Archive for the Other authors Category

The Two Coats of Paint blog posted a nice a piece on the Park Place Gallery, on the occasion of an exhibition, at the Blanton Museum, that takes retrospective look at the artists who helped establish the ground-breaking 1960s gallery.

One of the artists, Dean Fleming, was featured in several short posts last year on the Chronicle of Artistic Failure, as an artistic figure who’s long been forgotten by the mainstream art world.

Here’s an interesting passage from the press materials for the show at the Blanton Museum (quoted also by Two Coats…), which is called “Reimaging Space” [emphasis mine]:

Park Place artists were united by their multifaceted explorations of space. Their abstract paintings and sculptures, with dynamic geometric forms and color palettes, created optical tension, and were partially inspired by the architecture and energy of urban New York. The group regularly discussed the visionary theories of Buckminster Fuller, Space Age technologies, science fiction, and the psychology of expanded perception, and these ideas become essential to their work. Dean Fleming’s paintings of shifting, contradictory spaces were intended to transform viewers, provoking an expanded consciousness. Di Suvero’s allegiance was to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and his kinetic sculptures explored gravity and momentum in space.

By assembling a selection of major works not seen together since that era—as well as photographs and documents chronicling the group’s activities—this exhibition opens a new window on the art world of the 1960s. In doing so, it reveals the decade to have been a period of much richer artistic possibility than standard art histories suggest. According to Guest Curator Linda Dalrymple Henderson, ‘Reimagining Space’ is meant to ‘encourage new, more subtle readings of the 1960s and to direct attention to the superb Park Place artists who have not received the critical attention they deserve.’

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.

The management team of The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America has been undertaking a bit of soul-searching over the past two-and-a-half months, trying to decide if/how to carry on the work of chronicling all that dooms art to failure in this country (and world) of ours.

Considering that we’ve been at this task, on top of day jobs and other extracurricular writing projects, for seventeen months (i.e., ever since September, 2007), and considering how much worse things have gotten—in the economy and in the arts—since the time that we began this chronicle, we now find ourselves at several crossroads. First, while it’s been fascinating to look at all angles and facets of artistic failure, and while our audience has grown steadily (now averaging 1,500-2,000 visitors a month), we now realize, pretty clearly, that nothing we write, nothing we selflessly point out to artists, curators, critics, or the audience for art, is going to change the conditions that make art such a difficult pursuit in our culture. Second, in the process of dwelling on all the bad cards that’ve been dealt to the creative, the artistic, and the art-sympathetic, we ourselves have been growing increasingly more cynical and glum about the prospects for a more arts-friendly world. And finally, owing mostly to the first two points, we find ourselves simply burning out on failure, and, more importantly, we’re burning out on, and no longer particularly enjoying, art.

That’s not to say we are giving up this endeavor—at least not yet. It’s just that, at this point in history, with so much going wrong and so many artists and regular people anxious, overwhelmed, or cast at sea, we want to take a different tack with failure. We want to ruminate, occasionally at least, on more lofty things. So, having searched our souls, we here at CAFA are shifting our focus away from (except in the most crucial cases) a simple, dry chronicle of failure that dwells, depressingly, on all the things that are going wrong, and we are moving toward (hopefully) more poetic, literary, theoretical ruminations on what it is in the human condition and character that dooms so many of our most well-meaning endeavors to fail. What is in our make-up—spiritual, psychological, genetic—that leads us to (poignantly, doggedly) continue practicing something (like art) even though we know it is futile? And what does the abiding need for art say about the exquisiteness and beauty that lies at the core of humanness? This means instead of continuing to aggregate the latest bad economic news in the arts or to list the policy changes around the country that have a negative bearing on art, we will strive to tell the human story of (the doomed-to-fail endeavor of) art-making.

And so to start, we quote below a poem somewhat about this human predisposition to failure, heard last night in Minneapolis at a reading by Dobby Gibson. It is from his new book of poems, Skirmish, published by the small independent Graywolf Press.

