What to do when you’ve decided to be an artist

Recently, I came back across Walter Darby Bannard’s Aphorisms for Artists — 100 short “chapters” of observations, quips and warnings. They are meant to and indeed do inspire thinking about what is valuable in art, but they espouse a very particular conception of art. Bannard believes that art is a purely visual experience, and that the creation of art is almost solely about the materials. He’s an abstract expressionist painter, and post modernism is his enemy, where post-modernism is taken to include almost all of the art created by contemporary artists. I find this view peculiar and limiting, but I do enjoy living in it off and on. And I think that the contemporary approach to art making, which thrives on playing with meaning as much as materials, on mixing generes and media, and on voraciously devouring as much of the world for incorporation into art, will find much to use here.

Chapter 59. Making art is not risky.

Any true artist will immediately object to this. Why? because making art feels so risky. After all, you are putting heart and soul on the line.

When you are serious about your art, every perceived little success must be preserved, every perceived failure is a testament to your abject lack of talent, and every hesitant, anxious new stroke of paint betrays your meager ability and exposes you to ridicule.

Put a stop to this. When making art forget you are making art. Tell yourself you are working with a few dollars worth of disposable materials, trying to make something you and maybe some others will like to look at, something nice to pass the time.

It probably won’t work, but it’s worth a try.

I spent a couple of days reading through these, and during that time came across an interview of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by Jacques Derrida. As the pioneer of free jazz, Coleman is Bannard’s ally. As the de-facto inventor of post-modernist deconstructive analysis, Derrida is more or less his proclaimed nemesis. The interview was conducted in 1997, some 35 years after the release of Coleman’s first seminal works. It was conducted in English and published in French, but the original transcript was lost so this edition is the French translated back into English.

JD: Do you think that your music and the way people act can or must change things, for example, on the political level or in the sexual relation? Can or should your role as an artist and composer have an effect on the state of things?

OC: No, I don’t believe so, but I think that many people have already experienced that before me, and if I start complaining, they’ll say to me, “Why are you complaining? We haven’t changed for this person that we admire more than you, so why should we change for you?” So basically I really don’t think so. I was in the South when minorities were oppressed, and I identified with them through music. I was in Texas, I started to play the saxophone and make a living for my family by playing on the radio. One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I sara a woman get stabbed — then I though that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering. She replied, “What’s got hold of you, you want somebody to pay you for your sould?” I hadn’t thought of that, and when she told me that, it was like I had been re-baptized.

There’s something funny going on there at the end. The idea was either fuzzy to begin with, or likely it’s gotten mangled in re-translation. I do not mean to say that these two pieces are in any way two ends of a spectrum, or that they offer two diverging points of view, but merely that they signify an interval, and that there is something to be taken about their relationship to each other, and their mode of creation, and their ability to evoke something useful in the mind of the reader. As the saying goes, there’s a lot of reality in there.

Update: Franklin Einspruch and Walter Darby Bannard respond and clarify their positions. Franklin and I (with many many others) had a lot of debates about this stuff in the old days of Artblog. Good times. Needless to say that Franklin and Darby are much smarter about art than me, and spend a lot more time than me thinking about this stuff, and you will find their positions persuasive.

Also note that comments are fixed and re-enabled.

Art Basel: the obligatory ‘winners and losers’ post

art basel winners and losers

Win: At Basel, the Art Kabinett booths were almost all good. Elmgreen & Dragset created a sort of virtual art gym, with lockers and whatnot, and this sculpture, which was taller than me and for all I know had real blood.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Tracy Emin, who was in town and appeared on two of the Art Conversation panels (the video is online), was not at all well represented in the fair. There was a 5-part piece in one booth that included memorabilia from her abortion, a letter, and a couple of watercolors.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Mac Premo, The Dumpster Project, at Pulse. This was not just a “create clutter, pile crap on top of crap until the effect is overwhelming” type of thing, eh? This was a craftsmanly constructed Rauschenbergian space.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Crap like this. Mostly at Art Miami. It’s the “another artist got successful making something like this, so let’s make something similar but easier to collect, and rake in the buxxx.”

art basel winners and losers

Win: Olafur Eliasson. In addition to the two pieces I had on the Atlantic piece, there was this beauty.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Tables of Basel. This year it was all tasteful mid-century modern wood stuff. One or two notable exceptions, especially this one, proved the rule.

art basel winners and losers

(Oh right, also this one.)

