Wednesday 26 March 2014

Get Vaccinated!

photo collage

I have so many conversations with despairing visual artists it would seem that their frustration and depression are symptoms of a cultural disease of epidemic proportions.  The four most debilitating aspects of the infection appear to be:
 1) The lack of a solid social infrastructure such as galleries, dealers and representatives to support their practice, even as they’re expected to represent and even help save the society;
2) The subsequent lack of sales, despite a focus on ‘commerce’, forcing them to find other sources of revenue even as they fund and sustain their city’s visual culture practically on their own;
3) The involvement in the creation process of perhaps well meaning but impatient and fundamentally clueless family members and friends;
4) The lack of creative conversations with their peers and with other artists at a more developed stage in their profession who might serve as inspiration and validation.
What is tragic about this disease is its effect on creativity and creation. Artists become paralyzed by insecurity, doubting the very thing that gives their lives its meaning. If they don’t freeze up completely or abandon their art, they stop learning, experimenting and producing for their own reasons; they try to modify their work to make it more ‘saleable’. This is deadly both to them and to the quality of the culture they produce for sale or otherwise.
I see the effect of that every day in artists’ complaints and in the quality of art that is sometimes proposed for exhibition to my gallery. I see it in the endless ‘art fairs’ and charity art auctions that sell art at cut-rate prices. I see it in the flocks of people taking leisure or recreational art courses then rushing to sell their amateur work. I see it in art education that focuses on ‘concept’ and ‘virtual’ because it’s too expensive to maintain studios and provide equipment for actual media.
It is no wonder why artists like Picasso and Van Gogh managed to make art despite all the distractions, including family and marketplace, whether adoring or contemptuous. The sheer power of their faith in their own talent and unfailing dedication to developing it guaranteed their time in creation mode. They interacted with the world on their own terms, accepting the consequences, neither seduced by success and praise nor crippled by the blindness of others. They made themselves artistically immune to the disease.
Artists today are particularly susceptible to this art-destroying illness. The society around them is rife with deadly spores: it is especially dissociated from hope, self-deluded, superficial and materialistic as only easy access to mass-made stuff and cut-paste-post functions can make it. It is skilled and work-focused, but not as educated as the degrees its universities give out might indicate: its concept of Democracy, for instance, is that everyone Is, or should be, the same, when in fact, in Democracy, everyone is Equal, not ‘the same’. This misconception is especially detrimental to Culture and to the Arts.
The truth is, artists are not going to change society. If anyone has it in hand these days it’s the multinationals and the governments that rely on their support. They, engineers and the designers of electronic products are doing the programming, and it is not part of their agendas to promote the kind of pensive, one-on-one, time consuming, individualized activity that is art making. It is to the artists’ advantage, however, and I for one know for a fact that there are a lot more of them out there than anyone realizes.
All I can say to all these artists is redefine your focus and stick to your beliefs. Instead of constantly talking about needing to sell, bewailing the lack of recognition, comparing sales notes, badmouthing that which sells, donating to charities in the hope of having some exposure, agreeing to teach art as leisure or recreation and producing more and more of the type of work ‘that sells’, STAND BY YOUR PROFESSION.
How? Have real art conversations with each other about what you do, not complaint sessions about what society doesn’t do for you. And just as people may have a misconception about what Democracy is, perhaps too many artists have come to have a misconceived notion about Art and what it is. If artists don’t understand or value Art more than the cost per square inch or how many pieces they sold during any given exhibition, why should anyone else?
Visual artists must become more engaged in their practice, must become more involved with their peers on technical, aesthetic and philosophical levels, must accept the responsibility to the artistic community that comes with calling themselves Artists. We live in a sales-based economy, of course they must also sell, but they must do so because their work has value beyond that of a couch or a limitless reproduction.
As an artist, I understood something fundamental about whom I am and what I have to do. As an artist, while I am Equal to everyone else, I am not the same as everyone else. The expected sequence of achievement that society imposes as ‘normal’ on individuals, the assigned timeline for it, the required adherence to imposed values are all abnormal for me. As an artist, I understood that I have different Values than say, a scientist, a manufacturer, a banker, a priest. My understanding of ‘product’, my relationship to material, to space, even to ‘family’, my physical needs, my experience of time and my philosophical stance relative to success and fulfillment are completely different than theirs. Equal, but different.
That is what defines my attitude to my work. And that is why I engage in defending and protecting artistic practices that do not focus on selling. I have to remind artists that every second spent complaining is time not spent creatively, either to make art or to make it be known and respected.
Let us create our own antidote to the poisons in our social environment. Let us vaccinate each other from the creative disease caused by depression and frustration, but especially by the abandonment of our Values. We are artists after all. WE are creators.

