Sunday, October 16, 2011

Art City in Name Only

To some this blog post might be a little too confrontational or controversial, especially if you are a resident of Asheville, like I am, and you hold on to some very unfounded ideas of what this city represents to artists, like I am, and you believe that that this city has carved itself a very nice and comfortable niche in the national artist community, which I wholeheartedly dispute. But since probably nobody pays attention or reads this blog anyway, I think that might as well justify my discontent with the situation present at this particular time, and that is the disconnect between the now almost mythological arts scene and the reality, which for the most of us is rather grim and not getting better.
Before I delve even deeper into this problem, let me qualify a few things in hopes that I might shed a light on what I am actually talking about in reference to “arts” and silence the possible criticism that may or may not be coming my way. By arts, I mean a subject and form of making and creating wholly separate from craft. Interestingly Ashevillians seem to disregard, or have forgotten that art and craft mean two totally different things. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same either. And as has been the norm and trend, the melding of art and craft has recently continued and effectively pushed real art toward the fringes. The emergence, or rather reemergence of decorative arts and rapid multiplication of design galleries in Asheville continues this trend to this day, more or less putting a knife into the wounds already perpetrated on the Asheville artist community. For those that have lived here long enough the situation seems eerily similar to what happened to the so called alternative community, which used to have its stronghold downtown on Lexington Avenue. Since the closing of Vincent’s Ear the gentrification of downtown became complete and the alternatives moved west, setting up shop downtown West Asheville and its neighborhoods. In the years that followed, even that downtown seems to be undergoing rapid change, possibly as unsustainable as the true downtown.
The river “arts” district fared no better. Once huge and affordable artist studios and alternative spaces, housing young and active emerging artists, gave way to weekend warrior landscape painters, encaustic and feel-good abstract hacks. Art with no ideas, no point or reference or content, but with lots of pseudo-emotion and “soul” took a high seat, partly because it could pay the ever rising rent, and displaced the original progressive thinking and challenging art coming from the young downtown bohemians. Conservatism seems to have found its place even in this artist community and continues to be propagated through a consortium of downtown gallery spaces.
To add insult to injury, a few months ago, the city attempted to ease some of the discontent that it started to perceive coming from the increasingly disenfranchised artist community by putting on a side show which they called the Creative Sector Summit. The name sounded great, but the truth was something far more insidious and telling of the situation on the streets. A friend of mine, who attended the summit, retold the experience in no uncertain terms. When he pressured some of the panelists on the issue of affordable studio space in Asheville he was told something to the effect of: “well, you’re creative people, I’m sure you can figure something out,” effectively kicking the can down the road and avoiding the challenge of a meaningful answer. The pattern of non-interest by those “at the top” mirrors in many ways that of the top 1% of Americans toward the bottom 99%. They have no problem taking from us what little we had, and when we ask for it back the response is a jaw-breaking yawn or downright hostility.
Many of us would probably like to gloss over this fact, but the sad truth is that in order to find challenging art, we have to go outside Asheville to get it. This would therefore be in keeping with another fact and that is that serious art magazines, publications and blogs do not cover our area, not for a lack of talent or sheer number of artists, but simply because the art on display here is utterly boring and categorical. And that is something that those at the top should really start thinking about. What does Atlanta have that Asheville does not? Or for that matter Charlotte? And how to implement those infrastructures they seem to posses? I was even more surprised that a cities like Knoxville , Greensboro, and Raleigh are more friendly to the young emerging artist than our supposedly hip town and give them more outlets and opportunities in forms of space and access to contemporary art. Ironically I left Raleigh in 2003 thinking I would get those here.
The problems seem widespread and maybe they are too far along for us to be able to affect any meaningful change. But maybe, just maybe I may be misreading the writing on the wall. Unfortunately I believe I’m right in reading the signs that Asheville hasn’t lived up to its name as an art city in which artists live and die by their swords. Most of them run away from battle, some choose to live a life of permanent destitution, or fold their weapons and join the ranks of the working class indentured servants or any combination thereof.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Academia

