Friday, January 3, 2014

Killing and Painting

How should one begin when writing about George Zimmerman painting? It might be a good idea to put Zimmerman in a context by which we can judge what he is in fact doing and why is it that this is either accepted or not. George W Bush as we know is painting also, and when he was alive, John Wayne Gacy was painting as well. As much as we would like to dismiss their art as hacky, or worse, let us not forget that it has been decades of unrelenting deskilling of artists, pluralism and appropriation of art for the sake of money and consumerism among other things that have resulted in non-artists claiming the status of artist and non-art elevated to high art. Can we at all imagine a time fifty years ago, when critics like Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg were writing about art and producing actual criticism, which meant that artists had to be somewhat accountable to a de facto higher authority than themselves? Regardless of how wrong or conservative these critics were, in their approach to critique, one thing is certain, and that is that criticism ought to serve as the art world’s peer review, its zero level coordinate, rather than a one way ticket to celebrity status. The lack of real criticism in contemporary art, supplanted with descriptive methods of writing and a lack of interest in the periphery of art making by fringe avant-garde and emerging artists created just such a situation in which criticism’s only function is to create status without judgement. One can argue that such a situation is more democratic, because it allows members of the public to engage in what was once reserved only for those skilled or educated in art and art making. The counter argument is that it is precisely this democratization that destroys the function of what it is trying to democratize. In a recent article in the Guardian (Friday, 13, 2013) the author looked at the impact that smartphones and particularly the iPhone have on photography. While we drown in endless streams of images and while we supplement images for real experiences (people taking pictures of paintings in museums rather than looking at them and so on), photography as an experience is on the rise, but professional photography is suffering. “Kodak used to employ 40,000 people in good jobs. What have they been replaced by? Twelve people at Instagram.” On the one hand we do not have to pay a professional photographer thousands of dollars for a few snapshots of a wedding, we can do it ourselves, but on the other we are more and more giving our power over to technology, which as we well know tends to be (mis)used by governments and corporations looking to protect their bottom lines.

We could also say that perhaps it is payback time, because at the beginning of the twentieth century it was photography that put many painters out of business of painting family portraits. We could argue that photography did not actually destroy painting as a practice as we could say that the iPhone and Instagram will not truly destroy photography as a professional practice, because no matter how many millions of people can readily take a snapshot, most will not go out of their way to stage photo shoots, or create photographic panoramas in miniature. One might say that photography’s salvation can only lie in increasingly obscure methods of shooting or avant-garde methods, pictures might therefore attempt to resist their commodification but also resist the appropriation and democratization process itself, and perhaps the only way to accomplish this is through criticism, which brings us back to George Zimmerman.

Taking the example of Gacy, let us look at the social and psychological context of Zimmerman’s work. Gacy’s works have been sold for thousands of dollars and the implications are that a work of art by a serial murderer, without any art training, credentials, skill or artistic passion, must rely on the status of celebrity, notoriety and fascination with the shadow side of human nature to create value in a work of art. Zimmerman in this case is a weak example of jus t such a fascination. He did not murder dozens of victims and bury them under his house like Gacy, he was not responsible for the deaths, displacement and ruined lives of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern citizens like Bush. Yet he did set a precedent with this particular type of work. In the art world, much like in Hollywood, when celebrity no longer has to rely on a particular skill, just celebrity itself, status given over by celebrity is enough to sell work. How much different is the case of Jeff Koons, whose career as an artist was preceded by one as commodities broker? Though he studied art in college, his insider contacts from trading were what really got him started on a career of super stardom since he could use those contacts to peddle his own mediocre art. Is not Zimmerman’s just another case of an individual (ab)using a particular system, in place such as it is, for his own benefit? It would be silly to simply dismiss his work as hacky (it is) or as the worst kind of kitsch (which it is also), anyone with a minimum amount of knowledge knows this. The point is much more radical. In the wake of the Beuysian truism “everyone is an artist”, Zimmerman is doing exactly what many of us would do should the opportunity present itself, by this is meant the unflinching self-merchandising and crass (mis)use of the term. In a typical class of thirty kids, it is usually the biggest idiot who takes the rest of the class down with him, if he is the one disrupting class and does not own up to his own idiocy. The teacher will usually punish the entire class rather than look for the culprit. Does this not seem like the obverse of the situation with contemporary art, where a handful of hacks are able to undermine generations of honest work in a matter of hours on the auction house floor?

