Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Nighttime and a critique of the art world

The nights are the worst (not the mornings). Tonight as I was lying in bed alternately enjoying chest coughs, sinus congestion and, my favourite, the feeling of a giant lump of, I guess, chewed food stuck in my diaphragm area (all of which are why I am up writing now), I was also thinking about an article I read today. It was an article in the New Yorker about string-theory physicists and what struck me as interesting was not so much string theory, which mostly goes over my head, but their crazy stranglehold on the way physics is taught.

As I understand string theory, the idea is that everything is made of stringlike energy particles that vibrate and don't behave consistently. This, so far, makes sense to me. I can't follow along with their 6 extra dimensions, though the idea of parallel universes strikes me as reasonable (in a parallel universe, I'm healthy). I also don't understand why the theory's detractors don't appreciate that there is no one string theory formula--apparently there are many formulae and this is a big deal with the detractors who want a nice simple Einsteinian e=mc squared.

Anyway, the detracting physicists remind me of me and my complaint with the art establishment except that my complaint is opposite. As a practicing artist for the last 15 years and as an art student for the last year I have noticed that the art establishment is super-hooked on I'll call it a single formula. If you as an artist can show that you have followed but somehow made some modification to some previous movement or artist, preferably a big name one, then bingo, you're an artist! If, like me, you think this exercise is beside the point, you're not playing by the rules. (Relatedly, if your art can be read as ironic, this is also very bingoish even if everyone is fed up with irony and the joke is way, way thin. Or if you can in any way get your art to somehow comment on sexulaity, gender and/or other forms of identity: super-contemporary!)

It's a game that serious artists pretty much have to play because the art world, such as it is, exists in academia and granting institutions (the same people, more or less, are in both groups). The art world is insular, not just in my cosmopolis of Lethbridge, but pretty much the world. Like the string-theory physicists who have elbowed out their competition from all major halls of learning, the art academics have elbowed out any dissenting views in art schools and contemporary art venues the world over.

Do I find art that is contrived to link itself to something previous but presents a new twist meaningless? In general, yes I do. What do I care, to give two recent examples I viewed that moved me not, that in the artist's giant, mostly monotone, canvases she copied Rembrandt's strokes or that the blurry surveillance photos of another are "painterly"?

But so what. I don't mind that these pieces weren't for me. I don't mind that the curator of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the Lethbridge public gallery of some note in contemporary art circles (public meaning government funded by granting institutions), is a nice lady who thinks that painting, in terms of colour, form and light, is "history." Or that the former chairman of the U of L art department, another nice guy, says he hates it when students talk about creativity. (Needless to say, I'm still all for colour, form and light. And I think creativity is one big reason to stay alive and should be an artist's biggest impetus for making art so maybe the idea could at the very least be broached.). They can do and think whatever they want. What I do mind is that these people and people who think like them have their own stranglehold on what is considered art and, therefore what is shown and taught and perpetuated.

I think people (not art academics, not "contemporary artists") are desperate for meaning and look to artists to provide it for them. They are not looking for edification on how a piece relates to an artwork from the past, they are not looking to decipher clever clues, they want an experience that moves them. I don't know one single person outside the art world whose first care upon seeing art is "how does this fit into current contemporary art?" But this is the first concern of the prevailing art world and this is why so much contemporary art is so irrelevant.

It saddens me HUGELY that I can be inspired by books and movies--even television--but almost never an art show (what book, film or TV show hinges on the reader or watcher knowing how it fits in with current literature or cinema?). My first question as a viewer is: how does it make me feel? My first question as an artist: what is my motivation? Second (related) question: who am I trying to reach? In my year as an undergraduate in the U of L fine art department (I enrolled with the intention of eventually getting my MFA so I can teach art, though I've been an artist for years I have no university art credits; my illness and coming baby seem to have derailed these plans), not once did I hear a faculty member address these questions.

Like I said, I am not against people being fixated on the idea of progression in art (a distinctly modernist idea in what they all blab about all the time: a post-modern world--now that's ironic). I do, however, deeply resent the narrowness of allowed art and views on art. The New Yorker article had some interesting ideas about the sociology of physicists. Personally, I think the sociology of academia is a gigantic goldmine of material with art faculties possibly being the supreme nugget.

Poor art academics, stuck between the all-powerful scientific method and purty colours, they've got to figure out a way to look serious. Poor art lovers, stuck with the results.

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