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Sunday, January 24, 2016
The different arts communities in
painting, poetry and literature—are like individual fish bowls arranged along
the top of a wall. Each community is its own enclave or kingdom. Actors hang with other actors; visual artists
keep company with other visual artists, and poets and writers generally keep to
their own circles unless they have to jump bowls and write about actors or the
visual artists. This arrangement is confining, parochial, and limiting. It’s
also a Philadelphia thing because, at
least according to a poet friend of mine, the various arts communities in New
York behave in a different fashion: they mix and
mingle freely with one another.
Perhaps we should ask: what is art? I pose this question because many people today believe that art can be anything you want it to be. A fashion model, for instance, will refer to her walk down the runway or her pose before a magazine photographer as “art.” Actors call their work in the theater “art” although there was a time not too long ago when talented actors used to be referred to as good technicians capable of memorizing lines. While this may or may not be true, expressing yourself emotionally on stage is a talent that many do not possess. One thing most people will agree on is this: actors are the most visible of all the arts communities. They are really the talking heads of the arts world, comparable to “talking head” (broadcast) journalists.
Consider the poor painter who does not get to appear on stage night after night to standing ovations or mild applause. The painter’s face is not plastered on billboards along
Street. A painter works in isolation, has an
opening show at a gallery where he or she meets the public, then after that it’s
all about returning to work (in isolation).
Art in our time has come to mean anything, from the way colorful tattoos blend into human epidermis to fancy food production in hot urban kitchens where The Chef is almost certainly…an artist. Chefs started to become “artists” sometime in the mid-1990s but the sad fact is, ‘art’ is the most abused word in the English language.
The abuse of the word ‘art’ may start in progressive schools where children are taught that “everybody is an artist,” meaning, of course, that anybody can be trained to be an artist. In such schools any sort of hierarchy of talent is seen as elitist. This is why I wince when I hear dilettantes say things like, “I’m going home to make art.” You are—really? How do you know that what you are about to make will become art? But that’s not the point, really. The point is that because the maker declares that what he/she makes is art then it is art. It becomes art because I say it is art. End of discussion.
The dribble down effect of this kind of thinking has changed the work presented in many of the city’s art galleries.
The modern art in these galleries is not only overpriced, it is incomprehensible and just plain bad, leading many people to conclude that much of modern art is a fraud. At one
gallery opening recently, I
went to check out the work of two modern artists. I watched as one of the artists entered the
gallery with her small entourage. Dressed to the nines in a pair of patent
City New York stilettos, the
artist surveyed her “art” which was displayed in the front of the gallery
closest to the door. Her paintings were a mesh of pastel colored brush strokes
evoking Victoria’s Secret lingerie
or long squiggly lines rising upwards like swimming spermatozoa, priced around
$8,000 a piece. As the evening wore on, and it became obvious that nobody was
buying (or would buy) any of her work, she left the gallery in a huff. This was
long before the reception was over. The squiggly spermatozoa would now have to
swim downward and be packed up and sent back to her New
York sperm bank.
I’ve witnessed similar scenarios at other galleries. One
gallery, for instance, seems to specialize in the work of young, hot “girl”
artists. At opening receptions at this gallery one can see the artists lined up
like Playboy escort bunnies, all of them in heavy makeup and heels and of
course killer ringlet hair cascading down their shoulders and framing exposed
cleavage. Every time I go to this gallery I think I’m attending another chic
Nicole Cashman party. Old City
I may be stereotyping, but when I imagine women artists I immediately think of peasant head kerchiefs, big bracelets, flannel shirts, or dangling Georgia O’Keefe earrings. The glamorous
celebrity look is new and raises the question: Are these women really the bored wives of
wealthy hedge fund husbands, as somebody in the art world once suggested? This
hedge fund art really has no distinction yet what comes to mind is the
(wallpaper patterned) “art” that real estate agents plaster on the walls of
rehabbed homes and offices before they hold an open house.
“In art,” as Picasso once wrote, “the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales…. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term….I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times…”
What an admission! And yet the narcissism of our times gives untoward courage to scores of anonymous Picasso wannabes who have no trouble calling themselves artists.
There is so much new art in the world now there could never be a museum large enough to contain it all. How can we save all of this stuff? How do we catalogue it? Art is being produced everyday, every hour and at amazing speeds. And it is coming straight at us from every strata of society, even the sidewalks of
where one can see street artists
sitting curbside with their exhibitions lined up along Chestnut or Center
Street. “Art for Sale,”
their signs say. At $5 a piece the
pieces are relatively cheap. Buy now, because you never know when the maker of
these street absurdities and puzzles may hit the Picasso jackpot. (Yes, it’s
better than playing the slot machines at Sugar House).
So, yes, art is everywhere, even in hair salon shops where the owner/manager displays his art, beautifully framed because of the expensive prices of his cuts. Or: go into a doctor’s office and see the doctor’s new hobby. It’s drawing or painting and he’s turned the walls of his waiting room into a small gallery. He’s an artist and—surprise! -- His pieces are beautifully framed because of his high patient prices.
