Out of the blue this morning I received the following text message from a friend of mine:
It’s tough when you’re a writer and you write but no one (really) reads what you write. It’s depressing.
I was a little taken aback, since this was not the continuation of some conversation we had been having (at least not recently, anyway). So I figured either the text was meant for someone else and mistakenly sent to me, or some event had happened that had precipitated this gloomy thought. I asked my friend exactly that, and he replied:
I have ideas all the time for stories and essays but I don’t write them because no one will read them.
And I thought to myself: Oh, Mary. Give me a break. What a total cop out. I don’t write for the fawning accolades of critics or the adulation of fans. Those things are completely separate from the process of writing. I write to explore ideas of all types, be they epic, philosophical, political, culinary, global, funny, dreamy, and yes sometimes boring, mundane and trivial. I write because I want to write. And I don’t write when I don’t want to write. It is not my job, it is my art. It is beyond the reach of commerce, and in that sense all the more pure for it. While I love readership and feedback, especially if there is a back and forth about ideas and opinions, they are not the primary reason I write. And I think the same must be true for any creative endeavor we engage in. We have to do it because we are compelled in some way to do it. It is the creative activity itself that is worthwhile. It is the doing, not the response to the doing. That is a separate thing entirely, and although it can be gratifying or frustrating it should never be the motivating force.
I kind of feel like my friend (and many others I have heard similar sentiments from) are experiencing a tension between what they feel they SHOULD want, and what they actually want. And then the excuse for not engaging in some activity (such as writing) becomes about the fear of “failure” (whatever that means) or the lack of response. I want to say “Hey, it is ok not to write, or paint, or whatever.” Just as it is ok to do those things if you feel compelled to. The subjectivity and capriciousness of what achieves mass appeal is beyond art and only feeds the ego. People who are only trying to figure out what this mass appeal is and cater to it are making a specific product for a specific need, not making art. Some people are lucky enough I suppose to have their aesthetic interests and sensibility line up with the masses, resulting in the win-win for them of doing creative work that happens to be popular. But so what? Art and taste are subjective. If you need to create, create. What comes of it is irrelevant to that endeavor. The creative act is truly its own reward.
The New York Times has a fascinating article this morning about a group of expert forgeries attributed to some very well known modern artists. Millions of dollars are at stake as art collectors and investors have been duped into purchasing works they believed to be authentic creations from Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock and others. Reading the article, one can’t help but notice the sheer panic of “art lovers” cast adrift in a sea of uncertainty around questions of authenticity. And this is the sad state of art in a capitalist society, where nothing is appreciated separately from its market value. And where the market value of something has nothing to do with intrinsic value, only what the market will bear. Although this idea is often presented as hardy and utilitarian, it is in most cases the opposite of that, and offends a common sense interpretation of things. I have long believed that art should be public, and that great ideas and works presented by artists are necessarily corrupted when produced for the private art market. Especially while the artist is alive and reaping the financial reward, it is rather like producing advertorial content in a magazine. As long as works are for sale, what guides the artist’s inner vision? Is it what sells? Is it what interests the artist? Is it social or political commentary? Maybe the artist divides between private, “not for sale” work and public “pay the bills” work. And who could blame him or her? We all need to eat.
But to the Art Market, the ideas or forms represented in the work are very much beside the point. They deal only in market value and in manipulation of levers that add to value, such as rarity or scarcity. This is especially true of art photography, printing, or sculpture moulds, which have at their very heart ideas about reproducibility and mass production. The output is intentionally limited to increase value. One can see why the same rules do not exactly apply to other art forms such as writing or film making, where they are intended to be communicative to as wide a range as possible. Those works are meant to be seen, and widely. Again this is the problem of art in the hands of private collectors, that the art is shut out from the rest of the world, unable to interact in a discourse with the culture around it.
And this is the rather amusing joke that has now been played on these collectors who claim to care about art. On the one hand, nothing at all has changed about the paintings they supposedly love and have collected. They still have them, can still look at them closely, appreciate the work in close quarters, revel in the meaning or technique or whatever. On the other hand, they have been duped. These works are not original to the artists in question. They suddenly lack authenticity, and for the collectors all value has gone out of them. Why is that? Is the form or content suddenly different? Would they have purchased these works for any reason at such exorbitant pricing (or any price) if it were only about the work, and not about the investment? Of course not.