Predictably, Zimmerman’s painting sold for $100,000 and Zimmerman himself became an “artist” after painting only a single piece. It is hard to say whether it is time to laugh or to cry.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Of Elections and Their Implications

This year’s election for mayor and city council was one of the stealthiest campaigns that I have ever witnessed. Unless one was an ever vigilant follower or watch dog of the local political scene, all one saw one day were a handful of yard signs and an eerie silence in the press and media. As if the fact that the political arena here as much as elsewhere has become a medley of circus freaks and reality tv-like “celebrities” was not enough, the campaign itself had devolved into a he said she said argumentation about why there is so much debt still in the air when all we have tried to do is to make this place more tourist friendly and more developer happy, a tried and true formula for making money. But is that really so? If anything, recent history has always shown that late capitalism is a process by which individuals are compelled to take as much advantage of a given situation and run as soon as the money is made. Was this not the case with most of the “development” in Asheville? Not to mention that anytime a big corporate franchise opens its doors anywhere, the money made there invariably goes elsewhere? There is a term for this late capitalist phenomenon in Eastern Europe, where the ravages of Communism were followed by further ravages of Capitalism. The term is “tunneling”. When a company is established, or bought, a series of “tunnels”, virtual lines by which money is channeled outward into other corporations or tax havens, is built to suck the body dry of all its fluids and to enrich those who run it. When there is nothing left, the company is either dissolved or sold to the lowest bidder. Tunneling is one way by which debt is incurred by those directly involved with these bodies, because through hikes in prices, fees and service charges, the burden is transferred to the lower strata, while at the same time money flows directly to the top and outwardly, with nothing left for the community.

Now that the election results are in, I have to be honest in saying that I have never seen a more dreary set of gray people with no ideas and no life essence in them running for office. What this year’s election was about were power and name recognition, nothing more, nothing less, because what each and every single candidate stood for is a preference for running things along the same tired train tracks into oblivion, some with a ridiculous sloganist campaign of “change”, the same type of change that will keep everything the same, because it is working out for the corporate structure so that it can keep sucking the life out of the poor and middle class, develop more plots of beautiful countryside into abominable tracts of monocultured wasteland, and above all, feed us all staggering amounts of beer.

Should any of the candidates or for that matter anyone living in this here town take notice, I have developed a set of ideas that could be evolved further through conversation and debate.

-Raise the minimum wage in all of Buncombe county to $15/hr

-Institute a basic income to all Buncombe citizens at $999/month

-Place a ban on all public advertising and take down all billboards within county line (it will be great for our psyche and fun to watch them come down like the Hussein statue)

-Place a cap on the number of new buildings in Asheville to 5 (all buildings will have to be integrated into the community)

-Tear up Tunnel and Hendersonville roads and rebuild using a grid system and interconnections

-Free busses running up Merrimon and Patton, electric rail would be preferred however

-Make golf carts street legal

-Divert money going to utilities companies to create small privately owned startup power stations

-Give money to leftist think tanks

-Create a mobile application and computer program by which every citizen can cast votes on every single issue before the council

I absolutely understand that most of these ideas are going to be derided as unworkable, idiotic, or insane, maybe utopian, but if we do not start talking about even the possibility that something like this can work or take place, we will never get out of the hole we have dug for ourselves. If the city of Asheville had gotten into so much debt as is claimed by the media, through the methods that even today most candidates are espousing, that have been mythologized by the establishment and that clearly do not work for the people, then maybe it doesn’t matter that we will get into more debt as a result of these policies, but at the same time help those that are in most need and make this place into a truly unique place, instead of the Disney version that has been created over the past five years.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On art and artists in Asheville, contemporary art and its implications (Is something rotten in the art scene?)

The Question

For years, Asheville has been seen as an arts destination. The reasons are simple; lots of artists result in lots of art produced which enters the market, which draws in the money, which ultimately draws in more artists and the circle slowly but surely perpetuates itself. Whether or not artists can squeek out a living in such conditions is an entirely different question from the one I will be asking today and it can be found in a conversation, which this article will try to dovetail into, from some two years ago printed in the Xpress. Similar topics have been raised later on Craigslist and Ashevegas. The question that will be dealt with here is the state and nature of contemporary art, its (non)existence, and its representation here in Asheville.

