Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Somehow, by 10:00 tomorrow morning, I will have finished a piece on the state of the visual arts in Washington, DC, here at the end of 2006.

Prognosis: Disempowered. Artists are either making decorative works with a few playful stabs at historicism--stylistic mash-ups, usually--or they're doing ineffectual critiques of gallery culture--say, selling cheap wares that might as well be 'zines or crafts, or making political statements that fail thanks to intellectual laziness and half-baked presentation.

Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Mind you, I wouldn't trade living and working in D.C. Really. There's a handful of galleries that I consistently enjoy, and there's a bunch of artists here that I know are making strong work, no matter what misgivings or reservations attach.

But that may not be apparent to the casual reader of my pieces in the Washington City Paper.

I'm calling this blog "hatchets and skewers" precisely because I have a reputation for not liking anything--for being a little mean. For always insisting on writing a mixed review, rather than a simple approving nod.

I call this due diligence.

Art is all about failure, about making claims for works or offered experiences that probably won't hold up, or are somehow incommensurate.

I know this because I 'm not just a critic. I 'm an artist. When I talk about technical issues, about fit and finish and the rightness of making, it's because I do this stuff for a living. I paint, and I teach painting to college students, and I show--so far, mostly at non-profits and community colleges.

I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid. I have good hands. I make things well.

This is not to say that I'm satisfied with the things I produce. I am not. My artworks generally disappoint me.

Yet I can't stop looking at them, or tweaking them, or thinking about them. And I keep making more of them.

My writing is an extension of my studio practice, of this lifelong cultivation of dissatisfaction--of committing oneself to saying one thing and doing another.

Many lies in the service of a great truth--that's how Picasso put it.

But let's not forget that we're lying. Let's not get comfortable with that formulation.

So I say a lot of negative things. I poke little holes in the veneer. I ask impossible things of myself, and of the work of other artists.

It is nonetheless a privelege and a pleasure to get to see their work, to test the claims they make for it, to think about the aptness of their expression, their material.

Personal note: Yesterday was Christmas. My mother stayed with us this weekend; it was her first Christmas alone. My Dad died this past January.

I had a show going up that same week. I drove the four and a half hours between my hometown and my studio more times than I can count. I didn't sleep for a week.

I cried a lot. And I finished my paintings.

So it's been a strange Christmas. Some really good experiences, a lot of lingering sadness--and yet, at 1:00 in the morning, this is what I'm thinking about: How are people making art right now in the city in which I live? What should I demand of that art, those people?

I don't trust blogs. I don't trust spontaneity, or confessional writing, or any of that. Blogs thrive on immediate feedback, and I don't believe that our first, or our second, or even our third response or impression is necessarily valid. Things need to be tested gradually; determinations take shape only over long stretches.

What I feel now may have evaporated by tomorrow. What I think about an exhibition may not be clear to me until I'm halfway through writing a review. I learn about the world by doing and making.

So what I'll write in this blog in the coming months will be conditional, I suppose, and I may be wary of letting people read it. I'll have to sort through that.

In the meantime, here are the first stirrings.


Blogger Tyler said...

"I don't trust blogs. I don't trust spontaneity, or confessional writing, or any of that. Blogs thrive on immediate feedback, and I don't believe that our first, or our second, or even our third response or impression is necessarily valid. Things need to be tested gradually; determinations take shape only over long stretches."

Political blogs may be first-blush-focused, but I find that art blogs tend not to be. I can't think of one that is, actually.

12:49 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Excellent! Now each of us has made a broad, slightly crazy, unsupportable generalization.

All kidding aside, let me rephrase and cast this in terms of my own admittedly limited perspective.

When I write for the CP, I have to go through a process.

I pitch the piece, then I go through a series of successive drafts with an editor--who, until recently, was someone with a masters' level education in contemporary art history. Leonard really kept me honest.

Then it's off to the fact-checkers and copy editors. And then publication.

Here, I just publish when I'm good and ready. No filters.

Really, this blog is an experiment to see if I can put up content on a more or less daily basis--less, this week--without stumbling badly.

And yes, there are some excellent, readable art blogs out there. You write one.

And there are also a lot of hermits with PCs, writing about their darkened little corners of the world without the benefit of an arts education, or a real studio practice, or--well, you get the idea. These may admittedly be less visible, but they're just as available.

So that's what I was thinking.

Any better?

6:33 PM  
Blogger Lenny said...

Mmm... I used to think, and was ready to defend, the fact that an educational background in some sort of art program was needed to write intelligently about art.

But I now think that I was wrong, and now I realize that a decent writer, coupled with some good research skills (and here comes the key part) and a passionate interest in art, can do a pretty good job, and there are some good examples of that in the art blogsphere, starting as you point out, with Mr. Green's.

9:08 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

I really don't want to imply that you've got to have some advanced degree or other to talk about art. There's plenty of different ways to gain access to the discourse.

In terms of artmaking, an MFA program can help an artist force a crisis in their development and learn all sorts of things about how their work relates to the field of cultural production.

Or it can sterilize the work, lead to a bland sort of professionalization--the mastery of strategies to keep making samey stuff. And the memorization of a short list of smart-sounding claims to make about their work that are really neither here nor there.

Being able to plausibly toss around terms like "ontological" or "teleological" does not necessarily make one a good critic, or artist, or gallerist.

But you have to have access to the discourse. Curators, gallerists, artists and critics, within the field of avante-garde production, are all playing with the same set of definite expectations and ideas.

The metaphor I use in class--excessively, my students would tell you--is that of a sandbox. You're either playing in the sandbox, shifting, sifting and re-shaping this mass of fluid material, or you're off engaged in some other game.

Outsider/visionary artists, folk artists, crafters, landscape watercolorists, hobbyists--these are all perfectly noble people. But they are not engaged in the same thing as those in the contemporary art world. They are off doing something else.

Maybe they're on the monkey bars.

10:02 PM  

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