Archive for the Decline of human accomplishment in art Category

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

–Ernst Fischer

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!

As the deflated rich in this country wring their hands about how rapidly China is buying up U.S. bonds, securities, businesses, and land, I found it curious to find this story about attempts by Chinese artists who own the international fake art market.

Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) — In a village in southern China, Wu Ruiqiu is worried about the effect of an economic slump on the art market. He should be. Wu represents artists who make 60 percent of the world’s oil paintings. Wu is chairman of Dafen’s art association, which groups 8,000 artists in a suburb of Shenzhen, China’s biggest manufacturing hub. While employees in the city make cheap DVD players, computers and T-shirts, workers here produce Rembrandts, Monets and Warhols — by the millions.

Exports have fallen by a third this year, he said… About 85 percent of sales are exports, with the U.S. the biggest customer. A decline in demand has forced the smaller of Dafen’s 800 galleries to close. Others have slashed prices to compete…

Of the nearly 5 million paintings produced at Dafen each year, almost 75 percent are knockoffs (the locals prefer the term replicas). The rest are original artworks, said Fan Yuxin, vice director of the government’s Dafen Village management office.

Lan Xin, who runs a 100-square-foot gallery with Yue copies propped against the walls and hung on pillars, accepts custom orders. He clicked on an icon on his computer screen that expanded to show miniature images of paintings such as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits. Lan said he commissions freelance artists to paint pictures customers order….

“The paintings here are cheap, they are good, what’s there not to like?” said Houston, Texas-based Judy Berckman, browsing the stalls of galleries for “abstract art.”Foreign companies think the same. The village’s products line the walls of casinos in Las Vegas and Macau…

Dafen’s prolific fakery roused complaints from original artists and their estates, prompting the government to introduce intellectual property rules that bar galleries from selling copies of works by living artists and those dead for less than 50 years.

Fan said an anti-piracy squad inspects galleries “once a month or once a week” and confiscates works that violate the rules. Still, he said the onus is on buyers and people who commission paintings to clear copyright issues.

“Painters just do as they are told,” Fan said. “Their obligation stops when they deliver the goods to customer satisfaction.”

A walk around Dafen’s galleries, full of copies of works by China’s bestselling contemporary artists, shows that the rules aren’t strictly enforced.

Here’s a review of a recent failed art exhibition that I wrote for The Thousandth Word blog: “Bang a Drum for the Losers.”

Be forewarned: My take on the show at hand, “Millions of Innocent Accidents” by the artists collective Hardland/Heartland at the Minnesota Artists Gallery (at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), is a tad harsh. But I had a point to express, related to the cause of so much artistic failure across the land of late, which was this:

Shrill gestures like breaking windows, destroying property, and flouting the rules of civilized society do not make compelling symbolism. Instead, acts of a hopeful, imaginative, empathetic, or out-reaching nature are what’s needed to attract and capture the attention and support of others….

….As soon as I walked into this gallery and saw the poorly conceived, dolefully hopeless work that this well-meaning group of artists purported to consider compelling visual art—all their random and indistinct trash and burnt paraphernalia and jumbles and piles of detritus and tossed off dreck and doodles and goats’ heads and black tar corner accretions—my spirit fell. The show was a disaster, off-putting and uninspiring, and it was clear at a glance that this loudly shouting, in-your-face visual group had failed to reach out to others in any meaningfuly to get their righteous points across….

The chief problem is that, while it’s clear that Hardland/Heartland’s hearts are in the right place and they have the energy to make a lot of work (and I mean a lot of work), they just don’t know how to make much that is compelling and symbolically relevant or that embodies and expounds on their frustrations, fears, and angst in a way that someone else would care to look at. There’s no hope here, no imagination, and certainly nothing to empathize with.

NOTE: This is not a book review. This is just a head’s up to all you hungry CAFAians out there.

