Sunday 30 August 2015

Of Memory and Photographs

The Landlord
photo collage C. Ascher

            It’s a funny thing about memory. There are different kinds. There is the pop-up memory that surprises us as we’re living in the now. There is the lingering memory, perhaps of something pleasant or someone for whom we cared, or the inescapable memory of a trauma or conflict. There are those just-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue teasers, or those deeply buried rotters that slowly poison our lives, those we sense are there but that we cannot, or will not access. There are those we’ve integrated so thoroughly into our skill or knowledge that they support – or sabotage -everything we do. Or there are memories that hook into us like fishing lures, their pull powered by the suction of our black holes, which we are constantly trying to escape.
Even funnier are those memories contained in photographs. There you are standing in a place or surrounded by people you don’t know. The photograph remembers them, it remembers you there, smiling, or mugging, or holding someone’s hand, but you look at it frowning, uncertain, surprised, with no memory of it at all. Perhaps you don’t even recognize yourself, perhaps other people have told you that baby is you there as they reminisce about how you were this or when you did that as you sit there skeptically, mistrustful, thinking they might be pulling your leg.
Well, that last is my experience of memory and of old photographs.
A friend recently told me he’d been looking at photographs of himself throughout his life. He remembers the places and the people clearly. The thing is, a man of sixty-seven, he has an amazing memory that stretches vividly back to when he was at least two. He remembers the houses and streets where he lived in another country, he remembers the names of people gone from his life for almost sixty years, he remembers objects he had and things he did and all manner of experiences as if he lives them anew with each remembering.
What amazes me is that he doesn’t need photographs to remember these things. All one has to do is encourage him with questions, one leading to another, and his past opens up to a listener like a movie being replayed. I sometimes envy him. There are too many things in my past that I only know about because of what other people remember. They are stories that make the photographs they show me seem vaguely familiar but that do little to trigger real memories of my own.
In another way, I consider myself the luckier one. When he talks about his past I hear in his voice such melancholy, such longing, such pain as he remembers I sometimes wish the photographs didn’t exist to confirm his experiences. It’s almost as if they help to transport him back physically:  there he is standing on a dock about to board a ship, an excited five-year old; now he’s standing and laughing beside a best friend; there he is throwing balls for his favourite dog to catch; or he’s staring proudly before the façade of the first house he bought.
That is the problem: when he relives the past he does so as the person he was then, as the child or the teen again; when he revisits it through photographs all he sees is himself, even when he’s not pictured.
For a while it worried me that he was becoming more and more consumed by these memories, that his random perusal of the photographs was causing a kind of emotional malfunction because it made him jump from event to portrait to place without regard for when he experienced them in his life. He’d forget that the child he saw smiling and holding a teddy bear was happily ignorant of what would happen a year later, or that the girl with whom he held hands in the picture would no longer love him shortly after the shutter released. He relived the ‘then’ but suppressed the ‘now’. He was unaware that his backward gaze as he ignored the present erased all his experiences in between, but also made him see colour where there was only black and white.
Now he’s taken to ordering his photographs in an effort to tame his memories, thinking that placing them chronologically will have a reassuring effect. He’s also taken the suggestion that, photo or no, he write his memories down with as much detail as he can remember, one a day. He must set the scene of each memory, describe the circumstances and the people and articulate the thoughts and emotions he remembers feeling at the time. This is makes him externalize them in a way that reverie, even when looking at the photographs, cannot.
So I tell him this: As you do this work, think like an artist. Don’t be sucked in by the emotion and don’t let the photograph help you disregard the present. As you sort the pictures, be the photographer, the one who holds the camera, not the unsuspecting subject in it being fixed in time. Imagine you, the today you, are taking each photograph, not just looking at it. And as you write, pay attention, let the memories inform you, note the hidden details or the things those pictured could not see coming, link one photograph to the next with the things the camera didn’t capture.
See the past with the knowledge you didn’t have then, for instance that your family was boarding a boat because it was being driven from its native country by a hostile new national government, that you would never see your friend again because he was left behind, that you had to abandon your dog. Flesh in the environment, the history, the politics, and the other external things you now know influenced the “then” in ways you could maybe neither avoid nor control.
The thing is, he needn’t be a victim of the emotions the memory triggers; he needn’t fear or wallow in them. He knows much more than he did then, he is much more than he was then. If he can let that knowledge lead him to new insights and discoveries about the person all those experiences made him today, good and bad, how much richer will the remembering make him!

