October 22, 2012 · Print This Article
Being a visual artist today is a vow of poverty. Few go voluntarily into art for financial reasons. And those that just happen to meet with financial success, probably would have done even better on Wall Street. From experience I know that the the vision quest toward understanding conceptual art strips most of their petty materialist needs.
When I was 15 I badgered my father to buy me a Chrysler Conquest if I got straight A’s. (It’s one of my last and most embarrassing secrets.) He wouldn’t have been risking much by agreeing because I was a poor high school student, but balked anyway for fear that I might make a miraculous turn-around. I didn’t, and by the time I did turn it around in college I had moved beyond sports cars and into the monastery of the conceptual art world.
I often repeat a line that I borrowed from a professor: “I don’t need to buy art. I own it when I know it.”
This distinction is problematic for those outside art world, those not privy to nerdy conversations in boozy studio visits. People who hear and read about paintings selling for millions of dollars at auction have a difficult time squaring art’s abstract concepts with its concrete price tags.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He asks me regularly “how is the art business is going.” He means “how much money do I make selling pictures,” but instead of opening my ledger book, I rattle off numbers from the Art Newspaper about weekend sales figures at Christies or Sotheby’s. I throw Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons in front of him like barrels in a street chase.
He likes numbers. He likes things more than concepts. Or he thinks he does. Father-in-law regularly sends us parcels filled with fun gizmos we don’t have the space to store: clunky media docks with LCD screens and radios to park and enhance technologies that we don’t use or have the inclination to manage. Sharper image gadgets that deionize the air, and stand-alone self-balancing coat racks that, should we use them, would injure us as we navigate to the bathroom at midnight.
This past week we received a package that contained what looked like an old-fashioned analog telephone but with an adaptor to fit into the speaker jack of a cell-phone. If worthless in its utility, the concept isn’t completely un-funny. After its idea is absorbed though, it is doomed to live life out in purgatory under the bed, not quite thing and not quite pure concept. like art, gifts have an aura that make their physical disposal unpleasant for its custodians.
The logic behind creating this novelty phone isn’t dissimilar from the logic that inspires much of the work in the sculpture studios of any MFA program. The difference is, in the case of the conceptual entrepreneurs behind that phone, they have no way of monetizing their creation other than mass-producing it. So they do, and it’s cheap, and my father-in-law buys it, sends it as a conceptual gesture, and finally I unsuccessfully try to curate it into my tiny apartment museum, wondering year-after-year what to do with it. Like my own personal Walter De Maria “Earth Room”.
My wife and I recently had a baby. This baby lives in our nuclear submarine-shaped apartment. So something had to give, and it has. Our museum of impractical gifts has been forced to deaccess. Ebay, Goodwill , regifting and recycling. Out with a wine rack that “whines” when you take a bottle out of it, out with the mounted fish that sings hillbilly songs, and out with the inexplicably hookless Green Bay Packers helmet-shaped head warmer that needs to be set on a shelf so as not to smash its internal hardware.
I disposed of these gifts last weekend, and as I did, my wife waxed nostalgic about the birthdays and holidays they signified. I told her, in true artistic spirit, she will always HAVE these gifts because she KNOWS them. That it’s the concept not the material that is the real content. If they were useful they wouldn’t be haunting the space under our bed.
She sighed unconvinced and I continued to jettison.
I felt a little less burdened by purposeless clutter afterward. But alas our new family still remains shoehorned into a 400 square foot railroad apartment, and in spite of my vow of poverty and material austerity, I find myself daydreaming of a big house, one with lots of closet space, a dining room not doubling as a baby’s feeding room, and maybe even a back yard with a swingset.
I will never need a McMansion out in a treeless subdivision, for I am an art monk, but does musing about concept make me an apostate? Maybe one day when UPS figures out how to ship rooms from suburban homes, my father-in-law will put one in the mail for us.
Last week I set out into the heart of industrial Bohemia in Bushwick to see my friend Brian Hubble’s show at Sugar. The scene, familiar to most art adventurers in New York would surely be an unexpected gallery excursion for those used to frosted glass storefronts and freshly minted gallerinas from Sarah Lawrence.
* See “Thoughts #5: Bald Eagle” for an expansion of these thoughts.
Hubble’s mixed media works provide a somewhat droll commentary on the coded language around various modes of artmaking. His works are both deadpan and thought-provoking, leaving one to question the relationship between his objects, concepts and the performative actions. While his is familiar territory for many a cerebral eclectic and 21st century art practitioner, his success hinges on finesse, and he finesses very well.
