Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


December 22, 2010
 The canals of Pasadena

...until January. I got to LA in time for a couple of days of sun, and then this epic week-long storm during which the area has gotten more than half its annual rainfall--continuous sheets of pummeling rain like I've never seen before, today the worst, no point in going out. So I've got a fire going in the fireplace, am doing drawings, and not planning to have any Big Thoughts until 2011. Happy New Year!

December 7, 2010

I’m off to LA on Friday until the end of the month, and never know what that means for blogging. Could be more, could be less.

I’ll leave you with this link to an article about the MFA creative writing culture that Ken Johnson posted on Facebook, saying, “With minor changes, it could be about art.” Both are institutional programs whose primary objective is self-perpetuation. The only difference, really, is that we don’t have two visual art cultures—everything goes through New York. Or does it? Can you get a teaching job with a local reputation? Where the writing programs concentrate on more easily achieved short stories, rather than novels, visual art programs encourage the art equivalent by not being nearly rigorous enough. It always amazes me what gets by.

I wasn’t going to mention Steve Martin ever again (really!) except that in his apologia in the Times on Saturday (where he errs on the side of earnestness—a boring piece about whether or not he was boring is rather likely to make us think he was) he refers to Times writer Deborah Solomon, as an “art scholar.” I won’t say any more. Yes I will. I first got on her case when I wrote a review (ARTnews, May, 1997) of Utopia Parkway, her biography of Joseph Cornell, where she delved into the details of the artist’s sex life, quoted from his very personal diaries, interviewed ex-girlfriends, and went on at some length conjecturing about what it took for the man to achieve orgasm. An art scholar would have known better.

And finally, apropos of nothing, I’ll share some quotes from Thom Yorke I found when I was looking for another quote and didn’t find it, something to the effect that “when you get famous you go up your own arse.” But these are also worth repeating even though, because it’s the Web, no one feels the need to tell us where they originated:

My girlfriend has this quote in her sketchbook: "Remain orderly in your life so you can be free and chaotic in your work." I think basically you lose it when you destroy your brain or destroy yourself emotionally or burn yourself up.

It's easy to be miserable. Being happy is tougher - and cooler.

People sometimes say we take things too seriously, but it's the only way you'll get anywhere.

December 2, 2010

The reason I’ve been reading so much lately is because I’ve been laid up with a cold. However yesterday I read a book that was guaranteed to make me sicker: Steve Martin’s novel about the art world entitled, Times article describing how Steve Martin and Deborah Solomon's talk at the 92nd Street Y bombed to the point that attendees were monetarily compensated. The reason given was that they talked too much about art, but given how little understanding of art both have demonstrated in their writing, methinks it was the content rather than the subject that sank them.

Another concurring review.
November 30, 2010

Speaking of citations, reading a book on an iPad (I haven’t used a Kindle), is a distinctly different experience. For one thing, there’s no need for an index because you can search, which is a boon to readers and publishers alike. But unless you can remember key words, leafing back to find something you want to reread can be laborious. With a “real” book, I was always able to find what I was searching for by somehow remembering where it was placed—right or left page, top or bottom—a helpful phenomenon that doesn’t exist when they’re all single pages. You can highlight paragraphs and make notes, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to collect them—or even find them again with any ease, which makes doing research extremely cumbersome. And as far as citations go, because every reader uses a different size font, page numbers are no longer useful for identifying where a quote occurs. 

Anyway, this is the quote that prompted that digression:

I can’t retire until I croak. There’s carping about us being old men. The fact is, I’ve always said, if we were black and our name was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, everybody would be going, yeah yeah yeah. White rockers are apparently not supposed to do this at our age.

Keith Richards, Life, Chapter 13.

Or if their names were Chuck Berry or Little Richard—a curious example of socially sanctioned ageism and racism. In discussing this over lunch the other day, my Latino friend pointed out that older Latinos dancing are always cool, where whites have to take shit if they’re over 40—unless, our 25-year-old companion observed, your name is David Bowie, in which case you can get away with anything.

Or Patti Smith, I’m thinking now, her memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, a treatise on the nature of love, being the latest thing I consumed on my iPad, inhaling it in one day.

I found this on the Web, unattributed, but it’s clearly from the shoot Mapplethorpe did for the famous cover of Smith’s album “Horses,” one of just 12 photos he took that afternoon. (copyright may apply).
November 27, 2010

After Keith Richards’s autobio, Life, which I read on my iPad, I’m on to The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a slightly funky 1933 edition I found on the exchange rack at the food coop, having remembered it from my parents’ bookshelf (written in 1926 and still in print). In its time it generated popular interest in philosophy and a rash of imitators in the form of “Story of….” books, which no doubt led to the “Idiots” and “Dummies” manuals so ubiquitous today. All should be written so beautifully.