Contemporary art seems to have been largely redefined in Asheville. Whether this is a mistake or a concerted effort is unclear. What is clear however is that within this definition are included various practices such as crafts, pottery, fabrics, performing arts, music, and so on. The term therefore gets rather muddied by a definition which itself is blurred because it does not know what it wants to be. In a typically postmodern pluralistic way this definition could be satisfactory, but only until ontological questions arise. The only way to solve this issue is to truly define what one is talking about. Here we should therefore make the distinction between contemporary craft and contemporary fine art. It is always within the definition of contemporary fine art that contemporary craft is included and ultimately represented. When one speaks about contemporary art, one is really speaking about contemporary fine art, with its tradition rooted in painting, sculpture and the avant garde.

Aesthetically speaking there may not be much of a difference between what one would call contemporary craft and contemporary fine art and that is fine, what one sees however is the implication in the reasoning behind creating it. There the difference is between two types of injunction, that of the struggle and that of enjoyment. Firstly, by and large the history of avant garde art (which unfortunately today is as much a simulacrum as it is a myth peddled by commercial interests in art) is that of the radical leftist struggle directly opposed to the conservative enjoyment (small pleasures, beautiful images which nonetheless result only through chaotic production, the enjoyment is in the making already and not just in the finished product, and so on). Secondly, that same history was split into two independent epochs, that of the early 20th century transgressions of values and the elimination of boundaries of art and late 20th century resistance to its appropriation by the market. It is as if to circumvent the original strategy of defining ourselves and our art, we have accepted the conservative ethos of enjoyment precisely so that we would not have to deal with the burdensome task of having to explain our position and ultimately defending it against possible criticism, here resistance ceded its position to appropriation. This was apparent already in 1985 on the national level, when Hal Foster wrote in his polemic Against Pluralism that “ as a general rule pluralism tends to absorb argument” and that “one can only begin out of a discontent with this status quo: for in a pluralist state art and criticism tend to be dispersed and so rendered impotent. Minor deviation is allowed only in order to resist radical change.”

Art for pure pleasure doesn’t need to be defined, it simply is, and that is why it becomes pedestrian and uninteresting as soon as it is made. It is not wrong to create such art however (therapeutic effects of such art are well known), but it is on the other hand a devious comparison which suggests that art borne out of pleasure is directly synonymous with art borne out of struggle. Here I believe the old Abstract Expressionists (most of whom did not have their first solo exhibitions until they were well into their 40’s and 50’s) would laugh at just the simple suggestion of such a comparison and it could be said that their tendency toward disliking Pop art is rooted in this differentiation between art for pleasure and art as a struggle. It was easy for Pop artists to make art and get famous by celebrating consumerism because of the struggle by the Ab Ex painters that smoothed and paved their way. It is as much a case these days, here and now, in which art for pleasure has largely sidestepped the need for ontological struggle precisely because it was the earlier struggle by serious artists that made this situation possible. This art eventually replaced and devalued its predecessor on the condition that it can use it as its philosophical undercurrent. The avant garde tradition gets espoused no matter how duplicitous the art that gets created in its wake actually is.

Is it time to wake up from this dream however? No true contemporary art magazines do any reviews of Asheville art galleries or museums (art papers, artforum, etc. I don’t mention juxtapose because street art in my opinion belongs in the streets. By its inclusion in the gallery system its vitality gets completely lots, but this is another conversation entirely). Virtually no great contemporary artists, from New York, Los Angeles and so on, ever exhibit here. The one exception might be Mel Chin, who can however be considered local as he lives not far from here in Burnsville. This however has more to do with access to this artist, rather than the desire by the museum to promote contemporary or conceptual art.

The Response

The concern of the second section, or rather the concern over preemption of the response to the first, is the response itself. There are three kinds of responses to this conversation about lack of contemporary art in Asheville and unfortunately, despite best intentions by all participants, they do not resolve any issues, but rather perpetuate the symptom

