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.
I have a confession to make: sometimes on Mondays, when I’m in my studio in Cedarburg, working late, I sneak out the back door and down a back stairway to catch the second half of the Big 12 college basketball game at TJ Ryan’s bar on Washington Avenue. The act isn’t as deceptive as it might seem; if my father-in-law doesn’t notice my blurry, paint-spattered corpse slipping out on one of his army of unnecessary security cameras, someone, or someone who knows someone else, will undoubtedly see me and mention they saw me out. Nothing goes unnoticed in Cedarburg. But for me, precisely because of this hyper-surveillance, the back way is seductive…like 007 seductive – it somehow reignites a rebellious streak in me that once flouted authority by hanging out at a 24 hour Taco Bell in the early morning while my parents imagined I was in bed.
Tacos always taste best when they’re eaten on stolen time.
Last week I sneaked down to Ryan’s, nuzzled up to the bar, ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon and asked politely if they’d mind tuning one of their flat screens dedicated to showing celebrity roasts on Comedy Central to the Big Monday basketball game. About halfway through the second half of the game, I glanced out onto Washington Avenue and noticed my silver-haired father-in-law stopped at the crosswalk in his father-in-law-style sedan. As if he was supernatural, he turned to me at the exact same moment, smiled semi-accusingly and began to parallel park. He came into the bar, mounted a stool and matched my Pabst with a sparkling water. Then, with impeccable timing he whispered, “hittin’ the bars hard tonight, are we?”
“I don’t know how hard I’m hitting them…more of a love tap, really.”
He barely let me finish my thought before he struck up a conversation with the bartender, who he of course had known for decades.
“You can’t belch in this damn town without everyone telling their neighbors the next day what they think you had for dinner…”
He was too busy reminiscing with the bartender to hear me.
Distracted, and my bartender stolen, I got to thinking; the kind of thinking one can only do as they watch individual carbon dioxide bubbles wiggle up the side of inadequately cleaned pint glasses.
Something flashed on ESPN about the now famous Manti Te’o incident and I thought about my very mild shame for sneaking to the bar. Given his train wreck, mine wasn’t even a tap-out from a bad parallel parking job. But Sandy’s righteous glance lingered.
“Why should I even be phased by a sneaky Pabst run when America is overrun by public blunderers and moral transgressors: Petraeus; Spitzer; sex tapes galore. And Anthony Weiner!?”
Something about Lance Armstrong and a montage of other doping athletes flashed on the screen. All heroes until outed and dragged through the town square on their donkeys. Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin never did talk shows. Is it possible that Anthony Weiner is just a victim of a paradigm shift that happened to expose his ignorance about technology? A victim of circumstance? A man who grew up with mechanical cameras and tape recorders?
Maybe big city rollers, whose shenanigans once trickled like pittles of urine into the distracted ocean of big city life, have been caught in the age of social media with their pants down. Sitting in T.J. Ryans watching glances trade and polite eyes pry, it occurred to me that after years of anonymous and unchastened bacchanalia, New Yorkers might have let their social defense mechanisms dull a bit, while in Cedarburg they’ve been playing social goal keeper for 200 years and they hone their skills nightly.
New York City has always been a refuge for geeks, dissidents, weirdos, freaks, non-conformists, Bohemians, and anyone hoping to challenge prevailing cultural norms. It’s one big back door for individuals living an alternative lifestyle who wish to return to a 200 square foot apartment knowing the world won’t judge them like it might have back in Iowa. But media eyeballs have become more sensitive and prevalent, gathering information, filing it away for all to enjoy in some future CNN segment that will unfortunately be shown…in Iowa. We all do things that most find morally stinky, and holding it seems to be becoming a valuable life skill. Unfortunately for New York, it’s a city that thrives on letting it out rather than holding it in.
Watching another gas bubble rise through my pint of Pabst, I turned back to my father-in-law, a local politician who, in his worst public moments might tell a bad joke about ice fishing or forget your last name. He holds in his gas. He’s lived 75 years in a place where moral transgressions travel at the speed of light, and as a result he keeps his cards as close to his chest as a gambler. I know he’s a good man, but anything that might be untoward in his past is buried deeper than a lifelong neighbor could dig up. In other words, he’d never sneak out the back door, because he knows he’d be spotted, and he knows people would talk, and he knows they’d write their own narrative.
Pulling back the last ounce of flat Pabst I agreed to head home with my father-in-law, not really guilty, but still feeling a tinge of perverse small town shame that comes from knowing that you hid something.
