Thursday, January 18, 2007

Many Rants

So I've been out and about a bit lately, going to art exhibits that don't involve Chelsea. Chris Rywalt and J.T. Kirkland have pretty much summed up the reasons I'm determinedly avoiding Chelsea at the moment, and possibly forever. I'll quote you some of the best bits:
What I found in the gallery, however, was three paintings and an installation consisting of a pile of cardboard boxes. In the corner of the boxes sat some unfortunate performer in too-tight shorts and a homemade papier-mâché Batman mask playing with an old kiddie electronic keyboard and occasionally singing along very badly....

As usual, Anthony fell into the fine artist trap of being unable to competently reproduce cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob, and ultimately his message was hopelessly shallow: Corporations use the same techniques to sell porn that they use to sell movies for kids! Sex sells! Won't someone think of the children?

I tried to give the show some slack, I really did. Then I noticed that there were three small LCD screens set crudely into some of the stacked boxes, and one of them was showing footage of the World Trade Center on September 11th. That did it for me: This show was not deserving of any goodwill. It simply sucked.

I've been visiting Chelsea almost every week day for the past 3 weeks during lunchtime. On each visit I get to see about 10 shows, sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on if anything catches my eye. Today's visit was the last straw though. Art sucks. Let me re-phrase, the contemporary art in Chelsea sucks. It all looks the same. It all looks bad.

...Last night an artist stopped by my show and we got to talking about artist statements and how he struggles with them. He told me about a gallery in Brooklyn that he was talking to and that they thought an artist statement was critical. They said that galleries use them to determine which packages should be looked at.

I told this artist that any gallery that looked at a statement before the images was not a gallery for me and I felt it shouldn't be for any other artist. If a gallery can't determine for itself if they want to look at the images, well, the art world is in more trouble than I thought.

And then, the mother of all art rants, courtesy of J.T., which I recommend that anyone who genuinely cares about the state of art in the world today go read:

...many will confuse the questions with conceptual sophistication or radical sentiment. It is only the former, if even that. Triple Candie's strategy is an attempt to purchase credibility using the tokens accepted as currency, in every sense, in the contemporary art world: the raising of questions. It's no more radical than a Kyoto office worker paying for his soba noodles with yen. To think otherwise indicates a kind of blindness that I find hard to explain except that careers are riding on it. I'm reminded of the Upton Sinclair quote that has become a favorite of Al Gore's: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

There you go.

The study of art, I believe, is a lot like the study of ethics. Something that is clear to people with a cohesive set of spiritual beliefs, and utterly unclear to those without, is that you cannot have an internally consistent set of ethics without a conceptual grounding in something transcendent--i.e. a belief in God, Spirit, or some other over-arching, non-relative force.

The current art world is lacking this transcendent standard, in a big way. The standard has become, simply, egotism. It's all about how well you can leverage and amplify your tics, strangenesses, stupid ideas, arcane rhetoric, Sisyphean processes, and personal connections into some monstrosity that approximates a theory in form, but is utterly hollow at the core. To quote my friends above, it sucks.

For me, the question "what is Great Art?" is easy to answer. Great art is charged. As in, a charged particle or a field, a cohesive interactive force which influences and reacts with the space around it. Bad art is inert. It's as simple as that.

Look, HERE:

This, obviously, is "The Milkmaid," by Jan Vermeer.

I'd like you, just for a moment, to forget this is a wickedly well-drafted painting of a woman pouring milk. I'd like you to forget that it was painted by a then-obscure, now-famous Dutchman in the seventeenth century. I'd like you to forget that this painting is so famous that it's now a cliché. Those things are NOT IMPORTANT.

What I'd like you to do is observe the WALL behind her head.

Let me help you.

Is this 'empty space'? Is it even 'negative space'? Is it a depiction of a white wall? Is it a bunch of dirty, oily stuff, stuck to an ancient piece of cloth?

Is it just sitting there, or is it DOING SOMETHING?