Thought was in fact provoked, and a friend and I took the discussion from the gallery to a dark watering hole nearby, where the discussion spawned anotherabout how concrete, specific, and available and artist’s intentions should be.
“An artist is a communicator who should want to meet minds with the viewer, unless its’ a person diary, in which case the work shouldn’t leave the studio.”
“But it’s VISUAL communication, which is by nature less objective than verbal communication. So with risk of sounding like Clement Greenberg, why should art aspire to the verbal/temporal, when its native ability is to be spatial/temporal?”
“Exactly, that was true with the medium specifists, but since art has been impregnated by concepts surrounding language and philosophy. What makes Brian’s work good is that is aspires to destabilize the relationships between objects and practices.”
“Is it ‘destabilizing’ or is it merely using hybridity as yet another metaphor for poststructural uncertainty?”
“Maybe, but they’re good metaphors…and until the lesson is learned, don’t we need them?”
It was wonky art talk that lasted until we got to what I call “Point Wittgenstein”, a term I created for the moment at which art conversations approach an unproductive degree of relativist absurdity. As is always the case, we dialed the chat down and ended up talking about the Pittsburg Steelers then why gourmet food trucks will be as much a symbol of the year 2012 as mutton chops on a weatherman were to the year 1974.
Last night I flew back to Milwaukee on my regular AirTran flight, where I somehow became ensnared in a political conversation with the passenger next to me. The guy asked if I watched the presidential debate and I conceded that Barrack Obama looked listless, but mentioned the effect might have been offset by the unemployment rate dropping below 8 percent. “We’ll see,” I said, “this’ll be a wild ride.”
“How do you know they weren’t fudging the numbers and manipulating the language to the president’s benefit? How do we know if anything he says is true; he may not even be from the United States?”
I thought “Has everyone in the world abandoned all tact and perspective; who goes conspiracy theory on a stranger before either’s had a Bloody Mary or two..is he going to tell me about his sex trips to Thailand next?!”
Then I had a quick pang of relativistic self-doubt: “How do I know the numbers and facts aren’t manipulated? It sounds crazy, and I’m pretty sure that this guy with the Under Armor pullover next to me isn’t privy to insider information that others aren’t, but, still, how do I really know?”
It occurred to me then that “Point Wittgenstein” might be becoming a universal phenomenon; the spirit of absurd skepticism and relativising from Montesquieu to Descartes to Pierce to de Saussure, to Wittgenstein to Barthes to Derrida, et. al., that has either infected or inspired cultural theory, seems to be permeating mass consciousness. Questioning the fallibility of mediated truth used to be a special province of wooly-headed professors at CUNY or in Frankfurt, now it’s for guys in row 23E.
This morning I got up and drove like a maniac to Fond du Lac, WI to teach class. As always, I tuned into NPR until, and, as always, I lost range somewhere around the junction of highway 60. The signal started going in-and-out, switching between Morning Edition and a classic rock station from Oshkosh. In the garbled flux I heard an ad for deer meat processing, which is common on non-NPR stations around hunting season in Wisconsin.
* See “Thoughts #5: “Bald Eagle” once again for a deeper analysis.
When the radio settled on a station again, I heard a blurb that puzzled me: two researchers won the Nobel Prize for “venison.” It made no sense. I was puzzled, but it was early. Was it misheard NPR or a rush hour FM rock jock spoof about deer prizes?
As I was conducting my internal audit on the venison prize, I noticed the flashing lights of a state trooper in my rear view mirror and pulled over to the shoulder.
A chubby trooper shuffled to my passenger side window and asked me if I knew that I was going 84 in a 65. I said I never know for sure, that I have a silly little dial that I’m forced to trust. But before seeming like too much of a smart ass, I told him I was late for school and that if I didn’t get there on time my students would go “Lord of the Flies” on me. He was polite if humorless and wrote my ticket promptly.
As I pulled back on the highway my mind searched for ways out of the 200-dollar ticket. It hunted manically through the realms of possibility until it lost logical footing, stepping out into the mist of uncertainty:
“Einstein’s theory of General Relativity! You never really know how fast anything in the universe is traveling, really, do you?
“Of course you don’t…in a starship that doesn’t exist, but in court rate = distance/time. Like pie tastes good.”
NPR sizzled back into range as I drove. Noble Prize in “Medicine”, not “venison”.
More coffee, required.
The truth eludes us sometimes, but on earth, it usually catches up before it vaporizes into total nonsense.
