Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Chelsea vs the Met

Somewhere in the world is a secret document outlining the Sad Facts of Life… things like death, taxes, and the absence of stuff to do on a Sunday. And somewhere on that list is this sad fact, that it is better to confidently embrace absurd ideas, than to embrace no ideas at all. This sad fact repudiates the conventional wisdom that it is better to be alone than in bad company. Real men embrace their public, draped in whatever rhetoric suits their proximate purposes, bad company be damned. This is a corollary of another sad fact, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, which itself repudiates that no news is good news.

The embrace of ideology is both a private judgement and a public display. What that private judgement is, who can say? We are free to lie our asses off. At any rate, the public display of ideology is not an issue of private belief made public, but of forging an entirely different public identity to acquire money or esteem. Filling one’s half-empty soul thus is admired by all hardheaded people of substance, and a clear repudiation of to thine own self be true. All of this is simply an explanation of another sad fact, that the key to success is fake sincerity, which itself repudiates that the truth shall set you free. So much for aphorisms. Now down to the hard business of art.

Nowhere is the apparition of ideology more present than in a recent trip to Manhattan, whose art gamut was bookended by two cultural extremes. On one end is the contemporary art world exemplified by the galleries clustered in Chelsea. On the other end is the historical artworld as exemplified by the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in between these two? Public parks. But more on that later.

I drift aimlessly down the streets of Chelsea. Perhaps it was 21st, I don’t remember. One can never remember the exact locations of things in Manhattan. Grid plans require X and Y coordinates, not embodied recollections of particular sights and sounds. I poke my head into a gallery, empty except for the far wall that has been self consciously covered in strips of wood from floor to ceiling, and probably 40 feet wide. Right away I know what’s going on. Somewhere in the gallery there is a wall text explaining what the wood means. Somewhere in the gallery too, an employee is ready to put me on the spot for some artworld banter, or perhaps ignore me in the typical fashion. It’s not that I can’t navigate such moments, but it does require energy… and I'm suddenly feeling listless. So I leave.

After more aimless drifting I end up on a block that (for all I know) could be the same block I was just on. I peek through the locked door of a different gallery, which is between shows and has lengths of white paper partially obscuring the view. A young black woman sits on the floor, applying finishing touches to a painting of densely arranged shapes, done in aggressive primary colors, into which provocative words are fitted like puzzle pieces. Right away I condense the meaning of it all… Stuart Davis meets postcolonial, afro-centrist female rage… by way of an MFA program.

There is a game I play called “Gun To The Head”, the purpose of which is to force myself to make judgements that I am not otherwise compelled to make. I ask myself what I would choose if someone had a gun to my head forcing me to make a decision. Presumably the fear of death overrides indifference. Being rarely indifferent myself, I end up using this more on others. I am amazed at how hard it is to get people to choose. Fence sitters drone on, unwilling to decide… hemming and hawing through all reasonable distinctions, for the sake of avoiding a public declaration of their ideas and values. They play their humanity close to the vest, waiting to counterpunch those who blink first… waiting for the decisive moment when social victories are immanent. They circle such moments on lazy wings spread wide, buffeted aloft by those who dare to represent their values, to fight a good fight, and to lie exhausted but contented that at least they might die with honor. This is the moment of the opportunist. At close range they fire their cliches into the earholes of exhausted men and announce victory. The spectators burst into applause. Everybody loves a winner.

As the galleries come and go I am struck by a disturbing thought… that simply by looking at this stuff I am finding distinctions that don’t otherwise matter. The mind is a distinction-finding machine. There is no collection of things so dull that were we trapped in a room with them we wouldn’t notice subtle differences, on the basis of which we would announce preferences. And the more banal the better, as the mind ferrets out distinctions to enliven an otherwise dull collection of crap. The only alternative is to let the mind go blank, and detach from the present reality. But such detachment is death for thoughtful men. So to avoid the walking death of not caring, I play “Gun To The Head”, and conclude that I prefer the afro-centrist-feminist MFA puzzle piece art to the Wall Of Wood from earlier. I suppose the bold colors are (as Robert Hughes once noted about television) more stupidly compelling.

