Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fare Mondi

Bruce Nauman's 2009 American Pavilion at the Venice Biennalle

Pico della Mirandola had sought knowledge, and passed from system to system, and hazarded much; but less for the sake of positive knowledge than because he believed there was a spirit of order and beauty in knowledge, which would come down and unite what men's ignorance had divided, and renew what time had made dim [...] and he has a true place in that group of great Italians who fill the end of the fifteenth century with their names, he is a true humanist (ital.). For the essence of humanism is that belief of which he seems never to have doubted, that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality - and no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time or zeal.

Walter Pater, 1871; from his essay on Pico della Mirandola, in the collection The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

Marcia Vetroq begins her article in Art in America on the current Venice Biennale entitled Worlds Enough, and Time: Daniel Birnbaum's Biennale:
"When the second Triennale di Torino, organized by Daniel Birnbaum and called "Fifty Moons of Saturn." opened last November, it triggered intense speculation that the Stockholm-born, Frankfurt-based curator would be offering a sneak preview of his intentions for the 2009 Venice Biennale, then seven months away. [...]
"More intriguing is the volte-face in Birnbaum's construction of the nature of artistic practice. The Turin show centered on the melancholic humor historically associated with creative genius. Birnbaum's title for the 53rd Biennale, 'Fare Mondi' or 'Making Worlds,' likewise stays aloft in the metaphoric heavens, but this show abjures the temperamental determination of the dark side for an endorsement of art as an arena of free and enlightened invention."

I can't at the moment locate my copy of Margot and Rudolf Wittkower's Born Under Saturn, their study of the Renaissance's consideration of the planet Saturn as the celestial influence on artists. All I remember fundamentally from beginning (not finishing) the book matches up with what I found just recently here on the internet: in the founding of the Roman Empire and establishment of the meaning of Latin deities the god Mercury and his planet was not beloved by Romans in the same way that the winged messenger Hermes was to the Greeks; in the Wittkowers' book the turning point of the Renaissance conception Mercury was considered the god of artisans only. It was the influence of Saturn artists needed to become someone who had genius. (It should be noted here that before Kant genius was considered a gift one was given to differing degrees, not a complete embodiment as in the phrase one who "is a genius.")

This is my little internet trouvaille: " Mercury loves to race around and he invented the wheel. Mercury, and the element mercury named for him, is known as the quicksilver. The word mercurial is commonly used to refer to something or someone erratic, volatile or unstable, derived from Mercury's swift flights from place to place. The term comes from astrology and describes the expected behavior of someone under the influence of the planet Mercury."

I have a Turkish artist friend Sermin Kardestuncer who had two solo exhibitions at Pierogi. Befroe I met her there I saw a simple piece, a stitched wall with punctures in the wall sewn through with black thread, in Denyse Thomasos' group exhibit Crossing Lines at Art in General in 1999 - it was quite simple and remarkable. Often I find it amazing to see a piece that seems like it was waiting to be made like scientific discoveries are waiting to be uncovered, and think highly of the artists that make them.

Not long after her second show I walked into the gallery and Joe Amrhein referred me to a student who wanted to write about her work for an academic paper, and I said the first thing to think about was the idea of process art from the sixties and seventies. Sermin - and her work - have been seen as very serious by many but I enjoyed telling the story of the first time I went to her apartment and on taking me into the room that is her studio and on opening the door I saw was that she had stitched the cheap wooden hollow door on both sides to her studio with the same black thread I had seen on the wall at Art in General - I really burst out laughing at the sight of it and she was very pleased, saying most people don't see the humor in her work. (It could be a lot of our levity these days lacks gravity.) I was describing this to the student but said to her thinking of so much I had seen since moving to New York in 1996, "I think we have reached an age of bottomless ingenuity." I did not mean this in terms of Sermin's work but of younger artists and art students. She really liked that phrase but I am still trying to get over the dark side of that implication, even as I know I had a big grin when I said it. There is a real dark side to that moment of realization - this "bottomless ingenuity," and it seems to be more and more present.