Friday 21 August 2015

The Artist's Donation Conundrum

Time Out
photo collage C. Ascher

            Well. I have been invited yet again to donate one of my artworks for a fundraising event. I’m always told it’s a great honour I am being given, the opportunity to have my name beside tens of others’ associated with a good cause. I am reminded of said good cause, the implication being that I am to gain as I support, if only the satisfaction of knowing I’m not a self-interested, greedy person. However, I’m told the real pay-off is that I get to attend the event itself as a guest of honour, which lets me expand my network of contacts while also helping to promote and sell the art.
            I have donated to such events for well over thirty years. There have been exhibitions, auctions, special recognition gifts, and numerous other ways that I’ve supported good causes, from breast cancer research to under-funded, not-for-profit art centres. It did warm my heart to know that I could put my own interests aside to rise to the call. There is, after all, more and more desperate need for already heavily taxed individuals to help fund social programs and services once understood to be the governments’ responsibility in my country (don’t get me started!).
            Did I benefit by association? Satisfaction aside, not one whit. Few who bid on or buy the art at such events seem to be aware that there could be further contact with the artists. And many seem to believe that it is somehow unreasonable or distasteful for artists to expect to gain by their own work.
            Often, I didn’t even benefit from a tax receipt for my donation, a tax receipt for the sale price, not for the actual value of the work donated. See, while artists are again and again asked to donate, unless they are famous their work has no value until someone actually pays for it, at auction often way below the fair market value of the work, or in another kind of fundraiser only the percentage the artist gets after any commission or donation is deducted. That’s if the charity or organization has official status as a not-for-profit AND the right to issue tax receipts.
           Over the years, any pride or satisfaction I felt as a donor was undrmined by a nagging feeling that I was being used.  People usually go to auctions to underbid for works on which they’d have to pay commissions if they went to a gallery or for which they’d bargain if they dealt with the artist directly. They feel great about it because, while the artist loses the work and gets it undervalued, the buyer is still supporting a ‘good cause’. Many feel this is just because after all, artists donated work which they love doing, should be grateful to be encouraged to do it and happy for the opportunity to act in a highly moral way.
           For years, I still felt good about participating despite any doubts. True, my work didn’t always sell, but I was there: I leant my name to the event, I helped advertise, I sent out invitations, I was present to interact with guests, I encouraged any sales at any price, But.
           There’s an added twist this year to one of these fundraisers, an exhibition and sale. In previous years, I was automatically invited to the event for which I donated my work. This was usually a grand reception presented with much hoopla and attended by big crowds of artists and ticket-buying public. Buyers of works were often family, friends, students or collectors of the artists themselves. It was an ok event: where artists got 30% of the sold work.
           This year, however, to get a ticket for the grand opening of the event, we the donating artists have to either buy it for $40 like anyone else or waive our commissions if our work sells, no matter what the value or price. It’s not clear whether tax receipts for any amount will be issued. The idea is that we get to donate our work and help pay for the opening reception, wine, hors-d’oeuvres and all (even if these are also donated).
          To many, that offer may seem reasonable. Artists are given the canvases on which to create by a local sponsor so is it really all their donation? The event is after all for the venue’s or cause’s benefit, the organizers want a crowd of paying customers who’ll buy art, not a bunch of artists milling about drinking wine, eating hors d’oeuvres and hoping for attention. If I don’t want to be at the opening, well, they might not sell my work. No one will be out.
          To me, that’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful.
          Do I or don’t I donate anyway? It’s a fundraiser for an art centre, a place that supports the visual arts. It has always been my policy to support such places in any way I can.
          Hmmm. No. I’m thinking it’s time I let others who might not feel insulted participate. As a practicing, professional artist, I am statistically among the lowest earning, least supported individuals in this society, no matter how much education and training I have, no matter how much work I do, and no matter how much I donate. I happen to be one who has many, many ways to contribute to my society in general and to the arts and artists in particular. Constantly being asked to donate my artwork should not be one of them.
          So, what are my thoughts when artists ask me in my teacher or curator role  if they should donate work? These:
-                 Don’t be tempted by possibilities
-                 Make sure the venue, event or cause is one you believe in and can honestly support.
-                 Expect to be present and visible, don’t abandon your claim to your work.
-                 Remember that exposure, contacts, recognition, established sales prices, fair commissions, and       tax receipts are reasonable things to expect.
-                 Most importantly, evaluate just how much respect you and your work will be accorded.
          You are NOT being indulged, favoured or privileged. YOU are doing the good deed.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Ten Steps to Help Save Our Culture