My friend Paul had an extra ticket to a performance art piece at The High Line park last night, and graciously invited me along. The piece, entitled “City Symphonies Out of Doors” was part of the Performa 09 series, performed by “Acclaimed avant-garde ensemble Text of Light“. Basically, the ensemble played music to accompany a silent film from 1927 that had many scenes of life in Berlin. Their premise is to “improvise”, not “illustrate” in the presence of film. The film itself is seen as part of the Futurist movement, with its representations of dynamism in modern life. I studied the Futurists in college and was quite a fan of them, especially their work in sculpture (Boccioni, for example) and architecture (Sant’Elia). The antics of Marinetti and other founders of the movement were sometimes inspirational (trying as they were to shake off the chains of history) and sometimes merely petulant. It didn’t help that many of them aligned themselves with Mussolini and Italian Fascism later on. Be that as it may, the movement was one which tried to fuse art with the chaos and industrialization of modern life, to find a meaning and direction that was truly modern (and appropriate to the age). One hundred years later, it is still interesting (and sometimes comical) to look back on these preoccupations for what they tell us about the great upheavals and dislocations brought about by technology.
The film itself was mostly interesting for its historical content. There were some excellent compositions, but the only “avant-garde” thing about the film was its tenuous relation to “story”. I did find the scenes of early 20th century life to be fascinating in and of themselves. And although to modern eyes there wasn’t much particularly shocking, I can imagine a hundred years ago the sense of newness and chaos in the imagery and editing would have been more palpable and disorienting. The ensemble played “music” to accompany the film, and I struggled to find any structure, pattern or meaning in their noise. I played a game of trying to imagine their motivations for the screeching and at times physically painful sounds they were inflicting on the audience. Here are the possibilities:
1. They were trying to induce in the crowd the panic and disorientation of modern life, as close to the horror and dislocation as might have been felt by a farmer in the city 100 years ago. If they had played for merely 10 minutes, I would have gotten the point and enough already. But they continued on with this noisy one liner for over an hour.
2. They were trying to induce bleeding from the ears in the crowd. The level was so loud that at many points many of us had to put our fingers in our ears. I am not exaggerating to tell you that my teeth actually hurt.
3. They had a bet among them to see how many people they could make leave before the end of the hourlong performance. (They achieved about 20 percent attrition by my estimate)
My friend Paul professed to having loved the performance. Although I tried to elicit from him a clear explanation of what it was he found so wonderful in the “music”, I came away unconvinced. I can only imagine that a birthday gift of root canal would be most pleasing to him, if performed by an “artist” in drag with rusty implements. Ultimately, I was glad to be a part of this and get a look into another of the many worlds that layer over each other in this diverse and amazing city. That said, I think it will be close to the first of never before I would subject myself to anything associated with Text of Light again.
For your amusement (if not enjoyment) I am embedding a small clip from the event. To get the full effect, please turn the volume on your computer to maximum.
A few days ago I was having a discussion with an artist. We were talking about films and one that we mentioned he intended to see. He then indignantly added that a friend of his had offered to burn him a copy and he was horrified that they would suggest “stealing” in this way. To play devil’s advocate a bit, I asked him what had him so riled up? He went off angrily about how much work the artists and creative people had put into this, and the thought that they weren’t being given proper due and that their work was being “stolen” was terribly unfair. He just couldn’t understand why people thought this kind of thieving was in any way ok.
Not deciding whether it is “right” or “wrong”, I posited to him that in our material world, the notion of stealing is most notably aligned with a scarce physical resource. Let’s say I steal your car or even the food from your refrigerator. These are physical items in the physical world that are not immediately replaceable. These are things that took many many hours to produce, and there is no way to “copy” them without disturbing the original. I surmise that people don’t feel the same way about copying a film or piece of music, because the other listener to that music will not suddenly be without it. My friend pointed out that many hours of effort went into producing the music or film as well, and while it is true that a great deal goes into making the “first” one, subsequent copies in our increasingly digital world are fractions of pennies (in cost of electricity) to make.
