Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Alchemists and Stockbrockers

In which the blogger blathers on art school, the art market, John Currin, Mark Kostabi, Jeff Koons and a book called "What Painting Is".

Art schools should be banished. Like poets in Plato's Republic, they are dangerous. I graduated from the drawing and painting program at the University of Iowa, with a MA and MFA. Why are they dangerous?

Well, art school was too much fun. Devoting 3-4 years to just cranking out art, testing out stuff, talking to other artists and teachers makes it seem like it will always be like that. Ummm...nope. Rarely do artists find the same environment after school. Like baby eagles, we are thrown out of the nest and have to learn how to fly on our own in the art gallery and art critic dominated world. Everyone has mechanisms to deal with this - mine is a retrenchment back to my studio where all I have to deal with is paper, masonite, charcoal, paint and a lot of work. Others, however, collaborate fully with the enemy. And of course the majority soon stop working altogether.

Surprisingly, art school did give us clues on how to collaborate and become what is known as a successful artist - one who can make a living out of their art. Of course, these strategies are not of the a priori type where if you do A then B will assuredly occur. No, it is more like, if artist has achieved B, then he had to have done A. What is the difference? Well, 1000 artists may have done A, but only one gets lucky and gets B.

So what are these strategies they taught us? I'll begin by discussing a book I just read What Painting Is. The author, James Elkins, is a professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More importantly, he also was a practicing painter. Unlike almost every art history person, he regards the act of creating not as a clever moving around of symbols but as a direct experience with the materials. He goes a little bit overboard by aligning this act with a lot of discussion on the practice of alchemy. But I think he has a point.

An artist in a studio is like an alchemist. He has a personal way of finding out stuff like an alchemist had his personal way of mixing and concocting substances. It is a lot of "I wonder what will happen if?". The process is as much of the art (or more) as the final product. Non-artists like art historians or critics tend to think of the final product exclusively. In one anecdote he says there is one way to tell whether somebody is an artist or a critic in a museum. In front of a painting an artist will be bodily involved with it - almost dancing as they figure out how the brushstrokes were made. The critic will plant themselves in front of it and put their hand to their chin and just stare.

Art school does give you the tools to become this kind of alchemist - where you find your own Philosopher's Stone that is your own individual voice and style. You learn the craft as well as how to approach artmaking. The teachers and fellow students give you an incredible selection of examples on how to create and think while you are learning and perfecting basic skills.

But this isn't what it takes to succeed in the art world today. The artist must also be a stockbrocker. A stockbroker is one who manipulates financial symbols to enrich himself (and incidentally his clients) without actually producing any real value to the world. They are expert in following trends in fashion, ruthless in getting rid of what is cold and ravenous in collecting what is hot.

There are many examples of recent artists that are the epitome of the extreme in stockbroker art. Jeff Koons and Mark Kostabi even have backgrounds in stocks. They are masters of manipulating their ideas to what they feel they can sell in their particular niches. One of the hallmarks of a stockbroker artist is that you question that they would make the things themselves (they don't make their stuff - assistants have made all of Koon's and Kostabi's "work" for years) if they couldn't sell it.

A stockbroker also plays the game of galleries, critics and other artists perfectly. They realize that it isn't only the work that makes the career of an artist - but also the fact that your name is on a Big Board like a stockticker symbol. Now of course I don't know everything you have to do to market yourself out there today because I've taken myself out of the game - but I do know you have to get your name out there, network and find out what the galleries are taking to get in. In short you have to position yourself so that the galleries can sell you. A gallery does not sell art - it sells artists. A person buying work in a modern art gallery will not buy a piece unless he knows the artist OR is betting that the artist can or will take off. Just like buying stock.

So how does art school help with stockbroking? Mainly, through the critiques, seminars, colloquia and visiting artists a young artist becomes fluent in artspeak and how to fashion a career. Oh, and to smoke and dress in black. While I never smoked and only occasionally wore black Levi's, I was known to utter sentences similar to "my work acknowledges minimalism and abstract expressionism, but I reify the implicit romanticism in the mark as "mark""

The Whitney Museum of American Art recently had a retrospective of John Currin's paintings. Most critics have been head over heels over him as a master painter with a postmodern viewpoint. The only review that didn't was one in Harper's which I totally agreed with. I have been underwhelmed because while he has a good technique, there a lot of painters out there who can do academic realism just as well or better than him. But like the scarecrow - what they don't have is a diploma from Yale and the postmodern mumbo-jumbo to go along with it. One can see bits of the alchemist in his paintings, however one sees the stockbrocker strategizing much more. "Look at me being naughty painting all these breasts", "Look at me subvert human desire", "Look at me quote Renaissance paintings".

One of the reasons that he has succeeded is one that he has gone on record about in interviews. He has said that he went into academic realism because he wanted to do what was the most outre by the then current fashion. And critics, who never see real academic realism or illustration, have eaten it up because they love to be shocked (oh, and painting and drawing are back in style as well, which doesn't hurt now does it?) In other words, his work did not organically come into being but was a strategy from the get-go. And I'm old-fashioned enough to say "Phooey" on all that because this kind of art is not sincere or honest, it is blatantly insincere. It's funny, but it takes a gallery artist like John Currin to become more commercial and ingratiating to the market than a commercial artist like Norman Rockwell.

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