Archive for the Appreciating Art Despite It All Category

Failure Drills

Hello earth. Is anybody home?  I am pleading with you . . . we bears are taking two to the chest and one to the head. The whole place is cracking at the seams.

Bears that will rip out your face and tear out your pancreas just to show you they can are floating out to Hell and Jesus on ice cubes.  Fish are boiling. We are talking dead meat everywhere. You can fry your eggs on concrete. Believe it.

This is all about the ICE. IZZZE, hey, 200 billion tons of it a year gone. This shit ain’t right and just sitting on my lovely arse is more evil than Satan himself.

More thoughts on the Whole Failurriffic Mess

Well…I am going to do something about this. I am going to make a video about “IZZZE”.  I am going bring my requiem bears in closer proximity to human excesses. I am going to try to climb over the walls.  Maybe someone will look, STOP and talk about what is going on.  That is something to hope for.

How do you make a video? Some melter says you have to direct scenes…block them out. What the heck…? Proceed, anyway.

It’s going to cost lucre and no self-respecting monkey is going to pay hard-earned cash for the video, either. And what about the bear suit? I hear the glue and pesticides on fur give you boils and will kill you. Proceed anyway.

No way can I find a human that is going to get down on all fours in the streets of New York City because this project ain’t going into respectable, for profit generating art spaces. No way can I find 50-pound blocks of ice to drag through the streets. Proceed anyway.

No way a human dressed up in a bear suit is going to substitute for nature. No way that this spectacle is going to be anything but a leg short in elevated art circles. Art making and nature? For profit art making vs. nothing, nada, on the streets on your hands and knees art making? No way, José, that anyone is going to say this is “art”. Proceed anyway.

More Fail Waves

I hear that you need to know how to write a grant proposal to go to another polluted urban environment and do this again.  Say again?  Proceed anyway.

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(Loving vibes emanate to the Gary, Kim, Jose, and Kyung mentors & friends of bears. Dec.1.11)

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Just over three years ago, CAFA was contacted out of the blue by the West Coast artist and art teacher Jeanne Finley of the California College of the Arts. Finley had come across this Chronicle while preparing a syllabus on an art seminar she was organizing around the theme of Failure. She expressed interest in organizing some sort of collaboration between her class and this site, and we readily agreed.

The resulting final projects by her Failure students were mounted on CAFA, each in turn, at the end of the semester in May, 2009.

Although CAFA has mostly been inactive over the past few years, as various society, cultural, and familial pressures limit the ability and inclination of the site’s admin to post new stuff, we are proud to announce that, starting on Monday (December 19) and continuing with one new post each day (in a kind of Failure version of the 12 Days of Xmas), we’ll once again be presenting final projects from Jeanne Finley’s revisited seminar on Failure.

So stay tuned, Failurephiles — and please be sure to spread some love to an artist in this desperate holiday season.

Alas, good gentle souls who still read CAFA, my humble apologies for not posting in many, many months. Please be assured it is through no fault of yours. It is merely the result of my own changing life circumstances.

To report on said circumstances and the reasons why CAFA languishes, here’s what I’ve been up to over the past year or so:

  • After a six-month layoff from meaningful daytime employment, I have found work enough to sustain myself for the time-being, and it’s completely outside the art world (phew!); though, of course, adjusting to new employment, new expectations, a new work environment and culture, etc. means less time for things like blogging about artistic failure.
  • Baby CAFA — a.k.a., the light of my life — now 17-months of age, continues to grow and develop and slowly gain some independence for herself; yet, it will be some years until she can be expected to blog alongside me instead of her current habit of inserting madcap and unreadable keystrokes and spaces anytime she comes near a keyboard I happen to be working on. Again, not a great support for free and unfettered blogging.
  • That does not mean I’ve given up blogging (nor art) altogether — since October I have written regularly for the venerable Utne Reader at their online Arts portal.

[Please note: You can, in fact, keep tabs on what writing I still manage to do by checking out the one area of this blog that remains active: The Writer’s Archive for Michael Fallon.]

[Also note: If you want less-fettered access to me than you get from the Artistic Failure blog, you can always Facebook-friend me at my other, somewhat inactive identity, ArtHappyHour.]

[And final note: If you have ideas for art stories, want to take (respectful) issue with something I’ve written, have questions, or need to reach out, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’d love to know what you’re thinking!]

[Viva la Failure!]

