Billboard Liberation Front by Chris Hall

Last week I posted a blog where I briefly discussed the differences between art and advertising, how the two are often confused, and the ubiquity of advertising in our lives.  Many people have come to accept the visual pollution and propaganda as something normal, and even welcome in our lives (more people relish the idea of watching Super Bowl commercials than going to a museum).   But advertising, like propaganda, have ulterior motives that are self-serving and not always beneficial to the people whom they are directed.  While art and advertisement both use aesthetics in order to communicate a message, there are some notable differences in their intent.  Advertisement seeks your money, art, however, seeks the truth.  Fortunately, some artists are fighting back.  

Meet the Billboard Liberation Front.  The Billboard Liberation Front was founded by Jack Napier and Irving Glikk in San Francisco in 1977 and has since been altering billboards in the bay area in order to turn advertising into art.  Advertising seeks to seeks out your money, and not always by benevolent means.  Sometime what they advertise for are outright lies.  Art, on the other hand, aspires to truth, sometimes, beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always truth.  Using a practice developed by Guy Debord called detournement, the Billboard Liberation Front uses the language of the enemy, in this case, advertisement, in order to tell truths.  Below are some examples of their work.

Fork in the Road by Chris Hall

 The path not taken . . .

The path not taken . . .

At the time I did not think much of it, it was just a gut based decision, following my own instincts.  I had no idea that my decision would align me with an ideology that would be opposed to conceptual art.  Sometime about 20 years ago, while studying art at the University of Georgia, my drawing class was given a list of phobias.  Each one of us was to pick a phobia and illustrate it.  I picked the fear of visual art, or sportaldislexicartaphobia.  To illustrate this phobia, I made a quick, half-ass drawing on a piece of paper, punctured it with a pencil, and tore the drawing out from the inside, leaving the outside edges of the drawing intact.  I had planned on returning to class with my clever “illustration,” my creative take on the assignment.  But something happened and I had a change of heart.  I decided that I loved making art more than I loved being a smart-ass.  I remade my drawing, spending more time with it.  The result was nothing too spectacular, but it would become a fork in the road, a change of direction on to the path that would lead me to where I am today.  

Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann: Veteran Artists of World War II by Chris Hall

Today I want to honor two artist veterans of the Second World War, Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann.  Mauldin was an Army veteran in the European Theater of Operations and Westermann was a Marine veteran in the Pacific Theater of Operations, aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Bill Mauldin

bill mauldin (2).jpg

Bill Mauldin was an editorial cartoonist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.  Prior to the outbreak of war, Mauldin took art classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Army and was present for the invasion of Sicily and the Italy campaigns.  During his tour of duty with the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin was inspired to create his “Willie and Joe” cartoons, depicting two struggling and war weary soldiers of the ETO.  Mauldin's cartoons are clearly sympathetic toward the ground pounding enlisted men and they resonated with his fellow GI's.  

In February 1944 Mauldin was officially transferred into Stars and Stripes magazine and by March 1944, he was given his own jeep, in which he roamed the front, collecting material and producing six cartoons a week.  The War Office supported the syndication of Mauldin's work, not only because they helped publicize the ground forces but also to show the grim and bitter side of war, which helped show that victory would not be easy.  

Nevertheless, those officers who had served in the army before the war were generally offended by Mauldin, who parodied the spit-shine and obedience-to-order-without-question view that was more easily maintained during times of peace.  General George Patton once summoned Mauldin to his office and threatened to "throw his ass in jail" for "spreading dissent" after one of Mauldin's cartoons made fun of Patton's demand that all soldiers must be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat.  But General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander European Theater, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone, because he felt that Mauldin's cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. Mauldin told an interviewer later, "I always admired Patton.  Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy.  He was insane.  He thought he was living in the Dark Ages.  Soldiers were peasants to him.  I didn't like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes."  

Mauldin's cartoons made him a hero to the common soldier.  Many GIs often credit him with helping them to get through the rigors of the war.  His credibility with the common soldier increased in September 1943, when he was wounded in the shoulder by a German mortar while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war he also received the Army's Legion of Merit for his cartoons.  

Mauldin wanted Willie and Joe to be killed on the last day of combat, but Stars and Stripes dissuaded him.  In 1945, at the age of 23, "Sergeant Bill Mauldin" of United Features Syndicate won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.  

After World War II, Mauldin turned to drawing political cartoons expressing a generally civil libertarian view associated with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. These were not well received by newspaper editors, who were hoping for more apolitical Willie and Joe cartoons.  In 1956, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress as a Democrat in New York's 28th Congressional District.


H.C. Westermann

Acrobat and aspiring artist H.C. Westermann served aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise during World War II as a Marine Corps anti-aircraft gunner, where he was witness to deadly Kamikaze attacks the sinking of several ships.  Covered in tattoos, Westermann was a larger than life character with a tendency to swear like a sailor.  In 1947 Westermann attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he developed his talents for drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, but left in 1950 to re-enlist in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.  Westermann finished his degree upon his return.  

The war violence he witnessed, along with its psychological effects, greatly informed his work.  In a letter and drawing from 1978, Westermann relives his 33 year old nightmare of how he discovered his friend’s body, identifiable from the eagle tattoo on his chest, after a naval battle, on top of a pile of dead sailors:

I looked down on the fantail of the ship and they had all the dead people stacked there like cordwood.  It was a pretty ungodly sight.  Well the moon was bright and the dead sailor on top of the pile was a good pal of mine.  That’s him in the drawing . . . he was naked and on his chest was a huge beautiful tattoo of an eagle that he was so proud of . . . Well the next morning the placed each dead man in a mattress cover with a five inch projectile tied between his legs and we buried them at sea.

Westermann was a master craftsman in the wood-working arts and prided himself on the quality workmanship of his sculpture.  A frequent subject in sculptures were his “Death-Ships.”

