Monday, October 7, 2013

800 Words: An Apology Post for Visual Art

I am, without a doubt, one of the least visual people I know. My mother has more than once wondered aloud whether I’m colorblind. And she has ample reason to suspect so: my paternal grandfather was colorblind, but then again, he was also tonedeaf, and I have absolute pitch about as perfect as as a person can have. But I have a particularly odd reason to wonder about my lack of visual sense - my experience of music is synesthetic; meaning that I see colors that correspond to notes, but my mind is synesthetic in the most pedestrian way possible. Whereas other people see different colors with regard to any note they hear, I see only two colors - white if the note is above middle C, and black if the note is under, with a greyish hue in the low notes if I catch any overtones. Rather than colors corresponding to the notes or keys, I see shapes corresponding to the tone color of the timbre. A sharp rhythmic attack will produce shapes or lines in my head with lots of jagged angles, whereas a rounded, soft sound will produce shapes or lines that are almost completely rounded. It is, frankly, nowhere near as interesting an experience as your run of the mill synesthetic, who can produce a technicolor light show in his head with the barest three chord pattern.

My experience with “art” is like the straight-A middle-school student who realizes in high school that she’ll never be able to master calculus. I can write hundreds of thousands of words, I’ve been able to play the violin since I was three and have dabbled in nearly a dozen other instruments - some more seriously than others; I can sing and act well, I’ve directed plays and short movies (not well), I can tell stories and jokes and I’m a good cook; but I have many pieces of paper from doctors assuring me that my spatial reasoning is not much better than a small child’s. I nearly failed 11th-grade ceramics, and to this day, my attempts to draw are roughly as successful as the ones on this website (oh my god he’s still posting new entries!!!). Though I forget when I dreamed it, I’ll never forget the dream I once had that I drew the entire skyline of Jerusalem on my childhood bedroom wall in a gold magic marker.  

The truth is, I was probably much too hard on the art scene yesterday. I have no business commenting on an artform which everybody does better than I, and have still less business commenting on an artform that I have so little experience or knowledge with. I know what I like, but I certainly should not insist on imposing my own tastes on anyone else. There was one line I was unsure about including in the post, which, of course, was the line that another musician friend decided to scrawl around my facebook wall for everybody to see. Furthermore, like so many people claim with hearing classical music live vs. hearing a recording, I have no great affection for abstract art until I’m actually in the museum and seeing the piece upfront. Once you see the piece in person, it can in fact make sense and give pleasure in a way it never could on a 2-dimensional page or screen. I even (god help me) once had a good experience with Rothko at the National Gallery in DC, and for a few minutes I managed to convince myself that a two-tone blot of color could be genuinely affecting.

But what makes me uncomfortable about the experience is precisely what makes the concert hall so deeply discomforting for others, and it would probably be discomforting for me had I not grown up in it. What’s troubling is the sense that we’re all there as passive watchers, and that the experience is operating independently of our feedback - it really doesn’t matter what we think or how we look at it so long as we do. What a dispiriting thought that is, that we’re supposed to care so little that it doesn’t even matter what value we attach to anything. To be endlessly discussed is not a virtue within itself if the viewer doesn’t find the piece rewarding. This is the laissez-faire approach which is the same as in so many scenes in Baltimore and so many other cities in so many artforms, in which people go from show to show and you’re there to appreciate the… well just take what you want out of it. Within every scene, there are wonderful people and bad people, extremely smart people and idiots. The smart people will always find something meaningful in a meaningful artist, perhaps the idiots who make superficial comments are there for a good reason, but I don’t want to find out.

