Monday, March 2, 2009

Imperial Clothing

Imperial Clothing
by Donald Frazell

Marketing The Cult of Individualism
This basically sums up the state of “Art” in America. Why? Because as with the Romans and British before us, America is a place of commerce, engineers and industry. We are a practical people, with one great genius. Selling a product. Coca Cola, Chevrolet, or the NFL, our marketing leads the world. It takes what it can use, from evangelism in religion, to music from our ethnic populations, to modernism for advertising; business brings to the world what it can convince them they need.

How has this affected Art in our country? From a weak history in visual arts, we institutionalized Art in academia. Fine Arts catered to the wealthy, bringing them the sense of luxury they required. Our crafts were democratized, simplified forms from countries of cultural birth, gaining a simple grace and sturdiness. On the streets and countryside, the arts of common people blended, taking from their neighbors what they could use, adapted to new environments, and flourished. Music, dance, furniture, housing, and house ware all grew and took on new character. The Fine Arts continued to emulate Europe, and also weak copies of arts from Asia. Only in the new fields of film and photography did we create new forms, ones that influenced the rest of the world. With our emergence as a superpower after WWII we convinced ourselves of our superiority, that our culture, and therefore our Art, must lead the world.
We created truly great collecting institutions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and private collections from the Frick in New York City, to the later Norton Simon in Los Angeles. In the post war era, every city wanted a Guggenheim to promote its greatness, and, of course, market for business and tourism. We went on a building binge, architects from around the globe vying for commissions to create the newest edifice proclaiming civic pride, and individual immortality. Museums, as with NFL stadiums, are selling their naming to the highest bidder, ensuring commercial sales in the sports venues, and personal immortality in all the Arts. For Art is believed to be eternal. Marketing genius.

What to put in this exploding acreage of empty wall space? Most of the great Art of the world had already been bought, or stolen. From the collections of Morozov and the Steins, to the Elgin Marbles of empire, and grave robbers from around the world. As artists like Van Gogh and Matisse became known, celebrity reigned with the explosion of media during the twentieth century. A vast new source of material became available, as investment, and speculation, making even the worst study or sketch of “name” artists valuable. New “schools” vied for attention to be documented, promoted, and sold. A new industry was born. The old Academy had been destroyed by the Post Impressionists. Now, everything was fair game, no standards to be created, fought against, or reformed.

Mega shows blossomed in the 1970s, after the success of the King Tut traveling exhibit, just as the supply of new creative arts was drying up. Hype, and attendance money, ruled the day. Cézannes apple had been sliced into such small slivers, there was no substance left to Modern Art. Pop, disposable art born of media, and psychological fetishes took over. Horrible shows proliferated. Ads promoting the glories of Picasso raged at many Museums, based around one quality piece to be reproduced ad nauseum as bait. The rest of the show comprising of a few mediocre pieces, and a lot of trash. For while no artist ever created as much significant work as Picasso, no one created, and preserved, as much garbage also. And collectors, read speculators, have wares to hawk, and increase their investments worth. Minimalist navel contemplating exhibits "filled" nearly empty galleries, eye stimulating and mind numbing op art flourished. Pop posters enlarged from the newest rags were plopped on walls. Supposedly shocking sexual art, illustrating self-loathing and perversion, totally lacked in sensuality. The harder they tried to be "new" the more they seemed childish rantings. And critics wrote volumes about the supposed glories of exhibitionism, and pseudo-intellectual games about viewer-artist-gallery-museum-blahblahblah-relationships All to get attention for themselves, for career, and $.

Museum budgets expanded, fundraising exploded, monies from membership and museum shops became means of revenue, no longer education and appreciation. Advertising campaigns to bring in new viewers grew, special shows drew hordes, earphones attached telling them what to think and feel, explaining the artists motives and emotions, when such things are truly irrelevant. With rising insurance costs, tickets became exorbitant, and museums competed to get shows. Where taped messages led the masses to buying trinkets and posters demonstrating ones good taste in Museum stores. They had to compete with forms of entertainment, and so, became it. And people missed truly significant works.

One example, from the 1980s, was the second Van Gogh show at the Met. It was a truly wonderful show, having many of his works from Arles and with Gauguin. But as the hordes fought in bunches before the paintings, viewing by number from the audio stuck in their ear, not thinking for themselves, a truly significant show right next to it was virtually unattended. Two rooms held the complete watercolors of Cézanne. His works influenced the century as no other, the watercolors having particular inspiration on post war work. But as the hype machine had focused on the Van Gogh show, no one attended. Three times I viewed it, no more than two others in the room each time. Marketing told the public to come and see this one show, huge lines and hefty ticket prices kept people focused strictly on the special "event". For people had disposable cash, and had been taught to appreciate art as a commodity, whether they understood it or not. The purpose of art never having been explained, the Trivial Pursuit generation saw all things to be used, to entertain, and personal desires given primacy. Not the accumulated knowledge of man, to be added to ones appreciation for life.