I just picked up a (relatively) new book by the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press about artistic failure. Called Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, it’s a low-budget, special-interest sort of publication (supposedly published two years ago–though there’s no date on the copyright page) that appears to contain a good amount of the dense, almost unreadable academic-style writing you often find in curator-driven vanity monographs that art centers often “publish.” I say this without having really dug into the book yet (though I intend to soon), and admit that what I have read thus far has been pretty compelling. The editors seem overall to take a whippet-smart approach to examining the very hot issue of failure in art (and politics and society, yadda yadda) (though they also seem to be, at least from the note I received from them about an earlier version of this post, somewhat testy, and for little reason).

I may (or may not) post more about this text in the near-future, but for now here’s a sampling (from the book’s intro), which could have fit in well with some of what’s been written thus far on the very webblog you’re reading now:

Just as any human enterprise is defined by what it excludes, it is a culture’s failure–quickly forgotten, repressed, buried away–which have the most to say about that culture’s beliefs and values. Our project is conceived of as part of the archeology of thos lost failures, a way of bringing to light our own culture’s aberrations…. The work in this book takes different approaches to failure. Some writers investigate failure’s root causes (both specifically and generally), in an attempt to understand why things fail. Others use the idea of failure as a way to reinterpret our relationship to history and progress, while still others question the rhetoric of failure and success altogether.

(** = Bullet Points of Failure)

Having been away all this past week at a remote and top-secret rural retreat (no email, no cell phone, no Internet — ahhh!), imagine my chagrin at coming back home to find my local community on fire like Atlanta — at least as far as local artistic failure is concerned.

To clarify what I mean, here are a few bullet points:

  • As you will recall from reading CAFA, I have reported on multiple local defections, failures, and collapses of arts administrators and organizations in recent months. Just to give a recap, in the past 2-3 years, prior to this past week that is, Minneapolis has seen the loss of three directors of two major arts institutions, the defection of a State Arts Board director after only one year, and the removal or resignation of five-six major curators at top arts institutions. It has seen the collapse of one major artist-member crafts organization (the Minnesota Crafts Council), the near-implosion of Minnesota Film Arts (which mounts the Mpls-St. Paul International Film Festival), the collapse of a regional Tony-Award winning theater, and the near-failure and rumored impending collapse of countless mid-sized arts organizations. (Rumors that are so common that it doesn’t seem right to pass them on, lest it keeps said orgs from rebounding. Just as an example, however, I will mention that this organization is emblematic; after failing to pay rent for three months this fall/winter, its director resigned and 3/4 of its staff was let go, and thus far no replacement has been hired.)
  • As if that all isn’t enough, on July 16, the board of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis — a venue that presents works by local and national performance groups in town — announced it was placing its long-time (30+-year veteran) Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett on “indefinite leave.” By July 17, public responses to this news had come from a coterie of interested citizen/artists and from a long-time writer on dance in Minneapolis. The immediacy and intensity of the response from the public resulted in, on July 18, a response from the Southern Theater’s board, which cited the need to deal with “a huge financial deficit, a building badly in need of repair, faulty and problematic accounting practices, personnel issues, low staff morale, and complaints from artists” and the resulting need to restructure the organization.
  • Finally (finally!), a press release came across my desk on July 18 announcing the resignation, after eleven years, of Minnesota Museum of American Art executive director Bruce A. Lilly.

I can’t think of anything else to say at this point, other than to quote the words of Henry Longfellow: “All things must change to something new, to something strange.” Be brave, Minnesota, this will all pass.

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh to check out the 2008 Carnegie International, and I’ve also been scrambling to get a few projects done this week, so I’ve been unable to post to CAFA for the past week. To make up for this recent blog-lull (blull?), below are a few quick Bullet Points of Failure for June–this miserable month of miserably (so far) gloomy weather.

