Saturday, November 7, 2009

Toward Pretensionism 4

Now, something has to be said about my appreciation for the Lichtenstein piece. I was able to enjoy it because despite the origins of my artistic impulses, in my pursuit of craft I have developed an understanding of and appreciation for more formal values in the arts.

Composition, color, technique -- these all have meaning for me. Before I studied art, they influenced my reactions to particular works, but that influence was on a subconscious level. Initially, my interest was in image and narrative content.

And these elements are still central to my appreciation of the visual arts. But now I'm able to enjoy art on another level. Which brings me back to one of my difficulties with fine art -- it the problem with me, or is it with the piece? Is it possible to reach the point where you can in good conscience reject a work on any other basis than, "It didn't do much for me?"

Here's the rub. In works in any media where content is important, I feel a lot more comfortable passing that kind of judgment. 'Was the content effectively conveyed?' is a question I can usually answer with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

But in an arena where formal values are paramount? I can have an opinion -- but I can't pass judgment. And this leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

So. On to the artworks that brought me to the gallery.

The two exhibits of Asian photography caught my interest, involved me -- but now that a few days have gone by, the only pieces that have stayed with me were a number of works dealing with landscapes as abstract images. I can still call them to mind, still recall the emotional state they evoked. In particular there was a series of photographs of the sun on the ocean that evoked a distinctly nocturnal atmosphere. They were beautiful dreams, and I won't forget them.

But the Richard Avedon show... that was something different. As I said, I was in an emotionally distraught state, and I found many of his works to be shattering. There was a wall of small, fairly conventional portraits that did little for me, and many familiar images, such as Nureyev's foot, seemed clever but trivial after the works that most affected me.

These were the large-scale portraits. In photograph after photograph, one was left with the sense of direct contact with the subject of the portraits. Every physical detail of the people portrayed was mercilessly, almost surgically, laid bare. I was reminded of scientific illustration where the absolute specificity of the subject was the only goal of the image. This was heightened by the consistent use of spotless white backgrounds. Every wrinkle, every blemish, every line generated by habitual facial expressions and every bit of physical damage endured by the subjects was there to be seen, inspected, measured. Everything that could be seen was seen in microscopic detail, in black-and-white, with a clarity impossible in live observation.

These were images of the human animal, wounded, wary, vicious, and unconquered.

The subjects returned the gaze of the viewer -- or the photographer -- with no more mercy than had been shown to them. These were images of successful people, people who had achieved, and they seemed haunted. I have no way of knowing how much of this came from the subjects, how much from Avedon, how much from me, but my emotional response was that these were people who had been shattered by trauma and yet refused to die, survivors of a prison camp or a battlefield. I read the names, the professions -- and it grew on me that the horrific environment that had stripped these people of joy and left them hardened against its unrelenting power was the world of privilege of which I am fearful and jealous. Or, more simply, the world.

Then in a smaller area off of the main exhibit, I found two portraits that nearly brought me to tears in a public space.

Not to go into it too deeply, but some of the most important influences on my writing came out of the social group known as the Algonquin Round Table. When I used the word 'shattering' to describe the emotional state this exhibit induced, I was referring specifically to the portraits of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Levant.

Humor has always been my first line of defense. And both Parker and Levant are best known for their humorous remarks, their one-liners, and in both cases their humor is known for its cutting qualities. These portraits showed their subjects without that armor. The results were heartbreaking, horrifying, appalling.

Dorothy Parker has always struck me as a failed talent. She produced some excellent light verse, a few first-class short stories, and a large body of entertaining critical writing. None of these have struck me as a true fruition of her potential abilities. Like many of my other favorite writers (I use the term 'favorite' as contrasted with 'most respected.'), her story is one of great gifts compromised by lack of discipline, self-indulgence and self-pity, bad habits, and most distressingly, lack of vision.

Ms. Parker's portrait broke my heart. Her self-imposed isolation had left its mark on her features. The set of her mouth, her eyes -- a lifetime of unrelieved bitterness and the kind of misanthropy generated by disappointment in oneself had branded her. It was an unfair portrait. To deny her the consolation of wit was genuinely cruel. This was not a portrait of Dorothy Parker; it was a portrait of her shadow, of a woman stripped of her saving graces.