Sales: Galleries and Critics
Now, everyone wanted to be the next famous gallery owner or art critic to discover “the next big thing”. They became the rock stars as much as, if not more so than, the artists. For they made money and went to parties, which people like Woody Allen made infamous. Artists were romanticized, their lives captured and presented for consumption in huge coffee table books, so everyone could not just understand and appreciate art, but actually get into the minds of heroically hyped “Gods’ of Art, and therefore be them. But no true artist wants to have his life dissected and simplified for consumption. They are workers, making objects to stimulate and connect people to life, to feel it intensely, and find meaning. The artists lives themselves are irrelevant, the work is all. When successful, it should trigger spiritual feelings of fulfillment, and purpose. Passions should be the same as when entering Yosemite Valley in the spring, the works of God surrounding us, of eternity, of life, of belonging in the immensity of creation. The Sistine ceiling conveys this powerfully, as does Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and Goya's Third of May. The Olympics have now been similarly packaged, sentimental stories told by sympathizing, emoting hucksters, while the purpose of the athletes work, their performance, gets lost on hidden cable channels. Their stories are soon forgotten, to be replaced by others, and their hard work in competition never seen or appreciated.

So now artists, like pop stars and athletes, are packaged for consumption. For pop, the package is the product. Meant to be viewed, used, and disposed of. It has no shelf life. It is the product of media, to be sold by the new self-promoting Vollard, or professional hypester Rosenberg. Critics and gallery owners now become more famous than the producers they hype, by naming new movements, and attaching their stars, paychecks, and careers to their stable of wannabe professional artists.

But the product was disappearing. After a last gasp of Modernism in the WWII generation, from Pollock and DeKooning to Diebenkorn and Tamayo, inertia grasped the art world. What happened? The media and salesmanship had overtaken meaning itself, with critics quoting Marshall McLuhan every other article, to justify their paychecks. When the quote itself had been a warning, not a goal. A burgeoning need for product hastened a new academy. Not a limited structural hierarchy as before, one that could easily be discredited and replaced by “the next big thing”. But one that could be controlled and defanged, one based on fallacy and vanity, serving the needs of the wealthy. One that became so marginalized mediocritized, and self absorbed, it was irrelevant to real life, and so removed as a true threat to the powers that be. Removed from everyday concerns, the masses lost all interest in it.

The art school of the nineteenth century was run by the official Academy, court appointed hacks that backed the status quo, with a few exceptional artists, like Delacroix and Ingres. After that all great artists were self-taught, or as Cézanne said, the Louvre is my teacher. All early moderns went to, and dropped out of, different art schools. No great artist has ever graduated from an art school. Or taught at one but briefly. Schools by definition are self-perpetuating and teach accepted techniques, and so self interested and conservative. They are professional and standard creating, analyzing past life, as an autopsy is to breathing. Infatuated with the individual, the paying student and themselves, and fundraising. In music also, artists from Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis have dropped out of Julliard and Berklee, going on the road with the real teachers, performing artists who had actually created themselves. In art it is always true, those who can do, those who can't teach, and get a degree. It is a commodity toward professionalism, not creative art.

The American art school had always been used both as a training academy to produce work acceptable to the current ideas of the wealthy, and as a finishing school for young ladies preparing for marriage into society. The two have now been blended, as grants are given by trust funds and charitable organizations run for and by the rich. They are playgrounds for their children, and others who have bought into the castrating ideology of “Meism”. A few are publicized as rebels and trendsetters, such as Basquiat, a middle class black youth of rather limited ability. A promising student at his best, romanticized to both promote and excuse the excesses and irrelevancy of sheltered privilege. A token, who had bought into the pop lifestyle and self absorbed ideology, using drugs not out of rebellion, but decadence. Government funds are lobbied for, and administered by, wealthy interests whose tax deductible contributions therefore come right back to them, rather than paying for essential public needs, such as education, healthcare, ecology, jobs, and funding a war they created.