Straightforward people unfamiliar with cultural difficulties see no dilemma in simply walking away from such moments. They walk away and stay away, if they ever were there at all. Oddly enough, they are in this way equally at fault with those cultural insiders who have manufactured such moments. The former care not at all, the latter care about nothing else. Both are unnatural relationships… the former is the brutality of life with no art, the latter the frivolity of art with no life. To wish these things united leaves one unfit for either. Third alternatives are always the odd man out in a society of binary specialization. So as I stand there with my hand on the door of each next gallery, I shudder upon leaving the world of sensible people, and entering the domain of apparent nonsense. But what choice do I have? Should I spend my life draped in sensible but utterly convention and dull concerns… or step through that door into moments of potential, but where the history of human thought dissipates into a hazy cloud of rhetoric.

On a day different from this one I find myself a block away from these troubles, looking down on them from the High Line … the public park built on the remains of the old elevated railroad spur that bisects Chelsea along it's one mile run along 10th avenue, from 14th street to 30th street. From thirty feet up, Chelsea is more the model of urban charm than the nightmare corridors of my cultural anxieties. Such is the calming effect of elevation, and of all the physical orientations that frame our response to things. Up here I feel safe. Chelsea below, the city stretched out to the north and east like distant mountain ranges. To the west the flat, dull sheen of the Hudson creeps to a mysterious ocean, bringing to resolution this vast incompatible collection of stuff.

But also here on the High Line, right under one's feet… are the very boards and concrete slabs so skillfully woven into a ramble of the most serene and effortless calm. Hard forms bend and sway and merge with natural grasses. Benches emerge from extrusions of concrete. Fences lay invisible behind shrubs not noticed except for the rush of the breeze that bends them. People move in measured, mannequin calm… their every urban tendency toward manic disorder brought to heel by the steady pulse of this masterpiece of minimalist sculpture. I want to cry here, I want to lie here, I want to die here on a warm spring dusk next to my lover for all time. Built to accommodate such dreams of human possibilities, it succeeds where art fails.

More aimless drifting ensues. I peer into gallery windows from the sidewalk, like a pauper pressing their starving face against the picture windows of fine restaurants. Inside, the bon vivants and epicures dribble fine offerings over rarified tongues, turning the perception of delight into the art of talking about it. My empty stomach growls in confusion over the slow service and tiny portions. My peasant mind would rather a baguette and butter have, huddled with meat and mead, than suffer exalted culinary rituals whereby eating becomes dining, drinking becomes imbibing, and the ritual of the plate is removed from the urgent experience of life.

But that is why I am in the street, peering through a pane of glass that not only separates me from sustenance, but from that entirety of the meanings whereby it is delivered to these inhospitable tables. Somewhere deep in the kitchen’s belly, real food sits in ready piles, raw material awaiting transcendence. Men with knives like priests slice bread and meat into higher meanings. Thus the good stuffs of this earth are converted into social currency, as the truly hungry steal stale loaves from dumpsters. Gnawing on trash and chewing their cud… at least they are truly eating.

Again I find myself standing on the sidewalk, peering through the window into yet another gallery. This time I see a room full of paintings, each about 40 inches high by 30 inches wide. The canvases are all white, with a pink slash of paint across the middle. I can’t help but imagine the artist in their studio, standing before the blank canvas, striking the expressive blow of pink, and loudly announcing… “Perfecto!” 

As I consider them further, I wonder why the artist didn’t paint two slashes of pink, instead of just one. This might have had twice as much complexity and interest. Or maybe three slashes. As more slashes are added, the complexity and interest level could go up exponentially. If eight slashes were used, the artist would need to have considered 64 relations (two to the eighth power). Is it too much to ask a New York artist to work through 64 moments of formal construction?

Suddenly I remember my training, and consider that perhaps such works are actually shrewder than my snarky comments. Perhaps I am looking at the intersection of abstract expressionism and minimalism. Perhaps the pink of the slash references vaginas, breast cancer, or feminine taffy. Perhaps the titanium white of the canvas is a reference to the light we are drawn to in near death experiences. Perhaps… perhaps…. but just then I hear a phone ringing in my head, and then someone leaving a message that I am wanted back on planet earth.

I should mention that on top of these pink slashes were affixed clusters of actual straw. The effect was utterly ridiculous, as viewed from the window. This unfair, of course. One should not look at the art from outside the white cube of the gallery. One needs to enter the art space before one can understand that one is looking at art. To view it from the sidewalk is to tear a hole in the time-space continuum of the artworld, and let the glaring light of the sun beat down unmercifully on the disjuncture between art and life.

