Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Class Joins Hands, Sings Auld Lang Syne

English: John Keats life mask by Benjamin Robe...
English: John Keats life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1816). This mask is a reproduction in the author's private collection. The 1816 plaster cast from the original life mask is in the collection of the British National Portrait Gallery, as is a copper electrotype copy done by Elkington & Co. in 1884. See Person - John Keats. National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved on . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Maybe we can’t provide an “is” version of art, but perhaps we can profitably discuss a “does” definition. Here are my ideas.

1. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of simple matters of fact.

2. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of sympathy, of understanding others, of breaking down the barriers between "us" and "them," of entering the lives and minds of others.

3. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of empathy, not just thinking into and understanding the lives of others, but for a moment feeling what they feel.

4. In the most general terms, it tells us something about ourselves we didn’t know. It promotes self-knowledge.

5. On an intellectual level, it helps us understand our semi-conscious notion of how things should be done in a certain art genre, what its limits and conventions are. Yes, we think, that’s the way it should be done, and if my expectations are violated, I don't like it.

6. On an intellectual level, it helps us understand that our notion of how things should be done  in a certain art genre perhaps should be expanded. Who knew you could expand the boundaries of an art form in such a way and still have it work?

7. My old art director from magazine days used to praise things for being “richly vague.” The poet John Keats described something he called Negative Capability, the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Sometimes we enjoy something that seems to want to be interpreted but resists a single easy interpretation.

8. It reminds us that we don’t have to rationalize everything. Emotion can carry the day, and we don’t  always have to explain why. (Well, we do in this class.)

Some examples from my personal list of "new knowledge" from this semester:

1.     Australia is really mean to political refugees.
2.     Many Chinese immigrants had a really hard time in the U.S., which I tend to forget not being Chinese-American. The Lenora Lee dance company rekindled dormant sympathies.
3.    At certain points in the LL dance performances I think as a man for a moment I felt with a female dancer, not just about her dancing. Maybe.
4.     I am not cool or hip enough to appreciate certain kinds of irony about death and destruction in certain movie genres. Yes, The Guest, I’m talking about you.
5.     Chekhov said something like, “If someone waves a gun around in the first act of a play, it should go off in the third act.” (Ten cool examples.) Mabel plays with the leaf blower in Gravity Falls, and later on she uses it to save the day. Go, Mabel! “Too Many Cooks” reminds us how thoughtlessly we accept a genre’s underlying conventions.... I guess?
6.     On the other hand, Slow Falling Bird challenged my sense of how much fantasy, reality and indeterminacy – what the hell was that? – can mingle in a play that, in the end, I enjoyed for reasons beyond sympathy and empathy.
7.     The end of SFB. The Fish Child walks out into the audience. The director said he intended this as an affirmative moment. I thought she looked scary as hell and assumed the playwright meant Australia was in for some trouble.
8.     I go home. I put on the Modern Jazz Quartet vinyl. I feel smarter and happier, who knows why? Sometimes music is a relief from thinking, just as a trashy movie can be or painting of cows or a painting of splashes and daubs.  Also, Gangnam Style!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Artists, Art and Definitions