Studies of the Renaissance in Pater's time following on Wincklemann in the eighteenth century were focussed on the reintroduction of Greek paganism into the Catholicism of the time as an end finally to the medieval Dark Ages. 20th century scholarship has increasingly laid emphasis on studying the Islamic world and its entry into Europe, especially in the inventiveness of the Renaissance scientifically and technologically. Islamic scholarhip is also where the Greek manuscripts that Pico della Mirandola and so many others were translating from had been kept for centuries following the burning of the Library of Alexandria. "Mirandola translated Plato's Timaeus from the original Greek into Latin and the Book of Genesis and Moses from Hebrew as an endeavor to reconcile the accounts of the origin of the world with the account given in both." - Pater again.

Just two Islamic philosophers are needed here, but there were many:

Ibn Sina (981-1037), known in the west by the Latin name, Avicenna, is often called by Westerners the "Arab Leonardo" for the amazing breadth of his knowledge in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to his Canon of Medicine, he is certainly one of the most remarkable thinkers of the Middle Ages and the most important and original of all Muslim philosophers. He held that religion was a kind of philosophy for the masses; the goal of all revealed truth (including his own Islam) was to lead us to our highest state—one of philosophic contemplation. He held the particularly original idea that intellectual discovery implies an intuitive act of knowledge. The idea of the intuitive intellect working outside of the methodical process of collecting facts and deduction has again become quite modern.

Ibn-Rushid (Averro√ęs) 1128 -1198 is also of great interest to us. He wrote many commentaries on Aristotle and is known in Arab philosophy simply as "The Commentator." His works in religious philosophy were widely read in Europe, especially by Thomas Aquinas, the point, of course, being not that one was right and the other wrong, but that one of the greatest of European medieval philosophers honed his own sharp intellect by dealing with his Muslim predecessor. Averro√ęs' work in law, medicine, and astronomy were also highly regarded.

This was an excellent opening for Plato and Aristotle and their interplay for the Renaissance thought still under the aegis of the Catholic Church - Aristotle having been "the Philosopher" for Catholic scholars especially Saint Augustine until the Italians started forming academies of Neoplatonic inquiry, based on writings of Plotinus and Neo-Pythagorians in Rome in the 3rd Century AD.

" The teaching of Plotinus, coinciding with a period of material decline and religious anxiety during the decline of the Roman Empire [...} had only one serious rival - Christianity."
- John Gregory, from the introduction to The Neoplatonists translated on introduced by John Gregory, 1991 Kyle Cathie paperbacks Great Britain

This could all prepare us quite well for the Bruce Nauman American Pavilion with its Roman Catholicized Aristotelian Virtues and Vices (1983-88) in alternating blue and red neon running along the top of the building. Apparently by following along the exterior reading the interplay of the Virtues and Vices one finally reaches finally Blue Fortitude alternating with Anger as entry way to the interior as a Nauman retrospective of sorts crowned with the much reproduced 1967 Neoplatonic spiral of neon words The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths.

A brief explanation of the Virtues and Vices from Aristotle to the conception of the Medieval Soul.

Aristotle had written a kind of middle path of a mean virtue between an excess and deficiency in character in his Nichomachean Ethics Table of Virtues and Vices, read carefully a means of reflecting on daily actions and developing maturity and character; these Virtues had been taken up by the Roman Empire as maiden figureheads carrying swords for the collective good of the Empire; who were in turn enlisted by Prudentius in the 5th Century to fight the Psychomachia for God and Jesus, quaintly translated in the Harvard Loeb series by H. J. Thomson as "The Fight for Mansoul."

In this epic poem the maiden Faith leads a battle by first taking on the frightful and beastly monster named The Worship-of-Old-Gods, with an entire war of Virtues countering both male and female vices in swordfight culminating in the She-monster Avarice accompanied by fiends Care, Hunger, Fear, Anguish, Perjuries, Pallor, Corruption, Treachery, Falsehood, Sleepnessness, Meanness and diverse others and flanked by her brood Crimes, the brood of her black milk, who "like ravening wolves go prowling and leaping over the field."

