Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rethinking Art and Decoration

I have been rethinking the notion of decoration and how it relates to public art. Last week I served on a panel held in conjunction with the exhibition, "Artists and Architects, Modeling Our World," in which we spoke about how the two disciplines are redefining the creation of public space. As it always does, the question "What is public art?" came up. One of the panelists began by saying what it is not—it is NOT decoration. But audience member Mary Lynn Dominguez, an artist known for her elaborately decorative work, challenged that notion. She argued that it is the paucity of decoration—the fact that there isn't much of it to begin with and that what exists is so watered down as to be peripheral or an afterthought—that is problematic. The decorative in art has a long and important history in culture. We tend to use the term in a pejorative sense when we speak of contemporary art, as if being beautifully crusted and skillfully worked was something to avoid.

I admit to being one of those who have used the term decorative in talking about my frustration at public art works which are either so underfunded, or so value-engineered, or so constrained by a political or community process, that the spirit and vision of the artist has been eroded. What's left of these grand ideas?—just a little decoration of urban space, just a little more visual noise in an already cacaphonous environment. But Mary Lynn managed to push through the little mantra I had grown comfortable with, and pointed me in another direction.

I was also, unbeknownst to me, being prepared to shift thinking after seeing an exhibition curated by friends and artists Debby and Larry Kline. The re-examination of Jewish feminist artists at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center featured the work of early feminist artist Miriam Shapiro, a name I remember from my undergraduate art history classes. I hadn't seen this work in thirty years, but it struck a chord with me that prepared me for the challenge to the panelists a week later. Shapiro was much criticized for her working with "women's themes" (read, decorative). On display were works that showed beautifully crafted paper and feather art. They seemed extremely fresh in their revelation of feminist issues, women's work, our ideas of beauty, and the notion of romance. They were unabashedly decorative and skillfully crafted, and their core went beyond, deeply so, the superficial. For more on Miriam Shapiro, click here.

I'm grateful for the challenge of the artist, Mary Lynn Dominguez, and the curatorial skill of Debby and Larry Kline. They have started me down the path of rethinking what we mean when we say "public art." Rather than determining in advance what art isn't, why not allow all forms to exist and see what the contemporary artist can do with them.

Human beings respond to that which is beautiful and well done, not just in the arts but in all that humans touch with their hands, heart and intellect. I think that's why there is a fascination with Martha Stewart and the raging Teutels of "American Chopper." Being an unabashed TV addict I freely admit to spending time watching Martha make an omlette with a great French chef, or Paul and Paulie creating the ultimate theme-machine chopper. You might say that neither is more than its very mundane ingredients—just a few eggs or some bent metal on two tires. But oh the results! Say what you will about the personalities; the great attention to detail, beauty, craft, linked to Ritual / Meaning / Metaphor (the hallmark of good art) keep me watching in admiration.

Maybe it's time to bring back the heroic man on horseback as yet another form worthy of rethinking and reworking by today's public artist's. Who knows what the results might be?

* Miriam Shapiro's "Mother Russia" is a stenciled fan that illustrates this post. Click on the Stencil Revolution link for examples of this populist craft.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Working for Meaning

"The Sacramento Bee (newspaper for the state capitol) found that California spends $0.03 per capita per year to fund the arts. Mississippi spends $1.31, New York $2.75, Germany 85.00, and Canada $145.00 per capita per year. Pathetic is what the Bee called it"

"Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity."
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

I discovered these two bits of text today. The first was on a sticky note, without attribution, on my desktop; the second from my morning reading. They are both facts for the artist. The former is the outer terrain—that which is known and which must be daily navigated. The latter is the inward geography—the constant migration to and through unknown territories.

That artists are poorly paid is not news. While there are the exceptional living few (think Christo), or our illustrious dead (Van Gogh, Picasso et al), most artists are strictly blue collar. Those with MFA's, if they are lucky enough to get teaching positions, are generally adjunct faculty. A few get the brass ring of tenure and get to retire from the freeway flyer club. We struggle to get wages that reflect our professional training, to have health benefits, and to retire with some sense of security, however modest.

It must seem odd to the general public that anyone would seemingly "work for nothing" at a profession that is peripheral to society. Art doesn't make the Stock Exchange go up or down; neither does it make the the freeway less congested, cure terminal illness, provide affordable housing, or make a dent in the greenhouse effect. Lately I've been conscious at how regularly our local newspaper is filled with editorials and letters to the editor critical of art and artists. Given the poor pay and lack of respect for the profession, why don't artists move on to something more lucrative, say, real estate investment, professional athlete, or "reality TV" participant?

For me, the work I do is not "for nothing." Oh yes, I don't always get paid for all the sketches that fill my notebooks, the research into processes and products, the reading of texts refined, practical, or fanciful. I'm a good advocate for myself (as are most professional artists) so I am, in fact, compensated for the work I am commissioned to do. I will always, however, work more hours than I will ever be paid for. Some of these hours I will begrudge. The majority of them I will not.

