Thursday, July 17, 2008

Transcending to the Next Plane

The world outside of the Taliban mourns the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. What is forgotten is that this kind of destruction in the name of god and rigorous purity and piety is not new. What we should be reminded of is that it is just as easy to destroy art in the name of achieving immortality as it is for the artist to make art in the hope of achieving that same immortality.

A quote from Mark Rothko:

"All in all, we can say that man has as often destroyed the work of artists in the hopes of achieving immortality as he has hoped to achieve immortality through the creation of such work. Even as late as the fifteenth century we have Savonarola decrying the making of pictures, inviting the populace to destroy them and, imparting his terror to the artists themselves, convincing them to add their own works voluntarily to the flaming pyre in the hope of gaining immortality. Among those artists was Botticelli, who destroyed some of his best works, although he continued to paint. The Reformation, no doubt, accounts greatly for the turning of the Dutch to genre art, for they must have felt that Old Testament purism toward the representation of spiritual things. This change constituted its own type of vandalism, for it contributed greatly to the decline of great classical art." [p. 6. The Artist's Reality: philosphies of art, Mark Rothko, edited and with an introduction by Christopher Rothko, 2004]

Parenthetically, this destruction of art and other luxuries is known as the bonfire of the vanities. "Savonarola had organized troops of his followers to go from house to house, requesting people to give up their "vanities," from cosmetics to "pagan" books, and paintings that did not represent sacred subjects. On the tall pyramid, fifteen stories-high, that was set on fire, the followers of Savonarola threw carnival masks, rich feminine ornaments, mirrors, cosmetics, cards and dice, perfume, books of poetry and on magic, musical instruments, and worldly paintings where female bodies were displayed unclothed. Botticelli, a very sensitive soul, was so impressed (or so scared) by Savonarola that he threw many of his paintings on the bonfires." [By Laura Stortoni-Hager, from L'Italo Americano, April 2004]

Rothko speaks of the Mohammedans destroying Byzantine Christian art because it was representational and thus blasphemous, of the Byzantines destroying earlier Hellenic art because it was profane and not devoted to a holy purpose, and Turks whitewashing the iconographic images at Hagia Sofia.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia: "Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya, Greek: Αγία Σοφία; "Holy Wisdom", Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia) is a former patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, now a museum, in Istanbul,Turkey. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was the largest cathedral ever built in the world for nearly a thousand years, until the completion of the Medieval Seville Cathedral in 1520."

Sometimes we destroy merely because we haven't got a clue what we're doing, hence the Ohio Turnpike flattened a number of the Hopewell Mounds. Sometimes we destroy just by being well intentioned, as atLascaux, which is now endangered by black and red fungi apparently newly generated by a mechanical air circulation system. A large part of how ancient art has been preserved has sometimes been simple, the desiccated air of Egypt, not any of the religious rituals of removing organs and wrapping of the mummies, is what has saved them. The destruction of earthquakes has also been responsible for not only creating the ruins across the Near East, but the layers of detritus that help us date them. And sometimes destruction is through horribly mistaken assumptions and vanities as when Heinrich Schliemann bulldozed his trenches through Troy.

Art has power. It has the power to enlighten and to frighten. Art is also mortal, art objects, paintings, sculptures, burial mounds, buildings are subject to the vagariousness of time and happenstance.

Piling on Damien Hirst, Why Not?

Leon Weseltier in The New Republic talks about Damien Hirst's latest marketing gambit in which he is directly bringing his latest work "The Golden Calf" to Sotheby's in London for auction in September, bypassing his galleries. As his galleries make oodles of money off of his work, all they can do is hope that this will enrich them all in the churn.

Weseltier uses an interesting phrase to describe this, he labels it a "pseudo-meaningful stunt." He further describes the copy of the press release as reminding him of "real-estate porn; but in these straitened times art-porn is replacing real-estate porn."

I have been trying to understand and place such "happenings" as Chris Burden's reception of a 22 bullett, Yves Klein's models drenched in blue paint, and Damien Hirst's sharks, Koons' giant balloons, and other such anti-art events and things into some kind of scheme. I have come up with the usual, 'anti-museum,' 'anti-art,' 'subject matter as the lack of longevity as an object,' the 'captured moment,' and leaving just a 'residue of documentation.' But I like and I am going to use Weseltier's phrase "the pseudo-meaningful stunt."

I close with this quote from my art-mother, Agnes Martin, "I paint to make friends and hope I will have as many as Mozart." [p. 78, Kunstraum catalogue, December 1973] Damien Hirst has many friends that he enriched beyond their wildest dreams has he not?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More on Artists' Statements

This is from The Guardian, an article by Jonathan Jones: "Explanations are the traitor of art."