photo collage C. Ascher

          I was recently part of two exhibition events in the suburbs of Montreal, one for which I was the invited curator, and one where I helped an artist friend set up her booth. Each event involved many member artists of local associations and a large variety of compelling, affordable works. Both were meant primarily as sales events. In both cases, there were no gallery or other commissions. Despite all that, and as far as I know hardly any works sold out of both events, and neither event was heavily attended by the public despite beautiful locations, good parking, great weather, and good advertising and promotion campaigns by all involved.
What is wrong with the audience? It’s a question that has long bothered me.
We live in a city, Montreal, and in a province, Quebec, that tout themselves as cultural, even multi-cultural, but ‘the culture’ has in large part to be accessible free of charge. People will turn out to look and be entertained, but very few will support by buying. Summer festivals with their large, temporary crowds may include sidelines of visual arts displays, but the focus is on free outdoor performances and on massive ticket sales for indoor events. Art exhibitions, whether in established galleries, alternative spaces or art fairs, may draw viewers, but too few, and too few of those walk away with a work of art.
There are many excuses. As a gallery curator, I have heard them all, from works not matching people’s furniture to the uncertain economy They are all lame. People are still buying electronics, cars, going on expensive vacations, throwing or recycling tons of stuff, even indebting themselves to do so. They have been conditioned by ‘the marketplace’ to want, even to need mass-appeal or mass-produced things, which need to constantly be updated.
The fact is that people are not brought to understand, appreciate or really value visual languages; they are neither nurtured as practitioners nor encouraged as real consumers of the visual arts. This is not accidental. Education in the arts has been systematically eliminated from the public school system by government after government. The excuse there is that the born artists will find a way to learn and create, they will even manage to thrive if they are chameleons and can multitask naturally, or they can go earn a living in other countries. But the reality is that professionally, those who stay will have culturally undereducated, under-appreciative, entertainment-hungry audiences who blather on about ‘creativity’ and ‘culture’ but who are blinkered, intimidated or cheap when they actually encounter either without a huge crowd around them.
I have been observing this growing phenomenon for more than twenty-five years. I blame both provincial and federal governments, and all species of politicians. This is especially blatant with the current Conservative government that has taken the elimination of the arts and therefore the undermining of our culture to new heights.
 This Conservative engine runs on oil and other exploitable natural resources. It has meant the worship of money, and the conservation of the power status quo through fear mongering, gagging new attitudes, eliminating any threat of change, and now with bribing for votes. For this to be effective, there must be a population focused on self-preservation that is not too informed. People who know this are leaders in countries we consider ‘enemy’, but they also seem to be serving as models for our leader. This is clearly why artists, scientists, reporters, First Nations, and many other possibly dissenting people are being gagged, discredited or treated condescendingly.
This is why, without their realizing it, people’s ‘culture’ is becoming devoid of individuality, of personality, of a national identity and of real choice. It’s why people’s homes are being stuffed with the same quick-assembly, replaceable, increasingly imported stuff from coast to coast. The economy this supports is about making political parties through their supporters rich so the arts, especially if people live with them, are out because they encourage people to slow down, to think, to feel, to really plunge into an experience without needing to be ‘extreme’ about it, and to be fully engaged.
Politicians know you gotta get them young to stop real engagement from happening. Without culture through the arts, without art education, people become unimaginative, uncritical, superficially judgemental, indecisive and complacent, in the end not wanting to be bothered. They come to believe ethnicity is the sum total of culture and become defensive of theirs. They don’t share or exchange or respect. It’s just what the government ordered.
Some people may like this state of affairs. After all, governments in this country are elected. If others don’t like it, however, they might wonder if there is an immediate counter-measure. There are numerous ones. Here’s a ten-step one:
1.              Frequent a couple of galleries regularly alone, with friends or if you have one, with your family.
2.              Look at work you like and compare it with work you don’t like.
3.              Talk to the curators or to the artists if possible and ask questions – here are no ‘dumb’ questions but avoid assumptions. Good galleries or dealers will be happy to engage, it’s their job.
4.              Encourage kids, even if they're not yours, to do ask questions. LISTEN. Make sure they get some kind of answer.
5.              Voice and share your opinion, let the kids voice theirs so that there can be a conversation.
6.              Get to know the artists’ body of work.
7.              Identify those works that mean something to you or that make you feel (anything goes).
8.              Forget your décor and buy original art pieces by actual, living artists. Pay the money.
9.              Install the art you buy prominently in your home.
10.           Live consciously with it – tell yourself it’s not decoration.