As dad-in-law and I left the bar, I felt a little like a bad teenager plucked from a party that was busted by the cops. And as the door swung shut behind us I thought about Anthony Weiner and what his presidential chances would have been had spent the past 5 years in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
January 14, 2013 · Print This Article
The Home Depot is to many contemporary artists in 2013 what the art supply store was in 1913 – a place to wander aimlessly when ideas aren’t coming, hoping for a Eureka. To this day a Home Depot excursion still raises my heart rate like a dog about to be let out into a new park without a leash. Only, in New York, the excitement is partially offset by the maddening chaos within.
A glance into the parking lot of the Red Hook, Brooklyn Home Depot will tell you just about everything about the routine chaos: shopping carts strewn about its potholed lot and neighboring streets, some overturned, others stripped of their hardware; cars parked without regard for painted spaces, hatchbacks popped open selling everything from tamales to batteries to magazine subscriptions; desperate bands of unemployed laborers swarming for work. If anyone at the Red Hook Home Depot has any patience left after navigating the hazards in the parking lot, that patience will dwindle precipitously while fighting for position inside. It’s an environment that rewards the strongest and most brazen, and as a result, Red Hook Home Depot has evolved into a place where only the fittest endure. And so goes New York in general – for all that you relish about the diversity of ideas, people, food and culture, who isn’t amazed that the city doesn’t occasionally slip into some kind of Hobbesian free-for-all? When that melee does break out, my money is on the Red Hook Home Depot as ground zero.
My last trip to the Red Hook Home Depot was the final straw. I was there to get a half-inch piece of 4 x 4-inch plywood cut into 16 equal pieces – a job that in the right hands should take 10 minutes. Only, the employee who manned the ripsaw willfully resisted helping me for half-an-hour. When I finally badgered him into cutting the wood he did the job so haphazardly that it was kindling grade when he gave it to me.
Meanwhile, my Home Depot in Grafton, Wisconsin is laid out and maintained with the care and precision of a Prussian military unit. Not a single Toyota Sequoia, or Ford Escape SUV is parked out of place in the parking lot. Even the bags of street salt are stacked by the entryway with OCD attentiveness. Shopping carts have proper alignment, are in one piece, and always sorted into distinctive subsets – carts, separate from lumber trucks, separate from flat beds.
Two weeks ago I decided to head into that temple of a Home Depot for those 16, 12 x 12-inch squares that were mangled by the guy in Red Hook. Music was immediately audible on the PA system. In New York there is only the din of a thousand languages in an angry competitive blender. It was so quiet I could identify the song with Shazam. If you’re curious it was “Drops of Jupiter,” by the band Train. I grabbed a shopping cart and celebrated the calm by popping some Evil Knievel wheelies down the lighting aisle. Compared to the Red Hook disaster zone, Grafton is the Bonneville salt-flats; open, hazard free sailing.
Hazard-free except that every orange-cloaked employee insisted on helping me until it hurt. For all the Red Hook aloofness and apathy, the Grafton team is a community of customer service fiends, hell-bent on delivering home improvement to its customers. I couldn’t even load a 4 x 8-foot piece of half-inch plywood onto my flatbed before a dutiful employee intervened clumsily, grabbing the bulky slab and insisting on dragging it to the ripper. I told her I needed 16, 12-inch squares and she disappointedly informed me of ‘blade loss.’ I tried to tell her it didn’t matter; that I just wanted something better than an arbitrary Red Hook butchering I got the week prior. With willful altruism, she went on measuring and cutting my wood with the care of lung surgeon. An hour later the simple project had turned into a solipsistic crusade.
“Yeah, it’s tough given the blade width…you get a lot of loss. I’ll go find some scraps and we’ll see what we can do for you”
“Yeah, but for my purposes, what you’re giving me is more than fine…”
“Have you tried Fillingers in Milwaukee?
“I don’t need anything that professional for these test panels, really, because I got a guy in New York who makes the real ones…”
“Fillingers is the best, though…let me get you their number.”
I told her not to worry, but she was gone in a flash and so was most of my afternoon.
Eventually she came back with a slip of paper with a number on it.
“A. Fillinger Inc. 414-353-8433″
And before I could finally break her tackle, she launched into a story about her brother, an artist, who paints wildlife, but on canvas, and time passed slowly.
In the end, Grafton took every bit as long as Red Hook, only I got a stack of wood panels. So I had that going for me.