Why I’m Afraid of Heaven

by Dobby Gibson

If you stood on Venus,
where the atmospheric haze
is so thick that it bends light,
it theoretically would be possible
to stare at the back of your own head.
Which would mean you’d never
again have the pleasure
of helping a beautiful woman
fasten the clasp on her necklace.
On Jupiter, a beautiful woman
might weight 400 pounds,
but so would you,
and you’d be far more worried
about suffocating to death
on planetary gas.
We’ve all desired what we can’t find here.
We’ve all left our gum beneath the seat.
In a bright department store,
a plastic egg gives birth to pantyhose.
In a dark dorm room,
a lonely freshman finally gets his wish.
The dog tries, and fails, to run across the ice.
After spending a lifetime
conscious of being alive,
why would anyone
want to spend an eternity
conscious of being dead?
In this bar, one of the world’s last remaining pay phones
hangs heavy in the corner.
Most days it waits in silence.
Once in a while, it just rings and rings.

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.

Today’s edition of the Bullet Points of Failure (B.P.O.F.) gives up following, for now, all the local artistic hand-wringing that has of late been something of a preoccupation. Instead, today I strive to expand both inward and outward by bullet-pointing a few personal issues, as well as a few national ones.

  • On my other (yin) blog–about happiness and sunshine and art and drinks all around–I wrote a piece nearly a month ago (yikes! I’ve got to update that blog!) about the Nature of Happiness (and its Connection to Art). My motivation was responding to the artists who had been complaining about changes to a local artists exhibition program. I quoted former NEA chair Bill Ivey who suggested that art is best when not deemed a career-building enterprise, but instead is seen as “a way to pursue self-realization without forcing us to deny the materialist and competitive drives that pass for human nature in the West…” (See www.arthappyhour.com for more of Ivey’s thoughts).
  • Perhaps inspired by these two points, an alert reader, Louis Allgeyer, wrote the note below (which alerted me of a recently published Peter Schjeldahl review, which I hadn’t seen, that touches–much more eloquently–on notions put forward in my recent writing):

    admin/M.F.

    Down towards the end of your nature of happiness piece you sort of ponder,where is it all going art-wise, which I think many do. Esp artists themselves, so that they can jump on the-next-big-thing (just like a stock
    broker). Esp artists who are tired of their usual self-gratification that isn’t gratifying and isn’t art.

    I hope you read the article “feeling blue,” by the other great midwestern art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in the august 4th New Yorker magazine ( a swimmers head on the cover). He also seems to be having similar ponderings and seems to think he may see ( in a much bigger picture than the little show he is reviewing ) a “fashion auditioning as a sea change.” He goes on to predict what the next-big-thing might be, if history is any guide and if, “our particular civilization is (not)spent.”

    Naturally I like it because my stuff falls right in line so I am gratified.

    Anyhoo, I think it is an important bit journalism.

    Louis Allgeyer

  • Finally, Schjeldahl’s review–of “After Nature,” currently up at the New Museum in New York--is itself well worth bullet-pointing. He says the show “proposes a saturnine new direction in art…. Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.)”

    And he continues: “the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success… Existentialist standards of authenticity may be back in force, however fleetingly. How much can we bear of art that, like Sebald’s writing, glories in bottomless malaise? I expect we’ll find out.

    You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap. I think of Picasso’s world-weary blue period, T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” and “Prufrock,” and the budding Abstract Expressionists’ wallows in Jungian mythology. The syndrome announces the exhaustion of a received cultural situation, whose traditions are slack and whose future is opaque. It typically entails nostalgia for real or fancied past ages that dealt—successfully, in retrospect—with similar crises.

    Viva la artistic failure!

Gerald Prokop, in his new blog, has a few bones to pick with how Minneapolis/Minnesota treats its artists (even as we pat ourselves on our collective back for our self-perceived enlightenment).

