Thursday, March 9, 2017

Realism, Art, Politics. Art

Art.  Art is a mirror.  Well, art is a lot of things.  And a mirror of what?  But, the very idea of art is a quicksilver concept, and once upon a time quicksilver was what made a mirror.  So, we'll stick with that mirror idea, but, instead of prattling on about artists in the avante garde, showing the way, illuminating all that is worthy of examination in their surroundings, let's turn it around, and look at art through a glass darkly, from the backside of the mirror, as it were.

Backsides.  Nalgas, tracero, culo.  Lots of different meanings, in any language.  A fair amount of art involves backsides.  There is a MOOC, offered by the University of Melbourne through Coursera, called Sexing the Canvas.  I believe it explores gender, roles, mores and so on, sexual matters in a various cultures, as reflected in the visual arts of those cultures.  I suspect it's an example of feminist art theory, and there is a lot of that out there, but maybe the presenters have transcended that, moved beyond as it were, and don't have an agenda.

Transcending vs. transgressing.  Transgression is a big deal in contemporary art.  Think of it as a fundamental career move.  An exercise in getting attention, breaking into critical consciousness.  Crufixes in urine, Mapplethorpe's in your face homoerotica and all that silliness a generation ago.  Now, featured in art school promotional pieces.  Since so many art students are 'traditional college students' (i.e., in their late teens, early twenties, with no life experience), and that is a group attracted to the idea breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, part of flexing the muscles of emergent adulthood, what you have to teach is nothing compared to what I have to say, featuring opportunities to be transgressive in a supportive environment (Break the Rules Without Paying the Price), it's a smart marketing move.  But, what about transcending, rather than transgressing?  The nuance between transcending an existential situation while in life crisis and committing a traffic violation to get to class on time does tend to get lost, and I have no idea how an instructor teaches people who are present to break the rules (the elderly teacher's patient admonition to the effect that you have to know the rules to break the rules was old and dusty when I first heard it half a century ago).

So, we have sex and rule breaking.  Gender and transgression, if you prefer, for themes of contemporary art.  Or for Trump and Russia.  Themes are a big deal in contemporary art--they are how textbooks, academic courses and sometimes exhibitions are organized.  The idea of conceptual art has waxed, just as concerns of craft have waned.  No one should be limited by her media, or even tasked to learn how to exploit to maximum advantage her media.  Find something more malleable.  The novelty value make get you your 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, others lament the 'deskilling' of artists.  Hmm . . .  That doesn't just mean the elimination for budgetary reasons of arts education in the public schools.  That means, at the university level, reducing the drawing requirement from a year to semester, replacing the  design course with something called methods of art.  Hmm . . .

I should not be so harsh.  The product of conceptual art may yield Intellectual Property, that can be scaled up to great wealth.  The product of a craftsman-like approach merely yields an object.  No matter how valuable an object it doesn't scale (well, there is 'production art', but that leads back to intellectual property), and people now argue whether the object is even necessary for art.

Performance art.  Absent recording, I'm not sure how performance art can have legs.  I mean, the Sistine Chapel is there for the viewing, but the choirs of castrati who sang in solemn masses are long gone.  And, if you asked the modern performance artist whether he'd like to see himself as a Michelangelo or as one of those castrati, I'm betting the former, not the latter.  But, despite desire for the former, the fate of the latter is the more likely.

Back to the mirror, and from the backside, through a glass darkly.  Not, what does art say about society, but what does society say about art?  Well, if you look at the social context of art, first you must ignore the claims of its participants to be on the cutting edge, in the avante garde, transgressive pioneer visionaries recasting society, ever advancing the boundaries of art and human understanding.  It's a bit like investment bankers claiming to be the engines of job creation and wellsprings of economic growth.  Yeah, they'll finance a project, as long as the ROI is there.

The business of the arts, arts communities, tend to be very conservative places, a tense warren of perches, sinecures and interdependencies, hiding from the reality of their collective situation by grasping at a group think commitment to all the causes of cultural liberalism, especially the cause de jure, as if, wrapped in that, they can delude themselves.  The tenured radical with her oldest in law school becomes a martyr to the patriarchy like her sister riding a cash register at Walmart, husband methed out somewhere while alone she's raising three children, her oldest already in trouble with the law.  Ah, but we so are sensitive to the plight of our transgendered community, suffering the indignity of incorrect gender assignment at birth. (Are we permitted to wonder, as a colleague who teaches industrial design recently confided in me, where all these kids are coming from--I mean, he said, I can see one or two in a hundred, but I've got a seminar, twelve kids, and four of them have adopted the position.  What gives?  I dunno what gives, but I told him, but his mission, should he decide to accept it, was to get his students to stop thinking about what was between their legs and get them to focus on what's between the covers of the books he assigned as course reading.  He rolled his eyes.)