In time, Westermann become a well known artist, and in 1967 he was one of the celebrities featured on the cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Westermann resisted giving interpretations of hiw work.  In one interview, when asked what an object meant, Westermann replied, “It puzzles me, too.”  In 1978, Westermann was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Westermann’s work is known for its honesty, cathartic expression, and humor, but equally important is his anti-materialistic, anti-militarism message.  Westermann was able to transmute his nightmarish memories of Kamikazes and “Death-Ships" into artistic gold.  

Art, Not Advertisment by Chris Hall

Recently I've read that the iconic mural at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Deborah Whitehouse's Spirit of Atlanta, is being deinstalled after nearly 20 years in residence, to be replaced by a Porsche advertisement.  The mural was installed in 1996 to commemorate the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  Though Spirit of Atlanta is not as cool as Leo Tanguma's ballsy murals at Denver International Airport (parts of which have also been deinstalled), I've always liked seeing this welcoming work of art as I headed up the escalator from the terminal trains below (well, everything except that diaper kid on the right; that kind of creeped me out).

Art to be replaced by an ad . . . no matter if you liked the mural or not, it certainly is better than yet another advertisement (visual pollution).  Although art and advertisement share the same language, their motives are completely different things.  Art aspires to truth.  Ads, however, are no different than political propaganda, as they both have an ulterior agenda behind the facade.  Since the 1960's (with Andy Warhol and Pop Art) and the advent of Postmodernism (with their expanded definition of what could be considered art) many have accepted advertisement as an art-form.  I will proudly remain a stick-in-the-mud, however, and a misanthrope if I have to be, working outside of the cultural norms and in defiance of this trend.  Nor will you find me a visitor to the High Museum of Art's Coco-Cola exhibit, either.

I can understand (but never agree with) how many people can be uncomfortable with Leo Tanguma's murals, In Peace and Harmony With Nature, and The Children of the World Dream of Peace; most people would choose ignorance and bliss over truth and consequence, but to favor an advertisement over art, as many have done in the comments section of the article I read, that I can not fathom.  Take this gem from the comments section by a person identifying themselves as DrSocrates:

Finally the airport is making some sense.  The airport is no place for artwork, museums, shopping malls, or fine dining.  It is a place for travel.  It could be a place for revenue-producing ads.  There are many places for ads.  Where the mural was, where you wait for the trains (think New York's subway), on the trains, at baggage claim.  Whether these ads increase business for the sponsors doesn't matter.  The airport should try to maximize its revenue generation so it can DECREASE taxes and fees. Period.  End of argument.  

What an obtuse ass.  And it only gets uglier from there.

In case you were wondering about Leo Tanguma's murals at Denver International Airport, it seems they have become part of a conspiracy theory involving a secret underground base, the Illuminati, the New World Order, Neo-Nazis, and Subterranean Reptoid Aliens.  I think we need more of this kind of art!  You can learn more about it here:  

Benny and Friends by Chris Hall

 Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998.  As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me.  Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters.  I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But still this fascination persists.  That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil.  But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions.  I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead.  Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still.  Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time.  Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.  

Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas.  In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were.  I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me.  It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating.  Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein.  Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant.  And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals.  This is rich territory to explore.  I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini.  Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.

Creating Monsters by Chris Hall

Son of Frankenstein, 1939.

Recently, in conversation with another artist, it was brought to my attention that I use a Postmodernist aesthetic in my artwork, most notably in my use of text in art, which did not really start to happen until the 1960's.  I was, admittedly, taken aback, but I had to agree with the facts.  It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic.  Postmodernism does not believe in originality; instead it champions pastiche and cultural sampling . . . and Postmodernism has actively mined Modernist art for inspiration.  Using Post-modern pastiche techniques can make for interesting results, but I stand firm in my belief, the Modernist belief, that originality is possible.  In this regard, and in many others, I mostly subscribe to the Modernist philosophy.  But I wonder, am I making a mistake?  

Often, I am too much of a dinosaur, philosophically, to be accepted by Postmodernists, but too Postmodern in my aesthetic to be accepted by certain Re-modernists.  Just like many other aspects of my life, I find myself without a home, left roaming the swamps like a monster on the outskirts of civilization.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we learn that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his monster by merging the rational Enlightenment science of his day with the ancient, more mystical based science of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and others.  His creation was deemed to be a monster and he was doomed to live a life of lonely exile, unloved by all.  But Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster (abandoned at birth, he was never given a name) was not born a monster, he was made out to be a monster the society that shunned him.  The monster tried hard to be accepted by others, but after repeated rebuttals, ended up embracing his role as a scourge to mankind.  I wonder, is this to be the fate of my work?  When I attempt to make an artwork combining Modernist philosophy with Postmodern aesthetics, am I producing monsters?  Because I love my work, what I do, does this make me a monster, too?  Am I doomed to be forever an outcast?  While I might revel in the thought of making monstrous artwork that might become a holy terror among the polite circles of the bourgeois and intelligentsia, I do not revel in the lonely existence it has thus far given me.

Words of Encouragement by Chris Hall

 Photo by Bob Mullen.

Photo by Bob Mullen.

“Artists are fiery, they do not weep!” - Ludwig van Beethoven

"What is to give light must endure burning" — Viktor E. Frankl


Life can be hard for artists, especially artists with an uncompromising vision.  But just remember who you are.  You are a force of nature, an artist!  Unlike others, you had the strength, the balls to pursue your artistic vision, irregardless of what other people think.  Many people wish they had your life, but they were cowards, and they followed other pursuits.  You dared to live, dared to fail!  Remember the poem “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:  

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

You are that wild thing.  You are that rare bird who delights in singing songs in the dead of winter.  Keep making art, no matter what happens.  Art is your weapon against death in life.  Always remember why you make art.  As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Finally, take comfort in Charles Bukowski's poem, “The Laughing Heart”:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you. 

Now get up, and get back to making more art!

STE-A-M Power by Chris Hall

A plant's STEM is easily crushed and broken.  (STEM: the educational curriculum based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math that is now all the rage).  But now let us add Arts to it. What do you get?  You get STEAM.  STEAM is powerful stuff.  Trains used to run on that shit (and nuclear power plants still do)!