He writes (in one post):

Minneapolis can’t support artists. Take the number of venues or galleries and compare it to the number of musicians or painters and you have a problem. And some of those people are cooler than you. Some have “friends in the scene.” Some have money in their family or other weird sources of income. Plenty of them are younger than you and willing to take greater risks. Add my own personal struggle with myself, and it gets hard to compete.

And in another post he writes:

I have mixed feelings about the art “scene” here, if you can call it that. I used to really believe in it. Afunctionul was all about investing in our place, and the local scene and how we could build it through those “unestablished” venues to create a healthy, diverse culture. But that was over four years ago. Since then, I tried my best at creating and marketing my visual art. I constantly felt like the “scene” was going on without me. Being an artist here is more about choosing your friends then creating your work. It’s more about having a style and fitting in somewhere socially. I closed my studio because I ran out of juice. I was broke and I wasn’t being myself. I would go to every gallery opening because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

It’s partly my fault for being socially awkward. But I dread the day when misfits don’t have the privilege of a career in the arts because overachievers have changed the standards.

It’s quite possible that the reasons I failed here as a visual artist would have caused me to fail anywhere. Regardless, I wish people would just shut up about how great it is here.

Minneapolitans like to create insulated communities, or cliques. And from that viewpoint, you can convince yourself that it’s anything you want it to be. And with our corporate paychecks, we can finance our fantasies.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit more bio about the work that Gerald Prokop has done since the early 2000s. He sounds like a doer, and it’s a shame he hasn’t found a community of support. I’m going to keep reading his blog to see how his career develops…

“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:

/category/other_authors/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.

Another key participant–among the many participants–in the ongoing failure of art in America are art museums. Two very recent articles, one by my colleague Sharon L. Butler in American Prospect and one in the New York Times, reveal how modern American art museums are contributing the situation.

According to Butler, American art museums, like American consumers at large (emphasis on the large), have become enamored toward the trend toward super-sizing. She lists a number of national museum expansions that have, while sexy and alluring (to media at least), have actually alienated museums from core patrons and local arts communities.

Butler writes:

Often such plans result in oversized, over-designed new structures that veer away from an initial vision of intimacy that the museum founders envisioned between the patrons and the artwork. All too frequently, new museum space is not even used to display additional artwork, but rather to house cafés, gift shops, and administrative offices. Even when new construction does yield more exhibition space, the predominant hope of most museum directors is that the expansion will lure new donations by contemporary collectors. Work in storage tends to be viewed as unfashionable, irrelevant, or inferior. While new art may indeed come hither, it is less likely to sustain the museum’s original atmosphere and, therefore, the goodwill of long-standing patrons.

While intimacy and meditation may not be as sexy as dazzling new architecture, they may do more to deepen the relationship between the visual arts and the community at large. Professional baseball and football did not become wildly popular because big stadiums are inherently compelling, but because people learned to love the games as children when they played and watched them on lowly sandlots.

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, meanwhile, Jori Finkel reports on big art museum’s growing tendency to accept significant amounts of money from for-profit art galleries and art dealers. This is despite the fact that often these dealers and galleries have a large stake in certain artists’ careers, and they stand to benefit by any rise in the prices of these artists works (something that big museums often help contribute to).

Finkel writes:

…not everybody in the museum world is comfortable with the trend. Bruce Altshuler, director of the museum studies program at New York University, compared it to accepting money from a corporation to display its merchandise…

“There are two basic questions,” Mr. Altshuler said. “Was the decision to mount the exhibition made because of funding from someone with an economic interest in the show? And did that funding lead to the ceding of curatorial decision making or some influence on the choice of works in the exhibition?” He added that even if a show’s curator can confidently reply no to both questions, some damage might be done nonetheless. “There might not be any actual impropriety, but the goal is to avoid even the appearance of it,” he said.