And then I started thinking about a machine that could reproduce matter with nothing other than power input. Who would protect the intellectual property of a great chef for example, when it will be possible to duplicate atom for atom a fantastic main course or dessert? What about a painting or sculpture? (leave aside that we already have a notion in the art world of prints and castings, which are all about commercial ideas of rarity and value through limit of numbered –and signed — supply). The art world is dripping with contradiction in that on the one hand they desperately want to claim uniqueness, but on the other, in a capitalist and consumer society, they sell as much as is possible and do their utmost to cultivate sale value.
In all these cases, the path forward looks pretty clear to me, whether those vested in the current system like it or not.
As has been said many times before, information (and software, music, and video are all forms of information) wants to be free. The more restrictive a culture is with “fair use” rights, the more impoverished culturally. The greatest works of art do not live in a vacuum, they are relational, derivative, playing off the common cultural landscape. Larry Lessig speaks eloquently about the chilling effect of extreme copyright law in perpetuity, and how important it is for a culture to be able to mix and remix and refer to itself.
As information (and that is all that everything is ultimately) becomes more cheaply reproducible, its ability to command a specific price based on what the creator or owner thinks it should be is diminished. All content in digital form (music, video, etc) will or should follow the model of shareware and the like. The way shareware works is that the owner gives it away for “free” and asks the user (with varying degrees of insistence) to pay for the software if they like it and get some use out of it. Many individual programmers make a nice living off of this model that depends on the “honesty” of strangers. The best, in my opinion only sets a “suggested” price, and really leaves it up to the user to determine for themselves the monetary value they wish to assign to it. Some people will use it once, pay a fee, and never use it again. Some will pay nothing and use it all the time. Some will use it frequently and pay something else entirely. My point is that value is in the eye of the beholder, and for digital works this should be taken advantage of for optimum return. It is the height of folly for an artist to dictate what the value or interpretation of a work of art should be, but that is exactly what the studio system and recording industry has encouraged for years. They are clearly on the losing side in this modern age, and despite all the copy protection mechanisms in place, they are fighting a losing battle.
Let’s take another analogy from the software industry. There are many companies that give software away for free, and sell their support or customization services. In a similar way, one can imagine artists giving away their music but charging for one of a kind events like a live show, where being present is not something that can be easily reproduced (at least not until virtual reality gets a whole lot better). These ways of thinking about selling are anathema to the studios and recording execs, because let’s face it, they are left out of the picture. With the internet as a distribution means, individual artists have much more control over when how and where their work gets out. They don’t need to rely on publicity or marketing decisions of some executive in a far away, well appointed office. They find the sites (or pay someone to) and distribute directly. The end result of all of this is that in the future, there will be far fewer “mega” stars but I believe far more people able to successfully make a decent living off of their music (or other forms of art). With an audience of billions, there is sure to be some subgroup with a particular taste for the artist in question, and some percentage of them willing to pay directly for the music or for the chance to see a live show or interact in some other meaningful way with their artist.
One of the most difficult concepts for me to grapple with while I was traveling around the world recently, especially in chaotic cultures like India, was the concept of haggling for things. Because it has been part of our culture, we like to believe in the democratization of honesty and value and ultimately, price. When someone sets a price on anything (an object in particular) we take it on faith that this price is some sort of fair calculation of the work that went into making it and its distribution costs. But this is a fantasy (and living in a capitalist society, we should know this but don’t). The value of anything (and this becomes abundantly clear in the street markets in India) is precisely what you are willing to pay for it, not a penny more or less. The fact that this is a subjective measure originally gave me fits. But then I came to realize that even in our supposedly advanced culture, price is essentially what the market will bear. If I was tired after a long day a taxi ride of exactly the same length and duration was worth more than if I were really feeling like walking the distance.