First is the conservative, who says that ultimately artists that bring up this issue are just complaining for the sake of complaining, that they should stop looking for a handout, put up or shut up, and that they don’t want to pay with their tax dollars for someone to sit on their ass in a studio, and so on. This reaction is completely wrong and uninformed, and misses the point completely, because it attacks the artists and not the idea originally espoused. It reaffirms its position through the constant negation of a serious problem, by substituting it with the artist and treating it as a symptom. It says, that the problem is only a problem because the artists themselves are the problem. Second is the liberal position, who instead of confronting the issue does what the conservative does (substitutes the artists for the problem), but elevates himself above the rest by giving out “enlightened” advice rather than attacking the artists. This is also completely wrong and uniformed. If we were to look at the two responses, we will see that they are two sides of the same coin, one an obverse of the other, but acting as if they were different. Here a Zizekian example might shed some more light on this issue. It concerns the injunction by a father to his son to go see his grandmother. The authoritarian (conservative) father says to his son “you know that this weekend is your grandmother’s birthday! Go and see her and wish her a happy birthday and it doesn’t matter if you had other plans because she is your family and that is the most important thing!” On the other hand the post-modern permissive (liberal) father says to his son “son, I know that you have some things to do this weekend, but it is your grandmother’s birthday and it would be really nice and she would enjoy it so much if you came and wished her a happy birthday” and so on down the line. The difference here is that the second injunction says that not only do you have to do exactly what the first one proposes, you also have to like it. Similarly, the advice given out by the liberal carries within it this hidden aspect, that not only do you have to listen to what I say, but you have to like it as well.

Both opinions only seem to enter the conversation not to really solve a given problem but to diffuse the situation because they believe the situation is just fine the way it is and it’s the fault of the others that things are the way they are.

The third type of opinion is the complete agreement with all other opinions and as such is useless to propel the conversation further. I believe we need a fourth, critical opinion which never appears and this is the opinion which actually deals with the real problem at hand, is able to understand it, reflect on it and give it a new impulse by creating a reaction to it. The problem with the first and second response is that as soon as the conversation starts, it quickly devolves into personal attacks without confronting the actual issue. This is due to the misreading and misinterpreting of the given problem. If the issue is contemporary art, then because of its broad definition, there is too much at stake for everybody, which gives way to feelings of being challenged.

This challenge is however what could be considered criticism. After all, the word crisis is included in the word criticism, and the main function of critique is to bring a certain crisis to the subject at hand. The need for art criticism in Asheville is long overdue, and I believe that there are two types of responses/obstacles to be overcome. First, which says we need criticism, but only the good kind of criticism. For most artists, critique is harsh and personal and typically recalls the art school style criticism that most students loathe and fear. This type of criticism is too harsh and personal for most artists to take publicly in a forum or in the media. Second, is the belief that criticism is inherently bad and should therefore not exist because it stifles creativity. It is the latter attitude that gave rise to the giving out of E for effort in school and is largely responsible for the elevation of mediocrity to the level of high art, and ironically is itself responsible for stifling creativity because it disperses the potential rather than concentrating it.

The Afterthought

Just so the above are not just empty words, I propose a few steps that we as artists can take in order to counteract the pluralistic tendency toward art and hopefully recover its true center, which is inherently anchored in philosophy and polemic, rather than cheap entertainment and consent.

Start a radical left think tank about art and philosophy

Set up philosophical symposia and presentations during exhibitions, at your studios, your houses that deal specifically with art and cultural critique

Start writing and publishing a zine with actual art criticism, a blog like this one might do, and I am open to having others publish their ideas, opinions and criticisms

Etc.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Connie Bostic at the Flood Gallery

Connie Bostic’s exhibition comes at a particularly interesting time when the conversation about gun control has been rekindled by the violent events of the past couple years, especially the school shootings and mass murders in places like Connecticut and Colorado and the craziness of violent outbursts by right wing extremism in Norway, punctuated and/or capped off by the obscene pronouncements and gestures by the NRA. It is not surprising that the spokespeople for the NRA issued such crazy platitudes like “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. This is the pinnacle to which their own ideological fortitude extends. Let us not for a second forget that the ideological underpinnings of such a pronouncement lies in the mythology laid down at the dawn of the American revolution. America is the only place that has actually codified its mythology in a legislative document, the constitution and its amendments. Mythology begat as law. Figures like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin love these pronouncements because they point to their efforts of turning the whole of American capitalism into an army of experts, versed only in their responsibilities to the state/corporation, unambiguously upholding their laws, set by the institutionalized machine for producing those experts, the university. In this environment, the good guy with the gun does not reflect on his position within the environment he finds himself in, as that is tantamount to heresy, he is simply to do his job of shooting the bad guys with guns. It is interesting that the often quoted clause “shoot first, ask questions later” is not even mentioned these days, as if asking questions is exactly what puts us in a position of the weaker subject. The good guy shoots, without asking questions.



