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Abstruse is the World

Journal entry for 11 Oct 2010 | Link

New in The New Criterion

My review of Morris Graves at Michael Rosenfeld is out in this month's New Criterion.

There is an irony in Morris Graves’s status as a modern artist: in certain respects he was a medieval character. He worked mainly in tempera. He fled from one remote locale to another until he found himself on 195 acres in Humboldt County, California, which was finally sufficient to isolate him from the encroachments of modern life. A mystical bent prompted him to study Hinduism and embrace Zen. His efforts resulted in some of the finest religious art of the twentieth century—and not despite its syncretism and consequent lack of affiliation, but because of it.

You're not a subscriber? Why on earth not? This issue features Karen Wilkin on Picasso Looks at Degas at the Clark:

In his last decades, Pablo Picasso issued a series of challenges to some of the most acclaimed painters of the past—Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet—as if asserting his preeminence not only in the history of Modernism but also in the entire history of Western art. Picasso boldly took on some of these masters’ most celebrated works—Las Meninas, Les Femmes d’Algers, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, among others—either wholesale or as single figures extracted from well-known compositions, translating the originals into bulbous, multi-scaled anatomy, graphic shapes, and exuberant patterns. The resulting images were part Oedipal father-slaying, part homage, part satire, and part parody. (It could be argued that the great majority of Picasso’s works after the 1950s were parodic of his own earlier inventions, with phenomena such as two-eyed profiles, which were once formal imperatives necessitated by a desire to express perception in new terms, now turned into stylistic mannerisms—but that’s another matter.)

To say nothing of a review by polymath, gentleman, and Mencken biographer Terry Teachout on a newly issued Prejudices: The Complete Series:

A number of years ago the Library of America approached me about the possibility of editing a collection of Mencken’s writings. Back then the uproar over the diaries was still echoing, and my proposal sank without trace. Times have changed, as has the Library’s choice of editor: Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, whose Mencken: The American Iconoclast was published four years after my own Mencken biography, has written the chronology and notes for Prejudices: The Complete Series. I cannot imagine anyone, myself included, having done a better job. Mencken’s work is littered with period references, many of which will strike modern-day readers as impenetrably arcane, but Rodgers has explained them all, including some that stumped me back in the pre-Google era. If the names of Orison Swett Marden, One-Eye Feigenbaum, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven ring no bells with you, rest assured that you will find them pinned down in her notes as neatly as butterflies in a display case.

Articles can also be purchased singly from the website, and of course you can pick up the finely produced print copy at better newsstands and bookstores.

The Museum as a Museum

Speaking of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball picked up on a Wall Street Journal article by Judith Dobrzynski on a trend in contemporary museum directing in which directors refuse to admit that they're running a museum.

[Minneapolis Institute of Art director Kaywin] Feldman is part of a new generation of women and men in their 40s that is taking the reins at America's top art museums. It includes Christoph Heinrich at the Denver Art Museum, Thom Collins at the Miami Art Museum and James Steward at the Princeton Art Museum, to name a few. Shaped by their times, which differ markedly from the formative years of the directors they are replacing, many have different views of what a museum should be.

Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were "cathedrals of culture," collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that's regarded by some as elitism, and it's not enough. Reacting to demographic and social trends, they are bending the art-museum concept to reach new audiences and remain relevant. "We live in a more global, multicultural society that cares about diversity and inclusivity," Ms. Feldman says. "We're thinking about how we increase our service to the community." Doing their part to save energy is an example of that. ...

Many young directors see museums as modern-day "town squares," social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won't be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it. "The Artist Is Present" show by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art—silent, one-on-one encounters between volunteers and the artist, which viewers hung around to watch—is a recent, popular example.