I have this certainty in my life: I will never retire. Ever. Imagine the collective shudder such an idea would engender in all those souls whose days are spent in cubicles, under the low green glow of artifical light? The artist does not need to think of the freedom generally associated with retirement—the freedom from the psychic lash, from the boredom, the stress, and the rage associated with all of it. But after the multitudes have taken off the yoke, after enduring years and years of work they would chuck immediately if they won the lottery, what then? Beyond taking well earned trips you always promised yourself, or catching up with the projects that lingered on old "to-do" lists, or getting reacquainted with your significant other—what can life offer that is more than just passing time till the inevitable end?

People are angry at the mediocrity with which they live, writes essayist Michael Ventura. I think they are also angry because they know they are being cheated out of the deep consolation and joy this world has to offer. They eat junk food (junk television, junk popular culture, junk politics, jumk social interactions) because that's all they're offered at the steam table at Hometown Buffet. No one lets them in on the fact that there's a feast one table over and it's being catered by Julia Child and company. They intuit that it's there, and they're angry because some part of them knows it but can't figure out how to get to it.

Human beings are meaning makers. Artists haven't forgotten that about themselves, and they haven't allowed anything or anyone to beat it out of them. And life certainly does try to get you to stop. I'm lucky; I've passed the point where the beating works so I'm freed up to go on my own way. I'm following a creative path because life is strong and demanding and art makes it more than something to be tolerated. Art gets you to see why and how it is magnificent and empowering and your birthright.

The artist is an important contributor to society because we help people to find the feast. It's our role, and it's an important one. We're not entertainers, although some of what we do will entertain. We're not gadflies, although some of our work will prod and poke. We're not decorators, although some of our work will dazzle with its skill.

We are meaning shapers in a world that desperately needs us, regardless of what is spent on us per capita. Personally speaking, there isn't a bank big enough to hold the amount of money that we artists are worth. I can't be sidetracked by measuring out my worth in a system designed by bean counters for bean counters. I'll take my measure some other way.

Oh yes, and I'm still looking for a good and affordable health care plan.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

On Paris, Eiffel, and a Return to Creative Mindfulness

Gustave Eiffel
Recovered Journal Entry, August 2, 2004.

I've spent the summer reading about travel and traveling myself—Berlin, Dresden, and Prague. My reading has included a number of books that speak of both inner and outward voyages of discovery. I have carried around this idea of my own voyage for almost 17 years. I write this number and feel the shock of my surprise at the passing of so much time. My son was six years old when he first told me his story—a great creation myth and voyage from the Old World to the New, to a country called Paris. I hope I someday find the scrap of paper upon which I recorded this child's story. It included Adam and Eve, Native Americans, Pilgrims, and Africa. I've forgotten almost all of it except what the travelers discovered—a land in which the common and expected appearance of beauty in all things is every citizen's birthright.

The vision of Paris as a center of my own journey (its place of both departure and arrival) is as strong today as it was 17 years ago. Since then Paris has become an emblem, a signifier, of a kind of purity of artistic awareness, of the sublime. In that city is is Gustave Eiffel that plays Virgil to my Dante. He becomes the navigator to my cartographer.

I find him, curiously, an historic figure whose material accomplishements are linked to my personal family history. And so I have chosen to search out his bridges, churches, post offices, department stores, and towers, to find traces of ancestors. It is the following of ant trails; something that occupied me in deep concentration as a child. I follow a moving, living, line traced against the contours of earth, trees, and buildings.

I have spent three weeks away, and in that time this country of Paris has, once again, emerged from beyond the peninsula of "too busy." I had not expected to see it, at least not in the way it came to me, in the East. But in Prague there is a scale version of the Eiffel Tower on the hills above the city. We climbed to the top of a great hill overlooking the city and found it there, about one quarter the size of the 300 meter Paris tower. It had been built in 1891—two years after the real one—in the tower mania that swept across the world following Eiffel's achievement. Looking at the simulacra I felt something stir in my imagination: the remembrance of the deep attention that grips every artist when trying to extract from the world what it wishes to have born. I have been a struggling midwife for this "collection of maps" charting this country called Paris.

I have resolved to begin again, although now a new voice wants to begin unlike the one I had imagined would speak years ago. I had begun with Gustav Eiffel himself, gazing out over Paris from his salon / office at the top of the tower. Indeed, I have several journals filled with notes guiding me in this direction, but the new voice has become more compelling and I will acquiesce, at least for now.

The story emerging is my own—my search for a kind of peace in the sublime; a rarefied space that does not shut out the world but helps focus one's attention on its exquisite complexities and beauty. I have lived a most public life to date (for the past 15 years) and have neglected that child following the ant trails, trying to make art serve the common good. Now, more than ever, a shift in course is called for. Or, perhaps not a shifting, but a balancing of the private impulse of the studio and the public outcomes of arts advocacy.

If not now, the return to Paris, then probably never. Would I be able to bear the grief of giving it up for other countries?