Creative Arts
For what is creative art? "Art" covers a huge array of activities, such as applied arts, learned skills necessary for life and everyday activities that utilize creativity for a given purpose. But art lacks subdivisions to explain purpose, and one word covers a huge variety of quality and intent. Music has categories, for better and worse. Miles hated the term jazz, saying it was a white mans word, he was just making more music. But when categorizing by type, at least one can wind ones way through the variety of purpose and quality of music. Jazz is the quintessential American art form, blues, bluegrass, R&B, even country often having great worth also. But most is entertainment. Creative artists seek to master their craft to get beyond their own individuality, to become one with the universe and contribute to its growth. They aim to trigger in the viewer or listener an intensification of life, of caring for, and becoming part of our world. It is losing oneself in Nature, the Universe, God. Entertainment, pop in its current form, is about glorifying the individual, and so by identifying itself with a pop god, the mass becomes more than itself. Losing ones cares, not dealing with them, and feeling superior through their chosen deity. This can be addicting, a drug, and so easily marketable.

What is its purpose? For Purpose is everything. It is what it has always been. From cave art to Michelangelo to Picasso, it is about, who are we? Does life have meaning? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Gauguin asked these questions, as did John Coltrane. It is about God. Not of dogmatic religion, though art has always been at its service, but of the eternal. The search to build upon our past, not ignoring it, but adding our current experiences on those who came before, to understand what makes us human. It is about We. Understanding who we are as humans and our culture, moving into the future as a society, and world. It is bit-by-bit defining who we are and bonding together.

All great explosions in art have come about not because of individuals, but changes in society, knowledge of who we are, and our place in the Universe. Egyptian, Hellenic, Pre-Columbian, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic art all exploded into life when societies formed, civilization crystallized, and ideas about life matured. Tribal arts from all over the globe appealed to gods for life to continue, nature to spare them and nourish their crops. It defined a people, giving them identity as a whole, not individually. Ones identity within the group came next, and art strictly for group religion became a personal quest for meaning as well. Western art developed in the Renaissance because of new knowledge, that uncovered from the ancients, and physical knowledge, science, which redefined their presence in the universe, and who they were. Another bigger explosion, from Darwin, Einstein, and the Industrial Revolution led to Modernism. Attempts to redefine who we are led to new art built on the past, with our new knowledge added, much changing our notions about our very being. Artists such as Braque and Picasso no longer bothered to sign their works, they knew they did not matter any more than anyone else, we were all built of the same stuff, trees, animals, rock, air. It was not about individualism, not self-expression, which is for children, and those who wished to market them.

Current State
Psychology and fetishism now rule the day, forms of decadence, not vitality. The market are those who can afford over priced and hyped work, to both exhibit their wealth, and speculate on their investments. Pop has focused on music and film. It brings in more money on a mass scale. Interior decorators create atmospheres matching furniture and flooring, buying abstract designs and figurative art as wallpaper, for clients who seldom know what they truly want. But the majority of galleries for the wealthy are either accepted Masters, or work that reflect the needs and vanities of the clientele. Many have psychologists to deal with their unresolved issues and frustrations, finding success in monetary terms has not translated into happiness, which has become fools gold. Happiness actually being a short term state, which drugs, entertainment, and societies fixation on instant gratification, has made all important, mistaking it for life’s goal. When in truth it is a by-product of fulfilled purpose and contentment. Most painting is now their children’s work, reflecting insecurities and need for self-validation. They seek bought self worth, instead of earning it.

Modernism went beyond the previous prosaic and illustrative work with ones based on music and poetry, the oneness of all in the chaos. Line as melody, color became harmony, and the structure built by Cezanne on knowledge of our physical oneness with the world, gave rhythm. A rhythm European music could never build, but came about in Modernisms musical equivalent, jazz. But Modernism split Cézannes atomic apple over and over, until finally there wasn’t enough left to work with. As building a signature style for commercial purposes became more important than the works own integrity. Art is built of relationships. Stripped of them, it is simply decoration. Then, first pop, now self-expression and willfully ignorant self-adulation has taken over. Leading to decadence and arrogant distancing from the rest of humanity.
And the art schools supply their needs. The film Art School Confidential has a good bead on it. Ones about the sprawling myopic gallery scene and bloated museum industry have yet to be created. As Eisenhower warned of the Military-Industrial Complex threat, so the small art world should have taken heed of the Museo-Artschool-Gallery Complex, a self perpetuating agenda based on its own needs, not the real worlds. Culture is based on the past, adding links with acquired knowledge. Sciences are not taught in these schools. Not economics, history, religion, physical activity and development, all the things that make us human. No sexuality, no love, no passion, no sacrifice, no charity. Only a bloated sense of self-importance, as if the rest of the world should pay attention to their unknowing ramblings and desires. The lessons are dated, mediocre, and redundant. Creativity cannot be taught, it must be earned. Talent is nice, but many hacks have some of that. Cézanne by schools definition would have little, as did Einstein, but their devotion, study, and ability to bring together supposedly disparate ideas created new ways of viewing the Universe, so we are able to understand it more, from the information we are constantly receiving. This took years of self disciplined study, of the best and newest solid information, not a few years in over aged daycare centers. As Cézanne said, art is a priesthood. These are no monks.

