Jul 012012

Occupy art

By Clay Wainscott

How much is art worth? This is really a bunch of questions, and sorting them out should make any one of them easier to answer. What art is worth in the market might not be what it’s worth to you, and really only the second has real relevance. The prices we hear about occasionally on the evening news are astronomical and, like the price of an extremely rare baseball card, have everything to do with competitive speculation and almost nothing to do with art. The gigantic prices, for one thing, aren’t real. Chunks of wealth are moved around to satisfy tax accountants and using trademarked art like poker chips provides cover. The art part has suffered unless you like polka dots filled in by grad student apprentices – “no two exactly alike.” Except for the sensational prices there isn’t much to be excited about.

Art galleries one might visit when in a major city use a modified version of this consensus-mimicking mechanism we all succumb to in some degree –wired in you might say. When a prospective client seems to show an interest in a particular piece of art, he or she will be informed in friendly conversational tones concerning prior acceptance by important competitions and famous collectors, and that’s the reason, after all, we want so much for it. In order to buy a piece of art it’s formally necessary to listen attentively to four pounds of fluff recited like statistics in a racing form, and there are some who won’t hold still for it. Markets have their own imperatives, and still the most effective argument for buying a lightning rod for the barn is because your neighbor across the road just bought three, but it gets old.

Art might have real value to you, but chances are you’ll find it in the frame and not in its pedigree. Consider the art from your own neighborhood first of all. For a golden time, just as it’s beginning to gain acceptance, acquiring local art can be a bargain. Having passed through an era of neglect, some local art still exudes the authenticity of having not been made primarily for money. Art produced at genuine personal sacrifice, like the innocence of youth, expresses a sincerity difficult to fake, and that’s something usually lost to commercial success.

Price is another consideration. Art is traditionally handmade, and the value of a unique item from the hand of one individual is hard to gage, representing as it does an individual spirit and years of practice. When you do get to a major city check the prices in the galleries you visit and then try to assess your own reaction to a particular piece of art you find appealing. When you get home find something you like as well and check the price. There are some worldly folk who don’t take local art seriously because the prices are so low. They’re even better if you deal with the artist directly.

Buying a piece of art from a local artist could well be worth your hard earned cash. For one thing with your support they’ll have a chance to get better, and if they stay around you can watch their career develop. You’ll have an early piece. They make their art from the same general world you live in, and if you hang their art in your house you might find connections with others who like the work too. There’s also more of a chance you’ll see something by the same artist in someone else’s home, and it’s another reason to be friends. In any case, any original piece of art you buy now has every chance of attaining a personal worth to you over the years, so that if it becomes fantastically valuable someday, you wouldn’t sell it.

Jun 062012

The middle in art

By Clay Wainscott

Art in everyone’s hometown revolves around two constellations and they’re far apart. There’s the glamorous ponzi-bubble of international brand name art, the latest trends trickling down through academic institutions with their inordinate influence on art juried into non-profit galleries and sanctified with state sponsored grants. By making novelty and sensation the most important aesthetic values both the sly marketeers and the tax supported, charity driven art industry can keep the general public at bay and out of their business. Continue reading »

May 022012

By Clay Wainscott

Humans can evolve at an astounding rate because long ago we gave up physical change in favor of mental redefinition–of ourselves, of the world, catapulting through history in periodic jumps as our conception of ourselves expanded. How we see ourselves in turn determines how we see everything else, and in modern times there are powerful influences competing at this most basic level. Advertisers seem to know how images influence thinking and so do politicians. They want to help us determine who we are around the clock, but it’s really up to us. From a seemingly infinite array of information sources and forms of entertainment we choose what to look at online, which designer stores to frequent at the mall, and all that determines who we are and who we’re going to be in the future. It’s not a new idea but if we understood the process maybe we could take more control of the ship, or at least lean in the desired direction. Continue reading »

Feb 082012

By Clay Wainscott

Cave paintings are like science fiction only in reverse. Here are Paleoliths who don’t weave or cook in pots making art with sensitivity, humor, and uncanny technical facility. It’s hard to fathom. My neighbor informs me their brains were actually larger than modern man’s, and they were hunters and so had the leisure time to tell stories, play flutes, and draw.

