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Journal Entry

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Cover Artist on Art

The cover of my collection is a stock painting by the marvelous artist Brad Holland, whose portfolio is here.

I really like these: 1    2    3    4    5    6

He has an essay in New York Art Commentary:

Avant Garde: Over a hundred years ago, some French bohemians decreed the purpose of art was to shock the middle classes. It may have been a great idea back then. But these days, the middle classes aren't paying attention. They're all on Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake talking about their cross dressing experiences or sex with the baby-sitter. It's the cutting-edge artists who have to watch in silence and eat their hearts out, complaining about the state of American culture, and demanding even more grant money for more cutting-edge art. In the future, this spectacle of the middle classes shocking the avant-garde will probably become the textbook definition of Postmodernism.

-- Brad Holland, Express Yourself - It's Later Than You Think

It's quite funny.

Posted by benrosen at December 29, 2007 12:19 AM | Up to blog

I love number 4.

Posted by: Em Tersoff at December 29, 2007 05:16 AM

VERY nice, Ben. That cover would sure as hell make me want to take the book off the shelves and caress it. Can't wait for it to be out.

Posted by: Jason Erik Lundberg at December 29, 2007 05:19 AM

Hmm... his essay seems a snarky strawman to me. It'd be interesting to know if there's anything to his artistic philosophy that can be expressed as a positive belief, or whether it is all defined by insulting/dismissing others' art practices.

Posted by: ethan at January 1, 2008 11:10 PM

Also, it's worth noting (& I just noticed) that his essay appeared in the Atlantic Monthly about 10 years ago. (I was wondering about his preoccupation with the relatively defunct, post-modernism--the essay's age kinda explains that :)

Posted by: Ethan at January 1, 2008 11:13 PM

Well, I don't think his remit in that essay was to present a positive philosophy, but rather to do gleeful, campy satire, and I thought it worked on that level (the business about the middle classes shocking the avant-garde rings true as a gag -- in the age of reality TV, this really isn't Toulouse-Lautrec's bourgeoisie any more, is it?).

But given the essay's snarkiness about everyone being considered an artist except illustrators, and the fact that Wikipedia quotes someone or other calling him "the most important illustrator in American today", I figure a statement of his positive philosophy would be very similar to the manifesto Lee posted at his show that time when we lived in Laurel... I forget where the gallery was... anyway, I would expect an illustrator's, blue-collar view of art, where the job of someone creating images is to deliver to the customer the value that those images incorporate (so that, for instance, the market value of the images would not vary were you to find out that the images had been made by a different process, or by someone else, or with the artist's death, etc.)

Is postmodernism defunct? It seems like the notion of postmodernism is now in active use as a common cultural currency by relatively educated lay people (exhibit A: the radio buttons you use when you post a comment on my blog) -- so it would come as no surprise to me that folks in the high art world are bored of it. So what's big now?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 2, 2008 12:19 PM

I suppose the essay is amusing in isolation... but contemporary art receives a lot of hostility all the time. I suspect if you took a poll most people would say that contemporary artists are charlatans (something I've heard said by my own friends, with a caveat that I'm not so bad. It always strikes me along the lines of people telling racist jokes and then saying, "Oh, but not you!"). So amusing little pokes at art get pretty old pretty quickly.

There's some smaller art trends that are apparent (e.g., lots of fake outsider art that emulates Henry Darger, process art, etc.), but it's harder to spot an umbrella trend (something on the order of Modernism or Postmodernism).

I hope that the next umbrella movement focuses on making art that's approachable by the general public (while maintaining an edginess)--but who knows.

Posted by: Ethan at January 2, 2008 03:56 PM

By the way, I went to pre-order your book today on Amazon and noticed that its sale rank #93 in "Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > History & Criticism."

Being #93 is pretty cool, but the History & Criticism categorization seems wrong.

Posted by: Ethan at January 3, 2008 02:27 PM

That's kind of weird. I have notified Small Beer, but I don't know if they have any control over that.

The idea of fake outsider art is so funny, I don't think it would be possible to parody it. I'm seeing earnest faculty conferences on how to streamline teaching art students to be better outsiders.

