Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Getting Dumber

It has to do with art. In my case, painting. When I first took it up as a youngster, it was an enjoyable pastime that elicited praise from adults. Later, it became a source of rebellious expression. But when I began to educate myself about Art, painting became increasingly unpleasant. There was a desire to put the work into some category, to ascribe a certain meaning to it, and above to explain, explain, explain. It became a form of psychological torture.

I had a show one time in a little gallery and I spent a great deal of time writing up little explanatory notes about each painting which I had typeset and placed next to each piece. It was one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever done. Not that anyone noticed. And that was the most humiliating thing. No one cared about the meaning of the paintings. It’s not for artists to determine such things anyway. Meaning is an artifice created by the artworld to enhance value. My paintings had no value, hence they were meaningless.

I abandoned painting and took up philosophy instead. I studied aesthetics and philosophy of art to see if I could justify my own artistic efforts. Of course, it made things worse. I now had at my disposal a whole new academic schema to apply to that field of activity. Academic analysis of the problem of art (its definition for example) became more important than the art itself.

Nearly twenty years have gone by, and in that time I’ve completed only a handful of paintings. I started something new a few weeks ago, though, and as I worked on it I found it to be not entirely unpleasant. After all, there’s no pressure on me now. I have no illusions about what a successful artistic life ought to be. My explanation for the pleasure of the experience is, at least partly, that I have forgotten a lot of all that stuff. I’m dumber now. I’m closer to where I started and expecting very little.

Art, of all things, is anti-intellectual. That’s not to say that artists are stupid in general, but they don’t need to be very smart to do good work. My dissipated lifestyle is finally offering a modest reward: amnesia. The intellectual life is a lot of pretentious snobbery anyway. My new painting means nothing and has no value outside of the satisfaction I get creating it, hanging it on my wall and admiring this amalgamation of pigments and the way the look together. The subject matter is associated with a pleasant memory. As I look at what’s left of my work, that’s true for all the paintings. They remind me of places and times, emotions and experiences, and there’s a bit of pride that I was able to render something more or less permanent that evokes those feelings and memories. But that’s about it.

Police Action Report

Men in Pink

Men in Pink

UPDATE: Published June 7th. Marked “Private” due to delusional paranoia.

Our second patrol on June 1st resulted in fewer citations.

I arrived early enough to fortify myself for the evening. A downtown eatery calling itself “Portland’s” sufficed with its large, C-shaped bar. After a couple of pints of the local IPA, I stationed myself in front of the neighboring coffee house and waited for Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink and I became acquainted with each other in 1987 when we both participated in some crude guerrilla art activities in the area. Our primary mode of attack was the unannounced art exhibit and our favorite place to show up was in front of the downtown Art Museum. After a mental breakdown in 1988, I stayed away from the scene for a while, whereas Mr. Pink dug in and has more or less stuck around all these years.

As usual, he had an agenda. We scurried off to our first destination which was not geographically co-located with the gallery “district”. Along a wide, mid-town avenue at the end of a single-story, white commercial building that was now uncomfortably close to a street that has been widened over the years. Mr. Pink gave me some background on the show. It was to be hosted by someone known to both of us; a writer and local theater critic (both in the so-called alternative weekly and on the local NPR affiliate). Mr. Pink knew the artist, the description of whom gave me the impression of mental instability, obsessive compulsive, possibly a hoarder. Brandishing his megaphone, Mr. Pink alerted the occupants that the Art Police had arrived.

The show was remarkable. In about a thousand square feet of office space the private obsessions of the artist had been transfigured into half a dozen mini-installations, mostly upon a single theme: the likeness of Mr. Lee Harvey Oswald. Although I wasn’t aware of it as I inspected the work, there was not a hint of reference to anyone known as JFK. Just Lee. Mannequins of Lee. Photoshopped black and white pictures of Lee (playing on the beach, for example).

If you think about it, there are probably no more than twenty actual bona fide images of Lee Harvey Oswald in existence. The artist made excellent use of a paucity of imagery.