Permit me to remind readers that I have already coined this tendency Interactionism and cited Abramovic as an example. Etymologically, "interact" has a noble pedigree, but it has degenerated into a buzzword over the last decade as Web developers and their often clueless employers strove to make their web presences more interactive. (The nightmare scenario features some screwball in the marketing department convincing the CEO that the website needs to be more "dynamic" or "Web 2.0," thus causing developers to bolt needless features onto a site that would better serve its customers if it remained as static as a tree stump.) This desire to interact is leaching out into the larger culture. Ironically, this in turn is causing museum directors to feel actual or perceived pressure to compete with a digital medium, on the digital medium's terms, despite their institutions' operation in what we might charitably call the real world.

Last month, Modern Kicks noted a remark by Hal Foster:

One thing that strikes me about relational art is that it treats art spaces like a last refuge of the social—as if social interaction had become so difficult or so depleted elsewhere that it could only happen in the vacated spaces of art. It was such a sad take on the state of sociability at large. I also felt that, for all its worthy attempt to work against the spectacular basis of contemporary art, there was a way in which it posed participation as a spectacle of its own. I suppose I am more interested in practices that use art as a guise or ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy, say, or politics.

He went on to comment sagely, as Modern Kicks always does:

I suppose the easy joke here has to do with relational aesthetics being the last refuge of something, at the very least. But I find the note of pathos Foster locates in it to be all too real, if not a recommendation of the practice. I can't decide, though, if that sad take represents an actual comment on the state of sociability at large, a more narrow comment on state of sociability among those whose etiolated lives make relational aesthetics seem exciting, or (most likely, I fear) another burbling forth from a culture that, to borrow a phrase, fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence.

Marketing, after all, is the creation of assent, credence be damned. But I think that the second possibility is the correct one. It is easier than it has ever been to find your compatriots, coreligionists, and soulmates in the world. Take hula-hooping, for example. If you were a hooper, you could have bonded with fellow hoopers over yesterday's World Hoop Day. There's a movie about your community coming out. (And yes, it's a community.) You could stay busy for months from the results of Googling "hula hoop tutorial." It need not stop with hooping. Do you want to join a steampunk live-action role-playing game? Here you go. Are you a ukelele enthusiast? You're not alone. (And not only does this no longer make you a colossal dork, it puts you in the company of some of the coolest people in existence and shredders.) Social interaction takes place at an unprecedented level of fervor. On the contrary, curator art, art aimed at and championed by curators, which continues to import ideas from the world at large, unable as it is to export them in the other direction, is absorbing the social. Hal Foster (whose Wikipedia entry hilariously asserts that he "replaces dialectical sublation with nachträglichkeit, and the past and future tenses of continuity and rupture with the future-anterior of the will-have-been") and his ilk might assert that all art is political. Their Interactionist successors would assert that all art is social. Nicolas Bourriard comes close to saying as much in his book Relational Aesthetics, which I had a chance to thumb through at a friend's house in New York last month. Meet the new canards, same as the old canards.

One of the directors mentioned in Dobrzynski's article is Thom Collins, newly appointed to lead the Miami Art Museum. The Miami Herald reported:

"I think of a museum as a library and a laboratory," Collins said Wednesday, glancing at works from Miami's Bert Rodriguez, known for his playful and humorous installations, and Adler Guerrier, whose mixed-media works confront urban life, race, class and memory.

This isn't merely a failure of semantics: it's a tacit call for the creation of objects that are justified by text instead of visual quality—art that lends itself to verbal explanations, and for which visuality is a secondary or tertiary consideration. Even oeuvures that aren't always devoid of visual merit, such as Guerrier's, will be forced through that sieve of language and relations. A laboratory ostensibly makes it possible to conduct research, but what goes on in contemporary art in the name of research is a dire insult to science. It is investigation without the risk of disproving one's hypothesis. It's no accident that libraries and and laboratories are typical features of university campuses. We're talking about academic art, and academic art appreciation, with academic meant in the most pejorative sense possible.

Until the next trend comes along, there's not much reason to expect to see the top contemporary art at the top contemporary art museums. One of the nice things about Massachusetts is the presence of good next-tier institutions such as the ones in Worcester, Framingham, and Lincoln, where one can reliably find good work, often by regional talent. Really, the whole New England area is rich in such places, and interesting things are going to happen when the top tier finally figures it out. This brings us to the next topic...