There’s flea market art; there’s also the grassroots art of the city’s many small artistic clubs like The Sketch Club and the Plastic Club, where members have monthly exhibits. These exhibits have a dual purpose; they present the work of new or lesser known artists, and they serve as ad hoc community centers because these gatherings are also parties with food, wine, and sweets. Art parties are always a good thing, even if they attract more non-artists than artists and bring in the city’s whacko reception addicts who track down all the free food and drink events in the city with the determination of a house detective.
As for who is really an artist, I’ll defer to Scott Berkun, who said, “An Artist will risk many things, wealth, convenience, popularity, fame or even friends and family to protect the integrity of their ideas. If you’re not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you’re probably not an artist. “
So much for those Hedge Fund ladies.
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Most of Modern Art is a Fraud; Slapstick Theater on Broad Street; Banning Donald Trump; Bad Book Politics at the Philadelphia Free Library
ICON MAGAZINE City Beat, January 2016
A Philadelphia Inquirer article chronicling the demise of art galleries in the city got us thinking. (1)
is not New York. (2) Most of the
population here is lowbrow. (3) Much of what passes for modern art stretches
credibility. Are galleries closing because, as some have suggested, people are
finally discovering that much of modern art is a fraud? At one opening recently
we attempted to discern the “there there” of the work of a stiletto wearing New
York-based artist in town to promote her abstracts. In some galleries this is what the art
world has become: bored wealthy Sunday lounger types taking up the brush as
their Hedge Fund husbands foot the bill for a dilettante lifestyle. What do
these “artists” produce? Intricate floral shower curtain designs; pink line
graphics hinting at Center
Secret underwear or splashy decorative pieces reminiscent of the “art” that real
estate agents love to hang on rehabbed condo walls. The price tag for these
gems is the cost of a week’s trip to Paris:
$8,000 and up. Oh yes, the New York
artist’s pieces did not sell. She left the opening early—and in a huff.
Magadalena Elias’ Everything is Illuminated exhibit at the
Street Gallery on 45 N. 2nd
Street got us thinking of the old gobelins
tapestries that used to hang outside government buildings in France
in the 1600s. Gobelins were hung from hooks as banner art when a dignitary was
in town, and sometimes they were used to warm the walls of a room. Elias began
weaving gobelins after the death of her good friend, Karen Lenz, but
gobelin-making has been in her genes since childhood, inspired mostly by her
grandfather. “In my
mind’s eye I could visualize him sitting in his favorite chair, working on
something he called gobelin. As he worked, his peacefulness radiated
outward and I wanted to share in that peacefulness, so I began work on my first
piece, “The Inversion of Don Quixote.” Unlike that Hedge fund artist in stilettos,
Elias sold three pieces in an hour but not at $8,000 a piece.
A taste for Sherlock Holmes mysteries is like a taste for liver and onions-- you either have it or you don’t. Add slapstick to the mix (The Three Stooges and all those pies thrown at high society dinners) and you have a comic book. The rocket-paced methamphetamine rush of Ken Ludwig’s Baskervulle, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the
had us wishing we were watching Eugene O’Neill, Tom Stoppard or Tennessee
Williams. A million costume changes, men with twirling mustaches, flowers that
fall from the sky and land stem first in the ground, or sound effects that
recall Grofe’s The Grand Canyon Suite,
cannot replace a substantive narrative. While pro-slapstick fans and assorted
kiddies in the audience loved the Ludwig carnival, there was no standing
ovation. The real Holmes mystery that night
however was the dangerously downsized post show reception that has us worried
about the financial health of one of our favorite theaters. Suzanne
Michael Nutter’s cat fight with Donald Trump originated with his wish to ban Trump from
But banning people (and books) because of the ideas they represent only produces
underdog heroes. ( Philadelphia’s ,
a venerable Quaker institution, has already banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry
Finn because of inappropriate language). Some say the ex-mayor had to go out
with a bang, and Trump was an all too- easy target. We wonder how a Trump ban
would operate. Would it include spending millions to set up barriers along the
Parkway? How about armed guards, Friends
Central School Jerusalem
style, along Broad Street? Modern cities are not medieval fortresses with
walls, so if Trump wanted to break Nutter’s ban he’d have to disguise himself
illegal immigrant. Then he’d be welcomed with open arms. Sanctuary City
Andy Kahan’s author lecture series at the Free Library has brought celebrity writers to the city with Oprah Winfrey-style pizzazz. But locally-based authors who want to jump on Kahan’s Central Library bandwagon with their new books have to swear off all other lecture circuit venues for the duration of their publicity tours. Central’s demand for promotion monogamy-- one book = one venue-- is an ingenuous way to help keep “local” authors permanently local and under the radar.