Saturday 22 March 2014

The Artist's Quarter

See Me
photo collage

Many people seem to feel put down because they think they can’t afford to buy art; others seem to resent paying a decent price for art objects because artists love what they do; even others won’t buy art but are willing to re-mortgage the house to buy more electronics or fancier cars. And others yet seem conditioned to think that if they do buy art, they should do so only if it matches their d├ęcor while replacing the stock market as ‘investment’.
To these people, let me make some things clear: There is a lot of excellent art out there by highly educated, qualified, experienced and well-known artists in a huge range of prices. Other professionals love what they do too. Art lasts longer and retains more value than electronics or even most cars. We are attracted to things that have or generate emotion and meaning for us, that confirm who we are or that carry us beyond ourselves, and by our very interest in them, by our very attraction to them, THEY WILL INTEGRATE NATURALLY INTO OUR ENVIRONMENT if we bring them home.
There are so many misrepresentations about art besides these!
Art images are everywhere, in some places more egalitarian and accessible than even books and libraries, than even public swimming pools and hockey rinks. There are as many unemployed MBAs and as many nameless scientists or engineers as unemployed or unknown artists out there, there are as many athletes without agents as artists without galleries. It is entirely possible for an artist to live a decent life, one no less poor or decadent than most people’s.
Yet, ‘the average person’ seems to think of artists as somehow singularly unemployable and governments that they are therefore undeserving of attention. The ‘average person’ also seems to cherish the ridiculous ideas that artists are
1)     perforce recyclers or beautifiers of society’s discarded objects and garbage,
2)     decorators with no regard for the colour of people’s home decors;
3)     the ever-ready donors of their works for the benefit of charities and the improvement of society;
4)     those who will entertain children until these can be gainfully employed;
5)     if they are women, only artists after they are everything else first, and if they are men, arrogant, self-focused bastards and
6)     those who will teach all they know to others so that everyone else can pretend they are artists too;
While it clings to these self-serving beliefs, society, glutton for images though it is, will perpetuate the misconceptions that
a)      f you were a good artist you’d be rich and famous;
b)     you can’t make a living as an artist;
c)     if Picasso or Rothko can make millions, why shouldn’t any other person who picks up a brush?;
d)     and anyway, thanks to computers and the internet, not everyone needs to make art  to be an artist, all one needs is the copy and paste skill;
e)     art is vastly overpriced, inaccessible or undecipherable;
f)     artists are egomaniacs who use intellectual subterfuge to confound;
g)     artists are superior humans even as students or amateurs;
h)     artists love what they do so they don’t need to be paid for it;
i)     art appreciates over time and therefore is good investment, especially since the artist doesn’t get a cut of the increased value and even better after the artist dies and
j)     everyone is creative and artistic therefore everyone IS an artist, especially as a child and/or after retirement.
If she could, I’m sure my maternal grandmother would call down to me from wherever she is to say, “Patientia” (Spanish for ‘patience’) in her soft, all-accepting voice. I’m trying to follow her advice. I sometimes wish I had her personality. But I don’t, and really, I have to exercise extreme self-discipline not to blow up when I hear such inane generalizations, especially since they inspire parents, educators, politicians and educational policy makers. They certainly seem to motivate our governments.
Ai caramba!