Two years ago, I wrote about issues related to this on mnartists (a website of local arts information sponsored jointly by the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation). One article questioned whether it was wise for every major art institution in the Twin Cities to be seeking to expand at the same time, and compared the impulse to consumers driven to the point of agitated distraction by the endless marketing push of our culture. In another article, I reported on grumblings I’d been hearing at the time from folk who were working with the big local arts institute, which they said had become increasingly beholden, in its programming decisions, to certain major local corporate donors.

Here’s the crux of my ranty analysis of the situation ca. 2005 (edited slightly for updating purposes):

…what truly worried me this summer [of 2005] were the rumors that began to filter east about the inexplicably non-Minnesotan things occurring in certain arts spaces back home. For instance, the changeover of a show at a big and prominent exhibition space at a big and prominent local art institute was, in unprecedented fashion, postponed at the latest possible moment–despite the fact that the exhibition schedule is determined and contracted out months in advance—and shifted (read: suppressed) to the quiet summer scheduling slot. Then, when the announcement for the postponed show finally arrived it was contained in a plain white envelope. The relatively banal picture-card contained within, when revealed, depicted an image of the work by Davora Lindner—a topless marionette of (gasp!) undetermined and ambiguous sex.

Censorship is, of course, nothing new in the course of American and world history, and artists for centuries have been contending with varying degrees of control of their work from church, state, and patron. In America, censorship efforts often take on the most ludicrous sorts of contortions. This is because while our culture nominally prides itself on its adherence to tenets of free speech, the government actually gives only token backing for arts—partially, I suspect, to avoid coming into conflict with its own constitutional mandate for free speech when the inevitable calls for censorship come. So, in the end, politicians who feel it necessary to act as arbiters of taste and values in the arts that they don’t really support in the first place come off sounding, at best, self-servingly demagogic, and, at worst, misguidedly and idiotically out-of-touch.

The tax-exempt, nonprofit nongovernmental system that America has put in place to support the arts has worked to dampen the demagogic impulses of politicians. Art organizations of repute seek donors—individuals, private or public foundations, and businesses—who are willing to give them needed money for the honor of attaching their name to an artistic enterprise. When everything clicks, and money is gathered, artists and arts organizations are then free to present the work they desire, while the supporters gain status and repute by association with the arts. It’s a give-and-take that provides benefits to each side. And while you’d imagine that some people with money wouldn’t be able to help themselves from interfering with the art, for the most part the managers of artistic product generally are able to stave off the meddling influences of the moneyed interests, and all live happily ever after. The system generally works, and art happens.

I had known for some months before I left town—ever since I had been indirectly asked on behalf of a certain locally based mega-globo-corporation (let’s call it the “Bullseye” Corporation) to write a review on a work of Bible art it was sponsoring that a certain large local art institution was under increasing pressure by this particular moneyed interest (that also happened to be sponsoring the construction of several new wings to the institution). What’s most strange, of course, is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution. After all, the designer of a new wing just happened to be a chief designer for a line of products at the BE Corp…

Further, the run of the sponsored Bible art show in question, I later found out, had also been extended—to overlap the time frame that the show of racy marionettes was originally supposed to run. So I just don’t know. Has the need for money and sponsorship in the face of local institutional expansions and capital campaigns and shrinking foundation and lackluster state support left the boards of certain arts institutions increasingly willing to censor itself? I’m told too that the institution in question even recently established an internal curatorial oversight board to be sure than no offending art would see the light of day again in this particular exhibition program, as well as in the institute at large. Is big money suddenly that much of a censoring influence in Minnesota arts? (I’ve not even begun to consider or investigate—I can only imagine–the way that the big money is affecting the big glowy aluminum-mesh contemporary art center across town.) And if this is happening, is this a healthy direction for us to allow our arts institutions to take?