From my perspective, and from the perspective of the vast canon of art historians who have finally agreed that this painting is Great, it is not just sitting there. It is blowing you ACROSS THE ROOM. The contrasts are simultaneously subtle and dramatic, the forms are familiar and strange, the tension is both frictive and harmonious. It is not just the depiction of light, of form, of space, it is the energetic whammification of the EXISTENCE of light, form, and space.

I don't know how to be any clearer than that.

Here, we have what may be my favorite painting of all time. I sat in front of it in Mexico City for about twenty minutes, despite the fact that I only had one day to see the whole of Mexico City, due to the fact that Mexico City is mind-bogglingly unsafe, and my host was a lunatic.

This is "La gran galaxia," by Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo is a painter who barely registers on the radar in the enlightened old art world in Europe and the USA, but the Mexicans in their superior taste and wisdom have devoted a major museum entirely to him.

This painting, like the Vermeer, is not about a figure of a person in a landscape. That's only the excuse. The painting is about the fact that being a human in an awesome mysterious universe is, well, mysterious and awesome.

It also packs an energetic punch that leaves you gasping on the floor.

Stars. Blue. Black. Whack.

Yes?

Snarl.

This is where I'm coming from. These are the principles which inform the work I do. Not idle, made-up 'questions,' not precious, pretentious references, not the desire to be Special and Different and Strange. My work comes from the deep spiritual need to create an intensely, strangely, deeply, darkly beautiful object which is simultaneously simple and complex, evocative and mysterious, resonant and ambiguous, which knocks you across the room.

This is not quite done:


From my perspective, it's now falling apart mostly at the mid-to-lower left quadrant, in the background. It's too fiddly, too chaotic. It needs to be simpler, more direct, more assertive.

But by and large, it's not half bad. You should see it in person.

12 comments:

Chris Rywalt said...

She sez:
Something that is clear to people with a cohesive set of spiritual beliefs, and utterly unclear to those without, is that you cannot have an internally consistent set of ethics without a conceptual grounding in something transcendent--i.e. a belief in God, Spirit, or some other over-arching, non-relative force.

I think there are any number of secular humanists who would argue this with you. I would, too, but I'm not sure I have the background to put up that good a fight. I mean, there's good ole Kant's categorical imperative. But I don't understand that as fully as I might.

I think it's possible to want to communicate with people in a powerful way, to reach some place deep inside them and touch them there, without requiring some kind of spiritual system of doing so. That may work for you, but it's not necessary.

Anonymous said...

In your painting, you're breaking up areas of color and light which weakens the structure of the painting--you're creating "noise." It's as if you can't leave well enough alone. If the more detailed parts are going to be set apart (the Tamayo-figure versus open sky, or the Vermeer, using figure against white wall) you need to commit to more soliditity in the shape-making. It's OK to paint some large, relatively thinly painted areas.

-Silas Dogood

Anonymous said...

PL-

In your painting, you're breaking up areas of color and light which weakens the structure of the painting--you're creating "noise." It's as if you can't leave well enough alone. If the more detailed parts are going to be set apart (the Tamayo-figure versus open sky, or the Vermeer, using figure against white wall) you need to commit to more soliditity in the shape-making. It's OK to paint some large, relatively thinly painted areas.

Your faithful servant,

-Silas Dogood

prettylady said...

Silas--you're absolutely right. I'd already realized that, and the painting is now upside-down, waiting for the scraping-down of large areas of 'noise' and the establishment of solid shapes. I just got a little over-enthusiastic.

Chris--I know the secular humanists would argue this with me. The more they argue, however, the less I am convinced. Kant's categorical imperative is both easy to poke holes through and psychologically uninspiring.

I don't think it necessarily requires a subscription to an overtly spiritual system for a person to want to communicate. That was not my point. My point was, when you don't have any transcendent system of values, whether it be of ethics or of aesthetics, you have no standard for making quality judgments except the human ego. I.e. relativism.

