Tuesday, November 27, 2012

For Young Artists: Follow Your Curiosity

Alan Bamberger at artbusiness.com asked what advice you would give to young teenagers asking for guidance on becoming artists. Here's my offering. 

"Most importantly, what fascinates you?  Start to find- and build deep knowledge about- something that really, really fascinates you.  No matter how geeky it is, nerd out: find out as much about funny cars, the color blue, adorable kittens, the War of 1812, nematodes, Queen Nefertiti , chocolate, dinosaurs,  armor, teacups and submarines as you can. As you read about it, watch examples, visit places about  it,  use artists' tools to teach your eyes and hands about it:  draw, photograph, sculpt, 3-d model, or collage your subject.

Make something about it every day that you can, even if it's just a doodle or two that doesn't seem very good.  But don't give up. People might tell you you're crazy or what you're interested in is stupid and boring.  Never mind those chowderheads- they're the ones who are boring. The opposite of being boring is being interested.  Your job is to grow your interest, learn about and make something about your subject every day that you can.

But as you learn more about your subject, be sure to keep your mind and heart open.  Let your research and artwork lead you to new places. As you follow your curiosity, your first interests will change and grow. Kittens might become a study of cat bones, or the even the weird ways cuteness works on people. Funny cars might get you  thinking about power, physics, fire and metal. An Egyptian Queen might lead you to other cultures, or to ask what beauty really is.  Chocolate might get you thinking about what color brown really is. Your path might even lead you out of art, and into something else. That's ok.  Just follow your curiosity, and keep making things about what you discover on the way.

Look for surprises: the more surprising the better.  This is where it gets REALLY interesting.  You can, on your own, and with a lot of persistence and effort, realize something about your subject that no one else has ever understood or valued before.  Like a surprisingly beautiful drawing of a crumpled up piece of paper, one of the greatest things Art does is let people know what is valuable, when no one had ever thought that your subject was worth anything at all.

The oldest arts and deepest traditions of the culture you are in have much to teach you, but so does something invented or discovered this morning.  Your curiosity is more important, and more powerful, than any ideas about what art should  be and what artists should do.  Grow your curiosity, use artists' tools like drawing and photography and computers and sculpture to understand your subject. When you get interested in how these tools work, you'll get a strong sense of what skills you want to learn, and the effort it will take to master them will come naturally.

When you learn enough, you can make something that you've never seen before.  The rest of us might not have either.  What artists do is to show us exactly this.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Quasi-Warholism" is Fun To Say

(Edited from a Facebook thread.) Dare one suggest that Warholistic Pop turned out to be a nihilistic embrace of corporate culture, hostile and even bullying to curiosity, emotion, craft, individuality, visual poetry and in some ways basic humanism? That its fallout has pushed a generation of artists into a fear of expressing something suspicously personal, ambitious, moral and beautiful?  On "The Curse of Warholism" at The New Republic.

    DeWitt Cheng     One dares, forsooth! Maybe 2-3 generations, even.
    Janet Norris         One could dare, and one could be correct.
    Jamie Bollenbach     My perception is that this Quasi-Warholism, I phrase I coin because it's fun to say, peaked for artists a few years ago; many of my friends long since became exasperated with it, and worse for whatever future influence it might have, rather bored. 
    However, the institutional inertia is still cranking it up. It's hold on some curators defies belief, except that it's a perfect art philospohy for bureaucrats: bloodsuckingly safe, pseudo-serious, and slightly popular. It's aesthetics are also perfect for the blizzard of digital graphics: flat, pat, cold, and detached.
        Janet Norris     Quasiwarholism, the enemy within. I agree, Jamie, one sees the inertia in countless institutional settings. One has become accustomed to shoulder shrugging while one continues to be on the lookout for authenticity.
    DeWitt Cheng     Well said, Jamie and Janet. Neoretinalists, arise! Trample the referencers into the dust!