That's My Jesus! by Chris Hall

 "Buddy Christ" from the movie  Dogma  (1999).

"Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma (1999).

“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God. […] The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster.” Gerhard Richter.

Today I am going to take a little side trip, away from Art, to write about religion and spirituality.  After 166 postings in this blog I have not once deviated from the subject of Art, so I think I can be forgiven in this one instance.

As explained in my previous post, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  I don't get much out of one size fits all organized religious institutions.  The answers to my questions can not be found before a pulpit one hour on a Sunday morning.  Too much blood has been shed in the name of organized religion.  I can accept a certain amount of hypocrisy within myself and my life, but too often organized religion has too much hypocrisy even for me.  Instead I have long been in the process of developing my own spiritual path.  My self-created religion draws from a variety of sources: nature, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and a variety of religious and mystical traditions.  Those traditions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shamanism, Alchemy, Gnosticism, and yes . . . Christianity.

Christianity is where I started, my religious mother's milk.  It is the skeletal structure with which I base all my moral and spiritual beliefs.  I believe Christian is not something you are, rather it is something one should aspire to become.  You may ask yourself, how can a lefty weirdo pervert such as myself, reconcile their proclivities with Christian doctrine?  It is easy for me, actually. Jesus welcomed outsiders into his party; he rolled with a band of misfits back in the day. Jesus was not exactly, how should I say it, bourgeois?  Jesus was also a man of flesh, a human being with feelings and emotions.  Many would have Jesus be an unapproachable holy marble man, or a neutered Ken doll.  But Jesus was human.  He had his doubts and fears, he experienced pain, and he was even susceptible to anger.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he also had a libido?  Even Jesus had a penis.  And what about his politics?  Jesus stayed out of politics.  Perhaps he would be the first to champion the separation of Church and State.  Jesus did not want to overthrow Rome; his message of compassion and forgiveness transcended the politics of his time.  Nevertheless, politics can learn from Jesus' example.  Reading The Bible, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus was the first Communist.  This is irrefutable.  Jesus, his disciples, and the first Christians all pooled their wealth together (Judas was the treasurer) and redistributed it equally and as needed.  No one went hungry in the first Christian Church.

When I read The Bible from beginning to end a few years ago, I was a little shocked by all that was left out in Sunday School.  It is full of fucked up angry God injustices (particularly in the Old Testament, where genocide, rape, slavery, human sacrifice, and the murder of children is both commanded and condoned), but if you have a dark sense of humor, you can get through the sanctioned violence and bloodshed without being completely turned off.  In the end it seemed to me that the good stuff in The Bible outweighed the bad, maybe not in quantity, but certainly in weight and worth.  The Bible is a fountain of inspiration and solace for those who may have a spiritual bent to them, and even for non-believers as well.  The story of Moses and Jonah, finding the strength to stand up to power, are particularly enlightening, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes pose difficult questions on the nature of suffering.  The life of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament are also of great value if you are looking for life lessons on how to live.  Jesus' parables are often like Zen koans and are a pleasure to read.  If you read nothing else of The Bible, read that at least.

Sometimes my friends are absent minded around me or just assume that because I have leftist leanings that I am anti-Christian.  I brush off their insults usually without correcting them, being too much of a gentleman to point out their small mistake.  Politicians who do hateful things in the name of Christianity are not much of a help, of course.  But at least Pope Francis is beginning to change many people's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and I am thankful for that.

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

 Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

 Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Loneliness by Chris Hall

 Vincent van Gogh,  Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate , 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate, 1890.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”  Vincent van Gogh 

Sometimes being an artist can be quite lonely.  There are the hours spent alone in the studio working.  Working, because you love it and because you feel compelled to do it, true, but this work also comes with the sacrifice of not spending time with family and friends.  A true friend will stick by you, but fair weather friends will forget about you after a while.  There is also the whole being misunderstood thing (cliché as it might sound, it is still a hard fact that can lead to feelings of isolation from society).  If the conditions are right, inevitably loneliness will set in, and if you are particularly susceptible to darker moods, such as Van Gogh, or myself even, depression might take hold.

Being misunderstood and marginalized by society is the worse of the two.  It can lead to ugliness and bitter feelings.  Consider Van Gogh's words, though:

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

How did he do it?  How did he not fall into bitterness and avoid misanthropy?  Many people, including myself, would be tempted to boycott beauty, to purposefully make a bad art, but not Van Gogh.  Instead, Van Gogh redoubled his efforts into producing beautiful art.  How unimaginable that is to me.  Van Gogh had the remarkable patience of a Saint!

I've read Melville's Moby Dick more times than any other book in my life.  It has had a huge impact on my art, and on other artist's work as well.  Robert Motherwell championed it, as did Jackson Pollock.  Laurie Anderson called it “the Expressionist's Bible.”  In Moby Dick, Melville, who was himself no stranger to darker moods, writes the following:  

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

Wise words.

Artwork Expiration Date by Chris Hall

“Beautiful works survive sans virtue.  Virtuous works sans beauty do not.”  Dave Hickey - The Invisible Dragon.

Contemporary art practice has come to accept art created with an expiration date – art not meant to last forever – especially when it addresses philosophical inquiries such as the nature of mutability and time.  Though I've come to respect those who make art which purposefully investigates ideas of temporality, I'm not quite prepared for that in my own practice.  I'd rather my art live forever, if possible.  I do not have kids.  My artworks are my children, my legacy.  But what about the art that is more timely than timeless?  What about the art that addresses more contemporary concerns?  I agree with Hickey in that when an artwork that has outlived its political usefulness, when an artwork's message is no longer relevant, if the art isn't beautiful, if it doesn't make use of aesthetics – that artwork will have a shelf-life; it will slowly fade from memory.  Beauty keeps a work alive once it's political impact is blunted.

