Archive for the Art rants Category

On one of my other art-blogging projects yesterday, a guest poster published a fantastic piece, called “The Nester,” on the relationship between shitting and art-making, and how sometimes the most disgusting and deviant acts can inspire non-comformist, creative thinking. This is a particularly appropriate rallying-cry, I think, in this age of constantly diminishing returns in the culture. You’ve just gotta read this story; trust me, you won’t be disappointed (repulsed, maybe, or horrified–but not disappointed).

Here’s a sampling:

Artists have done themselves a great disservice in needlessly construing creative expression into the larger-than-life mythologies, brainwashing doctrines and pseudo-political advertisements that comprise the clusterfuck that art is today. We’ve created a framework for art that warps our hearts and minds into believing that art requires authority (galleries, museums, academia); precepts (formal aesthetics, airtight intellectualism); and high culture (icons, award ceremonies, magazines). We’ve convinced ourselves that art is an austere discipline and not the boundless, soul-searching siphon that can dredge out our deepest and most authentic creative desires. Unfortunately, art is just as much about popularity, ego, money, class, idolatry and condescending intellectualism as it is about using modes of creativity to purely and earnestly explore ourselves and our relationship to the universe….

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people go clog some toilets to proclaim their creativity. Rather, I am suggesting that we draw from the Nester’s example the conviction that we can and must treat our own creativity with the dignity it deserves. We need to stop making art that relies upon a toxic art world, to stop making art that tries to find a way into Artforum, and instead finds a way into the deeply transformative creative passion that burns in each of us.

Been distracted with late-summer shenanigans lately — so posts have been relatively scarce on CAFA. I did manage to post a piece earlier this week on The Thousandth Word.

It’s a rant – called “We Choose to Go to the Moon” – about how whimpily risk-averse we’ve become in this country and about how we need to go back to the age of John F. Kennedy. (These were thoughts that popped in my head after stumbling on a public art piece in Brackett Park in Mpls.)

Here’s a sample:

Certainly, the Brackett rocket offered an important object-lesson to any kid who managed to climb into the exalted, rarified nose cone: If you overcame your fears and dared to make the climb, then you were rewarded — especially if you lived to tell the tale. I wonder if the same could be said today about a country too long pampered and protected, about privileged citizens living ever-cushier lifestyles, about politicians who fear administering any sort of necessary, but vote-draining, pills — have we simply grown afraid to face the numerous challenges of the future? Does anyone other than me wonder how John F. Kennedy might have suggested we deal with any of our sundry contemporary dilemmas: Unaffordable housing and health-care, a devaluing currency and ever-ballooning trade deficit, a looming energy crisis, rising ocean levels and increasingly environmental stress, loss of industry and job, increasing inflation, a growing divide between haves and have-nots, and on and on?

What’s great about this new incarnation of the Brackett rocket is that the sculpture has the power to evoke the spirit of a bygone era and point out every important difference between then and now. It hints at a better version of ourselves — the nation of risk-takers and achievers who made, despite the great dangers surrounding the country, “know how” and “can do” everyday expressions, and an everyday approach to living life.

Following on the heels of the essay that I wrote five years ago and reposted a few days ago, I wrote my final word on Hollywood in January of 2004, after a long ten days spent back home.

Here you go:

Hollywood Art Critic, Part 2

January 31, 2004
Michael Fallon

IT’S BEEN SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE, but California is a bizarre place. And I don’t mean the constant calamities. (Sure, it might seem unnerving that there was an earthquake up near San Simeon just this morning as I write from a coffee shop in Malibu–but that’s background noise here.) I’m also not referring to the endless stream of eccentrics who make their home in California. (San Simeon, for example, is the locus of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous castle; Hearst was once spoofed by an outlandish and vastly overweight filmmaker in the movie “Citizen Kane;” the filmmaker later in life shilled for cheap California wines before dying of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1985. Strange enough stuff for most places, but rather quotidian for here.) Rather, mostly what makes California strange is its endless taste for make-believe.