We were greeted warmly by the host, who offered us wine and hors d’oeuvres (sliced twinkies) served by a lovely young girl right out of Mad Men. We were introduced to the artist. He appeared like an overgrown child, all covered in primary colors, with an oversized button of Lee on his lapel. Mr. Pink and I had already agreed that we had not witnessed any violations. Instead, I pasted a tiny little gold star on the artist’s button.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Unlike the previous month, no one told me to fuck off. We were off the beaten path in among the die hards, the hipsters, the hangers on. They stick around. They paint, and make things that they share with each other. They have poetry readings and performance art, and if twenty people show up, it’s a success. There are two main types: the young ones (recent art school grads and self-taughts) and there are those in my demographic: the remnants. Each generation produces a new batch. Most grow out of it and move on. A tiny, tiny few find some version of what is deemed success, and the rest make a place for themselves in the community. They are satisfied, somewhat, by being part of that tribe, even in the face of continuous pressure to move out of the way.

The art itself becomes secondary. The whole environment, so long as its still living and breathing is the art. What is hung on the walls seems secondary. Yes, some of it is worth possessing and displaying, but the paintings are more like concert t-shirts that say “I was there.” There’s just too much imagery in the world today. We’re soaking in a sea of it.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Our last stop was the Ice House: a vast building along the railroad tracks that actually served as an “ice house” back in the day, to store meat, I am told. I had been there before. The two decades changed nothing that I could see. It’s a nihilistic cathedral. Doors open to an immense atrium open to the sky. The building could have been a territorial prison.

I will have more on this later. The Art Police are on hiatus until October.



More Police Action

Heading back out this evening for second patrol of monthly “Art Walk” here in my home town. It has me thinking about art and aesthetics–a subject I was supposed to have been educated in way back when…

Some serious, non-ironic, thoughts about art today:

  • Global Art Market. Pokemon for the rich?
  • Does the Artworld today have any influence on western culture (or any other culture) or is it just post-post-modern gimcrackery, cleverly packaged?
  • Is art a pseudo-religious activity that is best shared among close-knit groups?
  • Are there any dangerous poets anymore?
  • If art is just between us artists, is that enough?
  • Life is art. Art is not Life. Nor is Life an Art. (Isn’t connotation wonderful?)

Wish me luck this evening. It will still be around 105 degrees at 9:00 pm.


Don’t be picking on Franco!

I saw this little tidbit on the Daily Beast. Blake Gopnik takes James Franco to task for not being “convincing” as an artist.

The two paragraphs prodded a set of receptors in my brain that had been dormant for a while. The name “Monroe Beardsley” leaped to mind, along with a little nugget from the darkest backwater of academia–the philosophy of art–known as The Intentional Fallacy.

Beardsley is remembered for, among other things, co-writing the original article that introduced the concept of the above-mentioned fallacy back in the 1950′s. He was responding to the expressionist theories of art criticism and argued that not only are the intentions of artists irrelevant to the criticism of the art, they are unknowable. Beardsley claimed that the “value [of an artwork] is independent of the manner of production, even of whether the work was produced by an animal or by a computer or by a volcano or by a falling slop bucket.”

“Value” here means aesthetic value, not cash value of course. This idea seems quaint nowadays. That any creative work’s value is determined by its relation to an ideal of form, beauty or even an artistic rubric is anathema to the world we live in today.

Gopnik points out that so far as Franco’s work is concerned, he is mediocre. But there was the suspicion that he may in fact be playing with us, his vast audience of consumers. As Gopnik says, “Could it be that Franco’s entire art career has in fact been about him giving a brilliant theatrical performance as a generic contemporary artist–sort of like the one he played so well on General Hospital?”

Gopnik then insults Mr. Franco’s intelligence by presuming that he was incapable of answering “softball questions” about art at a recent MoMA event.

Conclusion? Franco can’t be a great performance artist because he appears incapable of the sort of witty repartee expected from an artistic genius. Clearly, his “performance” at MoMA reveals his intellectual limitations, thereby precluding the existence of Franco the Meta-Post-Modern Performance Artist.