English: Sarah Thornton
English: Sarah Thornton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a friend introduced author Sarah Thornton to art-world mischief maker Maurizio Cattelan as an ethnographer, “he seemed to mishear,” Thornton writes, “and exclaimed with great enthusiasm, 'You’re a pornographer!’”
“Not every player in Thornton’s new book “33 Artists in 3 Acts” makes the unforgettable impression that Cattelan does at every turn. He had “recently decided,” Thornton writes, “that designing his own clothes was easier than shopping for them.” The bespoke T-shirt he wore when they met read, “Hung like Einstein, smart as a horse.”
Thornton, 49, who writes about art in a wide cultural frame, is the former chief writer on contemporary art at the Economist, where her career as an author bloomed. Born in Canada, she earned an undergraduate degree in art history at Concordia University in Montreal before a fellowship took her to the United Kingdom, where she earned a doctorate in sociology at theStrathclyde University in Glasgow. She had academic appointments at the University of Sussex and Goldsmith’s College,University of London.
The big question that guided “33 Artists in 3 Acts” was ostensibly simple: What defines an artist in the 21st century? She received a range of answers that will startle even art-world insiders.
“The 'true’ artist?” said painter Carroll Dunham (father of Hollywood darling Lena, who also appears in the book). “It means that you are in a loop with your work. ... If I didn’t have a significant need to see these things, they would never happen. It’s me, myself and I. The three of us need to look at this painting.”
“The artist is just the coolest guy in the room,” Dunham’s daughter Grace told Thornton, “the one that everyone is obsessed with. ... It’s a deeply powerful social position.”
“My work is in between the entertainment industry, big market powers, the spectacularization of politics and everyday life,” said Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco. “It offers, I hope, some moments of intimacy with reality.”
“Needless to say,” Thornton writes, “an artist’s 'work’ is not the isolated object, but the entire way they play their game. ... I see artists’ studios as private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief.”
Thornton approached each of her subjects — including such reputedly or genuinely hard-to-handle characters as Jeff Koons,Cindy Sherman, Ai Weiwei and Damien Hirst — evenhandedly and with a sharp eye for their mannerisms and the potentially revealing paraphernalia of their working lives.
The sociologist of music Simon Frith, Thornton’s mentor and doctoral thesis adviser at Strathclyde, repeatedly told her that “an ethnographer must have a novelist’s eye for detail,” said Thornton in conversation during a visit to The Chronicle.
Vivid descriptions
Her new book is rich in descriptive passages refracting the character of her interview subjects. Of a visit to feminist performance and video artist Martha Rosler, Thornton writes: “Rosler’s living room looks like a charity shop hit by a bomb. With my back to a Victorian bay window lined with plants, I look out onto a 55-foot stretch of strewn boxes, clunky old television sets, VCRs, paintings acquired at thrift shops, and women’s crafts such as lace doilies, beadwork pieces, handmade dolls, and pottery. Her downstairs workspace looks even more chaotic, with toppled stacks of paper and barricades of unsealed cardboard boxes. … In order to get to the kitchen, visitors are forced to step over a box the artist refers to as 'last year’s taxes.’”
Before the reader dismisses Rosler as a hoarder, Thornton writes, “Most of the stuff is destined for her 'Meta-Monumental Garage Sale,’ which will take place in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.”
'Participant observer’
Two questions press on the reader’s mind repeatedly throughout Thornton’s account of repeated encounters with artists, in their studios and beyond: How did she win the confidence of so many cultural stars whom she hadn’t met before? And how did she recollect things with such convincing fidelity?
“Another word for what ethnographers do is 'participant observation,’ which is kind of a joke to a lot of people,” she said with a liquid laugh. “I mean, isn’t that what we do all the time? Isn’t that just going to a party? Especially since I did my Ph.D. thesis on dance clubs and raves.” Her first book, “Club Cultures: Music, Media and Sub-Cultural Capital,” grew out of her thesis.
Thornton’s experience writing for the Economist also gave her some traction. “If I hadn’t been writing for the Economist, there were certain people who wouldn’t have seen me repeatedly or maybe wouldn’t have seen me at all,” she said. “But as a participant observer, you position yourself slightly differently from how a journalist would. Journalists will often say, 'I represent the newspaper.’ The ethnographer goes way over more into the tribe, trying to understand it on its own terms.
After “33 Artists …” and her previous, much-admired book “Seven Days in the Art World,” “I’m no longer an outsider to the art world, and technically an ethnographer should be an outsider,” Thornton said, “but I feel that these artists with high levels of recognition, who end up customizing the role so much for themselves — you go into their studios and it can feel a little bit like a different planet. You do get the buzz of estrangement, which I love. That’s exciting for me. I love the weird cultural details, the odd interactions.”
When not traveling for a book project, Thornton divides her time between San Francisco and London. But “33 Artists in 3 Acts” entailed four years of interviews and research and many thousands of miles of air travel hopscotching four continents. She spoke with 130 artists for the book, but for coherence and readability had to cut their number to 33. (There are 34 characters in the book, including a couple of nonartist professionals.)
“The casting question had to do with how interested they were in my questions, how willing they were to play ball with me, what kind of access they were willing to give me,” she said. “Some artists are pretty rigid in their patter. I remember interviewing someone I thought was one of my favorite artists, who has been slightly demoted since. His discourse has been formulated in the late ’70s and it hadn’t changed since. I’m not even sure he believed in it anymore.”
Lots of photos
As to how she tracks her research, Thornton said, “I’m an obsessive documenter. ... I take loads and loads of pictures, I use two tape recorders, just to be on the safe side, and I take notes at the same time. My notes are my thoughts, things I can’t take a picture of, usually nonverbal things. I don’t want to be disrupting people by taking pictures of them, but I make sure to document my subjects, head to toe. Especially on these foreign trips, I’d interview several artists at a time, then you really have to make sure you’re fastidious because once you’ve gotten over your jet lag and returned home, without a system, who knows what you saw?”
To make the project manageable and the book readable, she ordered her accounts under three categories — the three “acts”: politics, kinship and craft, all subjects that get spun in unexpected ways by her interview subjects.
For all its level-eyed address to its subject, “33 Artists …” will make some readers wonder whether it has a covert hero. My candidate: Los Angeles performance artist Andrea Fraser.
Without simply confirming that, Thornton said, “Andrea and I were born in the same year, 1965. We’re oddly both Pierre Bourdieu scholars, so we both have this sociological background. I’ve always been interested in institutional critique, which is what she does, and my books are my own kind of version of that. So there are a lot of kindred interests. Also, so much of her work is about being an artist, unmasking those behaviors and etiquette and myths. ... I love all the artists in the book, but it’s true that Andrea says things I want someone to say.”
Kenneth Baker is The San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic. E-mail: Twitter: @kennethbakersf