Take art classes, lots of them. Take them at your university, take them from the guy that’s offering five dollar drawing sessions out of his studio, take them from your local art co-op. That is the only way we will bring sanity back into our lives today.
The reason that the arts are always first to get cut out of any budget of a high school, college or university is not because the arts do not matter, but because they are dangerous. Unless severely watered down by academicism or the market, the arts and artists have a tendency toward the philosophical fringe, the leftist, socialist, anarchist mentality. Tthey do not swear allegiance to any state or nation and do not abide by any establishment. They have a capability to foment reaction if cornered. So take art classes, a painting class, a drawing class, and not just for the technique, which in some respects is secondary to the mental, emotional, philosophical and spiritual growth that ultimately results. Taking art classes puts you within the framework of other like-minded human beings as opposed to the drones we get so used to seeing in the “real” world.
The critique that will ultimately result in opposition to the concept of supporting academia in such a way is absolutely forthcoming. Here the tired old Newtonian adage “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” applies. However, we must consider the fact that there is a lack of almost anything meaningful that could ever replace the institutionalized monster that academia is, and if there is, it will most likely be something even more horrendously evil and dishonest. Just think of the horror that befell the Weimar republic in the wake of the Bauhaus tradition. What the opposition to academia has going for it, is also its greatest downfall, its lack of a framework of interconnectedness.
I am by no means a proponent of academia, nor its absolute detractor. There is a place for academia in the world of art. It is the only institution we have that keeps track of art history, even if it is a Western skewed mainstream history. Reliance on individual competence to keep track of the serpentine insanity that art history actually is, based solely on the individual’s goodwill is akin to giving corporations the freedom to police themselves in hopes that they will not screw the little people, it just cannot be done. Art historians are not CEO’s, but they both need to be under some scrutiny so that they don’t go off on a wild crusade to tell others what they should think. For better or worse, academia through a myriad of bureaucracy and red tape has actually managed to do the impossible, and give us a window to the way art has and is being made up to our present time. It is just a convenient punching bag for failed art students and disillusioned academicians and as such it is serving a dual role in the art world, because those same critics give us the actual avant-garde that is a result of the push back against academia. And so the circle spins. The push against academia is almost always the raison d’etre of the avant-garde, whose reactionary nature must find a sympathetic enemy for its cause, otherwise it would stop being avant-garde. And yet ironically the avant-garde is without fail the product of academia, because most of the artists that are involved with it have to some degree been involved with academia.
So the silly notion that academia is inherently bad or evil, because it is a machine that makes daring art boring and institutional is only half true, because it is also responsible for the creation of the avant-garde. Institutionalization is not created by academia, even though it does support it to a certain point. Institutionalization is created by the will of the art market – the gallery system, the media, the press, marketing agencies, museums and willing artists. Academia is a system by which individuals either enter this market or are repelled by it.
The few artists that have had the fortune or misfortune of not being a part of academia, are still in some ways affected by it, even by the sole fact that they are entirely outside of it. These artists are called outsiders. Outsider art is always genuine but seldom great. For outsider art to reach the level of greatness it would have to borrow much from academic art and would therefore cease being outsider art. The fact however remains that even the most outside of the outsider artists must have seen some form of academic art at some point in their lives, be it the Mona Lisa on a coffee mug or a kitschy replica of a Madonna and child in their local church. This is therefore the real extent of the reach that academia plays in artists’ lives.

The institutionalization of almost everything

From Abstract Expressionism to Pop, from minimalism to graffiti the wheels of institutionalization are grinding away on what’s left of our culture. Got something avant-garde? Let us help you sell it. Do you like Banksy? We’ll here a bunch of shit with his art on it, yes he’s on TV and there’s a movie out about him, never mind that he’s trying to avoid the insanity of the market like the plague. Spectacle sells and everybody knows it. On the other hand, Banksy has become a great manipulator of the market himself and learned to walk on the art market’s waters, using the art market against itself, making fun of it and by extension of himself and everybody else. Cynicism at its finest has found a savior in Banksy and the anti-christ in Damien Hirst. How would Banksy react to the fact that some marketing agency figured out that it could repackage regular hardware store spray paint, and sell it to the burgeoning graffiti art market at 200% mark up as an artist quality spray paint in hippified packaging? Wouldn’t you want to learn how to spray paint graffiti on a train car or on a wall at SCAD or RISD? We all know what Damien Hirst would do though. He’d make the cans solid gold with a polished diamond tip and fill it with the tears of humpback whales and sell it at Sotheby’s for $5 mil each. Then Jeff Koons would do us all a favor and produce a shiny giant replica of the spray can with a picture of the whale smiling. Thomas Kinkade would just produce another one of his artistic still births without much regard for his or anyone else’s soul or consideration for aesthetic and moral principles.
Bill Hicks said it best himself, referring to the forces that truly drive our politics and economy “if you’re in the marketing business….kill yourself! You have no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers, kill yourself. Suck a tail pipe, borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy and rid the world of your evil fucking presence, you are fucked and you are fucking us, kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show…!”
The true power of marketing has to be the inane right wing clown show we get to see on FOX every waking minute prepackaged and prechewed just right for the idiotopia that the United States has become since papa Reagan was let loose upon this land. Who can explain the phenomenon that evil spawn like Bill O’reilly get to “write” books about themselves and call it Culture Warrior? I have searched in the shadowiest corners and crevices to find the answers and came up short.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Art on the Defensive