Whether you agree with Beardsley or not as to the necessary conditions for art obtaining, his point about the irrelevance of an artist’s intentions is significant, particularly in a case like this. Art critics (and other intellectuals) make sport of discerning with their own superior minds the intentions of would-be artists (and other historical subjects). While entertaining to them it often obscures or even occludes the value of a particular work (or life). Artists make the same mistake insomuch as they spend too much time thinking about their own work rather than doing it. As any artist who has experienced it will tell you, the best work often comes when the least amount of self-conscious analysis is going on. Franco may just be having fun and is absorbed in doing it (his odd life). In doing that, he may yet be creating a performance piece of a certain merit, and his inarticulateness about his own art, whatever that is, may be entirely irrelevant to its worth.

Art Police Action

When I’m not pissing and moaning about the state of the world, I occasionally am inspired to do something useful as I did this past evening.

Clad in the official uniform of pink button-down shirts, black pants and black shoes, my friend and I performed a necessary and valuable service to the citizens of our town by serving as officers of the Art Police. My fellow officer arrived equipped with megaphone, badges and a clip-board filled with a sufficient supply of official citations. I brought a plastic wrapped package of colored stars like the type a kindergarten teacher gives to rosy-cheeked children, a rubber stamp pad, and some plastic eye-balls like the kind used on kitschy tourist junk.

We descended upon the monthly downtown art festival of our local town prepared to encourage the good and shame the bad. Our mission: identify egregious aesthetic violations and issue appropriate citations where appropriate and commend works that genuinely enhanced the culture.

Our first stop was a gallery hosted at a local religious cathedral. The work was uninspiring, however a collection of a bank of light switches and a fire-alarm control panel in the corner caught my partners eye. The assemblage, all painted over in eggshell white, was stunning in its simplicity. It got a gold star.

On we went. Our first citation was given to the local “alternative” newspaper which calls itself “New Times” but is not new at all. We gave the two youngsters manning the booth a citation for false advertising.

We nearly had to call animal control for backup at our next stop. A plastic enclosure housed a collection of live rabbits which were being offered as “prizes” to people who could toss a little ball into a kiddie pool or some such activity.

Via his megaphone, my partner announced our entrance into another venue: a trendy little coffee shop cum art gallery. “Keep calm! Nothing to be concerned about. Art police. We’re here to investigate this establishment for aesthetic violations.” The puzzled and bemused patrons stared at us as we did a cursory tour of the premises. After interviewing the clientele we were shocked to discover that they were not offered coffee in real cups contrary to the shop’s stated policy. We cited them for promoting disposable culture. The manager was upset, refused to accept our citation, and told us to fuck off, so we cited them again for not having a sense of humor.

This went on for another three hours. In one venue (a rather nice little gallery that was not in danger of receiving a citation) I was accosted by a large young man who screamed at me, blood rushing to his face, “What gives you the right to do this? I’m an anarchist and you’re a fucking fascist!” He stormed away without ever being aware of the irony.

And in the end, that was the story of the night. The lack of any sense of irony or comprehension of what we were doing surprised. Sure, there were the old-school artists that have been hanging on down there year after year and for them, the idea of art police was an amusing and entertaining bit of commentary on the culture, and of course a lot of fun. Which was a point that was lost on quite a significant percentage of those in attendance.

We plan to be back next month. Arrests may be made next time.



The great over-arching theme of my artistic/philosophical enterprise has been my preoccupation with the gulf between human beings. No matter how close we try to connect, the synapse between I and thou is too great. We communicate. Sometimes authentically, in emotional streams that tempt you to believe that a connection has been made. But the moment dissolves and the gulf intervenes. That person does not understand what I was saying/feeling/communicating.

A desperate sense of ones utter aloneness descends. The phenomenon of romantic love, of being in love, deceives us into believing that a connection has occurred. Physical union reinforces the sense that two are one for a moment, but the separation returns.

It doesn’t matter how well we speak, or write or draw. With the faint hope that something authentic will insert itself into the other and be recognized is the great hope, the desperate desire of the soul.