If one had time, one could read Boorstin and Borges, Baudrillard and McLuhan and perhaps Sontag, and somehow come to understand the state’s Hollywood-borne penchant for fancy. For example, why does the state’s electorate continue to elect actors to play the role of the chief executive office? (We all know from our experience with the wrestler that this just doesn’t work in the end.) Or, in more mundane life, why do Californians eat “teardrop” tomatoes, rather than what we more prosaic Minnesotans call “grape tomatoes”? (They’re the same thing, just different names.) Or, why, at the end of the day at Disneyland, do machines spew out “snow” over Main Street after the fireworks show to conjure up the magic of a winter wonderland to an enraptured audience in 60-degree weather? (This stuff turns out to be some sort of detergent foam that, if you’re not careful, can sting the eyes.)

And speaking of winter, the fashion rage in Malibu this December seems to be knee-high mukluks. Since I’ve been sitting in the open courtyard of the Coffee Bean Café in a strip mall a block from the ocean, I have seen nine women, and one man, wearing this displaced garb–often with short skirts and midriff-revealing tops–as they wander from store to store (Malibu Lifestyles, Indiana Joan’s, Planet Blue) looking like extras from a Klondike gold rush movie. I came from the direction of Hollywood this morning via the Ventura Highway and Mulholland Drive, through the Malibu Valley and the scrubby Santa Monica Mountains, but this is definitely the deepest suspension of disbelief I have seen all day. Consider how impossible would be the diametrically opposed phenomenon: bikini-clad lifeguards on the beach at Lake Harriet in late December.

If you think California is so strange, you’re probably wondering, why are you even there? Well, I could talk to you about the true reason–preempting the winter blahs that have tended to afflict me every year since moving to Minnesota seven winters ago (yes, I count my time in winters) through contact with sun-warmed Pacific Ocean salt air–but that’s not terribly interesting. Instead, let’s talk about the reason I’m going to present to my accountant at tax time: I am here to research further the potential of becoming the Hollywood Art Critic that I dreamed of becoming in my column of August 29 of last year (see link below).

LET’S BEGIN AGAIN. On my third day of my recent trip to California, just a week before this past Christmas, I made my way to “The Brewery” just east of downtown Los Angeles. I had been hearing a lot of buzz lately about how this artists warehouse commune was the ground zero of L.A. art activity these days, and while it turned out the complex was not much more than what’s going on in Lowertown or in the NE arts corridor, the visit was revealing nonetheless.

At the Brewery I bumped into Mat Gleason, the editor and publisher of a ten-year-old underground arts zine called Coagula (see link below), a low-tech, slash-and-burn gossip rag that art regulars from coast to coast seem to hate even as they can’t help but read it. (To give you an idea of Coagula’s attitude, a book compilation of its first five years is called Most Art Sucks and is billed as the “only honest book about the world of contemporary art.”) Gleason himself was a fast talker who relished keeping tabs on who’s been stroking whom in the back rooms of the art world. Indeed, when I came on the scene he was busy complaining about the Coagula compilation book. It turns out Most Art Sucks didn’t sell particularly well–despite the fact that David Bowie wrote a glowing book review of the text for barnesandnoble.com, and that a Bowie blurb was included on the book’s back cover.

“You would think a publicist might be able to get us some publicity based on this fact,” says Gleason. “But what do I know? She couldn’t get us a write-up anywhere.” This leads to a litany of further invective. For example, as it turns out, the aforementioned publicist now works for Viggo Mortensen’s nonprofit “charitable” organization that is charged with funding art. “Really it’s a scam,” says Gleason, “It exists for Mortensen to take a write-off and to filter money to his artist friends.”