Saturday 15 March 2014

Learning the Language

Performance Anxiety
photo collage
I was in a broker’s office recently talking business and staring at walls so bare and so… beige that I thought I was in Nowhere Land. There were a couple of badly framed things on the walls, diplomas or permits or something, and they conveyed not a feeling of accomplishment and qualification, but one of compliance and indifference. When I had to wait for papers to be gotten or computers to be consulted, I sat staring at the walls and wondered at their blankness.
This person is one of those who handle my money. Money, after all, relates to Culture, and in my life, Art plays the major role in allowing me to earn it. Also, at the very least I’d expect to see some sign of creativity, of imagination and flexibility in this place where someone is entrusted with investing money for me.  To see absolutely none was… distressing.
            I knew this has been this person’s office for years; it struck me as strange. I finally had to say something. I asked, “Have you thought about putting paintings up?”
The answer startled me. “Oh, we’re into sports,” she said.
I said, “Oh, great, so am I. But what about art?” 
“We go skiing, play tennis, you know, we’re busy,” was the response, as if that explained everything.
“Well then, how about putting up photographs of that?’ I asked encouragingly.
“Photographs?” the broker asked as if confounded.
Changing tack, I asked, “Don’t your children make art projects at school? Maybe those? You can get nice frames everywhere now,” I suggested. Because she handles money, I added, “Cheap.”
A frown appeared on the broker’s face. “Children? In an office? Anyway, my daughter has so many sports activities…” then her face brightened. “She’s learning to play a musical instrument actually. The school psychologist suggested it because she was... difficult. We had to force her to take lessons but she’s really serious about practicing now,” she said. “I think she’ll come to like it.”
I smiled, encouraged. “Sports, music, that’s very good. What about art?”
After a moment she said, “My daughter loves to draw. She’s always doodling, even when she talks on the phone.”
At last! “Exactly!” said I.
“She wanted what she calls ‘real’ lessons but since she loves it, she doesn’t really need them. Anyway, her schoolteacher says she has natural talent,” was the response.
“Really?” I said. Oh my gosh, I thought. How to do this gently? I said, “You love dealing with money, don’t you?”
“Always have,” she agreed.
I pointed to one of the diplomas on the wall, “But you got a degree.”
 “Of course,” she answered as if insulted. Then she turned pink, “Oh. I see. But she’s so busy already!”
“How many sports does she need? Maybe she’d be happy to replace one for art lessons?” I suggested.
“Replace sports?” she said as if I’d suggested something distasteful. “ She’s on teams! We love to ski! We love hockey! We love soccer and tennis!”
“Yes, but does your daughter?” I asked. “Does she more than drawing?”           
“It’s just drawing,” the broker said defensively.           
Just drawing. Just art? Them’s fighting words. On the child’s behalf, I put forth my take on things.
People seem to take the absence of visual art from their lives in stride. It’s ‘just art’, after all, nothing to miss, right? Everyone is naturally creative, right? It seems a majority of people I speak to who find out I am an artist tell me they COULD have been artists, they were that talented as children. Their eyes gaze wistfully into space and there follows a description of their talent, or of the amazing piece they made in grade four, or five… but then, they blink and tell me a teacher intimidated them or a critique crushed their confidence, or they didn’t get a prize, or a parent pointed out the eventual life of misery and starvation, or it took too much effort to learn the techniques...
It’s ok, it’s not important they continue, and proceed to tell me they dream of going back to their art when they retire to make extra money. That’s ironic, because, when asked why they don’t take courses just to keep it up, they insist, “Oh, I have no talent.” And when they’re asked why they don’t go to galleries or museums, or why they don’t buy other people’s art, if they’re honest they say, “I don’t get it.” If they’re not honest they say, “It’s all crap today!”
They seem to sweep all of the visual arts into the “maybe when I retire” box, but then accuse the art they see by others of being undecipherable even though they are the ones who have not kept up with it.
Pity. Pity because this abandonment means that too many people become adults who are visually illiterate. They can read, they can write, they can count (maybe), but can they see beyond what they are shown? They become compliant consumers, unable to imagine alternatives to what manufacturers choose to mass produce; they accept the loss of culture in their education in the name of ‘employability’; they become aggressively competitive rather than developing a good-natured complicity in their sports; they are unable to see that some things don’t fit their lives or personalities, no matter how many other people have them. They also come to view difference as threatening and to try to eliminate it rather than being curious about it or even tolerant of it.
Art (and therefore culture) becomes a language they cannot understand beyond the limited vocabulary of elementary or high school. Their opinion of it becomes closed, arrogant, even dogmatic, If and when they return to art making in retirement, they find they can only pick up where they left off as children, if they remember it; if they don’t learn to hate it. They come to being blind to the fact that blank walls surround them.
“If you put it that way,” said the broker once I was done.
I found out that since our conversation last year, her daughter has been happily taking at classes, and the girl’s drawings and paintings are now framed and hanging in their living room. Art images apparently now adorn the broker’s office beside pictures of athletes, communicating both thoughtfulness and achievement.
I am delighted. There is hope!