The authentic artist, those I admire the most (Modigliani, Soutine, Matisse, Hopper, Basquiat) understood this, felt it, expressed it. The narcissist feels not the lack. For some, it is a gaping wound.

Visual Break

This Is. 1986

Crows. 1987

Me and my Monkey. 1988

Zines and Blogs

I have fond memories of underground magazines. Back in the 80′s I happened to be in the printing business, and I was pretty active at times in the local arts scene, so naturally I ended up publishing zines. The first one I worked on was the brainchild of an artist about ten years older than me at the time (over 30!) and known for his guerrila antics. He was organizing public displays of local art on the weekends using local parks (all without permits, of course). We got to be pretty good friends (which was not easy to do–he was known to have a violent temper). For about six months in 1987 we had six to twelve local artists showing their works on the front lawn of the local art museum every weekend. Patrons kind of had to run the gauntlet of local art to get in and see “real” art. Anyway, we did about nine monthly issues, peaking at around 1,000 copies.

Zines were an essential part of underground communication. They were the great-great-great grandchildren of the lowly political tract or manifesto. Often crude and rough, the lowly zine aspired to document a world that was connected physically (music fans, artists, poets). Zines grew out of communities of like-minded people who already knew each other.

Electronic communication and blogs have made zines mostly obsolete. The same impulse to write, comment and document drives blogs, but they exist literally in a different realm than zines did. For all the advantages of the communication age, I miss the lowly zine.

Self Portrait

Institutional Theory of Truth

There’s a theory in philosophy of art pioneered by George Dickie and fully developed by Arthur Danto that attributes art-proper status to objects in virtue of those objects’ relation to a cultural entity known as the artworld. In this view, man-made objects attain the status of art (or Art) by having that status conferred upon them by this amorphous institution. I’m not a huge fan of the theory, but it points to a more interesting phenomenon.

As I have written previously, my own skepticism about what can be known about the world precludes a rich ontology for myself. I choose not to believe in gods and spirits and so forth because I have a difficult enough time just maintaining belief in other people! But that’s just me. It is, no doubt, a peculiar character defect of my own along with some philosophers of the past with a lot more brains than I have. However, it seems clear that a lot of people–the majority of people–believe in all sorts of strange stuff.

What I am interested in about all these beliefs is whether, and in what way, these systems of beliefs, these exotic metaphysical statements, might be true. And when I say true I mean that in the usual, common sense way that people use the term. I want to make the claim that utterances such as “Jesus is the Son of God” and “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet” are true in precisely the same way as when I say “I am a forty-four year old white male.”

I am not talking about syncretism or relativism or secret meanings behind these statements. If these statements have any meaning at all, then they must mean pretty much what they say. (Logical positivists and early Wittgenstein regarded these statements as nonsense since they did not refer to “real” objects. But they can’t be nonsense. Entire lives are devoted to understanding them, following them, etc.)

So how can they be true, particularly if such statements are contradictory and mutually exclusive?

I propose that their truth value obtains in virtue of a conferral of that status by an appropriate configuration of believers in much the same way as the institutional theory of art makes Art out of artifacts.

But why make truth value the reward for the persistence of religion? We might go along with you if you stuck to some other predicate like beauty, but not truth for God’s sake!

“Why not?” I say. What gives the idea of truth such special privilige? I say you are stuck in the same rut as the theists. You want there to be a God perspective, and you imagine yourself seated upon the celestial throne observing the entirety of the universe with perfect apprehension and from that vantage you can say, with absolute certainty, what is real and what is true.

But there is no such place. And in this world belief precedes truth. I become certain of something when I am convinced that it cannot be otherwise. Truth begins with belief not the other way around.

How are we to avoid relativism, then? (My truth, your truth, what is truth? as Pilate said). This is where I have to make an ontological move. Belief by the appropriate configuration of believers as evidenced by its persistence and effects signify the existence of true facts about the universe that demonstrate the truth of the objects of those beliefs.

It will make no difference that the facts of one belief system contradict the facts of another. The two systems are incommensurable, as are the worlds within which these facts obtain. They are alternate universes created by the persistence of belief.

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The Abonilox

Making Truth Palatable