Obviously the transcendent system of aesthetic values exists, or Silas's point would not have made sense to me, and I would have no basis for either agreeing or disagreeing with him. But the fact is, the modern art world largely ignores these values, just as the secular humanist world acknowledges no transcendent basis for imposing its values, other than Kant.

Chris Rywalt said...

She sez:
My point was, when you don't have any transcendent system of values, whether it be of ethics or of aesthetics, you have no standard for making quality judgments except the human ego. I.e. relativism.

The word "transcendent" as you are here using it, I assume, means "beyond the universe or material existence" (to paraphrase lightly from m-w.com), or "being beyond comprehension". Probably more of the former than the latter, but with elements of each. Let me know if I'm totally wrong on this.

I think a system of values can still be -- must be -- relative, but not that it must fall back on human ego. Rather, I think we can all use as our basis something we all have in common, which is the human nervous system.

Each nervous system is different, each is individual, and each apprehends the universe in its own subjective way. Because we can only study the nervous system through using the nervous system (the human brain studying the human brain), there's an inherent subjectivity which will never be eliminated as long as we are embodied humans.

However, our nervous systems all operate under the same basic principles -- principles we are in the process of discovering. And those basic principles form the foundation of everything it is to be human. Now, I'm not being a materialist, reducing humans to simply being a collection of mechanical processes. However, it's clear that whatever there is to being human, it's mediated through the human nervous system -- our brains are our connection to the universe, while being part of the universe, while simultaneously representing the universe.

This is all off the cuff, you understand. I'm thinking as I'm typing. Maybe I'm insane, I don't know.

Anyway.

It seems to me the basis of ethics, of judgement, of aesthetics, are all embedded in our nervous systems. That's where our standards for value judgements arise. And we all have that in common. And we all reach back to that, ultimately, to form our worldview.

Now, maybe you want to redefine "transcendent" to cover those aspects of the human nervous system we don't and may never understand. Maybe you want to say that there's some spiritual force which governs our nervous systems, guides them, shapes them. Something like that. But I say we don't need any of that to build a system of ethics and aesthetics; we can work right from here, from the material world.

Hm. I want so badly to talk to my former best friend. He could help me hammer this out, find the holes in it, help me forge it into something stronger. Damn.

prettylady said...

Chris, there IS evidence to suggest that the imprint for ethics is found in our nervous systems, as is the imprint for language. Hopefully Beck will chime in on this one shortly, because she's the current expert whose word I'm taking for it.

However, I think in general, no disrespect intended, that your idea is horrible. Working, as I do, as a bodyworker, and experiencing firsthand the unreliability, distortion, projections, blocks, and general fucked-uppedness of the average human nervous system, I think that basing a system of values on anything like that is a recipe for extreme disaster. It would end up by being Tyrranny of the Abused, because the nature of the human nervous system is to project all of its worst past experiences onto everything around it.

That's why perfectly sweet, meek female roommates flinch when you speak to them in an assertive tone of voice. That's why middle-class women in taxicabs decide that the driver is a potential rapist when he asks them a question about a pornography convention. That's why big burly guys punch holes through walls in their sleep.

What I think is that you've been reading too much Robert Anton Wilson, is what I think.

Chris Rywalt said...

My two favorite writers, Robert Anton Wilson and Bucky Fuller, are both optimists.

Personally I think any attempt at basing things on something spiritual is, ultimately, basing things in the nervous system, because I think spirituality is an illusion which grows out of the nervous system. But I think it's looking through a cracked lens.

Also -- and I mean no disrespect, since I'm a known idiot and consider my opinion worth very little -- also, I think your experiences with bodywork and its connection to psychic states are very subjective and a bit, shall we say, unscientific.

prettylady said...

No, you lump, you have it the wrong way around. The existence of the nervous system itself is based upon the spiritual; the existence of the spiritual is based upon the unassailable logic of a causeless cause versus an infinite chain of causality. Since the latter is obviously impossible, the former MUST exist. QED.

