Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

May 10, 2009
I’m about to quote something from a magazine I never thought I’d quote from— Psychology Today—one of a number of liberal-ish, pseudo-intellectual (I haven’t used that term since high school) magazines that promise much and ultimately leave you feeling empty, of which The Utne Reader is a prime example. Among PT’s many annoying qualities is that it employs those byte-sized fillers with cutesy graphics that magazine people (including those at TIME and New York) seem to think are all our Internet-addled heads can handle. (Here one is “What do you do to prevent nodding off at the wheel? 54% Park and walk around, 52% turn on music, 5% Drive faster, etc.) When will magazines stop trying to compete with the Web and get that if we’re going to sit down and read, we want something to read. In-depth articles, analysis, criticism, investigative reporting, photojournalism—these are all things magazines do well that the Internet can’t. The New Yorker has had that formula down for years, and because of it is increasingly relevant. But I rant, when my intention was to point out something I liked. This from the October 2008 issue of PT (disclaimer: I found it in the acupuncturist’s office) by Hara Estroff Marano in an article about style in an issue about style (the Editor’s Note is entitled Clothes Encounters—pul-lease!—whoops, there I go again):

…style is optimism made visible. Style presumes you are a person of interest, that the world is a place of interest, that life is worth making the effort for….

As the speed of all our transactions increases, we need fast ways of transmitting information about ourselves without losing authenticity; we have less and less time to make our mark in other, more leisurely ways of knowing. Style, like a perfectly-fitting book jacket, evokes the substance within by way of the surface. It makes an authentic visual impression in a world that otherwise strips people of identity. There was a time when style was a luxury. Today it is a necessity.

Yes, because finally, in the 21st century, it appears that “style” is becoming the new “fashion.” And hooray for that! Starting with the vogue for unusual children’s names (which make it easier to be found on the Internet), individuality is key—when everyone used to think that in the “future” (which we happen to be living in) we’d all be running around like so many Spocks in identical silver tights.

Anyway, just thinking about style being “optimism made visible” cheers me up, as do the new, soft, white organic cotton pajamas (with wooden buttons!) I’m wearing while stuck at home with the nasty cold I’ve had since Chicago. The interesting thing is that while I know I have style (although am less concerned about making an impression than pleasing myself—no one can see me in my pajamas), I want a different style. I want to be funky, like my friend, Jude, but over the years have had to come to terms with the fact that I’m simply not funky. Just the way I want to be an expressionist painter and must reconcile myself to being…me. Oh well.

August 2, 2007
One of the perils of modern American medicine is that, for want of anything else to do, one might find oneself reading The Utne Reader while waiting in the doctor’s office. The other day I was leafing through the magazine for the first time in probably 15 years, when I came across an article on German sculptor Wolfgang Laib (The Patient Artist, July/August 2007), which starts out on shaky ground with a quote—well, it doesn’t seem to be a quote exactly, perhaps an interpretation of something?—from Thomas Merton talking about the contemplative life in our times and how one “who is not practical, who does not actively pursue some concrete goal is somehow disturbing to the modern psyche.” The author, one Brenton Good, is talking about the artist’s practice of hand-collecting the pollen he uses in his work, and I was surprised to find out that making art to install in galleries and museums is not a “concrete goal” (has he been talking to my parents?). Also no mention of the fact that Laib surfaced during a period when a number of artists (Ann Hamilton immediately comes to mind) considered accumulation, repetition, and tediousness of execution a significant aspect of their work.

Then this bit:

At first glance, it seems natural to classify Laib as a minimalist, but his work strays far from minimalist ideology. Minimalist sculpture deals with intellectual investigation of space. It’s about ideas. Once the artist has determined the concept, the making of the artwork can easily be passed on to assistants….


To stress again that there’s no aesthetic experience to be had in minimal art (and, I suppose, therefore, no investigation of space in Wolfgang’s work) Good continues:

The difference between Laib’s work and most minimal art comes out in the viewer’s reactions. A cavernous room that houses minuscule works composed of pollen is arresting to more than just the intellect. It demands thoughtful reflection and meditation. As viewers enter and leave the space, rarely can a whisper be heard….

Good goes on about the artist, the artist’s background, what the artist thinks, how he lives, what the work looks like, sounds like, smells like even, talks about how the full impact is "hard to believe until one experiences it firsthand" (like most art?) yet cites no sources nor mentions any specific exhibitions to indicate what work he might have seen. Appearing to have been culled from unidentified secondary material, the piece reads like a high school report:

…Laib has chosen at times to install [his work] beneath the vaulted ceilings of European cathedrals. There it projects a reverent stillness that resonates in the ancient sacred spaces….

Really? The writer was there? Where? What cathedral? Is he taking someone else’s word for it? Or, perhaps, fantasizing about what it might be like?


For some artists, the choice of medium is more or less a neutral decision. Deciding to paint in oil or cast in bronze hardly draws extra attention. When an artist selects sifted pollen or poured milk, however, the work is charged with special meaning before he begins.

Damn! I knew I should have held onto that squirrel shit.