    Jamie Bollenbach
    Neoretinalists...How about "Lookers"?   
    Janet Norris         DeWitt is using big words; uhoh, pull him off that podium!
    DeWitt Cheng     Wait, I'm standing on a Brillo box! That's art!
    DeWitt Cheng     Manic lexiphanicism — I'm waiting for disease of the week TV show. In Wm. F. Buckley's immortal words, Eschew obfuscation!
    Jamie Bollenbach     Notice how much Buckley and Warhol looked alike... Coincidence? Yes. But still.
    DeWitt Cheng     Did anyone ever see them together? Hmmmm. Of course Warhol did hire stand-ins.
    Jamie Bollenbach     Not to mention they shared a philosophy of the primacy of business.
    DeWitt Cheng     Yes. WFB remained a Catholic; AW worshiped consumerism.
    Janet Norris         I'm still catching up to the Celtic harlot, who was not Bouboulina, definitely. I had to go eat with people yesterday so I'm late for important ideas needing bashing.
    Jamie Bollenbach     Speaking of shopping, at Target, you may see a perfect expression of Quasi-Warholism: hanging pictures of Manhattan-stylish models, exuding "playful indifference but artsy design," so large, flat and slick that they completely over-dominate any accidental view of the actual people shopping there.
    DeWitt Cheng     Thou shalt shop til thou droppest. Go, buy some individuality!
    Jamie Bollenbach     To round this back.. we get plenty of Warhol at Target. Do we need it at every museum in America?
    DeWitt Cheng     I remember a critic of Vietnam War asking, When did we become the redcoats? Maybe avant-gardists could ask, When did we become a nation of hipsters?
    Jamie Bollenbach     The moment big companies realized there was big money in it.
    Lauren Horn         Warhol does not control me, and his greatest influence is my preference for John Cale's version of "Halllelujah." Is it so unfair to expect that artists have strong enough will and thick enough skins to ignore him and say what they want to say?
    Todd Keeling         The push or pull of playing the oposite, in an artistic movement...a reaction, a re-reaction. It gets attention. Provocations are stimulating and if an idea, or anti-idea steam rolls another, what does that say about the people paying attention to it? If anything.
    DeWitt Cheng     Any idea, any movement can yield great or terrible — or ho-hum art. Novelty is as bad s criterion as antiquity. Art lives (or dies) in the eternal present that Picasso described

  Jamie Bollenbach     Formless political centrism, the persistent, seeming reasonableness of equivalency works by a kind of nihilism, not just drawing commonalities between beliefs, but by erasing their importance. (A classic example is global warming deniers, cynically overstating ambiguities to argue that we can make no conclusions and take no expensive actions that might threaten company proftis.)
    For Art, that is in many ways what Warhol did. Mao and Marilyn Monroe are just mechanical object-images, exactly like all others, distinguished in his work only by the accidental physics of paint on a silk screen. In Warhol's work, the image of a man being beaten and hosed by the police in a civil rights struggle is more or less the same thing as a set of iterations of images of Elvis. I find it among the most repulsive, and least interesting, view among modern artists.
    And this isn't a rejection of Pop aesthetics, exactly. Lichetenstein's ironic wit, for example, never erased the joy of what he was reproducing, or his visual interest in his subjects. He was, in a way, making landscapes of comic strips. Warhol's work looks like he wants to erase all the emotions and hopes and internal lives of human beings.
    Modern, institutional quasi-warholism, is a strange elevation of what Andy Warhol acutally did, and unlike reams of papers making tenuous threads connecting this to critical politics, it has exactly nothing to do with progressive politics. Quite, I argue, the opposite; the elevation of the banal means to reduce all of us to blank consumers, distracted by nothing but shiny, falsely certain, antiseptically clean-edged surfaces. (For a great example, look at your computer screen right now.)
    The modern version, this Quasi-warholism, is, I think, almost a social movement of hostility to meaning, to human feeling, clothed in cool detachment, beloved of those who find thought and power and love and hate and loss and glory and the heavy, grand, dazzling beauty and ugliness of the world hateful and unsettling. Just like politics, the problem is that the substance of ideas matter, aesthetics matter, and to those of us working in the arts, just like any career, institutional power matters.