This is however only the background for the exhibition. The whole of the show is much more ambiguous. The conversation extends far into the past as there are works from the early nineties represented alongside newer work. History however is not enough to make this show work, it is only a marker by which one can orient oneself. The fact remains that while the conversation of gun control is a heated debate it is also one which ideologically is unable to be resolved. In this sense a painting of a gun surrounded by a set of toys from 1990 is redoubled by a similar painting several years later. Thus the conversation is always in a state of becoming because the two sides are at a virtual deadlock over the details contained within it. This is what makes the show seem very tragic. Hidden under the slogan for change is the injunction to resist change, and if change is needed then only cosmetic, so as not to undermine each side’s position as that of the truth bearer.

The most successful works seem to be the small and rather softly painted watercolors of guns inside purses. This is what exemplifies the horror of the right wing gun lobby ideology. Far from aestheticising firearms, they point to the violence inherent in a weapon meant to kill or harm, regardless of whether in self defense of direct aggression, without representing it. In an almost Goyaeque way, the paintings assume the position of documentary, but where Goya documents violence and stupidity perpetrated in the everyday state of war, Bostic documents the potentiality of violence disguised as the everyday. Unseen, the weapon does posses a certain amount of subjective power and assumes the role it is supposed to assume, that of a defensive screen between its bearer and the outside, but this is exactly its greatest weakness, because it produces this effect at the expense of that safety net. Carried within itself is the injunction that owning a gun that should make its bearer safer is its complete opposite, that on the contrary, the gun by producing its own hypothetical safety net, actually makes the bearer more susceptible to violence. Hidden by the soft fabric of the purse, the gun however still remains ambiguous, far from being the monster waiting to be released, it is a cold inanimate object with that potential or in the case of a painting, representing it.

The Flood Gallery does a good job of bringing in artists that stir up the pot of controversy, if only temporarily. Bostic’s show is not overly controversial, perhaps that depends on an individual’s reading of her work, and Asheville for the most part will be a receptive audience, as the tone of the show is more or less in line with the general sentiment of the Asheville public. I do feel that perhaps a greater injunction toward a rethinking of the issue is needed here. The ambiguity of the work is its weaker facet. The work seems to want to steer clear of politics, yet there is nothing more political, or invested with social imperatives, than guns and what they represent. This is my personal opinion, yes, but in an increasingly radicalized political climate, in which the position of the left has been largely abandoned for a pseudo-liberal moralistic new-ageisim, what do we have left other than art to turn to for a sense that the world isn’t truly mad? There may be injustice, but the way to correct this is precisely to do the opposite of what we are compelled to do, that is to say we need to turn away from violence precisely at a point when increased violence seems like the only way out.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Modern Anxiety, Buzludzha and the American Superhero

I will try and piggyback a little bit on what I thought was the most asked question, or at least what I felt was the most perplexing image or idea, during the night of the opening of my latest solo show “apotheosis”. The image is that of the Buzludzha monument and I have described the piece this way

“On a lone mountaintop in a Bulgarian national park sits one of the most perplexing and perhaps ironic monuments to late 20th century socialism. Built in the waning years of Eastern European socialism, when the writing on the walls was already running out of walls, this monument celebrated the revolutionary spirit in such a way as if the sheer spectacle would be able to carry through the intended ideology, that everything is just great the way it is. The hyperinflated ego of such a project constitutes the dramatization of what occurs naturally in every culture faced with its own impending doom. Instead of reflection and reassessment, we get bombastic displays of confidence in the existing system and wild proclamations of better tomorrows. It is only through the display of power, and not its actual manifestation, that the state can in such times “buy” time and prolong its existence. Today, only thirty years later, the monument is in ruins, yet the ideological underpinnings remain largely intact.” A little bit more information is needed here to fully grasp the implications of not just this image, but also that of the image of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition of 1972. Buzludza was built and ceremonially opened to the public (and here the public has to be thought of in terms of the old communist regime, since the public generally constituted only members of the party proper in most cases) in 1981. From Wikipedia we get a little blip about the purpose of the structure as such.

“The Buzludzha Monument on the peak was built by the Bulgarian communist regime to commemorate the events in 1891 when the socialists led by Dimitar Blagoev assembled secretly in the area to form an organised socialist movement. It was opened in 1981. No longer maintained by the Bulgarian government, it has fallen into disuse.”