I heard a pretty interesting comment today from my painting teacher at Western Carolina University. He said that there was something strange about how artists (and I’m talking about painters here) have to be able to defend their position for making art and what subject matter they choose. Yet no one is asking a writer to paint a painting in defense of his writing. I understand this is an illogical supposition, but one that is somewhat truthful. What it proposes is that art is not valid until it has gone through a focus group type review (a critique) and that artists should therefore become even better communicators than they are artists, because it takes quite a skillful wordsmith to write up a meaningful artist statement. The more one thinks about this, even more issues spring up. For example, no one is asking a baseball player to defend what he does, or the WWF wrestler to write a statement explaining his attempts at leaping at his opponent in skin tight spandex. There is an artificial construct put in place that seeks to demonstrate that art is valid by having the very people that create it make that claim. I find that rather amusing given the fact that I am a fan of soccer, and yet I still have problems defending its validity in the face of someone who does not enjoy it. “It’s just entertainment… or the players have great skills” might the line go. But so what? Does the skill of kicking a little ball around warrant a multi-million dollar salary? Does a single game of soccer warrant a possibility that some people might end up dead, injured or In jail afterward because we know what emotions sports can bring up? Hasn’t everyone watched a game of sports and wondered what the hell these people were doing and thought how ridiculous the whole spectacle was? Yet I don’t see a single case where a football player, or Paris Hilton, for that matter, has to write up an essay in defense of what they do. As a society we just accept the benefits of those positions, their qualities as entertainment give them credence to exist in their own right, so why not painting? Why do painters have to constantly defend their position to the public when so much of the public willingly accepts the validity of cheap entertainment?

Friday, February 11, 2011


“History repeats itself” goes the old adage. For a long time we heard this saying paying not much attention to it, with the exception of a limited few. Maybe the time is now. Historian Neil Howe certainly thinks so. His breakthrough book “The Fourth Turning” outlines the idea that successive generations of people follow a certain seesaw pattern of high and low, from crisis to prosperity with a roughly 80 year span dividing the whole into 4 parts of 20 years, each corresponding to one generation. His analysis starts around the time of the founding of the United States and continues through the pattern of depression and war following prosperity and to another depression following yet another era of prosperity. Hence from crisis to crisis, the Revolutionary war gives way to the Civil War, which in turn goes through the Great Depression and World War 2, culminating in modern times with our current crisis.
Unfortunately there is nothing new about this idea and I think that even Mr. Howe knows this. Whole nations and cultures believe that time and history are fluid and cyclical. It goes without saying that everything we observe around us follows a pattern of birth and death all the way to the very beginning of the universe. It is only an illusion of the mind that we see ourselves as separate from cycles of nature and time as a straight uninterrupted line of progress from low to high (a very sad state of affairs in today’s academic science and history). Our minds have been much too conditioned by the now almost obsolete ideas of Darwinism. Evolution is a much more complex and fluid component of nature than the simple hierarchic system of those who eat and those who are eaten.
In the years 1833 - 1836 a series of paintings by Thomas Cole sought to portray this idea of natural cycles, but having to do with one of the loftiest of manmade constructs, civilization. Cole’s series “The Course of Empire” progresses from a “savage” state, meaning a scene primarily occupied by hunters and gatherers, through pastoral scenes of Arcadia and ends with scenes of high civilization creating its own destruction and the ultimate apocalypse which eventually ends with desolation once again run over by hunter gatherers. It is a simple and novel idea, one which doesn’t get much play these days. Our preoccupations with ourselves and the now, blind us to the greater picture. We seem to be ever closer to edge beyond which disaster awaits.

The Savage State

The Arcadian of Pastoral State