Monday, May 25, 2009

The Responsibilities of Art

"In the meantime, Neto's vast playpen is a good reminder that there are art worlds within art worlds and fields of 'otherness' not yet conquered because we stay too focused on what peaks and speaks (or used to peak) in auction houses."

"Many of our artists, suffering the repercussions of this desacralized mentality, have pretended for some time now that painting is merely a way of solving formal problems. The total opposition between art and life that formalism proposes exempts art from its moral tasks."

The first quote is from John Perreault's Artopia blog, and the second from Suzi Gablik's book, Has Modernism Failed?. Twenty-five years separate the two. Are the artists who play in the participatory fields of otherness the same ones who have re-sacralized art by restoring its moral tasks? In 1984, Gablik was complaining about the lack of moral and ethical positions taken by contemporary (Western) art, a lack which resulted from our producer/consumer society in which the individual's desires trumped the common good.

I'm also reading The Invisible Dragon by Dave Hickey. This book is a group of essays on beauty originally published in 1993, and occasioned by "the plague of intellectual dishonesty that infected every aspect of the controversy surrounding the public exhibition" of Robert Mapplethorpe's pornographic photographs. Again, a text about the function of images and the responsibilities of the artist. Would the great art of the Renaissance have remained so great to this day, had it not once addressed the moral issues of its time?

Is art that refuses to address life and the human condition ultimately destined for the trashcan? Does every artist have a moral responsibility to the rest of humanity? I'm not arguing for any particular brand of morality, just making a roundabout case against indifference, and looking for art that engages - intelligently and passionately - what it means to be human.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Flaying of Dudley

If you’re looking to incite discussion on facebook, you should become a fan of Julian Schnabel. In the melee I’ve forgotten now which of my fb friends had steered me in that direction, but I know for certain the friends who think I’m wrong-headed. What I said was that I’ve always liked hubris when it’s art-driven, and that I thought The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I did not say I like Schnabel’s paintings. The plates on velvet never lived up to Schnabel’s ambition or to the hype he generated for them, but I do remember liking il cardinale if that’s indeed what he was, painted on the ceiling of a portico at PS 1, above a refectory table. There was an unintended existential vacuum that magnified the Renaissance antecedents of the space.

So what is hubris?? Marsyas had it. It’s presumption, originally toward the gods, that one is better than one’s betters. A long time ago, in the Art Starry Eighties, Schnabel set himself up as the peer of Duccio, Giotto and van Gogh. Things have calmed down some since. Schnabel is acknowledged to be a better film maker than painter or real estate mogul. Lesser lights like Damien Hirst have come and almost gone, John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage have had their moment, and Jeff Koons is making accessible balloon dogs instead of unfathomable basketballs in water tanks. Art is having an extended moment of anti-heroism, which is not to say that artists’ egos have ceased to exist, only that it’s become unfashionable to display them.

But I like poor flayed Marsyas for believing that he could, even when it turned out he couldn’t. Apollo’s such a buzzkill.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Run for the Roses

So Susan has thrown down the gauntlet. Write about the Kentucky Derby and bring it around to art, she said. If you watched the Derby Saturday, you know that Calvin Borel’s victory on Mine That Bird was the second biggest upset in the Derby’s history. You should read the whole story here, but in a nutshell, what happened was that Borel and his horse, a gelding from nowheresville and a 50-1 long shot, stumbled out of the gate, came from way behind, squeaked through a narrow opening on the rail, and won the race by six and a quarter lengths. About that narrow opening - “I wasn’t worried,” Borel said. “He’s a small horse and I knew I could squeeze him through.”

As a kid growing up in Kentucky, I knew the names of Derby winners long before I ever heard of Pollock, Picasso or Van Gogh. Aristides, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Citation – all the romance of horse racing is tied up with the magic that happens when a horse and rider surge through the pack and across the finish line into history. In spite of the millions of dollars spent and earned in races these days, it’s still not about the money thing.

The wraparound is not some sentimental drivel about art being an equally wonderful and romantic pursuit to which money is only a corollary. Nope – it’s cut and dried a question of time. The fact of the matter is that a three-year-old gets a single less-than-two-minute crack at winning the Derby, and the win can neither be faked nor bought. By contrast, an artist can fake or buy his way right to the top of the heap, and only the passing of years can out the truth.