restaurants and salons. 

This isn’t about bringing in a new set of turnstiles, more about taking back the ability to see and judge art independently, individually. Who can doubt that more art up in houses and public spaces would contribute to a general prosperity of the spirit, a greater sense of well being and confidence all around? If this happens, if a broader portion of your neighbors take an interest in owning art, the character of art changes, its purpose and role in the community, and in individual lives, becomes more significant, and the transition will be transparent for all to see.

Monday, September 19, 2016

the conceptual art of the deal -- art’s politics

Trump doesn’t act like a politician, everyone agrees. He foments bullshit and then gets headlines across the board when he renounces it. He puffs imaginary mole-hills into luminous clouds, and goes up in polls. His ripe idiocy is dissected and scrutinized, made substantial by the sheer volume of attention it receives. I’m beginning to suspect he’s really a contemporary artist, Christo bow down.

Dada, the art movement, produced a wave of irreverent irrationality that has finally seeped out into the everyday, and many of Trump’s supporters know full well he could never run the country. Like the people who rig their diesel pickups to put out extra black smoke, a vote for Trump is a big ‘fuck you’ to common interests -- just as the soup cans were to everyone who thought they liked art about a generation back. This gleeful welcoming of the apocalypse, popular culture leaping for a sinking raft, reeks of decadence and dead-ends don’t you think?

Consider the politician you’d prefer, you can use your imagination, and then try to figure out what that would look like as art, consider rational and accessible, competent yet visionary. Whatever art you wind up with will be a reflection of your own character and aspiration, reassuring to yourself and a quiet declaration to others who see it. Politics and art are not disconnected, spokes on the same wheel actually, and it may be time to get serious about what we look at every day.