Saturday 8 March 2014

Consulting the Compass

Work in Progress
photo collage

I got asked for the umpteenth time, “How long did it take you?”
And I answered as I always do, “All my life.”
That’s how long it took me to make each and every work I ever created, and that’s how long it will take me to make every work until the very last one I can make: All my life.
“What does that mean?” was the next question.
So I listed the answers:
-            Each work an artist makes is not a stand-alone object but the product of a process and an engagement that involves body, mind and spirit
-                 Art objects exist completely connected to who the artists are and where life has taken them; their choices are specific to their core personalities, their aesthetic and their philosophies of life.
-                 What you see in works of art is what the artists consider important and meaningful in life, expressed in media.
-                 Artists do not live in vacuums, they are products of their environments, their cultures, their eras, their socio-economic backgrounds, their politics, their conditioning and education, even their loves and failures; the choices they make as they render imagery is the sum total of all these factors.
-                 It takes years for artists to understand the medium, to control the tools, to establish a style, to recognize symbols and interpret impressions as imagery.
-                 Self-awareness and maturity are essential to a sustained practice led by intent, whether this intent is expressed visually or ‘academically’, that is, through accompanying written artists’ statements.
“My goodness! I thought artists just expressed,” was the response.
“Sure, but what? Don’t fool yourself, even children from the very first are deliberate in their expression, it’s adults who don’t get about what. To express, one has to express SOMETHING. It may seem that it begins as mindless instinct or pure gesture (like monkey or elephant art) but as artists experience and mature, their work can’t avoid becoming more intentional.”
“But it doesn’t always look like anything,” was the next comment.
“Only if you don’t think as you look, if you just want to ‘feel’,” I said. “Then you can miss the point entirely.”
So I was asked, “But how do you manage it? It takes all your life? How is that possible?”
“Because life takes all your life.” I said. “There are no shortcuts, in time there is just more and more of what inspired the imagery in the first place, clearer, more focused, more aware.”
“But how do you stick to it?” was the next question.
“Despite everything else is how. Oh, there are huge challenges! Many people drop out within a couple of years of trying because they are too accessible, too social, too unrealistic, maybe too lazy even. Artists have to accept that there’s nothing easy about it and get on with it.”
“There has to be a pay-off!” I was told.
            “It’s not usually a dollar and cent one,” said I.
I took pity. “There is a secret to it.  I wish someone had revealed it to me when I was going at it: as you develop your practice, learn as much of everything as you can possibly learn but never admit to being able to do anything else but make art! The conversation should go like this:            
“Can you compute?” they ask.
You reply: “Nope,”  
                                    “Can you teach?” they ask.
“No, sorry,” you answer.
                                    “Can you administer, manage or direct?” they persist.
“Heavens, no!” you reply.
“Can you manufacture, haul, drive, pilot, nurse, follow orders, count, cook, … “ they insist.
Looking appropriately contrite, you reply, “Alas, no.”
                                    “What CAN you do?” they want to know.
You smile innocently: “Just make art,” you reply.
            I added. “The problem with most artists, especially women, is that they need to prove to everyone that they can do everything. As a result, they get stuck having to do it. Is that dumb or what? Wanna be an artist? BE and artist.” 

