To Be or Not To Be? I can’t believe it’s not Art!

Incredulity / 2017 / Celeste M. Evans / acrylic on canvas / 10" x 10"
Incredulity / 2017 / Celeste M. Evans / acrylic on canvas / 10″ x 10″

CURRENTLY ACROSS THE DIVERSE LANDSCAPES OF POLITICS, ECONOMICS, MEDIA and many other facets of globalized society, little remains taboo. The mantra of the early 21st century—‘anything goes’–has permeated not just art but all aspects of society–ultimately to the detriment of truth. Anything goes: even (especially) lies. Yet operating out of ‘political correctness’ (which is not necessarily the same thing as bare truth) is a mark of intelligence in this day and age. The world of art–being both a mirror and catalyst of the world-at-large–harbors its own forms of implied and enforced political correctness. It remains politically incorrect to say something is not art. It is also uncouth to say something is art. It is seen as a mark of ignorance (and lack of accredited education) to bother with this now age-old debate which has jettisoned us into this equalized moment of ‘anything goes’, and ‘everyone is an artist’. (Don’t you already know you are already experiencing ART? Isn’t it obvious that by saying you’re an artist you become an artist?). It is improper to propose that one work of art might be ‘better’ than another work of art. And to say, “I can’t believe it’s not better!” is akin to spewing racist slurs. In short, it is crude to have opinions on art, especially ones which are guided by one’s own personal experience. Any thoughts on art must be backed up by a laundry list of accepted referential (rather than defining) terms. And there must be no consequence to what you say. When ‘anything goes’, it appears that everything goes–out the window. In being ‘politically correct’ in talking about and making art, have we thrown the baby out with the bath water?

Somehow, paradoxically and illogically, even in this wide world of ‘anything goes’ while also ‘questioning the boundaries’ of this that and the other, art continues to be a landscape distinct from other landscapes of human activity. Even though artists today are happily dabbling in politics, economics, media, and such noble causes as social justice and environmentalism, artists’ endeavors, truly artistic or not, remain distinguishable from the spheres they draw from, reference, or claim to influence. Remove the ‘art’ label, and such undertakings wouldn’t necessarily be effective in politics, economics, media, social justice or environmental work–thus, they must be elevated or reduced (take your pick) to the sphere of art made by an artist. And yet if its impossible to say whether something is art or is not art, then is it even possible to make art or even not art? To be or not to be (an artist)? Yet somehow, paradoxically and illogically, there has been an explosion of art and artists in contemporary society–but to what effect? Individuals or groups labeled ‘artists’ are assumed to be making ‘art’–but who’s buying it (literally or figuratively)? If artists have succeeded at demolishing the boundaries between high and low culture, art  and life, artist and non-artist, art and not art (as are often the proposed (appropriated?) intentions and ambitions of contemporary artists), why are there still artists making art at all? To find examples, hints, and perhaps answers to these concerns I look to the present moment via three long-established art publications: the most recent editions of Artillery Magazine, Art in America, and Artforum International.

An article about Los Angeles based ‘performance artist’ Molly Jo Shea in Artillery reveals many unsettling underlying currents rippling through contemporary art practices. The title of the article, a quote from the artist–“Driven by Fear”–is the first give away that something is amiss. I ask: are we animals or are we human animals? Are we driven to perform from a desire to create, inspire, or transform, or do our artistic actions stem from a desire to suckle one’s own fears and insecurities? When Shea says, “I never feel comfortable feeling things” (p. 27), I can’t help conclude that she is operating from the negative and psychologically destructive place of avoiding feeling–in other words, avoiding her humanity. It’s not the same thing as saying one is uncomfortable with one’s feelings–rather, it is stating that one doesn’t want to feel anything at all. And I’m sorry if you think otherwise, but the audience is not going to feel anything if the artist does not. So then, what is the audience or the artist getting out of a performance “driven by fear”? The author of the article concludes that it is “catharsis” (p. 28), but I beg to differ: truly cathartic works aren’t created out of fear (which is negative), but out of a courage (positivity) to overcome what could be summed up as ‘darkness’. And one must go into the darkness–the uncomfortable place where feelings reside–to be able to perform a truly cathartic experience.