(Collecting videos of Robert Hughes when he’s grumpy has been a long ongoing activity of this blog)

But even so, I’ve been enormously curious about art since moving back to Baltimore. To my surprise, I’ve somewhat fallen in with a crowd of MICA graduates, and as such am looking at and discussing more modern art than I have since college. With some help from Robert Hughes’s trusty history of American Art (“American Visions”) and an enormously talented artist friend of mine, I’m beginning to try to get to wrap my head around this thing called ‘American Art’, and understand what it really is. I should have made a much longer list of painters I like yesterday, because all that list did was display how woefully illiterate I am about art, and American art in particular. There are all sorts of painters I’m curious of knowing more about: from Stuart Davis to Rockwell Kent to John Sloan to Max Weber to Alfred H. Maurer to Jacob Lawrence to John Steuart Curry to Thomas Hart Benton to Jack Levine to David Smith to Larry Rivers to Romare Beardon to Tom Wesselmann to Edward Keinholz to George Segal to Mark Tansey to Richard Diebenkorn (How’d I forget him?) to Philip Pearlstein to Walter de Maria to Philip Guston to Leon Golub to Kiki Smith to Louise Bourgois to Allison Schulnik to Mark Tobey to Edmund Teske to Lou Dorfsman to Lucas Samaras to Will Burtin to Robert Arneson to Jess Collins to Ken Knowlton to Charles Csuri. But I can’t claim any great familiarity with any of them, and certainly not much familiarity as I have with many American artists I don’t like.

And then there are the famous American artists that I’m sort of neutral on - Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Naumann (Naumann was my first introduction to modern art when I was roughly twelve… anybody who can put the word ‘fuck’ in neon lights to a twelve year old has captured a part of his heart forever) - but I can’t claim I really love what they do either. Even Rauschenberg can be enjoyable, I just think it’s absurd to call him a kind of genius as it’s often claimed.

The art world is something I feel like I know very well even if I don’t know it at all, because it’s so similar to the classical music world. Visual art is clearly less diseased than classical music (everything is). I was at a few art shows this weekend with a perfectly engaged audience and a community which rallies behind one another when the artists have talent, and when I compare them to concert at Shriver Hall I went to Sunday evening to watch Mischa Maisky give a truly awful performance of a Schubert sonata, only to hear dozens of old ladies wax poetically about what they heard during intermission, I know that the art world is going to be in much better shape than classical music will ever be in my lifetime.

But even if the art world is a lot (leagues) cooler than classical music, there is the same dispiriting lack of enthusiasm. I suppose that’s part of the ‘cool’ aesthetic, but if there isn’t at least one or two people who look like they want to bat down the hatch to get into a show, what’s the point of staging it?

Abstraction is a perfectly legitimate medium so long as the abstraction expresses something coherent. From artists like Frank Stella or Anselm Kiefer, I get a genuine sense of something being expressed behind the painting - as though the patterns and the colors express some sort of emotion. But obfuscation for its own sake is as much technical exercise in art as it is in classical music. In both cultures, there is a huge distrust of American ‘superficiality’ and ‘vulgarity,’ as though to take the smallest part in representing any America which we’d recognize is to somehow be contaminated by it. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to many abstract artists (or musicians) that embracing the superficiality around them for exactly what it is is the best way to elevate one’s surroundings into something more palatable. When Jackson Pollock splatters paint on a canvas, I don’t see the emptiness of existence or any particular playfulness or dream-like ecstasy, I just see a shitload of paint. Nor do I see anything different when Rothko does the same in his particular way.

But even so, popular art has got to be as absurd an overreaction to abstract art as is possible. I can certainly think of many painters I prefer to abstract artists; and obviously, there are many ways to bend the rules of the genre, and some artists like Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann can be pretty brilliant at it; but the simplicity of it is completely limiting. Who needs art you can just as easily see on the street? I’m entertained by the idea of a 40-foot clothespin, but I don’t, as Robert Hughes does, see Brancusi’s The Kiss in it, nor do I think there’s any deeper meaning to Oldenberg’s piece than a giant fucking clothespin. I get that Andy Warhol did something different than any artist did from his era, but was it an improvement?

