Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
January 5, 2012
Okay, I’m back, after a couple of weeks of luxuriating in unprecedented SoCal warmth, house-sitting at friends’ Spanish villa in Altadena, commuting to kundalini yoga classes every day at Golden Bridge in Hollywood, hanging out with family—and taking a necessary break from thinking.
But then my friend, Larry, and I got to talking about music, as we have over the years, and I was surprised to hear him say that music is in a lull, and there’s been nothing new since Radiohead. Really? Meanwhile I’m finding that there are so many new and interesting sounds out there I can hardly keep track of them. I love that I can stream KCRW’s Eclectic 24 all day long and enjoy almost everything (except Tom Waits; what do people see in him?). I’m always writing down the names of bands I’m going to explore in more depth on Spotify, but I never get around to it because the next day there’s a whole new list.
Larry put forth his theory “that the generation associated with 9/11 are a little traumatized and didn't invent very much (now they are 28 to 36-year-olds)” and hopes the "occupy generation will come up with something provocative and new.”
Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire are pretty exciting to my ears, but Larry doesn’t like them. MGMT? He says they sound like the Stones, ca. 1979. Huh? They may have written a tribute to the Stones, but they also wrote one (their only annoying song) to Brian Eno. Far from being “stunned” their music is celebratory to the point that their last album is entitled, “Congratulations!” And what about Lady Gaga? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Larry referred to an article in the current Vanity Fair, “You Say You Want a Devolution” by Kurt Anderson, whose thesis is that, “as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.” To Kurt, cars look the same, clothes look the same, and music sounds the same as it did in 1992. (A similar argument is put forth in Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania).
As far as cars go, it’s unfair to expect innovation from an industry that’s been simply struggling to stay alive. In fashion, even if the disappearance of showy designer labels were the only change, the world is better for it. I, for one, am delighted that leggings finally returned. We still wear jeans, but they’re tighter—a lot tighter. Along with being squished like sausages into their “jeggings,” women are teetering around on cartoon-like high heels (no one said we have to like what the younger generation is wearing, remember?) Oh, and how about this? More facial hair for men and less pubic hair for women (is there a connection? I’ll try not to make something of it). Then there’s the plaid fad, come and (hopefully) gone, and in footwear a proliferation of boots—high, higher, short, and (except for Uggs), pointy and pointier—flip-flops and (eek!) Crocs. In the past ten years waistbands dropped to the point of exposing the tops of thongs and worse, but have mercifully inched upward. We have global warming to thank for the fact that there’s a lot less clothing in general, and with so much more exposed skin, tattoos and piercing are now mainstream.
Regarding music, I put the question to son Matt, a culture critic by profession, who commented that just as it’s hard to buy a bad bottle of wine these days, music in general is of such high quality that the A bands might not stand out as much from the B bands as they once did. He reminded me of the junk music that proliferated on the airwaves in the 70’s—an entire genre of “soft rock” that is, thank God, pretty much done for. Larry is complaining about Bon Iver and The National, not Rod Stewart and Tom Jones—and even he will no doubt admit that teen throbs Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are more listenable than the Osmonds and the Carpenters ever were.
Lady Gaga is hardly “stunned,” nor is she simply a clone of Madonna (Anderson calls it an “Immaterial Difference,” which is cute but not accurate). In fact the very same issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story on Gaga with a pull quote that states, “As ‘Jo Calderone’ at the V.M.A.s, she instantly made every female star who had pink hair or wore a contraption on her head look dated.” Stuck in their need to make disparaging pronouncements about the younger generation (just like our parents!—it’s a stage of human development that, while undocumented, is as predictable as the Terrible Twos) it’s possible that Boomers simply can’t see the distinctions. While the “provocative and new” characterized the revolutionary times we grew up in, they may not be the qualities this revolution requires. My theory (I’m at that age; we have to have them!) is that there’s a time for innovation and a time for development, and we’re in the latter stage—it’s just that our hunger for the new has kept us from exploring it.
Further, how actually “new” was our beloved rock ‘n roll? Someone old and hip in the 50s could have easily dismissed Elvis’s music as a fusion of existing music: rockabilly and R & B. What made it “provocative” was the fact that he was white. And the Stones and the Beatles would have been nowhere without Elvis—they could have been seen as clones in the beginning, when their provocativeness had more to do with being British with funny haircuts.
“Newness” in 50s and 60s may have been more about a culture gap, which is now closed.
In making his case for stasis, Anderson also notes that Frank Gehry was the major architectural influence in 2002 and still is in 2012. So what? We had Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1959 and we’re not finished with him yet.
Therefore, it may be that Occupy Wall Street, rather than copying, is building on the peace movements of the 60s, Gaga is building on the Madonna precedent as MGMT is building on a synthesis of the Stones, Eno, the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd (to whom I think they owe the most) without sounding like any one of them….
