Friday, January 19, 2018

figure skating -- art at the olympics

So I’m watching olympic trials for figure skating with my wife, and I’m thinking here’s a sport without any sort of ball, without goals, without physical opposition, and yet who could question the athletic ability, or the dedication and accomplishment of the skaters? There are essentially two elements in the sport -- competing up to the very edge of impossibility, while at the same time making a practiced routine look spontaneous and effortless, dancing without friction, leaping in reduced gravity, at one with the music played. The very notion of spending months preparing for a only a few minutes on the ice, and the sheer courage required to face such a trial, represents a pinnacle of artistry. Every member of the audience analyzes like an expert, making their own estimations of degree of difficulty and ease of execution, and together they’ll even pass judgment on the judges, and let them know. They’re an awesomely knowledgable crowd making quick distinctions between bravado and bravery, costume and content, hype and heroism. They use their own eyes. 

Painters should be so lucky as to have such an audience. Let’s pretend. What would they look for? First would be degree of difficulty, and figuring it out won’t be easy. With skating, a little personal experience at the rink is helpful, and we’ve all tried art sometime, when the playground was too muddy or the gym was busy, but few bring that experience forward and apply it to the art they see. Remembering how hard it was to draw an animal an adult could recognize might inform their notion of difficulty these days, but seeing and comparing enough original art as an adult eventually does the same. The other element would be spontaneity and economy of execution, personal vision expressed without extraneous ingratiation, simple and direct. Here’s the difference. Skating, dancing, singing, acting are all art-forms best experienced live and in person, and are each ephemeral, once they’ve happened there’s only a memory. Their digital reproduction, no matter how crisp, will still seem second-hand, lacking a perceptual dimension.

A painting, along with all forms of visual art, has duration. It’s a tangible object that embodies those ideals in physical form, projecting the same elements so admired in the skaters, and all the other art-forms, ongoing. What’s been missing so far is a knowledgable audience, who while they may have their own favorites, generally agree on the level of effort and accomplishment, who apply their own experience, and who use their own eyes.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

becoming visible -- emerging audiences

‘Lots of things are invisible, Joey,’ said Dennis the Menace one day in the comics, ‘but we don’t know it ‘cause we can’t see ‘em.’ True dat. There are some things invisible right out in plain sight, and that’s more complicated. For years around here, representational paintings weren’t seen in juried exhibits, weren’t reviewed in media outlets, and couldn’t get a grant for any reason, period. Representational art was being made, studios would come and go, but officially what they were doing was destined to be invisible, out of bounds, not worthy of serious consideration. This continued for decades.

Of course, there’s no real opposition, abstract or referential, and no defining line between. Each artist chooses the form that best conveys their particular personality and point of view. They all have an audience in mind, and in front of the easel they labor to create an image that will be ‘seen,‘ at least by some of the people, and favored enough to receive support, a basic requirement for making more. There are numerous examples of artists who struggled throughout their lives, only to find great success among later generations, art’s oldest cliche’. Why is that?

It must be, that while the art itself didn’t change, the eyes that saw it did. What was once invisible had over time resolved into meaning and immediacy as the worldview of citizens changed gears. Van Gogh’s artwork was severely inappropriate for the eighteen eighties, too ugly to look at, too distorted and crudely made. He was crazy and it showed in his work. Ten years after his untimely demise, at the approach of a new century, he was already recognized as the obvious precursor to the concerns of modern art, and his paintings began to blaze on the wall.

Art is not a one-way street. The painting itself is inert, a construction of cloth and wood with colors applied, and it says nothing in an empty room. Somewhere on its surface the artist has left a hook, some visual strategy that beguiles the attention long enough to speak, to whisper a personal message into the inner ear where no translation is necessary. For this to happen, the sensibility of the viewing public must become receptive, and sometimes that can take a while, up to several decades. It won’t change overnight, but it can seem that way, with many individuals responding before artwork becomes generally ‘visible,‘ and it might not happen at all.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

time binding -- starting from now

The successful painting doesn’t recede into the background, and won’t become unnoticed no matter how many times it’s seen during a day. Historical allegory, fruit in a bowl, total abstraction, doesn’t matter -- that’s not part of the test. As a fact, the significant work of art becomes more present, and its influence permeates the interior it occupies more completely, the longer it’s lived with. It’s the way, in the long run, you can tell. 

Visual art has gimmicks galore that fool the eye, cloud the mind, and its salesmen manage to change the subject most of the time. Novelty provides a jolt, celebrity porn vamps sensation, and the ‘relics’ of famous artists have fan appeal, but it don’t mean a thing if it doesn’t engage the eye and mind on an ongoing basis. All artists are driven by this one goal, to draw the attention of the viewer, sometimes only for a few seconds, designing logos and fast food menus, movie posters and fine art. Mostly they clomp along together, travel in a pack, all seeking to impinge at the apex of group awareness at the moment, because that’s where the money is. 