If I am going to sacrifice aesthetics in my art in the name of serving some political agenda or some other “virtuous” cause, I've got to be damn sure that the cause is worth the sacrifice.  I have yet to find that cause.  And besides, it has yet to be proven by anyone that a “virtuous” art is made more effective by jettisoning aesthetics.  I fact, I firmly believe the opposite – that art is more effective, its message better communicated, when it uses aesthetics.  I see no clear reason to abandon beauty.  Artists who criticize the use of aesthetics and beauty in art may even be doing so in order to cover for their own lack of talent.  It is the barbarian's argument – the whole “I can not read, therefore all books should be burned” argument.

In the end, though, my pondering on the merits and flaws of whether a “virtuous” art is made more effective with or without the use of beauty is inconsequential, considering that so much of contemporary art, especially the art without beauty, is often sarcastic, nihilist, and generally without “virtue.”  Perhaps it is fitting that such art is temporary and fated to be forgotten.  

Politics are timely, but temporary.  Beauty is timeless and eternal.

Irony and Sarcasm in Art by Chris Hall

Sarcasm 2.jpg

I recently read a couple of interesting articles in the Remodernist Review and on Salon on the use of irony in the art world, and I felt compelled to share with you some of my thoughts as well.  In the Remodernist Review, Richard Bledsoe quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot:  “I don't like irony. . . it indicates a small soul.”  I have to agree with this sentiment.  Irony is born out of pessimism.  It is something I can understand very well.  I have frequent bouts of pessimism in my life, and irony sometimes rears it's ugly head in my art-making.  But I believe it is something we should try to transcend.  We can do better than this.

In Bledsoe's article, he writes, “To embrace irony is to strike a pose of groundless superiority, to think social status is demonstrated by a jaded attitude.”  Bledsoe continues:

Irony is the philosophy of sour grapes.  Those who feel incapable of producing something with skill, meaning and significance like to act like they don’t want those achievements manifested in their works.  But even worse, and more treacherous, to preserve their facade they must suppress and undermine the works of others who are striving towards some higher purpose or accomplishment.  Sophisticated poseurs can tolerate no reminder of their own shortcomings. Irony is a form of passive-aggressive envy. . .  

Those are harsh accusations, but accusations that just might float.  It is true that a lot of bad contemporary art is justified by impenetrable theory and text, theory and text that is ironic and pessimistic in nature.  It just might be that the use of irony might be more than a crutch, but a purposeful obfuscation of the weakness of their argument and art. 

Irony, along with sarcasm, has infected our culture.  Not only is too readily apparent in contemporary art, it has also manifested itself in the way we interact with other people.  Going through the personals on dating websites (yes, ladies, I'm single) I frequently come upon a variation of the addendum “must like sarcasm.”  I see it so often that it has become a turn off.  To me, “must like sarcasm” is code for “I am so smart, so much smarter than you, that I can allow myself to be insulting and smug about it.”  Sarcasm is a form of detached, jaded insincerity.  It bespeaks a lack of curiosity, a closed mind, an unwillingness to learn, and a shallow personality.  Perhaps in small doses, it is OK, we all go there sometimes, but as a personality trait, I'm not interested.  Although contemporary art is filled with irony and sarcasm, I don't blame art for our culture's smug opinion of itself (today's art world is as insular and elitist as ever – not much of an influence on our cultural zeitgeist), instead I think the blame can safely be placed on the pop culture medium of television.  I also think that contemporary art, which draws from pop culture trends as much as it does from pessimistic critical theory, has followed suit.  The critical detachment of watching a train wreck and ironically discussing its aesthetic merits and flaws or political implications is not the environment with which I want to produce art work.  Remember the last two episodes of Seinfeld where the gang are jailed after watching, recording, and laughing as a man is carjacked at gunpoint in front of them?  It is a damning criticism of where I think our culture is now, the whole better you than me attitude.  Everyone laughs, and nobody stops to help.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no saint.  Sometimes I, too, can be jaded, smug, etc., but I always try to treat others with sincerity and respect.  I think my use of sarcasm and irony can be traced to my sometimes excessive sense of pride.  Pride is perhaps the strongest of my faults (that, and Anger – which often stems from my impatience and disappointment at seeing the world fail to live up to my ideals and expectations).  I try to keep my faults in check whenever they appear, and while I am more successful at keeping Pride in check, Anger, being more of an emotion than an attitude, is sometimes harder to control.  Humility is the key . . . recognizing that there have been, are presently, and will be people more talented and intelligent than you is but one step on the path toward achieving the peace that comes with wisdom.  But this is hard in the Ego driven world, where success is often measured proportionately with how much Ego you have, and how much you brag about yourself.  I have no time for Egotism in my life.  There is always so much more to work on, to make better, and to learn.

 Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

One of the reasons Postmodern and contemporary art critics give as to why sincerity and passion is bad for art and the world is addressed in Matt Ashby's and Brendan Carroll's article in Salon.  In it they write:  

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself.

Today the critical default is skepticism and pessimism.  Skepticism and pessimism in critical theory was partially born out of the use of art and aesthetics to inspire blind devotion in Nazi Germany.  Pessimistic critical theory gained further appeal with the failure of art to spark a world wide revolution in 1968.  But I believe with all my heart that we can not just lay there at the bottom of the hill, licking our wounds, laughing as others also fall down.  If optimism isn't your thing, then call it something else, like Schopenhauer's animalistic “Will” to carry on.  The only thing that matters is that we've got to get up and try again!  It is OK to aspire to great things and to stand up for your ideals.  Somebody's got to be the hero, and if its not going to be you, if you are not going to even try, then I may as well have a crack at it.  I know the odds are stacked against me, and that I may very well fail, but I know that I will at least be the better human being for having been brave enough to try.

In the Salon article, Ashby and Carroll ask some important questions:

So, to be more nuanced about what’s at stake: In the present moment, where does art rise above ironic ridicule and aspire to greatness, in terms of challenging convention and elevating the human spirit? Where does art build on the best of human creation and also open possibilities for the future? What does inspired art-making look like?

