Tuesday, May 5, 2015

individualism and doubt

There is a part of all of this rationalizing and discussion of art that seems incredibly false; individuals pursue being artists and make money doing so.  The value of art and what an individual artist is paid for a particular piece of work must be acknowledged and considered in terms of expression; there is at least part of the purchase of an art work that is due to the individual that is "expressing" (or, to state it differently, part of the value of an artwork is due to the individual that produced it*).

Understandably, this is theoretical in nature; most artists make very little money off of their work.

Doubt, though, comes from how effective of a measure of value this is.

I've talked about the complexity of the concept of the individual as a sort of doubling, but now I'd also like to add the complexity of individual expression is also a matter of othering--othering within each individual.

Doubling of the individual isn't exactly the only way that the complexity of individuality reveals itself, but it is an easy argument for a richer concept of the individual, and there is something about a binary relationship that seems coherent in terms of individuals and aspects of their individuality.  I think it is important to note that the doubling does not refer to an emotion (i.e. the binary relationship is not happy - sad) but rather refers to two "units" of individuality--that the individual, despite its etymological history, is two units.

When there are more than one units of individuality, there stands the chance for othering.

Doubling and othering are not the same thing in most cases, but within a creative individual, I believe that they are not only parallel to one another, but exacerbate one another.  If I am at a point of self-doubt in my studio practice I am the one making individual expression and the other, the one that is working against my self expression, the one that is questioning each act in the studio.

You can hear references to this in writing about art and even in popular culture.  This morning on All Things Considered there was a story about the Islamic Art Now exhibition at LACMA and UCLA professor Ali Behdad referred to the artists in the exhibition as having "double consciousness", referring to them being both Muslim and secular.

How this most often manifests itself in my own studio practice is the doubling/othering of the artist that paints for the act of making and the artist that thinks about the market and what artists are required to do to have success.  Some times these individuals within me are in agreement and work together, but most often it is a negotiation between one (making work because I am alive) and the other (a working class person navigating a world of high priced commodities and affluent people).

The implications of this are quite profound, but also come with the possibility of ending anyone individual's studio practice, but I believe that the dialectics between one and the other are fuel for fire in the studio, or at least have the possibility to be fuel, if the differences within each of us are acknowledged and discussed.  Conflict is a strong motivator in terms of making art, and I believe that this is a conflict that can be harnessed.

*Obviously, forgery complicates this idea.

Friday, May 1, 2015

individual expression, part 2

Visual art has the misfortune of being both instantly culturally significant and out of reach for most people.  It is confusing to be an artist involved in production of images and objects that are simultaneously accepted as having cultural value and not representing the culture that they are apart of by the value of the market associated with the work as products and commodities and the perception of esoteric or hermetic subject matter.  Of course, artists are accepted within their field and do not have to deal with this precarious relationship as much in galleries, museums, and other institutions and people associated with visual art (and the art world--though Ben Davis has made me consider this term more and want to use it sparingly).  

As artists and the ones producing art work, we are seen as both "talented" and "skilled" for the work that we make but should be limited in how we talk about the work, or the work is our primary mode of communication and gallerists, collectors, curators, and critics have authority to talk about the work.

This is, of course, not true for all non-artists working in the field and there are very many that are true supporters of individual artists.  There is something about this relationship and history that has put artists at a disadvantage, though--when it is acceptable for artists to only rely on what their work looks like and rely on that to fully communicate their ideas, their work, and the context of both, I worry about artists' ability to represent themselves and one another as a group.

The inverse of this, of course, is the mindless buzzword talk of certain artists--talk that often seems to come from a place of insecurity.  I'm sure it seems idealistic to state, but what I'm talking about is an honesty and earnestness in communicating and contextualizing ones own artwork, including owning up to parts which we don't have figured out yet.  It is a great misfortune to speak about ones work as though everything is figured out or solved--anyone who spends time in the studio knows that it is self-doubt, questioning, and internal dialectics that make us return to the studio, over and over again.
We loose some of this when we allow non-artists to talk for us in a way that does not encourage and include dialogue.  Enough of the position that artists shouldn't talk about their work--the history of that is born from times when art was produced out of patronage or for churches and assumes that each piece is a perfect and complete piece in and of itself (individual expression, again).  People who take the position that they can speak with authority about a work without including a dialogue or listening to the artist is not truly supporting artists but has another agenda in mind.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

individual expression, part 1

Since establishing this idea, I have thought of a number of examples that apply and hope to outline a few to continue this dialectic.  I think in one sense, there is a link between individualism and American ideology that is actually fairly common, but I don't think that is the full extent of the historical basis (particularly because the United States is relatively young when it comes to art history, and certainly not the first to use the idea of art as expression).  I think this is more historically entrenched in the history of visual art (and other disciplines, perhaps) and will be harder to question and more difficult for people to accept, but these ideas are worthwhile.