You've Been a Naughty Little Museum, and Master Greg Must Spank You

Last Tuesday, Greg Cook delivered an extraordinary piece of entertainment-weekly arts commentary that began:

When I roam Boston galleries or stumble upon Brandon Nastanski's "Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost," I feel the buzz of potential. And when I see things like the awesome and witty Museum of Bad Art, I'm reminded that there are unique, trendsetting organizations in our midst. But a show like the Institute of Contemporary Art's Foster Prize round-up of "Boston-area artists of exceptional promise" breaks my heart. It can make you suspect that deep down you hate Boston art, when in reality the problem isn't you, it's the ICA.

Too often, when local art professionals get involved, the wildcat excitement gets ironed out and combed over and turned into a yawn. Too often, this is the face such exhibits promote. You might as well take out an ad in the New York Times saying, "Boston art is dull. For your own safety, stay far away."

Greg is performing a needed service: warning local curators away from the New York model before it becomes permanently entrenched.

Art stars don't arise through unbiased meritocracy. They're incubated by museums and galleries, awards and publications. Boston's art officialdom toddles after the New York art world like an annoying copycat kid brother, but the cool trick our people haven't aped is the Big Apple's unabashed hyping of its best locals, its assumption that they could kick ass anywhere. ...

The Foster Prize's real problem is vision. The ICA folks act as if the prize were a finishing school that they run as a charity for local schlubs they're embarrassed to be seen with. Listen for the maternalistic tone when ICA director Jill Medvedow says that the show offers local artists "experiences that they might not have had before, which is getting to work with museum curators." If the show is meant as a launching pad, the ICA might want to examine why for many past winners it has seemed more of a dead end.

Unfortunately, this I'm-better-than-Boston attitude is the official stance of too many of our curators and newspaper critics. The result has done little to improve Boston art.

We could argue about whether this is the way that the art world should work, but you're not often going to see bald recognition in print that this is the way it does work, and as such ought to be working more equitably. Saying so is not going to win him further entrée into the professional class that decides these things. That he said it credits his integrity and that of the paper that publishes him. This stalwart Cook fellow, we need more like him.

The essay was too hard on Matthew Rich, but leaving aside my usual point about this sort of thing (that a gallery benefitting from the involvement of museums in their artists' careers has the same business model as Halliburton), this lack of meritocracy is the great undiscussed matter in contemporary art. The possibility has occurred to me that the reason we have relational aesthetics in the first place is because while appreciating art is above all a visual exercise, the sale of art, and the metaphorical sale of art in the form of reportage and critique, are above all a social exercise. I have been saying for years that talent for conceptual art is social talent, not artistic talent. Relational aesthetics, which operates in a conceptual and thus linguistic sphere, is a closer mapping of the mechanisms by which art is written about and purchased than patently visual art, and thus advances through the system apace. Presented with someone like Rich, the system pushes him through aforementioned sieve of language and relations. Quoth the ICA concerning him:

The dual nature of these works extends beyond their physical ambiguity, as Rich explores a balance between structure and fragility, intention and accident, front and back, abstraction and representation, illusion and concrete presence.

Process is a key element here. ... No definitive “front” is established during this process, as Rich flips works back and forth, adding and removing fragments.

Sometimes the works exhibit a coherent three-dimensional illusion—a prism, an unfolding ribbon, steps, or stairs. Other times they display the language [!] of the everyday accident: the rip, the spill, the fold. In addition, the work sometimes has a tangible compositional relationship to the wall, and by extension to the larger environment in which it is shown.

An enormous effort went into the above passage to avoid describing the works as resolved, static, self-contained objects. They are. That's why they look so good. But in the linguistic milieu favored by officialdom, those descriptors are insults. Instead of hierarchy, decision, and resolution, there is inclusion, ambiguity, and relationship. Instead of one person solving a problem on his own, there is an exchange between interdependent entities that results in harmony. People who study communication styles will recognize this as prototypically female.