One might be tempted to look toward the recent past, towards Modernism for examples of “inspired art,” but we don't have to.  There are plenty of people working in contemporary art, exiles still working on the edges of the officially sanctioned art world institutions, waiting for their time to come.  These artists, whether they are aware of it or not, are part of a growing art movement called Remodernism.  Truly inspired artists, once scattered to the winds in the contemporary art wasteland, are now starting to find each other, banding together for strength in numbers, and they are starting to challenge the status quo and stir things up a bit.  My hope is that the movement will continue to grow and gain momentum.  Richard Bledsoe closes out his article in his blog Remodernist Review with the following:

It’s an exciting time to be an artist, and help the world move past the self-serving decadence the self-proclaimed elites cultivate.  It’s time to call the bluffs, stand up to the bullying, and put the perpetrators to the test.  Can their art survive outside the privileged cloisters they huddle in?

It is hard to know exactly what art and the world will be like in the future.  We can only speculate based on current circumstances and past examples in art history.  In art history we know that Modernism rescued art from the stale clutches of 19th century Academic art, and that there was a spiritual revival in art (Abstract Expressionism) following the comparatively more decadent period of art between the two world wars and the fascist aesthetics of the mid-1930's.  Today it seems that there are a few loud voices of dissent operating on the margins of the art world, while a large group of hard-line Postmodernists remain burrowed in the skin of our art institutions like ticks, sucking in as much blood as they can before they die off.  And they are dying off.  By far the largest group of people in the art world are the ambivalents.  They may go either way.  While some may be flat out opportunists, I feel the vast majority of these people are truly getting tired of all the irony and sarcasm.  They are just looking for something to believe in again.  They want something better.  The Postmodern parasites will, no doubt, promote successors who share a similar philosophical background.  There is not much we can do about that.  What we can do is make our voices loud and our message clear, and promote an attractive alternative agenda to replace what is currently being offered by our art institutions.  Perhaps someday our ranks will grow large enough where we can properly challenge those who now hold power in the art world institutions.  Perhaps someday it will not all be in vain.

Music, Art, and Spirituality by Chris Hall

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913.

“Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Painting is a thundering conflict of different worlds, which in and out of the battle with one another are intended to create the new world, which is called the world of art. Each work arises technically in a way similar to that in which the cosmos arose – through catastrophes, which from the chaotic roaring of the instruments finally create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of the work is the creation of worlds.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Blood Promise (recorded live in 1997), by Swans, composed by Michael Gira, from the album Swans are Dead.

Ah!  If I could only make a painting that sounds like this song, I would retire my paint brushes forever! Like a good painting, listening to this song requires time and patience. It builds slowly, then at a certain point, it overwhelms and consumes. You lose yourself in spiritual, transcendent experience. The first part of the song is the sound of mankind's universal experience of pain, but then at the 8:17 mark, the bottom drops out, and you begin to float, you make the first hesitant steps at flying, at escaping, trying out your wings for the first time, fighting for joy, demanding entrance into heaven, the right to be dissolved into the universal void . . . only to begin again, born again, reincarnated.  This song gives me the shivers and puts goosebumps on my skin.  Today I want to write about music, art, and spirituality, while referencing two of its most famous practitioners, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.

“Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” Ludwig van Beethoven

Music has always been an important part of my life.  I may have been born with a crayon in my hand, but it was music that gave me the inspiration and courage to use it.  I was born on December 16th, 1975.  I share this birthday with my brothers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.  Like both of these artists, music is a big part of my life.  When I paint, I always have music on – it allows me to loosen up, to more easily channel my primal-self, that deeper part of myself where I act more on instinct than intellect, where I can better pick up on unconscious inspiration.

“With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist's soul, in musical sound.”  Wassily Kandinsky 

While it is more known that musicians have attempted to portray visual imagery through sound (both figuratively, as in Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and abstractly, as in Alexander Scriabin's synesthetic oeuvre), it is less well known that artists have pursued painting with an eye toward music.  Wassily Kandinsky is one of these artists.  But music is by nature abstract.  How does one paint sound?  What shape does it take?  What color is it?  Wassily Kandinsky was profoundly inspired by music, and it is thought he may have even experienced synesthesia, where a person gets their senses confused, and they literally can hear colors, or see sound.  Kandinsky's synesthesia may have inspired him to create the first truly abstract works of art.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky sets up a color theory in order to merge ideas of music and art, with an eye toward using art as path toward spiritual transcendence.  

“Each color lives by its mysterious life.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Wassily Kandinsky

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural... The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Musical notation by Ludwig van Beethoven.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Like Beethoven and Kandinsky, I believe in the power of music and art to elevate notions of spirituality in people, and like them, I often seek spiritual transcendence through my work and the work of others.  Who can not listen to the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy and not get the feeling of spiritual transcendence!  

Excerpt from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy, taken from the film Immortal Beloved (1994).

Art is as a noble profession, a profession I want to protect from pop culture banality and commercial interests.  These people are the real killers of art.  It seems so strange that I have so much in common with Beethoven and Kandinsky, in terms of personality and a deep love of music.  Of course we are all artists as well, but what is more fascinating is that we also share the same motivations for making art, and share a belief in the possibility of it being divinely inspired.  Perhaps there is some truth to this whole astrology thing.  The website thesecretlanguage.com claims to have collected and studied the life stories of 20,000 people over 40 years, and this is how they describe people born on December 16th:  visionary, imaginative, guided, impractical, out-of-touch, and troubled.  The website also has this to say:

Those born on December 16 are among the most imaginative people in the year. This is not to understate their physical side, however, which is highly developed and stakes out its claims on their personality as well. As a matter of fact, one of the major themes in the lives of December 16 people concerns transcending physical limitations of the body and reaching for the stars . . . December 16 people are not the easiest to live with. Emotional problems of all sorts plague them, usually as a result of their own complex nature. Those who live with them must be extraordinarily understanding and sensitive to their needs, not the very least of which may be a need for periodic solitude . . . Often December 16 people feel guided or even instructed by a higher power in whose service they find themselves. This power may be social, religious or universal in nature, but ultimately liberating for them. Through this association they are freed from their earthbound problems at least for a time . . . December 16 people are capable of feats requiring titanic energies. Once they are directed towards an inspiring but also realistic goal, there is little that can stop them from achieving far-reaching success in their work. Yet, they can be easily sidetracked and fall prey to all sorts of slights, real or imagined, annoyances and (to them) trivial problems involving other people’s feelings, to which they are not always the most sensitive. Living on what may or may not be a high spiritual plane or metaphysical cloud they can have trouble relating to those mere mortals busy with more mundane and petty considerations . . . Explosive reactions alternating with remoteness or indifference, manic periods followed by depressions, the highs of laughter and the depths of deep silence are all colors found on the December 16 palette. The most successful of those born on this day find expression for their high idealism and feelings through creative work, hobbies or social activities. Thus they are able to communicate with and touch their fellow human beings through shared interests.

