At the risk of sounding like a shill for Google, I will dedicate this post to Google Books. Actually, it’s now
called Google Play, but I’m old and find this concept confusing, so I’m going to ignore it. I suggest you do too. It is possible to purchase contemporary titles from Google Books and read them on your device, but so what? Everyone sells digital books. You can even check them out from the library. What I find most compelling about Google Books is the access to periodicals, old ones that I’d never encounter on my own. Admittedly, I’m pretty infatuated with old magazines. I bought 54 years of Gourmet off eBay, co-edited the New Art Examiner anthology, and interviewed Bad at Sportser Meg Onli for Art 21’s Centerfield post. Onli is currently working on a project about Black World/Negro Digest. She’s accessing all of her material through Google Books. I realize people use Google Books all the time, but I want to reframe it from just another place on the interweb trying to part me from my money, to an invaluable tool for artists.
Google calls all text, books, even magazines, even pamphlets, so keep that in mind. A simple search on “art” and restricting the results to free, yields only 47 titles, but what interesting titles they are. The first hit is The Art of the Moving Picture…: Being the 1922 Revision of the Book First Issued in 1915. Well, there’s just so many curious things about this book, I hardly know where to begin. The Art of the Moving Picture makes some excellent assertions, that still ring true. For instance that the pace of the “action photoplay” leaves no room for “full grown personal passion” (12). Think Die Hard or Con Air. Some things have not quite stayed the same. For instance “when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy” (207). I wonder what the author Vachel Lindsay would think of today’s upscale brew and views?
Because it’s Google, you are able to search within individual titles. Starting with magazines, restricting results to free, and searching “art” brings crazy random articles like this one from Vegetarian Times, called “Vegetarianism in Art.” There are more popular periodicals as well–hundreds of issues of Life. A browse of December 28, 1936, reveals a story about the first panda coming to the US and workers for the WPA’s Chicago theatrical arts project striking at the Merchandise Mart. The American Art Directory Volume IX (1911) has advertisements for art galleries on its forepages, is lousy with statistics, and names of artists and curators of the moment. And in case you didn’t know, back then all the high-end Chicago galleries were on South Michigan and admission to The Art Institute was twenty-five cents.
Besides book and magazines, you can also find other, more sundry reading material. There are many museum and exhibition catalogues, gallery brochures, bulletins from art organizations, but these charmers are a little more shy and require quite a bit of coaxing. Perhaps a bottle of rose and a bouquet of peonies would help.
Obviously, there is little contemporary art represented here, at least not for free. “Modern” in Google Book world lingers somewhere around 1912, which is kind of fun because searching a word like “sculptress” yields dozens of hits. Be warned, there are serious issues with meta data. Clicking on “Magazines” does not bring you to all of their magazines, it brings you to items scanned as individual issues. Most of what I read comes from bound volumes, that although look quite bookish, aren’t. Most of these are classified as books, though they’re still just magazines. Don’t expect the date Google gives you be correct, because it often isn’t. Read the title page. Even with these limitations, I still recommend spending some time on Google Books and exploring what these old magazines and books have to offer.
“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett
I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeing Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dérive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation — even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.
While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition — you see, here it is — the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before — consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.
When I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enable new possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many films meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.
In Drive the gender roles remain fixed — the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling — her only salvation — is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego or anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.
The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.
The careful cinematic style of Drive reminded me of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block — a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.
Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insane side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think? we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That part is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incredibly seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.
But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power — he’s 30 Rock’s favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; we enjoy the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x. Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).
As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic. Ken Corbett’s book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies — from his own psychoanalytic practice — that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.
“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects — audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).
Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads in Tree of Life, for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life — something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.
What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves? Tree of Life is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention. The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. Both Tree of Life and Drive seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy. And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts — there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?
September 2, 2011 · Print This Article
First the “Good News:”
You might not know this, but for the last 6 months the Bad at Sports has been doing a once a month art “gabfest” for the Art 21 blog. One of the folks we do that “gabfest” with is a former guest of the show, Dan Gunn, and he has a 12 x 12 exhibition that will open to the public tomorrow. We can’t wait to see it and I am sure you feel the same.