“33 Artists in 3 Acts” (Norton; 430 pages; $26.95)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

'Ugly' Quotes

English: Frank Zappa, © 1977 Mark Estabrook. 1...
English: Frank Zappa, © 1977 Mark Estabrook. 1977 Frank Zappa press conference and Armadillo World Headquarters performance photographs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

"And all this culture, all this art, was simply a trick. It allowed us to pretend that human beings were noble, intelligent creatures who'd left their animal past behind them long ago and had evolved into something finer, something purer; that because they could write like angels they were angels. But this art was just a screen that hid the ugly truth -- that we were still the same creatures who had cut into the warm bellies of the animals we'd killed with sharpened stones and vented our anger on the weak with frenzied blows of a blunt club." 

"People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish... but that's only if it's done properly." 

"Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time." 
Jean Cocteau

"All profoundly original art looks ugly at first." - Clement Greenberg

"I feel that works of art which genuinely puzzle us are almost always of ultimate consequence." - Clement Greenberg

"Well, Daddy, I used to believe that artists went crazy in the process of creating the beautiful works of art that kept society sane. Nowadays, though, artists make intentionally ugly art that’s only supposed to reflect society rather than inspire it. So I guess we’re all loony together now, loony rats in the shithouse of commercialism." 
Tom Robbins 

Not only can we take the aesthetic attitude toward things that are not art, but we can also take it toward things that are not beautiful. Some art is ugly, and certain artworks even flaunt their ugliness for artistic effect. In fact, calling something ugly is giving it an aesthetic evaluation, which in turn requires taking the aesthetic attitude toward it. - Alexandra King

"Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them." 
Brian Eno 

“The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the 20th century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they’re surprised that people are staying away in droves?” - Steven Pinker

"Art should be linked to abstract things - color, line, tone. It is not an instrument to improve social conditions and chase ugliness. Painting is like music and it has to separate from everyday reality." 
Irving Stone

'Ugly' seems like an overstatement, but 'boring' seems to hit the nail on the head. - Naysawn Naderi

"The job of art is to chase ugliness away." 
Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs)

“I have an important message to deliver to all the cute people all over the world. If you're out there and you're cute, maybe you're beautiful. I just want to tell you somethin' — there's more of us UGLY MOTHERFUCKERS than you are, hey-y, so watch out.” 

