Friday, April 25, 2008

Art-Schvart: the abortions of art education

I've been hesitant to comment on the work of Aliza Schvarts. Condemning it is to easy and quick - and 87,000 people have already felt the need to do so. What is necessary are alternative perspectives and rational discussion or analysis: one that doesn't demonize her for artificially inseminating herself nine times in as many months and then taking herbal supplements to abort the possible fetus on the 28th day of her cycle; one that doesn't quickly belittle her act or her intentions as insane, illegal, or murderous; one that doesn't dismiss her for the act as another young artist trying to get famous quickly.

It's necessary to consider at least three things when addressing the piece and the intention of the artist in question: The Artist's Intention as canon, Accepted Performance Pieces that function as a foundation for the work, and the objectives of teaching.

I Blame Duchamp: The Canon of Artist Intention.
The first two are related, but it is necessary to separate them. The Artist's Intention as Cannon goes to Duchamp's Fountain. When Fountain is cited as the basis of work defended under the larger umbrella of "The Artist's Intention" it is necessary to understand both the context of that particular piece - Fountain - in terms of its submission and in terms of the time it was submitted. Fountain was submitted to an unjuried exhibition, wherein the participants of the exhibition could submit any work they wanted for the fee of $5. The piece would be exhibited regardless of what it was. Duchamp, under the pseudonym of R. Mutt, submitted a urinal to be displayed on a pedestal under the title Fountain. The piece was later rejected and it was the only piece rejected.

What the submission, and later act of rejection, calls into question is the academic and public response to what is and what is not art. Four years before Duchamp submitted Fountain, Teddy Roosevelt walked through the first Armory Show in 1913 and declared "That's not art!"Amongst those exhibited were Robert Henri, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Matisse, Leger, Delaunay, Odilon Redon, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat... the list goes on. Though the following may be conjecture, it also may be accurate, because I cannot say for certain if Roosevelt was speaking about a particular piece or about the exhibition as a whole. But, if my estimation is correct, Roosevelt, like so many other educated pedestrians and professors of the old guard of art, considered the bucolic landscapes, bowls of fruit, allegoric and historical paintings in the Classical tradition to be art; anything that opposed the tradition of what the fine arts re-presented was antithetical to what the fine arts were. The Armory Show of 1913 moved the bar up, just a little. In 1917 Duchamp moved it further. It was a response to technology: photography and film, automotives, aeronautics, the advance of science, the scourge of trench warfare and chemical weapons.

This canon has been used to defend the works of many who followed, forever pushing a boundary further and further from a public grasp and understanding of what is and is not art. When bad work crops up it is the easiest thing to point one's finger at and blame. Yet, when examining the work of Cage, Turrell, Paik, Holzer, Rauschenberg, Johns, Irwin, etc we seldom thank Duchamp for creating a plateau from which to continually redefine our boundaries.

The Celebration of Burden and the Shock of a Few:
Schvart's work has also been linked to Chris Burden's work, Shoot, executed in 1971, wherein he had a friend shoot him in the arm. It gave him a flesh wound, a degree, overnight notoriety and celebrity, and the ability to (I'll bet easily) get tenure. But, herein lies several problems: was it the shock and awe of the work that was so celebrated, the sheer chutzpah to ask the same question as Duchamp, only to solve it with a more bombastic and explosive answer or was it the fact that his piece was sheer genius truly shedding light on an aspect of fine art that had remained unanswered until the hammer was dropped? Did it really expand our knowledge of the tragedy of the violence in Vietnam, removed from that country's civil war, removed from its politics, and seated comfortably in a white walled gallery in California? Did it expand our consciousness in the United States in terms of violent acts committed through a barrel with a bullet, violence that had taken away the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, Malcolm X; violence that picked off students from a bell tower in Texas; or violence that took the lives of four at Kent State? Considering the assassination attempts on Ford, Carter, and Reagan; the wakes of The University of Iowa, Columbine, and Virginia Tech (and all the school shootings between those 15 years); the continued debate over the right to bear arms; the continued wars currently campaigned in Afghanistan and Iraq, Burden's Shoot is nothing more than an artistic act of futility. Part of the reason why the answer to those questions is a resounding no is because little documentation exists from the work. It was seen by a few people. But it remains discussed in college classrooms throughout the US. Had ample documentation existed, maybe he too could have been pictured on the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album like more relevant acts of protest during Vietnam through self-immolation committed by Buddhist monks. Burden's statement, done in the sake of art, lacked all the poetry and beauty of burning Buddhists who didn't flinch under fire (like Burden did).

