December 18, 2003


I recieved an email from a young artist friend the other day. I didn?t answer it quickly. These thoughts had to jell a bit. I figured that it?s suitable for a blog post herewith:
(names are changed to be discrete)

He asked me:
?Q? What do you think of making paintings based on the following attachments??

Hello Jesse:

Three thoughts have been rattling around in my head.

1. Jesse, the question you pose is one only you can answer. It were otherwise, it wouldn?t... couldn?t be art.

It?s like the act of dowsing. You know, the water witches and all that? I don?t believe in dowsing literally, but I think it's a good simile for a mind going into the world and searching for one?s way as an artist in it. There?s so much smaltz in divination that it's a hot potato, nearly unusable as an evocation of the searching, curious and creative mind. But if you can shield the corn-pone aspect, it's a good way of thinking about how you should move into the world, tuning into your curiosities.

Curiosity is a maxim of mine. ?To be an artist is to discover your curiosity and make it vivid for others.? I like the democracy of curiosity: everyone is born with a unique perspective. When I taught architecture, I struggled against those in the faculty who thought of teaching as a hyper didactic activity. (There were two administrations in the school I taught at, the first was a jewel, the second was... all too human.) They wanted to mold the students specifically, to transmit the contemporary dialog and require that the students read it back in their work. I disagreed, but carefully so. Architecture requires five full years to teach design. Each semester or quarter is an orchestration of carefully designed modules, each demanding mastery of the one previous to it. Teachers had a responsibility to transmit the basics of these modules and check to see if the student understood. The didacticism I was referring to was Theory, the contemporary (although it has the shelf life of milk), intellectual dialog. Success for them was to hear this dialog parroted back at the end of the semester. I disagreed of course. I wanted the students to be exposed to this dialog, that was important. I wanted them to be intimate enough for them to form an opinion about it. Above this, I wanted to know the nature of their curiosity and from this, to seek out the corresponding thinkers to expand on it. Not only would they own their activities, but they would enlarge it in a way deeper and more personal than otherwise. And not only this, but I would learn something too, because they would become explorers and thinkers on their own right. After leading them, they could lead me... a nice bargain.

By telling you all that, I wanted to suggest that curiosity alone is not enough. It must be bound with many other things: with art history, with the art dialog, with the medium itself that exercises the drive to make art, with the machinery of conceptualizations that allows a cerebral reflection on what you are doing, with...

Art is-a-complex and it's organic in it?s binding.

2. I went to an art show nearby. An acquaintance here in Dallas invited me, an artist who's struggling. All artists are brothers and sisters. We are making a mad gamble, risking the worst end of our lives for this curiosity.

It was late at night and the venue was nearby here in downtown Dallas. I decided to walk, the address being only a twenty minutes away from my loft. Along the way, I wondered what it would be like. It was a word of mouth thing. Maybe it was a cool underground party/show. It was near the museum, that was good but it could be pretentious. Strange that they found cheap rent there, but the adjacency signified something.

I had seen this artist?s work online, it was hard to assess it there, but it seemed to need a recognition of the larger contemporary dialog. The work had naive aspects that had to be polished away. For example, he showed his for-money commercial work alongside the high art paintings. Art deco, airbrused commercialized retro cubism. The commercial stuff was not bad as it was executed competently. And surely, nothing succeeds as well in a PostModern world than a self aware use of schmaltz, ironic-winky-winky. But he wasn?t winking and he wasn?t aware that he should be doing so with the paintings he was fronting.

I got to this place, a third floor of a high rise that some artsy organization had commandeered for a come-one come-all art fest. The horror. I lost count of the terrifyingly naive installations, most of it paintings. Sticky labels next to the paintings with scrawled names, titles and prices. The work was so bad it defied description. Exponentially naive. A cash bar was set up, a DJ table spinning records, everyone was dressed up, a very special night ,G-d bless them all. As I wandered mortified, hoping to turn a corner and be surprised and humbled, my revulsion was only confirmed from room to room. Lots of representational work. Horses, humans of all types, fantasy landscapes, unicorns. Lots of abstract paint slapping. That hurt the most. I wandered, thinking about what art was and what this stuff is. And in the middle of it stood my new friend/acquaintance. I could tell on the look on his face he knew he made a mistake by hanging his work there. He, like me, wasn?t a young man anymore. Did he know the depth of his mistake? I began with cordialities.

Then I said to him: ?You know, being an artist trying to make it is like being a shipwreck survivor out at sea, on a raft. You?re thirsty as hell and there?s all this water all around you.? I pointed to the show beyond. ?But you?ll die if you drink the sea water.?

?The only person who can destroy an artist is the artist him/herself. You can degrade yourself by slacking out, placing yourself into a lesser context. You have to pole vault your human limits, using diamond hard idealizations of your work....? (note this thought provoked the blog post of December 15th) ?...You have to judge yourself by a jury of greats you select. You have to be fierce about it. You have to be willing to withstand the possibility that no one might notice in your lifetime. You have to form an artworld inside yourself as intense as mortality itself.?

Then, I struggled to talk about the importance of the art dialog. I struggled because it wasn?t a simple matter of tuning in and flattering it. It?s like this... you have to know it intimately and take the parts of it that feeds your curiosity and damn the rest. Damn the rest to hell because the art dialog is wonderful and sparkling and defining of what we call ?high art?... and yet it is (restraining explicatives)... it falls short. It falls so short sometimes, most times, that it?s sad and comical. And as much as it turns my stomach for all of it?s pretension and hubris and willful ignorance, this lack is actually a hidden opportunity. This lack is the place in history that you can fill, if you are up to it.

He was a gent. He appreciated the advice and I appreciated that I could be candid. Someone cut into the conversation and the artist was engaged in the meet and greet. I got the hell out of there.

3. The other day, a friend reported a recent visit to the Basel Miami Art Fair. She described how a collector friend bought a small Gerhard Richter abstract painting for an investment. It cost her perhaps in the mid-five figures. She said it will pay for her daughter?s university education someday.

What happened to buying art for its? own sake?

Sure, she mentioned that she would enjoy the painting until that day. But I wrapped my head around an immense artworld with all these people investing, translating money into art so that a future translation will make more money. In this world, making art is like making money (images of a Treasury Department printing press in my head).

Now, I am a capitalist. I say this without shame and against the hypocrisy of an artworld that embraces the anticapitalist Left as they simultaneously sustain a virtual stock market. But are we... is our artworld merely capitalistic?

Capitalism, as it is connected to private property, to the free market, to democracy and individualism, to representational self-checking governments; is like an operating system in a computer. It is a basis for the application programs. Culture is like an application program. It rests on the operating system, it depends on it and yet it surmounts it in a specific complexity. Maybe art has a destiny to return to a state of capital in the fullness of a collector?s life. But during that life, what makes is that it levitates over the operating system, defying gravity.


So there it is, Jesse. An answer to your question in three parts.

All the best to you and Merry Xmas, happy holidays!


Posted by Dennis at December 18, 2003 10:48 PM

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