Tuesday, August 22, 2017

law and society -- artistic license revoked

What happens when those in authority really don’t like a work of art? I have a cautionary tale from Cincinnati, mostly from recollection. Seems city fathers, in the early seventies, wanted to commission a piece of art to stand in front of their new courthouse, while concurrently commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Cincinnati Bar Association, a grand occasion. Its title was to be, ‘Law and Society.’ They held an international competition and selected a german artist, Barna von Sartory.

To give the artist a head start they quarried a massive block of ‘miami river marble,’ a fine grained limestone complete with quarry marks, rough cut. They set the block up in public with the vague notion of some classical maestro in smock and floppy beret whacking away with mallet and chisel, heroic art emerging for all to see. There was a deadline. The block, gray and hulking, sat months in the sun and rain, ice and snow, nothing happened. Then in the final week, a low-boy trailer pulls up and delivers the rest of the artwork, four square highly-polished stainless steel legs about eight feet high. The block is hoisted on top and that’s it, commission complete. City fathers were aghast, perplexed, massively unhappy.

The piece never made it to the courthouse. It sat on fountain square for a couple of years, lonely, ignored, and unloved. It was on a cold day in march, me just hanging on the square and contemplating this odd sculpture, people passing by. In a moment a single woman in a red coat walked past, and reflected in stainless steel I glimpsed several red coats going different directions, all in a flash. ‘Law and Society’ I thought, the mandated name of the piece, and suddenly I understood -- which part was society and which was the law. I suspected they saw it too, but wouldn’t let on. They affixed a plaque directly to one of the legs, explaining that this sculpture was meant to represent the solid foundation law provided society, figure it out. They then started moving it closer and closer to the river. Its final destination, so far, is under a bridge next to a parking lot.

Those were not the only indignities they’ve heaped on it. When one of the stainless steel legs began to delaminate, they assigned some junior motor-pool apprentice to weld it back, globby and scorched, contempt exuding. It sits wounded, in constant shadow, maybe you could check it out while parking the car. Was it a joke, a singular abuse of ‘artistic freedom,’ or was it a legitimate statement, a check on the authoritarian drift of any civil society? Could it be just abstract? It’s certainly successful, even provocative, in that regard, but I suspect on some level everyone understands the subversion, the impudence, the gleeful anarchy it represents. One day it will just disappear, plop.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

revival -- the second coming

The world of art is divided into old testament ‘representational’ and new testament ‘modernity,’ with different liturgies and separate versions of god. Old testament art can be really old, maneless lions stalk equally extinct elk on cave walls, and somehow, although we live in a very different world, we get it. We know those animals from fossils found, and we discern their beastly motives, contentedly grazing or stealthily hunting. That’s a lot of communication from a long way off, and doesn’t it add dignity and humanity to people archeologists had always demeaned as subhuman? Down through the ages pictures have defined societies, provided cohesion and unity of thought, and through our own materialistic lens we attempt to understand previous cultures through their art.

The modern world is literate, for one thing, and we’ve all been taught words are more important than pictures, and that knowing something means being able to say it. The ability to read comes in handy no doubt, instruction manuals in seven languages, but in some respects it requires rewiring and modifying the machine we’ve inherited. Humans are ‘sighted’ animals, fifty percent of the mass of the brain and eighty percent of the circuits somehow involved in sight, from TV documentaries, yet we live in a world in which pictures have been reduced to illustrations for words spoken, the same ten seconds of video repeated over and over while talking heads debate.

Somehow in the last century, words, like ivy, eventually covered up and smothered the direct communication pictures convey, and cults of personality, balefully myopic theories, and pompous declarations began to displace simply seeing art. A new testament arose featuring the arcane puzzle boxes of an artist, Marcel Duchamp, who simply couldn’t paint, he tried. Clement Greenberg pretending divine authority, apparently, extolled the virtues of ‘flatness,’ and such silly shit as that, because dealing directly with pictures requires more than just bluster. In the recent past teachers at the U maintained a separate drawer of dour judgements for any student audacious enough to present representational art during class critiques, when they were tolerated at all.

Modernity presents a pretty tinny set of saints is all I’m saying, these days clutching at social causes to animate a depleted narrative, moving public money like a pea under a walnut shell, all the while taking the temperature of the planet’s stolen wealth, a sad sideshow. Yes, friends, gather round, we’re talking old time revival. As example, representational murals are going up everywhere. In cities, independent agencies are commissioning studio artists to cover blank walls, and marvelous historical paintings on flood-walls ripple out into parking lots and city parks miles from the river. There are clever departures, imagination abounds, but haven’t seen an ‘abstract’ yet. These are artists with something to say, and don’t you wonder where have they been? Are these programs, utilizing public spaces to present serious art, the vehicle of a new public awareness, are they more likely its result, or is there some sort of an organic change in public sensibility taking place all around, and the murals are just a part of its expression? Everyone check all of the above. Gimme that old time visual expression, induced empathies and non-verbal insights -- it’s good enough for me.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

symbolic absence -- erasing art

the removal of confederate monuments -- 
John Hunt Morgan's statue has to go. Ride off into the sunset patina-green knight, because you can’t stay here. He was erected, not so much as representative of a criminal rogue regime, but as local cultural icon, poster boy for bluegrass landed-gentry, dashing and feckless. Around here he’s most famous for riding through the front door of the family mansion with yankees close behind, and out the back, presumedly without dismounting. Big house. Colorful but not a great military victory, not even gallant, a comic opera diversion from a brutal bloody carnage.

