I feel sorry for art students nowadays. The old days of drawing from life, both animate and inanimate, are gone, along with learning the craft of being an artist: how to mix colors, use different mediums, gesso a canvas, etc. useless skills in today’s art world. A friend who attended the Royal Academy of Art in London a half century ago said he spent his first week there just learning how to clean a brush. Why learn technique when a computer can do it for you - better than you ever could – or turn a photo into a painting using Photoshop? “What kind of a painting?” you ask. “Any kind. You name it.” The computer can transform your image into Impressionism, Expressionism, Photo Realism. Who needs to know how to actually do anything?
What today’s artist does need to know is how to find a gimmick and run with it, turn it into something new and newsworthy. There are no art values anymore, no underlying design quality, no expressive drawing, no message – it’s all a search for the gimmick. Look at Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark. Look how much press Marina Abramovic got with her “shtick” at MOMA. All she did was take her clothes off and sit without moving for a week in front of an audience. In a prior event, she and a male friend stood naked in a doorway, forcing viewers to walk between them. These are clever ideas and should be appreciated as performances, but how do you teach students Cleverness? I feel sorry for the art schools. Do you give classes in Gimmick I and Gimmick II? I recently read a great essay by Sarah Thornton in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. It describes a MFA Senior Class “crit” at CalArts, considered one of the best (and priciest) art schools in the country. Without editorializing, Thornton demonstrates the difficulty of teaching someone to be an artist in a commercialized art world with few rules and no shame.
In the past, even a journeyman artist studied the liberal arts; today’s art schools give only a smattering of culture, mainly a couple of semesters of art history. This puts young artists at a disadvantage in their creative life; all the really great artists were remarkably literate. Without a broad cultural background to enrich his or her work, an artist can easily get hemmed in by a “shtick.”
I’m on the e-mail list (at least once a week) of a master huckster, a mediocre artist but a gifted self promoter. He’s part of a group of graffiti-style “Street Artists” who go around cities (not just New York) pasting their work up in public spaces. He came up with a gimmick all his own, a signature face that looks like it was drawn by a third grader. He will tell you that because he uses bio-degradeable wheat paste to attach his work, he is not (permanently) defacing public or private property. He seems to be quite well known as he is always notifying his readers of talks he will be giving at conferences on Street Art all over the world, plastering his perky smiley wherever he goes. Unfortunately, I think Street Art is passé and he may have to come up with a new shtick.
Everywhere I look in the art world, there are ideas, clever gimmicks passing for art. They take little if any skill to execute since the piece itself is usually produced by some commercial process. Jeff Koons, an incredibly successful sculptor, is a perfect case in point. I’m not saying an artist needs to have a Renaissance level of expertise, but at least he should be able to make the model he gives to the shop – or maybe that’s asking for too much.
It’s often hard to differentiate a gimmick from a true work of art, especially when it comes packaged in a load of pretentious Artspeak. If an artist’s goal is to come up with something innovative and expressive, I have no problem with that. What I object to is a mindset that says: “How much attention can I attract with this?” We live in a world where the ‘idea-concept’ supersedes the ‘craft-object’. But, I am probably being unfair to artists, asking them to have ideals when the rest of the world doesn’t know what the word means.
P.S. The nymphs dancing around my lampshade are Maenads, followers of Dionysus. Or maybe they’re Bacchanntes, worshippers of the god Bacchus). They often appear on ancient Black and Red Figure Greek vases, frenzied dancers drunkenly performing in honor of their god. Happy New Year!