Categorically Re-thought

This is funny, disagreeably agreeable and general snack for thought:

Contemporary art is an easy thing to hate. All the meaningless hype, the identikit openings in cities that blur into one long, banal, Beck’s beer fuelled anxiety dream from which there is no escape. The seemingly endless proliferation of biennials—the biennialization or banalization of the world. One begins to think that everything aspires to resemble the opening of a Frieze art fair and every culture wants its own cheeky Damien or spunky Tracey. Glamour, celebrity, business, and radiant superficiality blend together to give each location the patina of globality with just a frisson of local color. People talk excitedly of what’s hot and what’s selling for millions. Capricious and seemingly tyrannical übercurators wander around quickly with their assistants talking on cell phones. The sharp eyes of eager young gallerists track them like prey, waiting for the moment to pounce. Everyone is either on the make or wants to be on the make. Contemporary art has become a high-end, global culture mall, which requires very little previous literacy and where the routine flatness of the gossip allows you to get up to speed very quickly. People with the right connections or serious amounts of money or sheer stubborn persistence or who are prepared to do anything can quickly gain access to what has the appearance of a cultural experience. God, it’s awful isn’t it? And I haven’t even mentioned how this art system is fed by the seemingly endless proliferation of art schools, M.F.A. programs, and the progressive inflation of graduate degrees, where Ph.D.s in fine art are scattered like confetti.

It is difficult not to be cynical about contemporary art. Maybe the whole category of the “contemporary” needs much more reflection. Maybe it needs replacing. When does the contemporary cease to be contemporary and become something past? When did the modern become the contemporary? Will the contemporary one day become modern or will there, in the future, be museums of postmodern art: MOPMAs? Why not call contemporary “present art” or “actual art” or “potential art,” or, better, “actually potential art” (APA)? At least it sounds more Aristotelian. But, then again, why use temporal categories at all? Why not use spatial terms instead? Some have spoken of visual art as spatial art, which is an attractive idea. Whichever way one approaches it, however, the categories need to be seriously rethought through research that is historiographical, institutional, and anthropological. The problem with contemporary art is that we all think we know what it means and we don’t. As a consequence, the discourse that surrounds it is drastically impoverished.

But despite such confusions of reference and the horrors of the contemporary art business model—or perhaps even because of it—I want to defend contemporary art, up to a point. It is simply a fact that contemporary art has become the central placeholder for the articulation of cultural meanings—good, bad, or indifferent. I am middle-aged enough to remember when literature, especially the novel, played this role and when cultural gatekeepers were literary critics, or social critics, often from literary backgrounds. That world is gone. The novel has become a quaint, emotively life-changing, and utterly marginal phenomenon. The heroic critics of the past are no more. I watched this change happen slowly when I still lived in England in the sensation-soaked 1990s and recall, as a kind of cultural marker, the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and immensely long lines queuing up to see a vast spider by Louise Bourgeois in the Turbine Hall. It was clear that something had shifted in the culture.

via.

Hughes in peace

Not the first man you might imagine when it comes to peace, but rest now he does. The rough week continues, and while this one isn’t strictly personally, it certainly feels personal. Our favorite art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012).

When he reached a mass audience for the first time in 1980 with his book and television series The Shock of the New, a history of modern art starting with the Eiffel Tower and graced with a title that still resounds in 100 later punning imitations, some of the BBC hierarchy greeted the proposal that Hughes should do the series with ill-favoured disdain. “Why a journalist?” they asked, remembering the urbanity of Lord Clark of Civilisation.

He gave them their answer with the best series of programmes about modern art yet made for television, low on theory, high on the the kind of epigrammatic judgment that condenses deep truths. Van Gogh, he said, “was the hinge on which 19th-century romanticism finally swung into 20th-century expressionism”. Jackson Pollock “evoked that peculiarly American landscape experience, Whitman’s ‘vast Something‘, which was part of his natural heritage as a boy in Cody, Wyoming”. And his description of the cubism of Picasso and Braque still stands as the most coherent 10-page summary in the literature.

And that’s some Hughes we can always use.

Disposal of Interests

Someone, an actual friend, posted this on fB yesterday and I resolved to make our Friday Reading text for today. Actually, it was an easy call.

A letter from William Burroughs to Truman Capote in 1970, and I think its point is rather, um, clear.

July 23, 1970

My Dear Mr. Truman Capote

This is not a fan letter in the usual sense — unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather call this a letter from “the reader” — vital statistics are not in capital letters — a selection from marginal notes on material submitted as all “writing” is submitted to this department. I have followed your literary development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your own recent investigations in the sun flower state. I have interviewed all your characters beginning with Miriam — in her case withholding sugar over a period of several days proved sufficient inducement to render her quite communicative — I prefer to have all the facts at my disposal before taking action. Needless to say, I have read the recent exchange of genialities between Mr Kenneth Tynan and yourself. I feel that he was much too lenient. Your recent appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my attention. In effect you were speaking in approval of standard police procedure: obtaining statements through brutality and duress, whereas an intelligent police force would rely on evidence rather than enforced confessions. You further cheapened yourself by reiterating the banal argument that echoes through letters to the editor whenever the issue of capital punishment is raised: “Why all this sympathy for the murderer and none for his innocent victims?” I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising — I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker — (an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit.