The maidens are baffled by Avarice, or Greed's changing double form, now like a Virtuous whiteclad mother to them and then terrifying glimpses of the awful hideous monster - until Good Works dashes into the fray to the aid of all the others. The epic battleground poem culminates in Faith and Concord bringing the Mansoul to Jesus and God in a lightfilled conclusion. To say that this was thematically repeated in Medieval literature and art is an understatement. In the Tenth Century Pope Gregory officially named the Seven Deadliest Sins found in Dante, Chaucer, Spenser and many other an allegory, and often a favorite subject for artists, including a series of frescos by Giotto. ( James Ensor also made a series of prints - unfortunately only two of the etchings were on display at the recent MoMA exhibition. At the Ensor exhibition in the Petit Palais in Paris in the Eighties all seven were mounted together.)

Also in this September's issue of Art in America Lynn Macritchie's writes in an accompanying article on the Biennale Pavilions, "grandiose gestures-the French Pavilion is an obvious example, as is the sanguinary Mexican presentation, trying desperately to shock-fall flat." Macritchie lauds Nauman's Pavilion - which recieved the Golden Lion award -as having the apparent message "that we humans are ugly, destructive, incoherent and unheeding."

Does this mean that the Vices have won, and that only artists are not born under Saturn these days, and are the only ones who can illuminate the darkness for us?

As we are all walking around in this new millennium at the center of our own ever complicating cosmologies that have increasing difficulty sorting out into something more akin to the profound and the complex, how do we intersect with others in these days ahead of us?

In short, is Mercury now the kaleidoscoping patron deity of the span of all of our attentions?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

...and on the Seventh Day

Chapter 7: The Biennale.

Sarah Thornton writes: "I left the British Pavilion with its giveaway goods - a tote bag, a catalogue, some temporary tattoos, and a white hat embroidered with pink with the words ALWAYS WANTING YOU...LOVE TRACE X - and headed over to the American Pavilion, which looks like a little state capitol building. Nancy Spector, the pavilion's curator, was standing in the lobby, basking in the warm glow of a luminous sculpture called "Untitled" (America) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The Cuban-born Gonzalez-Torres died of complications due to AIDS in 1996. Some people were lamenting the fact that the pavilion show had taken so long to come; others complained that the pavilion should celebrate the work of a living artist. One irate curator even exclaimed, "maybe next time the U.S. will decide to show Whistler!" But the consensus seemed to be wrong; the pavilion was beautiful but funereal.
"Certainly the reception was not as overwhelmingly upbeat as that accorded to Ed ruscha's 2005 pavilion, in which five black and white paintings were hung with five new color canvases depicting the same Los Angeles locations. On show after the invasion of Iraq entitled "The Course of Empire," the exhibition had a freshness and a sense of history that satisfied many people's expectations."

Dave Hickey wrote a piece for a recent issue of Art in America about being asked to be the next American curator for the Venice Biennale, saying that the 2007 one was too sad and that his would be happy. thank you Dave, but my parents took me to the New York World's Fair in 1964 when I was all of six and I was whirled through the pre-Disney purchase debut "It's a Small World after All" there, but was more permanently impressed by Louise Nevelson's wall of black painted wood cabinetry. Picasso's Guernica and Rousseau's The Dream which I continued the dream it put me into by dreaming I was inside of his painting the very same night.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Seven Days in the Art World: The opposite approach to the Crit in last posting is Zen Master of CalArts Michael Asher's.

Canadian Sarah Thornton's BA in Art History and PhD in Cultural Sociology mesh quite well with her journalistic presence at the Art Newspaper and other publications for this book, with seven chapters as follows:

1) The Auction
2) The Crit
3) The Fair
4) The Prize
5) The Magazine
6) The Studio Visit
7) The Biennale

James Elkins' second point on Critiques at art schools (see prior posting) is Critiques Are Too Short.

Enter Michael Asher at precisely Ten AM in Sarah Thornton's observance of his "legendary" and "marathon" Critiques at CalArts, with graduate students who vied for place to get into the CalArts tradition of utmost discipline to see if they have what it takes to learn the Zen patience and humility needed to thrive in today's Art World as it has developed over the past decades. There is an entirely illuminating interview with the "Sasquatch Santa" John Baldessari describing his mission in founding Post- Studio crit class at CalArts in 1970, that he adheres to to this day.