I should also restate some of the texts that I have been reading that is certainly contributing to this thinking, primarily Dylan Trigg's book The Thing, Ben Davis's 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, and Eugene Thacker's In the Dust of this Planet.


The ongoing assumption has been that art is a matter of individual expression, and has been critiqued, theorized, looked at, and thought about as such.  At the very least this is a gross over simplification, if not a terrible mistake, because it does not acknowledge the complexity of an individual identity.  I must be careful of my verbiage here, because a lot of these words have philosophical baggage (identity, for one) but what I am referring to is the individual that produces/creates art.  I think this can also be the same for a group of artists functioning as a unit to produce a single art work (such as the Guerrilla Girls) that can be assessed.  What does not fall under this delineation is a group like Bruce High Quality Foundation that organizes classes, exhibitions, etc, which gets into the downward slope of "social practice as art", and I don't want to go into that here.  Mainly, I'm talking about an individual artist working on their artistic product.

Looking at artworks as individual expression assumes that one can know the individual and know, by looking at a body of their work, what they are expressing.  The inherent fault in this is that an individual may have some similar traits from one creation to the next, other traits of the individual have changed.  The individual is not a collection of their work, nor is individual a constant during production of a single work.  Individuality manifests itself in a number of ways and includes moments of disconnect (not fully understanding one's actions, being at odds with ones self) as well as moments where one individual overlaps and mirrors another individual.  These manifestations of individuality are so complex that it is questionable whether one can effectively evaluate "individual expression" as the motive and origin of the art work.

In watching Chris Marker's film La Jetee, the character of 'the man' is the subject of an experiment made necessary by the nuclear destruction of Paris (and, presumably, most of the rest of the world) after World War III.  The men organizing the experiment inject the man with drugs that aid him in to travel back in time, and along with electrodes that cover his eyes, he is able to place himself as an individual as an adult in a time before the war, where he eventually interacts with a woman that he remembers from a day on the pier.  The organizers of the experiment also learn how to send him in to the future, where he meets humans and is made aware that the race survives.  The man knows that his time is limited and is no longer useful to the experiment or its organizers, and chooses to return to the past to meet the woman on a pier.

One analogy that Marker's film provides is an evaluation of the individual in a way that is not often thought about, even though we know and accept (since Einstein) that time is relative.  Certainly the film is speculative fiction in form and genre, but I see La Jetee as a parallel to the complexity of individuality; the concept of the individual should not be restricted by time, nor determined by time.  I am completely able to return to thoughts, moods, and mind-frame of different times in a way that makes my own individuality parallel to itself as opposed to linear recurrences.  If I get angry every time I'm driving a car, it is not time that determines my anger but the context of driving.  Other individuals also get angry while driving a car, and all of these occurrences of anger in driving are called road rage--not linked to time (other than, one could argue, since the invention of the automobile) but linked to the context of the individual.

Both of these words, too, are problematic in a phenomenological sense; if one doesn't take into account the complexity of the individual, phenomenology can be relegated to the realm of outdated and modernistic (if phenomenology is only the philosophy of an individual in a restricted sense it can not necessarily account of a multiplicity of realities, or at least there is some contradiction in this).  Expression, too, then is an issue in terms of its origins in the individual, a sort of paradox (an individual studying and thinking about something created by the individual, which probably can't be fully evaluated).


Monday, April 20, 2015

oh, the agony...

A lot of these issues have been reoccurring since Roberta Smith's talk at the Des Moines Art Center. Other issues have come up in correlation to a book by Dylan Trigg titled The Thing.  Both are interrelated, but it might take a bit more than a single post to connect.

