Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Visual Art: Not Visual Any More

How apropos. I must quote Franklin.

1. Taste is the ability to detect visual quality. People with taste are relatively rare. People with inclinations towards art and the mental capacity to wonder about it are quite a bit more common.

2. The art market grew to its present size thanks to the latter group, not the former. It has done so by flattering the latter group into thinking that it has progressive taste, not a lack of taste.
Apropos because the list of 2008 Creative Capital visual arts grantees arrived in my mailbox this morning. The title of the announcement was, "41 ideas whose time has come.'

Note that ideas. Not 'visions,' not 'artists.'

Creative Capital grants are the biggest grants available for artists working today, as far as I know. They not only provide grantees a whopping influx of cash, around $50,000, but they provided mentorship, promotion and visibility. A Creative Capital grant can and does make an artist's career.

And Creative Capital makes its first cut of visual arts grant applications without looking at any visuals.

This is disgusting. It is sheer, unmitigated, blithering arrogance, ignorance and stupidity. It is pseudo-elitism at its most banal and bourgeois. It is flattering the tasteless at the expense of people who became visual artists because they communicate, and express themselves, visually.

Thus, Creative Capital is guilty of extreme bigotry and prejudice against the very people they purport to be supporting.

Visual art is a language of its own. It does not translate into English, particularly not the kind of postmodern bullshit that appears on press releases, artist's statements, museum catalogs and Creative Capital applications. It can transcend culture, religion, language and politics; it can heal the world, if given a chance.

I am really, really tired of arts organizations which are more interested in appearing important and progressive than they are in actually making that kind of a difference in the world--the kind of difference that would genuinely heal, genuinely communicate in a manner that transcends chatter, politics, social class and culture clash. I am disgusted and I am furious and I don't feel like being polite about it anymore.

Look, people. Ideas are easy to come by. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are good, bad and in between, but they don't mean jack without thorough follow-through and execution in the physical world. You don't fund ideas to get results; you fund people who are actually out there doing something, with or without your funding. You will not shut us up. You will remain banal and irrelevant, regardless of the press or the plaudits you receive, and those of us with actual taste will always know the difference.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Vital Importance of Spirituality in Art

'Heart II," oil on linen, 36"x 48", 2007-8

No, it's not hubris. It could save our culture.

This week Ed W. was discussing the latest, predictably overblown controversy on art and death threats:
It's almost become a punchline, the notion that any artwork exploring both sex and Islam will be met with a flurry of extreme reactions (death threats, riots, burned-down embassies...again?). The controversy in question this time involves the Iranian artist who goes by the name Sooreh Hera, whose photography of naked gay Muslim men wearing a mask said to depict the prophet Mohammed was pulled from an exhibition at the municipal museum in The Hague once it became clear to the museum director that that's what she was showing.
Ed, and most of the other artists on the thread, see this as a Freedom of Speech issue; just about everybody seemed to take it for granted that violent Muslim extremists need and deserve to be publically taunted, provoked, and confronted in a way that is bound to cause an extreme reaction. Failing to do so is labelled cowardice and censorship.

It never, ever seems to occur to anyone that there is more than one way to confront an extremist; still less that said extremist could be, in any way, worthy of attention or respect.

This attitude, in my opinion, could lead to the end of civilization as we know it. It is already leading to the trivialization, degeneracy, and near-total irrelevance of Fine Art, as it is viewed by the vast majority of people who are not intimately involved in the elitist, hubristic, self-involved Art World.

I've already written about the Art World's tendency to dismiss anything that remotely hints at a spiritual context, in a way that is much stronger even than 'that's not trendy right now.' I believe that this is one of the ways that the sense of an elite, exclusive club is maintained; it's a way of separating ourselves from the deluded masses out there, some of whom are fundamentalists ready to kill and be killed for their delusions. We, of course, are Above All That, and any artist who outspokenly says she's not is obviously Not One Of Us.

The fact is, it is human nature to be drawn toward the transcendent, in whatever context. When a concrete, workable religious tradition is absent, we channel this impulse into politics, or career, or environmentalism, or art. There's a reason that apparently sane people get sucked into cults and stripped of their money and sense of individual identity; the pull toward the spiritual is so strong that when it is ignored or suppressed, it is all the more vulnerable to manipulation.

