On Art and Suffering by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch,  Despair , 1894

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

In the eyes of art history, Munch’s best work came out of his suffering.  His work after 1910 is generally regarded as weaker than and not as expressive as his earlier work from the 1890's and 1900's.  Is suffering necessary in order to make good work?  Many artists believe this, perhaps because suffering is all they have known, and we artists insist on our wounds (and the world isn’t friendly to artists and the expression of emotions).  I once believed that good work could only come out of suffering, too, but I refuse to believe completely in it anymore.  As someone who has experienced mental illness in the form of major depression and anxiety, I understand this notion to a great degree.  But there is nothing romantic about depression and anxiety.  Looking back, maybe my suffering gave me some clarity, insight, and empathy after the fact, but while being depressed, or in the throes of an anxiety attack, it is impossible to make art.  It is a torture to want to keep on living, let alone hold a paint brush.  I don’t know exactly how other artists work, what makes them tick, what makes them produce art.  Speaking for myself, it is important for me to be happy while having a little bit of an edge and some sensitivity.  I remember being on lithium for a short time, years ago, and how I could not produce any artwork because I felt emotionally numb, so maybe there is some truth to the necessity of suffering.  Maybe a little suffering is good for the soul, but only a little.

Why is contemporary art wary of art as catharsis and the expression of human emotion?  Why is it afraid of color?  In today’s rationally minded art world, perhaps they are afraid of that which is unquantifiable.  They are afraid to look into themselves and recognize that they, too, are feeling creatures, with darkness, anxiety, potential sadness, or worse.  No, if there are to be any emotions in today’s rationally minded society, it can only be emotions that are useful and can be exploited, bright, cheery, happy emotion.  Everything else must be quietly swept under the rug.  While in grad school I was surprised to learn that some of my more emotional and cathartic work would be received not with empathy, but with disbelief that anything of this kind of expression could be genuine.  There is no longer any respect for expressions of suffering.  All one has to do is look at the many parodies, products, and memes out there today of Munch’s The Scream to understand this.  One of the pictures below is of artist Takashi Murakami mocking The Scream.  He should know better.  Clearly he has no respect or empathy for Munch or his work.  Munch must be rolling in his grave.

Munch isn’t the only one to suffer posthumous humiliation.  There are endless parodies, products, and memes concerning Van Gogh’s ear as well.

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

1 kusama2.jpg

My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

Is Photography an Art? by Chris Hall

Peter Lik's 6.5 million dollar photograph, Phantom.

I recently read an article in The Guardian by Jonathan Jones where he says unequivocally, ”Photography is not an art.  It is a technology.”   In the article he bemoans the fact that landscape photographer Peter Lik has sold his photograph, Phantom, for 6.5 million dollars, setting a record for the most expensive photograph ever sold.  Jones’ criticism of the work is specific, saying that the photograph records a naturally occurring phenomenon, that it is something anybody with I-Pad could capture.  He also says that Lik’s photograph is cheaply nostalgic, that it references painting from over 100 years ago.  Despite Jones’ anti-beauty, anti-aesthetic argument, I find somewhat of an accord with what he is saying about photography being too readily accessible.  

I have grappled with similar thoughts myself from time to time.  There is something about the quick, instant nature of photography that, as a painter who has to lovingly labor over a canvas, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The photographic process, well, it just seems too easy.  Since the advent of the digital camera, it seems everybody is now a photographer, and all the hard work of making a good photograph has been simplified into an automatic point and shoot technique.  You do have to have some creative instinct, such as how to recognize a good composition and what makes something interesting or beautiful, but a lot of the technical input, from lighting and lenses, to old fashioned dark room techniques has been replaced by autocorrect technology within a camera’s or computer’s software program.  This already compounds the problem that a lot of times a person really “takes” a photographic image, and does not “make” a photographic image.  To be sure, some photographers such as Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen do go to great pains to arrange subject matter within a composition, and then manipulate the image after the photograph is taken, but often the photographic process and aesthetic is one of being a good documenter of something that already exists.  In the case of Peter Lik, we could argue that the real author is Nature, not Peter Lik.

Below are images from Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen, respectively.

