Friday, February 26, 2010

Spiritual Necessity

It's about freakin' time.
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
It's sad, really, how over the top was the reaction to Roberta's editorial. Jerry Saltz's Facebook page exploded with expressions of gratitude from hundreds of artists.  The Brooklyn Rail posted a remarkably militant expression of solidarity:
We would go a step further and state unequivocally that many of these individuals have not only shirked their public responsibility, they have turned the museums into playgrounds for an elitist group of trustees and globetrotting art fair devotees, stocking their exhibitions primarily from “powerful galleries.”
Parallels to the financial institution debacle did not go unnoticed:
Sometimes the art world actually lags behind society, and the bursting of its preachy-self-indulgence bubble follows rather than leads the collapse of the economy's credit bubble by a couple of years. In the money world, anybody could borrow any amount for practically anything. In art, anyone could claim to be addressing any social issue with just about any work, and curators believed it.
So the question remains, why should we care? 

In my opinion, Roberta's much-quoted phrase 'intense personal necessity' does not go far enough.  It conjures up a vision of the obsessive, solipsistic artist working alone in the studio, churning out quirky, useless objects for purchase by wealthy people.  Given the dire economic conditions in which we find ourselves, fighting a battle to bring more painting into museums seems a little quixotic, and I say this as a painter myself.

Artists, as a whole, are pretty good at dealing with poverty.  We have to be. To look at the 'art' in museums, you'd never know that artists today have meaningful responses to real-world problems; you'd think we were a bunch of useless, smarmy man-children.

What is truly disgusting about the museum playgrounds is the way in which they siphon energy, resources and attention from artists who are working not only out of personal necessity, but out of spiritual necessity--responding to the world in ways that expand our ideas of what is possible.  Artists like the members of Urban Farm Syndicate:
Our goal is to turn Central Brooklyn’s biggest problem into its greatest resource by working with landowners instead of against them. 13% of the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, is vacant land. This vacant land creates opportunities for crime, vermin and dumping, and drives down property values. We believe this land also has the capacity to give rise to the very things that grow a community: dignified living wage jobs; a thriving local economy based on delicious, healthy food and an enduring educational resource for local schoolchildren and academia alike.
Or artists doing what we always do, going into neighborhoods that might as well be war zones and revitalizing them:
Artists are being pushed out left and right, publications folding, galleries closing, all while more and more MFAs continue to be churned out than can possibly be hired on by Manhattan’s service industry. Space is at a premium. Do we continue to go even further east into the cramped, treeless, concrete, PCB infested jungle of Bushwick, eventually reaching East New York’s hour-long commute for valuable studio and exhibition space? Or do we begin to explore other venues west of the Hudson? In the wide-open (*gasp*) NEW JERSEY!? In our case, we're going with Jersey.
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the curatorial set, 'meaning' does not reside in facile, arcane references within a pile of visual koans.  It does not reside in unintelligible wall text.  It most certainly does not reside in the cynical manipulation of political and economic systems to grab a share of money and attention that is totally disproportionate to the quality of one's contributions.

Spiritual necessity is about a lot more than making objects.  It is about allowing the world to change us, as much as we change the world.  Most artists don't plan to become community organizers, entrepreneurs, healers or activists; it's what happens to us when we the irresistable force of our creativity meets the immovable object of the physical world.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How Not to Be a Terrorist

Glenn Greenwald describes Joe Stack's manifesto as 'perfectly cogent.'  Except for his conclusion that 'violence is the only answer,' I tend to agree.  Partisan ideologues are running in circles, each trying to blame his act of terrorism on the Other Side, but if you bother to read what he wrote, it's clear that it's not that simple.

Contrary to the various labels that the pundits are flinging around, Joe Stack was not a populist.  Neither was he a Communist, a Tea Bagger, or a liberal.  He was a smart, creative guy who empirically discovered that Big Systems in this country are designed to drain him dry--specifically, the smart, the creative, the independent and the non-conformist.  They drain everyone else too, but they work much faster and more viciously on people like Joe.
Item: The Labor Department estimates that up to 30 percent of companies misclassify employees as 'independent contractors' in order to avoid paying Social Security, unemployment, health insurance or worker's compensation.  Among the most often misclassified workers are truck drivers, construction workers, home health aides and high-tech engineers.

Item: The United States has the highest documented incarcaration rate in the world.  Over half are imprisoned for non-violent offenses.  

Item: A homeless man get a 15-year sentence for stealing $100 and returning it, while corporate officers who steal billions from taxpayers, investors and their own employees keep the money and write the laws.

Item: The average debt of a medical student who graduated in 2009 is $156,456.  
Item: The Catholic Church.  

I could go on, but as Joe Stack has clearly demonstrated, that way lies madness.

So how do we cope with the fact that institutions which supposedly exist to sustain and connect us--schools, corporations, churches, and government--have turned into parasitic monsters which extract ever more and give ever less, using our finest characteristics--honesty, intelligence, compassion, creativity, discipline--as levers to enslave us?

The reason terrorism does not work, as an instrument of change, is that fear paralyzes the mind.  The best weapon against institutional thuggery is not violence; it is the freedom of thought and action which emanates from a mind at peace with itself.  This is why institutional thugs bring out their most vicious tricks when confronted with a decent person who thinks for herself. 

This is also why we cannot look to institutional leaders to get us out of this mess.  They created it; they have a vested interest in sustaining it.

So I have a few suggestions.
Learn to care for yourself--really.  Learn to eat well, exercise well, meditate well.  Learn to live on less, even if you still have a job.  Revel in joys that are free. 

Quit looking upward.  Quit looking for someone to hire you, fire you, take charge, change the rules, enforce the rules.  Quit waiting for the grant, the donor, the collector, the award, the promotion.  Stop buying lottery tickets.  Consider long and hard before you pay for another degree.

Connect laterally.  The person you see as your competitor is potentially your ally.  That guy who might take your job, could be your business partner.  Collaborate, encourage, experiment and assist. 

Nurture love and meaning wherever you find it.
 I suspect that before much longer, systems and ways of living we took for granted will vanish, or undergo a radical transformation.  We can either give way to panic, violence, rage and despair, or we can take the opportunity to heal ourselves, our society and our planet.  It's up to every one of us to decide.