So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.
March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.
I received my second speeding ticket in six months last week in Wisconsin. He got me on a long, well traveled straight away and pulled me over right in front of the school where I teach. Several of my students gave me thumbs up as they walked by.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
“Probably about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-six. Do you know what the speed limit on National Avenue is?”
“Based on your head being in my window, I’m guessing less than that.”
I honestly assumed it was 35. Anywhere but Wisconsin it would be 45.
With a look of righteous contempt that should be reserved only for scumbags trafficking teenagers inside elephant tusks, he said, “Twen-tee Five.”
He left my window abruptly and came back 20 minutes later with a ticket and a sanctimonious lecture about traffic safety.
Indignant, I told him he was being petty and probably confusing a professional obligation with something more elevated. I asked if he was clocking on National Ave. because of a particular hazard or simply because people were flouting the rules. If no one was getting hurt, I told him, it might be speed limit issue rather than a public safety issue.
None of this pleased him very much, and he threatened to give me a ticket for not getting a Wisconsin license within four months of moving to the state. I barely wiggled out of it by convincing him that I maintained two legal residences.
Once again, the letter of the law prevailed over the spirit.
As you could glean from passages in my last 20-some posts, I’ve identified a certain abiding love of order, routine and uniformity in my Wisconsin community. Rules and laws such as speed limits often turn from tools to achieve positive ends into ends themselves. And the love of order and uniformity makes it hard to identify different cultural tribes as one can might in New York. Any Cedarburgian, from the pastor to the sculptor sports something like Kohls issue business casual, making it difficult to tell who’s who. Walk down Orchard Street in New York on a Saturday and easily separate the artists from NYU students, from bankers, from urchins, from tourists. Heck, separate the painters from the sculptors from the performers.
This is an overstatement for the sake of argument, of course, but to the degree that it sticks, the Balkanized culture is almost too diffuse to support an avant-garde in the truest sense of the term – the Avant in NYC can’t identify the derriere to push off. As a result, there are a thousand separate avant-gardes, each busy fighting private revolutions.
In Wisconsin it seems there’s still a normative culture for vanguard to push against: i.e. cops straight from central casting preaching about public safety. Armies of people hitting the town on Friday night for hot wings and pizza because Indian food is too strange. Many, many painters of elk.
With this in mind, I felt sort of Bohemian when I first landed in Cedarburg. I felt like Picasso working in my own private La Bateau-Lavoir in the backyard, the adjacent Lutheran church my Sacre Coeur. So it was surprising to me when my attempts to engage the local art scene in Milwaukee proved so difficult. After setting up my studio, I sent out a few casual emails to some curators and artists suggesting studio visit swaps, meetings for coffee, or whatever. All real casual. All stuff I do routinely in New York. People solicit me. I solicit others. Everyone solicits everyone, and it the end we drink lots of coffee and beer and share art and ideas about art.
I recently reread an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from last year, called “Making a Scene: Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde.” It describes a vibrant and energetic community where:
“Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.”
That was the scene I sought when I sent out those casual emails. Thinking about the futility made me recall a moment years ago as a gallery director when I threw away a submission of images from Coral Gables, Florida. The gallery owner told me to pitch it, and it made me feel a little shallow and sad. We might have taken a look it was from Brooklyn, but the truth was, we rarely received good unsolicited packets, and never from Gables Florida. Our time was limited; we were just playing the numbers.
So now I’m Coral Gables. I’m a painter with a studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, home to caramel apple shops, hair salons, and people who crinkle their noses at falafel, far removed from that community of maverick artists who forged their own private avant-garde in Milwaukee. An avant-garde, which, like all avant-gardes, needs a milieu and a derriere to shove off. And it sucks to be the rear end, even if it’s only part-time.
Sometimes it makes me just want to hop into my car and drive 100 miles-an-hour all the way to back to Brooklyn…but I can’t now, because if I get three more points on my license they’ll take it away…and then I’d be forced to stay in New York for good.