Eventually I make my escape (but not before hearing more complaints–about Gleason’s landlord, about how cold the studios are, about some art by a dead artist he’s been saddled with and that no one wants to take away), intrigued that he brought up the issue of publicists. According to the New York Times, Hollywood these days is all but ruled by publicists. A recent article by entertainment columnist Frank Rich quotes journalist Peter Biskind saying: “The disconnect between appearance, as it is presented in the media, and the reality of what actually occurs behind the scenes is as great in Hollywood as it is in Washington, if not greater.” And in fact, as I discovered when I first began researching what kind of art a “Hollywood art critic” might end up covering, the lion’s share of the art buzz out here was more of the same-old same-old California penchant for unreality. That is to say, if you look for info on California artists what you get is a lot of guff about Hollywood stars who act the part.

To mention just a short list of Hollywoodians who have gotten press for their artistic pretensions of late–there’s Tony Bennett, whose sailboat scenes have been collected by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathi Lee Gifford, and Arsenio Hall. Beyonce Knowles was quoted as saying of her painting habit: “It takes me away, and it’s really peaceful.” Dwayne Hickman, star of the 1960s TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” says painting “is an expression of art that you can sit down and do anytime you want. I can’t go downstairs and act, but I can go downstairs and paint.” Couple Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson hang their own work on the walls of their sunny L.A. home. Michelle Pfeiffer wishes she “could paint like Renoir.” And Jane Seymour; Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, John Waters, and the aforementioned Viggo Mortensen and David Bowie have been among those cited in the “trades” for their art habits.

I’d let this hoopla pass me by as just so much dabbling by people who have too much time on their hands if in turn the real California artists–the ones worth watching–were getting their due as well. But the simple fact is, the truth beyond the glitzy Hollywood portrait of the pursuit of art is the life of the artist here, as elsewhere, is bleak. Artists in California who do not happen to be Hollywood actors struggle to survive against the terrible ambivalence of society.

I know this first hand, as I spent the rest of my Brewery-excursion in the studio of 70-year-old artist George Herms, a local mainstay since the 1950s. Herms came up with the Beat Generation and has been collected by most of the major museums (including the Walker Art Center). At this point in his career, he should basking in success, coddled by art patrons, happily retired and secure in his finances. But in fact, I discover, Herms is struggling to survive at the Brewery, unable to pay his bills despite all he’s accomplished, and recently sued by the Brewery’s owners for back rent.

“I’m just an idiot,” Herms says, as the afternoon light fades in a studio that is filled with nearly fifty years worth of art and art materials, some of which he’s recently had to raffle off just to pay lawyer’s fees. “I get up and work everyday. I’m more into what I’ve just started than in taking what’s finished and turning it into the coin of the realm.”

If only this were a Hollywood story: The upstart pretender to the throne, looking like a fashion model in his mukluks, would lead a ghost army of nonprofit granters and art patrons from across the sea just as a light foamy snow begins to fall. All would arrive just in time to save the debt-ridden artist from near-certain calamity. Ah, wouldn’t that be something?

So I guess the Hollywood writers are coming back to work soon.

Yay.

I had been intending, for weeks and weeks, to write something about the plight of the writers, to compare their lot to the lot of all the everyday artists in the country who are slowly working their fingers to nubs for an occasional bone thrown by an uncaring public. Etc. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.

I mean, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, not art. And these are corporate workaday hacks–correction, well-paid corporate workaday hacks–who are fighting for a bigger share of the tons of money you and I stupidly throw at them year after year. This is not something of any sort of lasting cultural value…

All the stories I read about this strike went on and on and on about how “devastating” was the strike to the entertainment industry, and how “demoralizing” it was to the struggling writers. They cited the number like a running stock-ticker—$1 billion dollars lost and counting… $2 billion dollars lost and counting… And Bingo! $3.2 billion dollars lost (*according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp).

But you know what? The strike wasn’t really that devastating really, at least not to the people who matter— i.e., you and me. The world did not stop turning. People did not go into withdrawal. No one suffered any lasting effects. The juggernaut industry that is our modern bread-and-circus distraction was not really missed all that much.

