Monday, June 27, 2011

More Iceland

I have more to say about Generation Blank, but while I'm forming my thoughts, I'll share more photos of the Icelandic landscape by Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, taken on his way to an icy dip with intrepid friends in the Arctic Ocean. The last photo demonstrates how Iceland messes with your sense of scale. Are those four-foot-high poles or smokestacks? 

And Goddur's posters (more on his website), which make me want to have an event just so I can commission one:

Finally, a little soundtrack (play here) for this Icelandic theme by Skúli Sverrisson (thanks to Nina Hubbs Zurier).

All images © 2011 Goddur

Monday, June 20, 2011

Generation Blank?

As critics, we can only write about what’s offered, and it's surprisingly rare to come across original imagery and ideas. I write to learn, and I’m thrilled when I find something that not only justifies the investment of time and energy, but teaches me something. I've been complaining about retreads for years, but never said it as well as Jerry Saltz does below. Up until the 80s, artists weren't necessarily schooled as they are now. Since then, however, students have been encouraged to get their cues from what they see in the galleries, which is art made by artists who got their clues from what they saw in the galleries...the whole thing just goes round and round, the content becoming thinner with each generation. To people in their 20s it may look new, even radical, and they may not realize they're regurgitating the same old tropes.  Same with curators, who are now schooled when they didn't used to be, no longer the products of their own unique visions. Proof that the problem is with the schooling and not the generation, is that this same age group is producing wildly wonderful music at such a rate that it's hard to keep up—with a surprising number of rock bands formed in art school, which proves at least it’s good for something.

By Jerry Saltz Published Jun 19, 2011, New York Magazine

I went to Venice, and I came back worried. Every two years, the central attraction of the Biennale is a kind of State of the Art World show. This year’s, called “Illuminations,” has its share of high points and ­artistic intensity. (Frances Stark’s animated video of her online masturbatory tryst with a younger man hooked me; Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which captivated New York earlier this year, rightly won the Gold Lion Prize for Best ­Artist.) Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.
There’s always conformity in art—fashions come in and out—but such obsessive devotion to a previous generation’s ideals and ideas is very wrong. It suggests these artists are too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, not really making their own work. That they are becoming a Lost Generation.
Our culture now wonderfully, ­alchemically transforms images and history into artistic material. The possibilities seem endless and wide open. Yet these artists draw their histories and images only from a super-attenuated gene pool. It’s all-parsing, all the time. Their art turns in on itself, becoming nothing more than coded language. It empties their work of content, becoming a way to avoid interior chaos. It’s also a kind of addiction and, by now, a new orthodoxy, one supported by institutions and loved by curators who also can’t let go of the same glory days.
Consider the most celebrated younger artists on hand in ­Venice. A wall label informs that Ryan Gander’s color-squares on the floor derive partly from Mondrian’s. This not only defangs Gander’s art; it makes it safe for consumption. It is art about understanding, not about experience. Rashid Johnson’s mirrored assemblages have luscious physicality but are marred by their reliance on familiar mementos drawn from the recent past. (Unlike his influence, Carol Bove, whose Venice installation of modernist-looking objects opens uncanny windows on seeing, scale, and memory, Johnson uses those objects merely as a crutch.) Seth Price’s glossy paintings with rope look like a slick cross between Martin Kippenberger and Marcel Broodthaers, ready-made for critics who also love parsing out the isms of their elders. A feedback loop has formed; art is turned into a fixed shell game, moving the same pieces around a limited board. All this work is highly competent, extremely informed, and supremely cerebral. But it ends up part of some mannered International School of Silly Art.
Art schools are partly the villain here. (Never mind that I teach in them.) This generation of artists is the first to have been so widely credentialed, and its young members so fetishize the work beloved by their teachers that their work ceases to talk about anything else. Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing of received ideas about received ideas. This is a melancholy romance with artistic ruins, homesickness for a bygone era. This yearning may be earnest, but it stunts their work, and by turn the broader culture.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Alfred Jensen, The Integer Rules the Universe (1960) oil on canvas 75 x 49 in.(May be subject to copyright).

