Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Artsy Schmartzy Round Table.

I put together my answers to most of the questions (the ones I have something to say about) from Jonathan West’s Artists Round Table discussion, which I thought was a great success, even though a bit too much (and any at all is too much) of the time was spent whining about needing money and attention.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts.

Each of these questions presupposes a different definition of the word “art”. There are definitions based on the artist’s intention, on the social status symbols, on functionality, on audience reaction, on social purpose and even on froofy soul-feeding quasi-religious magical nonsense, which only serves to confuse things even more.

Really, we need ten or so new words, each replacing “art” in a different context. So, for the rest of this document I am going to sacrifice consistency in favor of clarity (I hope) and follow the definition of art that each question seems to imply or apply.

The questions are paraphrased, shortened, not directly quoted here, and I may be misinterpreting them, but y’know, shit happens.

How conservative are MKE’s audiences? Are there ways to make audiences more receptive to things that are new or challenging—or is the very idea of “new” challenging?

The establishment audience is fairly conservative, but a conservative mainstream is always accompanied by a radical fringe or underground. “New” works can tap into the fringe and then break the mainstream open.

Arts use to spur Economic Growth—What might we do as artists to further economic impact of the arts?

We can own it. Richard Florida et al talk about the creative class as something that works for the bourgeois economy, and he’s right, we create energy, attraction, creativity, all of which are things that businesses want to attract in order to exploit and appropriate it. But, when they appropriate it, they waste it, because they use it to help fuel an obsolete economic system. If we don’t let them appropriate us, then our energy and creativity will multiply within our community and we’ll develop new cooperative systems of exchange and collaboration.

With entertainment increasingly being centered on the comfort of home, how do we make community-building art important enough to draw an audience?

Look to the future. If the current trend is for comfort entertainment, the reaction against that will be for live performance (especially with how virtual reproduction will take the economic bottom out of the recording and film industries). Today’s art consumers wanna sit at home, but tomorrow’s consumers are going to want entertainment as an event, an experience. If we keep it up and focus on producing good accessible live performances (or an “experiential element” to our static art) we will take over.

Is there a way to make “elite” arts affordable?

Yes. Do it cheap. Work Towards a Poor Theatre. Stop acting elite. Expect less monetary reward for your work. Live frugally.

Why the division between who can and can’t be an artist?

Because giving certain objects or methods the social status of being “art” allows artists to separate themselves and justify high prices for their art.

What can we do to engage those who fall away?

Demystify the artistic process, stop using art as a status symbol.

Can art be learned?

Sure. Innate talent plays into it as well, but with the broadness of what art can be, almost everyone should be able to find a skill or talent they have and then learn how to develop that skill or talent into “art”.

Do blogs and websites REALLY serve to close the gap?

The internet is a useful way to connect and build communities, especially broader communities, outside a small geographic area (and it’s incredibly useful to expand to a broader area and then come back to your community as someone who’s work has been shown elsewhere) The internet is not so good for distributing your work itself. Computers and email make the business and coordination side of art production possible without the apparatus that was previously necessary, it closes that gap.

How do we dispel the blue collar image?

A “blue collar image” and a “thriving arts destination” are not mutually exclusive. If we continue to develop the arts scene without fretting over how we don’t look like other arts destinations, maybe we’ll develop a unique, and in the end, a more attractive arts destination.

Do you think Milwaukee is a major player in the arts compared with other cities, some much smaller than us?

I don’t know. I haven’t traveled enough. I feel like I can achieve my goals here, it might not be the best place, but I’ve already started here and I’m not ready to give up quite yet.

Can anyone please give me a job?

NO. Get your own damn job.

How do we work to equalize that support or give younger artists and performers a shot at making an impression on the city and communitee?

Work with them. You know… I really am getting too old to still fell like the youngest person in a group of artists like this, and most of the people I work with are younger than me, some drastically younger. How I work with younger people is to take them seriously, treat them as peers, challenge them, and hold them to the same standard I hold ourselves to. Let them fail, tell them they failed and if they failed out of laziness or irresponsibility let them know they’re a disappointment. Then encourage them to learn from it. No patronizing. No special treatment. No kid’s gloves. Serious young artists want serious criticism. They’ll probably hate the critics, but if they're serious about what they’re doing, they’ll do more of it to prove the critic wrong. If they just want to be coddled, then they’re useless anyway.

Is it time the city mandated some space for the performing arts?

We shouldn’t need the city to mandate that kind of space. It’d be nice, and I’d try to take advantage of it, but we should be able to succeed without it. Becoming dependant on state help (or big bourgeois help) is not a good idea for revolutionary artists.

What role does art play beyond the realm of culture-production?

I like Marshall McLuhan’s idea that artists are sort of predicting the future. Also, at this particular moment in history, the next major revolution in the political economy will be the result of the creative class (artists) forming class consciousness, developing new economic relationships and making capitalism obsolete. But, that’s not an inherent quality of art, only the result of these specific social forces.