February 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Last week I returned to New York for the first time in a month – my longest stint away since I moved there in 2002. If you’ve read any of these entries over the past year or so, you know that my part-time residence in Cedarburg, Wisconsin is a bit quainter than my neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Any quaintness Greenpoint offers is mitigated by the realization that it’s sitting on 30 million gallons of spilled oil, that comes out in occasional farts that engulf the neighborhood. It’s not a sharp scent, but one that hovers, a dull top note that occasionally drops in to interrupt one’s enjoyment of a hot dog or cup of coffee. It’s so subtle that you almost forget that it’s there. But a few weeks away from New York is the equivalent of eating a handful of oyster crackers before tasting a new wine. And my return offered a fresh sip.
In addition to the aerosol of volatile organics, I happened to be downwind from the Andreas Gursky-esque water treatment plant on Greenpoint Avenue, which added a tangy middle note to the urban perfume that gently spritzed the wrist of my day.
The bottom note of the multilayered fragrance came in the form of some especially earthy marijuana smoke seeping through my building’s ventilation system, which eventually melded with the others into a unique mélange that only Brooklyn could produce.
* Other sub-notes such as diesel fuel, boiling cabbage and wet garbage also contribute to this one-of-kind fragrance.
Ironically, I planned to meet a friend later that day to see, or rather, smell, a show called “The Art of Scent” at the Museum of Arts and Design dedicated to “olfactory art.”
It turned out to be a great change of pace from my traditional art safari. The content scents in the show emanate from a couple-dozen concavities in the wall, shooting fragrance when they detect the motion of a curious head. “Olfactory art” translates here to created scents, so there’s no “bacon” or “cotton candy,” just perfumes and colognes. That was a little disappointing, but I figured I could go breath the exhaust from a halal cart if I needed something more grounded than Jicky.
I went through the show three or four times, until the nerves in my nose surrendered. And until they did, it was a thoroughly orgiastic experience. Even the repulsive Drakkar Noir transported my back to a locker room in 1988. Given the vacuity of much of what’s passing for visual stimulation around the art world, one could do worse than to engage in an orgy of the nose. The only downside was that dinner afterwards, which I’m sure was loaded with flavor, tasted as bland as a handful of oyster crackers.
I left for the airport on Sunday morning, picked up by a car service whose dashboard was graced by a Lady of Guadalupe candle. Its smell blended curiously with Armor-All and residual cigarette smoke.
Northside No. 5.
I met my father-in-law at arrivals and we drove back to Cedarburg. When I got out at the homestead, I pulled in a long, deep drag of Wisconsin’s best air. And my sinuses froze immediately. It smelled like cold. Which smells like nothing. But, still, so inert and fresh.
I thought about all the air spritzers I’d purchased that claim to smell like water or cotton that actually smell like a Palmolive factory exploded. Not water, nor cotton. Not fresh. Olfactory metaphors. Is ‘freshness’ a scent, or lack of it? Pure Concept?
And, is a little sanitized nothing better or worse than a lot of pungent something? Or are scents part of a yin/yang cocktail of potent wine and oyster crackers, living symbiotically?
I walked inside the house where a pile of bratwursts awaited my arrival. Hot and glistening. Timed perfectly for my arrival.
They smelled, simply, delicious.
On my first day of class in Wisconsin, I dropped a “Breakfast Club” reference that thudded like Judd Nelson’s career after “From the Hip.” And I immediately felt a compulsion to familiarize myself with contemporary popular culture.
A man in my upper 30’s, my touchstones for affective metaphorical connectivity seemed to be mossy and only getting mossier, so I set out on a mission to brush up on my understanding of Rihanna, Drake and to discover what the heck Aeropostale is, through a strict regimen of MTV and regular trips to Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall.
I think this is a pretty common anxiety for professors who try to relate knotty concepts to their students by drawing from more familiar examples. I begin every Contemporary Art class by comparing art to fashion, and knowing fashion beyond what I might have worn to a Temple of the Dog show in 1993 would certainly behoove me.