Thornton sums up the MFA in one succinct paragraph of this chapter as "the first legitimator in an artist's career followed by awards and residencies, representation by a primary dealer, reviews and features in art magazines, inclusion in prestigious private collections, museum validation in terms of solo or group shows, international exposure at well-attended biennials, and the appreciation signaled by strong resale interest at auction. More specifically, MFA degrees from name art schools have become passports of sorts. Look over the resumes of the artists under fifty in any major international museum exhibition and you will find that most of them boast an MFA from one of a couple of dozen highly selective schools."

I must admit I had been very naive about any of this until going to Skowhegan in 1993, where Baldessari was greeted as the West Coast Guru on arrival and hung around with the already quite present San Francisco mystic David Ireland in a great cabal of minds - revered by most everyone there, even amongst the bell hooks enthusiasts - who were still decidedly more practically interested in the words of that year's designated Paul Mellon speaker.

bell hooks has been a practicing Buddhist and in one essay voiced trying to write academic works in plainspoken terms - and sometimes employing urban language otherwise known as "street smarts." She added that this was deliberate but not easy - that it was the Buddhist way to take a long and difficult path towards the simple. My teacher at Tyler Stan Whitney, after I said I had only read her film criticism in a textbook store for Virginia Commonwealth University I worked for prior to going to Skowhegan, recommended I read her book titled Yearning. If memory serves me (of course it doesn't consistently) in Yearning bell hooks writes about the white art teacher who reached out to her as a child in the Apartheid South at length, after having heard her speak briefly of this at Skowhegan as an opening to her first lecture.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back to School Comix for Art Instructors and their Students

A few years ago I had read James Elkins polemical book Why Art Can't Be Taught: the premise that it can't be taught because there isn't any way to measure achievement in art empirically seemed like it must be either his elaborate devil's advocate stance or just plain silly didn't mean that every page of the book wasn't worth reading: it is after all subtitled a Handbook for Art Students.

The absolute juiciest part was his longest chapter - a point by point dissection of critiques with actual dialogues presumably recorded at Chicago Art Institute where he is professor in Art History, Theory and Criticism to illustrate nearly every one of his points. the most memorable two being A Critique is Like A Seduction, Full of Emotional Outbursts and Critiques are either Judicative or Descriptive, with the courtroom trial aspect documented quite viscerally.

He develops beyond all this a very strong argument for the critique of The Critique, an ordeal both Instructors and students go through once hired by or entering into art school, and I would add parenthetically that it has been clear to me when in them that the instructors use techniques their most influential instructors did with them either with the conscientiousness that new parents bring to what they reflect of their parents for good and ill - or as unconsciously - and usually with the same kind of negative reactionary results. All of us are human and subject to both, but it must be under a certain amount of control and discretion to be of benefit to students at all. A minefield sometimes for everyone seriously engaged but especially the increasingly poor students that attend - I mean poor as in facing unbelievable debt loads and an increasingly shrinking means of earning a living above all in the marketplace of collectible unique objects.

So this is from Jeffrey Brown's latest book Funny Misshapen Boy I bought on recommendation for this series from Gabriel at Desert Island Books in Williamsburg - Gabriel also went to Chicago Art Institute, as did Jeffrey Brown. I had already tried in the mid nineties as someone in graduate school in my mid thirties to explain to some of my instructors how different it was from when I went to a state University Art Department for $12.00 to $17.00 an hour in the latter half of the seventies.

No one in this comic sequence at left culled to demonstrate exactly this dilemma, from the pages and pages of all too true words from the crushing critique style many instructors still practice without thinking from times when they could a) afford tuition, b) not work full time or often even part time due to low tuition, and c) leave home and be free enough in time and their own apartment or dorm room space to to work the hours and hours needed in their classroom or especially graduate school studio practice to even get anything at all from their instructors either during class or in critiques.

Hard times, and getting harder, for students - coasting on your own hard won but perhaps too hardhearted or lazy minded or both conditioned response pedagogical style is not what your salaries are coming in to your personal coffers for. It would be appreciated with the spectacular burden of debt for an undergraduate degree and then MFA from some prestigious school the BFA students are encouraged by their faculty to apply to consider their style of conversation, as art is meant to be an open dialogue not a public shaming device.