This cruelty was nothing next to that shown to Oscar Levant. Unlike the other portraits in the exhibit, this one was blurred by motion. Blown up to twice life-size, mouth open, lunging forward with his remaining teeth on display, I was -- and this is my cruelty -- irresistibly reminded of an elephant in agony, bellowing in pain and rage. The image was monstrous, almost inhuman. It was a dying thing, the human animal in defeat, the other side of the first photographs in the exhibit. To associate that image with the gentleman whose witty comments I'd been reading my whole life was a reminder of the inevitability of death and decay, that there is nothing we can ever do to distance ourselves from the traumatic corruption of the body.

After this, I'd had enough Avedon. I was not in a state to re-inspect the works I'd seen once. It was time to move on.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Toward Pretensionism 3

Or How I Learned To Start Worrying When I Stopped Hating Roy Lichtenstein

On Tuesday I had an experience that will have long-term effects on the way I feel about the fine arts. My digital photography class had a field trip to a showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was in, shall we say, an emotionally vulnerable state. I was feeling weak and helpless, and the idea of entering into a temple of privilege was not something that held a lot of appeal for me at that moment. I wandered around the city for half an hour before meeting the rest of the group, and came very close to just going home.

As someone who began to study art with the intention of learning how to illustrate comic books, I've always had conflicted feelings about the world of fine art and just about all of those feelings have been negative. I've felt threatened, overwhelmed, judged, intimidated, mistrustful, and scornful of much fine art, or rather, of the social and academic structures surrounding the actual works.

These feelings are best understood in a context of class. I am a member of the working class, what Tom Wolfe would refer to as a stone prole. While many participants in the fine arts have similar backgrounds, the context of the fine arts is relentlessly upper class.

I've already used the term 'temple of privilege.' What I mean by this is... well, think about what a museum or a high-end gallery looks like, what it feels like to be in that space. Vast, airy, quiet, well-lit, impeccably painted and maintained, guarded -- these spaces are temples. One has a sense of reverence generated and enforced by architecture. And this context is specifically the product of wealth. I don't feel comfortable in these spaces. I feel excluded, unwanted, and inadequate. I also feel angry, envious, and resentful.Smaller galleries and public art spaces attempt to mimic this effect with less and less effectiveness as the budget in question shrinks.

When thinking in terms of the allocation of public funds, it's difficult to imagine an aware member of the working classes choosing to support these spaces over education, public transportation, and all of the other obvious inadequately supported elements of our lives. Frankly, it would do more good for the arts to have larger numbers of smaller institutions similar to the art labs of dole-era Britain, where people would be given the opportunity to create rather than observe. One of the great harms mass culture has inflicted on the human species is the transformation of creativity from activity to product, and art spaces such as the MOMA reinforce the distinction between artist and audience.

Art for the working class consists of reproductions. This predates our current notions of fine and academic art by hundreds of years. The nobility and clergy looked at paintings; the peasants looked at woodcuts. This is still the common experience. My introduction to the arts came through comic books, magazines, and illustrated fiction, and these are my primary models. The fact that so much of my work is digital stems from this -- digital art is inherently reproduced art.

Art for commercial purposes, art for reproduction -- these are, like it or not, regarded as more trivial than what we call the fine arts. And much of the time, these works are trivial. The serious work done in these forms is typically first recognized outside of the culture that generates them -- look at the French appreciation of American comics, or European appreciation of Japanese brocade prints. Inside their home culture, those who produce these works are not given the respect afforded to fine artists. And when they are? The sign that they have arrived is that they have a show in a major gallery or museum. Art intended for reproduction is thought of as second-rate. And my intention to work in the arena which is most natural to me has always left me feeling as though I am a second-rater, regardless of how well, how seriously I work.

When my involvement in art led me to study the works of what are referred to as the great artists, I did not have the opportunity to study their works. I studied reproductions of their works. The words of my teachers and my few experiences of museums and galleries made it plain to me that there is very little in common between the experiences of seeing a work reproduced in miniature and seeing it in person. So much of the information in a hand-crafted work of art is eliminated or changed in the process of reproduction that it's difficult to see more than a rough resemblance between the two modes. While it is possible to learn much from a reproduction, the true emotional impact of a work derives from its physical presence.