The late afternoon sun droops over the Hudson, casting long shadows down yet another forgotten block of white warehouses with tiny signs filled with unfathomable works produced in short order and carrying heft prices for sale to those who know they are relevant. The consideration of this reality depresses me. A lot. One can be dismissive about such works, but one cannot dismiss the what these galleries represent. They are the high end of the art market, purporting to display the relevant art of our times.

Who wouldn’t want to be included in that category? I certainly would. But I suspect my mind is not right. It is too full of questions that my paintings only partially address. A little here, a little there. Rolling waves of time and energy and confusion flow into the construction of the work. I step back and wonder what I’m doing, and why I am doing it. Confidence waxes and wanes, carrying me through predictable peaks and valleys of self belief.

Such earnest emotions are revealed as absurd here in Chelsea, as I catch a glimpse of another contemporary masterpiece There it is, bedecked in pink slashes and straw, affixed to post-cultural pastiches of wood covered walls under halogen lights, attended to by art history majors in thongs. Hash pipes and hallucinogens condense the necessary conditions of appreciation, as artists statements melt off the wall and into our ears. Psychedelic moments dissolve any meanings that might find their way back to us. We are free here to float on a cloud, out of ourselves, into the great collective high of high culture.

What’s a philosopher to do then? Sober thoughts ruin the party, I am sure of that… not that I even got an invite. Nobody needs me to tell them the obvious… that these artists aren’t asking or answering the questions that honest contemplations demand. Artist statements promise comprehension, but I don’t want their comprehension, such as it is, the rehashed rhetoric of rehashed people and their rehashed art where everyone knows their names but everything feels the same. I don’t want their comprehensions because there are no comprehensions. Gentlemen may cry art, but where is it?

I imagine a world of powerful, images… mute with the visceral swagger of sex and death. Not just staring into the abyss, but of walking into the abyss, of falling through it’s resistance and permissions, of comprehending all that is in darkness, and then embodying that strange experience in form. These timid, abstract works leave me disengaged mentally and emotionally. Their institutional authority permeates the air as smokey rhetorics inflected over works begging for forgiveness. Paintings puff out their chests… they swell with pride of place within the white box, but cannot return the gaze of huddled humans on the other side of the window. They don’t have the guts. Like privileged hermaphrodites dressed in sequined he-man outfits, preening in open windows, peered at by pipe fitters and school children. The averted gaze invites the voyeur's eye while ignoring the soul that lies behind it.

I want to look in those windows and be humbled by greatness. Instead, I look in the windows and feel stupid that I apparently waste time trying to know things, rather than simply finding the pulse of contemporary art practice, and turning out artifacts that approximate prevailing attitudes… which I SWEAR TO CHRIST is what this shopping mall of Chelsea is about. It has to be an unconscionable act of trend following by opportunists raised on the post modern art practices, which they understand only in terms of the styles an attitudes they mimic in the pursuit of a lifestyle in the New York art world. With this regard my currents turn awry, and I disappear underground.

The A train speeds me away from Chelsea. Relief floods my brain as tired eyes roll under heavy lids. My aching back relaxes into the hard plastic seat, and the train car rocks me gently all the way up Eight Avenue to 81st street. I enter Central Park, where serpentine paths lose me amid the promenade of a Friday evening. Desperate for the Met, I forgo the pleasures of this place, navigating instead the shortest path to the museum. Emerging from the verdant splendor onto Fifth Avenue, the marble stairs of the Met sweep down to greet me. Once inside I should find salvation in the vaulted splendor of its treasure rooms… should shake the weary muzzle and let slip the dark mood cast over my soul by Chelsea’s chilling manifestation of contemporary art.

But it doesn’t happen. My neural patterns, so distended and stressed by Chelsea, will not return to normal configurations. I go to the Greek and Roman room, but the calm presence of Venus only pisses me off. European paintings cut against the grain of something beneath my skin. Glimpsed images grate my nerves. All the smooth fittings these objects enjoy in minds so conditioned by cultural learnings are now absent in mine. I no longer care. I am in the grip of a cultural panic attack… an internal conflict dimly viewed, but strongly felt. I must get out of this building. I retrace my steps out the door, down the stairs, and back into the park. As my mind begins to relax, a question emerges… How do we resolve the existence of the Metropolitan with the existence of Chelsea?