I suppose I’ve never taken John seriously, more like the uniformed prince-charming from a local fairytale, so erect and noble on his transitioned horse, sort of a joke. As art his monument is something like a Jeff Koons three dimensional, and a swell lawn ornament for a refurbished courthouse tourist center, but it’s not to be. He’ll become a symbol of a tidal wave of historical correctness booting his revisionist ass right out of the park, by not being there. That’s right. He’ll wind up becoming more significant in his absence than he was when he was here, and you can’t get more zen than that.

Doesn’t it remind the student of art of the famous ‘erased drawing’, a blank piece of paper? Seems Rauschenberg convinces deKooning to give him a drawing he can erase. At first deKooning says of course not and has to be convinced, for dramatic effect don’t you see, but finally finds a genius sketch for Bob to deconstruct. Some rich guy owns it now in a little frame, so precious. I always thought that was sort of a joke, but now I see, there’s power in being gone. John Hunt will soon be gone. Where he stood will be scoured and disinfected, and considering what a mess his being here could cause, can’t be too soon.

I say save him not too far out of town, because someday, when current points have been made, when immediate social issues have been settled, or at least evolved, maybe he can come back, the nostalgic conceit of a past that never was, only an all-weather, politically neutral, wonderfully well-made piece of yard art.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

alchemy -- the practice of art

Alchemy was a pretty crazy idea back when it was happening, the neighbors thought it strange and gave wide berth. Here is a man, presumedly with long suffering wife, who instead of earning daily bread spends all his time in his ‘laboratory’ trying to convert common pot metal into gold, so stupid. It isn’t going to work, atomic scientists agree the conversion isn’t possible, doomed to futility. Everybody sees it, and sometimes he suspects himself, but he goes there everyday anyway.  

He probably has a different definition of gold, and sees his operation as partially successful, close to the breakthrough, on the verge of justifying all the time and effort, the frugality, the weird looks in the street and the profound distance of neighbors. Oh it would be gratifying in its way to pull up one day in a long shiny car, toss around a little cash, do a grand ‘told you so’ tour, but that isn’t what drives him, such a dreary revenge. It’s beginning to seem this person, the alchemist, just likes the process, enjoys the challenge, wants to face the impossible -- Ahab without the ocean, hardheaded. 

Creating something of value from common material is just called industry in this age of the world, and the crucible of competition mandates efficiency, streamlines production, and squeezes the maximum value from every ton of ore, every truckload of corn. Machines are great and technology is awesome, but the greatest conversion of nothing into something is still done by hand. It’s called painting. Canvas and paint are definitely not high-tech, totally common, and have been in use all the way back to the first people we call human, pot metal for sure. In the studio the artist attempts to raise their value by an astronomical percentage, enough ideally to provide a modest living, buy new canvas and paint, and pay rent on the studio. 

It wouldn’t be possible at most other times in history, and it’s a privilege in this one. With a year or two here and there for hourly wages, and occasional help from the state, unemployment comp and worker subsidies, the independent artist skates by with a low heat lifestyle, cheap rent and homemade recreation. Hold out as long as possible, don’t waste a dab of paint or an inch of canvas, and possibly find a bridge, the kindly millionaire patron you accidentally bump into, the big city dealer visiting a sister who sees a fast buck. Mostly alchemy is a long slog, doing the same rituals every morning while results move geologic, going backward part of the time, and nodding to the neighbors, smiling at in-laws.

The artist hopes to call out similar personalities, to impinge on related points of view, and to include as many as want to come along, anyone willing to ‘see‘ what they’ve painted. It’s a quest for a bead of gold in the bottom of the cup, for a value much greater than seems possible from simple stuff.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

the art market is to art -- sizzle vs steak

The ‘art market’ isn’t about art, it’s about acquisition. Very wealthy people vie with each other at pissing away money, it’s what they do. These days you won’t be seeing them lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills, a blatant insult to poor folks everywhere, but they will drop a few conspicuous million on anything the other rich guys want too, just because. This is, seriously, the way art is sold across the board. A renowned local dealer has been quoted, ‘the price of a piece of art is what others are willing to pay for it.’ Period. What’s the style, what’s it about -- didn’t come up. This is, in the first place, a strange door to walk through. Art is no longer valued by whatever is on the front, but instead relies on an indexed desire to pay by a spooky consensus you’re just going to have to believe in. The whole business exudes an oily unwholesome mystique, but if it produces great art why ask why? You be the judge. 