All the same, however, I shouldn’t be so hard on photography.  The camera is technology, but so is a saw, and so is a paintbrush, they are all tools.  What matters is the person behind the tools, their talents, and what they are thinking and hope to accomplish.  It requires a good eye and a poetic nature to recognize a good photographic subject when one sees it, so there is that.  Though they do not flock in numbers the way they do toward photography, there are plenty of amateurs who paint and sculpt, too.  Good photography is most certainly possible.  A good photograph can move us in the same way a good painting can move us.  I am inclined to think that despite it all, in the right hands, photography is an art.

If there is any argument at all left concerning Peter Lik's Phantom, perhaps we could discuss whether or not an art that can be easily reproduced can ever really be worth 6.5 million dollars.  Does Lik destroy the negative or delete the image file?

You can read Jonathan Jones' article here:

The Importance of Foundations Classes by Chris Hall

Joseph Beuys, teaching.

Joseph Beuys, teaching.

"Craft is about right and wrong, preserving tradition, not reinventing the wheel. The teaching of craft in art school tends to create artist-technicians who so clearly know what is right and what is wrong that they will never do it the really fucked up/interesting/revolutionary way. Craft dulls the potential MakerThinker. It creates false security and throws up barriers to understanding. Craft is conservative."  Deborah Fisher

I disagree with Deborah Fisher.  Learning the formal elements of composition, form, line, value, color, etc. is useful no matter what field or art medium you chose to practice in the future.  If the artist is put into this world with the innate desire to construct a world of their own, what tools are they going to use for this construction?  Foundations classes gives students those tools.  Even if you pursue a conceptual path, void of aesthetic considerations, it is still helpful to know art language and terminology, as well as develop visual critical skills.  Joseph Beuys realized this, and while his later life practice was primarily of a conceptual nature, he always maintained that his students should have drawing classes.  It is better to think of foundations classes not just as a boot camp for technical skills, but also a place where one can begin to exercise critical creative thought.  How are you supposed to break the rules if you do not know what they are first?  Craft and technical ability is not conservative; it is a stepping stone necessary for future progress.  

Andy Warhol: Art of Superficiality by Chris Hall

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty, and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work!” 
Willem de Kooning, yelling at Andy Warhol at a Larry Rivers party.

Where artist like Beuys sought to make the world a better place through their art, clearly did Warhol did not.  By mimicking the aesthetic of commerce and advertising, he only added to our cultural clutter.  By celebrating the idea of celebrity, he championed superficiality.  If artists like de Kooning are an ocean in their depth, Warhol is a dirty puddle.

One of Warhol’s first commercial successes was his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962).

Andy Warhol, 32 Campbells Soup Cans, 1962

The soup cans at least could not be confused with the real thing, but Warhol soon remedied that with his Brillo Boxes, (1964).

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964

I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic. Andy Warhol.  By celebrating superficiality and celebrity culture, Andy Warhol became a celebrity himself.  

Soon Warhol puts himself before the work.  In Warhol’s first museum show at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965, the expected crowd was eager not so much to see the work, but rather the artist.  Warhol obliged them when Sam Green, fearing that the work might be damaged in the crowd, ordered that the work be taken down from the gallery walls.  

Andy Warhol at the Philadelphia ICA show, 1965

With fame came money, and Andy, true to his superficiality, loved money more than anything else in the world.  I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions... Finally one lady friend asked the right question, "Well, what do you love most?" That's how I started painting money.  Andy Warhol.  Warhol also tells us, Making money is art.  And working is art.  And good business is the best art.  There is nothing wrong with making money from your art, but making money is certainly not art.  

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962

The people gave Andy Warhol wealth and fame, and what does he give us in return?  He purposefully tries to bore us to death.  One film, Empire (1964), is nothing more than slow motion, static footage of the Empire State building, stretched out to eight hours and five minutes.  The video below is a ten minute excerpt, but a poor quality full length version is available on YouTube if you wish to torture yourself.