I once had a job servicing mechanical voting machines and a lot of them were kept in county jails. Incised on jail cell walls through fifty layers of gooey yellowing enamel were the pictorial musings of our current crop of humans, a sample admittedly bored and down on their luck. Well these guys in caves were different. They weren’t fascinated with body parts—they wanted to paint the animals who shared their forests, some now extinct tens of thousands of years.

Why were they painting deep in the cave? Archeologists speculate. Maybe it was sympathetic magic, somehow imagining these images would give them power in the hunt, or some other religious or ceremonial purpose. In any case it was so long ago all anyone can do is guess.

My guess is that artists, our oldest documented profession, haven’t changed that much in all this time. I imagine their conversation being about a place somebody had found where the rain wouldn’t wash their paintings away. A place out of the wind, out of the cold, and deep in a cave. It’s possible to imagine modern artists thinking that way. The paintings are in the caves because they were a quiet calm place to work and the surfaces were almost fresco-like already—worth the muddy crawl.

It’s more difficult to explain how the artwork could be so good. Art doesn’t pretend to be the thing itself but something more mysterious. Marks of charcoal and ochre applied to a cave wall enter the complex labyrinth of our modern perceptual field and we think that’s an ox, that’s a lion, that’s a bear. The European cave bears, extinct twenty thousand years, who occupied the cave after its walls had been decorated didn’t see antelope, didn’t see the rhinoceros, didn’t see themselves. Only humans translate marks on a flat surface into living reality.

These images in caves aren’t realism, not even close. In one, four horse’s heads appear in succession, like four jacks fanned. Their necks are too thick and their muscles too small. They all have different coats, and the one in front seems to neigh. There’s something about it that goes way beyond just pictures of horses. The artist applied a visual poetry because he knew I’d see it better that way, and I have to nod back. It works. I see horses moving, hear them snort and stamp, and smell them too. I see lions nerving up to attack an unaware beast grazing on the next cave wall prominence twenty feet away. I hear the artists laughing and admiring each other’s work.

‘All in this together’ means something else when you realize it includes those artists. They bought a ticket when they left evidence of who they were and what they’d seen in a visual form all humans coming after would understand. Animals don’t comprehend art and neither will the most complicated machines, ever. Art is totally human, and through art we know each other and ourselves—that’s its job.

Clay Wainscott also blogs at www.owningart.blogspot.com

Dec 072011

Occupy Art

By Clay Wainscott

“I have more important things to do than to go around copying nature.” This boilerplate refrain has been a part of standard boot camp indoctrination in art schools for the last fifty years, and after a while maybe it begins to make sense. Instruction then proceeds from the assumption that making art look like anything is retrograde and restricted, indicates a lack of talent and imagination, and is in the end seriously, hopelessly naïve and out of touch. I am here to suggest that this institutionalized pursuit of obscurity and pointlessness has been a sham and a racket all along. Let’s see it for what it is. Continue reading »

Nov 232011

Corporations lose their grip

By Clay Wainscott

The struggle between corporations and common folk has been ongoing, and it becomes visible when you look at art. There was this famous ‘high-noon’ moment back in the early thirties when corporate mentality gained the upper hand. Seems the Rockefellers wanted to put up the biggest building in the world and call it the “Empire State Building”—a big deal. They hired a famous painter from Mexico named Diego Rivera to paint a mural on the first floor, a work of art to exemplify the era’s highest achievement, like the Parthenon.

They knew each other already. Diego had been raising the self esteem and actually empowering the downtrodden in Mexico’s colonial caste system by recalling pre-Columbian glory, illuminating history and depicting the present day common people with dignity and respect. He was an avowed Communist. The Rockefeller patriarch, old J.D., had established a business reputation for absolute ruthlessness, amassing great wealth and power, and in the public’s mind had become the decrepit poster boy for unbridled wealth. History tells us Rivera committed the unholy faux pas of depicting Lenin as a great champion of worker’s rights, and, of course, the Rockefellers had no choice but to erase it all and start over.