In making his argument for the validity of philosophical pursuit, Durant writes:

Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science—problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown…it is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are the secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters, the sciences, and herself passes on divinely discontent to the uncertain and unexplored.

….Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience—can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy; and because today our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretations and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relations to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge but only philosophy gives us wisdom.

And since, like a fact, an object is also nothing except in relation to desire, where does art figure into it? Are we just making stuff to put up on a wall, like an elaborate Show and Tell, or can we ascribe some purpose to it? This is dangerous territory in our age, where we’re so afraid of meaning and feeling that much art has become didactic and empty.  We want things to be radical, yet can no longer define what radical is; out of fear of treading into the quicksand of significance, everything becomes watered down.

As soon as I posed the question, following a thread from an unrelated NY Times article, I found the answer in Tolstoy, who wrote: The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.

And searching further, I found the context:

Problems of the zemstvo, literature, and the emancipation of women, etc. obtrude with you in a polemical manner, but these problems are not only not interesting in the world of art; they have no place there at all…The aims of art are incommensurate (as the mathematicians say) with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were to be told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in about twenty years time by those who are now children, and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my life and all my energies to it*

Well that certainly raises the bar.
PS: Much as I love the Internet for the ease of access to information, it distresses me to see so many quotes floating around without any indication as to their sources. Not only do we have no way of ascertaining whether so-and-so actually said that pithy phrase, if our interest is piqued we can’t investigate beyond the sound byte. I was lucky this time in finding the context of Tolstoy’s quote, but it’s rare. People think they are pedantic, but I believe in footnotes, and if mine is the only blog to use them, so be it. Maybe I can start a trend.

* Part of a letter to a fellow novelist (1865), from Tolstoy’s Letters, selected, edited and translated by R.F. Christian, University of London, the Athlone Press, London 1978, Vol. I p. 197, and quoted in the Wordsworth Editions introduction to Ânna Karenina.
November 25, 2010
Hillsdale, NY, 2010

Don't worry, be grateful!
November 19, 2010

If time goes by between posts, it’s because I don’t believe in posting unless I have something worthy to say. Too bad the NY Times feels no such compunction.  More and more I read articles that go nowhere and wonder why I waste my time. Clearly the media establishment feels threatened by the Internet, but they’d have more chance of success if they’d stick to the things they do better—such as investigative and in-depth reporting, reflection, analysis and photo-journalism—rather than trying to compete by publishing articles that are as inane as most blog posts.

I can see it now, the writer comes in with his copy and asks the editor, is this stupid enough? And the editor says, no, Charlie, go back to your keyboard and dumb it down one more time. Except that the problem may be that there is no editorial desk as such anymore, no discussion, just a signing off of things people write at home between dog walks.

A recent example is yesterday’s article by Richard Bernstein entitled, “The Rules of Being a Rock Star,” a comment on Keith Richards’s wildly popular autobiography, Life (which is, I must confess, another reason why I haven’t posted in the last few days; I’ve been glued, captured not by the tales of Richards’s outrageous pranks as much as his rare authenticity). Bernstein’s main idea—hold on to your seats!—is that rock stars are not like the rest of us. I wonder how he came up with that one? Some enlightening tidbits:

(Richards, in his photo) …illustrates the ability in our celebrity-soaked culture for certain people to get away not just with a look but with an attitude that would sink most ordinary people.

…their very celebrity and their defiant, drug-culture behavior also set an example you wouldn’t want your kids to follow.

…rock stars with their celebrity, their money and their lawyers, are different. Other people, perhaps including those influenced by the rock star example to strive for lives of assiduous nonconformity, have a harder time of it.

Bernstein’s salient conclusion:

You can live the cultural outlaw life, and if you’ve got the talent, the looks and the luck, you might, like Mr. Richards, ride to wealth, celebrity, abundant sex and lots of psychedelic adventure. But it was very risky then and it’s still risky now if you don’t.

Nowhere does Bernstein note that Richards never intended to be a rock star—a status he was partly responsible for inventing—he just wanted to play guitar.  Or that much of the time it wasn’t his celebrity status that got him off drug charges as much as the cops’ ineptitude in preparing their cases, tacking on trafficking charges they couldn’t prove (which would carry a stiffer sentence) when Richards was simply a consumer.

And while, yes, he did have terrific lawyers and a certain immunity, ordinary people do not usually live under the kind of minute surveillance Richards did, with cops stationed in the trees outside his home and zealous police forces in every city out to make names for themselves by getting him for something, anything.

Further, what would have been served by putting Richards in jail? What is served by putting any drug addict in jail? Richards’s harrowing descriptions of the drug experience will no doubt do more to discourage drug use than any threat of incarceration--or myriad public information spots.