"It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanationattached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable."

To quote one of my favorites, Ad Reinhart, "Art is art. Everything else is everything else." It seems silly to add this on, but the subject matter of visual art is the visual experience.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Curious Economics

To follow up on the previous post about who is buying the high-end art, here's a link from Andrew Sullivan. Money quote, literally,
"The art market sells fame more than it sells objects. Focusing on the shark misses the point: conceptual art emphasized the idea over the object, and the art market responded by commodifying the idea. When the rich buy artwork, they may be buying their way into a select group of the "cool" rich but they are also asserting their understanding of contemporary art. That most people wouldn't buy a $12 million stuffed shark, even if they had the money, is part of the allure."

The shark, of course, is Damien Hirst's.

Plain truth, all one has to do is visit any art museum of any size or consequence and the first thing that one sees, isn't necessarily the art, but who endowed it, on the big walls with the plaques. That's what it's about at this exalted level, who can brag about it, who can buy and gild their fame.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Never Been a Great Woman Artist, SAY WHAT?

From an article in Sunday's The Independent, by Andrew Johnson, there was some discussion about the disparities between the prices paid for men versus women artists, even as the prices for art by both genders were setting new records. Sellers of work by Marlene Dumas, Louise Bourgeois and Bridget Riley were the beneficiaries, not to mention Christies Auction House.

Quoted was an art critic by the name of Brian Sewell, "The art market is not sexist," Mr Sewell said. "The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist." Sewell then adds, "Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children." What a sadly deluded misogynist.

But I think the idea that makes the most sense is this one: "You cannot equate the monetary value of art with the aesthetic worth of the artist," she said. "One would expect the art world to be more egalitarian. It was only in 2004 that a living woman, Marlene Dumas, broke through the $1m barrier. At the top end of the market, the people who can afford to spend a lot are entrepreneurial men. And they buy entrepreneurial artists – Warhol, Hirst, Koons – artists they perhaps identify with." as quoted by writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton.

So when our putative buyers begin to identify with "us," whoever we are, they'll be buying what "we" make?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wendy Tuxill, Artist

[caption id="attachment_674" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Wendy Tuxill, "Exploring Process Porcelain Drawing 2," liquid porcelain, 12"x11-1/2"."]Wendy Tuxill, Exploring Process Porcelain Drawing 2, liquid porcelain, 12"x11-1/2".[/caption]

I had the pleasure of meeting Wendy Tuxill a couple of weeks ago at Woman Made Gallery where she was dropping off her entry for the Drawing on Experience show. Wendy is what I call a frontier artist, she is pushing her concepts and art-making out to the very edges of what is possible. By this I mean the American definition wherein the frontier is the boundary between a settled known set of places beyond which is empty land and unknown territory. Wendy is taking her work and venturing out into those unknown places.
Wendy is pouring and forming porcelain slip, drawing with it, sculpting with it. She calls it 'conceptual' ceramics, pushing this extremely fragile medium out to its very furthest edge.

The essence of pottery and its making is that is a contradictory set of materials. Pottery is extremely useful, becoming dishes, cook-ware, and storage, and yet can be made to be purely sculptural. Pottery is demonstrably the oldest and most durable of all human-made materials, it is the first thing that archaeologists look for and find at all pre-historic sites. It will shatter but the shards will remain and endure. Fragility and endurance through time are the contradictory qualities of pottery.

Porcelain similarly carries with it these contradictory qualities, as it is has a high amount of glass which adds strength and hardness, but also makes it more brittle, even as it is more elastic to work with before firing.

Another contradiction contained in the materials of pottery and porcelain is they are base, dug out of the earth, fired at high temperatures and have the benefit of generations of technical expertise and technology passed on through the years. Clay is also one of the most familiar and durable building materials, in its adobe form, mixed with straw in a dry climate, in its wattle and daub form, slabbed onto woven saplings and whitewashed to make it more waterproof.

So, in looking at and thinking about Wendy Tuxill's art, I can't help but think about Andy Goldsworthy's approach to the concept of fragility. Wendy's art, like all art, begs to be touched, and it not only appears to be extremely fragile, but it is absolutely visibly apparent that it is extremely breakable. I find my mental hands reaching out and pulling back at this piece in the exhibit.