Shocking art has been created by many (and sadly I forget their many of their names). The artist who placed herself nude on a block of ice and lay there until she bled. The artist that ate chocolate and lard to make a point about body image, consumption and over eating. The artist that had sex with an art buyer who agreed to be part of the piece as a criticism of the art culture. Manzoni defecated into tins and critiqued the art market. When Carolee Schneeman stood nude like a life model, painted her contour on her body, and then read a scroll pulled from her vagina she was commenting on the objectification of women as objects. The list goes on and on.

What becomes mildly interesting is what gets remembered and what doesn't. In a decade will anyone outside of DC remember Adrian Parson's Shrapnel performance at The Warehouse? A man cutting off his foreskin is rather impressive in a way... it was a shot in the arm for DC shock art. Shock has been relevant in art for centuries, bringing artists into light and remembering their seminal works while eventually forgetting what brought them to the front at all. Some remained up front and center for centuries because of their talent. Leonardo, for example, is remembered for Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Most of history has forgotten that his name first gained attention because he participated in the gang rape of a boy. Caravaggio is remembered for turning out the light in 17th Century painting and ushering in The Baroque. We seldom discuss the pederasty of his early Bacchus-es - not only the pederasty of the models but the pederasty committed by the Cardinals who commissioned them. But, in another century will we still hold Damien Hirst's animals in formaldehyde or Jeff Koon's vitrines of basketballs and vacuum cleaners with as much "praise" as we do today? I'll guess not, though they may become analogous to the Emperor's New Clothes, if they aren't already in many circles.

When we "celebrate" these questionable pieces, is it really celebration or is it acknowledgement? After all, Paris Hilton is a celebrity. She's photographed all the time and appears as a source for gossip constantly. But, do we really celebrate her (or this questionable art) like a 25th wedding anniversary, a child's first step, the landing of a space shuttle, or the reward of a job well-done? Sometimes the shocking art of a few is truly brilliant. But, in many instances we simply need to reassess our values and how we guide our attention.

The Blind Leading The Blind:
The guidance of attention and value in education is at first steered by our professors. The weight of a project is evaluated by them and directed by them, and the good professors try to remain one step back from contorting a student's creativity into the professor's creativity; the student should work on his own work, not our work. We can purposefully direct how to draw an object, how to mix a color. These are, for lack of a better term, known quantities. What many art professors eventually want to encourage is how to think - how to create your own problems.

If the work cannot communicate directly the artist statement or curatorial statement is an attempt to fill the gap. As a result, art programs try to teach their students how to write. Published in The Wall Street Journal and borrowed from Ms. Schvarts is the following passage from her artist statement, below.
"The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming -- an authorial act. It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it."
The first point of criticism is, just because you go to Yale and just because you are in a fine arts program does not mean you need to write like an ass hole: constipated and up tight. More to the point, H.G. Frankfurt (from Princeton) would quickly label this writing as Bullshit. While the writing is clearly versed in linguistics, the troublesome nature of many artists who study linguistics through Feminism and Gender Studies (as she clearly has) is they fail to realize that only other linguistics people can read their writing because it isn't English - it is linguistic-uesse. Let's dissect a little:

"Miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality..." Really? I thought it was a biological reality. Politics has no place in even attempting to position whether or not a zygote matures into a fetus, unless uterine linings have become politically active. It is true, however, that some uterine linings are possessed by politically active people. What is a linguistic and political reality is not miscarriage, it is abortion!

The linguistic reality is that people in the medical world refer to a miscarriage in three terms: missed abortion, incomplete abortion, and complete abortion. An abortion, as we discuss it in popular culture, is actually what is classified as an elective abortion. So, it could be determined that Ms. Schvartz seeks to qualify the weight of an adjective. Yet, she does not state the noun abortion, to which the value of the adjective can be adhered, in that quote.

Her process of insemination and expulsion, repeated nine times in as many months, lacks some science and reason. The first is that she never tested herself for pregnancy, so there is no telling if she actually conceived. After the 28th day of her cycle she consumed herbal supplements to abort the questionably existent "fetus." The ambiguity of existing fetal tissue, she rationalizes, questions whether the act is an [elective] abortion or a miscarriage. the only problem with that rationalization - as her professors responsible for the guidance of this project should have made her aware - is if she elects to consume a product that will terminate the pregnancy, then she has elected to abort the pregnancy. Or is the question that, if it does not involve dilation and curettage that it is not an abortion?

An additional point of note is that a miscarriage or an elected abortion typically damages the uterine walls, and requires approximately two menstrual cycles to heal. If a woman gets pregnant immediately following a miscarriage or abortion, she increases her risk of having a(nother) failed pregnancy. At least, that is what my wife's doctor explained to us after our miscarriage in November. So, Ms. Schvarts' thesis not only discounts linguistic logic, it spits in the face of biology and statistics as well.