"Christianity was beauty created by controlling a million monsters of ugliness . . . modern art and science practically mean having the million monsters and being unable to control them..." 

"Create something. Create something ugly. Create something beautiful.  I don't care what it is. Create it. " 

"In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter." 
Azar Nafisi 

“It is the sheer ugliness and banality of everyday life which turns my blood to ice and makes me cringe in terror.” 

“I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way.” 

“-Do you see that?
-Yeah, what is it?
-That’s the truth.
-How can you tell it’s the truth?
-Because it’s ugly.” 

"There is something about the act of studying an unclothed body, as an artist does, that allows a person to appreciate it as pure form, regardless of the kinds of traits traditionally regarded as imperfections. In a figure drawing class, an obese woman's folds of flesh take on a kind of beauty. You can look at a man's shrunken chest or legs or buttocks with tenderness. Age is not ugly, just poignant." 
Joyce Maynard

“Accentuated plainness and accentuated vice ought to bring about harmony. Beauty lies in harmony, in style, whether it be the harmony of ugliness or beauty, vice or virtue.” 
Yevgeny Zamyatin,

“If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.” 

Matt Haig,

“Imperfections don’t make something ugly.” 

Beauty he loved for its own sake; ugliness, which more often than not was a form of inverted beauty, fascinated him. Life offered far too little of either, and far too much appalling mediocrity, which he thought hideous.” 

Multimedia Moments

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tom Wolfe Excerpts

The Painted Word
The Painted Word (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Welcome to the web log of the L.A. Stuckist group. We are Remodernists seeking the renewal of spirituality and meaning in art, culture and society. We wish to build an international art movement for new figurative painting with ideas. We stand against the pretensions of conceptual art - we are anti anti-art.

American author and journalist, Thomas Wolfe, is certainly one of the country’s best writers. Over the decades he’s penned works as diverse as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. He also wrote two extremely controversial histories regarding modern art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus To Our House (1981). Despite Wolfe’s conservatism, it’s hard to imagine the critique contained in his essays on art as coming from your average garden variety reactionary. Wolfe’s critical assessment of modern art, and his ridiculing those who defended its excesses, seems wholly prescient when viewed from today’s vantage point. If anything, the extremes in art lambasted by Wolfe have subsequently become worse as postmodernism ascended and took center stage.

In The Painted Word, Wolfe began his essay by recounting a revelatory experience he had on April 28, 1974, while reading an art review by Hilton Kramer for the New York Times. Kramer, a leading proponent of abstract art, had written: "Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory" - a statement that provoked Wolfe to write:

"PEOPLE DON'T READ the morning newspaper, Marshall McLuhan once said, they slip into it like a warm bath. Too true, Marshall! Imagine being in New York City on the morning of Sunday, April 28, 1974, like I was, slipping into that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls which is the Sunday New York Times. Soon I was submerged, weightless, suspended in the tepid depths of the thing, in Arts & Leisure, Section 2, page 19, in a state of perfect sensory deprivation, when all at once an extraordinary thing happened:
I noticed something!

Yet another clam-broth-colored current had begun to roll over me, as warm and predictable as the Gulf Stream . . . a review, it was, by the Times's dean of the arts, Hilton Kramer, of an exhibition at Yale University of "Seven Realists," seven realistic painters . . . when I was jerked alert by the following:

"Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works, of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial—the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify."