The “Bad News.”
I got an inexplicable e-mail this week from Jim Kempner, all it said was “Gallery Closed.” Now this might not strike many of you Midwesterner’s as important or relevant news (what is one more closed New York space) but that is where you, my friend, are wrong. The reason is that Jim Kempner is also the purveyor of “The Madness of Art.” Which began with this episode of raw genius and the Chicago legend Tony Fitzpatrick. We can only wonder if there will be more of “the madness” to come.
UPDATE: Seems like the gallery is still out there killing it big style. Also the Madness’s third season just dropped. Check it out at… http://themadnessofart.com/category/season-3/
The winner of the first annual edition of ArtPrize has been announced, and it’s Ran Ortner from Brooklyn, New York. The Prize is a contemporary art competition based in Grand Rapids, Michigan that has eschewed traditional expert juries in favor of a public vote on the winners. Ortner, 50, won the top prize of $250,000 for a painting titled “Open Water No. 24,” a dramatic, 6 x 19 foot oil painting depicting ocean waves in a realistic fashion.
Taking the second prize and its $100,000 award was Chicago artist Tracy Van Duinen for his tile mural titled “Imagine That!” on the façade of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.
The $50,000 third prize went to artist Eric Daigh of Traverse City for his portraits made entirely from colored pushpins.
The other artists in the Top Ten each received $7,500 prizes. All winners of the ArtPrize were determined by votes cast on the ArtPrize Web site or via text messages sent from cell phones. The winners were announced last night.
$449,000 — the total amount of prize money in the contest–is, as they say, a shitload of cash. This alone has made ArtPrize the most monetarily rewarding contemporary art competition in the world right now. Where did contest organizer and social media entrepreneur Rick de Vos (who established the website Spout.com, a social-networking site for film buffs) get it from? The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation (Rick De Vos’ parents), who is listed as ArtPrize’s primary sponsor (Rick De Vos is the grandson of Amway’s cofounder). Numerous other De Vos family relations were also top contributors to the contest funds (see here for the full list of ArtPrize sponsors). The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation’s mission, according to its 2006 funding guidelines, is
“to serve as faithful stewards of God’s blessings through a focus on 1) Christian Evangelism through church building, family building, and youth programming; 2) Education through programs that provide support for parental choices in determining where their elementary and secondary school-aged children attend school; 3) Public Policy that results in a freer, more virtuous, more prosperous society. The Foundation does not allocate funds to individuals, for-profit organizations, or candidates for political office.”
Clearly, the material benefits to artists gained from winning the three top prizes and even the lesser amounts are tremendous. In terms of its financial benefits, winning a contest like this one far is better than winning a grant–at least in terms of how profitable it is. Rick De Vos told the Detroit Free Press that his goals in establishing the contest were to promote conversations about art and to create a hip cultural event for Grand Rapids, Michigan. And the contest succeeded in creating lots of buzz and tons of entries–1,262 artists entered the contest, and nearly 14,000 votes were counted in the final round (334,000 votes were cast for the initial pool of entrants). So not only did the contest offer the biggest monetary prize, it promised a democratization of the means of selection. Everyone who took the time to register in person at the ArtPrize event got to vote on the works of art hanging before them. And the results of their votes mattered – a lot.
But does ArtPrize offer a viable model for others to follow? Not really, as I see it. For one thing, it’s hardly a replicable format. If de Vos had rustled up that much cash in any other way other than tapping family money, I’d be more apt to sit up and pay attention. But the fact remains that this contest with its enormous prize would not have been possible without primary support from a single Foundation that, at least in its other funding efforts, has shown itself to have very specific social and political agendas.
Yes, the Grand Rapids audience was given the empowering opportunity to circumvent the critics and the curators and the other so-called gatekeepers to make their own statement about which artists are most deserving of recognition. Lucky for everyone involved, it appears that none of the artists selected for voted the top three winners make the type of work that would prove to be embarrassing to the contest’s sponsors – no poop photographs, no naked ladies, no same-sex coupling. What would have happened, I wonder, if an unknown artist making photographs with subject matter similar to that of Catherine Opie’s “Domestic” series had won? Nothing, I’m sure – but it’s a good bet that if that happened, next year’s ArtPrize wouldn’t have mom and dad’s big money behind it. And probably not nearly the number of artists entering the contest. And audiences/voters caring about it.