  • Last night, at a dreary-wet, underattended Art Happy Hour (my side-project designed to counterbalance the constant depressive pull of failure from this site), I got to speaking with a local artist named Jim. He’d just come back to live in Minneapolis, where he is from, after spending five years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is, it seems, a regular reader of CAFA (the first I’ve ever met, actually), so we got to talking about failure and local art, and he said something brilliantly perceptive: “Here’s what I think about Minneapolis now that I’ve been away and come back: I’ve never been in a place filled with so many brilliant, capable, and creative people who are going nowhere.”
  • I didn’t realize this at the time, but back in November, 2007–about the time I was starting up this blog on artistic failure–a Carnegie Mellon University art professor started The Museum of Modern Failure, as a project for a class called “Art in Context.” The idea was to celebrate people’s personal failures, and the “museum” was a black wall on which people post a wide range of “failures”: whether technological (the Hindenburg, the Titanic), unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean), cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet), or so on. The concept was suggested by student Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store that would come to house the museum, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a “history of failure… The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat. ‘I just find it really humorous that blunders aren’t what we celebrate in museums, just big successes,’ Brown explain[ed].” In a perfect coda to the project, the temporary museum close just shortly after it opened, in December of last year.
  • My review of the Carnegie International, as well as a long Q&A-style interview with its curator Douglas Fogle, went live on another new side-project of mine–a blog of visual arts writing on the Rakemag.com site called The Thousandth Word. I didn’t realize it until later, but my take on this big blockbuster international survey exhibition reflected something about the clouds of failure that hang over these times:
  • The best work in the 2008 Carnegie International reflects intimate, eccentric, often uncertain moments even as it hints at deeper and vast problems in the society. This is art of the resigned, pitiful shoulder-shrug variety, not of the noisy (and perhaps useless) hammer-thud variety–such as what was on display in such blustery recent shows as, say, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Many of the personal and intimate gestures of these artists are designed, in fact, to spill out over from the private mind into a public realm, perhaps like pond ripples or a zen butterfly’s wings flapping or other suitable metaphor.

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Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

CAFA occasionally receives a particular and peculiar response to the strange and distressing features of contemporary artistic failure that we point out week after week. It is this: “Well, yeah, things are fucked up in the arts. But that’s always been true. Things are no different now than they’ve ever been.”

Well, actually, I would argue things are much worse now for artists and the arts than they’ve ever been. In fact, it is a key part of the mission of CAFA to document exactly how they are worse.

As a case in point, consider these two stories, which reveal how human attitudes about art and cultural treasures have worsened over the past two hundred-odd years.

First, in 2004, just a bit more than four years ago, on the first anniversary of the war in Iraq, I wrote an essay about why, despite having every reason to be gloomy, I still loved art. I had been to Paris a year earlier, soaking up the arts ambiance of the place just as our national brain trust was making its ill-fated decision to open up the bomb works on Iraq. Here was the crux of my argument (for still loving art despite the dispicableness of humanity):

Toward the end of the trip I took a train out to Chartres to see the famous cathedral. Once there, I latched onto a tour with local British historian Malcolm Miller. He pointed out the stories in the cathedral’s stained glass, which windows had been restored at what cost, and so on. He… took us outside to look at the Gothic sculpture that adorned the exterior of the building. We examined the flying buttresses, learned how many steps were in each tower (and when each tower was built), and came to a part of the cathedral accessible to a small town square. Here, he pointed out sculptural figures that were armless, occasionally headless, chipped in leg and foot, and asked us if we knew what had happened. One person guessed that was the ravages of time, but Miller shook his head.

“In 1793,” he said, “revolutionaries converged on the cathedral to remove the sculpture and rededicate the building as a palace of enlightenment, or some such.” Such fanatics had knocked many of Paris’s cathedrals to the ground in the early 1790s, and some wanted to do the same in Chartres. They began hacking at its statuary, Miller explained, only to be stopped by a local official. “They had already done some damage, as you can see, knocking off heads and other elements that they could reach. The official stopped them by simply saying in one hundred years people will want to come see the cathedral.”

Here I was, more than two hundred years later, thankful to the nameless official for his insight. The simple answer to why I love art, why I continue to seek it out despite all the distressing and depressing things of the world, is that it is in art then that we rise above it all… In the long run, art outlasts all the tiresome and anxiety-inducing aspects of living; it outlasts the arguments, the blood feuds, and the sectarian squabbles. Art is the way we reveal ourselves as somehow more than ordinary.