In contrast art is defined differently here, and we could start with price. The price of art, as far as you’re concerned, is what you’re willing to pay for it, after deciding how much you want it. All those phantom bidders trying to get this thing away from you, let them have it. There’s no reason to compete with them, resist the urge. Instead consider investing some of your assets in something of value you can see and live with everyday, that enhances your life and adds substance to your home. Unless you’re trying to impress your friends you won’t be spending millions, but the real thing isn’t cheap and shouldn’t be.

The artists, based on all they know and have experienced, make the best art they can make, that’s their job, their side of the bargain. If they change it a little thinking more people might want to buy it, or so their peers will approve, or because they want to be famous, they’re not living up to the code. If they’re honest, what they have to say as artists comes through no matter what they paint, can’t help it you understand. Ten artists painting the same thing will produce ten different pictures depending on their skill and discernment, and seeing them all together would reveal their individual quotient of each. In a rational world prices would be assigned accordingly.

Far away in the contemporary art market, new money in pursuit of status is churning millions for trademark art a sign painter could easily forge, and has. Around here artists have day jobs, sacrifice to pay for supplies, and steal their work-time whenever they can, because average people like you, my friend, have been convinced by the evening news that art is an extravagance that goes with yachts and exotic automobiles. Once it occurs to you, and to a few fellow citizens, that original art has been missing on your walls, from restaurants where you eat and offices you visit, and when you begin to recognize area artists by their work, that million dollar gossipy game-show frenzy ceases to be relevant.

Friday, August 4, 2017

surf's up -- the next big thing

Bucking the system isn’t going to be easy. In attempting to present their work directly to the public, artists forego a gallery’s media and social outreach, along with a downtown track-lit presentation. The prospective buyer is required to know more as well, having already considered art by other area artists along with their prices, so there are disadvantages, even obligations, for both parties.

On the other hand, the artist has the opportunity for direct interaction with the public, the chance to discuss their art with thoughtful people, and not just those with pen in hand. For the prospective owner, it’s the privilege of meeting the artist in person, the opportunity to relate a personality to the work, an insight that will enhance appreciation over the years. There are more practical considerations as well. 

For the artist to receive their asking price, the buyer pays twice as much to a gallery. You can be certain it’s totally justified, but when the possibility exists to deal with the artist directly, is it always necessary? Gallery directors insist they help their clients avoid making ‘mistakes,’ but could it be the major mistake they hope to avoid is this person buying art from someone else?

This is basic, art is a noble product, the most significance possible from humble constituents -- wood, canvas, and paint. The occasional authentic truth is something you’ll recognize firsthand, in some indescribable way resonating with something inside. Closer to the source is where it’s most likely to be found, just another new-found insight of a larger societal movement. Simply looking at art for sale in restaurants, salons, and offices, visiting artists‘ studios when tours are available, and seeking out popup artist’s galleries will help you catch the crest of a wave that’s on its way to be.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

paintings -- common ingredient

How rich do you have to be for a pile of something somewhere in your expansive house to be obviously art? What instructions will you give the housekeeper, do you have to call the artist to move it, are underlings going to laugh behind your back? Other rich people will understand because you’ll tell them how much you paid for it, or you’ll expect them to know already, but be warned, away from the dazzle of the expo your deskilled assemblage might not like the morning light. 

Paintings, on the other hand, are portable, and up off the floor they stay out of the way. When you move they stack together in the van, and when well-made are easily maintained, should last forever. Sizes vary, but mostly paintings are all the same, just colors arranged on a flat, rectangular surface. Buying and selling should be easy, the painting, itself, like the puppy in the window, just wanting to be loved and to find a good home, but it isn’t. 

The complicated part is price, how is it determined and what does it have to do with the inherent worth of the object? Actually, less and less. It’s a common but inverted logic that suggests price determines value. Anyone can see being very expensive is just a big bluff until someone writes the check, and then all of a sudden it’s real, don’t you see? If you have a few extra bucks and a yen for exotic poker, the art game is tailor-made for you -- hold ‘em, fold ‘em, bet on the next big thing. 

Owning art maintains the quixotic notion that commitment, vision, and accomplishment ought to determine price, relative, of course, to the other art around. Simple as that. Rather than consulting a listing of prior affirmations, and factoring in the uptown, high-rent location of the gallery, we suggest looking straight away at the art. Nothing but open-minded, and without regard to abstract or representational, the essential question becomes does this painting sustain a gravitational pull on the attention, is it noticed each time seen? It’s a visual test based on the direct experience of the viewer, and also represents the basic aspiration of anyone who tries to make a picture. All the rest is sauce, at the top a curry of high fashion and tribal identity, the hulking edifice of the art-industrial complex turns out to be a fancy restaurant that somehow lost the meat.