Having an eye for the contemporary

Almost 50 years ago, the art critic Leo Steinberg published an essay with the evocative title “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” In it, he addressed what might be called the “understanding gap” between working artists and the public, along with the growing tendency of the public to be confused—if not completely put off—by what artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were then creating.

Decades later, that plight hasn’t diminished much. Looking at a lot of what is celebrated today as art, the public can register only confusion. If the plight is any less than Steinberg diagnosed in 1962, it may only be because the audience for contemporary art has simply shrunk so much that it no longer registers as part of the public in any significant way.

We are usually comfortable thinking of the paintings, sculptures and other things in museums as art, but what about the works being created today? Are they “art” in the same way? Is there an element of time that has to elapse before they become “art?”

It can sometimes seem a little presumptuous to say that contemporary art is museum-worthy without letting the added element of time slowly do its leavening work on the judgment of those in the know. Why should we rush to bestow the label of “Art” on, say, something that looks like nothing more than a florescent light hanging at a diagonal, just as we do on a portrait of St. Paul by Rembrandt? In 300 years will people be marveling at that? (But 300 years ago did they marvel at the Rembrandt?)

“Contemporary art is constantly inviting us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish,” Steinberg wrote, “while the positive cause, for the sake of which sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear.” He actually wrote this sentence thinking primarily of artists who sometimes feel like their own established styles are threatened when art spins off in a radically different direction. Matisse, for example, called Picasso a hoax and an outrage in 1907. A year earlier, however, an established painter named Paul Signac saw a new canvas by Matisse and thought it was disgusting. Matisse had “gone to the dogs,” he wrote a friend.

Yes, it’s true that every generation has its outrages, and today both Matisse and Picasso are regarded as brilliant and visionary artists, and their work, even though familiar, still captivates. But it’s also true that one of the more troublesome elements in our society is its impatience. Processes that by their nature take time are now somehow seen as illegitimate. Our hunger for immediate satisfaction in this regard can come in two contradictory ways: on the one hand it can be a demand that contemporary art be acknowledged now and held on a level with the Masters of the past. On the other hand, if a work is somehow difficult or an affront to our tastes (as Picasso was to Matisse), we want immediately to toss it aside as nothing more than a purposeful insult to what we hold dear.

Either position does no favors to art. Having a good eye for the contemporary, whether it’s a painting hanging in a gallery or a work of public sculpture that you drive by on your way to work every day, means being willing to take it on its own terms initially, and only over time begin to measure it against the great weight of the past. It takes an odd and perhaps paradoxical combination of patience, acceptance, and discrimination. But that’s the recipe for appreciating contemporary art.

This column originally appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on September 29, 2011



George Orwell on language and thought

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

–George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946


Remembering Patrick Dougherty in Waco

I often wish we still had our Patrick Dougherty sculpture here in Waco.  For those of you who don’t know the name or the story, Dougherty is an acclaimed sculptor whose works are in museums, public parks, university campuses, and botanical gardens all over the world.  His medium is cut saplings, which he harvests from the area in which he’s working and weaves into towering, evocative, and/or whimsical shapes.  Each of his works is unique and designed to fit into the environment where it sits, indoors or out.  They’re both visually and conceptually striking.

In 2010, Cultural Arts of Waco brought Dougherty to town using a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a piece in Cameron Park for the park’s centennial celebration.  He chose a spot near Pecan Bottoms close to the Brazos and set to work making a sculpture that he would christen “River Vessels.”

Dougherty, an Oklahoma native who’s lived in North Carolina since childhood, has a Masters degree in hospital administration but decades ago gave himself over to making art.  Now 72, he continues to create his memorable sculptures all over the world.  This year has found him doing pieces in Montreal, South Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, California, and Commerce, Texas.  Worldwide, one encounters his art from Sweden to South Korea.

An intriguing element of his work that distinguishes him from most artists who specialize in public art, is the collaborative process he uses, enlisting people from the community in which his art will be placed to help him at every step.  The Atlantic recently published a series examining “the possibilities and pitfalls of mentorship” and interviewed Dougherty because of this unique relationship with those who help bring his artistic concepts into reality.  The magazine described him as being “a boss, a mentor, and a humble peer” all at the same time.

I recall sitting on a picnic table and watching him work with his crew of volunteers here in Waco, and the rapport he formed with them all in just a short time was truly impressive.  They seemed as dedicated to the project as he was.  Dougherty took his role as a mentor seriously and showed a particular interest in the art students who had come out to work with him.  “You can’t give young people true advice,” he said to the Atlantic. “You just plow ahead and let them watch you do it.”  Once they start in on the process with him, he makes a point of being encouraging. “I don’t like to walk around and look at someone’s work and say, ‘I would do something else,’ or, ‘That’s never going to work.’”

Dougherty understands that because of the nature of his medium, his work doesn’t last forever.  “I really like that essentialness of having something that has to be looked at now,” he explains.  For him, the real value of his art comes in the experience of creating it with a group of people he’s only recently come to know.  The “nature of a good sculpture,” he said earlier this year in Commerce, is it “makes people feel enlivened, and they want to go look at it.”  A good sculpture is “one that causes personal associations.”

I still feel my acute disappointment when his piece here in Waco had to be removed long before it would have lived out its days.  It didn’t last long enough to become much of the focal point that good public art can be, and sadly we missed out on experiencing a lot of those personal associations that civic life, at its best, can give.


Creativity making creativity

My column this week looks at how several artists have used other art forms to inspire them, and the ways in which creativity can reach across what we may see as “boundaries” of the arts.  Here’s an excerpt:

At a deep level, creativity stimulates more creativity. This is hardly a revolutionary observation, as any art student who goes to a museum or musician to hear live music will testify. But at the same time it’s an interaction that’s easy to miss if the creativity happens across fields of artistic endeavor. But in the same way that for me listening to jazz can fire up my brain to tell the story of industrialization and the beginnings of urbanization in the late 19th century, so too can music lend its energy to painters. Without implying any sort of causation in terms of what the painter is producing, music will, if not exactly guide a brush, put an artist into a particular mood from which she or he wants to work.

Read the whole thing HERE in the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, King Zulu, 1986