Now, you may say, My God, man! You woke up over that? You forsook your blissful coma over a mere swell in the sea of words?

But I knew what I was looking at. I realized that without making the slightest effort I had come upon one of those utterances in search of which psychoanalysts and State Department monitors of the Moscow or Belgrade pres are willing to endure a lifetime of tedium: namely, the seemingly innocuous obiter dicta, the words in passing, that give the game away.

What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial." I read it again. It didn't say "something helpful" or "enriching" or even "extremely valuable." No, the word was crucial.
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting.

Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! Phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time. The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshot, and Murine agonies fell away!

All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism.

All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer - waiting, waiting, forever waiting for… it… for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there - waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma.

All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well - how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not 'seeing is believing,' you ninny, but 'believing is seeing,' for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text."

And what was the "text" he spoke of? Wolfe asserted that the critics, museum directors, academics, and other "art experts" of the day, had become more important than the artists. These art authorities began operating like the clergy, but their religious duties were to the church of modern art. The proclamations of these high priests - i.e., figuration, narration, and realism in art was archaic and passé - became a divine text and considered the sacred word. No one dared to question the word for fear of being thought heretical. Metaphorically, the painted word began to appear in the work of artists devoted to the new orthodoxy (hence the title of the essay). Wolfe foretold our current predicament when he wrote:

"Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word. They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: 'That’s how it was then!' - as they describe how, on the one hand, the scientists of the mid-twentieth century proceeded by building upon the discoveries of their predecessors and thereby lit up the sky… while the artists proceeded by averting their eyes from whatever their predecessors, from da Vinci on, had discovered, shrinking from it, terrified, or disintegrating it with the universal solvent of the Word.

The more industrious scholars will derive considerable pleasure from describing how the art-history professors and journalists of the period 1945-75, along with so many students, intellectuals, and art tourists of every sort, actually struggled to see the paintings directly, in the old pre-World War II way, like Plato’s cave dwellers watching the shadows, without knowing what had projected them, which was the Word.What happy hours await them all! With what sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement they will look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"

[ Read more excerpts from Thomas Wolfe’s The Painted Word, or purchase the entire book from ]
Chapter One  The Apache Dance

ALL THE MAJOR MODERN MOVEMENTS EXCEPT FOR DE STIJL, Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism began before the First World War, and yet they all seem to come out of the 1920s. Why? Because it was in the 1920s that Modern Art achieved social chic in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York. Smart people talked about it, wrote about it, enthused over it, and borrowed from it. Borrowed from it, as I say; Modern Art achieved the ultimate social acceptance: interior decorators did knock-offs of it in Belgravia and the sixteenth arrondissement.

Things like knock-off specialists, money, publicity, the smart set, and Le Chic shouldnt count in the history of art, as we all knowbut, thanks to the artists themselves, they do. Art and fashion are a two-backed beast today; the artists can yell at fashion, but they cant move out ahead. That has come about as follows:

By 1900 the artists arena, the place where he seeks honor, glory, ease, Success had shifted twice. In seventeenth century Europe the artist was literally, and also psychologically, the house guest of the nobility and the royal court (except in Holland); fine art and court art were one and the same. In the eighteenth century the scene shifted to the salons, in the homes of the wealthy bourgeoisie as well as those of aristocrats, where Culture-minded members of the upper classes held regular meetings with selected artists and writers. The artist was still the Gentleman, not yet the Genius. After the French Revolution, artists began to leave the salons and join cénacles, which were fraternities of like-minded souls huddled at some place like the Café Guerdons rather than a town house; around some romantic figure, an artist rather than a socialite, someone like Victor Hugo, Charles Nosier, Théophile Gautier, or, later, Edouard Manet. What held the cénacles together was that merry battle spirit we have all come to know and love: épatez la bourgeoisie, shock the middle class. With Gautiers cénacle especially . . . with Gautiers own red vests, black scarves, crazy hats, outrageous pronouncements, huge thirsts, and ravenous groin . . . the modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebeian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie, to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldnt see, to be high, live low, stay young foreverin short, to be the bohemian.

