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 »