However, this is missing the point! Why? Because her performance and its documentation is not about the language of pregnancy and miscarriage, it is about who society says should have babies and how portions of our anatomy are used to make them

The "authorial act" and "heteronormativity" of her thesis is arguing against the declaration that vaginas are meant to receive penises and that women are meant to have babies. Well, if procreation is your goal, until recent scientific advances, there could be no other way. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous... even the pregnant man in the news is, biologically a woman - he just happened to have a sex change and keep his uterus. If procreation is not the goal, the "authorial act" and the "heteronormativity" she should be railing against is the legislation and legal and social condemnation against activities that might expand beyond procreative acts. This would include anal sex, homosexual sex, oral sex, and other acts of penetration. The right not to bear children has ever been legislated against, to the best of my knowledge.

So, while her act does question form and function as it converges on the body, was it a necessary question that needed to be asked and did she answer it in any rational and articulate way. Her thesis has already been proven and added to for centuries by nuns and priests through their vows of chastity and historically recorded acts of pederasty. The same can be stated for many members of the general public, for kings and queens. Just because it wasn't in your high school text book does not mean it didn't happen.

And these are the very holes her professors should have poked through her ideas. Because, while it is necessary to get the students to consider problems in their work, it is also necessary for them to arrive at the answers. For painters and sculptors, traditionally, this may have occurred over decades, building upon their research and expanding their answers. For students, sometimes they need a little help. The obvious answers were in front of her, but she over thought them, nose deep in Jacques Derrida's doo-doo.

As for the general public, the question they are asking is just as invalid. Is this art? As opposed to what? Craft? Not art? This is absolutely art; the artist has declared it so! The point missed is that art is not the value to be assessed. Art is a commodity, like an appliance or consumable. The question the public should be asking is one of value. Is this good art? The answer is no.

Balducci's Might Be Run By Morons

This afternoon I went to Balducci's to use a deli coupon to buy a couple of sandwiches and quickly learned that I cannot do that, which confused me. I naturally assumed from my experiences getting sandwiches at delis at several grocery stores in the Midwest and New England that this was common: ya' want a sandwich? Go to the deli! In fact, if I recall from living in Brooklyn, if I wanted to get, say, a Rueben, I could walk to a neighborhood deli and order a Rueben. Not a grocery store, mind you. An actual business called a d-e-l-i wherein they make s-a-n-d-w-i-c-h-e-s.

This is not the case at Balducci's on New Mexico Avenue in Washington, DC. In the deli department you can get your "deli sliced meats." The deli department does not make sandwiches; those are made by the sandwich department which may or may not be in the prepared foods department. I'm going out on a limb here, but I have a feeling the sandwich department gets its meat from the deli department.

The objects I most wanted to purchase from the deli are pictured on the right of the coupon. Pictured: Sandwiches! However, sandwiches are not "sold by the deli," as I was informed by the clerk. "They are sold by the sandwich department." Therefore, the sandwiches I wanted to buy, the sandwiches pictured on the coupon, were not valid purchase items.

Apparently there is a glitch in their system - or departments just don't talk to one another. For example, if I were to buy a sandwich it might get rung up under prepared foods. If I were to buy cream it would go to the dairy. If I purchased a hunk of Fontina cheese, it goes to the cheese department (yes... I know... that's a dairy product, but not a product sold by the diary department). So, when the graphics people in the marketing department make the coupons that go to John Q. Public (or, in this case, John J. Anderson), they don't know the ins and outs of sales. So, if there is going to be a special in the deli, why not represent that deli transaction with a sandwich? After all... IT JUST MAKES SENSE!

That is, of course, unless you are handling the sales, which is run by Major Major from Catch-22.

Maj. Major Major Major: Sergeant, from now on, I don't want anyone to come in and see me while I'm in my office. Is that clear?
First Sgt. Towser: Yes, sir? What do I say to people who want to come in and see you while you're gone?
Maj. Major Major Major: Tell them I'm in and ask them to wait.
First Sgt. Towser: For how long?
Maj. Major Major Major: Until I've left.
First Sgt. Towser: And then what do I do with them?
Maj. Major Major Major: I don't care.
First Sgt. Towser: May I send people in to see you after you've left?
Maj. Major Major Major: Yes.
First Sgt. Towser: You won't be here then, will you?
Maj. Major Major Major: No.
First Sgt. Towser: I see, sir. Will that be all?
Maj. Major Major Major: Also, Sergeant, I don't want you coming in while I'm in my office asking me if there's anything you can do for me. Is that clear?
First Sgt. Towser: Yes, sir. When should I come in your office and ask if there's anything I can do for you?
Maj. Major Major Major: When I'm not there.
First Sgt. Towser: What do I do then?
Maj. Major Major Major: Whatever has to be done.
First Sgt. Towser: Yes, sir.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Graffiti Research Lab: Art Happens

