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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. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

exclusion ugly -- art’s messages

Who could understand ‘art’ without insider access, extensive post-grad conferencing, the trained eye of an expert. It isn’t me. I’ve never gotten past ‘what’s it a picture of, and how good is it,’ just a simple country yokel. That’s why I don’t try to stay current on latest developments, and default on my dues. I stand way back, about a hundred and fifty years, and taken as a chunk modernity poses some interesting questions.

                            Marcel Duchamp, Fountain 1917/1964. Readymade: porcelain urinal. 23.5 ...

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth, art began to court the wealthy and connected, and to hide from common folk. This radical unhitching of art from direct experience is all documented, by the way, in every museum in the land. It started with a urinal entered in an art show, an adolescent prank, really, but it was so fundamentally offensive, so insolent, so single-frequency moronic, that it was taken as a work of genius instead. It became the porcelain pivot point for the movement known as ‘modern art.’ By using money, the wealthy have been able to coax art into their private pen where they torture and distort it, keeping it dependent and totally unpalatable to the larger society, a wretched servant forced to carry their money bags past the IRS, and to provide identifiable trophies for the well-appointed semi-royal residence. Theon Greyjoy in real life.

This loathsome scheme was challenged from the south, by the mexicans. Diego Rivera made big paintings with millionaires in silk hats standing next to aztec warriors, next to conquistadors, next to farmers, all together, in a voice of common humanity, and he went to war with the Rockefellers, using their money. A big mistake. He made eight large paintings for them on commission, and then with the studio still rented produced eight more they wouldn’t like. Remember one in which rich people in furs and tuxes checked safety deposit boxes in a vault, while just above them there were long rows of bunks showing how the indigent were housed out on long island, such as that.

They set a trap, not just for Diego Rivera, but for the way humanity views itself, nothing less. They said to him put up a fresco, you can paint anything you want in our new steel building, should last a thousand years, and we’ll send you back to mexico rich. He fell for it. It took him an arduous six months on scaffolding, working uncounted hours every week. They wouldn’t allow photographs at any point, and when he was finished they jackhammered it down immediately. What was on it you may ask, and it can be seen, re-created in mexico with the funds left over, but it was a great defeat for us all. With Rockefeller sponsorship, a new wave called ‘abstract expressionism’ flooded the museums across the land, big, spontaneous, and mute. The common folk lost interest, and wasn’t that part of the plan? 

So, lets scroll down to the end, catch up with the present day, and examine prime evidence, it isn’t hidden. Recently a billionaire from the fashion trade purchased the most prized painting on the planet for a record hundred and ten million dollars, and maybe we could take just a moment and look at it, consider what it has to say, about life, about art, about us. It defines ugly. It’s repulsive, a billboard for death by overdose, nihilistic, bored yet surly, all the while remarkably, transcendently unskilled and hard to look at -- but let’s try. Basquiat’s painting is repulsive for a reason. You’re not supposed to like it. You’ll see it, but won’t even try to process it’s incoherent scrawl. It does it’s job. It’s a bar across the door, a stink-bomb in the hallway, and exclusion zone to your mind. It makes art look not just unattainable but easily lived without, the message loud and clear -- ‘go root for your favorite team you six-pack swilling cretin, we’ll manage the art.’

It won’t work forever.