It’s sort of a article of faith among many in this country that what drives America, what keeps it strong, and what should be defended at all costs is the country’s corporate-business sector. And not just defended, but pampered, and given huge bailouts and vast tax credits/breaks in times of economic downturn (even when said corporations have turned huge profits).

Why corporations shouldn’t be expected to pull up their socks like everyone else during a time of retrenchment and is beyond me. If ordinary Americans are downsizing, tightening the belt, and making do the best they can as they wait out the downturn, why shouldn’t corporations (and their greedy stockholders) do the same? After all, we’re all in this together, right? If corporations aim to make as much money as they can off the backs of ordinary Americans, exploiting loopholes, taking tax breaks, and otherwise squashing ordinary people’s hope for economic opportunity, well, more power to them. But then, after all, who will be left to be customers for these corporations?

The problem with our national obeisance to corporate business interests above all else is thrown into sharp relief when you consider that most of our continuing economic malaise — and, in particular, our continued high unemployment — has been caused by this very same corporate greed. To put it another way, most of the blame for the hiccups during the sputtering 2010 economic recovery can be attributed to the business sector. Witness: According to a recent Chronicle of Philosophy article, a new analysis of government data made by the Center for Civil Society at Johns Hopkins University shows that between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009 for-profit businesses shed jobs by an average rate of 3.3 percent a year. The continued problem of high unemployment is being caused by corporations that are simply unwilling to hire workers.

Ironically, while the very corporations that so many Americans seek to protect and coddle are at the root cause of our economic problems here and now, a more heroically productive segment of the economy is one that most Americans feel less love for. That is, despite all that our beloved corporate America, with all its blind and relentless greed, is doing to hold down the rest of the country, there is, according to the John Hopkins study, an alternative model to the corporate one. There is, in fact, quite a heroic model of economic activity; one that, despite national antipathy, is striving constantly to find a way toward national recovery. It is an economic model that has been creating jobs during the same period studied (4.6 percent job growth per year v. the corporate decline of 3.3 percent), and it is an economic model that has investing money in buildings and infrastructure and keeping more than its share of people engaged and entertained. That this economic engine has performed its economic miracle even in the midst of widespread and jealous antipathy from ordinary Americans (who tend to look at these heroes with the skepticism they should probably steer toward corporations) is even more heroic and admirable when you consider that this engine performed these miracles without touching hardly a red cent of the economic stimulus money so sloppily tossed at so many other greedy sectors of our economy.

I’m talking, of course, about the arts. It was in the arts that jobs grew, despite all the endless national pressure to cut art funding and leave the artists high-and-dry, by 4.6 percent between 2007 and 2009. It was the artists and the arts people who fought harder than any corporation has to save jobs and ensure a swift economic recovery for all in this country — and all while doing his or her best to keep us enlightened, entertained, and distracted from our various woes and burdens.

So next time you see an artist, be sure to shake his or her hand for working harder than most to keep the American dream alive.

Artists, the new economic champions of a future American recovery.

 

The New York Times today reports on the goings-on at Governors Island, a 172-acre cultural refuge just 800 yards off the shore of a larger island of somewhat more cultural renown, Manhattan. The article describes how, over the past four years, as the Manhattan boom reached a peak and then turned quickly to bust, artists have begun a daytime habitation of the non-residential island. (Governors Island is described a quirky amalgam of empty Victorians, a high school, forts, parade grounds, ball fields, an artificial beach, and an “encircling promenade.”) It describes the happenings today as “ingrown and wildly experimental,” akin to an Art Wonderland.

 

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Governors Island was originally, before the 20th century, a military base. It has been managed through the years by the State of New York, the U.S. Army, and the Coast Guard, until it was finally was shuttered by the federal government in 1997. Thanks to the efforts of Leslie Koch, who runs the Trust for Governors Island, the island now is replete with such ongoing cultural whimsies at “artsy miniature golf, avant-garde theater and whimsical sculpture.” Its participants include “trapeze artists, bicyclists, conceptual artists, D.J.’s, musicians, dancers and dramatists,” and its attractions range from “a free miniature-golf course designed by an arts group, where fanciful stations allow players to take metaphorical potshots at a national missile defense shield or putt a ball in support of carbon-neutral footprints” to “outdoor dance performances in one of the island’s forts, a mock archaeological dig meant to play with ideas of the island’s past, an African film festival, outdoor Shakespeare,” an Art Fair, “and Civil War re-enactments.” So far, this season the island has attracted 250,000 curious gawkers, a sharp uptick from only a year ago.

