Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cultural Cool

Turn a Blind Eye  wood engraving 4 x 5 in.

The other day my friend Bill Starke sent me a link to a very good Wall Street Journal article written by Joe Queenan about Frank Gehry and the nature of "cool" trends.   As is often the case when I receive e-mails from Bill, the content gets me thinking and this one was no exception.  Not only did I agree and applaud everything in the article but it got me thinking past architecture, to art and culture in general and my own observations of the "cool" in art.  The phenomenon of fads in culture and the rush to jump on the "bandwagon" is fun to watch.  Those bandwagons move with the power of a runaway train, gathering passengers like a magnet gathers paper clips.  Queenan's article discusses the rush by civic governments to "keep up with the Joneses".  He says your city isn't "cool" unless it has a gallery or a library designed by Frank Gehry.  I've noticed too, that if the city can't afford Gehry, then they find a second-rate Gehry wannabe.

This rush to be "cool" is part and parcel of culture.  "Cool" sells.  Hollywood is another place where the bandwagon is overloaded.  If a movie makes it big at the box office you can expect years of other movies in that genre to follow in style or even story.  And the original blockbuster can't just end there.  Oh, no.  If that first one is a blockbuster and sends the stockholders into fits of ecstasy, why not try another?  How many more comic book super heroes, Terminators or Pirates of the Caribbean can this planet take?  (I don't want to know!)

In university I took a painting class from a professor whose own painting style was abstract expressionism.  There was indirect and implied pressure, from the professor, as well as other students, to work in the "ab-ex" manner.  So I did.  I would have preferred to work from life or nature but, as a 27 year old undergraduate with a wife and child and no idea what I was going to do with an art degree, I needed to keep my grades up.  Plus, I was in school to learn and figured I may as well give it a shot and learn something.

The printmaking professor didn't apply pressure to conform to a style and I felt free to express myself.  This may have been one of the reasons (besides the smell of solvents) I chose to take that route.  Wood engraving wasn't a formal part of the class, but it was the process that fascinated me most and I studied examples in the course text and in the library (those were the days when you went to the library for information or images).  Leonard Baskin was the artist whose work impressed me the most.  There were others but nobody topped Baskin in my estimation.  I needed to go on to graduate school because my goal was now to teach at the post secondary level.  Some of the graduate students would get excited when the latest issues of Art in America or Art Forum arrived in the library, with articles about whatever was "hot" in New York.  As soon as the latest issues were on the shelves, some of those "hot" styles and techniques would show up in class critiques.

 Graduate students grow older and move out into the world, carrying what they've collected in school.  There were moments in the 70s when, recognition by fellow faculty, art critics or gallery directors demanded the incorporation of the latest technology.  If it wasn't made with some new and hi-tech material, it wasn't worth looking at.  Then that gave way to making nothing at all.  Art students were taught to talk about art instead of making it.  Gallery walls were covered with typed descriptions of what the artist had been thinking about.  If there was any thing in the gallery at all (a pile of molding food for instance) it had to be explained with typed pages of information that were impossible to understand because they were typed in "art speak", the pontifications of art critics.  Some universities did away with courses involving the "making" of art.  Some faculty at one of the schools where I was teaching wanted to eliminate drawing from the curriculum.  A few of us fought against this and finally had to agree to a name change because the others thought "drawing" sounded too "traditional"!  By the 80s universities were churning out graduates who couldn't nail two boards together or who didn't know which end of a brush or pencil to use.  It didn't take many years of this foolishness and students began to realize that they were headed nowhere and they began to demand visual content.  The universities and colleges woke up and started putting the visual back into art.

In the "art world" there is a rush to be in front, with the most innovative and creative ideas.  If these ideas receive a following and are accepted in the mainstream they can take off like a rocket and they are "hot property", coveted and snapped up by collectors and investors.  The owner of a gallery that once showed my drawings asked me to work larger.  He said corporations wanted larger work and if I would work larger he could sell more of my work.  I told him I do drawings and prints on paper and am comfortable with the scale I work at.  I eventually pulled my work from that gallery (not because I was asked to work larger).

As I ponder the points raised in that Wall Street Journal article and think about fads and what's cool, what's hot and what's not, I can't help but feel relieved that this is a treadmill I've avoided.  I've been very fortunate that I haven't succumbed to the pressure to conform to the style or trend of the day and have been happy in my ignorance.  I can spend time in the studio creating for me, instead of spending time searching for the next fad du jour.  Besides, it's asking a lot be creating flavor of the day when using the eighteenth and nineteenth century medium of wood engraving.

1 comment:

Word Tunnel said...

Nice article, Jim. Although, I'm not so sure. I'm just thinking how cool it would be if you were to start dousing your blocks in tequila, lighting them on fire, engraving on them sporadically in between licks of flame. That would be cool.