Which brings us to contemporary art, which truly sucks (at least that in most museums and commercial galleries). Unlike architecture and music, it really is devolving. Instead of building on the old ideas, current art is getting watered down to the point that it has little pulse left, with artists reinventing the wheel left and right. I believe, however, that the cause is situational rather than generational. Where Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of MGMT could sit in their Wesleyan University dorm rooms in the mid-00s, sharing the music they liked, listening to it over and over, picking it apart, their BFA counterparts were relegated to looking at projected images or reproductions in books or on the Web. How many had actually seen a Rauschenberg combine? And even if they did, what about the ones that came before and after it? How many art students now know that Eleanor Antin preceded Cindy Sherman, or that Lucas Samaras has already done everything they (the students) are trying to do? How many have experienced an actual installation by Olafur Eliasson or attended Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA or have seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock? That’s why museum retrospectives, like MoMA’s de Kooning show (closing 1/9) are so important, but becoming fewer and fewer as belts are being tightened; it’s so much less expensive to clear the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal than it is to borrow, insure and ship invaluable works.
Former art movements evolved out of direct contact: social situations that built on other social situations, younger artists reacting—in person—to the artists and art of previous generations. Now they're responding to information rather than the immediate visual experience a true understanding of art requires. Also galleries and museums, by their very nature, cannot react to the times because they’re planning at least a year, if not years, in advance.
That’s why we shouldn’t be looking to galleries and museums for the new but to the streets. Street Art is currently the most exciting and relevant visual art because it’s generated in a social situation and must survive in the moment, which is unique to NOW. One example:
Meanwhile, if you want true inspiration in fashion, look to the kindergarten crowd, set free because liberal parents no longer feel the need to pick out their children's clothes—and unlike earlier generations, kids so far seem to have no desire to conform to any but their own sensibilities. I wish you could've seen the little girl at the airport in high, polka-dot rubber boots, shocking pink tutu, and long-sleeved striped T-shirt, her curly hair topped by a giant bow. And here’s my little friend, Lucinda, who, every time I see her, is wearing yet another imaginative combo. All is not lost.
December 15, 2011
By now everyone knows that TIME’s Person of the Year for 2011 is “The Protester” and that Shepard Fairey created the cover. Those who’ve followed this blog for a while know that I worked as a consultant for TIME on the covers for over 20 years, and introduced Fairey to TIME in 2007, when he created an image of Putin that ran on the inside (see post here). While the Person of the Year, along with the magazine itself, no longer has much cachet, I’m still glad TIME made a good call (over, say, Kate Middleton for getting married or Steve Jobs for dying) as it represents formal recognition that this is a massive, worldwide movement—unlike the New York Times, which is still waiting for Occupy to go away so no one will notice that they haven’t been covering it.
I admire Shepard Fairey and feel his success is deserved; I have absolutely no patience with the kneejerk reaction that commercial success = sellout (Coldplay remains a favorite, and I’m glad Radiohead left their major label so they, too, don’t have to be a guilty pleasure). However, if I still worked for TIME, I wouldn’t have recommended Fairey for this cover simply because the protests represent the new and unknown, where his now-ubiquitous style is associated with the known, the past, and is simply too sleek and realized (again, nothing wrong with that per se) to represent the nascent, unformed and gritty surge that is this movement. If they’d asked, I would have looked for the street artist who is now what Fairey was in 2007. It's no one I could name off the top of my head. Because a TIME cover has very specific requirements, that would require the research that was once my job. I might, however, start here:
Although it’s had the Internet on fire for weeks and was a headline today in Britain’s Guardian, another event the New York Times (along with the rest of the mainstream media) hasn’t covered is the hasty passing—ironically on 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights—of the latest iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act, which many feel compromises our most basic American rights to due process. But you can learn about it on the Huffington Post, and if you need a laugh to mitigate the fright, on The Daily Show.
Meanwhile, in the art world, I received a press release today announcing that Gagosian will be showing ALL of Damien Hirst’s dot paintings (they call them “spot” paintings) in ALL of the eleven Gagosian Galleries throughout the world—Paris, Athens, Geneva, Hong Kong, London, Rome and New York. Now there’s an event to stay home for. My opinion as a critic is, if you’ve seen one dot painting, you’ve seen them all. You can quote me.
Banksy's take on Hirst's dot paintings.
Banksy's take on Hirst's dot paintings.
December 4, 2011
When I went to the Yucatan a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a trip I made there with my friend, Jeff, in the late eighties, when the “Mayan Riviera,” as it’s now called, was still wild. Tulum is one of the few places I’ve been that’s actually been improved by development (the coast at Folkestone, England is another). Back then, a walk along the beach meant navigating piles of seaweed and plastic garbage thrown overboard by boats. Now the numerous but modest eco-lodges that line the beach (“eco-lodge” is short for “electricity and water that goes randomly on and off”) keep the white sand sparkling clean. Jeff and I stayed near Playa del Carmen at a resort called El Capitan Lafitte, now Petite Lafitte but, I hear, much the same (a good thing). One day as we were going out for a walk, our neighbors in the next cabana told us that the Federales were out looking for marijuana smugglers and we might find some bales washed up on the beach. Oh sure, I thought, they tell that to all the tourists, but then a mile or so down the beach we came across, in all its majestic glory, the biggest, most water-logged bale of weed you’d ever hope to see—which, if we’d been of a more enterprising bent, could have supported us for a good long time. Did we smoke any? I’ll never tell.