I showed my class an image of a guy in a fine suit and asked, “If you were raised by English-speaking wolves, and encountered this person, would you know what he was trying to express through his choice of clothing?”
A resounding “no.”
The students agreed that the English-speaking wolves wouldn’t know that suit to be any more fashionable, or business-like, than a banana leaf loincloth. I suggested that works of art often function like fashion, though hopefully not always. I said that the best works, as Peter Schjeldahl has noted, communicate ideas, while the vast majority merely occasion them. In other words, less successful work needs to manufacture meaning, and thus should be understood within a self-enclosed system of signs, rooted in the history of art and ideas rather than in experience.
This held their attention for a moment, but I lost it again when I showed one of Anna Betbeze’s tattered wooly rugs and a Tom Friedman sculpture of accumulated pink eraser shavings. I got a version of the ‘anyone could do that’ complaint from a hockey player in the back of class. I usually match such pat resistance with a line from a comedian in order prove that a simple, elegant observation can ring as legitimate as a baroque painting that took weeks. I performed a clumsy version of the Jerry Seinfeld bit about how if someone from another planet saw humans cleaning up after dogs they’d naturally assume the dogs were in charge.
I think my problem was that I went for the whole impersonation in addition to the joke, and impressions aren’t my strong suit. Either way, they didn’t relate. I imagined my class as me, and me as my dad recounting Klinger jokes from M*A*S*H on a morning in 1979. Eyes rolling back.
This second thud, compounded by the “Breakfast Club” dud, sent me poking even harder for common ground.
So I finally broke the fourth wall, and asked directly what they found amusing.
A collective “meh.”
“Whatta about music. What do you listen to when you hang out and study?” I kind of felt like a viral marketing specialist conducting a focus group for a new energy drink.
“How about Beyonce..is she still big? I saw her at the Deuce in Miami two years ago and she looked pretty FINE.” Trying to seem cool.
“What do you do to waste time when you’re sitting in your dorm rooms when you’re not reading your art history book?”
I told them that in undergrad I used to sit around eating Chef Boyardee ravioli and watching “Real World” marathons when I should’ve been studying. I also had a roommate that watched this movie called “Army of Darkness” over and over and over and that I couldn’t stand it because it was like a watching a video game without having the pleasure of interactivity.
And then I caught a twinge in my audience. A spark of vitality. A flicker in an eye in the back of the room; a twitch of a thumb in row two.
Video games. Yes!
Most of the class, including the girls, lit up when I mentioned video games. And someone exploded giddily that the game “Call of Duty” was going on sale at midnight, and it was quickly clear that most of my class would be in line to purchase it. A major event in a world I didn’t know anything about. Before I could get dismissive, I recalled waiting in line outside at Kieff’s Music in Lawrence, KS at midnight to purchase R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People.”
I haven’t played a video game since a stand up arcade version of Karate Champ in 1985. So my mission to relate to my students would prove far more complicated that laundering old Seinfeld jokes through a newer and more relevant comedian. I’m up against a behemoth. A new paradigm that I don’t understand.
Considering now all the Johnny Depp and Major League Baseball and James Patterson Books I’ve dropped as relatable examples, I can’t help but wonder how much pedagogical ground I would’ve gained if I would’ve known anything about the game “Halo.” If I could only trade all of what I know about Seinfeld for a vague knowledge of which video game console is which. You’re never too old, right?
Maybe sometimes you are.
As the last few minutes of class melted away, I had a revelation. What these millennials need is a video game that bridges the gap between alternative visual culture and first-person shooter. A video game with substance. A video game that matches its phenomenological impact dynamic graphics with hearty intellectual concepts. What these millenials need is a video game about contemporary art.
And as a man already on a mission, I pledged in that moment to bring it to the world. Stay tuned for what will be my greatest masterpiece: “Bruce Nauman: Call of Duty” – A first person shooter game where the act of shooting turns into a feedback loop of self-awareness, making the player uncomfortably self-conscious and forcing them to stop and do something else after a few minutes.