Our reality these days flashes by minute to minute, but art lasts a long time. The museum has fresh, just-painted looking works from five hundred years ago. Far from being obsolete, the enduring quality of a work of art will become more dear as lives dissolve in digital, that universal solvent melting and merging humanity into an ant farm with barracks for drones, I digress. A standard for quality in visual art becomes important, and how to recognize significance will become a practical matter. 

If you’ve never cried in front of a work of art, you may have to take my word for it. Let me explain. When a visual artist manages to touch a place inside that you didn’t know was there, tears come to your eyes. Doesn’t happen very often, can be totally unpredictable and it has nothing to do with being sad. It’s more like a reflex, the automatic response to a tickle deep down, and not totally unpleasant when it happens. Short of that, try visiting a museum after a ten year absence. It can be like meeting old friends, reviving old memories, and a couple the paintings will be glad to see you, welcome back. This experience also requires personal verification. 

The object of these essays is to suggest these time-binding qualities can also be found in paintings from the neighborhood, and to acknowledge sincere attempts at self-expression made without the ambition of stardom and fame, or perhaps even the hope of earning a living until conditions improve. When visual art becomes visible to enough of us, earns its attention and respect, there’ll be peace in the valley -- better be soon.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

‘el hipnotizador’ -- paintings that change

Ran across a miniseries about an itinerant hypnotist, ‘el hipnotizador,’ on latin HBO, and started watching even though it was in portuguese, I think, with subtitles in spanish, and I speak neither. It was visually so rich, the plot seemed so surreal and strange, and the music mingling symphonic emotion with scratchy sound effects was so evocative, scene for scene, that I decided to watch a few of episodes anyway. Some weeks later I discovered the same series with english subtitles and watched again, this time with dialogue.

In the second season, Arenas, the hypnotist, arrives in a strange colony peopled by state-funded zombies, suicides who had been reanimated and implanted with artificial memories, living out bland but contented lives. His presence jostles their memories and they start to recall their prior existences, and why they had wanted to kill themselves. The whole experiment is run by a painter who has put his abstract paintings up all over town as a kind of early warning system. When people start to see butterflies in his paintings, it means they’re about to ‘wake up.’ 

Now that’s a novel idea, paintings that aren’t static at all but which move and resolve when consciousness changes, still, it’s the most plausible part of the plot. The renaissance is an enshrined example, there in your hometown art museum, of humanity changing its mind, seeing reality in a new way. Linear perspective, an expression of Aristotle’s rationality, redefined the world in paintings first of all, and then in the minds of all who saw them. It’s difficult to imagine how strange the new art must have looked at first to the medieval mind, or how it started clicking into place when another consciousness arose.

Art isn’t frozen on the wall but exists in the interaction between artist and viewer, a collaboration, a conversation. All art is abstract when you think about it. Raphael, himself, was only making colored designs on cloth, and it’s the viewer who perceives depth, recognizes steps, and trees, and clouds. Wouldn’t it be peculiar if a representational painting were suddenly seen as abstract, colors and patterns in relation only to each other, the internal world of the artist made visible? Wouldn’t it be crazy if one day you looked into a piece of art and saw something you’d never seen before, even when you’ve looked at it every day? Would it be like waking up, maybe a little, a bell ringing far away. 

The artist doesn’t have answers, only method, yet in the execution at the top tenth of their ability some things come across, how to say, unintended.  Universal and poignantly real, no matter what they happen to be painting, certain values of character or wit rise to the surface past the pot of flowers, a desert sunset, the modest portrait of young person unknown, grown old and deceased by now. Are we all hypnotized, they ask this question several times, and no one ever really says for sure, but wouldn’t it be prudent to now and then look at paintings intently, ready to see them change?

Monday, January 1, 2018

are we real -- Pinocchio’s curse

from Neuroscience & Mind -- Of Course You Aren’t Living in a Computer Simulation. Here’s Why.    Michael Egnor Dec 28, 2017

His reasons weren’t convincing at all, and ended up saying if you were in a computer simulation you couldn’t ask the question, but why wouldn’t that also true of pure organics, whichever we turn out to be. In any case, we ask the question all the time, and have for millennia. It wouldn’t be the first time this reality has had its authenticity called into question. In biblical times there was, so I’ve read, a school of thought that identified Jehovah as a renegade, and his little creation an unauthorized franchise, a second-rate knockoff, but they didn’t know about computers. It’s beginning to seem more plausible these days.

In this moment, bots can do almost anything better than we can, flying our planes and driving our cars, and they can be programed to be reinforcing and friendly, totally empathetic yet devoid of emotion, only feigning any concern or feeling at all. Guess I’m just being sentimental, also not a machine trait, but I like the inefficient part, the quirky mental response to an eon of evolution, storms and drought and wars and wonder at the stars, all coded for us in junk DNA, the part we still can’t decipher. It extrudes in the form of art.