September 24, 2012 · Print This Article
My father-in-law was born in Cedarburg, WI. So was his father. And his father before him and his father before him. My wife’s family has eerie family portraits on the walls in their house like the ones in Scooby Doo and Peter Sellers movies in which generations of patriarchs line up side-by side, looking alike save for unique period facial hair patterns. No wandering eyes, but if it’s late enough and you have anything in your subconscious to hide, your mind will play tricks.
That father-in-law’s granddaughter – my daughter – was born last Tuesday at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt medical center in New York City. A break in geo-natal continuity that silently resonates through the family only coming out in polite, passive-aggressive reminders about the merits of life in Cedarburg.
I’ve refrained from telling dad-in-law about our labor odyssey on that special day. The previous day was Rosh Hashana, the roads were empty and the late summer sun shone gloriously. But we went into labor on Tuesday of course, driving through walls of rain and relentless traffic, from Brooklyn all the way to Manhattan’s west side. On our final approach to the hospital, on the other side of Lincoln Center, we stalled behind a handsome cab finally inching into the hospital entrance at walking speed.
Once admitted into the maternity ward, it was concluded by the nurse on duty that my wife’s situation indicated “impending” but not “imminent” labor, and should leave the hospital. Apparently, in September, there’s a run on birthing space and prioritizing is necessary. Despite my resistance we were urged to leave and “stroll around the neighborhood” until she was further along, “maybe get lunch at the Time Warner Center and relax” until we moved the ball into the red zone.
Given the driving rain and my firm belief that Per Se wasn’t an ideal location to go into a birthing holding pattern, I splurged for a hotel room that was nicer than anything I might have reserved for our honeymoon. Within a half-an-hour it was clear that my wife should be in a hospital. Desperate, we called her doctor who instructed us to drive to 77th and Columbus for an emergency visit. I didn’t finish my Shake Shack burger (almost caught in a Jujy Fruit Seinfeld moment) before my wife called to inform me that the birth was indeed imminent and that her doctor had called insisting on re-admittance to the Roosevelt birthing ward. I drove French Connection-style 20 blocks south to the hospital and escorted my moaning wife to the 12th floor, the car idling on the curb the whole time.
Yada yada, we now have a beautiful, healthy baby daughter..and a colorful only-in-New York story to crown the ordeal. Though I’m not sure I will forever cherish it. My mother-in-law who was staying with us and took in the play-by-play over the phone as it happened, wouldn’t stop telling a story about how her husband’s mother was born premature in her house with the help of a mid-wife and a life-long family physician who put her in a shoebox in a dresser drawer with hot rocks as soon as the cord was cut. I still don’t know the exact implication of the story, but judging by the frequency of its recanting, it means something.
I’m sure Roosevelt hospital spills over with all the best technology available to man and baby, but still, it’s hard to fathom all that magic could be almost out of reach because I was stuck behind a horse. And that our access to it was blocked by a nurse who was treating expecting mothers like construction workers getting egg sandwiches at a bodega at eight in the morning. But still isn’t that better than a drawer full of rocks? Who knows. But I’m not telling my father-in-law anything. I guess he can’t jab at me about the horse.
I’ve always said that I wanted my child to build her formative foundation in a sandbox in Wisconsin, and have all her crown molding finished in New York. The jury’s still out on all that construction in-between.
But alas, the concrete’s been poured.
September 11, 2012 · Print This Article
Venerable New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael is often misquoted as having said she couldn’t believe Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election because she didn’t personally know anyone who voted for him. This sentiment has long been deployed by conservatives as a symbol of Northeastern liberal out-of-touchness.
It’s September and school is back in session, which means I’m a frequent flier and again wearing slip-on shoes to get through security easier. I was thinking about Ms. Kael’s statement, and of availability bias when one of the TSA agents in Milwaukee blurted ”you’re not going to vote for Obama now are you?” He laughed after he said it, but only to indemnify himself. It struck be as strange that he would pick me, coming from New York, to needle. He must have noticed the box clipping I tote around of a Chia Obama I found under the seat of a rental van 4 years ago, though I have it as a good luck charm, not a political symbol. As far availability bias, not only can I not name a colleague in Brooklyn who voted for John McCain in 2008, I’m not sure I know anyone there who knew anyone else who didn’t consider the McCain-Palin ticket as anything more than fodder for Lorne Michaels. Yet, over 50 million Americans disagreed. And it appears one of them may work in security at General Mitchell airport in Milwaukee.