Thanks, J-Dep.

People Staring at Computers

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Interesting confluence of media, technology and art in this Wired article:

In “Thoughts on total openness of information,” Dan Paluska brainstorms about the possibility of posting all your “personal” information online, asking what the repercussions would be. What if people could see every bank transaction you made? Or read every email you wrote? I started answering these questions for myself with “keytweeter,” a yearlong performance starting in June 2009. Keytweeter was a custom keylogger that tweeted every 140 characters I typed. Over that year, I learned a lot about myself and what “privacy” means. I learned that every conversation belongs to all the parties involved, so I put disclaimers in my emails. I learned that I was more honest, with myself and with others, when I knew everyone could see what I was saying.

After keytweeter, I started working on a project with Wafaa Bilal called “3rdi.” He told me he wanted to implant a camera on the back of his head that would upload a geotagged image to the internet every minute, as an exploration of “photography without a photographer.” So I worked with Wafaa to create a system that made this possible. As a professor at NYU, he had some trouble while at school due to privacy concerns. They came to a compromise where he would keep the camera on, but covered. This performance also lasted a year, over the course of 2011.

After working with text for “keytweeter,” I started exploring visual equivalents. One experiment, “scrapscreen,” made a scrapbook from your screen over the course of a day: every mouse movement “tore away” that part of the screen and saved it to a continually overlapping image. Another experiment, called “Important Things,” captures every click as a 32×32 pixel icon in a massive grid.

Later that year I worked with interactive artist Theo Watson on an extension of “Important Things,” called “Happy Things,” which took a screenshot every time you smiled, and uploaded it to the web. We got pictures from all around the world, with people smiling at everything, from cat memes to the Wikipedia article for Nicholas Cage.

Sometimes this kind of work is associated with “human-computer interaction,” but this term makes it sound like we’re interacting with computers, when in fact, most of the time, we’re interacting with each other. I like to think of it as “computer-mediated interaction.”

In mid-May, 2011, I took a timelapse using my laptop’s webcam to get a feeling for how I looked at the computer. After a few days of recording, I watched the video.

Wild Things

There’s one less today, though the many he released into the world and the imaginations he unlocked dwarf even his own demise.

Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83 and lived in Ridgefield, Conn.

He was one artist who had the keys – to the till, to the store, to the mind, however you want to think about it. RIP, Maurice.

Telling Stories

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In my video interviews with Art, he keeps dropping references to Gustin, so I’ve been meaning to get to this. AC and I went to the huge retrospective at the Met a few years ago and it was well worth the trip – quite a bit more, actually. It’s tremendous work, but he also did a very interesting thing, turning away from his success as an Ab-Ex savant because he wanted [the work to] tell stories. There’s a good Hughes review from way back in Time but it’s behind a paywall. There’s the Dore Ashton book, “Yes, but…” if you can find it. And I came across this, from the Forward:

Guston’s escape from metaphorical imprisonment into art was not a solo effort; he depended heavily on allies and confidants. In a 1967 talk at the New York Studio School, Guston confided, “I need Feldman to tell me I’m not insane.” Together, Guston and Feldman were both critical of other creative personalities, as well as themselves. (In the same 1968 public discussion in which Treblinka is evoked, both Feldman and Guston concur that the music of the popular American Jewish composer David Amram is mere “kitsch.” These kinds of relentless standards and judgments may have made Guston’s ultimate stylistic transformation especially shocking for such hidebound art critics as The New York Times’s Kramer, who headlined an article about Guston’s last style: “A Mandarin Pretending To Be a Stumblebum.” What emerges from “Collected Writings,” as well as from such imaginative art historical studies as “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works” by David Kaufmann (The University of California Press, 2010), is the extent to which art critics and even some artists become sclerotic when faced with the prospect of genuine change in art. A devoted reader of Kafka since the 1940s, Guston naturally retained implicit faith in the power of metamorphosis.

Such ever-evolving artists may frustrate observers who wish to typify and pigeonhole creative talents. In “Philip Guston’s Self-Doubt,” an essay posted on artnet.com, Donald Kuspit, professor of art history and philosophy at Stony Brook University, charges that Guston’s “loss of faith in fine art… symbolizes his loss of faith in himself,” caused by “unconscious guilt at repudiating his Jewish identity by changing his family name from ‘Goldstein’ to ‘Guston.’” This accusatory psychoanalyzing ignores some essential elements of Guston’s life. “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston” explains how in 1924, at the age of 10 or 11, Guston discovered the body of his father, a failed junk dealer who had committed suicide by hanging. This brutal abandonment — by Guston father, not son — was infinitely more violent than any mere change of name or style.