My point in all this is that artists (and content producers of all types) should get comfortable with the idea of variable value. They should realize that some people will want to consume their product for a penny and some for a dollar, but that this has nothing particularly to do with their wishes or the value of their work. I asked my friend if we were not living in a world where he could sell his paintings, would he still make them. He of course answered yes, that he HAD to paint. Just as many artists HAD to create. It is part of who they are and they need to express themselves. And these expressions are not outside of culture at all, but part of a dialog with that culture. It is just as vitally important to present and show and dialog with the culture about the work, as it is to make it. Money is nice and it is important to make a living somehow, but let’s face it — this is ancillary to the work of art. And many times it is corrupting. How many artists scream bloody murder about “selling out”, but go along willingly for the money and/or fame?
As the famous line (often attributed to Churchill) goes, “We have already established what you are, we are merely haggling over price.” If art is to be truly meaningful, the price of a work of art must be irrelevant. I don’t begrudge any artist making a good or even great living from their work, but the value of that work to themselves and the culture cannot be established by the simple fact of setting a price and collecting it. Furthermore, in the modern age, controlling such things as who has access to your work is a fantasy. Far better to deal with the reality of the digital world and adapt to its quirks. With any great technological change comes disruption and displacement. Smashing the mechanical looms will do nothing to forestall the future.
These same rules apply to me, of course. Do I think that my blog writing is art? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do I think it has value? Yes, of course — otherwise why produce it? But not everyone will recognize that value; I know that, and I am okay with it. I write to take part in a dialog with the culture, and I would and will continue to write whether or not I derive financial benefit from it. Would I love to be able to make a living solely from the writing? Sure, but I have many interests, and getting paid for any of them would be sweet, especially if I could continue doing them as I please. But I do not expect payment unless I am on contract to produce something specific for a client (a website, a commissioned article, an itinerary, tech support, etc). But I do think that my creative work outside of contract should follow the same principles I have outlined above and to that end, I have added an “ALMS” button to the main menu here on my blog. Clicking on it will take you to a Paypal site where you can donate any amount you like to support my writing and this blog. If you do, I will be most grateful. And if you don’t, I am still grateful that you are reading it, and would encourage you to comment and participate in the discussion.
Yesterday I met up with a nice group of guys at MOMA for a walk around the various exhibits. At the entrance I was confronted with the sobering fact of a twenty dollar entrance fee, and decided to become a member (which was only sixty dollars). Much like buying my MTA card, this struck me as a commitment by me to the city and by it to me. I love the MOMA and I am sure I will go many more times this year (he says by way of justification).
Had a lovely brunch at a place called Melt today in Park Slope with my friend Sian, where we discussed the hopelessness and horror of the situation in Gaza, among other things. Brooklyn (and Park Slope in particular, where I am staying in the lovely apartment of my friend Sivan at the moment) is a place to the east of Manhattan. People that live in Manhattan seem unaware of it, and are mystified when presented with the street grid here, although it is a grid and they all have iPhones and GPS. Such was the case with my cousin Josh this morning, who actually has a work gig in Brooklyn at BAM and struggled somewhat to undestand how to meet me but a few blocks away from where he was.
My friend Christian asked me for a little help writing an “Artist’s Statement” in English for inclusion in a ceramics exhibition in Korea in which he is a participant. Christian and I have the same feeling about the utter ridiculousness of artists’ statements. The idea that one needs a guide to formal work like ceramics or sculpture, as if there is some code to decipher, is a little silly. But then again, it is often how the art world operates. If the narrative is compelling, so goes the art. Oftentimes without this compelling narrative, no notice will be taken of the work on its own. The intersection of these things is fascinating.
Christian and I started playing a little game, assigning all kinds of meaning to the work that was never part of his intent. And then we hit on an extraordinary idea. What would the art world denizens be expecting of a Peruvian ceramics artist? What would the committee putting together the expo want or need for their interest to be piqued? It was pretty obvious (and unfortunate), but we both agreed that they would want something “authentic”, “Peruvian”, and above all “native”. This is sadly the way much of the art world needs to interact with objects from other cultures. It is pretty insulting, actually. The idea being that authenticity must flow from some quasi colonial/imperial idea of original culture. If Christian were to say that his influences were Bauhaus architects of the 1920s, it would probably be met with much less interest than saying he was trying to recover pre-Spanish (and pre-Inca) images of earth mother and earth father. As a Peruvian artist, it is much more “authentic” to repair the destruction of colonialism than it would be to express yourself as a citizen of the world where influences come from everywhere. This is an insulting trap for artists the world over.