art basel winners and losers

Win: David Rohn set himself up as a fortune-telling automatron just inside the entrance to Scope. A long line formed, with no visible activity. I thought the joke was just to get people to stand there while nothing happened, but in fact — he was writing these lengthy full-page fortunes for them.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Glenn Kaino’s outdoor performance, part of the official Basel program, had him inviting passers-by to help hold up a large vessel “for all of Basel if we can.” He seemed like such a nice guy, but by Saturday morning the thing was smashed and abandoned.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Collectors. (But then, they always win.) In this panel, a couple of them (I think it was Norman Braman, video here) claimed credit for getting Basel to come to Miami 10 years ago. In the Q&A, someone asked their opinion about the MAM renaming. The question got completely shut down by Bonnie Clearwater, “I don’t think we want to get into that.” Bizarre, because I for one most certainly DID want them to get into that.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Gabriel Orozco. Well, maybe not: he also spoke at one of the Art Conversations, and I’m a huge fan of his photography and his more recent work. But this World Trade Center painting, done in a machine-made Seurat-type style, seemed gratuitous.

art basel winners and losers

Win: The Barry McGee Rule says that if you bring a whole van to Basel, anything else you do is gravy. Over in Art Positions, Paulo Nazareth took that shit to heart.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Ana Mendieta. The turkeys at Galerie Leong took it upon themselves to take this piece, meant to be displayed outdoors, and show it on sod they dragged into the convention center. You’ve just made it about the fact that you brought sod indoors, dude. NOT I think what she had in mind.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Whoever made this painting at Mihai Nicodium Gallery at NADA. Damn, dude.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Design Miami. For me it’s a waste of a half-hour. For the people who get tricked into paying admission (when you buy tickets to Basel they offer a package deal for $55, vs. the regular $40 Basel-only price, which may sound like a good deal if you don’t know better) it’s a damn shame. It’s (1) only a few booths, actually, and (2) NOT ART. Snooze. And that’s from someone who does design for a living.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Taking photos at Art Basel. Used to be verboten, and I felt extra lucky for having journo credentials for hauling around a camera. But lately they’ve sort of given up, and everyone’s walking around with iPhones and pocket Canons. How else can you remember what you liked?

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Dicks. They’re around every year, but this year they were in force. WHAT. EVER.

art basel winners and losers

Win: Teresa Diehl. Her installation kicked ass at Pulse.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Wynwood. I got there 10-ish on Thursday and everything was shutting down already. Came back earlier and most of the good galleries hadn’t even bothered to open. Mostly just skeezers everywhere.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Me. There were signs, and two BIG guys, very much not permitting photos of Miru Kim’s performance. I asked for permission, and was told that NOBODY was getting to take photos. Woke up the next day to find photos at the Herald’s site and the New Times site. Boo.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Photography and video art. You literally could not throw a rock and hit a piece of video art at the Convention Center, that’s how much less of it there was than past years. This photo, by Alain Delorme, was at Pulse.

art basel winners and losers

Lose: Gerhard Richter. Just KIDDING, Richter is always winning. This painting, from 1984, probably looked like it had aged very poorly by 1988. But it came early enough that I guess you could call it one of the spearheads of the terrible 80’s Ab-Ex painting excesses. I SO wish I’d asked what this was selling for.

A subdued Art Basel opens

art basel opens

Art Basel opened with a whimper yesterday. After walking around the fair for over an hour I suddenly realized that I had seen no art of any particular outlandishness, it suddenly hit me—everything about the fair this year is subdued. The infrastructure of the fair, including the highly-stylized viewing pods in the vide lounge and the tote bags distributed with catalogs, were the same as last year, the first time in the fair’s ten years. (The Oceanfront looked like its lowest-budget incarnation ever. NO Art loves Music performance.) The mood in the air was boisterous, but toned down several notches even from last year. And the art, by Art Basel standards, was downright conservative.

Heading out this morning to catch Gabriel Orozco at Art Conversations, then off to the satellite fairs.

What’s up with Optic Nerve?

optic nerve Optic Nerve is this Saturday: the MoCA’s annual showcase of the best of video art, submitted from all over South Florida. It’s one of the highlights of the Miami yearly art calendar — not to be missed. Except that I’m not going to be there. And neither are you.

Unless you’ve gotten your tickets way ahead of time, that is. When I went to the website on Wednesday to RSVP, I realized that all the tickets — both screenings — were sold out.

This is absurd. This event grows more popular every year; why doesn’t MoCA add more shows? Why not do a friggin’ week of Optic Nerve? Or, heck, a month of screenings, like they do for Pablo Cano?