What is interesting to note here is the reversal of the dates, the former mirroring the latter that in actuality constitutes the reversal of the rise of socialism in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe by providing us with a concrete timeframe when socialism came to a close. It is as if the reversal of a couple of numbers literally spelled out, or brought about the waning years of state socialism. My claim about the palpable feeling, the writing on the walls so to speak, that something is terribly wrong with the current system in 1980’s Eastern Europe was precisely what motivated the state to go ahead with the construction of the monument. The move must seem to us as madness today, but it is absolutely logical, and it finds its correlate in today’s hypercapitalist society (we are told to shop more, buy more entertainment, and so on, to produce demand for products and stave off the ultimate doom scenario when even the capitalist system comes to an end). The Bulgarian central committee, as was the case with all other Eastern European governments, understood that the time of deadlock is slowly approaching. The threshold of even more repression could not be crossed at this point as it would give rise to immediate revolution and the loosening of the stronghold on power would totally disintegrate the center and the whole system would collapse in a matter of weeks. The time of normalization, the 1970’s, and its pragmatic conservatism, ushered in a decade of unease. Goods and food were scarce, ecology devastated, depression, addiction and divorce rates on the rise. It is as if in order to buy time, the government decided to sidestep all political implications and dump a lot of energy into producing a monument that would function as a spectacular image that would show that everything is ok, that we do not need to run for the hills, and that above all, the state is firmly in control. The tragic irony is that the people in the central committee believed in the project no more than the workers that worked on it, or the “people” for whom this obscene monstrosity was built. By all accounts, the people at the top knew that their time was up before anybody on the ground suspected it. What we get in fact is a grandiose finale, the way that fireworks operate (they start slow and finish with a massive cacophony), of the tragicomedy that was Eastern European state socialism.

But what does all this have to do with us? The one thing we learn visually is that totalitarian regimes build and waste vast amounts of energy on public projects, monuments, etc , in order to satisfy some dictator’s ego, prop up the existing power structure and so on, and that democratic states on the contrary are organized so that the energy is all equally distributed based on the majority consensus, that the president and the government represent the will of the public and all kinds of other bullshit. We need to look no further than to the flamboyant neo-imperialist architecture of all the biggest government buildings across this country and most obviously in Washington DC, but also to the rather neo-stalinist statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought to us courtesy of the Chinese artists versed in such depictions in order to understand who is in charge here. The appropriation of the image of King by the state and by that virtue his ideology of non-violence, when we all know that America is one of the most violent countries internally (high murder rates, domestic violence, etc.) , but also one which wages war with impunity on the smallest of states, reveals itself as the true horror of the last stage of capitalism before it turns into an authoritarian nightmare. What is to follow is what we would call “capitalism with Asian values” a more dynamic, but more repressive form of capitalism that no longer relies on the democratic functioning of the state, but rather on the systematic permissiveness in areas of selling and buying products and entertainment, coupled with increasingly intrusive interventions into the functioning of individual lives and their relations with others.

The anxiety which precedes this systematic dismantling of the existing structure reveals itself precisely through the most permissive form, entertainment. The big Hollywood studios are busy producing super hero flicks as fast as the public can consume them. What these movies show however, no matter how good or bad the movies actually are, is what in Zizekian terms would be called a reality more real than itself. In them situations are dire, crime is rampant, corruption widespread, and who else can clean up but the superhero endowed with special powers? This is our Buzludzha monument. The reigning ideology is that no matter how bad things will get, things will get back to normal in the end, due to the self-organization of the system (the system produced figures like Batman, a millionaire bent on fighting evil precisely so that he can continue to make money so that he can fight more evil). Just let capitalism do what it does best and the rest will work itself out, everything is fine. We should obviously let corporations police themselves, because they have a vested interest in keeping the system that sustains them running.

The superhero, I argue, is the latest in mythological appropriation with a specific function to teach moral lessons. The hero is a presenter of the values of the state, he’s strong, just, omnipotent and omnipresent. He keeps the functioning of the state running at peak performance. But this is where the notion “more real than reality itself” comes in. What we are dealing with in actuality is a play of appearances. On the screen it appears that things are terribly wrong, and so they are in real life but compared with the violence on the screen they are meager, and that they can be set aright with a minor intervention by the hero (the state), which is an obvious mistake. The simplicity of the operation on screen is what makes it seem more real than this reality we find ourselves in. This I think is one of the great tragedies of the modern American revolutionary spirit. We are increasingly plunged into a conservative view of the world mediated through Hollywood cinema and “reality” television, while the real documentary images which should inform us of the horrors out there are kept away from the public eye in order to manufacture the consent needed to sustain the power structure. Of course we are given just the right amount of violence to keep us in the right amount of anxiety, mostly about murders committed by lone gunmen or some disenfranchised minorities, car crashes and the like, but too much violence, especially as perpetrated by the paternal state (increasingly however this type of violence is perpetrated by corporations) abroad and sometimes when the state is directly implicated with state terrorism, has the capability of sparking the correct negative reaction against the state itself.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Defining the Undefinable (part 2)

