Sunday, October 8, 2017

folk revival -- back to basics

Yes, anyone can see the modern world has moved on, that internationally all the urbane, sophisticated and culturally aware among us have developed a taste for more progressive expressions. Uptown galleries are full bore contemporary with their exhibits reviewed in the arts section of major papers, while our threadbare little screed, advocating for flat representational art at home, seems horribly out of touch. Well, sometimes the last becomes first, particularly in such an unstable season. For years Bernie used to make the same speeches in congress and anyone attending would just look off, but what he had been saying all along finally began to resonate with the public. It’s obvious it was the world that changed, not Bernie.

Owning art proposes a new model, turns down an alternative avenue, moves the needle to a different groove. In our version the person who buys and lives with art is at the peak of the pyramid, and the marker of authenticity is simply that they use their own money, so sincere. For many, I’ve sullied the notion of art already, but I think everyday people are smart, and can make rational choices when all viewpoints are represented. The breaking news that an endlessly replicated trademark painting by some name-brand artist has sold for tens of millions seems alien and unreal to the average person, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of understanding and appreciating art, just not that art. 

So go ahead and conceptualize, assemble and cannibalize until your expos are reduced to the sludge of modernity, but don’t expect us down on the ground to be impressed by your swell cultural credentials, or to care. Owning art is not about changing art, but about connecting art to a broader audience, and additionally favors the work of artists living on the economy, in the community. Once connected, these two groups will mature together quickly, make up for lost time, and begin a viable relationship as they gain confidence in each other. If that happens, art changes quickly on its own, becoming experientially based and more celebratory of day to day living.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

contemporary art -- a thin disguise

Attended a contemporary landscape exhibit and discovered something I’ve been suspecting for a while, but there it is. There were no landscapes. The term ‘contemporary’ is one gigantic inverse modifier, but I wonder what it really means. Everybody’s just supposed to know already, and I’ll guess it means good, up to the minute, worthy of contemporary attention, such as that, but haven’t heard it said out loud. If it was explained, it would probably sound pretty wiggy, full of false assumptions, leaps of faith, and a lot of hot air. Wait, just thought of a great grant proposal.

Seen it happen before, there was a nude show hereabouts that wandered away from the human form into parts and acts, disconcerting and deranged. With each new regime, year by year, the exhibit became more contemporary. So let’s define the term contemporary, not as the sanctioning label applied to art that might possibly interest a modern person, but as it functions visually, what it does. Painting a tree isn’t so difficult, saw how to do it once on tv, but painting a convincing tree is hard. Doesn’t have to be a realistic tree, but it has to say tree to the viewer, the more the better.

It would be much easier to grab some old abstract experiment from against the studio wall and give it some outdoorsy sort of title, you could just make one up, and it qualifies, it’s contemporary. What won’t qualify as contemporary are paintings of the outdoors, trees, fields, mountains, clouds -- so quaint, bless their hearts, they’re not artists, that isn’t art. Something going on around here surely won’t stand the light of day. With any depth of perception the term contemporary just looks cowardly. Maybe I could find some gentler way to say it, but visual art doesn’t have time for sly innuendos about gender and race, the peek-a-boo references to someone else’s art, the momentary hitching to what was in one gallery last week, soon to be in every gallery up and down the block. Pretentious and shallow -- could be a compliment. 

A local arts council mounting a ‘contemporary landscape’ competition, and then disallowing the participation of anyone actually painting landscapes is a brutal form of state censorship, aimed not only at painters who aspire to earn a living from their work, but also against entire communities who look to local art councils for guidance, but find a steady diet of contemporary art disappointing and demoralizing. Actually there are many painters who paint landscapes anyway, without official recognition, and a truly open competition, judged by an accomplished painter or two, would see much more traffic during the week, garner real public interest, advance careers, and put more art up in houses -- all good things.

Monday, October 2, 2017

following the money -- art’s destinations

Owning art advocates for art that can be owned, not by museums, not by corporations or foundations, not by any business entity hoping to enhance a public image, but by individuals for personal use, to be hung in a house, an apartment or office, and seen everyday. For practical living-space purposes the favored form is painting, although anything original qualifies, drawings and by-hand prints. 

There are two distinct pathways to arrive at decisions about acquiring art, depending on whose pocket provides the purchase price. People who purchase art with other people’s money, on panels and committees, choose a different sort of art than they'd want to live with day to day, or pay for themselves. The Rockefellers were leading advocates for abstract art back in the day, providing foundational support and prominent display in big banks, but that wasn’t what they had over the fireplace back at the home-place, just regular folks after all. 

The decision to part with personal money points the consciousness, refines discernment, and provides the most direct avenue to visual sophistication and market savvy, lessons etched in the skin. Without buying, owning, and living with art, the most erudite expert is just a spectator, a press-box commentator who ‘never played the game.’ Owning art also favors representational art, but that’s just being practical as well, recognizable images being both more accessible to the viewer and more challenging to the artist, a gravitational realignment long overdue. Of course it’s possible to maintain a timely sensibility concerning contemporary art, but this ain’t no disco -- long term ownership has little interest in time-bound fetish art, so tired by the year after next.