Though the adult in me finds Borf to be a nuisance for the defacement of property, the artist in me has always found his "tags" - on a graphic level - to be very compelling (even if his stuff is a tad derivative of Banksy and Fairy). And there is something in me that wishes I had the chutzpah to do the street art that might be deemed as "destructive." For instance, with the plethora of exhausted fire hydrants in DC I wouldn't see a problem if several of these tripping posts could be adorned with gold leaf (like the icons of city mismanagement that they are). Unfortunately, I think the po-po would find my amused interest otherwise. To this date, apart from the occasional moving violation, I don't have a record... I'd like to keep it that way.

So, we have the Graffiti Research Lab, empowering persons of various persuasions to post non-destructive marks of creative interest on whatever surface they so desire. After all, they can be easily removed and have no permanent effect (or defect) to the surfaces they adorn. They are made with projections, or magnets stuck to metal. In the case of Mark Jenkins - tape.

A philosophy of mine is that "Art Happens." This has two meanings, and both happen outside the gallery environment, which are warehouses of art that has already happened. The first is a transformative experience that occurs when an individual stumbles upon something "out of the ordinary." Typically, the out-of-the-ordinary physical object placed in the environment that forces a person to pause and reflect. Graffiti does this, whether it is classically painted onto a surface (Borf, Basquiat, Banksy or anyone else whose name starts with B) or whether it is a sculpture of tape.

The other way art happens is when we project meaning onto an otherwise mundane object or event. Think: the videos of the floating bag from the movie American Beauty. In either event, if we allow it, Art forces us to engage our perspective of our surroundings: physical, social, aesthetic, etc. It allows us to assess everything between our known knowns and our unknown unknowns.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

USDAT activities on Boing Boing

The one downside to working for a fictitious government entity is knowing (or not knowing) if there are others out there silently plodding away on their own agendas. While I can only assume Billy Kluver, Under Secretary for the Bureau of Reality, is probing the after life for ways of making technological bridges back to our world, most activities of the US Department of Art & Technology, to the best of my understanding, are only being concocted within a few blocks of my apartment.

But today I learned of (Trade) Mark Gunderson and his Artistic License. (Here is a permanent link to his enterprise.) Neither of us are listed as staff in the Department, so I have no clue what his role is. But, it's entertaining, just the same.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I blogged too soon: grant award from DCCAH

Tuesday afternoon the fat letter from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities arrived, awarding me with my second (and final) Young Artist Project grant award. (Rejection letters are typically thin because they do not have all the additional tax paper work that needs to be filed upon acceptance).

The proposal was to create visually interesting work (for the bulk of us) that was also aesthetically interesting to the visually impaired.

The project proposal stems from a student I interviewed at American University (Paul) who is blind. The intention of that interview was to create a sort of video documentary/profile to gain some understanding - as a sighted individual - about how the world is perceived when blind. However, what I was learning in the course of the interview became far more interesting than a video piece. I knew, going into the interview, that Paul played saxophone in a jazz group, and was also a very talented classical pianist, so he did have some appreciation for the arts. But, part of what interested me was when he told me about experiencing the Torqued Ellipses and other serpentine sculptures of Richard Serra.

Every time I go to the National Gallery I marvel at Serra's steel sculpture that, if installed improperly, will kill the preparator. It's a piece that really cannot be felt like one of his Torqued Ellipse (at least, I'm not brave enough to touch it). You can walk through the ellipse and it will affect how you hear the space. If you are prodding through it with a white cane, it will also affect the dimensions of your boundaries - for example the wall might meet the floor over there, but every time I walk there I bump my head.

Think of how many other works of fine art can be experienced like that? Pieces that are heard and touched - as well as seen. My grant from DCCAH will fund a few pieces that should affect at least three of our five senses.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Read the Fine Print

After completing another application for a Small Project grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities I found the one line that may explain my last few project proposals getting rejected. "Priority will be given to applications who have not received grant funds from the DC Arts Commission within the past five years."

Of course... maybe it has something to do with my last few proposals funding the Graviton - my project which will pull the moon out of its orbit, closer to the earth.

Who knows?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

When it rains it pours.

Confirmed today - August is going to be a busy month of exhibiting.
Future posts will depict images of the Virginia work.