Excerpt from Empire, 1964

Oh, and here is another video, Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger (1982).  No meaning, no aesthetic, nothing but banal, boring nonsense.  At least with his celebrity portraits there was a formal aesthetic, composition and color, but here the boredom seems calculated and cruel.  There is nothing here, nothing to take away, just Andy Warhol, eating a hamburger.

Andy Warhol Eating a hamburger, 1982

Forgiving Art for the Sins of the Artist by Chris Hall

Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist.  It is often pride, emulation, advarice, malice – all the odious qualities – which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.  And in so doing he enriches the world more than the generous or good, though he may lose his soul in the process.  That is the paradox of artistic achievement.  Evelyn Waugh

. . . Lord God, grant me the grace to compose a few beautiful verses which will prove to me that I am not the lowliest of men and that I am not inferior to those I despise.
Charles Baudelaire

It says nothing against the ripeness of a spirit that it has a few worms. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Georg Baselitz, The Brucke Chorus, 1983

Richard Strauss, Leni Riefenstahl, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot.  Can we forgive their fascist leanings and/or anti-semantic beliefs?  And what about a living artist such as Georg Baselitz, can we forgive his sexist remarks?  We don’t have to, but we can forgive their art.

I believe that art has some unique, autonomous value, some capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and supports ideals that have a timeless aspect.  In other words, art is greater than the artist.  Some critics, however, desiring a balance to the equation between art and artist, are upset by the idea that an artist can be a bad person, yet can also  produce great art; they would prefer it if the artist who is a bad person would also produce art that looks bad, or at least that it be tainted.  As for myself, if I could not separate the artwork from the life of the artist, I would at least try to reconcile the two.  

Politics, for better or worse, are a part of art.  While I believe a work of art can be judged according to the apparent politics of the work, you can also judge it for its aesthetic values as well. The value judgment of the entire work, then, does not hinge on either its politics or aesthetic considerations, but both.   . . . and if the politics are absent, then we can judge the work solely on aesthetics alone, independent of whatever beliefs or sins the artist may have committed in their personal life.  Just because an artist is a bad person, this does not necessarily mean that the work of said artist will also be bad.  

Too often, with de-constructionalist theory witch-hunts, we condemn works of art when we instead should condemn the lives of the artists.  In our contemporary world where both the critics and artists often conflate notions of art and life, it is sometimes difficult to image that they are indeed two different spheres.  

We can forgive the art for the sins of the artist.  

The Bill Cosby Art Controversy by Chris Hall

If connecting the personal life of artists with their art, that is damning a work of art in connection with the sins of the artist, seems a bit ridiculous to you, it may be some what of a surprise to know that now some critics are conflating art collections with the personal lives of their owners.  The Smithsonian Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” consists of work from the collection of Bill Cosby, who is a bit of a social pariah at the moment over allegations from over a dozen women accusing him of rape and sexual misconduct.  Understandably the Smithsonian is in an uncomfortable place.  However, in an article for the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott obliquely suggests that the Smithsonian should have cancelled the exhibition.  

If the Museum of African Art ignores the allegations, it seems to tacitly accept the proposition that all 15 women are liars. But if it tries to issue a statement or contextualize the exhibition with some kind of acknowledgment of the controversy, it appears to say the following: “It’s unfortunate that many people believe he is a serial rapist, but we’re happy to have his art anyway.”

What Kennicott seems to not understand is that Cosby didn’t create the work, nor did he even curate the show (the show comprises the work of artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and is curated by Dr. David Driscoll).  Kennicott also fails to understand that a museum changes direction about as fast as an ocean-liner.  Exhibitions are planned years in advance, there contracts to be signed, legally binding contracts, insurance is purchased, brochures are printed, and many other investments aside from time are required in order to put up a show.  It is hard to just cancel an exhibition.  Mind you, it can be done; the Corcoran Gallery did it in 1989 with a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. The Corcoran cancelled their show, anticipating that it would ignite a political firestorm (the show was partially funded by a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts).  But if the Smithsonian cancelled their exhibition, with work no where near as controversial as Robert Mapplethorpe’s, they would certainly invite criticism for capitulation, ironically, from the same press who are now criticizing the Smithsonian for deciding to keep the show up.  

