Saturday, December 4, 2010

Culture, Kanye West and the New America

Every year we are witness to a lowering of standards of American culture by corporate media. Since the time of Elvis Presley, the bar for who gets to become the next cultural icon has been lowered in order to accommodate the shrinking intellect of the American public, the nadir of which was supposedly reached in the late 80’s.  Not so, if the maniac corporatist con men have to say anything about it.  Robert Hughes might have had it right in the 90’s when he said that “Reagan educated the public down to his level. He left his country a little stupider in 1988 than it had been in 1980.” and yet he did not foresee the levels to which the upcoming generations would stoop in the near future.  A future in which hip hop is the only tool seemingly available and effective enough to educate our overly medicated and apathetic school children. It is only natural and logical that “artists” like Kanye West* should be looked up to as the heroes of an eviscerated and neutered cultural dystopia as well as spokespeople for the masses of the brave new world in which we find ourselves today.
The fact that recently every sort of media is raving that Kanye West just released his new record, and this includes the supposedly “non-corporate and public supported” National Public Radio, constitutes nothing more that an almost “jaw-dropping fucking yawn”, in the words of the late Bill Hicks, a true cultural warrior, who used this phrase to describe how he felt about the release of Madonna’s Sex book.  To hear a critic on NPR’s Fresh Air turn giddy while reviewing the urban musings of Kanye West while comparing him to Elvis Presley, is as interesting and intellectually uplifting as watching a dog take a shit.  And to compare West with the likes of Elvis is nothing more than an exercise in artificial personality inflation and markup of West’s apparent worth in the context of an already over inflated celebrity bubble.
What we seem to forget is that most of the media personalities and pop culture icons presented to us on Tv, Radio, the internet and iPhones are carefully manufactured in corporate offices where ideas of the new image for the new teenager of the New America are being produced on a weekly basis in focus group style meetings or on the stages of low level television caricatures like American Idol.  As a result of this, American pop culture has become a transient form of entertainment in which content is judged by it’s intensity of emotion and glitz rather than by it’s merits and ability to withstand the test of time.  And it is precisely because of this transitory nature of today’s culture, with all its trends and fallacies, that we get inflated celebrities like Kanye West who’s apparent personality precedes his actual talent as a musician.
But what of the people that Kanye West’s music supposedly speaks to, the inner city kids, the rebellious teenager, the middle to upper class privileged children or (fill in whatever group you want here)?  Is it not ok to listen to his music and enjoy it as one would any other meaningful record? On this subject, the answer is yes.  West’s music has a right to be heard just as much as Bob Dylan’s, Michael Gira’s or Cannibal Corpse’s.  The distinction lies in the aftereffect when a lot of people tend to substitute their personalities with that of the most popular celebrity of the day.   The countless TV “reality” shows are a monument to this tendency. And the saddest outcome is the production of the kind of people that claim they listen to Kanye West’s music to find a sense of identity that are not dissimilar to those that believe that George Costanza is a philosopher and that television sit-coms espouse moral values.
This leaves us with the greatest dilemma of the new century, which is the realization that what we have learned in the end is that we have learned nothing. The corporate wheels keep grinding while the American consumer keeps consuming and we are left with people like Kanye West apparently ready to lead the New America to its ultimate demise in a fiery pit of mediocrity.

 *note - If you’re reading this article a few years or maybe just months down the road, just substitute the name Kanye West with whatever celebrity’s name you see on your screen or on the covers of “leading” pop culture magazines.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Problem of American Painting Revisited

"The problem of American painting, had been the problem of subject matter. Painting kept getting entangled in the contradictions of America itself. We made portraits of ourselves when we had no idea who we were. We tried to find God in landscapes we were destroying as fast as we could paint them. We painted Indians as fast as we could kill them. And during the greatest technological jump in history, we painted ourselves as a bunch of fiddling rustics.
By the time we became Social Realists, we knew that American themes were not going to lead to a great national art. Not only because the themes themselves were hopelessly duplicitous, but because the forms we used to embody them had become hopelessly obsolete. Against the consistent attack of Mondrian and Picasso, we had only an art of half truths, lacking all conviction. The best artists began to yield, rather than kick against the pricks.
And it is exactly at this moment when we finally abandon the hopeless constraint to create a national art, that we succeed for the first time, in doing just that; by resolving the problem, forced on painting by the history of French art, we create for the fist time a national art of genuine magnitude. And if one finally had to say what it was that made American art great, it was that American painters took a hold of the issue of abstract art, with the freedom they could get from no other subject matter, and finally made high art out of it."
- introduction to Painters Painting (1973)

