Saturday, January 23, 2010

Throw It All Away and Start Over?

This essay -- I found it via Andrew Sullivan -- was a slap in the face, in a good way. Here's the pith, but the whole thing is worth reading:
"The best thing that could happen to poetry is to drive it out of the universities with burning pitch forks. Starve the lavish grants. Strangle them all in a barrel of water. Cast them out. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry that resists innovation. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then we may begin to see some great poetry again – the greatness that is the collaboration between audience and artist."
I don't know much about the world of poetry, but as I was reading this essay I kept thinking how you could easily replace poets and poetry with artists and art.

My painting teacher at Parsons, Regina Granne -- a great painter, whose teaching influenced me deeply in countless ways -- told us in no uncertain terms that art was an elite activity for an elite audience. (She could be brutal; she used to say, "Your parents will never understand.") But Regina made gorgeous, figurative, very accessible, paintings that most certainly have a lot to offer a non-specialist audience.

Personally, I go back and forth. I grew to hate the world of art school/foundation grants/academia, etc. that many of my friends at Parsons pursued. I don't blame anyone for trying to navigate that world -- it's the only way to make a living as a painter or sculptor these days. But the kind of thinking and talking and writing about art that's required to get attention and to prosper in that world makes me want to barf. It breeds artists who are very good at talking about art, not necessarily so great at making it. (The reason this is on my mind right now is because a couple nights ago I went to an "artist's talk" at a museum here in Austin. The artist was charming and smart, showed us slides and talked about things that inspire her, talked about "my process," all in a way that might lead you to believe her work would be fascinating. But the work was total crap. In my opinion.)

But, on the other hand, I understand the desire to make and enjoy work of a level of complexity and sophistication that the hoi polloi will not appreciate. ("Your parents will never understand.") I think the trick is to make work which does both things. Which connects with the crowd but offers additional pleasures to a more sophisticated audience. Artists like Picasso or Dali come to mind.

I think of Matthew Barney as a great example of an artist who is incredibly talented, ambitious, and interesting, but most of whose work is cavalier and deadly opaque to anyone who isn't primed to rave about it just because of who he is and which art world institutions have bestowed their seal of approval on him. I often wonder, when I look at his work (especially the films), what he might be capable of if he were subjected to different expectations. If, instead of being stroked and pampered by that clique, what if he had to respond to a general audience scratching its head and saying, "Okay, it's kind of interesting, but it's way too long, and what the hell does it mean?" I think he might do amazing things.


linda smith said...

As one who doesn't believe in the artist statement or the artist talk scene, I very much agree. As Francis Bacon once said, "If I could explain it, why would I bother to paint it?"

Steven said...

Linda, when I was writing this, I was thinking about that really funny web site about artist statements, the one you posted a while back, but I couldn't find it.