Not exactly glowing reviews, especially the whole prone to mental illness and depression thing, but if I am honest with myself and my flaws, and I am, I have to admit this is very accurate.  And this is where art comes in for me.  Art (music, visual art, and writing) is not only a catharsis for me, it has allowed me to confront my flaws, and to hopefully work at getting beyond them.  Art, then, is my path toward spiritual growth and transcendence.  Art is my religion.

“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”  Wassily Kandinsky

If you enjoyed the live version of Blood Promise by Swans (recorded 1997) above, I hope you may enjoy the studio version below, released in 1994.  It is a very different song, and short, about four minutes long.  It is the kind of song I think I might like to fall in love to.  

Blood Promise from the album The Great Annihilator (1994).

The Gender of Paintings by Chris Hall

 Christopher Hall,  General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection , c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.  

The Postmodern Manifesto by Chris Hall

When Jacques Derrida (the father of deconstructionist theory) died in Paris in 2004, found among his effects, on a desk next to his deathbed, was an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Postmodern Manifesto.”  It was signed by two other Postmodern champions, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.  Below are the thirteen points of Derrida's “Manifesto,” with my response to each point in italics.  

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.  This is not true.  If it were, the art of the past would not be so viciously attacked and deconstructed by Postmodernists.  If the art of the past (Modern Art is most often attacked) is false, then it could be safely ignored.  Modern Art, however, still has power and relevance today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.  Curators, philosophers, and intellectuals ignorant or able to ignore the past?!  Is the past that dangerous to the Postmodern vision?  There has always been strong historical parallels between world affairs and art affairs.  To purposefully ignore the past is to doom the world to a repetition of our mistakes! Purposeful ignorance on the part of curators, philosophers, and intellectuals has got to be THE MOST ASININE THING I'VE EVER READ.  And another thing:  Art is created by artists, not curators, philosophers, and intellectuals!  Since the dawn of time, Art has always come before philosophy, art has always been primary.  We can live without the critic, but we can not live without Art.  Nietzsche tells us that Art is most true when it is a raw expression of life's essence, when it bears the tension and tragedy of our predicament.  When art becomes too heady, when it becomes co-opted by curators, philosophers, and intellectuals, poetry takes a back seat – and the work loses power.  When curators, philosophers, and intellectuals take hold of art, they inevitably destroy it.  Not poets by nature, they make the art in their own image – with the result being too heady, too heavy in theory.  Here I am reminded of Oskar Kokoschka, when he said, “the enlightenment will come to a bad end – the head is much too heavy and the pelvis way too frivolous.”  And how do curators, philosophers, and intellectuals plan to take away what rightly belongs to artists?  See points 12 and 13 below.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.  Political art is necessary and great, but art needed always be political.  There is still a place for beauty and spirituality in art.  Marx and Freud were concerned with the surface of things, not depth and compassion.  For compassionate politics and psychology, I'll take the original Jesus (as portrayed in the Bible – not by neo-con preachers) and Jung (he added spiritual depth to Freud's work) over Marx and Freud any day.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.  Despite what some may think, Postmodernism is a cultural climate invented by Postmodernists, not a cultural climate which Postmodernists seek to mirror or subvert.  And I believe, for the most part, that Postmodernists are nihilists at heart, and are not concerned with humanity's best interests.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.  While it is allied to popular culture (and often the worst aspects of it) Postmodernism is NOT democratic.  Points 11 and 13 prove this. Postmodernism is actually a perfect mirror of our political state of affairs, in that it has the appearance of democracy (even mob rule at times), but in fact, it is an enterprise run by a few monied and elite power brokers behind the scenes, who are more concerned with themselves than with the interests of humanity.  Is it a nefarious conspiracy?  Possibly.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.  High Art is something noble, something an artist should aspire to.  We might not always get there, but we should at least try.  To deny the possibility of High Art is to settle for mediocrity, filth, and defeat.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.  Postmodernists are not content with shaping present and future culture trends, they also work hard at dismantling the past as well! Why?  Because they know High Art still has the power to challenge and inspire. As a result, Postmodernists feel they have to cheat and “sweep the leg” of their Modernist predecessors in order to put themselves in a better light.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.  I can support Debordian tactics of detournement.  It is a useful tool for combating institutions of power.  Guy Debord originally used detournement to subvert the French Government during their attempt at revolution in 1968.  It almost worked.   Perhaps angry at the failure of art to inspire and effect revolution, Postmodernists began using the tactic in a self-destructive way, to deconstruct and undermine Modern and High Art.  Perhaps today's artists should consider using this tactic to undermine those who currently hold power in academic institutions – the now aging Postmodernists themselves.  Alan Sokal used it to great effect in 1996 when his fake essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was published in an academic journal.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.  Like detournement, irony, paradox, parody, etc. are great tools for attacking institutions of power – but it has lead to a glut of “clever art.”  Today it is used primarily by artists who only want to take a shortcut to their 15 minutes of fame, and who are not concerned with humanity's best interests.  In this climate, art has become a youth cult for the cool, a quick fix, and a flavor of the week.  Slow and timeless art with depth is often ignored and sacrificed in favor of what is immediate and now.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.  Self-consciously shallow?  I insist on depth!  Why would any true artist want to aspire to shallowness, to vulgar cheapness?!  This is what you get when you purposefully pander to the lowest common denominator:  the popular culture waste product that is Reality TV!  I ask, is that a good thing?  Does the world need more of this?  I can see how attempting to appeal to the masses and using methods of mass production to make “repeatable” art are great tools when you want to effect societal and political change, but we need not be “shallow” about it.  And besides, most of what I see coming out of Postmodern practice seems nihilist and defeatist in nature – just how is this going to change anything?