Last Tuesday in my Cedarburg, WI studio the furnace maintenance guy barreled in as I was prepping panels. Though it was 79 degrees my father-in-law had called in a pre-emptive strike against what he thinks will be the “most severe winter on record.” Funny, because everyone in New York seems to think this year’s winter will be even warmer than last – which was one of the warmest on record – due to the effects of global warming. For the record, I believe in global warming; however, I also believe that many now tend to forecast weather with politics instead of meteorology, hoping it’s warm in January if only to rub salt in the eyes of those who they see as apologists for unregulated industrialization. And, of course, vice-versa – I tend to believe my father-in-law is personally willing on a cold winter so he can show all the hippies in Massachusetts that the sky isn’t falling.
Anyway, he sent the furnace guy to my studio to make sure everything was ready for the coming ice age. And without provocation and for means of introduction while we shared semi-intimate space together, he blurted, “Did you watch that convention last night, (referring to the DNC) Crazy stuff, huh? If we don’t get Obama outta there soon, some shit’s going to hit the fan.”
I’ll never reveal where I personally stand on politics, but you can be sure that if am ever invited to a dinner with your family I won’t kick off the exchange by asserting my opinions about religion, politics or sex.
The only possible explanations for furnace dude’s remarks are: 1. That he’s incredibly tactless, or 2. He’s so insulated from anyone who would find what he said unreasonable that he considered his remarks as safe as any platitude about the weather, or 3. My father-in-law coached him to try to figure out my politics. If you’re reading this, dad-in-law, you’re out of luck, because I’m a vault.
I agreed that the world was descending into the abyss and kept sanding.
This past Friday I returned to New York for the weekend and went to see a documentary about the artist Wayne White called “Beauty is Embarrassing.” It was an engrossing and surprisingly uplifting 90 minutes of chilly theater time, and the second time in three weeks I had gone to see a show at IFC. The other was for Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me.” At the end of both shows I embarrassed myself by trying to exit just as the Q and A sessions with the film’s subjects were commencing.
Especially in the case of “Sleepwalk With Me,” I felt a mild unease with the nature of the post-film discussion. Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia fielded questions graciously and humorously, but were conspicuously on message – they were there to spread gospels to their disciples and encourage dissemination to those in the deprived hinterlands. They actually encouraged us to use the social networks at our disposal to disseminate our praises to those outside of New York.
This smacked of desperation to me. “C’mon, you’re Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia, do you really have to pander like buskers with hats out? It’s not becoming of superstars to beg like hobos.”
I just got back into Cedarburg today and am prepping for class tomorrow. As we do every Sunday, my father-in-law picks me up from the airport and drives me through the main drag of Cedarburg to see what’s new. Nothing ever is, really, that’s the charm of the city. It’s actually kind of ironic that he’s so bent on seeing what’s new, when in fact he’s actually trying to reinforce how not new everything is.
Well, actually one thing is new every week: the movie showing at the one-screen, second-run theater in town, the Rivoli. It’s usually something that plays well with families. Maybe an “Alvin and the Chipmunk, the Squeakquel,” or a Pixar movie. This week it’s “The Amazing Spider Man.” I hadn’t even recalled another Spider Man being made – it must have gotten lost in my mind with all the Tobey Maguire sequences and the whole “Afraid of the Dark” fiasco.
We circled the town one more time, detouring by the fire station to see a new truck that he’s showed me each of my last four visits, before we arrived safely at the homestead. At home I spread out in the living room floor like a fat Labrador to prepare for class. But only before procrastinating with some Art Fag City gossip and looking up box office receipts for some recent motion pictures.
The Amazing Spider-Man Sony $260,005,361
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel Fox $219,614,612
Sleepwalk with Me IFC $535,948
I thought, Two hundred million dollars? How did it make that much money. I can’t name a single person who paid to see Alvin and the Chipmunks!!!”
You know, it’s hard to teach about Postminimalism with the box office totals for a Chipmunks movie weighing on your mind.
As I placed Eva Hesse images into a Powerpoint, Alvin went on heckling me in a high-pitched voice.
“We’re winning. We’re winning big, Mr. Shane. Bigger than Nixon in 68. Bigger than Nixon in 72.”
Last week I wrote at length about image overload vis-à-vis a portrait of Dave Winfield I drew when I was a teenager. The point wasn’t merely to note that the information age has altered how artists parse the world, though it has, but to get at this notion about how wisdom and magic co-exist on a sliding scale; that wisdom might be seen as the accumulation of information, while magic, conversely, arises in the vacuum of concrete information.