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As you and I know, artists are like this. They’re opportunistic like bacteria (the good kind, you know, that helps you digest food and so on). When the economy, or political factors, or the standards of society blocks to them and many of the rest of us from doing what we most want to do, artists are among the only ones of us who will not rest until they find a place to rest. In the gutted sections of a gutted city, in the blown-out industrial areas of a postmodern city, even on an abandoned island — you can bet that artists will be among the first to begin looking for creative and sustainable ways to rebuild, reconfigure, restore, and recover.

Course, I don’t have to remind you what usually happens next; once the artists have brought a place back to life, once the culture of the formerly dead and dilapidated and all-but-destroyed parts of our society is restored, then come the moneyed interests, the developers, the scammer, skimmers, and other scabs who would never do the hard, dirty work and who capitalize on those who do. The article notes a “master plan” that outlines  “development zones,” phases of construction, and so on. And Ms. Koch herself makes no bones about using artists as a launching point for creating an “island culture,” even as her $12.5 million budget includes no money to pay artists or for programming. She talks, without apparent irony, about the island’s “brand” being “summer vacation with irony.”

Still, as this is the new feel-good CAFA, we’ll not be our usual cynical selves and just try to enjoy the whimsical, populist, free-ranging and free-spirited Art Wonderland that currently inhabits Governors Island. Then, when island development inevitably takes off, and the artists are shuffled off in the usual unceremonious fashion, we’ll go find the next Art Wonderland that artists create.

(Photos are courtesy the Figment Project)

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve posted anything on The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America. You may be wondering a few things. First, why have I been away so long, especially after chronicling with singular obsession the ongoing failure of art in this country for nearly two long years. Also, more importantly, why am I suddenly back and posting again now after such a long hiatus? What gives?

Well, in answer to the first question: It’s complicated. I stepped away from CAFA in the summer of 2009 for several reasons. The biggest was simple burn-out. I had simply grown tired of covering, week after week, month after month, the ongoing failure of our citizens to support the arts and what that failure was engendering for the country and its future. I was depressed and cynical and growing full of repressed anger and resentment of humankind — something that is not part of my usual nature. Also, I should add, at the time — in August, 2009 — my wife and I were planning the biggest creative step our lives: We were expecting our first child, and I did not intend to step into that experience with a pocketful of bad feelings. So for my own well-being, and for the well-being of my daughter-to-be, I stepped back and stopped following the madness that is the struggle to make and support art in America. I turned my back on it, and I don’t regret that.

As to the second question — Why revive CAFA now? — well, that’s simple. Because, for the first time in a few years — indeed, for the first time since I started this thing — I feel hopeful again. About art, about my life, about our prospects for the future. I am full of hope.

Why? I don’t know exactly. It’s not like there are many tangible signs of success out in the arts landscape (nor, for that matter, in my current professional life). Arts organizations and nonprofits continue to suffer in Minnesota and elsewhere. Arts organizations, in clear view of the increasingly ambivalent moneyed class, continue to struggle. Groups are being kicked out — both nationally and locally — of their locations and forced to scramble for alternative digs. Meanwhile, the art market continues to be in the tank. And, of course, individual artists, who almost always exist in a state of struggle, are feeling the recession particularly acutely. Plus, there are my own circumstances: Wherein, after twelve productive years in the arts writing biz, suddenly pretty much all freelance writing gigs have all but dried up; and, to put icing on the cake, this past spring I was laid off (for the first time ever) from my day job at a local nonprofit.

Still, despite all this I’m hopeful because — as I pointed out in another venue in 2008 — the arts and artists often stand at the front gate of innovation and recovery. Indeed, as the New York Times reports today, this is exactly what’s happening in one of America’s Ground Zero locations for artistic and economic failure. In an article titled “Wringing Art Out of the Rubble in Detroit,” Melena Ryzik reports that the failed urban landscape of Detroit, dotted with abandoned buildings and decimated neighborhoods, blighted with its own “particular brand of civic and economic decay” has also drawn something unexpected: “a small but well-publicized movement of artists and other creative types trying to wring something out of the rubble.” She sites the upcoming appearances in Detroit of Maker Faire, of the brainstorming conference TEDx, of the performance artist Matthew Barney — fitting for a place that is suddenly home to a “slew of handmade salvagers” and a growing D.I.Y. culture. Among the Detroit-based projects that the article lists are: Loveland, a “micro real estate” enterprise that sells parcels of Detroit by the square inch for $1 a piece; the Heidelberg Project, which turns houses into found-object sculptures; Mitch and Gina, who buy up houses for art and gardens; and more. Go and check out the article — it’s an object-lesson in what creative thinking can accomplish.