Bernstein’s article is simply proof that we need the fringe to keep the establishment from becoming too rigid and boring.

Maybe he should take a joint along when he goes on that dog walk.

The unattributed photo, from 1970, that accompanied Liz Phair’s book review in the Times last Sunday.

November 3, 2010
Last Friday evening I went to David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum, and as usual, David’s wry sense of humor (humor? in the art world?) and nose for controversy, kept things moving at a good clip. This time the panelists were artist Greg Lindquist, Barbara MacAdam (deputy editor ARTnews) and John Perrault discussing current shows by Suzan Frecon, Oliver Herring, Liz Cohen, and Guillermo Kuitca. Perrault is a veteran art writer (Village Voice, and the SoHo Weekly News, for anyone who can remember that far back) who now writes a blog called Artopia. I find I disagree with almost everything he says.
We got off on the wrong foot not long ago when I was researching Olafur Eliasson and came across this on his blog:

All of this windswept wind-up is for nought (sic) because for all practical purposes Eliasson is more Danish than Icelandic; although he was born in Iceland and offers a series of landscape photographs of my beloved island, he grew up in Denmark.

Perrault loves Iceland and doesn’t like Eliasson, therefore Eliasson has no claim to being, in any but the merest way, Icelandic—rather like those who love America and dislike Obama. I wrote to Perrault with a correction, but no changes were made.

[Fact is that while Olafur’s parents were Icelandic, he was born in Copenhagen—Perrault might have checked Wikipedia. When they separated he went to school in Denmark but spent summers with his father, an artist, in Iceland. His mentor was his father’s friend, Gunnar, and Olafur had his first “exhibition” on Gunnar’s land outside Reykjavik. Olafur also speaks fair Icelandic, which can hardly be picked up a few photography jaunts—I can attest to that.]

But back to the panel where, when discussing Oliver Herring, who employs a lot of everyday stuff in his performance-based work, Perrault spoke out against what he termed the “art supply racket.”

OMG there’s been a movement against art materials going on and I didn’t know it? No wonder everything looks like crap!

Poor mute things that they are, I felt obliged to come to their defense.

Actually it’s something I feel strongly about and stress when I’m teaching. It’s not that great art can’t be crafted from anything; it can. But what fine art materials offer is maximum possibility for expression, for precision and nuance.  If you never try using good materials, you’ll never know what you can do.

I’m always railing against Fredrix stretchers and Winton (student grade) oil paint. Perrault may love warped supports and raw, under-pigmented colors, but I find them terminally distracting. And enough with the glitter already. There are exceptions, but most of the time when I see art made with cheap materials, it all looks the same.

Perrault responded that art made with high quality oil on linen all looks the same.

Caravaggio…Monet…Rothko…I don’t even know where to go with that.

[But then this is the same writer who suggested, on his blog, that museums should rent out their spaces to high-end clothiers and “migrate to the internet” where the art could be “cloud-stored, eternal, with free access for all worldwide.” But here he really is kidding, right?]

I remember when my brother, age 7, wanted to learn the saxophone and our thrifty parents, not wanting to invest until they knew he was serious, rented him one that sounded like a duck in its last throes. His interest in the saxophone lasted about two weeks.

Musicians prize their instruments and no one gets on their case about it. Art materials are our instruments, and yes (I hear you whining) they are expensive. But, except for writing, anything worth doing is expensive. We’re professionals, remember? Or, if students, we want to be. Professionals use the best materials they can get. Does Mario Batali buy his olive oil at PriceChopper? Would you want your surgeon to use a cut-rate scalpel?

Art is more than line or concept—it’s about sensuality, which is why it doesn’t translate to the Web. Sensuality is what makes the difference between illustration and fine art, and requires a finesse that’s hard to achieve with magic markers.  I got this even as a kid, which is why I wasn’t even interested in art until I discovered there was a world beyond crayons, construction paper and finger paint. To this day it’s the materials that inspire me. I see a great new Williamsburg color, or the PanPastels I’m currently so crazy about, and think, “Hmmm. What can I do with that?”

Anyway, the makers of fine art materials are hardly trying to rip us off. The ones I’ve known are dedicated, almost fanatical artisans; I’m grateful that there are people out there devoting their lives to making my art look good. And Verizon could take a lesson or two in tech support from the people at Golden acrylics.

If you believe in your vision, it’s worth investing in. Once I decided that working on pre-stretched canvases would “free me up.” Ha! I ended up working on them as long as any other paintings and then had to spend $300+ each to frame them so they’d look decent on a wall.

Racket, schmacket. But I love contradicting myself, and so will add that I'm in awe of what graffiti artists can do with simple cans of spray paint. Did everyone see this piece in Sunday’s Times on the Underbelly Project in the subways? Be sure to watch the video.