An Edgy Culture Requires an Edgy Market

Joe Shmoe’s Guernica

I’ve been struggling over how to write this follow up post about the museum quality painting I found and then lost at The Goodwill a few weeks ago. I know it could come off sounding like- I TOLD YOU SO! That’s a risk I’ll have to take. The painting Big Oil Small Mountains is the work of Charles Yuen, a successful New York artist, who showed the painting in several museums and galleries exhibitions, primarily in New York, before selling it for a not insignificant sum (I don’t want to be crass but we’re talking more in line with the cost of a family European vacation than we are a new dishwasher). He also feels certain the piece was instrumental in earning him a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant in 2006. They use an image of the painting on their site as an example of his work. So if you had any doubts before, about my evaluation of the work, I hope this bit of information corroborates my point of view.

More at issue for me though is exactly what purpose is served by revealing that he is so successful. Resorting to the use of monetary value and prestige to prove the piece has artistic value, is not what I had in mind with these posts. Ultimately, I want to help you allow yourself to be more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable with a piece of art work. If the piece makes you unsure what you think, it’s challenging you. Not long ago social psychologists at The New School for Social Research released findings that showed that reading small samples of literary fiction as opposed to popular fiction, nonfiction or nothing, temporarily increased an individual’s emotional intelligence. Meaning, people, after consuming art, were more capable of predicting what others were thinking and feeling and were more accurate in reading facial expressions and body language. Art made them more empathetic. So what is the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction and how can that translate to the visual arts? Truths are relative, so the best contemporary works of art includes ambiguity; ideas, feelings and narratives are alluded to, but are not fixed by the artist. The viewer with his own cultural, social and biological baggage contributes to the content of art. The best work, while not always complex visually, has layers of significance and can be evaluated formally, conceptually and emotively. My guess is that this participatory aspect of high art (for lack of a better term) stimulates the mind. So when you feel perplexed or disturbed by art try to enjoy it instead of fighting it; you’re growing.
Does that mean you can’t enjoy a pretty picture or art that’s fun? No of course not. There is nothing wrong with a straight up pretty picture once in a while; a careful rendering of a mundane scene can remind us of the importance of paying attention. It conveys a complexity behind even the most simple of perceptions. For that to be conveyed though, the artist must have lived that experience; it shows. Cleverness alone, whether it is technical, conceptual or emotional, never carries much weight. It becomes something that is made-a product. With art, an idea or feeling is sought after and found not planned and produced. Art is the result of a practice.

And by all means, allow yourself to enjoy a celebration of worldly excess. Why the hell not. I love Jeff Koons. Enjoy his work at face value (you’ve got to love the big puppy planters) but notice that while his work entertains us completely and he airbrushes over our flaws, he doesn’t obscure completely the immaturity of our tastes, the short sightedness of our choices and our moral culpability. He doesn’t let us off so easily. His work uses the carnival quality of Halloween to, not too cleverly, mask the banality of our culture. But be aware, everywhere you will find opportunities to deny sad realities; everywhere are mechanisms to encourage us to dodge emotional,political and spiritual responsibilities. It’s not always wise or healthy to avoid negative emotion and our society doesn’t provide much support for dealing with the serious stuff. Allow entertainment to take your mind off your troubles; ask something more from your arts.
Think through your attitudes about; what constitutes significant art, what role context should play in creating art or signaling that something is art. Do you think art, any art has inherent value separate from cultural or physical context, and if so, how? Are artistic tastes really our own or have they been created for us by society or big business? Do artistic tastes evolve and change or are they a natural inclination? Are some tastes really more sophisticated and better than others or are they merely different? And why should we care about art? Now, if you will, imagine yourself at a yard sale at the home of your neighbor, Joe Shmoe. Lined up against his brick house, a garden hose winding its way across the lawn in front of them, are three paintings. One is a large, at least 4 x 6 feet, decorative painting of colorful spots. It looks like a Damien Hirst. The next is an equally large painting of a boat on water, at sunset; this one vaguely reminds you of Turner but is less abstract and is signed in large red letters in the lower right corner J. Shmoe. The third painting is far too large. It would dwarf any room. It is a lost, unknown Picasso painting called The Guernica but you don’t know that. Which painting would you buy? Which painting would have the most value in that context? If Joe decided to paint flowers over The Guernica to give it added value whose fault would that be? If the work was painted over, would something of value have been lost, even if it had never been recognized as great art? This is the art equivalent of the question : if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound? Does art have significance apart from cultural relic or wall decor? I guess I’m dancing around the question of sacredness. Ours has been a celebrity culture. Value in large part has been attached to fame. I am reminded of visiting The Louvre. There was a large crowd swarming The Mona Lisa. People were up on shoulder tops snapping pictures with their phones. Meanwhile nearby equally beautiful and haunting imagery garnered only a precursory glance. We’ve gotten mixed up about what art is and how to enjoy it. Art may be complex, it may have a thousand faces but even in an expected context people don’t really see it. No one there in The Louvre was having an authentic aesthetic experience and they were looking at the F…king Mona Lisa!
In thinking back to the Charles Yuen painting in the Goodwill, I was struck in part by the originality of the work. It was different than work I was familiar with. It had a contemporary feel to it but showed more concern for “quality” of paint and mark and had a greater complexity to the color than is common in most contemporary work. But what really excited me about the painting had nothing to do with originality and everything to do with the sense of that I was a witness to something significant (say a wedding, or a funeral or a shuttle blast off.) It enabled me to forget to be jaded. This affect was created by combining just the right humor to the figures, a generous lush pregnant quality to the paint and a slight melancholia to the color. These combined with a lot of skill and even more luck to produce that idiosyncratic work that is now lost. Charles is still here with us creating new and equally wonderful paintings every year, as you can see from his website, but the thing about art work is that each one is special; and that one was extra special. A piece like that can’t be recreated and nothing anyone past or present could paint over it could be better. Is that my opinion or is it fact? As I bemoaned the loss of the art (can you believe I whined to the poor artist) and called loudly for a new artistic paradigms Charles responded sagely that paradigm shifts happen within individuals and that calling too loudly alienates people and so supports the status quo. In talking to him about his work and from reading his web page I learned what I already knew. He likes “to connect with the viewer beneath the surface of things.” and “His art champions personal human-centric values, as rationality and poetry coexist.” If I was good with words, I would have said this about his work and about all great works of art. It’s this quality that cannot be churned out one piece after another but must be cultivated over time and recognized when it happens. He created it, recognized it for what it was, others recognized it and still it was lost in plain view.

Literature is taught in school. We are encouraged to read between the lines and allow ourselves to be pulled into moral conflict and existential angst between the pages of a book. We all enjoy a good -who done it- once in a while, or a fluffy tell all, or a non-fiction that informs us about something of importance but we know the difference between that book and one that is profound or that at least has presence. But most people don’t want or ask for the same things out of their visual arts, consequently a lot of the art we see hanging in people’s houses or in hotels or in offices is safe, boring and soulless. We are just not used to seeing real art outside the context of a museum and so we can’t recognize it and when we go to museums we allow star power to override meaningful experience.

We “Highbrows” lament the dullness of our cultural scene. We flock to New York or London or Berlin, ravenous for culture. To be sure, the best artists move to those places to be appreciated for what they do but if we provided our local artists with an edgy market we’d see an edgier culture. The best artists would spread themselves out more and other artists would be influenced: art would be better. And if we open our eyes (and maybe our wallets) we might find ourselves a little smarter and a lot happier.

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