As to the obvious question–why the Bullseye Corp would even care to influence something they have no particular expertise in (i.e., art)—well, that’s anyone’s guess. Apparently, and you didn’t hear this from me, the big money wags at the Bullseye Corporation did not much want the sexually vague dolls overshadowing the Bible pictures at which they were (calculatedly) tossing so much of their trinkets-and-crap money. After all, there’s no room for sex in the Biblical circles that the Bullseye suddenly seemed intent on attracting, just as there is no room for sex apparently anywhere in the Bullseye Corp…

So what can we do about any of this? How can we overturn our state’s seeming increased reliance on the sanitizing lucre of corporate America and so avoid becoming beholden to the whims of ad hoc corporate oversight? For, be assured, Minnesotans–once this sort of dictatorial influence is fully put in place, it will be some time before ordinary people with ordinary moral codes will be able to supplant the corporate big-money influence over the future directions of the state’s art. There’s likely no turning back once we’ve let ourselves be led down this dingy-brick road.

And for those of you who shrug at a little censorship, ask yourself if you really want such decisions made by companies that don’t know art from ten-dollar trinkets manufactured in Malaysian sweat shops. If you think art already sucks as it is, just imagine the types of exhibitions the Bullseye starts arranging once it owns the Institute it’s buying up piecemeal. Consider the fallout that will occur across the country when talented, hip, and enterprising young people pondering a move to Minnesota begin to hear of the appallingly underhanded dominion and arbitrarily moralizing influence corporations are having on the (formerly) creative spirit of the state.

Australian libertarian commentator Eric Fry, on his website The Daily Reckoning, recently compared the Fed’s recent bailout of reckless mortgage loan speculators to how American educators have taken to coddling burgeoning young art students.

“…Modern American-style capitalism is more like ‘arts and crafts’ time in one of Manhattan’s pricey nursery schools. Every coddled kiddy’s ‘artistic’ creation – no matter how inept or ghastly it may be – elicits praise from the nursery school instructors. Indeed, every grunt elicits praise…and every boo-boo finds a Band-aid.”

This is revealing in two ways. First, that the cushy manner of the American education system, and the entitlement culture it engenders, is becoming increasingly known around the world. Second, that this entitlement culture may not only be a factor in American art and education, but it may have become entrenched far and wide, in the money system, the federal government, and the supposedly “free” economic market.

I’m currently reading Andrew Keen’s insightful book on the Web 2.0 movement, The Cult of the Amateur. Its arguments—while a bit pat and polemical—reveal a lot about why things are heading south currently in so many “traditional” sectors of cultural production—such as the press, the book industry, the music biz (and I’d add the art market).

One focus of the book is that, while the utopian vision of the Web 2.0 movement is appealing to a wide swath of the populus, it ends up diminishing overall cultural accomplishment. That is, if suddenly everyone is deemed an artist, a musician, a political commentator, a filmmaker, then suddenly truly talented professional versions of these figures are left out in the cold–unsupported (in real financial terms) or forced to water down their content to gain support from a wider (but less deeply supportive) audience.

The music industry is probably the best indication of the way things are going. It’s all so au courant to bad-mouth the music industry—to claim it gouges us, it doesn’t treat artists fairly, it’s uncaring and unfeeling—as a rationalization for our habitual stealing of the intellectual property of music. There’s a widespread assumption that everyone’s stealing music—the kids are all stealing music—so, why shouldn’t I?

Well, interestingly, here’s a letter to the editor—written in response to a Penn State Daily Collegian article called “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” (which argued: “No matter what they call it — illegal downloading, piracy, whatever — a free market for music is a good thing.”)—that clearly hints at the results of the “utopian” vision of free art for all, whenever and wherever they want it:

The column “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” Oct. 30 failed to acknowledge the consequences of free music and the music industry’s suffering. The music industry employees are paid for their effort to bring the public music. Without these people, music would not be able to be distributed. Consumers are the only way the artists and industry employees obtain their paychecks.