Of course the bitter strikers and the even bitterer globocorporations that produce this tripe will trot out all the positive cliches, if only to get the river of money (our money) flowing back where they want (their pockets). “At the end of the day, everybody won. It was a fair deal and one that the companies can live with, and it recognizes the large contribution that writers have made to the industry,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS Corp.”These advances now give us a foothold in the digital age,” said Patric Verrone, president of the guild’s West Coast chapter. “Rather than being shut out of the future of content creation and delivery, writers will lead the way as television migrates to the Internet.”

Fine fine sentiment. But we, who will be ponying up for all this bonhomie, know better.

Truth is, we’d be much better off without all the distraction and crap. Or at least we’d be just fine. And we’d certainly have more money and more time to focus on something more meaningful–the paintings made by the minor genius who lives at the end of the block, the song written by your cousin the burgeoning cafe-folksinger, the short one-act play written by that cute girl at work.

Art, people. Not mindlessly distracting entertainment. Art. (Or at least a better balance between the two…)

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.”
–Theodore Sturgeon

“The art schools… you get young kids doing the most vile and meaningless crap. I think they believe every bit of it.”
–Leonard Baskin

“That’s the reality of rock ’n’ roll: Just about every band is absolute shit. Listen to any disco compilation or punk retrospective. Listen to 98 percent of the ska bands that emerged in the mid-1990s (or most of the originals, for that matter). The overwhelming majority of what you’ll hear will be wretched. And it generally seems that fans know this, even though they might not feel comfortable admitting it. Few people listen to entire albums, even when they’re released by their so-called favorite band.”
–Chuck Klosterman

And then there’s this:

shit.jpg

21 big blocks of crap in the current exhibition, “This Entrance is Strictly Prohibited,” by Santiago Sierra at the Lisson Gallery in London.

Sir Richard Eyre has weighed in again about his notions of “cultural apartheid” in Britain. This time it’s in response to an announcement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell, that the British government “will work towards a position where no matter where they live, or what their background, all children and young people have the opportunities to get involved in top-quality cultural activities in and out of school.”

While Eyre admits to some skepticism over the idea that government can effectively address the problem of decreasingly public interest and involvement in the arts, he also welcomes the effort, any effort, to deal with the increasingly cultural antipathy of the masses. He is particularly concerned with creating a culturally classist society:

All things being equal, the choice of going to the opera or ballet or theatre or gallery or bookshop is a free one, open to everyone. But all things aren’t equal: the “choice” of going to the theatre or the opera or an art gallery doesn’t exist for vast numbers of people in this country, who, if they feel anything at all about art, feel disenfranchised. This distinction - between those who enjoy the arts and those who feel excluded from them - amounts to an absolute divide. It seems like apartheid to me.

No one can be blamed for such “apartheid,” of course. The government of Britain, like the U.S. government, is not at fault. No one is plotting, as a matter of policy, the decline of art. The problem is individual choice. The public has too many choices for how it can spend its time. There are too many competing cultural factions, and now that the Internet has put access to all of these factions within reach of every 6th grader, people gravitate more and more toward lowest-common-denominator bread-and-circuses, and less and less toward difficult or challenging culture and art. (Note: This is not a new phenomenon, as Eyre points out; after all, T.S. Eliot spoke fifty years ago of the decline of cultural discourse: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture.” The problem now is that such decline has only been accelerated by tools of media and Internet we have shackled ourselves with.)

In the face of the diminishing returns of widening cultural self-choice, a solution seems unlikely. If no one is at fault, then no one can affect a change. Or rather, if everyone is at fault—everyone is responsible for their own cultural backwardness—then everyone equally has to affect the change. In the end, says Eyre:

Any government has a hard job justifying expenditure on the arts - it is easier to subsidise weapons of destruction than weapons of happiness. The benefits are hard to quantify and it is awkward but necessary to recognise that failure is an essential part of artistic creation; bad art will always exist beside the good. But it seems no more than logic to acknowledge - as James Purnell has - that the corollary of investing taxpayers’ money in the arts must be to evolve a strategy that embraces the departments of both culture and education to invest in the performers and the audiences of the future. It will enfranchise the victims of apartheid.