Whether or not accompanied by (understandable) rejection of his father, Guston’s abiding obsession with Italian Renaissance figurative art is visible throughout his varying styles. Just as the Renaissance artists Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca investigated forms, so did Guston, with an ever-present awareness of the work of these predecessors. This formal inquiry is evident, despite the surprising drawing approach that deceived some critics, although not the most perceptive ones, into considering his works mere emulations of cartoons. “Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston,” written by the unjustly forgotten Brooklyn-born author Ross Feld and published in 2003 by Counterpoint Press, notes of Guston’s late figurative work: “Sometimes they’re rendered with a stillness that’s tragic, other times with an hilarious crudity — but even the most upsetting or disquieting imagery in late Guston has a shaggy, even goofy friendliness.” Feld further aptly praises Guston’s “consistent edge of philosophical humor and self-mockery…. Like a Marrano, a converso, one of the underground Jews of the Spanish Inquisition, he’d been a secret image maker all along, coerced into abstraction but never grounded there, outwardly observing but also inwardly undermining its rituals.”

Image: Curtain. 1977. Oil on canvas. The Estate of Philip Gustin.

Mahagonny

In my continuing quest to put together a grand unified theory of everything, I was reading part of the introductory essay in Robert Hughes’ Nothing if Not Critical, The Decline of the City of Mahagonny. Here, he talking about the nefarious influence of mass media (on humans) and you can easily extrapolate this onto our difficulties in moving past now-obsolete notions of growth and expansion. To wit:

This has not been a matter of choice, let alone fault. The power of television goes beyond anything the fine arts have ever wanted or achieved. Nothing like this Niagara of visual gabble had even been imagined a hundred years ago. American network television drains the world of meaning; it makes reality dull, slow and avoidable. It is our “floating world.” It tends to abort the imagination by leaving kids nothing to imagine: every hero and demon is there, raucously explicit, precut – a world of stereotypes, too authoritative for imagination to develop or change. No wonder it has predisposed American artists toward similar stereotypes. It is stupidly compelling, in a way that painting and sculpture, even in their worst moments of propaganda or sentimentality, are not.

Always difficult to figure out what’s wrong with one thing without stumbling onto what’s wrong with another.

Awe… M’art

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With all of its localized shenanigans, it’s important to take a step back and see what big-picture Big Box looks like:

The brand-new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the small northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the largest retailer in the world.

Alice Walton, who is worth about $21 billion, has achieved her dream of building a top-tier museum that unabashedly celebrates American art in the American heartland. Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success.

It’s also a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else. In 2007, according to the labor economist Sylvia Allegretto, the six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion,according to Forbes.

Touche, monsieur. But what say you of the art?

But many of the paintings in Crystal Bridges hang in eloquent rebuke to the values of the company that has made the Waltons so very wealthy. Three paintings, in particular, struck me as especially pointed commentaries on the perverse values of Sam Walton’s heirs.

The first was Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” one of the greatest paintings to emerge from the Hudson River School. It celebrates the friendship of the painter Thomas Cole and the poet William Cullen Bryant, who are portrayed standing in an enchanted Catskill gorge.

“Kindred Spirits,” bought by the Walton foundation in 2005 from the New York Public Library for an estimated $35 million, is, in the words of the critic Rebecca Solnit, a tribute to “friendship freely given, including a sense of friendship, even passion, for the American landscape itself.”

It’s really worth re-acquainting oneself with the Saint-Just, Cardinal de Rohan and Charlotte Corday.

Green as a Test

Of you, and your ability not to believe that just because you are awesome at one thing, that you can do all things. This example is especially hurtful when it comes to art.

She has enough, more than enough, resources to underwrite her directorial forays, but… ouch.

She’s too inexperienced as a writer, from what it sounds like, to set aside her infatuations with the character and navigate the material. That’s the evil green – I know you thought… but no. That‘s simply misuse. It’s not money, but the love of money, etc. In this case, it’s the constraints that normally stop us from doing what we couldn’t or should do that the (abundant) resources nullify.

Plus, she had to deal with big-time Indies producers puffing her and the film for the ‘awards season’. Oh, God. Because she’s Madonna, right? An artiste of the highest bank account/order and the film’s great and everyone’s going to love it. Um… no. Again, people used to become famous because they were smart, now so many are considered to be smart because they’re…

This is not some kind of Schaden-pity. Not at all. As a writer of said scripts, and wishing none of these folks any pain or ill-will, I think she – and truly, many super rich people – could and do have crucial roles to play as executive producers. But it’s up to them to know that. And despite the high dollar amounts, that’s a humble role.