Both Tuxill and Goldsworthy are making statements about the nature of fragility with their art pieces. Goldsworthy, in a sense, is inviting the viewer to touch and destroy his intensely natural found sculptural objects, balanced precariously on themselves, knowing that sooner or later, they will melt, blow away or even rot. Tuxill's pieces play with the notions of fragility in a material that hopes and prays for endurance through many generations. Goldsworthy plays with the fragility of objects that at times will not even last through the day.

It's not merely that Tuxill's pieces say "don't touch me," built in to their existence is the absolute certainty that to touch is to destroy. She is pushing the porcelain slip from its liquid existence to a very delicate, ethereal solid, pushing against time. I look forward to seeing more.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Art Not Special II

I write this in response to Joyce Owen's insightful comments to my earlier post "Art Not So Special," in which she speaks from her special and delightful experiences as an art teacher. She talks of how students with no background in the arts learn that they too can not only make art but come to appreciate it and in the process become good consumers of the arts.

I was writing and thinking from the viewpoint of what I call the edifices of the arts. As an example, a few years ago I went to the Tate Britain and in my Midwestern callowness remarked to myself how nice it was that they had the big steps and the lions on either side, just like 'our Art Institute.' Only after I went inside, to my own internal chagrin, did I realize that ourArt Institute in Chicago was the imitator. Similarly, several years ago I visited one of the most remarkable museums in the U.S., the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (which I highly recommend), that had the same big steps flanked by the lions. Not only is the exterior architecture imitative, once inside the visitor is confronted by the plaques of the donors, the bigger the size of the names the bigger the donations.

The art consumer is confronted, and I am convinced intimated, by edifices and temples that glorify the architecture. The floors are hard marble, there's an ethic of silence and quietude, which I suppose is to show awed respect. [Do the paintings care if people are making noise?] The museums have become immense secular cathedrals designed to impose on the visitor his/her smallness in the presence of greatness. This isn't confined to the Greco-Romanesque yearnings of 19th century architects and patrons, but continues, for instance, with Gehry's stainless steel constructs in Bilbao and elsewhere.

Then these spaces are filled with with art that is increasingly inaccessible to the so-called common viewer, defended by obscure jargon laden writings. The museums are under pressure to increase memberships, pay the building funds, increase traffic, to go blockbuster.

To quote from an article in The Australian by Diane Ragsdale, "Let's Aim for the Cultural Omnivore," 'We may have a generation of cultural omnivores out there, but arts organisations have made it difficult for them to feast because they've created silos between high art and low art, and between the disciplines of music, theatre, dance, opera and the visual arts." To which I add, how many of us could afford to buy seasons tickets to the opera, the symphony, the dance program and memberships at the big art museums, all in the same year?

Then she adds, "In the mind of the consumer, it's all culture. By maintaining their separate and better than others status, art organisations could be losing their spot at the banquet. Rather than competing against one another to sell subscriptions and single tickets, perhaps they could work together to increase cultural participation."

Diane Ragsdale says that in our modern computerized social networking age the tools exist to make us cultural omnivores with easy access to all the arts. She argues that community-wide computerized networks could link arts consumers with their preferences, favorite composers, artists, authors, books, movies, television and develop a system of recommendations, that would link also to Amazon, Netflix, the ticket office at the theater, the openings at the galleries.

In this way, we could lose our fear of the big boxes that push potential arts consumers away. For myself, I don't understand why when I go to these places, sometimes out of duty, because as an artist, I am supposed to like going to museums, I am exhausted by the process. It shouldn't be as hard as it is to be a good arts consumer.

Installation Pictures My Latest Exhibit

I love seeing pictures of people looking at my artwork; it's what I want as an artist; viewers taking the time to look and think.

[gallery link="file" columns="4" orderby="rand"]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Arts Not So Special

Andrew Taylor in his blog, The Artful Manager, talks about why arts organizations have such a hard time finding their audiences, after attending a conference on such...

'And then one participant said this:
''We need to stop making the arts so special.''
and then ends his post as follows

'Art and artistic expression shouldn't be the jewelry of society, it should be part of the blood, part of the muscle, and part of the bone. When our strategies set us apart from the world so that we can be separately admired, supported, and valued, we shouldn't be surprised when we are perceived as separate.

As John Dewey wrote more than 70 years ago: 'As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.'"

Rejection Letters Yet Again...

Here's a response from a rejected writer to a literary magazine. Why not write back and tell "them" what you think of their carelessness?

It's not that we artistics want to be accepted all the time, that would get very, very weird, very, very fast. It's more like we want rejections to be timely, not xeroxed and mass-produced, not addressed to 'Dear Unnamed Artist,' and give some evidence that the entries were looked at with some care and attention in the rejection response.