When art-making comes from a place of avoiding and denying feeling, the resultant art is generated from negative unconscious urges aimed at fulfilling the pathetic needs of the artist, offering an escape from feeling uncomfortable or inadequate, from neglect of attention, recognition or praise etc. If this is so, the act of making art becomes just that: an act of mitigating fear, bolstering one’s self-image, and pandering the audience for attention. This is not being creative–I declare it to be its opposite: a groping towards getting rather than giving, of consuming rather than generating. The bottomless pit of the psyche of consumerism has wormed its way into the structures of art-making that claim to oppose it. As Shea herself confesses, “[I want to] trade what is inside of me, and gain knowledge about the audience, so that I can understand something”. It appears she wants to hand over the “fear” which she refuses to feel and in return understand SOMETHING. What that something is never becomes clear. A quote from one of Shea’s performances, a bad joke, reads, “What’s the difference between an orgy and a performance art piece? People at an orgy know when they’re sucking” (p. 27). One interpretation of this joke (if it is to be interpreted at all) is that the audience (and unavoidably the artist) do not know when they ‘suck’ at the performance they are engaged in. It is impossible to know whether the art is good or bad (which, to bring it back to sex: how is this a good thing?). If the audience of a performance art piece can’t tell opposites apart, can they tell when they are experiencing art and when they are not experiencing art? And if they can’t, why bother being an artist and saying it is art at all? The ‘artist’ in this dynamic has nothing of value to give, and out of desperation to fill an inner vapidity, the roles of artist and audience are subverted and reversed. The result of this negative reversal, which generates a self-defeating black hole, is shit given in the place of promised gold.

So Vapid (a self-fulfilling painting) / 2015 / Celeste M. Evans / sharpie on canvas / 2" x 2"
So Vapid! (a self-fulfilling painting) / 2015 / Celeste M. Evans / Sharpie on canvas / 2″ x 2″

Which brings me to the postmodern obsession with questioning and challenging the boundaries which define thingsart included. Another relevant article in Artillery discusses Mel Chin’s ‘public art project’ started last summer on the premise of the Los Angeles Public Art Biennial. The article on the project, like the article on Shea, is revealing about the many accepted notions and expectations of what constitutes art today. Well-rehearsed terms such as ‘temporary’, ‘large-scale’, and ‘public’ are buzz words employed by many artists today to validate their practice. But what significance do these terms actually hold in regards to creating and experiencing art–in short, do these qualities mean anything that matters? If I show my art in a public space where anyone can go, like a bank or coffee shop (as is currently the case), does that make it ‘public art’? Or no, because they are paintings (didn’t you go to CalArts?) which are publicly for sale (Almighty Art forbid) and displayed on the walls of a privately-owned business (is it a white cube exhibition if one of the walls is blue?)? Art forbid I suggest that banks are public spaces–everyone knows they are corrupt, money-hoarding, corporate entities! Somehow the term ‘public’ has come to suggest a neutral territory–yet is it neutral if it becomes a space claimed by an artist? And what of the internet? If I show my work online (as I do) where anyone can view it at any time, is my art ‘public art’? It most certainly is ‘site-specific’ (pun intended)! What could be more ‘large-scale’ than something that is on the internet? And it must be ‘temporary’ since it can theoretically be taken offline at any time.