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.  I've always said that for all its so called inclusive pluralism, Postmodernism is in fact VERY elitist.  This point is the proof!  And how does it protect its own elitism?  See point 13.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted.  Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.  It is perhaps true that art can not exist without a viewer – but it can live without the interpretation suggested by the Postmodernists, which is dissecting and deconstructionist in nature.  Good art can operate independently of text.  Bad art relies on text as a crutch to support it's thesis.  Postmodern point 12 is what curators and critics have used to bullishly elbow their way to the front of the line in the Art-World – at the expense of the artist.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!  And here it is – proof that Post-Modern International Art English critical jargon was purposefully invented not to clarify, but to beguile!  

Balance by Chris Hall

 Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Anubis, weighing a heart against a feather in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The bourgeois want art voluptuous and life ascetic; the reverse would be better.  Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory.

What is good art, and what should it do?  

Good art doesn't give the world what it wants – it gives the world what it needs.  Sometimes these wants and needs are not the same thing.  So what does the world need right now?  A spiritual respite?  A healing antidote to modern life ills?  Maybe the hard shock of reality (better the hard slap of truth than the soft kiss of a lie)?  Perhaps a taste of its own cruel medicine?  How about a celebratory carnival bacchanalia, to counter society's puritanical excessiveness?  

Though I have yet to come to a definite conclusion as to what the world needs, I do know that whatever it is, it must complement, be in equal measure, and in balance.

Adorno seems to think that the people of the world need to live fuller, “voluptuous,” less repressed lives, and that art is best when it functions in a more spiritual role.   I can see how this might be a good thing.  But if the roles are currently reversed, who will budge first?  We can't all be crazy or all be ascetics.  There must be a balance, or the scale will completely tip over.

Perhaps it is not what the world needs, but what the community needs, or what each individual needs, at one particular place at one particular time, hence the diversity of art practices in the world today and also through out history.

On Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Lack of it in Conceptual Art. by Chris Hall

 Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art),  Fountaine , 1917

Marcel Duchamp (the father of conceptual art), Fountaine, 1917

“For more than four centuries, the idea of “making it beautiful” has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular - the lover's machine gun and the prisoner's joy – the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route, without a detour through church and state, from the image to the individual.  Now that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art – no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into vernacular memory, no longer welcome even to try.”  Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.

For many years, while in my youth, I denied the importance of beauty when making a work of art, slightly favoring content over form.  It was a mistake on my part, as I tended to conflate notions of conventional beauty (think 19th century academic art) with generalized aesthetics.  But I've since learned that beauty, even conventional beauty, can be a useful tool (like humor) to smuggle in controversial/problematic ideas to an audience who may not be willing to receive a "message" willingly.  Aesthetics puts the sugar in the cough syrup, essentially.  More than just a tool for art for art's sake beauty (which indeed, does serve a purpose – healing the wounded psyche, so often marred by modern life, is a noble use for beauty and for art), aesthetics is a useful communication tool; it is useful in that it can attract and advertise ideas (as opposed to products).  Aesthetics can attract a viewer toward an artwork, and if properly deployed, its nuances can help convey a message, a feeling, an idea – communicate.  If art could be said to have a prime directive, then it might be the need to effectively communicate to others.

 Joseph Kosuth,  One and Three Chairs , 1965.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

Again, I am not limiting myself to just notions of conventional beauty (what I may find beautiful, others may not, and visa versa) , but to aesthetics as a whole.  Beauty is guided (though not governed) by aesthetics – the kinds of things you learn about in foundations classes (color, contrast, repetition, etc).  Aesthetics, when learned and used, can be an effective tool in communication.  Increasingly, however, art (most especially contemporary conceptual art) is divorcing itself all together from aesthetics.  Without aesthetics, however, there is nothing to draw a viewer in, and nothing to help clarify meaning and message.

 Maurizio Bolognini,  Programmed Machines,  1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Maurizio Bolognini, Programmed Machines, 1992-97 (hundreds of computers are programmed to generate random images which nobody would see).

Perhaps we can partly forgive a conceptual work if the message or proposed idea is worth examining and to our benefit, but post-modern skepticism and pessimism often denies us this, giving us instead a smug, nihilist perspective, self-congratulatory stuff, and stuff too reliant on being cool and clever.  On a good day we might get art with a simple, pat, feel good message, but that kind of art will only get you so far.  Rarely do I see any contemporary conceptual art that actually challenges or inspires.   Instead we get theses and investigations.  All of this, of course, assumes that the conceptual art effectively communicates its message, and too often, it does not.  Too often these works rely on a supporting artist's or critic's text in order to explain the intent (and without the use of aesthetics to draw a person in, the viewer's curiosity to even want to investigate those texts is voided).  But let us suppose that viewer's curiosity is piqued, and they choose to seek out and read the supporting text – what might they expect to get in return?   They can expect to be rebuffed by a wall of vague, cryptic, elitist International Art English jargon.  The ability to effectively communicate in art is important if one hopes to have any kind positive effect on the world.  More often than not, though, contemporary conceptual art fails to meet even this very basic requirement.   Supporters of contemporary conceptual art practices tend to be academic elitist cognoscenti,  left brain types who distrust poetry, more statisticians than artists, they are those who can dispense with beauty, who choose to speak the puffed up jargon filled International Art English gibberish as a means to impress their peers rather than to clarify their argument, and they are not willing to condescend themselves to speak in a language everyone can understand, perhaps for fear that their argument might be exposed as a fraud.  Their world view is head heavy and lacks a visceral life body, and for all their pluralist rhetoric, they think nothing of openly mocking art that doesn't fit into their world view (no-no buzzwords include:  universal, heroic, individualism, catharsis, beauty, originality, self-discovery . . . incidentally, all things championed by Modernism).  It is an exclusive rather than an inclusive practice.

