Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why The Current Art World Youth Obsession is Completely Asinine

I've been meaning to address this issue for quite some time; the reasons I haven't are 1) that I've been in the studio, producing work that dealers and collectors ought to be scratching each others' eyes out over, and will be someday, hopefully before I'm eighty; and 2) this is not a hugely influential blog, anyway. I'm shocked that I still have four or so readers who put up with my long silences, interspersed with bouts of random rambling.

But anyway. I've just happened across an awesome John Scalzi post: Whatever: On Teens, and the fact that their Writing Sucks.
Most teenage writers, for various reasons, aren't particularly good writers (I wasn't). I thought it was important to get that bit of news out of the way, because among other things, the fact that teenage writing sucks isn't a bad thing (that's point number 2), and because I think it's not a bad thing to be honest with teenagers about this stuff. They might not listen (I probably wouldn't have), but they deserve the truth nevertheless.
I recommend reading the entire article, as well as the comments. My contention is that the same thing is true of the vast majority of artwork produced by persons under thirty, and for the same reasons. It's just that the art world, as Franklin puts it in a legendary comment which is already making the rounds, has its reasons for denying this fact:
But for several reasons the current milieu of contemporary art is predicated on visual quality as a subordinate concern. There is heavy philosophical investment against the primacy of visual quality; people actually become angry if you suggest it. The market has to justify a lot of inferior work in order to function in the grandiose way that it does. This climate pushes superior work into the background. It doesn't celebrate greatness - it flatters inferior taste in a manner that lets it think of itself as superior taste. Taste and talent, particularly in high concentrations, remain rare.
The fact is, most artwork by Young Persons looks like most other artwork by Young Persons. There are the obsessive, flamboyantly colored Self Portraits; the boys do Self Portraits as Jesus Christ, and the Latina girls do themselves as the Virgin Mary. There are the Stream Of Consciousness Messes, with random words interspersed over random, layered images. There are the Experiments in Multi-Media Assemblage: see all of the last Whitney Biennial. There are the thin, outraged, obvious, literal Political Pieces, and the Aids Is Bad pieces. There is the graffiti. Have I missed anything?

(If I sound flip and bitter, it is because I myself have produced great piles of most of these things, in a decade where artists under thirty were mostly ignored. I will sell anyone the key to my storage space for thirty thousand dollars.)

As Scalzi says, it is not that this stuff is just bad, end of story. It is a necessary phase in the process of learning a craft. However, it still sucks. What makes a true artist with staying power is not youthful obstreperousness; it is commitment, perseverance, honesty, craft, depth of consideration, and perhaps a certain amount of talent.

And you do not, cannot see who has these things until you have been observing them for a couple of decades.

So let me say it as clearly as I can; anyone who fetishizes young artists merely for the sake of their youth is a fool. Moreover, they may be ruining the very artists they set out to invest in. Too much easily attained success for merely being a jackass creates monsters, not great artists. Look at the later careers of former child actors if you doubt me.


I had a Bad Client Experience recently, which nevertheless led to some new insight.

It must be said that most of my clients adore me. They adore me so consistently that I don't realize how used to it I have become, and how integral a part of my working life it is. I work really hard, physically hard, and barely get by financially, but that relieved, grateful 'Thank you' that nearly every client breathes at the end of a session keeps me going. (Tips are even better.)

So when one client fidgeted during her session, particularly during the energy work, refused to look me in the eye, did not say thank you, bolted without paying, then emailed to say she was 'creeped out,' it was quite a shock. As I told her in my reply, some people just don't resonate. But it was a good thing for my self-confidence that the next six clients were adorers, old and new.

As I also said in my reply, I try to be respectful of people's boundaries, first and foremost. Over many years it has become clear to me that trying to 'fix' someone is not a healing activity. Mostly what I'm doing is simply being present, sensing currents, and allowing them to balance by themselves, if they so choose. I often worry that when it comes to 'energy work,' I'm completely deluded, and that nothing is actually happening--except for the consistent feedback I get from clients that a whole lot IS happening, and 95% of the time it seems to be for the good. And on the rare occasions that people fidget and completely reject it, I am never clear whether they're frustrated that I'm doing nothing, or that they're feeling something major which freaks them out.

But more and more I am convinced that it is the latter, and that it's not my fault. Because I've had my share of bad bodywork, and most bad bodywork won't kill you. It is usually safe to give your practitioner the benefit of the doubt through at least one session; not all healing procedures are comfortable at the time, and you need to be open to the process in order to derive any benefit from it. I've had my sciatic nerve stripped nearly raw, borne the brunt of projecting, incompetent neurotics, and suffered a lot of substandard rubdowns. But every time I've gotten at least minor relief, learned a thing or two (if only what techniques NEVER to use on a client), and occasionally experienced a wholly unanticipated miracle.

What I realized, after working on some regular and adoring clients, is that the healing process is a completely collaborative one between client and practitioner. For a client to get anything out of a session, they have to allow it. The longer I've been working with someone, the more they get out of a session, because they trust me; one long-term client mentioned that she now feels herself relax as soon as she gets to the top of my stairwell. It's like Pavlovian conditioning.

Thus I am fairly convinced that the bolter was not 'creeped out' because of bad bodywork, for the simple reason that she did not experience the bodywork. She blocked it. Which was certainly her prerogative, although it strikes me as rather foolish to book a session with someone who clearly advertises 'energy healing' and then get upset when you feel energy starting to move. I suspect that, despite the fact that she was a bodyworker herself, she'd never experienced anything similar, didn't trust it, and leaped to the conclusion that I was trying to impose some occult agenda on her.