Moreover, as Karen Armstrong elucidates in 'The Battle For God,' extremist fundamentalism is a relatively modern phenomenon, which arose as a natural response to the rapid and traumatic changes brought about by technological, political and social revolution. Religion not only provides a channel for our spiritual instincts, but a basis for stable society; when religious law and tradition is rapidly, obviously flouted by extremely disorienting and destabilizing change, the backlash is equally extreme.

Thus, in my opinion, whatever you may think of the fundamentalist mentality, the worst possible thing we can do to contront it is to use our media, our 'elitist' bully pulpit, and our creativity to deny the spiritual, and smack people in the face with puerile, shallow affirmations of secularism.

Ed says, "Perhaps part of the problem there, though, is the difference between cultures in the significance/taboo/sacrity of images. How do you visually discuss Allah, for example, when any image of him is forbidden and I suspect any proxy would be open to intense scrutiny."

Oh, please. We're visual artists. We don't have to be literal, transgressive, or confrontational in order to evoke a response; still less do we need to write a ream of unreadable text, in a language that our audience doesn't even speak, in order to communicate across cultures. We merely need to reach deep into our own hearts for what is universal.

We sell ourselves terribly short when we assume that shallow, literal, provocative statements about 'This is good, this is bad, this is what I like' are the best we can do as artists. We sell ourselves short when we allow the Art World Game to pigeonhole or ignore us entirely.

Music communicates across cultures; two people who agree on nothing politically will calm down and cease arguing when a mutual favorite song comes on the radio. You don't need to understand someone's language, religion, culture or tradition to listen to their music and respond to it on a visceral level. Art can communicate this way as well, if we shut up with the conceptual blather long enough to allow it.

As a parenthetical note--even though I am a die-hard Obama supporter, I think that Andrew Sullivan's article in the Atlantic about him was maudlin and over the top. But his point about Obama's face being a statement in and of itself is analogous to my beliefs about the transformative power of visual art:
The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Are we going to prove to the fundamentalist extremists of the world that we, as artists, are every bit as depraved, shallow, and soulless as they believe us to be, or are we going to work to create powerful images that speak to our common humanity?

collaboration update: also, Susan has a new blog!

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Happy New Year, everybody!

This year is going to be interesting. After getting completely enveloped in The Blogger Show, including chauffeuring the redoubtable John Morris to Pittsburgh in a snowstorm with a truck full of art, I'm beginning a collaboration with Susan Constanse of Digging Pitt, and her blog oranje.

We are both terrified.

I was drawn to Susan's work because it is a lot like mine--organic, layered, nuanced, subtle. Particularly in her line quality, she does what I do, only better, which may not necessarily be the best reason to collaborate, but will certainly be challenging. On some level, it seems that we resonate.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 1,' silverpoint on paper, 4" x 6"

We decided to start small, by mailing each other three 4" x 6" 'seeds,' which could be anything. Then we'll mess with them, and send them back.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 2,' collage on canvas

I once wrote, in a review of an exhibit by Alicia McCarthy, about the joys and pitfalls of collaboration:
Looking at it I was overwhelmed by longing, for such courage and such comfort, such lack of neurosis, that two people could share a studio and a gallery, drip all over each other's paintings, and not kill one another. It was like watching a litter of puppies, sleeping in a pile, knawing on one another's ears, never knowing loneliness. Most artists are way, way too uptight to work like that.
Neither Susan nor I have ever collaborated like this before; until now, visual art has been the one area of our lives over which we were able to execute complete control. Thus the reason for starting small, and long-distance.

Susan Constanse, 'seed 3,' mixed media on paper

I really love these first three that she's sent me, and it was a bit intimidating, coming up with adequate pieces to send in return. I won't post mine, or my alterations to hers, until she's received them; they went in the mail today.

I realize that although the essence of artmaking for me is spiritual, and spirituality for me is about connection, that I've always made art in virtual isolation. You spend a year or two in your studio, editing, tweaking, adjusting, and destroying the evidence, then you hang a show, and voilá! you finally invite other people in to see it.

This sort of collaboration makes you a lot more vulnerable. The other person gets to see all your false starts, failures and procrastinations. At the same time, the possibilities for really engaging and pushing things to a new level are legion. So, Susan, here's to becoming the artists we were meant to be!

P.S. For the first time in my life, I've been mentioned in an art review written in English, which was not written by a friend of mine. Hoo whee!