Please don’t tell me that I can go night-of and stand in a line to vie for one of a small number of day-of tickets. I’m not 21, and this is not an indie band that needs to be in Atlanta the next day for another gig.

Also do not tell me that it’s some sort of deliberate scarcity thing, where MoCA is deliberately trying to make Optic Nerve cooler by making it hard to get into. MoCA’s mission statement is to make the arts accessible to “diverse audiences,” which ought to include casual art fans who do not plan their outings a week ahead of time. C’mon, MoCA — add some shows!

Update: Valerie Ricordi of MoCA says: “We will have an auxiliary viewing area set up so that folks who do not have tickets will still be able to see the films. … Also wanted you to know that the Optic Nerve videos will be on view in the MOCA Lobby next week and on Uvu website. Also the de la Cruz Collection will be screening them September 10-October 8.” Good news!

What’s wrong with (Miami) art criticism?

miami art sceneA few years ago I was on a panel of Miami arts writers at Locust Projects with Anne Tschida, Omar Sommereyns, and a few others (my qualifications seemed a bit sketchy, but it was certainly a good discussion). Probably the biggest takeaway from the (sizable!) audience was that they were clamoring for more local arts coverage and, in particular, criticism.

Since then, as other locally-oriented writing has flourished, art criticism remains stuck in a rut. The New Times continues to regularly run criticism by Carlos Suarez De Jesus. But the Miami Herald hasn’t had a full-time art critic for years (I hear Elisa Turner has a blog somewhere on the Art Circuits site, but good luck finding it. South Florida Daily Blog lists four “Art Blogs,” but they are mostly dedicated to listings and brief descriptive posts. The notable exception is Artlurker, which has been running surprisingly substantial art reviews by a number of writers since 2008. But Art Lurker has been averaging one or two posts per month, so not sure what’s going on there.

Meanwhile, the art scene is flourishing — art schools are pumping out MFA and BFA art majors, artwalk is a huge monthly cultural event, and there are more galleries and private collections open to the public than ever. So what’s happening? Where’s the criticism?

I think the explanation is perfectly explained by a George Orwell quote I heard yesterday (on the Slate Culture podcast). Orwell apparently had written a scathing review of a book by Stephen Spender, only to meet him at a party and end up liking him quite a bit. Smitten with guilt, Orwell wrote the man a letter in which he said,

[W]hen you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to[.]

Now look at the Miami arts community — exactly to the extent that someone is involved and interested to where they might be willing/able to write some criticism, they’re hanging out with the artists and gallerists they’d need to be critical of from time to time. The scene is just not large enough that you can have a few dozen friends and another few dozen acquaintances and still have most of the scene left to impartially cover. I was talking to Misael about this, and he pretty well said as much about why he doesn’t write criticism. (By the way, all this probably applies to other art scenes — I’m addressing Miami because that’s what I know.)

Franklin Einspruch used to write some great criticism at ArtBlog.net. But Franklin was pretty well recognized as being in the camp of the Miami AbEx’ers, so his constant rear-guard action as all things PoMo was sort of taken in stride.

One solution of course is to write anonymously. Artlurker actually started out at least in part as anonymous. But in the long run it’s not sustainable for most people. One of the payoffs that seems to be a necessary reward for consistent blogging is a level of name recognition and attention. Too, anonymous or pseudonymous criticism is inherently less credible.

I still think there’s a role for a site of one or two consistent writers (hello, art/art history majors at UM, FIU, et al.) that pursues advertising more aggressively than Artlurker has. A financial reward would be a decent motivation to take a page from Orwell’s book and stay away from associating closely with the folks in the art scene, the better to show it intellectual brutality when necessary.

Update: Leyden pointed out just as I was posting this: A new golden age for art criticism? at the Knight Arts blog. A promising title — but it doesn’t offer any solutions! It just says we need a golden age of art criticism. Still, there’s a way forward here: a few people interested in writing criticism start a site (maybe mix in some other sort of coverage), and apply for a Knight grant to jump-start them. Would make it much easier for them to attract advertisers with the Knight name behind them, and tide them over before the site is self-sustaining.

Shirin Neshat: Art in exile

Shirin Neshat discusses what it’s like to be an Iranian artist working in exile, always having to be conscious of two completely different audiences. She says she envies western artists for their freedom to eschew politics in their work. She ends on an optimistic note about the Green movement, though it’s worth noting that this talk was recorded in 2010, and the lack of momentum towards freedom in the time since might dampen that optimism. (Weird aside: there’s no mention of the movement on Iran’s wikipedia page, just an odd reference on the talk page.)