Two comments of Smith's are what is lingering to me; one was the "real artists suffer" comment, the other was an answer to my question in the audience.  I asked Smith if she thought whether artists should be able to talk about their work.  Her response was that it wasn't our purpose to talk about the work, our job is to make it.  She also commented on it being a product of graduate school.  She isn't upset, per se, when artists talk, but she'd much rather look and see and she feels most often that artists hinder seeing with talking (I'm paraphrasing, of course). I get this sentiment; I understand it from both sides--how great it would be to not have to think about my work and just make it (which is idealistic and false; it's a misnomer made by non-artists) and how great it would be to not have to speak publicly about my work; I also can see where experienced art patron/critic/supporter would rather look on their own and not be influenced by what the artist has to say.

It is hard, though, as an artist, not to see this as a position of power held over artists: either keeping artists docile, keeping them producing for the market, or exerting some other kind of control.

I'm starting to look into this as a point of research; figuring out historical models (albeit likely on a larger scale affecting more detrimental forms of power) but hope to think about these things in perspective, particularly in late capitalism.

Trigg's book, too, has impacted my thinking about artists in the history of art and, perhaps, something that has either been overlooked or not discussed in art, particularly the artist's position in movements classified as Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and others.  Trigg is making a case for a new type of phenomenology that acknowledges a complexity in the concept of a body, which has always been the assumption of phenomenology--the study/thinking about what a body can sense.  Trigg, and others, acknowledge that this is a mistake--even Merleau-Ponty can be interpreted as to realizing the complexity of "a body" as a singular concept.

Likewise, whenever we think of art making (or the artist, for that matter), particularly when we assume "art as expression", we are talking about individual expression.  Even so-called contemporary political art and social practice art still assumes individual expression of political statements and "making something better".

Not only is this incredibly problematic to assume such individualism is the single source of expression (albeit the American way), but I absolutely believe/confirm that this is the wrong conception of expression, and that an individual/body is much more complex.  It is incorrect to assume that Monet was, theoretically, a single individual for the duration of his life as a painter and it is incorrect to define his "expression" in a singular way.  Certainly criticism and history allows for multiple interpretations, but these interpretations, though differing slightly on his aesthetics, view, outlook, influence, etc.  all assume his body of work coming from a fixed individual, which is false.

More on all of this soon.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

suffering (or, rather, not having enough of something)

Another assessment of artists from non-artists:  the suffering.  

I listened to Roberta Smith last Thursday evening at the Des Moines Art Center, and there were a number of interesting stories about the world of New York, the myths of artists, and lingering ideals of Modernism.  It coincided with my reading Robert Storr's somewhat honest (but perhaps more attention grabbing) interview on WYBCX about the state of art criticism, too, and a reminder that there are surprising parallels (though of course on a much smaller level) with the "real art world" and the micro-art world of small town Des Moines.  

This is interesting for a number of reasons, but one that is very apparent is the perspective that there does exist a "real art world" in New York, LA, London, etc and that nothing happens in smaller cities.  A New York times critic talking in Des Moines is only ever going to be a visiting lecture, it is never going to be a look, from that critic, at the art environment (can't use community here because it is loaded) of the town that she/he is visiting.  

The parallel between Storr's "calling out" of critics like Smith, Saltz, Hickey, etc in Des Moines is the chatter about Bad Art Reviews in Des Moines.  While its not the same thing, it is parallel in the sense that a town with very little art criticism, there are still threats, disagreements, and preoccupations with the trivial.  Dissent is not appreciated, nor seen for its discursive power, in almost every environment of art.  

While I was certainly taken with many of Smith's stories, I find myself days later focusing on one part of her talk--telling BFA students in the audience that they are not going to be artists, that if they have something else other than art that they are pursuing, they should do that.  Artists, she said, suffer, and are artists because of their suffering. 

Now this seems easy to dispute as the scrapings on the bottom of the pan of Modernist thought, but I think it is incredibly problematic in a broader sense.  

One aspect of this suffering is the myth of New York, which should have been eradicated with the rise of the West Coast art scene, but apparently is not dead yet.  Myopic vision of New York as the one and only art world, determining what is good and bad in art, and determining what sells is a problem for all of us outside of New York, but particularly for those of us that see New York as a giant machine that is the spearhead of the unregulated art market that drives up prices under the auspice of "cultural value" and remains both untouchable and esoteric to the general public.  These same ideas are related to the notion that any artist worth their salt lives and works in New York, so why would one of the very few staff art critics write about someone outside of New York?  It is easy (cheap) to live in Des Moines, therefore artists living here do not suffer enough to be "real" artists.  