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance.

After writing the post below, I was heartened to read in the Times last week that the development of intuition (known as perceptual learning) is being taken seriously—in schools, yet. And when I mentioned it to a friend, she told me her 15-year-old granddaughter is getting this kind of training in a Pittsburgh public school: the practical application of the ideas Malcolm Gladwell put forth in Blink.

…recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye.
Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest. Better yet, perceptual knowledge builds automatically: There’s no reason someone with a good eye for fashion or wordplay cannot develop an intuition for classifying rocks or mammals or algebraic equations, given a little interest or motivation.

….Experts develop such sensitive perceptual radar the old-fashioned way, of course, through years of study and practice. Yet there is growing evidence that a certain kind of training — visual, fast-paced, often focused on classifying problems rather then solving them — can build intuition quickly. In one recent experiment, for example, researchers found that people were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections of works from all 12 than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, then moving on to the next painter. The participants’ brains began to pick up on differences before they could fully articulate them. (Read more)

You can find games of visual perception on the Times web site here and try it yourself. This is a lot like the vision therapy I wrote about in an earlier post—from which, BTW, I have just graduated, improved visually, cognitively and energetically.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Announcing the Creative Age

This looks to me like a diagram for negotiating the Creative Age. By William Kentridge at Marian Goodman, exhibition through June 18th.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. My frustration in the toy store (see the post below) had less to do with gender stereotyping or even materialistic messages, than my inability to find anything that would 1) interest an intelligent five-year-old for more than two minutes and 2) not clutter up the household with ugly shit.  Believe me, if I'd found a girly girl toy that was really cool, I would have bought it. 

However the plethora of toys that narrow, rather than facilitate, the imagination are symptoms of a larger issue, which I’ve finally realized is behind the intention and philosophy of this blog: the increasing tendency to see information as an end in itself, valued over creativity and imagination, even experience. I have nothing against information, but it’s simply another commodity, absolutely useless unless you do something with it.*  I saw a magazine ad for an investment firm that boasted, “We take the emotion out of investing.” Well if investing could be reduced to a set of rules, anyone with the right computer program could make himself rich.  Instead what I’d look for in an investment counselor is someone with imagination and intuition, who has the ability to understand (imagine) my lifestyle and needs, and who’s had enough experience to trust his or her hunches (what are hunches, anyway, if not the ability to recognize and respond to positive and negative emotion?) to successfully negotiate the market.

This issue is also behind the crisis in medicine, which is slowly, very slowly, coming to recognize that “the test of replicability, as it is known…the foundation of modern research” is fallible:

(From The New Yorker): Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws.
But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.  (Read more…)

Hence the rise of artist’s statements, museum wall text, and pre-concert lectures, all attempts to reduce to information experiences which, when at their best, are ineffable—emotional rather than intellectual.

The valuing of information over creativity and experience are also part of the current crisis in higher education, in all education:

(From The Nation) Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail? (Read more…)

[So as well as substituting information for experience, we also expect to substitute online teaching relationships for those that are face-to-face.  Where does it stop? With online marriages? How about Skyped parenting? If we have the whole world to choose from, surely there’s someone in India who’s a better parent that you.]

Instead of getting rid of primary school playgrounds, eliminating liberal arts programs, and emphasizing rote like the Tiger Mother, we should be doing the opposite—because, without our recognizing it, the Information Age has segued into the Creative Age. There’s no longer such thing as career or even information security, and starting right now everyone has to be an entrepreneur. That’s what recent college graduates are finding out, that there’s no safe job to slip into, no set path; they have to make the whole thing up.  As do we. Those of us who’ve been at whatever it is we do for any length of time, have to completely rethink it—and furthermore, understand that this process of reinvention is not going to stop.

This rapidly changing world is one for which artistswho have always had to make it upmay be the best prepared.

Who knew?

*This idea is not original. In Self-Reliance, Emerson calls “spontaneity” and “instinct” the “essence of life.” “We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition,” he says, “whilst all later teachings are tuition.”