Art21 contributor Nicole Carruth was asked by the ArtPrize organizers to reflect on the significance of the contest through a series of written essays that included an interview with Mary Jane Jacob, Professor and Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the interview, Jacob offers a pointed critique of the contest, which in part centers around her misgivings about the competition’s huge prize award. Notes Jacob:
“My real misgiving strategically, long-term, with the project is the huge disparity in the prize money in an art world where artists need a lot of support — art always does.
We’re at the 48th anniversary of the Calder, which was a high point of public motivation of art, and the NEA’s flowering, and so forth. We’ve seen the demise of the individual artist grant program and we’re still suffering from that. Some grant programs were out there already, some ramped up further, like Pew in Philadelphia or Bush in Minneapolis. But then other ones with a lot less resources and smaller amounts have done volumes of work, like Creative Capital and Artadia. And nobody in any of those is getting $250,000. I think we’re not looking at $250,000 artists here. I have a problem with the division it creates when that amount of money, $500,000, could be spread in equal or on more egalitarian ways. That could support 10 or more artists.
… That confrontation, that nexus between the aspiring artist, emerging artist, overlooked artist and the broader public is a great conversation. We see it enacted here and it’s a great success, I think, on that level. But then when the final result becomes something that then shifts to a paradigm that is more like American Idol or winning the lottery, it doesn’t necessarily sustain either that individual or this system or the art world. I even find it problematic with colleagues from those institutions that I’ve named who are struggling to have something that doesn’t join the conversation of [artist] development, sustainability and support…To see that supporting artists is a positive and necessary endeavor has a great ripple effect.”
Jacob’s critique offers us an invaluable framework for considering the true value of big-money contests such as this one and, even more importantly in my mind, for putting the “generosity” of sponsors like the de Vos Family into its proper context. Many people from various points on the political spectrum are troubled by government funding of artists, and to be sure there are a number of valid reasons for their discomfort. But we should think twice about investing too heavily in the contest model offered by ArtPrize.
To my mind, the “democracy” of choice promised by ArtPrize masks a more distrubing desire on the part of its major sponsors to do away with government support of the arts advocated by those who they imply are “cultural elites.” But as Jacob points out, not everyone can win the lottery, and not all artists will win an ArtPrize. ArtPrize makes for some razzle-dazzle regional publicity, sure–but it doesn’t present any real alternatives that the rest of us can run with.
The Getty Museum on Fire? Not so far, according to the latest L.A. Times report. Thankfully the Center’s evacuation seems to have gone smoothly. Sad to say, but this kind of disaster is a regular occurrence in SoCal, and it’s not the first time the Getty’s been threatened by advancing flames. Here’s hoping everything’s back to “normal” quickly. For the rest of what’s been happening so far this week, read on…
*Jason Foumberg of NewCity reports on the cessation of Individual Artist Grants this year, and in forthcoming years, from the Driehouse Foundation.
*Arts Stimulus Funding and the Art Economy: Hrag Vartanian at Art 21 explains it all for you (extremely clearly and well; especially useful for those of us who suck at math).
*In Chicago, interest in building a South Loop art scene is on the rise, but can it really happen in this economy? (Chicagoist).
*Lynn Becker does it again: my fave architectural blogger gleefully deconstructs the wedding photos of a fab young couple who got married at the Art Institute (Edward Lifson took the gorgeous pics). Edited to add: I only just realized that “Lynn” is a he! Whoops.
*Sarah Jessica Parker talks to Artnet about her partnership with Bravo on The Untitled Artist Project (via Art Fag City, who also has an exclusive interview with the show’s casting director Nick Gilhool).
*Gallerist/blogger Edward Winkleman’s book “How to Start and Run a Commercial Gallery” to be released July 14th by Allworth Press. Click here to preorder the book on Amazon; Bad at Sports interviews Winkleman about running his own art gallery on Episode 169 of the podcast here.
*Check out the British Council and Whitechapel Art Gallery’s The Fifth Curator competition, for aspiring curators outside the U.K.