I was driving from Wisconsin to Brooklyn a few weeks later, as I do three or four times a year, panels in the back seat, and I got to daydreaming. I imagined the car cruising along this fake customer service continuum between Wisconsin and New York, kind of like the Griswolds’ Woody in the original Vacation. It occurred to me that there should be a place in Eastern Ohio equidistant from Grafton, Wisconsin and Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a customer service sweet spot. With all the politeness and personal care of Wisconsin and the naturally selective, catch-as-catch-can rigor of New York.
With the help of an iPhone, I calculated this mythical Arcadian Depot to be in Streetsboro, Ohio: store #3859. As I drove, I imagined I was Francisco Coronado looking for a lost city snow shovels, window glazing and table saws.
As I dreamed further, I could almost see it, a mirage in the distance as I cruised along interstate 80. Yes, there it was: a glowing orange sign signaling a corrugated monstrosity rising from a tower of basalt, knifing through a deep, gorge that somehow managed to cleave a nation, founded equally of helpers and fighters, givers and takers. And inside that warehouse swarmed a team of stoic, but still dutifully conscientious employees who wanted to help me just the right amount.
December 10, 2012 · Print This Article
My art department’s field trip this semester was to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the Chazen Art Museum. Like many museums, the Chazen’s permanent collection unfolds chronologically, progressing through art eras room-by-room, with the preponderance of work representing the modern and contemporary at the end of the tour in the biggest galleries. A funny thing happened as my class and I strolled through a millennium of art history; somewhere between the gilded altarpieces of the 13th century and the identity politics of the 1980’s, I realized that much of the impact of early modernism was lost on my students, and, for a while, on me as well.
I spent my college years an abiding supporter of reductive visual evangelists like Roger Fry, Adolf Loos, Clive Bell and others who set out to strip the western world of the ornament and excess of an outmoded academy. My students on the other hand grew up mostly without art as a significant influence in their lives. Yet they and I gravitated to the same works at the Chazen that afternoon: folksy melodramas by the pre-Raphaelites, John Steuart Curry’s hearty regionalism; Cossack-filled canvasses by 19th century Russian academics, and an exhibition that would have sent me running for Montmartre 20 years ago: “The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910.”
After a century of steeping in insignificance, these outliers finally seemed strange enough to pass for contemporary. Next to the forgotten neoclassicism and bizarre watercolors of the early 20th century I considered the possibility that the modernist gospel – the Manet through Pollock narrative – might be a bit overdetermined, perhaps baked too long in the ivory towers of art history departments. Conspiring with my students, to whom Piet Mondrian paintings read as clumsy academic pranks, and for whom Andrew Wyeth is an unassailable visionary, I dwelled on the legitimacy of a history subordinated by the modernist narrative; the Kenyon Coxes, the Franz Xavier Winterhalters, and the Jules Bastien Lepages. And for a while, Fernand Leger’s work had never seemed so tired, and Thomas Hart Benton’s never so improbably contemporary.
A few weeks later, I attended a program in New York City called “Culture Shock 1913” at the Greene Space with some friends. It recounted the events that rocked the cultural world that year, including the Armory Show, Arnold Schoenberg’s first atonal symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade. MoMA curator Ann Temkin persuasively made the case for 1913 being the most pivotal cultural upheaval of the century; a time when civilization hung in the balance, its future up for grabs.
In terms of art I might have quibbled, but with the assist of music and literature, I was reminded of the reverberations and residue of that formal remodeling project. Listening to Erik Satie next to Stravinsky next to Schoenberg, and considering the formal inventions of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Picasso and Matisse started to laugh at me from their graves.
The question inevitably arises from such panel discussions as to what the next big thing in art will be. Are we doomed to languish in cyclical postmodern ennui, or does our ever-unfolding society always unpack a new paradigm at every dead end? Ms. Temkin was sure there would indeed be an “it” and “it” would be something birthed from technology and social media. Even with Picasso snickering, I had to wonder silently whether “it” might still be a wholesale reevaluation of the modernist project, dredging up an alternative history to coexist alongside the one we’ve taken for gospel.
On Monday, back in class, I decided to serve up some Rite of Spring to my students to gauge it’s impact. Before the music could even set in, one of them blurted, “it sounds like a soundtrack to an intense science fiction movie.”
“An old one?” I asked. “No one in the theaters now.” I agreed that it did, but pressed no further. They were squirming and ready to flee as freshmen do when class time is up.