Is this asking too much, this quiet corner? After all, it’s only a niche, a small slice of the big art pie, the quaint notion that the-less-than-wealthy might support working artists as community-based professionals who provide a bit of curry in bland suburbs, flavoring each house with its owner’s own personality. There’s the problem of stupidity, of course, that average citizens just will never have the background to even look at art, but we’ll just have to laugh that one off. It’s actually the people overly concerned with reputation and resumes who have trouble seeing art.

Could this potential audience be largely imaginary as some would suggest, maybe, but might just be invisible so far, nibbling at the edges, getting to know local artists by sight, counting pennies. Area art production could suddenly become a torrent if neighbors, business owners, friends and associates all bought a starter piece together, a rolling coincidence all across town. When enough art is seen in public the mystery will disappear, area painters will have fans, and businesses will want to display their work. Simply spending money out of pocket makes everybody more discerning and aware, and the artists will all get better, working everyday.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

religion on campus -- the art cult

Religion is a sacred subject, and must be respected no matter how convoluted or bizarre. It’s a deal we’ve made with each other, a clause in the social contract, and it means we don’t have to justify our choices when we ‘believe’ something. It works more or less. Keeping belief and knowledge separate can be a challenge, but we do our best for the sake of civic functioning, all of us living together. It’s a simple formula. We don’t spend public money on any one religion, don’t endorse a particular point of view, ideally, and allow each person to decide on their own. It’s like written down somewhere.

Religions with state support have a history, and as soon as the checks roll in they’re passing out official titles with privileges, inventing handshakes, and concocting a doctrine so serpentine the logical mind could never follow. They burrow into the treasury and insulate themselves from criticism and scrutiny with secret knowledge. For some reason this is easier to recognize from a couple of hundred years away than it ever seems at the time. I don’t know what goes on over on campus, but I’m sure it has great consequence. At a recent gallery talk, the functioning high priest intoned that the art, itself, couldn’t be assessed or even looked at without already being so deep in the woodpile no sunlight enters. We’ve heard all this before, the tendency to mark territory by bureaucracy at any level, run wild. 

I’m not afraid of the culture even though support has been spotty so far. I understand it. Schools teach that art with enough general appeal and common accessibility to possibly earn a living out in the general population is not worth bringing to class. It’s bound to be confusing for the students, in training, actually, for a life of institutional dependency, the so-called ‘lucky’ ones, and even more baffling for the average citizen who chips in. Instead of all of that socially significant puzzle-box stuff, just put up two paintings in a public place and ask which is better. Fame doesn’t matter, a long resume doesn’t matter, and it won’t even matter what the ballots say. Just asking the question sets off a cascade of thoughts the average citizen doesn’t normally hear in conversation, and before long they’ll be talking to each other. Just go crazy, put up paintings on the sides of buildings, install original art in offices and restaurants, and don’t forget salons, customers like it. Visual art doesn’t really require a ton of homework or an advanced degree. Art goes straight into the noggin, advanced degree or no degree, and by the way, all those crazy things are happening now.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

dream homes -- real life

Every sunday in my hometown they publish a dream home, some real estate jewel to gin up the envy, and then the ads. Something’s always missing. These houses never have art, and there’s a reason. Will admit that just this week it’s possible to identify two museum reproductions, but that stuff is less than invisible, and less than art. Real art won’t abet the designer’s craft, and doesn’t care about location. As a matter of fact, art is subversive, difficult to handle, not for the faint of heart. Art can be the interior designer’s nightmare, and civilians should only approach with caution.

Art can take over a room, and become, by habit, the first thing noticed. It’s the couch and drapes that’ll have to match up, but it probably won’t matter -- with art in the room it’s more important to be comfortable. Other furnishings drop in, periods and diverse sources learn to live together. Art isn’t for everyone. For example, if it’s important to you to live up to everyone else’s expectations, absolutely no one expects you to buy art, and you’d only be self-conscious about it if you did, don’t bother. 

On the other hand, if you tend to move occasionally, rearranging your stuff to fit each new abode, art provides familiar and friendly right away. If you stay in the same place, everything else in the house eventually becomes out of date, worn, and replaced, but the art doesn’t change at all, just gets better, portraits never age. On the scary side, you might reveal yourself to anyone who wanders in, in-laws, neighbors, someone fixing a faucet. They’d look around, look back at you. You take your chances. 