Which is not to say that I find the idea of process art -- if I know what you mean by that -- to be ridiculous. In some ways a natural reaction to the age of cheap digital reproduction is to find other ways to recreate the viewer's sense of awe in the dedication it took to make something.

Do you remember Lee's manifesto? Do you consider it relevant?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 3, 2008 02:33 PM

Hmm -- on re-read -- sorry if my remark about fake outsider art was the kind of amusing little poke that has gotten old...!

My actual attitude is that Sturgeon's Law applies -- the fact that 90% of contemporary artists may be talentless charlatans, or 90% of fiction writers talentless hacks, does not argue for cynicism about contemporary art or fiction -- it just argues for good filtering mechanisms.

In that context, the "oh, but not you" is less parallel to the superficially similar racist usage than it might first appear, don't you think?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 3, 2008 02:44 PM

I aware that I'm on thin ice when comparing prejudice against artists to prejudice against races... but it's the most apt comparison I've been able to come up with--or at least the comparison that best communicates my emotional response to it.

I think that the difference between charlatan and hack is a key one. A writer may have to put up with a perceived gap between "literature" and "genre" work--but that strikes me more analogous to the sufferings of illustrators (i.e., the work not being taken as seriously as one would like). A charlatan's work simply doesn't exist--it's not even authentic crap, just props for a con-job.

If someone wants to criticize writing, they would say something like "that's bad writing" or "that's hack" or "it sucked." The most common phrase for art is "that's not art." That's really the attitude I'm comparing to racism. Or perhaps a better comparison would be how many people feel comfortable carrying around anti-Mormon bigotry even when they'd be appalled by most other prejudices.

The problem with "that's not art" (a phrase used by artists as much as non-artists), is that it completely shuts the door. "Bad art" or "ineffective art" or "hack art" allows for degrees and discussion--"not art" simply ends the conversation. Telling someone their work is not art feels very violent to me... akin to telling someone they're not human (I know that sounds hyperbolic, but that truly is the reaction I have).

Think about this, when was the last time someone speaking with you was out-of-hand dismissive of some genre of writing? For art, the last time for me was 5 minutes ago when reading your comment. I certainly don't mean to beat you up about it (after all, I used the description "fake"), but it does show how quickly & easily people fall into dismissing art.

Posted by: Ethan at January 3, 2008 03:40 PM

I certainly understand the sensitivity, and, art being vital to life, I don't think the comparison between telling someone that they aren't human, and telling them that their art is not art, is even all that hyperbolic.

And sure, high art may be an easy target. But I don't think either I or Holland are making exactly the same criticism that you are hearing (in much the way, if we are going to use charged analogies, that committed Zionists sometimes have trouble distinguishing anti-semitic and legitimate criticisms of Israel).

I consider the phrase "that's not art" nonsensical -- it is used 100% of the time directed at something which clearly could not be anything but art, and I agree with you -- it's used as a conversation-stopper, a "get out of saying why this art is bad free" card.

But when I find the notion of fake outsider art funny, I'm not saying it's not art. What I'm ridiculing is pretense: of insiders pretending to be outsiders. The criticism could be equally well levelled at alternative rock, or US politics, both of which also fetishize outsiderdom -- so that the most established bands snarl about sellouts, and multi-term congressfolk campaign against the "culture of Washington".

It was you who said "fake". If you'd said "the new trend is art emulating the dedication and obsession of Henry Darger", I wouldn't have found it absurd. If I'd read "fake" not as your criticism of pretense, but as the artists' own consciously intended aspect of the art (fake outsider art in the sense of a hoax intending first to be taken as outsider art, then later revealed to the viewer not to be) I wouldn't have considered silly, but quite interesting (even if I wouldn't be quite sure, at first, whether I approved or not).

Mocking a genre of art for being pretentious is not denying that it's art (in fact, if intended as legitimate criticism, it's affirming that it's art), nor is it even dismissing it. 70s art rock is pretentious, and I could be certainly goaded into saying many snarky things about it, but I still like me some 70s art rock. I can be found here and elsewhere in the blogosphere making fun of the pretenses of the "nerd rapture" Singularity, but I nonetheless write (sorta) post-Singularity stories myself.

