May 29, 2015 Repository 177: Processed Art is to Canned Spinach as Real Art is to Spinach from the Garden Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, culture, perspective

Image courtesy NY Times Magazine and Aurélien Chauvaud

Image courtesy NY Times Magazine and Aurélien Chauvaud

Most of the art in the art “world”, galleries, museums, etc is highly prepared and processed. It’s not to say it’s bad – it’s not. It’s simply been through a lot of iterations, approvals, vetting, poking and prodding. Much like pirate booty on an empty stomach, the processed can taste very nuanced and delicious, despite it’s being processed.  For example the seemingly mandatory MFA and gallery representation in itself is a scenario of a canned fine vegetable. Meaning, if you are an artist and you are prepared and finished in an art school, then presented and tweaked in a beautiful gallery – you are about 10-20 degrees away from the true art you have been called to do. There is a statistic that if you fly a plane one degree off course, within one hour you will be 4 miles off course. Put in artistic terms – the more off target you start off your career it will continually decline in relevance without continual course redirection and fine tuning.  You get the gist – the art that is processed feels less urgent, with a longer shelf life, and will never satiate the soul.

I read a “review” in last week’s New York Times Magazine of an art project that happened in the Swiss Alps. The ingredients of this art project were primo: some of the most revered facilitators and patrons of the arts, plus 300 or so collectors and important persons (e.g. those who have time and money to fly to said location and stay in expensive hotels). The artist was also an architect/artist – mixing media and trade. He was collaborating with an artist/artist whose work has recently been featured in a major US retrospective. The 300 or so audience members were asked to wear black and take a train ride. There were two actors milling about on said train – asking questions and making pronouncements about “castration” and “weaning”. The food they ate was provided by a fashion designer’s wife who has diamonds in her teeth. When they arrived at the snowy field, out their windows they watched a naked man walk through the snow and into what looked like a snow structure/cave that was built by the architect/artist. The train left with him huddled naked in this snow structure. He was then covered by warm blankets, unbeknownst to the audience, and picked up by another vehicle. And that was it.

A highly processed, very expensive experience of witnessing someone naked and uncomfortable. In terms of art historical lineage or innovative and ground breaking, I’m not seeing it. Naked in the snow has it’s appeal on so many levels. I wrote about an awesome naked sculpture that was snowed upon in Boston a couple years ago, and in terms of the performative aspect, I had a similar less expensive experience in college over 20 years ago.

The setting was 1993 at Hamilton College in upstate New York. It was a  cold winter term evening, après cafeteria time, and an art major had advertised a performance piece at x part of the campus at y o’clock. A crowd gathered at the appropriate time, and we all waited anxiously and self consciously (this was college) for the artist to appear and perform. The wait was excruciating and delightful at once. All of a sudden a scream let out, and a naked man, the artist, came running through the crowd, exiting the room as quickly as he entered. And that was it.

Both incidents were the same in that the audience was at the whim of the artist, the piece could neither be sold or replicated, the work was experiential, and the naked body in an unsuspecting environment and edifice was the plot line. One was simply much more expensive than the other. I would also add that the event in the Swiss Alps was even more self-conscious and pretentious than my buddy’s performance in college thanks to the added filming of the entire event.

To return to the idea of processed, no one writing about or discussing this project would dare to give the project a thumb’s down for fear of being ostracized or never again invited to such “artful” events. Since I never will be inside that circle, I’m here to say that the piece seems processed (much like crap) with no sense of urgency or relevance on any plain. It’s fucking around with collectors period. I wish the ~$8k travel cost per 300 visitors could have paid for some meaningful art projects (~$240,000).

And speaking of processed art writing – I’ve recently read several reviews about art shows that applaud the work because it doesn’t “explain itself” or “get in your face” – basically it politely sits there in a confusing and safe way, not having any real voice, not demanding attention and not making a point at all. This seems to qualify for some critics as good art. So basically the less voice you have in the work, the more comfortable you make your viewer, the better the work. Comfort is the enemy of the artist. All art should command attention, and explain itself, even to say “celebrate beauty!!” – it doesn’t all have to be piss and vinegar. Though it HAS TO BE URGENT and it HAS TO BE HONEST.

Urgency and honesty are the things that makes art real spinach and not canned spinach. It’s the awkward voice that is so challenging it will never sit down quietly in the group circle. Make art please not cheese whiz!!



PS. #artistnotentertainment

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  1. Conor • November 5, 2016

    Once when I was a kid in the '70s I went to Disneything in Florida and went on some sort of haunted house ride by myself. I wasn't particularly into amusement parks and rides. Actually I was about a cautious inch from actively disliking them. Starting the ride I literally 'saw behind the curtain', catching a good 15 seconds of a couple of witches on their lunch break eating sandwiches and drinking cans of soda.

    They saw me watching them and one of them got up and pulled the curtain shut. No magic, no fuss.

    Maybe if the audience of "What Could Happen" saw the seems of the performance showing through they might have had a moment of spontanaeity, error or non-programming. Otherwise the ostensible performance has all the feeling of urgency and agency of any other amusement park ride.

    The framing of the event sounds like the intent. Gathering a select group of the affluent, the cognoscenti. What else happened and who wound up with new funding? The NY Times photo in the link to their review of the event is priceless. The 'hand-picked' world-weary audience sit on the train as if on the subway to work. Ignoring those around them, disregarding anything to be seen out of the windows. Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • November 11, 2016

      How delightful for you to see those witches on break!! I love the image that conjures, and the feeling you must have had as a child, and even now remembering it. Agreed on the element of chance entering in to improve the piece, though I imagine that they were not told there was going to be a naked man in the snow? But doesn't it all seem incredibly baroque? Much like Matthew Barney in his anxiety producing mass of excess? If this performance piece were a piece of sculpture it would look like Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Theresa" - not about a saint, definitely about sex. The performance was definitely not about a nude man in the snow but seemingly about excess and isolation.

      Thank you for reading and your thoughtful comments Conor! Reply

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