That’s how they’d like to close the book, the one they wrote, but let’s look again. Diego Rivera came to the Empire State project as the spear point of the aspiration and rage of the world’s dispossessed yearning for expression, and he wouldn’t betray them, or their collective opinion of him, for any amount of money. The Rockefellers knew this going in. They baited Diego not only with a lot of money; they commissioned the work to be in fresco, a permanent technique that had lasted since the time of the Romans. It was first of all a chance to create a work of art that could possibly last a thousand years, and he had been guaranteed complete creative freedom.

It was all a big mouse trap as it turns out.

Diego hired assistants, put up scaffolding, and worked grueling hours to get the project completed on time. When the work was finished they handed him a check and went to work with jack hammers immediately, even though they had watched his progress day by day. They allowed no photographs of the work in progress or of the completed work before it was destroyed. For those who think they’ve seen this painting reproduced, Diego recreated it later in Mexico, presumably using the Rockefeller money. Still he was defeated, art was defeated, and common humanity lost its eyes and its voice.

Within twenty years a new corporate form of art, Abstract Expressionism, was installed in big banks all over New York, although not, it seems, out at the Rockefeller homeplace. A culturally imperialist foreign policy sprang up financing lavish exhibitions of the New American Art in shell-shocked, nearly starving Europe, and foundations of all sorts began to subsidize and promote the careers of artists who stood no chance of public acceptance. Print media were enlisted as well, and soon the prohibition on representational images of anything was enforced absolutely by cadres of academic and museum authorities who knew and cared more about tax laws than art. When representation finally found its way to art again it had been reduced to soup can labels and celebrity posters, and new generations cutoff and isolated from past traditions failed to notice the severe downgrade.

Corporations still prefer abstraction and keep the market pumped up for artwork which has no meaning, which poses no threat, which carries no messages they can’t control. Common folk generally prefer images that engage their own memories and life experience, even though they’re continually told such artwork is retrograde, displays no imagination, and has no value. As the ripples from this pointed singular occupy outcry slowly pulse through this and every other community, maybe a new spirit of identity and individualism will lead us back toward an art which expresses our own aspirations and not those of non-person persons.

Aug 242011

By Clay Wainscott

Could it be the entire edifice of contemporary art is simply irrelevant? Or, more precisely, not up to the job at hand. Big time art just wandered off somewhere following fame and money, a self-referencing cult of acquisition as volatile as the stock market, but peculiar, the brand name so much more important than the product. Surely there must be something more to say about a renowned artist than the highest price paid at auction, the presiding metric of accomplishment and a working index of fame. They’d have you think the irrelevant part was the art itself. Somewhere along the line, art, as an expression of personal aspiration and universal connection, seems to have left the tracks.

In the early fifties, the Abstract Expressionists invaded, conquered, and subjugated all of art, banning representational images of anything. They were radical fundamentalists, turning the art clock back to year one, or at least to the level of a three or four year old. Continue reading »

Jul 272011

By Clay Wainscott

So, let me get this straight. You say Abstract Expressionism arose at a time when fascism just defeated, having soiled us in battle, returned to our shores as a rabid fear and hatred of Communism, in contradiction of the most basic tenets of free speech in a free society. It was a time when art, itself, was under siege. Actors, artists, and writers were broken and exiled for less than absolute patriotism, and music was banned from the radio. “This land is your land…,” by Woody Guthrie, was never played.

It was then that a new American art form arose to compete with the classicism of Russia’s cultural catalogue – ballets and symphonies, heroic art and gilded subway stations. It seems our own state department may have helped to launch careers in big international expositions of Abstract Art, may even have helped support the foundations which purchased the art for donation to major museums, tax credits funding lavish galas, and abstract art went up in all of New York’s major banks. So, that was all in the name of cold-war competition with the Soviets, and no crippling of our culture was too high a price just to win, but there is still another level. Continue reading »