By 1900 and the era of Picasso, Braque & Co., the modern game of Success in Art was pretty well set. As a painter or sculptor the artist would do work that baffled or subverted the cozy bourgeois vision of reality. As an individual well, that was a bit more complex. As a bohemian, the artist had now left the salons of the upper classes but he had not left their world. For getting away from the bourgeoisie there’s nothing like packing up your paints and easel and heading for Tahiti, or even Brittany, which was Gauguins first stop. But who else even got as far as Brittany? Nobody. The rest got no farther than the heights of Montmartre and Montparnasse, which are what? perhaps two miles from the Champs Elysées. Likewise in the United States: believe me, you can get all the tubes of Winsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same . . . You can see them six days a week . . . hot off the Carey airport bus, lined up in front of the real-estate office on Broome Street in their identical blue jeans, gum boots, and quilted Long March jackets . . . looking, of course, for the inevitable Loft . . .

No, somehow the artist wanted to remain within walking distance . . . He took up quarters just around the corner from . . . le monde, the social sphere described so well by Balzac, the milieu of those who find it important to be in fashion, the orbit of those aristocrats, wealthy bourgeois, publishers, writers, journalists, impresarios, performers, who wish to be "where things happen," the glamorous but small world of that creation of the nineteenth-century metropolis, tout le monde, Everybody, as in "Everybody says". . . the smart set, in a phrase . . . "smart," with its overtones of cultivation as well as cynicism.

The ambitious artist, the artist who wanted Success, now had to do a bit of psychological double-tracking. Consciously he had to dedicate himself to the antibourgeois values of the cénacles of whatever sort, to bohemia, to the Bloomsbury life, the Left Bank life, the Lower Broadway Loft life, to the sacred squalor of it all, to the grim silhouette of the black Reorig Lower Manhattan truck-route internal combustion granules that were already standing an eighth of an inch thick on the poisoned roach carcasses atop the electric hot-plate burner by the time you got up for breakfast . . . Not only that, he had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this falls avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century . . . all this in order to make it, to be noticed, to be counted, within the community of artists themselves. What is more, he had to be sincere about it. At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching. Have they noticed me yet? Have they even noticed the new style (that me and my friends are working in)? Dont they even know about Tensionism (or Slice Art or Niho or Innerism or Dimensional Creamo or whatever)? (Hello, out there!) . . . because as every artist knew in his heart of hearts, no matter how many times he tried to close his eyes and pretend otherwise (History! History!where is thy salve? ), Success was real only when it was success within lemonde.
He could close his eyes and try to believe that all that mattered was that he knew his work was great . . . and that other artists respected it . . . and that History would surely record his achievements . . . but deep down he knew he was lying to himself. I want to be a Name, goddamn it!at least that, a name, a name on the lips of the museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, patrons, board members, committee members, Culture hostesses, and their attendant intellectuals and journalists and their Time and Newsweek all right!even that!Time and Newsweek Oh yes! (ask the shades of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko!) even the goddamned journalists!

During the 1960s this entire process by which le monde, the culturati, scout bohemia and tap the young artist for Success was acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring, two emissaries from the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown from the Museum on West Fifty-third Street, down to Saint Marks Place, Little Italy, Broome Street and environs, and tour the loft studios of known artists and unknowns alike, looking at everything, talking to one and all, trying to get a line on what was new and significant in order to put together a show in the fall . . . and, well, I mean, my God from the moment the two of them stepped out on Fifty-third Street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their sortie . . . They’re coming! . . . And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat:

Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me . . . O damnable Uptown!
By all means, deny it if asked! what one knows, in ones cheating heart, and what one says are two different things!

So it was that the art mating ritual developed early in the centuryin Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich,

Vienna, and, not too long afterward, in New York. As weve just seen, the ritual has two phases:

(1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesnt care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.

