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.