Suffering, too, is a bit of a complex thing; Chris Burden suffered very differently than J.W. Turner.  Its a smokescreen statement to say that artists must suffer to be what they are; suffering in Late Capitalism is largely deficiency (not having what one thinks they deserve), and I guarantee that all artists think they deserve more than what they have (should have gotten in to an exhibition, should have sold that artwork, etc).  Suffering is an internal emotion, and not something that can be judged by anyone.  Roberta Smith will never know whether or not I have suffered, and I'm still an artist.  

Were I a BFA student in the exhibition, I might have wondered about safer career paths.  As an artist in a ill covered region of the United States, I'm pissed, because this is another version of elitism: I interpret the notion that artists must suffer to mean that people living in Iowa can't possibly suffer enough to be artists, so go do something else.  I had a painter in New York talk to me about teaching, and she said that I should teach students to be collectors and patrons as opposed to artists.  While this might not have been directed to me coming from the Midwest, it is still part of this detrimental rhetoric against artists geographically outside of the "art centers".  

As a professor, I don't see myself as educating artists, though.  While I'm frustrated at the elitism, I don't see that as my mission, and encourage students to pursue whatever they wish to.  I teach art as a means to teaching non-conformity, original thinking, and perhaps most importantly to teach students to think critically about the single-serve, instantly fulfilling, and vapid culture and society that we live in.  While I've thought that critics were cultural mavens and guideposts in the past, I now wonder how much a part of this structure they are; perhaps they do not question culture and society in the same ways that I do--that, perhaps, my problem with most art critics is that they are looking at art as a cog of the vapid culture and society as opposed to something working against it.  

I will gladly work, think critically, and not suffer; always reflecting on my place in society.  


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

arguments of the bourgeoisie, on behalf of artists, for their own justification of consuming (part 1)

I read a recent article by William Deresiewicz called "The Death of the Artist--and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur" and was floored.  It seems like a simple statement: the myth of the artist as genius is dead, and "real" artists are creating their own businesses (adjusting to the market).  This, though, might be the article that lights a thousand fires; I think that there are undeniable problems with the thinking in this article which makes it all the more dangerous, particularly to those of us who are artists.

I won't be able to address everything at once, but I hope to develop this into further writing about this and send it further than the readership of this blog.

Very simply put:  the myth of "artist as genius" is one placed on artists by non-artists, and has never had anything to do with the market.  An artist that claimed genius themselves would undoubtedly be scoffed at and ridiculed.  Its death then, is merely a fiction created by non-artists to eradicate a class and type of people.  Though this may seem extreme, the purpose of getting rid of this class of people will become clear shortly.

There are a number of other problems with the myth of "artist as genius" including the patriarchy within the tradition of art (still prevalent), the predominance of Westernized art traditions (and the Orientalization of other geographic locations by the Western traditions).  Assessment of one's ability in art is problematic and is not easily supported by numbers or testing (in which the typical genius assessment is based), and as someone confident in their place in the world of contemporary art, I have no need or want to be labeled as a genius, it serves no purpose.

What I believe is happening here--purposely and rhetorically--forms a smokescreen to keep people from acknowledging what artists most often are: defenders of counterculture.  Artists--and yes, I'm going to start making dogmatic statements and issue membership cards--think and live outside of mainstream culture.  This includes elements of rebellion, disobedience, and other forms of thinking outside of the normative structures that any place and group of people hold dear.

Not all of what we call artists do this; some are so far within the normative structures as to be ironically conformative, others exploit the system for monetary gain.

This concept of the death of genius--as tired as death of anything is to anyone who has read about painting in the last 20 years--is thusly a way to prevent creative thinking outside the system.  This is a way to commodify creativity and silence the non-conformists.  This article proposes that if artists are not geniuses, then they should be (or are) entrepreneurs.  

Deresiewicz's article could hide behind the guise of observation, and as the author he could claim to only be observing culture.  Even if this is the case, he has oversimplified hundreds of years of culture and is not thinking critically about culture to boot.  To write this article acknowledges a number of difficult assumptions that I will continue to discuss in conjunction with some other writings.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

input systems

I'm going to write a bit today about a concept that has to do with larger cultural concerns but plays into the art world, particularly with art fairs, commodification, and other issues that many people are discussing within and outside of the art world.

