Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Happy Art, Fluffy Art....... Vapid Art?

Now that I have moved to the middle Atlantic, I am anxious to look into some places in this part of the country that might show my work: Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, etc. I was looking at a postcard the other day, the kind with an individual image from each of the artists represented by the gallery. I have been planning on approaching this gallery, because they are really the only one in this particular city showing art that is even slightly "edgy" or contemporary, and they often feature work made with non-traditional materials.

But looking at the artists that they represent en masse (all galleries should do this, as it really gives one a strong visual sense of what they are about at a glance), I suddenly realized that they would probably not be interested in my work, because none of the art on the postcard seemed to be "about" anything, or, more specifically, that none of the art seemed to be "about" anything IMPORTANT. I apologize for the lack of specific visual references, but I am already well on my way to alienating myself from any possible source of art world income in the future by impulse blogging, but if you get out to look at art with any regularity, I hope that you will recognize the genre I am referring to: the work seems to have no weight. What I see in front of me are several things that look like doodles from high school or middle school notebooks, some psychedelic nostalgia imagery, things made from unusual materials for the sake of novelty (not because the chosen medium informs or contradicts the content), at least one artist making something sparkling or glittery, and some regurgitation of Pop culture, with little or no transcendence.

I'm not talking about lack of drawing skill, because I love that kind of rawness... I collect folk art, and buy children's drawings off the wall of grammar schools and frame them when afforded the opportunity. One of the reasons that I love folk art is that it is often about love, death, or God. I am talking about a kind of deliberate, conscious superficiality.... as if the people making them have only been looking at various illuminated screens and magazines their whole lives, not walking around on this chaotic, shrinking planet, falling in love, experiencing grief, struggling with moral dilemmas or wrapping their minds around a concept. The art is as flat as the original imagery it is derived from.

(So maybe I don't get it because I don't watch TV....)

I'm not saying that the Art Lite can't be seductive, either. I remember going to shows in Miami, where this sort of thing is multiplying like spores and getting reviewed and discussed (!?) ad nauseum, and thinking, "you know, I would like to take this art painted on shiny vinyl home and hang it on my wall because I would like to look at it", but the enthusiasm I was feeling about the object was akin to finding a really cool pair of shoes. Those who know me know that I can get pretty excited about a cool pair of shoes, but thoughts of footwear don't keep me up nights.

This kind of art seems to have no ambition beyond being Prom Queen, and, lucky for them, the current art establishment has stuffed the ballot box in their favor. Am I a snob to think that, in a world filled with so much art, it should aspire to be more?

I mentioned a while back that there is a drawing that I want make a trade for. I will publish the image only if I am lucky enough to ever get it into my hot little mitts, so no one buys it out from underneath me. But when I reconnected with this artist from grad school, I saw some of her work for the first time in years, and I printed a few of them out and tacked them on my wall. Every day, I see this image out of the corner of my eye while I am working, and now I need to possess it. It has wormed its way into my brain through my eyeballs.

I am doomed to always be unfashionable... Years ago, I remember reading something about the new "post ironic" art, and I got so excited, thinking, "finally, my work will be in synch with what is cool", and then 9/11 happened, and I thought, "this will really do it, how can anyone make fluff after this?" but some people still do. Am I just getting old? We all reach this point, right?... when we look at what younger people are doing and worry about the future of art, and don't get it because the game has changed and we haven't? But I don't think it is a generation gap, because I have been teaching for a long time, and I have seen work made by twenty-somethings that is layered and powerful, that makes me think and feel rather than just sitting there, resting on my retina.

I remember having a revelation at the Laura Owens exhibition at MOCA a few years back. I was looking at all the paintings with the cute fuzzy animals, and another piece of two people snuggling in bed, and I thought, "Not only is she daring to use all the tricks and bad painting techniques that you see taught on cable television, but she is just painting things that make her HAPPY!" The thought was so revolutionary and liberating, honestly, I was a bit manic leaving the exhibition. I could do it too, I thought, "So, what will I paint?... Radley? Deep blue Hydrangeas? My niece twirling in a new dress or my nephew sleeping with his stuffed puppy?" Immediately, my inner censor intervened: "BEEN DONE BEFORE! IS THIS THE LEGACY YOU WANT TO LEAVE?!! TOO CUTE! CLICHE!, TOO MUCH LIKE A HALLMARK CARD" I would fail someone who brought something like that to a crit. But I might buy it from them after the crit, and hang it on my wall as a "guilty pleasure"... we have all seen work that straddles this interesting fence, and sometimes the executor is not even aware that they doing it. (But that is for another blog...)

Now I am thinking of last year's Art Basel, where the same kind of impressions were hitting me again: "bad painting techniques & cliche images, that is the theme", I thought, "I can't believe they have the balls to do this, and that none of the collectors are saying, "I watch Bob Ross, and this entire painting looks like it was done with 'the magic brush' from his painting kit". History repeats itself.... break the cardinal rules, and popular taste will follow, finding it revolutionary, whether the concept is born of boldness, or naivete.

It is time to question my own firmly held convictions, and ask myself, "Where did I get this idea that art was supposed to be IMPORTANT? Who put this rule in my brain?", and "As much as I hate to hear people talking about their 'inner critic', has mine saddled me with a battery-powered collar and erected an invisible fence while I wasn't looking, keeping me from wide open, true artistic freedom?!"