I continued to bounce the idea around as I got sucked into M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” last weekend. (Spoiler alert: perfunctory twist-ending soon to be disclosed.) In the film, a group of town Elders convinces the villagers that supernatural lurk in the surrounding forest. To bring the point home Liam Neeson dons a monster costume haunts the woods, and in the process cements psychic control over the town. Toward the end of the film a young woman is instructed by the Elders to brave the forest in order to retrieve needed medical supplies. The drama ramps up as she scrambles anxiously through the woods, until she reaches a wall, where on the other side a park ranger waits in a modern 4 x 4 vehicle. And, gotcha! Well, got me at least.
It’s a clever misdirection. But more than being a cute cinematic trick, “The Village” happens to be an apt metaphor for my two basic philosophies about the relationship between wisdom and magic: 1) a fundamentalist philosophy in which information leads to wisdom and 2) a relativist philosophy that conserves information in the service of fantasy and magic.
The Fundamentalist believes truth and information shall set one free; the more information transferred, the closer one is to truth.
The Relativist holds that truth and information should be dispensed discriminately, but the right information, at the right time, in the right doses, approximates truth.
Some notable fundamentalists (based on my own interpretation, of course):
Jean Paul Sartre
Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Judd Nelson’s parents in the “The Breakfast Club”
Some notable relativists:
Liam Neeson as Town Elder in “The Village”
Colonel Nathan R. Jessup from “A Few Good Men”
The headmaster in “Dead Poet’s Society”
Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Guy Pearce in “Memento”
Molly Ringwald’s parents in “The Breakfast Club”
Several weeks ago, while I was communing with my wholesome Lake Wobegon-esque in-laws—fishing off piers, roasting s’mores in fire pits, telling wholesome jokes lifted from Laffy Taffy wrappers—I caused a stir by dropping the t-bomb: I told a story about a transvestite around the children.
Children are curious, and the questions came fast.
“What’s a twans fest eye?”
“Are you a transfestite?”
My aunt gave me the head-tilt and hushed voice tsk tsk. She said it barbeque-style: slow and low.
“That’s a F-O-R-B-I-D-D-E-N word!”
Having a few beers in me, I dug in.
“Is it the word, the concept, or the act that’s taboo?”
“All of the above, they’re just too young to be saying the word.”
“So it’s the word itself with the magical powers?”
“So you wouldn’t mind if I taught them about transvestite culture, as long as I didn’t use any banned words?”
“C’mon Shane. We just think it’s mature content that they shouldn’t be exposed to at this age. That’s all.
“He knows he’s a boy, and that his sister is a girl. What’s so extra mature about the notion of ambiguity?”
I plowed forward like a fullback.
“So if the cultural aspects are off limits, could I talk about transgender as a biological issue?”
I could see the adults were getting frustrated so I let go of the throttle.
Ambiguous gender was an unsavory topic limited to adults. End of discussion.
My adult company were information relativists and believed information should be withheld from children in order to carve out a proper fantasy. For the safety and well being of society, they choose to put unspeakable monsters in the woods and keep the transvestites in the cities.
I normally fall on the “truth-shall-set you-free” side of things, but as I continued to chew on the idea of image overload and of the state of magic, I reran a vision of my young nephew walking outside the cabin with his fishing pole and a cup of night crawlers, muttering “trans-fest-eye” under his breath. He put on his life vest, sat on the edge of the pier and fished patiently until he caught a tiny small-mouth bass. He ran back into the cabin ecstatically, recklessly swinging the fish and demanding that it to be on the evening’s dinner menu. Before we could dislodge the hook, someone was slyly on the way to the market to buy enough fish to feed 17 people. Even right now, my nephew thinks his 4-inch fish somehow produced 10-times its edible flesh. We all sat at a long communal picnic table that night praising his catch and smacking our chops as if it was the best fish anyone had every consumed. Each family member fought to lay it on thicker than the next until my nephew was intoxicated and dizzy with fake praise.
The image was almost too Norman Rockwell to trust, too Mayberry to believe my memory of it was reliable. Saccharine-sweet with an aftertaste of something fishy. Or was it fishy with an aftertaste of saccharine? It was something like reality, anyway. But a reality created through control.
Funny, “a reality created through control”—that’s not a bad definition of art.
A wise man once said that a map of something that is exactly the same size and detail of what it is mapping ceases being a map. It’s true; sometimes having all the information in the world isn’t as redeeming or as useful as having a little bit of it well edited.
The ultimate question then is: when one goes seeking truth, does one try to grasp reality all at once, or does he start with a map?