What this visit to the MOMA really taught me was how much of that experience is dependent on the physical attributes of an art space as well as the work itself. How the grammar of the space informs the dialog between the work and its audience.

As someone with both janitorial and building experience, it's impossible for me to enter a museum without an awareness of the effort and finances involved in its construction and maintenance. The two thoughts this provoked in me were first, that the physical skills involved in keeping the marble, the glass, the chrome and brushed aluminum shining and free of fingerprints, the installation of the drywall, the mudding and taping and painting of the walls and ceilings -- these skills are actually very similar and in some cases identical to the physical skills involved in the execution of a work of art.

The second thought was that the mood, the tone inherent in a museum is found in two other types of public space -- banks and churches. In all these cases, it is a sense of reverence that is inculcated in the individual, and part of this reverence is unavoidably directed toward the privilege that allows these spaces to be constructed.

The feeling that one is undergoing a spiritual experience is not-very-subtly heightened in the MOMA by the use of black marble in the entrance. It's a large room with a high ceiling, but the reflective black walls and floor combine with the dim lighting to make a space that I found both oppressive and visually confusing. I felt a sense of relief when I climbed the stairs and emerged into a space defined by comfortable light and unobtrusively warm colors. An open, pleasant space. This application of discomfort followed by ease is a classic element of an initiation process, and it worked on me.

The first work I noticed was a huge canvas, maybe seven or eight feet tall and nearly twice as wide. It was executed in bright, heavily saturated colors and made use of line and large dots used to mimic the Benday dots of reproduction. I liked it. I stared at it for a while. I looked at the impeccable precision with which the paint had been applied to the canvas -- this showed at least as much skill as had been applied to polishing the marble downstairs. More, in fact. The composition was pleasing. The emotional tone of it was practically non-existent and that was fine. The bland confidence of the piece pleased me.

And when I finally went to look at the plaque and see who had done it, I was muttering (mentally -- I was in a bad mood, not a psychotic one) "Don't be Roy Lichtenstein, don't be Roy Lichtenstein."

It was Roy Lichtenstein.

I've always had a nemesis relationship with Lichtenstein's work. His appropriation of compositions from comic books seemed to be shallow, contemptuous, and artsy in the worst sense of the word. I've even done a large scale print that satirized those paintings, and in researching his oeuvre in preparation for that piece, I found myself actually growing angry at his treatment of commercial and popular culture.

But when I was face to face with one of his works, my reaction was one I had feared for years. I liked it. I respected it. And I no longer felt comfortable with my scorn.

Of course this disturbed me. One of my most important emotional defenses against the oppression I felt from the world of the fine arts has been the feeling, vague at first, that a lot of that stuff was fraudulent.

At first I felt as though that feeling was reflective of ignorance, of an inferior capacity to appreciate art. But when I read an article in Art World magazine about a company that repaired conceptual art, I felt confirmed in my belief.

There were two pieces in particular that left me feeling comfortable with dismissing them without seeing them. One was a pile of Sweet & Low packets that the artist had dumped from a carton onto the floor. A visitor to the gallery had kicked it. The Sweet & Low packets were gathered and meticulously rearranged to duplicate photographs that had been taken of the original installation. And there were doubts expressed about the validity of the piece post-repair. After all, they hadn't been able to duplicate its internal structure!


The other piece was an eighty-pound wad of butter that a sculptor in the Netherlands had jammed into the corner of his studio, up at the ceiling. (Shall we discuss willful eccentricity? Not knowing the artist in question, we shall refrain.) A Spanish collector walks comes to visit, sees the butter wad, and says, "I must have it." Said wad is transferred to a room in Barcelona. Where -- believe it or not, art fans -- it melts.

In the course of reproducing this work, the company in question found that different countries produced butter that melted at different temperatures. In order to properly duplicate the original, they needed to use Dutch butter. And the room it was displayed in had to be refrigerated.

You can understand how the word fraud seemed applicable.

But the sight of the Lichtenstein drove home a thought that had been lurking in in the back of my mind throughout my involvement with the arts.

What if I'd seen the pile of Sweet & Low packets or the butter wad in their intended context? What if I'd liked them?

Was I going to have to abandon the concept of fraud in the fine arts?

(To Be Continued!)