I looked up at the clock and confirmed that class was ending. Only as they scrambled out the door did the institutionalized simplicity of the clock strike me. “The stripped-down and reductive spawn of 1913, ” I thought. Twelve sans serif black numerals stark on an ornament-free white metal disk covered in curved Plexiglas. Vladimir Tatlin himself would be proud of the legacy. And modernism ticked along implacably as the students moseyed on.
We may all be moving past modernism, but its ghost haunts us whether or not we’ve been listening to it rattle its chains against the tile floor of the institution for the past 50 years.
November 26, 2012 · Print This Article
My wife and my new daughter and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Cedarburg last week in the manner her family has for decades; by dressing up as pilgrims, Indians, and a single dubiously distinguished guest donning a turkey costume. As I held my daughter in that turkey costume, I wondered how tasteful or relevant the pilgrim/Indian myth was in 2012, but bit my lip in order to avert a sensitive issue.
Instead, as my child ramped up to a feeding, right when we were sitting down to eat, a heated discussion about breast vs. formula feeding leaped into the vacancy that would’ve been more comfortably filled by an argument about stereotypes and outmoded mythologies.
Having lived the past decade in bourgeoisie precincts of Brooklyn, I was unprepared for the onslaught from my older relatives. I’ve never been exposed to an enclave of formula supporters – everyone I know who’s had a child in the past decade has opted for breastfeeding with the righteousness that one might a when opting for a reusable shopping bag or when signing a petition to end human trafficking. If you listened to any segment on New York’s NPR station about the city’s plan to offer free formula to new mothers, you’d have thought that the city was offering them Four Loko.
But apparently there is another side to the argument. And it was made at our Cedarburg dinner table by my older in-laws as they paused periodically to help themselves to canned cranberry sauce – a side dish I dismiss as totally as they do breastfeeding. The pros they presented were scattered and grasping, in the manner that rituals persevered by fashion and habit often are. Still, I would never dismiss an practice simply because a few of its practitioners defended it incoherently. There’s usually an underlying logic to any ritual, even when none of devotees can remember what it is. I know this from years of having to defend contemporary art to students.
Defenses like: ‘breast milk makes a child gassy’; ‘mother’s get anxiety about not producing enough milk, which affects their relationship with the child’; ‘the child may be susceptible to the effects of the mother’s sherry consumption.’
As the excuses flew scattershot over the dinner table, I fixed my eyes on my great-uncle-in-law (a staunch formula supporter) slicing the shapely gemstone of canned translucent cranberry into perfect coins. Another neat medallion was shaved from the dwindling cranberry cylinder by a great aunt whose pro-Similac pitch beamed through the metaphysical prism of the jellied side-dish and split the resounding argument into its fundamental components.
“Why wouldn’t you want something that was measured and the same every time you served it? That’s why they call it formula.”
Yes indeed. F-O-R-M-U-L-A. As regular and unwavering as any myth meant to sort out the unknown and uncontrollable vicissitudes of chaotic reality into manageable pieces.
As the Similac-supporting crew whittled down the cranberry plug, they unwittingly revealed their deep appreciation for an entire age when cylindrical foodstuffs – the Primary Structures of food – signified industrial and technological progress. And conversely, an age when eating a farm-raised, grain-fed bird or a bundle of gnarled, irregular carrots was represented a wanting or lack of access to the post-war bounty of articulated metal and mass production.
The discussion dwindled after a half-hour and the drama of the Lions game took its place. The wedge of cranberry finally toppled as the hand-made cuts took their toll, its concentrically ringed ass ending up in the air. Still close to perfect from behind though. Take the plate away, put the glassy, scarlet disc in a white cube at the Green Gallery 50 years ago, and it would’ve been a minor masterpiece. A sweet ‘n tangy Craig Kauffman, perhaps.
I’m sure none of the cranberry feasters know or care who Craig Kauffman or Donald Judd is, but their taste lets me know that they do in a deeper sense. They lived the same fantasy of industrial routinization exulted by Harley Earl, Kauffman and Judd alike. They helped shape and were shaped by a cultural milieu a half-century ago that has given way to one that yearns for the past they relinquished. One with dusty farms, knotty wood and fresh churned butter. And one with breast feeding. They left behind an untamed and less-regular past for one that could guarantee perfect cylinders of gelatinous, processed fruit that tastes either like irrefutable progress or oversimplified reality depending on who you ask.