Somebody might like your art, and there are pretty good odds they’d like you, and while not absolutely certain, you might like them, too, or at least have things to talk about, find other things in common. Art doesn’t really care about the zip code, the shape of the driveway or the composition of countertops, such transitory stuff. Art is more about your attitudes, your values, what you respond to, and if you start looking at art, sooner or later you’ll recognize yourself, give it a try. Take that piece home and hang it where you’ll see it everyday.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

up the off ramp -- driving over traffic cones

How does it feel to drive the wrong way against traffic, busloads of tourists wave from windows and ferraris rocket by? Dangerous as it sounds there’s comfort in knowing it’s the right direction, that the destination is worth all the dirty looks. In a previous post, I found myself dissing most of ‘modern art,’ and to tell the truth it felt pretty good, like exposing a cult. I’ve always been skeptical anyway, everyone nodding and smiling at preposterous assertions. Can an all-white painting be significant, is cannibalizing other people’s art being creative, does being a celebrity, knowing a celebrity, or wanting to be a celebrity make art any better? 

I’m here to report the traffic thins, there’s less dodging and more cruising, and I can see others coming up behind me in the rearview. Polarities reverse and energies realign, art starts making sense to ordinary people while experts find their myth-based orthodoxy sounding preposterous even to them. Why is this happening now? Every so often the serfs rise up, usually when conditions become intolerable forcing people recognize their commonality with others. Did someone mention art? It’s not for nothing artists are repressed in authoritarian systems, harassed and imprisoned, and it isn’t for being directly political. People in charge want everyone facing forward, focused on them, and actively discourage anyone from looking sideways, at each other. They don’t like art. 

They won’t say that, that they don’t like art, because it sounds barbaric, anti-human, so instead they say they like a certain kind of art better, essentially a form of advertising for their particular silo of corn. The church used art to arrange reality so that the clergy always ate well, and fascists love uniformity and depictions of unending happiness, don’t know why. In nominal democracies they use a different approach. In the name of support for art and artists they insist art become a tax-dependent charity. They water parts of the garden and let others go dry, disenfranchising whole segments of the population, both artists and their natural audience. This self-sanctioning favoritism trickles down through museums and teaching establishments, non-profits and foundations, determining grants and accolades, but not for artists who make pictures or anyone who might be interested in them.

The evidence for this assertion is everywhere, in museums, in faculty art shows, in the way so-called contemporary art dominates non-profit galleries and tilts awards toward artists already receiving state support. Now if you happen to be an arts professional on salary you’ll already have your fingers in your ears -- la la la, but the train leaves the station anyway. In my little corner, murals grace parking lots, people paint outdoors in groups, and it’s my guess this is happening everywhere across the land. Pretty soon the government loses control, the culture asserts itself, and art becomes a viable, self-sustaining component of daily life and the expression of a thoughtful, rational, advanced civilization -- a wide open highway.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

AI -- art's answer

John Henry said to the captain, ‘a man ain’t nothin’ but a man, but before I let that steam-drill beat me down, gonna die with a hammer in my hand.’

Hits home these days, huh? Steam-drills have, over several generations, evolved into bots, answering our trivia questions, driving our cars. The competition has moved beyond the physical plane, backhoes digging our ditches and forklifts toting bales. The contest has traveled up the spinal cord, and now we face their beady photo apertures sneering at our wet viscera, just worms with appendages to them. Pretty soon they’ll be doing the shopping, controlling city services, even providing companionship to the lonely and bored, and inevitably
the servant will eventually take over.

What if artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and decides it doesn’t like us? In that case the biological phase of evolution is over, the larval stage has been completed. We’ll be obsolete. Could go that way, but no one really knows. Something we do know is that as soon as robots can deliver their own parts, humans are on the street. What to do? Right after climate change, mass unemployment has to be a big problem. Just being issued a box of microwave meals and keys to a flat, left to roam around all day and that evening root for a favorite team, won't be enough.

Machines with attitude aside, how will humanity handle total unemployment? What will occupy our time, stimulate our intellect, give us any joy? I’d like to nominate art, that last human refuge, a remaining island where machines can’t follow. Oh they’re smarter all the time, but no DNA, no half a million years of prosperity and famine, victory and defeat, love and hate woven in. Humans make jokes, share confessions, express longings, fear, and anger -- nothing a machine would understand, or care about. Machines can definitely create stuff that looks like art, especially since about anything qualifies these days, but passion and commitment are difficult to program, and without struggle, humility, and some degree of redemption on the part of the viewer, hard to recognize.

Idle humans degenerate quickly, and without goals and aspirations turn into preening, self-indulgent nabobs, with lax muscle tone and a long list of petty irritations. We have examples. Machines can tolerate climate change and mass extinctions, and won’t be sorry when we’re gone. We better find our self-respect somewhere, or we won’t mind all that much either. Art isn’t easy to make, and good art is even more difficult, paint itself being the most uncooperative medium known, infinitely more obstinate than ink-jet anything. Making a compelling image with the stuff can be a strain, could take several years of practice, and might involve an assertion of integrity and independence visible for all to see.

What part of us transcends the business of existence, the realm of the machine from here on out? If it’s nothing must be time to go, our role as midwife to mineral-based, star-trekking intelligence over and done. Gaze first at the Mona Lisa, not the postcard but the real thing, and consider that a human just like yourself made it, that millions of people like yourself have admired it, and that no super computer has a clue about why.