People who follow these ten steps this will be amazed at the effect they will have, even short-term, even one person, one family at a time. Then they might well understand how they have been deprived, how generations are being limited. Maybe they’ll be inspired to do something about it.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

An Artist at a Crossroads

photo collage C. Ascher

I recently had a conversation with an artist who finds he is at a difficult crossroads. As if being an artist weren’t demanding enough, he is a sculptor, and one who works to human, not environmental scale. What’s more he is an immigrant. He is European trained within a strict classical tradition in which technical skill acquisition is the focus. He was taught that art making is an end in itself, a profession, and an essential expression of the national identity. Technique is taught and personal expression is left for artists to develop once they graduate.
He is also a full-time teacher in the Quebec educational system. Teaching has been his main source of income since his immigration, though he has continued creating his own work throughout that time. As a secondary art teacher, he has followed and taught his European artistic philosophy for twenty years. This has apparently put him at odds with others in his department who view art not as a viable career choice, but as a vehicle for individual expression and socializing their students. The fact that many who teach are not also practicing artists is a source of intense frustration for him.
With cuts to his teaching schedule pending, he is faced with having to replace the lost income. In Europe, it was possible for him to make a living from his art. However, the Quebec art public is generally a complacent art public, used to having access to art without having to buy it. In fact, the ‘average person’ is convinced that being an artist can’t possibly be profitable, and therefore believes that artists who aren’t commissioned or who don’t get grants don’t really work unless they have ‘real jobs’: he must be a teacher who paints, not a painter who teaches; a construction worker who sculpts, not a sculptor who also works in construction.
That is the reality for those artists who choose not to leave Quebec for places with a more complex art history and a population that respects the artist as a professional, who choose to participate in their society directly, ever hopeful that the quality of their art will result in the same success other professions enjoy.  This has been known to happen to others in time; by all rights, it should happen to him, in time, with some re-programming.

First: he will need to use the newly free-up time to minimize his ‘teacher’ thinking and give priority to his ‘artist’ thinking. This is difficult. Teacher thinking is out-side-in thinking. His priority when he teaches is the student, and he modifies his relationship to his own work in terms of demonstrating how he does ‘it’. He uses his own imagery, technique, style and ideas to draw the students’ out. The students’ achievement in terms of finished projects and marks are what determine their engagement with art, and his constant struggle to get them to think as artists distracts him from his own evolution as an artist.
Even though he maintained a personal practice as he taught, and even though it was already solidly established before he came to Quebec, it is reduced. The divided attention and the focus on finished product within a constrained time frame, if not the exhaustion that comes with teaching compromise his process in the studio. For an artist, less or limited teaching is better than more: part-time is better than full-time so a reduction in his teaching schedule should mean good things for his art production.
Second: he will have to at first avoid expecting his art to provide him his living. This is also difficult, especially if he keeps reminding himself that it would have been doable ‘back home’. As well, his responsibilities as a provider will be more difficult for him to meet. If he must replace the lost income a reduction in teaching time represents, he has many choices of compatible jobs, jobs that depend on superior skills with dimensional media and its equipment as well as a strong visual thinking ability. With his skills and flexibility there is no reason why he can’t find work in art-related or art-dependant fields despite ‘his age’. These, however, are still out-side-in activities, and replacing teaching with other jobs gains him no time for his sculpture.
Other second, or third: he will have to secure his family’s support. His children are at an age when they can begin contributing to their own needs, and his wife, a fellow artist, is established in her imagery and can be professionally independent. As well, perhaps a family council can find ways that members of can act as assistants or help handle on-line promotional activities and exhibition demands to market the art he produces internationally. Perhaps the family can pool its considerable creative talent and find ways to manage with a reduced collective income for a while.
However, by far the most important work he must do is in his studio. He is not the person he was during his artistic training. He has been changed by his life in Canada, and in Quebec. He must ask himself if his work reflects this change. Perhaps the requirements of teaching on his attention and the rushed nature of his practice have acted like a time capsule on his imagery, freezing it in the past. Familiarity with it may be what has allowed him to continue working part-time on his sculpture, but it may also be the thing that constrains it. If that is the case, he has catch-up work to do. He has to reconcile the disconnection between his European technique-based approach and the North American idea (or concept) based approach.
This artist must find a way to reconcile and merge these supposedly conflicting approaches without compromising his style or fundamental beliefs about his own sculpture. That takes time. And that time has to be dedicated, better now that it’s less part-time than it was. That will be his huge challenge.