I bring up all of these conundrums and jests to posit the likelihood that many of the concerns of postmodernism might not be important anymore. It just might be irrelevant for an art piece to be labeled ‘public’ when we have the internet. In a seemingly post-historical world, whether something is ‘temporary’ (or temporal) or not may not matter. And (come on, people) bigger is not better. Wrangling in hundreds of thousands of dollars for ‘public’ art projects (as if it were a charity operation?) which spans miles and miles and involves hundreds of people does not make it more ART. By using “public funds to create art mostly in private spaces” (p. 38) (tax dollars, anyone?), is Mel Chin ‘pushing the boundaries’ of the definitions of ‘public’ and ‘art’, or is he merely having his cake and eating it too: getting (a large sum of) public funding based on a series of convoluted artistic ideas, the benefits of which ultimate funnel back to (private) individuals and (credit for) himself (as ‘artist’)? But it’s OK, because he is making “art that contributes to the greater good” (p. 38), art that is ‘addressing’ (as if it needs most of all to be addressed?) the ongoing water crises in Los Angeles. One look at a particular photo in the article will spark any thoughtful reader question the premises of the project. The photo is of a couple standing in the backyard of their large upper-class home surrounded by perfectly green lawn, in the middle of which is one of Chin’s drought-tolerant garden plots. Its obvious how the 15′ x 15′ drought-tolerate square in the middle of an endless immaculate lawn is going to help mitigate the water crisis in LA, right? Make the public more aware of the environmental situation being addressed? But apparently the effectiveness and outcome of the project doesn’t matter–what matters is the artist’s intention to ‘make the world a better place’ and engage the non-artist public (…in the backyards of wealthy art collectors). And to look at the other garden plots photographed in the article: clearly it’s going to do a lot of good to have a drought-tolerant square in the middle of an already drought-tolerant abandoned area! The artist is really demonstrating some important points here: about art, about the environment, about public spaces, about being an artist….I just wish I could tell more clearly what it all means…

Although the article isn’t explicitly apologetic, it admits to the reality of the realization of the project: “Although there has been no funding yet on the additional 396 unclaimed blueprints or the creation of the 116 gardens from blueprints already claimed, Chin sees this as a long term project” (p. 37). Not only did the artist go to the trouble to make hundreds of blueprints (which, we can deduce, are all more or less homogeneous), but virtually none of the gardens have been created in real life (aside from the ones photographed). His solution, then, is to delegate the work of continuing this “long term project” by recruiting a “Follow Through Crew” of art students to essentially finish the project for him (p. 37). Though this once again may seem like charity (it is a “fellowship opportunity”), the direction with which the project was conceived is questionable. If as an artist are dealing with dimensional space and living objects, shouldn’t making the art a physical and functioning reality (not just initiating it as a ‘project’) be priority? You plant exotic seeds with the intention they will grow into something better and bigger than the seeds (concepts) themselves, and yet plant them in ambiguous ground while also abandoning them immediately. But, wait, it doesn’t matter, because the artist planted the seeds and don’t you know the project isn’t done yet?! The artist gets to have their cake and eat it too of creating a relevantly ‘temporary’ art piece which has no end in sight (remind me again how this is temporary?). If this weren’t ‘art’–say, if these efforts were done simply as environmentally conscious landscaping–the project would be a flop. But apparently artists in this day and age can’t fail as long as they are ‘addressing’ the concerns which contemporary art requires of them.

Traveling away from the West Coast of art to New York City we find the same trends being rehashed: ‘public art’ ‘site-specificity’, ‘performance art’, socially and environmentally concerned art, and so on–themes which have been at the fore of art making for nearly half a century yet which are now run of the mill. Art in America currently features an article on Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a New York based artist who has been instituting projects under her label of “Maintenance Art” since the 1970’s.  The article’s premise is critical from the get go, essentially asking in the subtitle: to what effect has this artist’s decades-long career doing “Maintenance Art” and her unique involvement with the NYC Sanitation Department had? Upon reading that one of her performances called I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day involved exclusively asking “maintenance people…to imagine their work as art for an hour each day” (p. 66), I couldn’t help but wonder how the “maintenance people” felt during and after the ‘performance’. I imagine they could have felt anything from appreciation of recognition to casual bemusement to utter alienation–but the artist doesn’t do any follow-up in her work to find this out. The ‘performances’ are thus more of an exercise and a demonstration of an idea–but to whom? Are the workers benefiting from this? The Sanitation Department? Other artists? The art world? The artist? These staged acts deal with real human beings in real situations–shouldn’t the real consequences be taken into account? Or is it all exempt from this because it is art?