This theory was borne out in her reply: "What a good nice response. Not what I'd expected."

I've worked on a number of people who blocked the work, both complete strangers and people I knew extremely well. What they all seem to have in common is a need for control at all costs, whether this control is of the direct or indirect variety. Much as they might pay lip service to the idea of 'love and trust and brotherhood,' fundamentally these people are unable to trust anything, whether it be a person, a situation, or God. They literally only feel safe when they're suffering.

This is one of the reasons I've decided never to give a bodywork session as a gift again. Having to make an appointment and pay for a session weeds out a lot of the resisters, because when you're paying for something, you're conscious of making an investment, and thus open to receiving a return on it. It also cuts down on the number of instances where people might suspect that I'm trying to 'get' something from them by 'fixing' them. Because when I look back, I see that a disproportionate number of sessions which went awry were of the 'gift or barter' variety. So not any more. I'll continue to offer gift certificates, because when someone else buys a friend a massage they don't want, the friend usually just doesn't show up. And I'm fine with that, so long as I've been paid. :-)

Before I embarked on actually learning to practice a healing therapy, I read oodles of books which said, in various ways, 'healing begins in the mind.' Now that I've been practicing for years, I understand firsthand how completely true this is. It is axiomatic that I can never 'heal' anyone. I can only assist them in healing themselves, if they so choose.

Also, healing is not always physical. I know many people who are mentally, emotionally and spiritually thriving, whose bodies should have died about ten times over from their various ailments. I also know people who are as physically strong as oxen, whose souls look like shriveled-up snakeskins. There is no judgment incurred when someone does everything they can, and still their body doesn't get better.

Finally, it should be noted that one does not heal oneself by willing it to happen. This misconception is the source of a lot of snappishness on the part of sick people who bark, in response to all well-meaning comments, 'I CAN'T JUST GET BETTER, YOU KNOW.' Of course they can't; that's not the point. You start to heal yourself by allowing the possibility of healing to dawn on you.

This can only occur when one respects oneself enough to 1) listen to the messages from their body without judging; 2) set appropriate boundaries and hold them; and 3) then, and only then, learn to trust that there is a larger force which promotes healing, whether you call this force God, or love, or medicine, or massage therapy. If your core belief is that the universe is a hostile entity which is out to crush you, your body sooner or later responds accordingly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The wear and tear of Conceptual Art

My friend RA, an astonishing photographer, has posted a harrowing tale of how he installed a camera obscura in an abandoned belfry in Pennsylvania last weekend. Check it out.

I have a friend named Susan. She's an architect, but really she's an artist. She will end up being a full time artist, maybe even one that gets remembered in the history books. But she's not an artist like me. She's the kind of artist whose work will either be totally unsaleable or will be going for millions. In the meantime, she'll get by on grants, fellowships and residencies while I hussle to sell my photos.
I said to Susan: "This feels like 12th century Christianity." She gave me a confused look and I thought maybe I had offended. I added, "terrible earthly toil, for a heavenly reward."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Contemplation of Things Past

That was quite a long silence indeed, wasn't it. The good news is that I have shaken off my year-long inability to face the monumental task of upgrading my website; the bad news is that I'm not posting any pictures of new work until it's done. Instead I am going to bore you with pictures of old work, work that only a mother could love.

Oftentimes I find that I can't decide what I truly think of a painting until I've lived with it for awhile. Some of the ones I'm thrilled with at first, don't hold up over the long haul; some that Other People seem to love, I can't stand to look at. Those are all out in the hallway with their faces toward the wall.

And some of them are the ones I painted for me, myself, and I, because I'm the only one who loves them. Those tend to end up hanging in my living room.

"Crater," 2006, oil and wax on linen

This one, I freely admit, is weird. It is the sort of painting that, at first glance, causes many artists to dismiss me as an incompetent, delusional twerp. Some of them change their minds when they look at my old portfolios and discover that ten years ago, I was painting things like this:

"Above the Laundromat," oil and wax on panel, 48"x 32", 1997
Private Collection

I'm not offended by this. I think there is a qualitative difference between a painting that sits as part of an exploratory trajectory, and a random daub presented on its own, isolated in its pretension. That's what irks me about 'artists' who paint one painting and then trumpet it all over town. "Look at me! I painted A Painting! Isn't it great? Are you going to give me a show now?" That's also why I avoid putting pieces in non-curated group exhibitions. Context is everything.

Anyway, from my perspective, I see the 'Laundromat' painting as a successful study in light, shadow, texture, composition and mood, and this 'Crater' painting as an insouciant experiment in radical streamlining of those same principles, which makes me happy enough to put it on my wall. Or rather, now that it's on my wall, it's making me happy.

What's making me happy about it are the colors, the texture, and the radical contrasts of line quality, value, and form. They're hard to see in a photo, no matter how close up:

With the layering of golds, pinks, whites and blues next to the dark earth shapes, every bit of it seems to vibrate and glow.

A lot of people see this as a 'volcanic eruption.' That, in my opinion, is ridiculous. Can't they see that it's pink? Volcanic eruptions are orange and red and black and gray. This is an eruption of pink light from the crater of my heart; the little silver thistle thing is the ghost of heart-chakra blockages past...

...and all bad poetry is sincere, too. I can't say the same for bad painting; some of it is tremendously insincere. But I don't see this as a bad painting. I see it as a necessary painting, which helped me get to the better paintings of present and future, and a piece of controlled chaos in my living room, where it creates a nice tension with the decorative formality of the Oriental rug.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Cheers!