In today’s world, this search for the “authentic” and “native” is more than a little silly. With modern communications and media being what they are, everything is a jumble of everything. While it might soothe some remote aesthete to believe they can find unadulterated purity, it is a fantasy. And this fantasy is not limited to art consumers. In my own travels I have been confronted time and again with the platonic ideal of the authentic smashing up against the real and messy mix of cultures that is the modern world. I think back to one of my favorite stories, told to me by my friend Marites. When she and her husband were traveling for the first time in India, they were invited by relatives of an Indian family they knew in Berkeley to come for a visit. The village was a bit off the beaten track, and my friends were quite tired when they finally arrived, happy to be welcomed into a home in the midst of all the chaos of Indian culture. As they settled in, the mother of the household offered them chai. My friend took it with great pleasure and care, and noticing the aroma and flavor and surroundings, said,
“This is all so wonderful, thank you for welcoming us into your home. This chai is delicious. Where do you get your spices? Where does the tea come from?”
Visions of the misty tea plantations of Darjeeling surely dancing in my friend’s head, the woman responded,
“Oh! It is Lipton tea. I always buy a huge box when I visit my son in Berkeley. From Costco, it is such a good price!”
My friend was crestfallen, but laughing as well. I love this story because it so well illustrates how our romantic notions of things so often take the place of what is actually in front of us. That we find it so difficult to see what is real and potentially beautiful without a special narrative. The best part of traveling (for me anyway) is not in having one’s romantic notions fulfilled (which does happen sometimes), but in discovering things one never knew about, mundane or awful or wonderful, that teach something about a culture. I am not bothered at all by the complex contradictions of a culture, I revel in them. Or more accurately, I revel in the lessons they impart, because oftentimes these experiences are not terribly pleasant.
It is the same with the expectations that the world places upon us for reasons having nothing to do with our personalities. It is of course true that we are made up of the many threads of our environment, including the place of our birth and circumstances of our cultures. But this is not all we are, and in an increasingly interconnected world, for both good and ill, we are a jumble, all of us. Instead of needing to put people into boxes for the ease of categorization and identification, perhaps we could try standing back a bit and just looking, without referring to the artist’s statement. We might be surprised and delighted by what we find.
A friend of mine just forwarded me a link to the work of an artist that is pretty fascinating. Called Running the Numbers, the work is by an artist named Chris Jordan. In the series, he creates a group of photomontages representing the vast quantities of waste that our consumer culture produces. What is so amazing about the work is how he plays with the scale in such a way that one doesn’t recognize the individual items in play until one is at a very close range. From a distance our detritus is abstract and divorced from the social indictment of a closer view. We rest easy when we aren’t forced to confront the enormity of our consumption. Amazing work.
I just came back from seeing the traveling art exhibit that everyone has been raving about. It is called Ashes and Snow, and it is currently on display in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. This movable art tent was in LA just before I left about 2 years ago where it was likewise greeted as something incredible.
I thought it was total crap.
More of a marketing idea than anything else, the show is a testament to hype over substance. The images are simplistic (not to be confused with its much richer cousin, simple) playing into a mass culture (and watered down) idea of the exotic. These images in no way force anyone to contemplate the messy reality of truly far away places, they simply allude to a sanitized, romanticized version of it. The images are perfect for our culture of mass consumption, for they contain no content that would argue against modern excess. Quite to the contrary, the final part of the exhibit is a large vending area so that people may continue to consume these images with their purchase of posters, postcards, cds, books, etc. In fact, the entire exhibit could be considered the showroom, with purchase and checkout at the end.
Ultimately this exhibit was about as aesthetically and critically fulfilling as a “Hang in there baby!” kitty poster. The difference being that the kitty poster is less pretentious.
Scott, Mike and I continue to mix highbrow and lowbrow in Denver with a trip to the Denver Art Museum, a beer bust at a place called The Wrangler, and waaaaayyy too much comfort food at Stueben’s. Below you will find exhibit “a”, Scott sipping a “Volcano”.