 Lam Hoi Sin, installation from  The Crap Show , 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

Lam Hoi Sin, installation from The Crap Show, 2012.  I can support this one.  The communication is clear, if ironic and at least the artist is being honest with himself.

I realize I am being very judgmental here and making sweeping generalizations, so I would like to point out that unlike my many other conceptual art detractors (notably my Stuckist brothers and sisters), I am not completely anti-conceptual art (many Stuckists will go so far as to even condemn abstract painting).  I am, however, against the failure of art to properly communicate  – and the nihilist, skeptical, pessimistic (or pat) messages often contained within them.  Beauty and aesthetics are equally as important as content and message; ideally, good art must have a balance of head, heart, and body.  I do believe that it is possible for conceptual art (with the aid of aesthetics) to communicate more effectively to an audience beyond elitists in the know, and to do so with challenging and inspiring content.  Sadly, in my experience at least, those instances are few, and far in-between.

Time is Money, Bastard! by Chris Hall

Today I had one of those moments when I thought about all the things I want to paint and all the things I want to write about.  This is not an abstract concept . . . these are real ideas that I have in my head, noted down on paper, or on my computer, bare bones skeleton one or two sentence notes or quick sketches.  More preciously, I'm referencing the multiple sketchbooks that have piled up and the 46 pages of typed notes with over 100 topics I want to write about.  And when the ideas keep flooding in, I fear I will never catch up, never reach my full potential.  Damn poverty!  If I could only do what I love full-time . . . dare I say, all the great things I just might accomplish.  I've suffered from a lack of time and I've suffered from a lack of money, but this is the first time in a long while where I've suffered from a lack of both.

My ideal work day: breakfast, two hours reading, two hours writing, lunch, four plus hours painting, dinner, more painting, and then a little more reading or writing before bed.  If I had this schedule, I just might make small dent into making/writing everything that I have stuck in my head.  Time is such a luxury.

Lee Krasner by Chris Hall

Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) was an influential American painter among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists known as the New York School.  Not only is she an iconoclast by being a part of this vanguard movement in American art, she is doubly so, as the movement was at first a kind of men's club.  For this reason I have mad respect for both her and her artwork.  She is one of the few women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held posthumously in 2008.  

Krasner was born in Brooklyn, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia in Odessa.  Growing up, she had little interest in Judaism, as she could not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women.  Soon she announced to her parents that she was done with religion, and enrolled herself in a secular public high school.  Born Lena Krasner, she decided to call herself by the more gentile sounding name, Lenore.

After high school, Krasner moved on to study art at Cooper Union.  At Cooper Union, men and women were strictly segregated, even entering the building through separate entrances.  Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male.  While at Cooper Union, Krasner grew tired of the name Lenore and once again changed it, to the more androgynous sounding Lee, so that those looking at her artwork would not know if she was a man or woman.  Cooper Union was not a pleasant experience for Krasner, and she decided to enroll at the National Academy of Art.  To gain admittance, she began working on an large self-portrait, facilitated by a mirror which she nailed to a tree outside her parent's modest home on Long Island.  The National Academy of Art accepted her for a free seven month period.

Soon after arriving, Krasner found life at the National Academy not much better than at Cooper Union.  At the Academy, fish were kept in the basement for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs.  Krasner described the faculty as being “worried by the French,” and as being stuck in the old, traditionalist ways.  Her report card read, “This student is always a bother . . . insists upon having her own way despite school rules.”  Despite the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show, where European avant-garde art was first introduced, American art remained in long isolation.  Later, with the influx of European artists immigrating to America to escape the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, things would change very quickly.  Meanwhile, in 1928, the students at the National Academy of Art were getting their first glimpse of French Impressionist work, some 60 years after the movement had began!  Krasner and her classmate's work shifted direction in dramatic fashion.  Disgusted by the “new” art, one instructor even hurled his brushes against the wall, shouting, “I can't teach you people anything!”  Later, Krasner would describe the effect Impressionist paintings had on her, saying, “Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism.”

From 1935 to 1943, Krasner worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, in the Mural Arts Division.  She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936.  Her first impression of him was not great.  Deeply inebriated, he cut in on her dance partner, only to ask, “Do you like to fuck?”  Krasner was fired and rehired from the Federal Art Project, and then permanently let go, when a policy of terminating everyone who had worked more than 18 months was enacted.  Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend though the mail.  Finding herself in a low point in her life, she moved to a cheaper apartment, where she would write on the wall Rimbaud's words:  

To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?


Starting in 1937, Krasner took courses from the German emigre Hans Hofmann, who taught the principles of Cubism.  Hofmann was impressed with Krasner's work, saying, “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman."  Nevertheless, Hofmann would be a big influence on Krasner's work.  In 1940, she started showing her new abstract work with the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1942, she met Pollock again, under better circumstances, as they were both preparing to exhibit their work in the same show.  Krasner and Pollock would later marry in 1945.

While Krasner would continue her own work in her own studio, she dedicated a lot her time promoting Pollock's work.  It could be argued that Pollock would not have been as much of a success in the art world without Krasner's support.  Artistically, Krasner and Pollock treated each other as equals, and she would lend her critical eye by helping Pollock develop his work.  They would also give each other reassurance and support in the early days, when neither of their work was well-appreciated.  Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while it did have its peaceful times, would become strained due to Pollock's troubles and alcoholism.  Their marriage would come to an abrupt end in 1956, when Pollock died in an alcohol related single car crash.

After Pollock's death, Krasner had a difficult time getting her work shown.  “People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter,” she said in an 1981 interview.  “Someone like (Clement) Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter.  He had power.”  Although Greenberg had been closely acquainted with Krasner for decades – he even met Pollock through her – he never once wrote a word in support of her art.  Krasner would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create collages, and, at times revised and discarded entire series of work.  As a result, her surviving body of work is quite small.

After Krasner's death in 1981, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio.  It is now open to the public.  In 1985, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established, functioning as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  As stated in her will, the foundation serves “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need.”