From the introduction to one of the seminal documentaries about American painting we read that for decades, we painted ourselves "when we had no idea who we were." Today the problem of contemporary American painting is that as soon as we came to a single realization of ourselves and identified what American art truly is, we forgot it with equal speed. What is left, are remnants of constant revising and reediting of old concepts and the result is a rehashed version of what preceded the coalescence into a true national art which crystallized in Abstract Expressionism. Worse is that today, against the backdrop of corporate influence and the glorification of materialism, we are left with virtually no one that can communicate what it is that makes American art great, only with those that tell us that it once was.
After the battles they have waged with the public, with themselves and against all odds, the painters have taken a cease fire and retreated from the barrage of aesthetic pseudo-values and incessant commodification of painting, so valiantly pushed to the frontlines by collectors and art speculators. It is as if they, and not the artists, have the last word on what is and what isn't acceptable art and how art should be experienced by the public they claim to represent. It is as if they should be the ones at the forefront of the attention and claim the highest prestige because they are the ones that have the power to either make or break the artist. So the artist retreats even further.
Even though the statements above, were written in 1973, they seem to ring true even today. Not much has changed in those 4 decades since then. As a result of the public's willingness to accept any political and religious dogma, America is more entangled in its own contradictions than ever before and despite all the technological advancements, what we are left with is shiny barbarism. War and inequality still permeate the American society, our landscapes are still being destroyed in the name of profits and national interests. An in order to produce a national identity, politicians and academics have turned to eradicating and omitting certain unfavorable aspects of history from textbooks and our culture.
The answer to the problem doesn't lie with the top artists of today. They have become too complacent as a result of the attention and wealth lavished upon them and became all too willing to pull with the collectors and museum directors who supplied them. The answer lies within each and every one of us. We have to answer for ourselves whether to yield or to start kicking.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The State of Art in Asheville

I want to focus on the lack of contemporary art galleries in Asheville. The fact of the matter is, there are just too many artists and not enough galleries in this town, especially galleries that show emerging and contemporary artists. With the closing of the Arts Council’s Front Gallery, the number is even less. To be an artist in Asheville is a strange paradox. On one hand we live in a beautiful area, deep in the mountains, with lots of place for inspiration, and lots of other artists to network with. On the other hand, it is sad to realize that the only places we can show are in coffee shops and hair salons. The small number of contemporary galleries don’t have enough space or time to show everyone, and the commercial galleries just don’t care to show anything that they think they won’t sell. It is a frustrating experience. Most commercial galleries in Asheville have resigned themselves to show art that is marketable; that means, highly polished, non-political, non-controversial, art without content, that says nothing beyond what one can see. Such art is therefore mostly designed to look pretty in the gallery, so that it can look pretty in someone’s condo later on. So as an artist, forget about trying to challenge the viewer with your work. As it turns out Asheville isn’t interested in what you have to say. Asheville’s just interested in the mighty tourist dollar. At least that’s what the gallery owners would have you believe.
As if this wasn’t enough, a lot of the artists that do get shown in local galleries, don’t live here. So not only do we have to compete with the hundreds of artists that are already here, but also with the ones that aren’t, and chances are they’re probably represented by other galleries elsewhere giving them an upper hand in having a lockdown on the market. So if you’re a young aspiring artist, forget about trying to make a living here, too. Asheville isn’t interested in helping to raise young artists and propagate their careers. Asheville’s just interested in your services as cashiers at our stores and clerks at the places that you show your art. It seems that the attitude toward young artists here is one of “move here, go to school here and get out”, because that is exactly what most of them are doing once they figure the message out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Art and Social Darwinism

Art today should strive to reject the aspects of Social Darwinism so inherent in our Western culture. As society gets further into crisis as a result of this deeply flawed worldview helped along recently by 30 years of Reaganomics, the time has come to reverse the effects of Social Darwinism which have resulted in deeper isolation and individualism, and replace it with the effects stemming from cooperation. This is and always was the only way by which human societies have developed. The idea of cooperation was deeply entrenched in the early civilization of ancient Egypt, which as a result remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Contrary to what we get taught in history classes all over the country from high school to college, ancient Egypt was for the majority of its existence relatively free of conflict and war. Its people exercised cooperation as a means for developing a high culture when most of the peoples on Earth were hunter-gatherers. It was not until much later when invading cultures introduced warfare and disseminated false ideologies of materialism and individualism among the Egyptian public that the slow deterioration of Egyptian culture began, as each successive governing body got more corrupt than the one preceding it, in an attempt to amass more wealth and power at the expense of its people. Ancient Egypt is a classic example of the way that Social Darwinism destroys civilization from within, by pitting its citizens against one another in an impossible fight for survival.
Artists therefore should strive toward cooperation rather than competition. The powers that drive societies toward crises stem largely from the Social Darwinist ideology of scarcity and fight for resources. In America today, this worldview, though rarely acknowledged as the main undercurrent of our society, finds major proponents in the worlds of business (especially those who favor free trade agreements), media (Hollywood and television, especially the falsely named “reality” television), politics, and yes even the art world.
This is then perhaps the most important ethical dilemma of artists today. It is the job of the artist to be at the forefront of ethical development. In times of crisis, art always served to set society on the right path. Artists should never become the tools of a society which seeks to enslave and marginalize them. The power of Social Darwinism and the ideology of "survival of the fittest" with wealth and fame as its reward had a disastrous effect on the most recent generations of artists who tend to operate under the notion that they too will become rich and famous overnight. The media goes a long way to propagate this false belief. Art created under such conditions is seldom good and rarely results in anything other than a temporary distraction. Therefore it is absolutely essential that artists today stop creating only art that fits within our society’s narrow worldview, and start to make art which by its nature shapes that worldview.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Notes and Thoughts

All art is useless unless it operates out of a moral imperative. It seems as though that in the past few decades we have completely lost this essential quality of art and forgot what a true moral imperative really is. Instead artists have turned to creating art in response to current trends. Unfortunately, trends are by their nature short term and easily disposable, and as such, art created out of this imperative is itself disposable. As if this isn't bad enough, another set of artists continue to make art which is supposed to be shocking or "controversial", either by it's content or by the nature it gets created. Art created within this single mindset, to the exclusion of everything else, is at best art that should be overlooked, but is at worst a poison slowly killing our collective unconscious.