Is art a hammer or a mirror?

Art is a hammer used to shape reality. A very shiny hammer that reflects as it shapes. Or maybe it’s a mirror that by creating self-awareness is automatically creating change. Whatever. Art describes things and by describing them changes our awareness of them, and our awareness of a thing inherently changes the thing.

How can we get non-artist Wisconsinites more interested in what we do?

Make it cheap and approachable but still high quality.

Can we make art our actual career without quitting our day jobs?

Yes we can. There are at least three ways: 1. Sell out. Make the right kind of marketable art, get yourself appropriated by the bourgeoisie. 2. find a gullible patron who will fund you. 3. live frugal as hell. Sometimes it’s easier to get the right day job (something mindless with little or no supervision) and do as much of your art or arts administration while you’re supposed to be working.

What ways can we best promote each other?

First, you’ve gotta be good enough that I can honestly want to promote you. Cuz I’m only gonna say good things about something that I can honestly say good things about. Otherwise people aren’t going to value my opinion at all.

What makes a play compelling?

The synthesis of words, action, and presence is what makes theatre compelling. What makes a specific play compelling for me is that it engages with me mentally makes me think about issues that I am passionate about, see them from a different perspective and realize new things.

How do you instill respect and love for the arts in kids when they compare it to professional athletes and illustrious role models?

Turn off the television. Instill values such as frugality, integrity, individuality, responsibility and honesty rather than the values that the television and professional sports community instills (materialism, power, celebrity and fame). Kids will follow role models that reflect the values you instill in them. (As far as how to instill those values goes, don’t ask me. That’s one of the reasons I don’t have kids.)

What gives artwork staying power through the centuries?

Artwork’s staying power through the centuries is a product of it’s institutionalization as a status symbol. I’m not interested in this. I’m interested in yesterday’s art, but only as a foundation for today’s art and today’s art as a building block for tomorrow’s art.

Do artists inspire creative problem solving in others?

Not always, but some artists, certainly.

Is this influence necessary for the advancement of civilization?


Is the connection between art and society stronger or weaker than a generation ago?

I wasn’t much around a generation ago, but it seems to me that our society and culture is different than it used to be, more complicated. Nowadays we’ve got this global monoculture, but at the same time we’ve got many thriving sustainable subcultures which are less geographically dependant than in the past. I think this reflects society pretty well.

Would you participate in a collective of your peers that would work to support you through financial support and production management in exchange for community service?

You know I will, Mr Richardson. If you can keep it from getting swamped with desperate whiney artists who think they’re entitled to make a living on their art without having to work for it, that is.

Is there interest among Milwaukee artists for interdisciplinary performance?

Theatre is interdisciplinary.

How do you know if you’re a hack who’s just wasting your time or not?

You can’t know. You can only look back and regret the time you wasted. Life is a constant struggle and you can’t predict the future or really know yourself, what your potential is. You can only do your best to plumb whatever potential you might have. If you think you might not be able to hack it, try quitting. If you can give it up, then do so. If you can’t avoid trying again, then you might still have a chance. It’s a question of when and how the priorities in your life shift.

Can poetry be integrated more fully into other arts in MKE?

Poetry is already involved in some playwriting and in songwriting. Beyond that, I doubt it.

How do you break the established system of MKE arts administrators who feel that they are more important than the artist?

Stop needing them. Administer your own art. Find a way to do your art that circumvents the necessity for administrators.
Arts administration can be an art form itself. Some people I know are amazing at organizing people. This is a necessary and beautiful skill. Joseph Beuys says that society is nothing but a giant kinetic sculpture with many authors who’s bodies and activities make up the material of the sculpture. Administrators are moving those people around, if they do it intentionally and creatively, then they might be more important, and more artistic, than the artists they work with.

Should all museums be free to artists?

No. You’d have to legislate the definition of “artist” or just make the museum free to all. “Admission is $15, sir” “No, I get in free, I’m an artist” “oh, can I see your card?” “what?” “your card. Haven’t you registered?” “Yes, but... my application is awaiting approval.” “Sorry sir.” Just because you think something would be nice doesn’t mean it’s politically practical.

I’m interested in the similarities and differences between forms.

One interesting thing about different art forms is how they fit with different economic and political systems. Feudalism worked well with painting and sculpture because it was based on patronage. Capitalism works well with film and recorded music because it’s based on commodification. Capitalism’s replacement will work best with live performance because it’ll be based on experiences.

What is our impact on civilians?

Whose impact on which civilians? Microcosmically, it can be anything from offending them to recruiting them. Macrocosmically, we predict the future and spread understanding of that future.

How do you as one who lives his or her life as an artist, fit into that discussion (of healthcare and govt services)?

I do not currently make a living on my art. I’ve got a slacker job that I abuse for those benefits. If there were other sources for those benefits, that’d put me one step closer to being a “full time artist”.

Why do people feel the need to create art and why do people keep coming?