I will admit that you're right about the word charlatan, and hereby I take it back (again, you did offer the word -- but my fault for taking it). I don't seriously think that any contemporary artists really think of their art as props for a con job -- even those who might claim to, to be provocative or seem worldly-wise (Warhol? KLF?).

I don't think that Holland's essay, though, is accusing anyone of charlatanry either. He is mocking various kinds of art for what he sees as their various pretensions, but even as he mocks their grand manifestos and intended solutions to the problem of Art, he seems quite fond of artists.

"Put them in the kind of utopia they sentimentalize, and in no time, they would be binding their feet, lengthening their necks or flattening their heads, just to be different. Artists will never be satisfied, and anyone who tries to satisfy them is a fool" -- this is clearly intended as a compliment.

Not only that, it clearly classifies all the people pursuing all these forms of art as artists -- the people who are never satisfied. I read him as mocking the various genres' pretensions, unexamined assumptions, and fetishes, not dismissing them entirely or considering all work within them invalid. But it may be that he sees one or another of them as totally bankrupt artistic modes. But even that doesn't mean he doesn't take the people working in them seriously as people engaged in making art (I think the bit quoted above about artists makes that clear); he just sees them as having gone astray.

And I don't think that criticism, even if it sweepingly indicts a whole genre, is illegitimate in the same way as "that's not art". I can dismiss spinoff Tolkein-clone high fantasy as played out and boring, and have trouble believing anyone but some perverse genius (or someone consciously mocking and deconstructing the subgenre) could make art that would satisfy me, now, out of the quest of a Chosen One who doesn't yet know that he is actually the legitimate heir to the kingdom to defeat a Dark Lord (so as of now you've heard someone dismiss a genre of fiction more recently than a genre of art... :-> ). But saying that "that set of tools will almost inevitably lead to bad art" is not the same as saying "that's not art at all".

Anyway, what I would say about contemporary art, turning aside from what I imagine Holland might mean, is that conceptual art -- not all contemporary art is conceptual art, of course -- is actually an extremely tight medium, like haiku or comedy one-liners. A conceptual art piece may be physically or temporally large or extended, but to the extent that it is conceptual art (of the kind I mean -- I may be using the term wrong, and invite correction), it's the idea of it, the notion, the gag if you will (I know it's not always a gag, but the conceptual art I like best often makes me laugh out loud), that matters. And that means that if the idea is off, if it's not interesting, then the whole thing is going to fall flat.

This means that Sturgeon's Law is going to play out differently for conceptual art and for illustration (let's posit them as opposite poles for the moment, with conceptual art being all about the notion, while in illustration the cumulative effect of detail is what matters -- even if in fact all real works of art are of course going to fall somwehere between these two poles).

A given illustration may not be inspired in its theme, subject matter, or vision, but if the illustrator is a competent craftsman there will be things to like about it. If 90% of illustrations lack brilliance, then still a great deal more than 10% of illustrations will be serviceable and of some utility. It might be nice on a wall, or useful for selling a product or getting the point of an article across, even if it will not haunt your dreams.

But for conceptual artists the curve is just going to be much sharper. If the idea is not inspired, there's not much left to appreciate. So while the common reaction to a piece of merely competent illustration is going to be "that's nice", the common reaction to a piece of merely competent conceptual art is going to be "wtf is this crap?" And I'm not sure that's so unfair.

(Sturgeon neglects, of course, to mention that the 90% thing is relative: not everyone is going to agree on which part is the crap).

It's like singers vs. stand-up comics. A decent but not brilliant singer is still pleasant to listen to, while at least my experience of stand-up comedy is pretty bimodal -- hilarity or irritation.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 3, 2008 05:31 PM

I can't help adding my observation (as I have made several times) that when you are looking at a pastoral painting, if you don't get the points the artist is making about art, or even if you don't like the style, or just aren't moved by the work, there are still fuzzy sheep. If you are looking at Malevich or Kelly, and you don't get it or don't like it, there's nothing. Nothing except a vague sense that other people are getting something you aren't, and there you are on the outside.