Let us turn to some philosophical and perhaps metaphysical underpinnings that drive the creation of art. On the one hand we have the monetized system of art, which says that ultimately what is of greater value must by the same virtue be a greater work of art. This is the contemporary formula of the market system. The flaws are inherent and one does not have to go too far to see and understand that flaw, because not every artwork that commands a bigger price is necessarily better than another of lesser or no value at all. Value in dollars does not equal value of importance or value of meaning. Damien Hirst can have his assistants work around the clock producing one dimensional paintings and sculptures that will sell at exorbitant prices at commercial galleries and at auctions, (maybe not so much these days) but he cannot imbue those works with an equal amount of meaning when the works and the production of them are itself meaningless. Warhol was much closer to the truth about this split in art production when he said that he wanted to be a machine and turned his studio into a factory of artworks. Hirst on the other hand, manages to attach an empty gesture to each piece and calling it meaningful, just because it deals with an idea so loaded with meaning….death. What is at work here however is a simple transference of a deeper meaning into a signifier all but emptied of its meaning the way that modern day logos work for corporations. The logo is simply a symbol which stands in for the corporation’s image and by extension what it does within society. It is as if the symbol of death in Hirst’s art is simply just a logo slapped onto the side of individually packaged pieces. This does not however make them more meaningful. Everybody is obsessed by death. That does not make Hirst a special commentator on this particular problematic, just because he can make artwork about it or rather attach that meaning, like an ironic logo, in post-production .

On the other end of the spectrum lies the art as created by, for and through higher faculties of humans. Such art does not have to be monetized and therefore artificially valued, in fact when the question of money is taken out of the equation we get what could be called “true” art, art that is created solely for the purpose of being art. This brings up the ontological question of what is it that makes something art? Are there not differences between craft and art even where the question of money is concerned? Craft, like art can be produced simply for the enjoyment of production. This does not make it lesser craft. Art created for the enjoyment of creation is also not lesser art. What separates art and craft is hidden in their essence. Here we need to borrow from existentialism to understand this separation. In the basic problem of existence and essence we are confronted with two variations. In one essence, precedes existence as in a set of plans or instructions preceding the production of an object. The essence of an object is clearly defined before the object ever becomes or is created. Thus it can be said that the essence of the object exists while the object itself never has to exist itself to be understood as that object. In the other, existence precedes essence, as in a human being, who has to exist first in order to define who he is. There is no formula or a set of blueprints to form a human being and no one will know what a human being will look like and act like until he is born. A similar problem is in play where craft and art are concerned. Art is in most cases something in which its existence precedes its essence, and vice versa where craft is concerned. To define art, it first must exist. An artist can have a concept, an idea, even a set of blueprints for his artwork, and this artwork may then be produced according to those blueprints, it is however the definition that must later follow actual existence. For most artists, the blueprints are simply guidelines with no hard rules. An artwork will not necessarily end up looking like a drawing in a sketchbook or what is in the artist’s head. This is crucial to understand because craft functions in a very similar way except that in post-existence, once the object is made, there is no need for further definition or justification. The object simply exists, and in most cases, plans for a craft object have been clearly defined, if not the object itself, then at the very least the way that it is created. A wood carving is a set of instructions, an essence for a craft object. A work of art however, doesn’t need to have, and usually doesn’t have a set of instructions by which it has to be created. In such cases it is easy for a work of art to slip into the realm of craft. In contemporary society the line between art and craft has blurred so much it is virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other.

One other defining criterion however seems to lie in the question of production itself. The craft object’s production is typically a set of learned gestures, whether through being passed down within the family or learned at school, that get repeated in order to satisfy the object’s integrity and identification with the craftsperson who made it. The visible mark of the woodcarver’s hand justifies that identification. This integrity is then coupled with recycled imagery and symbolism. As a result the craftsperson does not have to go far for inspiration to create another piece. A work of art on the other hand does not have to follow a similar mode of production each time a new piece is created. In some instances the drive towards new and different modes of production is what defines the art itself. Imagery and symbolism are only contingent, helpful but not necessary. The endless repetition of gestures can in effect be detrimental to art, rendering it categorical and boring. Such art is emptied of all substance early on and can never truly be reinvested with meaning. Art strives toward change, craft strives toward tradition.