Now, compare Story 1 with Story 2, which recently appeared in the L.A. Times, about all the priceless and irreplaceable antiquities and ancient artistic treasures that were taken, damaged, or destroyed from Iraq’s National Museum at the onset of the Iraq war. “Five years ago this week,” the story by Johanna Neuman begins,

looters ransacked the Iraqi National Museum, stealing centuries-old artifacts that celebrated Iraq’s role as the cradle of civilization… Today, investigators say that about 15,000 pieces were either stolen in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 or went unaccounted for in the months and years before the conflict began. About half have been recovered. But the impact of the thefts — amulets, Assyrian ivories, sculpture heads, ritual vessels and cylinder seals — is still being felt in art circles and black markets throughout the world.

“The numbers can’t tell the whole story,” said U.S. Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney who has made the hunt for antiquities his specialty. “These things remind us of our common beginnings.”

Plus ça change, plus d’art échoue…

I’ve been busy with administrative tasks on CAFA the past four days, so I’ve not had time to think any new thoughts about failure. (I promise, by the way, to have my blogroll back up soon…)

However, here are some interesting links from sundry Friends of Failure:

—One of my favorite artist blogs, SELLOUT, which is an examination of the hard issues facing artists—written by artists—declared suddenly yesterday it’s going on a hiatus to refine and retool. The reason for this sudden stoppage, despite the quick notoriety the site has gained: Overwhelmed with email… Hey, SELLOUT, I hear ya. If you figure that one out, let me know. But hurry back!

—Sharon Butler, author of the arts blog Two Coats of Paint, which recently went through its own retooling, just published an expose-style article in the Brooklyn Rail, called Swimming in Pigment, about the lollapollooza art fairs that occur in Miami Beach. Her conclusions about the events? They’re a mixed bag, but mostly, when you take into account only the good art that was there, she found the experience positive:

It’s too easy to scorn Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellites as a vulgar coalescence of dilettantes and profiteers. Beneath that veneer, they provide an invaluable one-stop annual inventory of the art world: a dazzlingly broad array of artwork, much of it vigorous and thoughtful, in two nearby neighborhoods geared for high-intensity viewing, through which art becomes a proud rallying point for an entire city. On an individual level, accepting the challenge of apprehending such a vast ocean of work without props, as it were, is to rediscover the very process by which you first figured out what you loved about looking at, and making, art. The opportunity to redefine and articulate your passion is a lot more than just a good party.

—Meanwhile, Art Happy Hour!, which also just retooled (must be the season for it), wrote that it is holding its inaugural gathering in Minneapolis. If you’re anywhere near the area, you simply have to come check this out—the first artist community-wide happy hour in the country (that I know of)!

–And, finally, your favorite CAFA administrator, Michael Fallon, has just caused himself no small amount of trouble by publishing an essay about the artistic drive in artists, titled (provocatively, on purpose) “The (Endlessly Annoying, Horribly Consuming, Creepily Off-Putting) Drive in Artists to Make Art.” Here’s just a little teaser, in which I take to task a pretentiously wannabe-artist, and former friend, named Mike:

EVERYONE AT SOME TIME IN LIFE ENDS UP WITH A FRIEND LIKE MIKE. Mike wanted desperately to be a screenwriter. Or, to put it more accurately, he wanted you to think of him as a screenwriter.

Another friend of mine, G. (who wouldn’t care much whether or not you knew how accomplished an arts writer, artist, and craftsperson he actually is), first encountered Mike after a meeting which was initiated for the purposes of “screenplay research.” “Man,” he said, “that’s a guy who’s just desperate for attention. Do me a favor and keep me out of the loop next time.” S., yet another friend and a self-taught artist who earned his skills by hard toil over band saw and workbench, after a few months’ acquaintance took to calling Mike an intellectual Baby Huey. “You know Baby Huey, right? Always wanting attention, always bumbling into every situation like an attention-seeking whale in a wading pool. That’s Mike!”