Oh, and I must pass along something—you know the Jasper Johns quote about how to make art: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it...."? I once read a description of Yoko Ono's conceptual art that was "Imagine an object. Imagine doing something to it. Imagine doing something else to it." This is precisely what I love about her art (caution: preceding statement is false); the intangible infinity of it. Still, I understand that many people have difficulty standing in front of a piece of art that isn't there.


Posted by: Vardibidian at January 3, 2008 07:44 PM

Well, there's rarely nothing -- there's likely to be, say, a red circle and some blue and tan boxes. I'm not sure that, in the abstract, I prefer fuzzy sheep to a red circle and some blue and tan boxes -- I can just as easily say "so what?" to either. (And I find most abstract art much easier to relate to emotionally than most pastoral landscapes -- I recognize that this is partly due to my own ignorance)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 3, 2008 08:01 PM

I get what you mean when you say, "And that means that if the [conceptual] idea is off, if it's not interesting, then the whole thing is going to fall flat."

But I do wonder if there's a bit of anti-intellectualism in how people so easily dismiss conceptual art. I agree that it's easier to appreciate a poorly executed formal work than a poorly executed conceptual work... but does that mean that we can appreciate the hard work of (poorly) painting but not the hard work of coming up with a (poorly thought out) concept?

Posted by: Ethan at January 4, 2008 02:33 PM

I don't think it has anything to do with appreciating or not appreciating the effort involved -- or at least, that's not what I was talking about. My heart goes out to the not-quite-there standup comic pacing the floor at 3 a.m., his floor littered with crumpled-up pages of failed one-liners.

The fact remains, though, that in terms of appreciation of the product, I'm going to get irritated at a series of one-liners that are merely competent, while a series of merely competent songs will simply be pleasant background music, failing to grab my attention.

And I think it's the same thing here: mere competence is more pleasurable in a medium defined by an accumulation of detailed effects than in a medium defined by a examples of a single unifying notion.

(On the other hand, the flip side of this is also true. A poorly executed illustration -- I mean, one that's just badly drawn -- is less pleasant than a poorly executed but brilliantly conceived work of conceptual art. You can get away with a certain degree of shoddiness in presentation if the idea is the point...)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 4, 2008 02:43 PM

Thinking about Vardibidian's fuzzy sheep some more -- I would humbly submit that a lot of times it's really an error to treat abstract expressionism (Malevich and Kelly) as conceptual art. In some sense it's anti-conceptual art.

"I'm going to put a urinal in a museum" -- Duchampian conceptual art -- is intellectual, witty, and also uses itself up -- the second urinal in a museum is no longer funny and trenchant. It you look at "I'm going to paint this entire canvas red" as conceptual art -- as a gag, or a statement -- you are likely to be irritated with it, I think. It doesn't really rate, compared to the urinal.

But if you look at the actual canvas painted red, the experience of it is that despite its spartanness, there really is a lot of detail; it's a particular red, a particular canvas, particular brushstrokes -- and in fact to the extent that it's "conceptual" the concept is an anti-concept; it invites you to stop thinking, to stop interpreting, and to just see it as an object.

In fact a painting of sheep is much more conceptual. The urge to hang an abstract expressionist canvas seems in some ways much more straightforward and more purely esthetic (yeah, I can see where this room could use a little red) than the urge to hang a pastoral landscape (why sheep? are they meant to represent something? to afford a connection with the land? to evoke such a connection, nostalgically? or to mock such a connection, ironically? are they symbolic? are they considered particularly beautiful animals in your culture? does the owner of the painting aspire to the virtues of the sheep, as totemic animals? what do these sheep mean?)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 4, 2008 02:53 PM

Hmm... well, I can't really argue with your take on it, but I think it's an unusually measured response. My responses above are not really to Ben Rosenbaum's reactions to contemporary & conceptual art (which I'm sure are impeccable :). A lot of people hate conceptual work categorically--this seems especially true of artists working in more traditional styles (who resent what they see as eroding the meaning of art).

Posted by: Ethan at January 4, 2008 02:56 PM
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