Jeff wrote today that he’s been back to Playa del Carmen about four times since, and once took a trip all the way down the coast to Xcalak, almost to Belize. He said he didn’t find any weed washed up, but did see this Federale helicopter flying overhead at dawn, looking for some.
Photo: Jeffrey Rubin
December 3, 2011
It had to happen. Following the final performance of Satyagraha at the Met Thursday night, opera-goers found the story continuing in real life as police tried to shoo them away from the OWS gathering outside—which included the composer Philip Glass, who used OWS’s “human mic” technique to recite a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita. In true “minimalist” tradition (which means, counter-intuitively, that you say things more than once), Glass repeated it three times:
Rules the Land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
A man among men
For the protection
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again
I think we could make something of the fact that, along with Naomi Wolf’s arrest at OWS downtown, this story never made it to the New York Times, where both Glass and Wolf’s cultural contributions have been more than amply covered (including Wolf’s delightful dissertation on little girls’ obsession with princesses, published this weekend). I first learned about the Lincoln Center protest on the LA Times website (via Facebook, of course), and recommend this thoughtful coverage by Seth Colter Walls at The Awl.
December 1, 2011
Today it was announced that Art Vent was awarded a major grant from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation:
Designed to encourage and reward writing about contemporary art that is rigorous, passionate, eloquent and precise, as well as to create a broader audience for arts writing, the program aims to strengthen the field as a whole and to ensure that critical writing remains a valued mode of engaging the visual arts.
In its 2011 cycle, the Arts Writers Grant Program has awarded a total of $565,000 to twenty-three writers representing twenty projects. Ranging from $8,000 to $50,000 in four categories—articles, blogs, books and short-form writing—these grants support projects addressing both general and specialized art audiences, from scholarly studies to self-published blogs.
As you know, Art Vent has been a labor of love since 2007, and would not have continued without your consistent support and feedback. This generous grant will enable me to improve the site and keep going!
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
November 27, 2011
There’s just one more production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Met, although it’s being shown in HD practically everywhere. I loved the opera, but can’t imagine that sitting through a simulcast would be anything but tedious. I believe in live music and live opera, especially since reading (in an article I can no longer find) that smaller city opera companies are closing and one of the reasons is the availability of simulcasts. Because opera houses insist on playing the same 18th and 19th century chestnuts over and over (enough with the Marriage of Figaro already!), opera often deserves its stuffy reputation. However no other genre has the possibility of fulfilling all the senses the way opera can, which makes it the ultimate art form. However I believe its possibilities—the synergy of visual art, music, dance and theater—haven’t even begun to be fully explored.
I also have an inside track through my friend, Timothy Breese, a bass-baritone who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus since 1999. In Satyagraha he’s front and center—tall and handsome, with a brimmed red hat and purple mustache. Through my friendship with Tim I’ve learned what it takes to maintain an operatic voice—mostly relentless daily practice and private coaching—and about the seemingly impossible feat of memorization. To me, the job of the chorus appears in some ways more challenging than that of soloists, as they’re not singing pieces from beginning to end, but continually starting and stopping at various points throughout. This season Tim sang in 23 operas, of which seven were new. When he began working with the chorus, in order to catch up he had to immediately master several at once, on his own, spending 100 hours on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron alone (one of the most gorgeous productions, both visually and musically, I’ve seen), which he says is probably the most difficult opera for chorus ever written. Tim also ranks Satyagraha among the most challenging.
Photo: Metropolitan Opera, Satyagraha
And Jim Hodges hangs a disco ball over a hole filled with water in a gallery floor and we’re supposed to be impressed…. Whoops! I‘m getting off-topic….
What I was going to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, is that another thing I learned from Tim is the value of persistence.
Three days before Tim first sang in what turned out to be a grueling round of auditions for the Met, he also tried out for what I’ll call the Podunk Dinner Theater. At the Met, he was one of six or seven ultimately selected from a pool of more than 600 hopefuls.
He did not make the Podunk Dinner Theater.
This story, which I relate to students whenever I have the opportunity, was key in the development of my Malcolm Gladwell-esque ITOTKO (It Takes One To Know One) theory, the premise of which is that only excellence recognizes excellence. To elaborate: only someone as smart or accomplished as you is going to recognize how smart and/or accomplished you are. Forget working your way up, because the people you encounter in the low or mid-ranks are not capable of appreciating your gifts. Yet most people, thinking conventionally, would say to themselves, “Wow, I didn’t make the Podunk Dinner Theater, so I can’t possibly audition for the Met.”
This is why it’s important to KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT.
It was much more fun, however, when I thought I could make excuses.
Note: This is what Tim said when I asked him what makes Moses und Aron so especially difficult:
"Moses und Aron is completely atonal. The notes were sometimes literally thrown down a stair and then used in the pattern they fell in, backwards, upside down, and in every possible rhythm combination and meter. Heard enough? It's a terrific opera though."