In the metaphysical realm and the definition of art, we must turn to the work of E. F. Schumacher, and his concept of the “levels of being”, borrowed directly from western occult traditions (whether Schumacher was aware of the similarity is uncertain). Schumacher delineates the progressions of evolution (not in the traditional Darwinian or evolutionist sense however) between the four kingdoms of mineral, plant, animal and human. Mineral and plant kingdoms are separated by the existence of life. Where mineral simply exists, a plant lives its existence. Between plant and animal exists a separation on the level of consciousness. A plant is not conscious in any true sense of the word the way that an animal is. An animal on some levels then also possesses emotions and intelligence. Between animal and human exists the level of self-consciousness or self-awareness, the hardest of the levels of being to comprehend, even by humans, a totally out of the scope of modern science. In equation form the above would look like this

Mineral = m
Plant = m+x
Animal = m+x+y
Human = m+x+y+z

Each consecutive letter (x,y,z) represents the three upper levels of being. Only humans have all three present from the upward evolution from one kingdom to the next, when each one was carried over from each previous existence (this is the common occult knowledge of the evolution of the four kingdoms), thus allowing them, through the level of self-awareness, to think abstractly, grow spiritually and thus actually participate in creating their environment and the world in which they live, something denied to the other strata of existence. Science, typically relegates humans to the animal kingdoms as “thinking robots” or “naked apes”, completely disregarding the inner lives that each human experiences, simply because they are non-measurable and therefore outside of the scope of science for consideration. Schumacher therefore realized that all science is in effect solely dealing with inanimate matter in order to justify and understand the world of the living, something which he found irreconcilable, giving credence to the 300 year old split between science and religion. Art falls out of sync with science completely, because as a product of this higher human faculty it can never be measured or experimented upon, but that is exactly where the absolute and irrefutable existence of art comes in. As a product of a reflexive faculty, the mind, it has more in common with religion and spirituality than with science, and thus the effect art has on the soul can be explained and defined. To further clarify this problem, Schumacher proposed the concept of progressions. Each progression underlies the evolutionary movement between each level of existence, increasing each time from passivity to activity.

Mineral = cause
Plant = stimulus
Animal = motive
Human = will

As each progression increases in complexity, so does the unpredictability of existence and the richer the experience. At the human level the progressions from cause to stimulus, to motive to will result in a being capable of producing a work of art simply for the sake of producing a work of art, or for the sake of elevating other human beings to its own level. Does spirituality not work the same way? Will in this sense is as indispensable as shelter and food in the existence of human beings. Art which does not strive toward the will to truth according to Schumacher devolves into two categories. Art that appeals to feelings is entertainment and art that affects will is propaganda. Art therefore has to transcend entertainment and propaganda to become great.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The role of art in the end times - beyond 2012

What role does art serve? Or what role does art serve to the artist and the public? Could we instead ask what role does the artist serve to art? Art is a much greater entity than the artist will ever be, so why does it so often seem to be subservient to the artist and his ego? This inversion is only palpable if we look at the way the media portray art and artists. The relegation of the profession of art, to monetization and therefore to the ranking on the scale of value happens by way of subverted commodification. When the news agencies like MSN or NBC print on their web sites articles about which degrees will get you the least amount of money in the market today, one has to question the motives for printing such material. Of course, topping the list of degrees is Fine Art, Philosophy, Psychology, etc, no one would suspect anything less. The list remains more or less the same every year. What this shows however is not what the agencies propose should be a deterrent to those seeking a professional degree, but rather the absolutely horrifying state of our culture. The inverse commodification of the degree and by that virtue its holders proposes that what they do and create is inherently of no value and a waste of time. On the one hand, perhaps other professional artists everywhere should be happy that the news is doing such a good job of trying to stop people from acquiring these degrees, but research and experience show that more and more people are applying for these degrees. What that shows then is the inverse of the proposed inverse by the news agencies. Art has the unique capability of speaking to the soul of the student, as do philosophy and most if not all of the other so called worthless degrees. A culture which is attempting to monetize the spiritual aspect of its existence has long ago become devoid of any semblance of coherence. All coherence in such a society is merely a veneer masking the general chaos created by the unrestrained commodification of all aspects of life. The fact that such a culture puts art at the very bottom of its list of priorities, especially when only art and its various offshoots have the capability of saving such a culture, is telling.