Sunday, August 29, 2010

The world of me

JohnWilliams Waterhouse (1849-1917) Echo and Narcissus (detail). Copyright may apply.

It’s the eve of another art season and here I go again with my annual (semi-annual? daily?) rant about artist’s statements. As I’ve said numerous times before, when I am king, I will abolish them. It’s just not happening fast enough.
Every day or so I get a newsletter from NY Arts which, along with a lot of helpful, newsy articles, includes their seasonal “Editorial Preview” of an artist’s work, based on the artist’s statement. What it demonstrates is that a certain solipsistic way of writing and thinking about art has become an international epidemic.
Chinese artist:  “My work mainly comes from my own personal experience.”
Romanian artist:  “I see my work as a process of a constant production of the self.”
Another Romanian artist: “The essential relation is with myself.”
Italian artist:I developed this concept from a personal perspective; in fact, most of my artworks are autobiographical and describe a familiar conflict.”

American artist: “I was always defined (and profoundly accepted) by the identity markers that were given to me, Chicana, female, lesbian, working-class, etc. But, now I am expanding those ideas to include a larger worldview that positions me as a central part in the landscape of nature.”

Romanian artist: “I feel that my art is an uninhibited territory for me….All around, my works are thoughts and emotions turned from the inside out, like you would a stuffed teddy bear.”  

(Note: The preponderance of Romanian artists doesn’t necessarily reflect a particular cultural self-absorption, there were just more of them represented on the site.)

I mean, really, who gives a flying fuck where the work comes from or what the artist is “trying” to do? We don’t care! We don’t care about what you “want” to do, are “trying” to do, how miserable or fabulous your childhood was, or what you’ve always been interested/fascinated/obsessed with. We don’t care about your relationship with your culture, and we certainly don’t want to know about your relationship with your body.
Show me the money!
And I don’t even know what to do with this: “The entire series took over half a year to complete.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In praise of free time

Every year at this time, the media rolls out the case for year-round school. This summer it was TIME, and just seeing the subject on the cover made me so angry I immediately tossed the magazine (which these days more resembles a pamphlet) into the trash. Trying to link to it now while attempting to avoid actually reading the article, I did notice that President Obama is said to support the concept. Well, bully for him. He was no doubt the model student, one of those goody-goody kids who actually liked school. For me, summer school would have just meant extending the agony.

It all started with pre-school, where I hated the stupid songs they made us sing. Later, school interfered with my reading in a big way, and my attempts to snitch glances at my books were met with frustration, even rage, on the part of my teachers—once, when I was so immersed I didn’t realize that reading period had turned into math period, my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Hampton, grabbed my book and threw it against the wall.

Reading “Deb’s” comment in the post below, about convincing students that success in art has to do with work rather than coming up with a gimmick, I’m again thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, in which he discusses the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master—of anything. Even if you’re a kid, as Tiger Woods and many others have proved. Yet school doesn’t allow for that kind of concentration. Playing the piano for one hour, seven days a week, will get you mastery in 27 years; at five days a week, it’ll take 38 years (I’m almost there). But by that time you’d be as old as, well, me.

My brother spent every free moment in our basement with his ham radio equipment. By the time he was twelve, he was one of only a few kids his age in the country to earn a First Class Commercial Radio Operator’s License, and his first job was at a local FM radio station, which couldn’t legally function unless his thirteen-year-old self, or the adult equivalent, was on the premises. He didn’t study engineering in college—he saw no point in repeating what he already knew—but, regardless, was hired at graduation by IBM.

I can’t say I learned anything that specific in my copious free time—my interests changed frequently—but I did learn the value of sustained concentration and how to be my own best companion, qualities that come in handy as an artist.

Often the payoffs aren’t immediately obvious. Son Matt spent his high school summers (as I did, actually) working in a record shop in suburban Chicago. Like his father, Matt was an enthusiastic scholar, but it was the Record Exchange that provided the background for his professions as musician and music writer. Once, harking back to those days, I said to Matt something about his friend, D.V., also working there. “Mom,” Matt said, “D.V. didn’t work in the record shop; he just hung out there six hours a day.” Today, that seemingly slacker behavior and associated punk garb—especially in the fairly affluent city of Evanston—would no doubt terrify parents and teachers. However it turned out that D.V. among other things, ended up co-writing and co-producing (with John Cusack, who also spent quality time at the Record Exchange), and being music supervisor (one of the best soundtrack compilations ever) for "High Fidelity," (2000) the classic record shop film.

Parents often complain that their kids don’t know how to fill time on their own. My contention is that training for this begins in infancy. One of my rules as a young mother was to never unnecessarily interrupt my baby (or toddler, or child) if he was entertaining himself—any more than I’d disturb an adult who was “working.” My original motivation was completely selfish, because I thought by drawing out the time my sons were self-absorbed I’d have more to myself, but now I see its benefits for self-sufficiency and creativity.