Another similar ‘performance’ involved Ukeles shaking hands with 8,500 DSNY employees while saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”. This took place in 1979 and took eleven months to ‘complete’ (p. 66). To point out the elephant in the room (to get it out of the way): what’s so great about an artist thanking thousands of workers for their work which she does not share?  Her premise for being in their world of work is through an ‘artist residency’ at the DSNY—not the same thing as being an employee. I wonder how the 8,500 workers felt about Touch Sanitation Performance, if they truly felt ‘thanked’ at all. A review of the project from a 1985 edition of Art in America by Robert Storr reveals that some of the workers “were plainly embarrassed, suspicious, and bored”, and that Ukeles “brought absolutely no sociological understanding or political conviction to her project” (p. 68). Though I am sure the artist was sincere in her thank yous in Touch Sanitation, they were given on the premise of ‘art’ being made by an ‘artist’. It ultimately appears more like a stunt on her part which is later fulfilled via proper documentation displayed in art institutions (the current Queens Museum retrospective being the latest example). Ironically, she is credited for making art “outside the art system” (p. 66). In an uncomfortable way it brings to mind a hypothetical scenario in which an alien comes down to earth to stage documented interactions with earthlings to be subsequently shown to its alien comrades. Look at what I did: I thanked all the earthlings for their hard work and I get credit for it as art! Despite her efforts at immersing herself in the medium she is working with (which is essentially other people within their life-contexts separate from her own) she remains an outsider, as the artist always is.  Despite all of the contradictions, I’m sure the documentation serves as an interesting window into the DSNY of the 70’s which art viewers like myself would not otherwise be able to see. But perhaps all art accumulates something of interest once the patina of age beings to appear.

The method of ‘making art outside the system’ to later be absorbed into the system (and having been made with this in mind, of course), has turned into a common (yet hypocritical) mode of operating as an artist. The problem with this isn’t whether or not the ‘system’ as opposed to ‘real life’ is good or bad, right or wrong; it’s that in setting up this dichotomy, in claiming to make work as an ‘artist’ dealing with ‘not art’,  and also freely flip-flopping those definitions to justify what one is doing, is a dishonest manipulation. Because something is distinctly ‘art’ (and thus not environmentally conscious landscaping or sanitation work) it all comes back to the world from which is was born–the ‘art world’ of art history, art museums, art galleries, art magazines, art critics, art ideas, other artists and art itself. Even if the art is initially made outside the institutions of art–in the ‘public’ being ‘site-specific’ and also ‘temporary’ like life itself–it has become clear through many decades of enacting these postmodern ideals that these efforts all ultimately come back to the landscape of art. Paradoxically shrinking more and more as it tries to expand itself outside its own self-imposed walls, the world of art in this day and age has become an ever-increasingly insular space–a forum which is less and less relevant to the world-at-large which it claims to be talking about. This in and of itself is not a problem–for what’s wrong with artists making art exclusively for other artists? It is a problem however when these artists claim to be making art for ‘the greater good’ and on behalf of those (poor souls) which don’t have the privilege of operating in the privileged (and increasingly elite) world of ‘art’. It is a problem when art, in trying its hardest to be important to the society for which it operates, makes itself irrelevant.