Without a past, it’s difficult to see how machines would ever like art, accepting reality as flat, without irony or humor, joy or regret -- how boring. Well, it’s going to take a lot of simulations before some wise machine ever begins to notice with longing the toxic swirling sunsets on its organically extinct chunk of rock, or doodle it out on its view-screen. In this age, it’s humans making art to express their individual and unique response to being in this maze, attempting to navigate the algorithms of karma, looking for meaning, offering to hold hands.  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

consolidating wealth -- recognizing value

The world today is awash in competing political systems, clashing world views, and they batter against each other while we watch, times are uncertain. Where’s your money, in a bank? Good luck. History is not entirely reassuring about numbers on paper in uncertain times, and any sort of investment is risky. Wouldn’t it be convenient if wealth could be stored in an object like charge in a battery, some form with recognized value that remained fairly constant and objective, no matter how imaginary currencies fluctuated. 

These days visual art won’t work, too bad. It’s tangible enough, and when well-made should outlast its owner essentially unchanged, a unique and time-defeating asset, but no one can agree on its value, so sad. Everywhere the price of art is blatantly artificial, from the wild-west absurdities of the trophy market, to just four hundred dollars for a sweet little landscape in a gallery, it makes no sense. ‘The price of art is what someone else is willing to pay for it,’ intones the mind-reading gallery director, and that about sums it up. 

In another country, at another time, Bob says to Mike, ‘say that artist seems to be getting better, did you find that painting in a gallery?’ Mike says, ‘no, I met the artist on a studio tour and bought direct. I’m making payments.’ So then Bob says, ‘that’s a good idea. I’d like to own a painting by that artist someday, too.’ They’d both know about what to pay for a painting of that quality, no mind reading involved. This is because art for sale would be so common even ordinary people could form an opinion about whether it was good or bad, and have some idea if the price seemed fair. If people began to see the same things in art, to recognize similar signs of quality and accomplishment, then ownership of art would constitute a form of wealth, there on the wall, as well as a source of pride and inspiration, so much more rewarding than numbers on a ledger. 

Money shrinks, gets stolen, can be manipulated, it’s undependable. Real wealth lies in things that retain value no matter what the currency does, up or down, but there have to be standards, a reserve of knowledge shared by many people. Not everyone, but enough people understand the jump shot, the layup, the double dribble to make basketball a viable activity, and athletes who do it better are much admired and rewarded, like that. Art hasn’t gotten there yet, but it will if the changes happening now continue, if our ship comes back on an even keel and sails on. The value of art for the individual remains intangible, beyond calculation, but a rational market makes acquisition of art for the home plausible, means that bought art retains value, and that each individual buys with the confidence of personal knowledge, knowing what they want.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

collector vs real value -- seeking price

One thing that confuses many is the difference between ‘collector value’ and ‘real value,’ since just the term ‘value’ itself has leeway. It’s also good to remember that value isn’t always the same as price, although we’d like to keep them relative. The dominant mode these days, collector value is ‘what other people are willing to pay,’ and it seems there’s someone willing to buy about anything, old and no longer produced they like special. When there’s plenty of plenty the operative component of value is rarity, how difficult it is to obtain and possess this thing. That’s about it. If it freezes in the tropics the price of bananas goes up, and since there’s only a certain number of toy firetrucks circa 1920 and earlier still around, their price goes up too. It’s a big competition out there, everyone trading up toward more and more hard to get stuff, and the eventual winner will be the one who pays most for the rarest thing of all, the Ty Cobb baseball card, the queen’s buggy whip. Well, times aren’t always good, and collecting isn’t for everyone.

In tighter times, the main measure of value is utility, and it makes the more convincing claim on how much we should want something in our lives. The whole notion of rarity in art is grossly manipulated anyway, at the top a restricted ranking of cornball trademarks. They do it in front of everybody, so there’s no reason to go through it here, but there are other terms of value they leave out. Original art in the house makes life better, improves outlook, brightens attention, just does, ask someone that owns. They’ll testify that in a world of digital fast food, original art contains mental nutrients that radiate out into the room anytime the lights are on. How is it possible to obtain this benefit, you might ask.

Any mark made on paper by someone truly trying to express themselves has more value than the mona lisa momentarily on your iphone, and it goes up from there. An expression made after years of practice and life experience is rare enough, but also comes additionally fortified with an inherent worth that gives back. A painting is not just an inanimate oddity, but becomes a contributing family member, witness and repository of memories more poignant and relivable than endless files of photos. How much should you pay for an object you may keep the rest of your life -- hard to say, but don’t listen to the dealers, for them it’s business. Instead self-educate. Buy some art, and then compare it to what you see for sale, trust yourself.