In the end, I figure, if Detroit can lift its weary, embattled head once again, so can the arts. So can you. And so can I.

This NYT quotation of the day caught my eye (for obvious reasons):

“Nobody wants me to do anything, so I’m just doing what I want.”
Liz Fallon [no relation], visual artist, Portland, Me.

It’s from an article on how the recession is affecting artists called “Tight Times Loosen Artists’ Creativity.”

Here’s another quote:

“This too shall pass. Artists must continue to create no matter what happens around them.”
–Diane Leon-Ferdico, painter, Elmhurst, Queens

Artists seem more and more inclined, these days, to shrug and toss in their art rags — giving up all hope that there’s anything left for them to strive for. And I, for one, can hardly blame them (so intent have I been this past year-plus documenting the constant trials and disappointments of a fast-fading art market).

This artistic fatalism is a pity of course, on one hand, as without something to strive for you lose a large portion of the potential pool of artists seeking to make it. And, as a result, logically the quality of art declines for the foreseeable future…

On the other hand, as I pointed out the other day, once all the hoohah and art-world striving has gone away, we end up with a lot of idealism about the purity of the practice of art.

Still further, on the third hand, as Jeanne Finley astutely alerted me recently by sending a link to an upcoming show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary of Art called “It’s Not Us, It’s You,” artistic fatalism also means also we end up with a number of artists who embrace the current age of artistic failure and employ it as an art-making strategy.

From the show’s description:

It’s Not Us, It’s You is an exhibition that explores the inevitability of rejection in our lives – a timely topic in today’s woeful economic climate. Through a tragic and sometimes heartbreaking lens, the artists in this exhibition respond to the reality of rejection with subversion, self-reflection, humor and brutal honesty. The show is guest curated by artist Ray Beldner and includes paintings, sculpture, video, and multi-media work from artists Anthony Discenza, Stephanie Syjuco, Michael Arcega, Kara Maria, Steve Lambert, Jonn Herschend, Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman, Desiree Holman, Orly Cogan, Kate Gilmore, Robert Eads and Arthur Gonzalez.

As part of It’s Not Us, It’s You, Beldner is compiling a book of artist rejection letters. Artists are invited to send their rejection letters via email to info@sjica.org with “FOR REJECTION SHOW” in the subject by March 28. The ICA promises that no entries will be rejected for this project.

That said, you all should stay tuned to CAFA, because coming up this week — as previously announced — we will be posting student project descriptions from Professor Jeanne Finley’s graduate level seminar on Failure, a course that is currently running at the prestigious California College of the Arts.

These are a fascinating look at the expectations and assumptions of young artists coming of age in this very age of artistic failure!

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

The promise of America is that nobody is born to lose, but who has never wondered, “Am I wasting my life?” We imagine escaping the mad scramble yet kick ourselves for lacking drive. Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement…. Failure conjures such vivid pictures of lost souls that it is hard to imagine a time, before the Civil War, when the word meant “breaking in business” — going broke. How did it become a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red? Why do we manage identity the way we run our businesses - by investment, risk, profit, and loss?
Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2006)

In American culture, the market is worshiped increasingly as an ideology rather than being seen for what it is—a natural product of human social evolution and a set of valuable tools through which we may shape a healthful and equitable society. It is under the spell of this ideology—this new religion—the we have fallen into complacency. Personal profit is no longer the means to an end but has become the end in itself. America’s traditional immigrant values of resourcefulness, thrift, prudence, and an abiding concern for family and community have been hijacked by a commercially driven, all-consuming self-interest that is rapidly making us sick.
– Peter C. Whybrow, M.D., American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (2005)


(Regarding what fed the Internet bubble that burst in the early 2000s): “You had a lot of novice investors who got into the market looking for easy money, without any regard to the fundamentals. These stocks were running on fumes.”
– Bernie Madoff, Washington Post, Jan 2, 2001.