(2) The Consummation, in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.
By the First World War the process was already like what in the Paris clip joints of the day was known as an apache dance. The artist was like the female in t he act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt . . . more thrashing about . . . more rake-a-cheek fury . . . more yelling and carrying on . . . until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriekpain! ecstasy! she submits . . . Paff paff paff paff paff. . . How you do it, my boy! . . . and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds . . .

The artists payoff in this ritual is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are the goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers. But what about le monde, the culturati, the social members of the act? What’s in it for them? Part of their reward is t he ancient and semi-sacred status of Benefactor of the Arts. The arts have always been a doorway into Society, and in the largest cities today the arts the museum boards, arts councils, fund drives, openings, parties, committee meetings have completely replaced the churches in this respect. But there is more!

Today there is a peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes . . . the feeling that he may be from the middle class but he is no longer in it . . . the feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines. This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York. That is why collecting contemporary art, the leading edge, the latest thing, warm and wet from the Loft, appeals specifically to those who feel most uneasy about their own commercial wealth . . . See? I’m not like them those Jaycees, those United Fund chairmen, those Young Presidents, those mindless New York A.C. goyisheh hog-jowled stripe-tied goddamn-good-to-see-you-you-old-bastard- you oyster-bar trenchermen . . . Avant-garde art, more than any other, takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money, puts Levis, turtlenecks, muttonchops, and other mantles and laurels of bohemian grace upon it.

That is why collectors today not only seek out the company of, but also want to hang out amidst, lollygag around with, and enter into the milieu of . . . the artists they patronize. They want to climb those vertiginous loft building stairs on Howard Street that go up five flights without a single turn or bendstraight up! like something out of a casebook dreamto wind up with their hearts ricocheting around in their rib cages with tachycardia from the exertion mainly but also from the anticipation that just beyond this door at the top . . . in this loft . . .lie the real goods . . . paintings, sculptures that are indisputably part of the new movement, the new école, the new wave . . something unshrinkable, chipsy, pure cong, bourgeois-proof.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Propaganda Defined

Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is Th...
Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is This Tomorrow"' (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: "Remember December 7th" US ...
English: "Remember December 7th" US Government propaganda poster of 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely ...
We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely associated with Rosie the Riveter, although not a depiction of the cultural icon itself. Pictured Geraldine Doyle (1924-2010), at age 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
'stay on the job until every murdering jap is ...
'stay on the job until every murdering jap is wiped out!' World War II poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
More definition from the American Historical Association

While most persons who give the matter a thought make distinctions between an objectively written news report and propaganda, they encounter difficulty when they try to define propaganda. It is one of the most troublesome words in the English language. To define it clearly and precisely, so that whenever it is used it will mean the same thing to everybody, is like trying to get your hands on an eel. You think you’ve got it-then it slips away.
To some speakers and writers, propaganda is an instrument of the devil. They look on the propagandist as a person who is deliberately trying to hoodwink us, who uses half-truths, who lies, who suppresses, conceals, and distorts the facts. According to this idea of the word, the propagandist plays us for suckers.
Others think especially of techniques, of slogans, catchwords, and other devices, when they talk about propaganda. Still others define propaganda as a narrowly selfish attempt to get people to accept ideas and beliefs, always in the interest of a particular person or group and with little or no advantage to the public. According to this view, propaganda is promotion that seeks “bad” ends, whereas similar effort on behalf of the public and for “good” ends isn’t propaganda, but is something else. Under this definition, for example, the writings of the patriotic Sam Adams on behalf of the American Revolution could not be regarded by American historians as propaganda.
The difficulty with such a view is that welfare groups and governments themselves secure benefits for a people through propaganda. Moreover, national propaganda in the throes of a war is aimed to bolster the security of the nonaggressor state and to assure the eventual well-being and safety of its citizens. No one would deny that this kind of propaganda, intelligently administered, benefits every man, woman, and child in the land.