I honestly don't know if I can justify this beyond being a hunch, but I feel strongly that individuals in many historical and current cultures have relied on other individuals to form their identity and morals.  Different cultures have different levels of individuality--some have had a much higher need for communal function than others; the United States seems to be one that is frequently pegged as an individualistic society that favors the individual over any community.  I don't know if this is exactly true, but I do feel that this is the case, and I often think about self-sufficiency as "good", though self-sufficiency does not preclude community-based thinking.  Regardless, an individual gets input somehow--older cultures, I believe, received input from story telling, advice, conversation, discussion, with other individuals to form a network of thinking that, in part, creates the individual's identity (and helps them tend towards certain decisions, encourages individuals to pass along information for others' input, etc).  If I had a bad experience planting a certain vegetable or learned of a new pest, I could pass it along to a neighbor or friend who was trying to grow the same crop.  If I knew that there was a predator near a fishing spot, I could pass that information along so that others didn't run the risk of being pursued by a predator.  If I ate at a restaurant and got food poisoning, I would tell others (and probably alert the Health Department) that I was sick so they would not have the same experience.  All of these inputs have a tremendous affect on others.

One important note today, particularly in the United States but in other cultures as well, is the overwhelming influence of media and the vastness of its affect on us.  It takes up such a large portion of our input that it is, in my thinking, forming the majority of our identity.  There are so many facets of media that it is hard to address them all here, but living in a smaller Midwestern city, many of our friends have smart phones that profoundly influence people's identity.  Where I grew up there are far fewer smart phones, but many of those people are influenced by television or newspapers.  I might even go so far as to speculate that input of a sensory nature (that is non-media based) makes up less of our input than media-based input, that is to say that the looking that I do with my eyes to determine my path of travel, to avoid obstacles, to learn something new is less than the input that I get from media.  One example of this is, of course, from food--I had never cooked rabbit before, and have tried to expand the types of meat that we eat, particularly for more sustainable animals, and when it came time to butcher the rabbit I watched a video on butchering instead of trusting instincts (gained from butchering other animals) and looking at the animal for obvious butchering points.  I will not say that I should have just looked--I appreciate the resources available to me--but it is interesting to think about other options.  If I had not watched the video, what is worst case scenario?

That is a relatively inconsequential example, but I use it to illustrate my ideas to think about the broader implications in this.  What is determined to be valuable in our culture is undeniable influenced (and I might even argue totally and solely influenced) by media because we are using the media as our input in a manner that prevents us from relying on our own, non-media input.

There has been a tremendous amount written about art fairs--I feel like it bubbles up every December during Basel and during other art fairs around the U.S.  Many of these articles are against art fairs and some are supportive of them, but I think it is good to think about your own input systems while reading these articles and honestly contemplate what the fair means to you as an artist and as an artist connected to the art community of the United States or the greater art world.  Will you refuse to participate in an art fair?  If so, why?  How are you being influenced in this?  Who are fairs for, and what purpose do they serve?  I don't think there are easy answers to this question--but I can say, for sure, that if I lived near Basel I would attend to see things.  I've attended Expo Chicago (or whatever it has been called over the years) multiple times, and have never purchased a thing nor gone with the intention of participating in the money side of these fairs.  I honestly find it an amazing place to see what a large number of galleries are presenting--even if its shit--and love to attend them.  Without fairs, the art market doesn't magically become un-commodified, so I don't know if my time is best spent trying to eradicate art fairs or criticize the attendees or artists that participate.

I do know for sure that art is, even if it is influenced by the media, a pristine input that offers solace from the overwhelming amount of media that we encounter.  This is probably one reason that I think of, over and over again, for me being invested in painting and abstract painting: media has very little influence on the images that I create, or, probably the more truthful statement would be that my images would still exist even if media did not.

What remains after media might be the kernel of this that I am thinking about in a broader sense.   After the end of media, what survives, and how do we go on?  I doubt it will ever end in my lifetime, but I'd much rather continue to seek out non-media inputs and experiences because I feel that they contribute to my life in a richer way than media inputs.