Saturday 1 March 2014

The Would-Be Critic

The Critic
photo collage on paper

I managed once to make it to Italy to see all the great works of art I’d ever only seen and loved in books. Among the most moving were Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Pieta, the David, but especially the Captives. These men emerging but never free of the stone from which they were created, these captives indeed, filled me with such longing, such a sense of power; it was as though I witnessed the birth of humanity. Of all the works I saw, these particularly spoke to me of the human condition itself, that in being human, we are in the end inextricable from the matrix of life, inexorably a part of the structure of all matter, stone as much as flesh, never ‘above’, ‘below’ or ‘outside’ nature’ but magnificently of it, ever in the throes of being created, and of becoming aware.
I was awed by the genius of a man able to convey what I interpreted as humanity's fundamental joy and dilemma in such a masterful way.
Later I stood looking at another of Michelangelo’s sculptures of Mary holding her crucified son, this one deemed ‘unfinished’, the very agony of her loss and his sacrifice expressed by every visible stroke of chisel. It was done later in his life, when he had long proven his mastery. I saw in it the confidence of an artist able to hold back description to expose the raw power of his technique. Imagine my reaction therefore to overhear this comment from a fellow museum visitor standing beside me:
“There, again. Funny he got so famous,” the man said to his companions and to me by virtue of a glance in my direction, ”he never finished anything.” They nodded in agreement. 
Surprised and a little shocked, I said, " Well, the unfinished or raw feel of the work is part of its meaning now, as we stand here looking at it." I would have continued to say that it’s what made the sculpture more conceptual than narrative but the expression on the faces looking at me stopped me. They stared at me. The man’s look was that of a man who thinks his leg is ‘being pulled’.
“Whatever,” he said to me. He turned to his companions, “Let’s eat, I’m hungry,” he said, and off they went, having spent all of maybe ten minutes to look at and dismiss five centuries worth of art.
“Tourists!” I said under my breath, and continued being amazed and inspired by what I saw.
Little did I know as I embarked on a professional life in Art that I would come across relatives of this man every time an art object went on public display.
In my roles as an artist and curator, I have since met many other ‘amateur’ art viewers. Something about their all-too-common reaction to works of art still amazes me every time I hear it. Unlike performance audiences who know they are there to be ‘entertained’ on all levels of that experience, some members of the visual art audience seem to go to galleries as if they enter an arena. They stand face-to-face with a painting or sculpture as if the work is a challenge. If they don’t ‘get it’ without any effort beyond looking, they try to second-guess the artist or to dominate the work, and they struggle especially to explain its price. They seem to fear someone is somehow trying to fool them.
They all too often preamble their judgment by announcing, “I don’t know anything about art but…” Knowing what they like seems to be permission enough for them to dismiss or praise a work on all kinds of levels I consider ‘expert’. They react to what they don’t like in the work as if it’s a mistake that needs correcting. When they don’t understand a work, they seem to overcompensate by becoming more dismissive. The “I could do that!” or “My child could do that” fly, as if their or their child’s being ‘able to do ‘it’ is some kind of put-down or insult. Really, I pity their children.
I have heard countless comments underlining the fact that people who make such statements are actually quite proud of their ignorance and think they’re in a place where they can indulge it with impunity. (There is no body checking in a museum, no danger of a concussion in an art gallery, no jab in an artist’s studio, no referee imposing penalties there either) Why is that? Do they fantasize that the artist is seeking their approval? Do they do this because they remember and still sting from their teachers’ or parents’ reactions to their own artistic efforts? Do they do it because they are faced with something out of their ‘normal’ and don’t know how else to approach it without seeming uncouth?
It’s actually funny. It would be as if they said, “Doctor, I don’t know anything about medicine but I know what I like and I don’t like the way you hold that scalpel!” Maybe the only reason they don’t say such things to surgeons is because of the anaesthetic?
Or, “Mr. 747 pilot, I don’t know anything about airplanes but I know what I like and I don’t like how you’re flying this one!” Maybe they only refrain from such comments because they want to land safely?
Or, “Look at that Eiffel Tower! Really, it should have been shorter and broader at the base. And why grey metal? It doesn’t match my couch!”
I tell such viewers this:
Artists consider nothing a ‘mistake’ if it carries meaning, is evocative and expresses the artist’s style or intent, and so the work of selection, adjustment and elimination is done long before the work is put in an exhibition. Therefore, my first advice to anyone coming to look at art objects is this: assume that everything you see is there exactly as the artist intended it. As you stand before it, receive it and relate to it as you would a piece of music or a theatrical performance. Be aware as you look that a viewer’s reaction is always a response, that ‘first impression’ is created as much by what the viewer brings to the exchange as by what the artist created.
As you look, as yourself such questions as: What am I looking at? How is it created? What attracts my notice, why? Does anything seem distracting or disturbing, why? How does it achieve this effect? What associations am I making? How far are the images taking me emotionally and intellectually? Is my attention being directed or am I being bounced around dizzyingly, and is this enhancing or interfering with my response ? And so on. This is the kind of reaction that leads to a fascinating mental journey, and if it is shared, an enriching conversation.