This is to say that the lack of meritocracy is a deep and intractable problem. It's a shame that we've institutionalized it. But since we have, the situation calls for an enormous amount of introspection and self-critique. Greg, I hope, has inspired some among the concerned parties.

M-I-C (See You Real Soon)

I moderated the Webcomics and Marketing for Social Media panel discussion at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo before traipsing off to New York a couple of weeks ago. As a first-time panel moderator, I was pleased to get good marks from the panelists. The fun part, though, as always, was picking up new titles. Best of all, two of them were gifts. From Jen Vaughn I got a couple of copies of her Menstruation Station. Her story of menarche in one of them may be one of the best 24-hour comics I've ever seen. Joel Gill gave me a copy of Strange Fruit #1, with a poigniantly humorous retelling of the story of Henry Brown.

I snapped up a copy of The Lodger by the immensely talented Karl Stevens. Lastly, I got a fresh-off-the-press copy of Inbound #5, which features my latest comic for print, "Django and Pesto." Issue #5 will soon be available directly from the Boston Comics Roundtable. The theme is food, and there is much good in it.

On the bus I read a review copy of The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography by Tetsu Saiwai. I'm not a huge manga fan, and it took a while to get used seeing the gesticulations, flying sweat, darkening noses, and other conventions of manga emotion applied to highly-trained Buddhist monks. But ultimately it was communicative and effective. If the movie Kundun emphasized the main character's equanimity, the manga treatment might be a more human portrayal, in which he evinces the emotions one would expect upon being saddled with ultimate temporal and religious responsibilities at an age before most of us learned to drive, only to watch his people massacred and his nation dissolved. At the end, as he advocates compassion for all beings, including the Chinese, his wisdom seems all the more miraculous.

Still in a comics mood when I got to New York, I stopped in Jim Hanley's Universe, conveniently located at the same latitude as Penn Station, and bought Fingerprints by Will Dinski, a story of cosmetic surgery, careers, and relationships gone wrong.

5 BD/5BA 5,000 SQFT Metal God Domicile

As reported by musician David Byrne, Rodney James Dio's house is for sale.

Dio already lived in a kind of Valhalla, and the imagery and themes of metal bands often deals with death, destruction, and demons, so metal bands have those elements in common with the Wagner epic as well. Why not do a Ring cycle (or maybe an abbreviated version as the whole thing runs 15 hours) with the music played by metal musicians and sung by them too? The sets would be like Dio’s house, a home fit for the Gods, and there could be spectacular live performance scenes, which some bands already stage as myth-laden rituals.

I approve. In other news, Byrne is a fan of Sunn O))).

Come Out

Today is National Coming Out Day. I have felt acute dismay at the slew of suicides among gay teens lately. (Dan Savage has compiled the latest list.) I'm straight, but I endured regular gay-baiting (among much else) from the time I entered junior high until eleventh grade, when my first girlfriend and I used to lay in each others' laps in full, up-yours view of the regular hangout of the popular kids, who were the source of all the taunting. Even then I was a mess for years afterward. Periodically my alma mater, a tony South Florida prep school, contacts me to involve myself, preferably financially, as an alumnus. I am thereby obliged to explain that the money that would have otherwise been available for donation has already been spent on therapy.

I can only imagine what kind of state I would have been in if I were actually gay.

A straight person's ability to countenance gays is a good general indicator of whether his head is screwed on, well, straight. Mature people stay out of each others' business and do not live in a universe ruled by cooties. Mature people value freedom over conformity to ideals. Mature people have sampled enough of life to know that there's not one right way to live it. So on that note, here's MC Frontalot performing his song I Heart Fags. (Warning: mature themes, salty language.)

Be sure to follow along with the lyrics. And to all my nerdy peeps who are suffering through their early teens just for being who they are: it gets better for you too.

Open House

One more item: since I'm not going to be in town for Roslindale Open Studios, we're doing a little thing at the house on Friday, 5-8, for friends and neighbors. Come drink cider, eat light fare, and see the paintings of the neighborhood I've been making. RSVP for details.