It is easy to be diverted by posturing on the issues of cultural liberalism, and doing so plays into everyone's interests.  The underlying realities of the situation are simple enough.  But they are very hard.  The arts depend on patronage, and artists are only as good as their preparation.  Patronage is an ever shifting fact of life, and dealers, critics and curators have always been a structural parts of the world of art.  But, just as the decorative artists, court painters, and church musicians of the ancient regime were, by and large, faithful servants to the end (with a few highly publicized exceptions), the stakeholders of the current regime will remain faithful to the end.  And, to put it mildly, the art world is struggling to adapt to the enormous concentration of wealth of the last generation and the ongoing loss of public support for the arts.  The little rich and the high income professionals were a great source of support for the arts in past decades.  Not so much anymore.  And there simply aren't enough billionaires to fill the hole.

And, when you look at how artists are prepared, trained, cultivated, the picture is as grim.  Grafting arts education onto of broader liberal arts education makes all the sense in the world if you’re cultivating an appreciative lay public, not so much if you’re trying to train professionals, particularly when you glorify talent and genius, rather than craft and diligence, skill and discipline.  And today even that approach to arts education, in the United States, at least, is in disarray, not because the instructors are weak, the programs defective, or the students lacking potential, but because the social context in which they exist has shifted radically.  Like highly refined niche species, they are incapable of adapting to the new climate.  I'm told that this problem is even worse in the old Soviet Union.  The resources have been withdrawn.  But, of course, the graduates are still churned out, some with debt, some with attitude, some with both.

So the times are hard.  And they are getting worse.  And they will continue to get worse.  Until the players are forced to either leave the field, or walk the walk.

What other field of human endeavor seems to be in similar straits?  Good old  traditional, business as usual politics, anyone?


Monday, March 6, 2017

It's Sinking In . . . or Fellow Travelers, Gullible and Otherwise

The Russian taint.

Slowly, vast swaths of the American public appear to be concluding that the Trump regime is in some spooky sense beholden to the Russian government.  It is a cumulative and piecemeal process, and what is important to some people does not move others.  But, overall, the conclusion is hard to avoid--the Russians successfully 'hacked' the 2016 election, Trumps surrogates, agents, campaign manager, etc., are in pretty routine contact with Russians counterparts, Trump himself and his family have business interests that fatally compromise the independence and autonomy of the American presidency vis-a-vis Russia.  And that's without even getting to lurid hints at filmed sexual depravity or rumors of a half-billion dollar Russian 'investment' in Trump's businesses.

Maybe it will all blow over.  Not likely.  Not with the attorney general getting caught lying under oath about it (excuse me, misremembering in his testimony).  It is kind of funny watching the party of the Benghazi witch hunt balking at looking into a real problem.  The people who wanted to pin personal responsibility for consular security issues on a secretary of state who, I doubt, could have found the consulate if you'd given her a map of Benghazi?

Almost 70 years ago, Republicans in Congress engaged in an earlier witch hunt, seeking Communists and sympathizers in Hollywood, the State Department and elsewhere using as their tool the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the investigative activities of Senator Joe McCarthy (whose subsequently disgraced lawyer was a man named Roy Cohn who, interestingly, years later was the lawyer of a young New York real estate scion named Donald Trump).  The intrepid witch hunters of that era used the term 'fellow travelers' for people who weren't actually Communists, but who were sympathizers, or at least acted in tandem with them, or, at a minimum bumped into them in meetings or whatever.  If they were merely political sentient and on the left, unaware of the Communist affiliations of some of their political allies, they were 'gullible' fellow travelers.  For knowing what was going on, you lost the dismissive but ameliorating modifier 'gullible.'

The concept of 'fellow traveler' made it easier to hold people accountable for things they didn't know they had done.  It would be delightful to apply the same standards to Trump and his minions.   Let's see, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a 'gullible' Russian asset.  Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, well, maybe not so gullible.

Anyway you cut it, it's pretty un-American.