This country has always been about movement, all its best traits are in growth and action. Not in the attempt to capture movement, or express oneself through the action of painting, or the exhibitionism of performance. But in physical movement of purpose, dance, music, sports, the effort to build. This requires focus, planning, thought and balance. And knowledge of a task at hand. Skills attained through years of training and trial. Many American Museums best features are the buildings themselves, others fail miserably, such as the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA. Which ironically features an excellent collection of screens and scrolls, which the rest of the museums lack, having a broad array of mediocre examples of art and artists. Many of these new Towers of Babel, and Ivory Mausoleums to benefactor’s fame, are filled with decorative wallpaper, disposable pop, and self-exhibitionist decadence. Really, we have more than enough wall space, now how about promoting some relevant art to fill it.
Sports can be more truly dramatic and exhilarating than most art. Michael Jordan with the ball, five seconds left in playoff action, provides more relevance to mans nature and passion than the latest Biennial. Dance is wonderful in this country, from the streets, to clubs, to troops. To, yes, even BET at times. But Music is our true contribution to the world. No, not the insipid redundancies of a Philip Glass, or cute witticisms of the Talking Heads. While Europe and Japan love jazz, and regard it as the equal of European musics (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Atonal.), the American Art World will nod its head briefly in its direction, then go back to its own limited concerns. Yet right here in this country Miles Davis has proven himself to be the musical equivalent of Matisse. Charlie Parker created the analytical cubism of music, be bop, while Coltrane explored synthetic cubism, creating the first truly international music, both technically, and incorporating music’s from around the globe. Together they created the quality and breadth of art of Picasso. Louis Armstrong provided the bridge between the old worlds concepts, and the new, as Cézanne did in painting. Monk gave us the poetry of Klee, the modernization of ancient regional sensibilities of Braque and Tamayo came in Gillespie’s Cubano Bop, Blue Note artists, and advanced bluesmen.

It is ironic how the American Art World puts everything outside itself in deprecating categories, especially Ethnic Art, yet what could be more ethnic than it? Hordes of young, white, metrosexual males and anorexic princesses live in self-proclaimed, and often City funded, Art Colonies. Thinking they are the heirs of Picassos floating laundry and Gauguins Marquesas, yet those artists, and traveling jazz musicians, never enjoyed forced air heating, indoor plumbing, and polished oak floors. Nor the young Bohemian's parking places for their Toyota Prius and daddies BMW.

The End
So what is the future of “high’ culture and art in America. There may be none, for now as in the time of the Academy, it belongs more on the Society page than Cultural. It has limited itself, both to its own inbred small circle, and from the world. There is no true discourse, no heated arguments over meaning, no passion, when everyday those privileged enough to have the time to create should justify their existence. For that is what art is, We, Relationships, Eternity, God. Purpose. These are the continuing concern of art. In a time of War, and coming economic turmoil, we must get back to who we are. And unite over common ground. Not behind a candidate, a religious article, or political doctrine. Those are the false gods of ignorance, hate and division.

Will a revolt come from within? The huge number of vanity galleries swamps the ability for talent to be seen, develop and attack. And lack the vitality, constructive self-criticism and passion to do battle. Will it make an end run around the system, and appeal directly to the masses? Possibly. But as in the innumerable numbers of cable stations, the fragmentation of focus keeps it off the powers that be. Tough times are coming. As with “new” art, there is no “new” economics, the numbers are horribly out of balance, and the time has come to pay the piper. Monies wasted on the arts, grants to the soft mediocre artists who need to toughen up, must end. All true artists will find a way. Get a job. Or find private commissions that are not tax write-offs for dad. And use the public’s money for real concerns. Education, healthcare, jobs, ecology, the physically and emotionally handicapped from War. A balanced budget.


We must open our eyes and hearts, if Art is ever to be relevant and vital again. The best and brightest, the most passionate, should not all be diverted to more pressing needs. For Art is needed. To unify, not divide. Veritas, adapt our needs to Truth, not to our own desires. Art is now false and a mirage. It sucks up to individual vanity. Look around, the Emperor has no clothes. Imperial clothing.

1 comment:

Nivedita said...

Lovely work Don...found you on my yahoo bloglog visitors :))
Imperial series looks stunning work so are the views...interesting :))

Will be following you, do stop by my blog, add, follow, leave a comment...anything...would love to have a feedback :))