Monday, March 4, 2013

The Work of Art in the Age of Unfettered Capitalism

A portrait of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly, part of his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" series.
In a recent article by Thomas Hedges for, Maine-based painter and activist, Robert Shetterly (the artist behind the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series), criticizes modern art as empty, trivial and lacking substance (“Art Has Lost its Meaning,” 01/10/13). He claims modern art has been “tainted by unfettered capitalism, which values consumer interests over truth.”

“Art is one of the few places where critical voices can live…” Shetterly tells Hedges. “Art is one of the last places where people can have the freedom to live outside the system…instead of trying to be one with it, which robs you of your voice finally.”

Shetterly’s portraits of truth-telling American activists from Ralph Nader, to Cindy Sheehan, to Bradley Manning and Henry David Thoreau are a timely and refreshing antidote to the pretentious abstraction and “quirky” postmodernism that characterizes so much of contemporary art. I made a similar argument last year in this post, which I had hoped would spark some sort of discussion on the nature of art. As is clear from the Comments section, that discussion did not occur…

I figured it was time to revisit the topic of art. I am still not convinced Michael Shaughnessy’s tumbleweed, or this urinal by Marcel Duchamp (a.k.a. “Fountain”) can be considered “art.” I also do not accept the standard claim that art is merely “whatever one says it is.” By that general standard, one could call Fifty Shades of Grey “literature.” Indeed, I am puzzled why artists cling to this thoroughly demeaning definition of art, given what it seems to suggest about the talent, skill or artistic ability necessary to be an artist.

Great art, in my humble, non-expert opinion, should strive to connect viewers to some political, social or cultural concept, message or emotion. It should connect us to something greater than ourselves. “The job of the artist,” Arthur Miller wrote, “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

I decided to consult some local artists at the March 1, First Friday Art Walk to see how they define “art.”

My first stop was Space Gallery, which featured a number of exhibits. Carly Glovinski’s “X-Ray (SPACE)” was easily the most incoherent of the works—and, therefore, the most representative of so much modern art. One piece, appropriately bearing the title, “Untitled,” is a solitary dish towel hanging on a white wall. Another picture (also “Untitled”) depicts a bunch of generic “Thank You” plastic takeout bags cluttered on the floor. And a piece called “Dig/Site” features a bedroom completely covered with DuPont Tyvek Homewrap. I would be curious to know how much DuPont paid her for that nice bit of advertising.
Oh, good. I was looking for a bag. Seriously, is this art or litter?
File Glovinki’s work under the “Postmodern” category. It is quirky and original, no doubt. But is it art? The practice of passing off everyday household items as “art” may have been genuinely innovative at one point in time. But the novelty has long since worn out its welcome.

Next was a work by Jeffrey Kurosaki and Tara Pelletier titled, “Moon Moves (So Slowly).” This was another postmodernist “themed” exhibit of sculptures—the theme being an eclipse. One design features three detached fingers playing a piano. Another is a one-piece drum set. In the written summary the artists state the exhibit “invites the audience to experience these sculpture-landscapes as accumulative, comprised of catalytic moments that describe the ever-changing intersections and schisms between natural systems and human methodologies.”

Come again…?
This must be an example of what 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer calls “Art Speak”: Jargon-leaden, academic language that attempts to “explain” or “justify” the art’s existence through arcane theory and bloviated postmodernist musings. I have read this sentence four times now and I still do not know what the heck any of these sculptures have to do with an eclipse—or, more importantly, why I should care.  

Is it any wonder the art world has become associated with upper-class, “high-brow” sensibilities when artists use impenetrable language like this to describe their work? I have a master’s degree in Communication and I could not tell you what a “natural system” or “catalytic moment” is.

As Shetterly explains in the Truthdig interview, much of the art community’s collective disconnect from pressing social, political or environmental issues is due to its nearly exclusive focus on form, technique and visual aesthetics. This is a modern trend in higher education, particularly in the Humanities departments, wherein professors focus myopically on a book, film or painting’s form and constructive style—so-called “textual analysis”—while ignoring the work’s message, theme or purpose. Shetterly calls this academic approach to art “narcissistic.”

I am not suggesting a painting’s stylistic considerations are unimportant, mind you. But when the form becomes, not a means to an end, but the end itself, the art loses that human connection. Such a work becomes the equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino film, more concerned with cinematic structure, obscurantist homage, and post-structuralist “self-reflexivity” than with any meaningful characters, plot or purpose. (To be fair, I find Tarantino’s films hit-or-miss, with his earlier work surpassing his recent output, though I have not seen Django Unchained.)

Compared to classic, topical works like Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” or Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, Glovinki’s kitsch and “Moon Moves (So Slowly)” feel cold, overly cerebral and downright baffling.

Picasso's "Guernica" was painted in response to the Spanish Civil War.

The one gem I encountered at First Friday was Natasha Mayers’ series of “World Bankster” postcards. Indeed, hers was the only work with any tangible political theme. Mayers' postcards take national or historic settings (The Statue of Liberty, The White House, etc.) and insert a faceless, suited man. These people, Mayers explains, are the “banksters”—the “predators, profiteers, the moneymen, the global banking cartel.”

“These little paintings,” Mayer goes on in her exhibit profile, “are my comment on capitalism, post-colonialism, globalization, cultural appropriation, cultural authenticity and differences, sexism, etc.” Her work is devoid of art-school theory or obscure language. Just a sobering reflection of our nation as it exists today.

“When art ignores truth it mirrors a society that is unaware of its surroundings," Hedges writes. "Art as happiness is a defense mechanism. It reinforces our desire to live in a vacuum that is free of anguish and responsibility.”

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