I’m not against school—it has it’s place I suppose—and I’m all for summer programs for kids who need them.  I’m just saying that there are other ways to learn, and not always directed by adults, who often have an annoying way of asking, “What are you doing?” or worse, “What are you drawing?”  While my father, an engineer, did contribute to my brother’s development, the best thing our parents did for me was leave me alone.

Son Matt, back in the day, at the Record Exchange

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Arcade Fire, even more

In the Times today, an article by Ben Sisario, “Amazon Digital Discount Helps Arcade Fire Hit No. 1,” discusses the marketing techniques that (he says) helped Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” edge Eminem off the top slot this week. Sisario cites rave reviews, sold-out shows, and their YouTube concert live-feed as well, but nowhere does he suggest that Arcade Fire might just be good at what they do.

After all, nobody twisted my arm to get me to sit and watch them in front of my computer last Thursday night.

As soon as something (or someone) becomes popular, there’s this assumption that it’s all about marketing. This is what has MFA students looking for gimmicks, the hooks that will insure instant attention, rather than developing intuitive resources that could sustain them through a lifetime in art. 

Not that music popularity isn’t vulnerable to hype, but at least (since SoundScan began tracking actual sales data in 1991) it's measurable—we vote with our dollars when we download songs or buy concert tickets.  In the art world, however, we’re still at the mercy of the gatekeepers (curators, gallery directors, editors and writers) who insist that Richard Prince is the bee’s knees, while most artists I know couldn’t care less. 

Of course everyone knows Eminem is a marketing phenom—and it’s just a coincidence that his bestselling album, Recovery, is really good too.  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Arcade Fire, more

While everyone seems to be complaining that contemporary art lacks heart, the same isn’t true in music. Maybe it’s because you don’t need an MFA to start a rock band, and you don’t need an agent anymore to promote it. Certainly your typical A & R person wouldn’t have found The Arcade Fire an ideal prospect—the Montreal-based band is just too big (eight core members, more on tour), and their first album (2004), written during a year in which several of the band’s family members passed away, was named Funeral. Yet it was such a success that they were instantly welcomed into the world of super-stardom by the likes of Bowie, Springsteen, Bono and David Byrne and played two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden last week, one of which was broadcast live on YouTube. Even on the itty-bitty screen of my PC (see my Mac debacle in the comments of the post below), it was thrilling, and beyond heartfelt—but with just the right touch; somehow they manage to maintain their indie edge and art-band cool while performing with religious fervor.

Their newest album, The Suburbs is, in son Matt’s words, “a masterpiece.

In an Outliers kind of way, it’s fascinating to trace the sources of this idiosyncratic sound to the distinctive backgrounds of the married songwriting duo, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, which includes, in Butler’s case (be sure to read Butler’s Wiki bio), descending from a lineage of professional musicians. In an interview I can no longer locate, Butler talks about how he never questioned the likelihood of making a life in music.

Chassange’s family emigrated to Canada from Haiti to escape the Duvalier regime, and she has written poetically about her closeness with that country’s struggles in this moving Guardian/Observer editorial, as well as in the song “Haiti,” from Funeral:

Haïti, mon pays,
wounded mother I'll never see.
Ma famille set me free.
Throw my ashes into the sea.

Mes cousins jamais nés
hantent les nuits de Duvalier.
Rien n'arrete nos esprits.
Guns can't kill what soldiers can't see.

In the forest we lie hiding,
unmarked graves where flowers grow.
Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
in the river we will go.

Tous les morts-nés forment une armée,
soon we will reclaim the earth.
All the tears and all the bodies
bring about our second birth.

Haïti, never free,
n'aie pas peur de sonner l'alarme.
Tes enfants sont partis,
In those days their blood was still warm

Chassange did, finally, visit Haiti after the earthquake.

"Wake Up," from Funeral

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tech update

Thanks for the comments!

My big news is that I’m making the switch to Mac. I know, I know….
Reactions from friends and family have been ecstatic:

“It’s about time!”
“Praise the Lord!” (son Matt)

Everyone describes me as the quintessential Mac person, whatever that looks like. Is it my haircut? I said to friend Scott that it’s as if I just came out of the closet and everyone’s acting as if I was the last to know.

“Yes,” he said, “except now we’re all going back to PCs.” Scott’s allergies are making him (even) more perverse than usual.

PS: For those of you who care as much about Arcade Fire as I do, they’re streaming their Madison Square Garden concert tonight on YouTube at 10:00 EST. The urge to rush to the steaming city and try to buy a scalped ticket on the street is almost unsquelchable.