To me, the goals for painting and sculpture, just like the goals for symphonies and operas, are necessarily less ambitious than they once were. Even here in America, the kick which one derives from a piece like Winslow Homer’s The Life Line is probably impossible in any later painting. Because in an era of photography and particularly motion picture, it would never occur to most artists in ‘old forms’ to dare to compete with more realistic genres in the realm of action. And if few people are trying, there’s still less chance that someone will succeed so brilliantly.

When you see early photographs by pioneers like Jacob Riis and Matthew Brady, you see a level of veracity which it’s doubtful that any American painter ever reached - and frankly, a level of veracity which later photographers like Man Ray or Ansel Adams, for all the beauty of their shots, never cared to reach. Painting was a proper, ‘old school’ hobby for talented children of privilege. But it would never occur to such painters to look at tenement housing or fresh Civil War battlefields. With a snap of a camera and a little bit of dark room work, a photograph could expose the more horrific and dangerous parts of life which no amount of brush strokes had since Goya and Turner. Or compare the paintings of Thomas Eakins to Eakins’s photography. All that painting technique must have taken years to acquire, yet I’m not sure that a single painting by him feels anywhere near as exciting as any of his photographs, which are clearly more visceral, more erotic, and less generic. His painting nudes feel like academic portrayals of flesh, but in photography, those same nudes are shocking and dangerous. Furthermore, for all the horrific racism of Birth of a Nation, the movies of D. W. Griffith was a further example of how exciting the new technology was. If you look at Birth of a Nation today, it seems both both incredibly silly and incredibly disturbing. We watch as the heroes of the Ku Klux Klan charge to the rescue against barbarian hordes of white people dressed in black face who lust after white women and drink copious amounts of liquor. But even now, there is a visceral charge to it which only a great movie can provide. Only greatness could make people care this much, and Birth of a Nation both caused black people to riot outside theaters and caused white people, millions of them, to join the Klan (to say nothing of the lynchings these people instigated). Such are the dangers of art when used irresponsibly, but even so, it’s only possible when greatness exists in the first place. What film today could possibly make people care so much that the entire world becomes a different place after it’s released?

The silent era of movies was an age for visual artists. There were no writers to give interest with dialogue, so virtually everything one saw on the screen had to be done through the language of visual art. It should be no surprise that the Silent Cinema came at the same time as the Golden Age of Ballet. After a century when painters like Goya and Delacroix and Turner gave us whole new ways to view the earth, the most revolutionary idea was to put their poetry into motion. For all the excitement of visual art in the age of Picasso and Matisse, the work which truly excited the public was done in the movies. Even going into the early sound era, you look at Chaplin features like Modern Times, or Busby Berkeley musicals, or horror movies like Frankenstein and Freaks, and you see the kind of creativity that changes the world  At the time, no country saw more potential for the possibilities of cinema than Germany, and there was hardly any visual technique to be found in the art of the 1920’s for which an equivalent techniques couldn’t be found in the work of directors like Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and Robert Wiene,  When things got particularly dicey in Germany, directors like Lang and Joseph von Sternberg made their way to America, and their influence upon American cinema was enormous. There’s no Orson Welles without the German example, and even Alfred Hitchcock, that eternal beacon of Britishness, went first to Berlin to break into the film industry, and the influences of German expressionism are everywhere in his work.  

Perhaps classical music is now entering its ‘pop art’ phase in which people decide that they are going to reproduce the musical content of the world around them with not much difference between pop products and classical (more on that in a few days I hope). Contrary to popular belief, classical composers are not yet in a phase where 'anything goes.' We are now getting a second, populist/minimalist dogma growing around the atonal dogma as yet another pole through which young composers can be trapped. The result is just another dogma which artists have to break in order to create anything of value. Perhaps that’s inevitable that dogma will arise, maybe many artists need those limitations in order to thrive. But for those who don't, such a box makes it that much harder for artists to think outside of it.

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