Many artists today would beg to differ. A review in Artforum of the latest Instagram artist star Amalia Ulman‘s latest gallery show (for yes, since she is an ‘artist’ her work apparently needs to be in a real gallery) is revealing of the extreme widespread confusion of the disconnect between the artist’s intentions and the actual outcome of their work. The brief review introduces the artist as having become one of “the internet’s sharpest infiltrators after becoming one of its stars–having her critical cake and eating it too” (p. 227). The ‘review’ continues by going through a mini laundry list of what (I assume?) are her main artistic accomplishments, like being featured on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” and having an Instagram following of 127K–with the author proudly proclaiming herself to be one of those many “devotees” (p. 228) (cult follower, anyone?). A mere paragraph is dedicated to describing the specifics of the gallery installation, after which the author dives right back into glassy-eyed descriptions of the artist: “part art-school hipster; part mid-90’s secretary; part Gucci brat; part First Holy Communion recipient….with the Dora-the-explorer haircut and big brown eyes” (p. 228). Clearly all these very specific aesthetics amount to something, right? Some meaningful image? But the reviewer doesn’t say and doesn’t know; instead, she is content to, after posing the (elephant-in-the-gallery) question “What’s a web goddess doing occupying a three-dimensional gallery anyway?” (p. 228) conclude that the gallery is “the ideal venue for a party…where, finally, Ulman can occupy public space and engage directly with like-minded people–not just trolls, fans, and assorted weirdos” (p. 228). The critical outcome of Ulman’s artistic endeavors? The artist can now rest upon her mirrored throne propped up by 127K virtual followers, sponsored in large part by art institutions which deny the makings of their kingdom, all the while ‘commenting’ on all that is outside of its fortress walls. By ‘engaging with the public’ (getting ‘followers’) in a temporal sphere (‘social’ media), and then having an arbitrary gallery show, the artist gets to have a piece of everyone’s cake–and get critical attention for it, too. I just wonder what all those “trolls, fans, and assorted weirdos” would think of the gallery exhibition if they saw it.

I can’t help but lastly bring up the oft reminisced performance The Artist is Present, done by the acclaimed art hero Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. In a single act of making herself the omnipresent elephant in the room, Abramovic evaded any act of creation or destruction by making her presence the self-denying objet d’art. Skillfully sitting in a chair in one of the most prestigious art museums in the world, a well-behaved stream of art-goers were ushered one after the other to sit in her ‘presence’, if only for a moment. Though she may be the first ‘artist’ to do this stunt of endurance, she is not the first person: throughout history there have been individuals claiming themselves ‘divine’, garnering the rapture of an audience who fulfill their spiritual void by being in the ‘presence’ of such a special person (cult leaders, anyone?). In the least, this dynamic results in the glorification of the individual spectacle at the ignorance of the spectators; at worst, well, history has plenty of regretful stories to tell. Though Ulman’s work might seem to be diametrically opposed to Abramovic’s in that Ulman’s ‘presence’ is made up of a series of fake identities on social media, it is operating on the same vapid premises. By making one’s art into being ‘present’ as an ‘artist’–whether in person in a gallery or on the internet–the artist revokes their own creative organs, instead claiming merit via their own ego-image. The artist–which used to be a person who created–is now just an empty perpetuated image hungrily projecting itself outward with the purpose of getting others to look at it.  What materializes is essentially a worse-than-lifeless image, having never been alive to being with. These are images antithetical to life and growth.  What happens when you look at an image in which there is nothing to see? When the artist has nothing to say? Is there anything to be present or not be present in the first place? At the end of it all (and clearly, we haven’t seen the end yet), I have to ask: Who fucking cares that the artist is present or not?

That question is neither rhetorical nor settles the issue. Because by and large, people like art, and people want artists to make art. Art has and will continue to be a fundamental landscape within human society and culture–and the artist is the individual who creates this space. Art is just one of the many facets of the whole of human existence, and it plays a large role in our collective evolution. Without art and artists, our collective body is missing an organ essential to our thriving and existence. To be or not to be? Perhaps that is not the question.

 

Murray, Yxta Maya. “Driven by Fear.” Artillery Magazine. Jan-Feb 2017: p. 26-28.

Watts, Patricia Lea. “Xeriscape LA.” Artillery Magazine. Jan-Feb 2017: p. 36-38.

Heddaya, Mostafa. “Labor Relations.” Art in America. Jan 2017: p. 66-71.

Williams, Gilda. “Amalia Ulman.” Artforum International. Jan 2017: p. 227-228.

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