I can get emotional and yes, even judgemental, talking about art: sometimes, when I need to see things clearly, I pretend that one of my students is asking me the question that I happen to be turning over and over in my own head. My unbiased, professorial answer to my student-self wondering "why?" is this: "Maybe this kind of work is a commentary on how superficial life appears to these particular artists. Perhaps it doesn't even go that deep, maybe this is truly how the world appears to them, and they are just replicating it and throwing it back out there. Me? I make the art that I make because I have stood in front of art that I admire, asking myself what makes it "great" or "effective", and I try to integrate those qualities into my own vision. I suspect that is the same process that leads other people to make the work that THEY make. The real question is... what kind of art do you want to spend YOUR precious hours on earth making?"

Radley, running in a sea of blue hydrangeas, his ears flapping in the breeze, with clouds made of tagliatelle in truffle sauce.....

Come on, I would really like to hear back on this one, you can comment anonymously, you just click the "comments" below.......


Anonymous sarahp said...

I think you need to look beyond the art world for you answer. The vapid stuff is everywhere, in any form of media.

Why do you think Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw are so vocally frustrated? They are unable to report real news that is considered unpleasant by most of the American public.

Why do you think radio “sucks”? Because the programmers have to choose a middle-of-the-road, highly researched group of performers that are palatable by most of America. Higher ratings equals higher ad revenue for the station owners (or the two corporations in this country that own 80% of the radio stations). And, more recently these performers are off of such bland crap as American Idol – not true “singers” but interested in being “idols”.

And, unless Oprah recommends it, most folks don’t read it. It is not that she has particularly bad taste, but I am trying to make a picture of the “sheep” mentality – most folks are so into their day-to-day existence, they are entertained enough by whatever is on tv or the radio, that they do not feel compelled to look for something deeper.

I think at the very center is a decades-long failing of the public education system, as this is where most people in America learn their critical thinking skills. Art, English, History, Music teachers are either crunched out by schedules (or undereducated themselves) and are not rising to the responsibility of challenging students. Or, they are afraid to show the work that would really get folks thinking because of fear of litigation (can you imagine the amazing dialogue that you would get looking at a Kara Walker silhouette cycle in a high school art room in the South? The kids would have AMAZING responses, incredible insights, and perhaps they themselves would be provoked into creating work on this sort of confrontational level based from their own experience and perspective).

I believe that you also have to ask what the artists want. Do they want to get paid? I mean, if you found a way of working that sold easily, was readily received, wouldn’t that be alluring? Granted, it is somewhat like doing illustration and that is considered a “sell out”, right? But, at least the mortgage gets paid.

What about the gallery owner? It is not enough for the electric company that you are carrying the torch for the advancement of American culture. Someone has to buy it, and then you can pay the bills. It is sad but true. With that stated, however, I do feel that there are many saleable artists whose work exists on many levels, and it is not the intentionally trite stuff that you are complaining about.

I KNOW that you are compulsive, as am I – the need for meticulous detail, specifically – and let’s say that you were fine with doing that sort of thing without the final output being confrontational or thought provoking (kind of like crochet or lace-making) would you really care as long as it sold? (Think art fair here).

Okay – done with devil’s advocate now:
I actually know a few artists who are doing what you might consider to be confrontational, meaningful work. They exist outside of the art gallery world, to the point of not being particularly interested in “selling” or being known, and they are engaged in a habitual, ritualistic method of working where they glean what is inspiring (or enraging) from the outside world and turn that into their own private language. It walks a fine line between therapy and art, but the end result can be just as moving to the outside observer as it is therapeutic for them. For example, there are two women in my critique group who have been independently collecting war images – soldiers, artillery, bombings, fire, landscapes – from newspapers and magazines because the images signify some intangible meaning that they are longing for in their work. This is not illustration, but rather a catalyst for the work that they are doing. I do not think that most people can uninhibitedly access the place within them that allows them to create with such a level of intensity.

The great artists – the GREAT artists – tend to have existed without the world of galleries, but they rather made it work on their own terms and for a lifetime of work. Think about the summit of Kandinsky’s triangle – artists at the top and somewhat oblivious to the rest of their society. It takes the rest of the folks a few decades to catch up.

In short: do not pay attention to the stuff at the galleries.

Sorry that I have started my own little blog on your comment page.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:19 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Well thought-out comments, thanks for taking the time. I understand and agree with your theory of why mediocrity reigns in the US. It is naive to think that the art world would be any different. I suppose that it is really about putting the quality of your art above your own ambition.... something that I struggle with a great deal(and the subject of an upcoming blog). I admire the people you refer to...I get frustrated because I know lots of people who have literally devoted their lives to making art, making amazing work that is SO CLEARLY above what is being presented by the gatekeepers as "great".... and I expect discrimination from the gatekeepers. If I could just get past that concept that most people learn at age 6 or 7.... that life is not fair. I think that there are a lot of purists out there who believe that strong work rises to the top, and cannot see/do not want to believe that there a great deal of corruption and politics in the art world, and that it, like everything else, is ruled by $$$$$$.

The art is the thing, the art is the thing....

When I think about FAP (the Fluffy Art Phenomenon), I also know that it could be born of a necessary escapism. Pop Art happened around the time of the Vietnam war. I was discussing this with friend last night, and she said that she had gone to a children's museum in Europe where they had drawings done by children in concentration camps right before they were executed, and they were almost universally drawings of happy animals, pretty houses and sunshine.

12:14 AM  

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