I am frankly surprised that anyone would conflate the personal life of the owner of an art collection with the art collection itself.  It is already bad enough that many people today tend to equate the artist's personal life with their art. Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner are not the ones who should be put on trial, and if the Smithsonian were to cancel their show, it would be as if they were the ones being judged.  Art collectors as well as artists can be terrible people, but that doesn't necessarily taint the art. Perhaps the Smithsonian should distance themselves from Cosby (promotions and such), but they shouldn't distance themselves from the art.

Below is some work by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.

The Artist Versus Critic by Chris Hall

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875

In 1877 artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler sued critic John Ruskin for libel.  In a review for Fors Clavigera, Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  The piece Ruskin was writing on, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875.  The trial was a disaster for both Whistler and Ruskin.  Whistler wasn't helped when Nocturne in Black and Gold was accidentally presented upside down, nor was he helped when Whistler tried to explain the concept behind his work; it seemed to go above the jury’s head.  Ruskin was absent from the trial for medical reasons, making Whistler’s counter attack ineffective.  Whistler had also counted on many of his fellow artists to stand witness, but they refused, not willing to risk their own reputation.  Somehow, despite all of this, Whistler won the case.  But the damage to both Ruskin’s and Whistler’s careers was irreversible.  Whistler was awarded only a little in financial compensation, and he was soon forced to sell, pawn, and mortgage everything he had before declare bankruptcy.  The following is an extract from the court proceedings:

Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"
Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens."
Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"
Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."
Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..." 
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

I rather like Whistler’s response, “no, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”  How true this is.  This makes a great defense when for when people cheapen the labor of artists (which does happen often).  But there were some consequences and fallout for art as a result of the trial.

While Whistler’s victory went a long ways to champion the notion of the artist as an intellectual (not just merely a craftsman), thus making the critic redundant, it also would become a slippery slope where upon artists would later champion the idea or concept over all technical and aesthetic considerations.

The lawsuit also meant that artists were no longer accountable to critics, which again becomes a slippery slope.  Without an effective objective critical base, many bad works of art become paraded before the public, and many works that ought not to be considered art at all.  Currently this is the state of affairs in Post-modern pluralism, where critics refuse to be critical for fear of accidentally offending someone.  

The Artist as Nuisance by Chris Hall

"The artist as hero is long gone from American culture, and the artist as social critic is ineffective." Robert Hughes

So what is left?  Referencing Bruce Nauman in a review for Time magazine in 1995, Robert Hughes suggests that all we are left with is the artist as nuisance.  Is that all an artist has to offer, all that an artist can ever hope to be?  I sincerely hope not.  

I, at least, aspire to greater things.

Bruce Nauman's Self Portrait as Fountain , 1966

Bruce Nauman's Self Portrait as Fountain, 1966

Bruce Nauman's  Clown Torture , 1987

Bruce Nauman's Clown Torture, 1987

Bruce Nauman's  Clown Torture , 1987

Bruce Nauman's Clown Torture, 1987

Without Ardor . . . No Art by Chris Hall

Why is the contemporary art world afraid of the romantic myth of the artist as solitary genius author?  Reason has killed the mysticism and emotion of art, killed off the artist’s celebration of mystery and magic.  In its place is pure rationalism.  Rationalism is both frightened and embarrassed by the artist’s assertion of imagination and emotionalism in art, frightened and embarrassed because emotions and the imagination are by nature, personal and unquantifiable.  

Back in 1950, Lionel Trilling forecasted future art practices when he wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, “[liberalism’s] vision of a great enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life . . . drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination . . . in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind . . . inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.”

Today the rationalists rule the art institutions, the schools, the critics, the galleries and museums.  For the most part, these institutions refuse to acknowledge that an artist can lay claim to some irreducible mystery and magic. Contemporary art must be logical, responsible, and well-behaved.  Who will champion the artist now, if not the art institutions?  The visionary artist is without a home.

In an article for the New Republic, Jed Perl writes, “It is all well and good to say that cool heads should prevail.  Art, however, is by its very nature overheated, hot-headed, unreasonable – and, dare I say it, sometimes illiberal.  Without ardor there is no art.”