And I am not basing my analysis of psychic states solely upon my own experience with bodywork, which would not only be unscientific, but downright solipsistic. I am basing my analysis upon the large numbers of theories of psychology, psychosomatics, medicine both Western and 'alternative, and spiritual practice which I have studied, and then empirically tested by applying them in my practice.

In other words, most people are insane, by empirical standards, and I do not wish to base my system of ethics upon insanity.

Chris Rywalt said...

I don't happen to think the only two choices are the causeless cause and the infinite chain of causality. I think we don't know enough to build such an either/or Aristotelian dichotomy. In fact, whenever anyone bases anything on Aristotelian true/false logic, alarm bells start ringing in my philosophy center. Logic is a wonderful formal system capable of producing great material gains when properly applied, but as a model of the universe it's hopelessly flawed.

I also happen to think that most people are not insane. They're poorly programmed, but not insane.

It seems to me we could just as easily blame the human nervous system's projection of its fears on its mistaken belief in the spiritual. In other words, humans tend to think that what they see is what IS. They think that their nervous systems transmit true data to their floating, noncorporeal, spiritual SELF. This SELF is some unalterable core, some bedrock of consciousness, some weightless (or maybe it's 27 grams!) spore which floats upwards to Heaven upon the death of the body.

Perhaps if humans could truly see themselves as a constantly shifting array of representations of their environment interacting with biological systems, they'd be less likely to project all of their irrationality outside themselves.

I know, personally, that's how it's worked for me. Not that I'm saying I'm RIGHT or anything. Just transmitting the current state of my nervous system.

prettylady said...

Logic is a wonderful formal system capable of producing great material gains when properly applied, but as a model of the universe it's hopelessly flawed.

Uh, yeah, DUH. And so when a secular humanist tries to create a system of ethics based solely upon logic, it CAN'T WORK.

'Transcendent' standards are those capable of containing apparent oppositionality, or paradox. My notions of 'God' and 'Spirit' comfortably embrace these paradoxes, while ethical systems based upon something as flawed and material as logic or the nervous system utterly break down in the face of them.

It seems to me we could just as easily blame the human nervous system's projection of its fears on its mistaken belief in the spiritual.

Then why does spiritual belief and practice have an empirically verifiable calming effect upon the nervous system? Documentary evidence for this fact goes back literally millennia.

They think that their nervous systems transmit true data to their floating, noncorporeal, spiritual SELF.

The PROBLEM is that they all assume the data is TRUE. Whereas it's obviously not, because of the obvious flaws built into the nervous system--which you want to deify. HELLO?

Perhaps if humans could truly see themselves as a constantly shifting array of representations of their environment interacting with biological systems, they'd be less likely to project all of their irrationality outside themselves.

Perhaps if they could truly see their PERCEPTIONS as a constantly shifting array, yadda yadda, they'd be less likely to place so much credence in them. Which is the DEFINITION of spiritual practice, at least in an Eastern sense.

If they see THEMSELVES as this system, this seems to me to be highly likely to both produce irrational, projected behavior out the wazoo, and profound existential depression.

Just sayin'.

And actually, come to think, your description of trying to get people to see themselves as this shifting array of projections is precisely the principle behind a sort of EST-like psychological 'workshop' that I was trapped into attending once, by a friend in California. Suddenly I was in a roomful of people, most of them strangers, who were being actively encouraged to dump their projections on me, so that I would learn to be 'aware' of them, and thus, implicitly, responsible for them in some way.

Talk about passive-aggressive ambushes. Yeesh. I left California forever, shortly afterward.

Chris Rywalt said...

You called me a lump.

Morris said...

"For me, the question "what is Great Art?" is easy to answer. Great art is charged. As in, a charged particle or a field, a cohesive interactive force which influences and reacts with the space around it. Bad art is inert. It's as simple as that."

Bingo! You just gave voice to why I dislike a lot of modern art. It has no spirit, no energy. Thank you.