Both sides deny any conflict by arguing that the old art of the Met and the new art of Chelsea simply occupy two distinct cultural spaces. This argument is doubly strange. First, it denies conflict by requiring us to accept the Met and Chelsea as distinct art worlds. But this only works if we do not want to unify the past with the present. Secondly, it defines the problem in terms the age of the art. This straw-man mollifies the relativists in the room, who act as moral watchdogs against those who would find the actual distinctions at the root of conflict. This argument reveals that social tensions are being evaded by both sides, for the protection social prerogatives and the sharing the power that neither can fully assume.

But I am not in the business of ignoring all reasonable distinctions. Age is not the issue here. The conflict resides in the fundamentally different views of what art is, as represented and heavily promoted by these two art worlds.

The Met is a bastion of world historical art whose cultural authority is unquestioned. The images from its galleries wallpaper the visual consciousness of society, causing us to presume that the skills required of representational art making define what art is. This classical legacy is kept alive by institutional devotionals known as museum trips and art history classes. But seeing as how Modernism has reductively erased this classical legacy, I find it disturbing that my fellow citizens flock to the Met to experience culture. All the masterworks in the Met were created for reasons that no longer exist, so what is the cultural relevance of viewing them?

The art student is also taught to revere the old masters, though the degree of reverence varies. Those studying traditional methods might sit in the Met's galleries drawing sculptures. Crowds gather over their shoulders to marvel at their skill, and believe that the next generation of great artists are sitting before them. But the majority of art students know how marginal these cultural productions are. They revere the old masters in name only. It is poor form to bad mouth Rembrandt, but perfectly okay to seek nothing tangible from his legacy. They do not draw in museums. No crowds gather over their shoulders. If the crowds visited their studios, the would be shocked over the disconnect between the art made there, and the art in the Met. The would conclude the artists are not very good. But in this they are completely mistaken.

So the general public flies substantial blind as to the cultural identity of art. The Met fills their head with Rembrandt and Rodin, whose relevance is of the historical sort… present in contemporary art only to the degree that it might trickle down into the artists studio. But very little does. Those in the art world know this. The classical values promoted by the Met are unnecessary for achieving success in the contemporary art world. We end up with a bifurcated view of things. The Met promotes the classical values of an art that does not live and breath in our world other than through participating in museum culture. Chelsea promotes the anti-classical values that live and breath to the extent that one participates in gallery culture. The general public is locked in the museum worshipping Rembrandt, while the contemporary art world's players circulates through Chelsea galleries… making, buying, and selling things incomprehensible to the general public. What a fuckin' mess. High art hiding its face in Chelsea while the mass audience buries its head at the Met.

Silly me… I had pulled my sketchbook out at the Met, and turned my eyes toward a typically inscrutable piece of Greek sculpture, its elegant simplicity belying a complexity of nuanced forms. As my mind began the difficult labor of breaking down the form, I was overwhelmed by the irrelevancy of the effort. All I could see were white canvases with pink slashes. All I could see were walls of wood. All I could see were primary colors and identity politics. All I could see were white cubes and blank faces and social sanction and a whole way of life that defined participation far beyond whatever understanding I can squeeze out of a two thousand year old piece of marble. I just felt sick about it all… about Chelsea… about the Met… and about myself.

Perhaps this experience did me a favor, for as Thomas Paine said, "pain is the first symptom of recovery, in profound stupefaction." The first stage of that recovery are these recollections of what it all meant. The pain also leads me to social remedies which I'm sure will never happen. First, art schools should stop teaching art history as though it matters, and the Met should inform their audience that their galleries are a mausoleum of culturally irrelevant curiosities. Secondly, art schools should stop teaching any historical methods of drawing, painting, or sculpture… for these things have nothing to do with contemporary success. Thirdly, contemporary abstract artists who list Rembrandt as an influence should have their paintings publicly hung next to his, and without a wall text. Fourthly, museum goers who insist that the Met is culturally relevant, should be put on a bus and shipped en masse to Chelsea, so they can see the art that is actually being produced today. Everyone should be made to squirm. Everyone should be made to see the other side of the duality they help construct. Everyone should feel this pain that I feel, and know its source. Locked together like an intervention, nobody should get out of that burning building that I would gladly set on fire.

And then I slipped back into the park, but slowly now. I thought about something other than art. One foot in front of the other is an honest labor that settles the mind and reminds us that this good earth is renewed in all directions. The paths lead to where you go, past lawns and lakes and boulders and trees. Thank god there's more to life than what people say they see.