Post #544 • May 23, 2005, 9:26 AM • 122 Comments
Little about the show at Miami Art Central inclines me to go see it. This work may have a lot of historical importance, but conceptually based photography doesn't do much for me. Nevertheless, two commenters have defended its worth and expressed their enjoyment of it. I know Alesh and Harlan, and they qualify as intelligent people in my book. Oldpro commented on their reactions: "It is a question of how one reacts to art, I think." That jogged something loose in my memory, from The Undressed Art by Peter Steinhart. Almost loose, anyway; I can't find it, but it says somewhere in here that MRIs reveal that different areas of the brain activate whether the viewer is looking at old master paintings or Rouault.
You may prefer one kind of art over another for the same reason that you prefer a marijuana high to a cocaine high, or Thai food to Chinese, or anagrams to crossword puzzles. Each of these pairs of stimuli provide similar but non-identical experiences and your brain chemistry responds accordingly. The various stimuli have biological bases that cultural input can influence, often to the extent of altering the biology. (For example, not many people have the same food preferences they had when they were five.)
Holed up at home with a cold this past weekend, I read Joel on Software, in which the author sets up an excellent analogy about cultural differences:
A cultural difference doesn't mean that American stomachs can't digest sushi, or that Japanese stomachs can't digest Big Macs, and it doesn't mean that there aren't lots of Americans who eat sushi or Japanese who eat burgers, but it does mean that Americans getting off the plane for the first time in Tokyo are confronted with an overwhelming feeling that this place is strange, dammit, and no amount of philosophizing about how underneath we're all the same, we all love and work and sing and die will overcome the fact that Americans and Japanese can never really get comfortable with each others' toilet arrangements.
He's discussing Eric S. Raymond's seminal book on Unix and Unix culture, which opposes Windows culture in many respects, and continues:
As is typical from someone with a deep knowledge of one culture, he knows what his culture values but doesn't quite notice the distinction between parts of his culture that are universal (killing old ladies, programs that crash: always bad) and parts of the culture that apply only when you're programming for programmers (eating raw fish, command-line arguments: depends on audience).
Back in the art world, we have no universals, at least not if we try to account for everything that we categorize as art. Herein lies our problem. Without universals, artists have to select a finite set of principles that call to them among an infinite number of choices. People with different principles are going to disagree, irreconcilably, on fundamentals. On Friday Harlan said,
I think this post would be more interesting If we began to discuss the work at that show and not whether or not the show sucked or was textbookish or boring.
But it's too late, man - you've shown up at the field with baseball gear, and I've shown up with a frisbee, and not only is the equipment incompatable, but we have fundamentally opposed ideas of what sports are all about.
Art requires that you care, a lot, about what you're doing. (I tell my students, feeling bored and making art is as bad as being a doctor and killing your patient.) You have to believe in your principles with religious strength - an imperious mindset that has little room for catholicity. I found this much in Steinhart's book, anyway:
Sculptor David Smith told [Selden] Rodman, "I'm a revolutionary and hope always to remain one. An arrogant independence to create is my only motivation. Only with other professionals do I feel any sense of equality.
Ab-Ex braggadocio? Well...
On the other hand, critic Bernard Perlin said of the abstract expressionists, "Their painting is millionaire art. Who else can afford it? Or live with it?" He added, "A real hatred of society and humanity motivates most abstractionists. Behind many of these artists is an elitism inherited from one or another of the totalitarian ideologies."
...no, this is just people getting worked up over what they believe in. If you don't care enough to get worked up, you're probably not going to get into art very much.
Feelings become more inflamed when money enters the equation. We attach a huge amount of money to art, and to a great extent, attach our ideas of justice to money. We want money to follow goodness. When it doesn't, we question the characters of its handlers. Ditto for aesthetic goodness, even though they don't correlate either. Something deep in the human psyche knows that might doesn't make right, whether you've loaded your arsenal with gunpowder or gold. Of all available systems, I believe that free markets will most likely reflect peoples' best values, but evidence warns against presuming a perfect correlation, especially in the shorter term. With no universals, it becomes much easier sell art based on non-art concerns.
If a record company wants to sell a million CDs, it will find some cutie pie with a nice voice, big eyes, a cute butt, and some funky dance moves. He or she has to sound contemporary, even if it means that in two years he or she will sound dated. This selection process doesn't produce great art. Perhaps you think that our local museums don't stoop to such baseness; I'd invite you to look at Jac Leirner or William Cordova and decide for yourself. An artist who is slightly older than me (mid-thirties), more successful, and one hell of a lot cuter was recently complaining to me about the Miami art world's fixation on the 25-year-old man, a fixation that had become severe enough to make her consider a move out of town for the sake of her career.
Perhaps more to the point, this statement -
In this exhibition, Cordova's first solo museum exhibition, the issue of identity begins with the artist examining the stereotypes of Hispanic men in American culture. For Cordova, the media images of Hispanic men as seedy criminals are masterfully exposed as exaggerated fabrications. Furthermore, through his film, video and photographic installations, the artist pushes our buttons about our complicity in perpetuating these myths.
and this statement -
I am frequently told that my paintings are to many people like glimpses of heaven. With this in mind, my latest work, Mountain Retreat, might be thought of as the kind of heavenly vision that any enthusiast of country living would long for. In Mountain Retreat I share a vision of nature as the Peaceable Kingdom, where man fits harmoniously into a glorious natural setting, and gentle creatures - wild turkeys, deer, and ducks - live without fear.
are, in my opinion, exactly equal in weight. They are trappings that aficionados of each of these kinds of work will identify with in some way, and feel sympathetic to their respective concerns. This is all part of the business transaction, the non-art stuff. Marketing. You have to do marketing if you want to sell art (even to sell it philosophically, such as the case of the museum), but you had better not confuse one with the other.
You have to choose between cultures, and select out the best of what they have to offer. I admire many things about traditional Asian cultures. I would consider wearing a kimono. I would not consider forcing my wife to walk six paces in back of me. The same innate sense that finds the former beautiful and the latter ugly leads me to look at the art as art and ignore the trappings, however impressive, well-meant, necessary, or powerful. Ultimately they don't matter.
If you agree, you'll come around here and I'll reinforce your feelings. If you disagree, I'll tick you off a lot. Will we ever decide anything? Hardly at all. That's okay. Who's right? I am, and if you disagree with me, you're wrong. You might as well be looking at art with your nose - you're not getting it. If I didn't have this component of arrogance, I wouldn't be going around thinking that I have any contribution to make to the history of painting; I'd turn the studio back into a bedroom and spend my career writing about how interesting all this art is, let me count the ways. If I give an object my full attention and come away disliking it, you're going to have an easier time convincing me that pepperoni tastes sweet than changing my mind about it - you're arguing with my brain chemistry. I may one day change my mind about it, but that's a different story.
I'm aware that the above sounds hubristic; unfortunately, this is how taste works - imperiously. You may think you're different, and for all I know you are, but remember that nearly everyone, self included, thinks of himself as reasonable and open-minded.
It's worth noting at the same time that just about everyone feels beset. Harlan again:
I think for many people in Miami there are not many places to view this kind of work [like that at MAC] and not since MAM brought in another Walker Art Center touring show, Let's Entertain, has Miami seen anything as encompassing and engaging.
Whereas I feel that Miami has nothing but places to view this kind of work and that the art-as-entertainment impulse runs unabated through the entire scene, giving the art about as much gravity as a pool toy. We both feel the lack; that much we have in common.