This one can be answered ten ways depending on the definition of art. If art is an expression of your emotions or state of mind, then people create it cuz they got things to say and people keep coming because they hear something there. If art is a social status symbol, then people create it to set themselves apart as artists, and people keep coming in order to prove themselves cultured or wealthy. If art is a product of a desire for social change, or a looking towards the future, then people create and consume art because they aren’t happy with the current state of things. If art is the product of any human activity (“can one create works which are not works of art?” –M Duchamp), then we create and consume art because we don’t know what else to do.

What about desires for connections with the audience?

My reaction is more based on Paula’s statements at the table (she asked this question). She mentioned audience falling asleep and getting the same milquetoast praise for every show, even from people who slept through the show, in the front row. She’s talking about the quality of the audience, not just the quantity. Having people who engage with the work, who are critical, who stay awake. In my opinion Paula is having these problems because she’s doing Shakespeare.
Not that there’s something inherently wrong with Shakespeare (I do find it dull as fuck, but that’s just me) the problem with doing Shakespeare is that it attracts a deadly disengaged audience. People who are there for status and obligation, not for art. See Peter Brook, or this discussion:
Also, we aren’t going to have an engaged audience until we have engaged, critical critics. We aren’t going to have engaged critics until certain theatre producers grow a thicker skin, or at least stop trying to censor their critics. See this diatribe for more:

Do the numerous theatre companies compete against each other, or create more of a theatre going audience?

It depends on the company. Many companies are bickering over the same slice of pie, and it’s a stale, old moldy pie at that. Other companies are reaching out to new audiences and bringing non theatre people in.

Art cliques in MKE, why not cross fertilization?

As someone who works in an inherently collaborative art form, I’m constantly encountering and working with new people. We give all kinds of people a chance, especially with the shows I’ve done with Pink Banana (and now that John Manno has handed Pink Banana over to us, we’ll do more of that) We reach out to new groups and across disciplines whenever we can. There’s tension and hesitation though, because many of the people I’ve encountered are not people that I can work well with. Different people can have radically different approaches to art on so many different levels. Business practices, emotional needs, aesthetic qualifications, ethics, communication methods are all so different, especially among artists. We’re people who make expressing things in unique ways a major part of our lives, so it’s natural that we lack a common language.
Cliques form because people find other people who they can work with and trust. The risk that any new person might turn out to be another whiney, irresponsible, emotionally unstable procrastinator (as far too many artists are) is a disincentive to starting something with them, especially if they give that kind of first impression.


patricia obletz said...

rw, thank you for your thoughtful responses to the questions that jonathan west inspired.
your response to my question about what gives art staying power resonates with most with me. believing that art is driven by commercial institutions through the ages dismisses 'the people's opinions,' which have and hopefully will, force that authoritarian vault open to underdogs. what else makes institutions adopt certain artists? their patrons? collectors?
do you believe that paintings still have relevance and 'staying power?'

of course individuals use the past to build on the present. however, i hope i'm wrong in inferring that today's art is disposable in light of the future's. this line of thought precludes, it seems to me, that gifted artists who do their own thing get left behind if they don't jump on the latest fad, newest technology, or that too common train of gratuitous violence/shock — at least shakespeare portrayed with elegance the beast that dwells in human nature, rather than inciting it.
i believe that, i want to believe, that there always will be contemporary art in public places that translates meaningful human experience, and that strengthens unification rather than segregation. this i think is what makes art transcend time and culture -- perhaps only if institutions buy it. yet the internet enables cyberspace globe trotters to experience visual art everywhere, relate to it, share it with their communities, communicate directly with the artist,
so, will institutions continue to have the power to dictate what is 'good' art, and what isn't? money always talks and, to date, it remains in the hands of the few.
as for me, it's in the creation of art that makes me at one with the universe, that thrills and sates me. i also love it when my art sells.
i hope you're free friday any time between 5 and 10 pm to visit tom queoff's studio gallery, 231 e. buffalo, 4th fl. where contemporary, meaningful visual art abounds.

R. Winsome said...

I don't think art transcends time and culture. The classics mean something different in a modern context (they aren't disposable, but they should be valued for their utility rather than some quasi religious conception)

the internet is going to have a profound effect on our whole conception of art. i predict a huge flourish of diversity and beauty naturally followed by a swamp of mediocrity and a general rejection of the internet (and it's favored mediums), in favor of direct real world experiences.

I bet shakespeare incited some shit in his time, and many people thought he was gratuitiously violent. From our modern context we look back on him historically, which makes him safer. That's why it seems that he's describing, not inciting. What if the art you think is faddish or gratuitiously violent today is looked back on in the same manner?

The phrase "at one with the universe" holds no content in my too-scientific brain.

I'll be checking out all the galleries i can tomorrow between 5 and 8, yours will be on the list. But, i should wanr you, i'll be dressed as a serial killer and dragging a naked dead body around with me, in order to promote my gratuitous violence/shock play later that night.