Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall. There are now more than 100 biennales around the world (most of them put together by the same 25 celebrity curators, drawing from the same pool of 100 or so artists); Venice is often called "the most important" of them. The main show of the 53rd Venice Biennale, June 7-Nov. 22, 2009, is the work of Daniel Birnbaum, a well-respected 46-year-old Swedish critic and curator. His "Making Worlds," held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni delle Biennale and in the magnificent Arsenale, attains an enervating inertia of exhibitions and brings us to a terminal state of what we’ll call "the curator problem."
Birnbaum’s show, containing the work of 90-plus artists, doesn’t offend or go off the rails. Rather, it looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are "about" something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color or strangeness.
Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting. I’m not for or against video -- or any medium or style, for that matter. Nor am I wishing for a return to painting, which can never come back because it never went away. (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) My beef is with the experience that "Making Worlds" produces. It’s just another esthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, esthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.
To get in the mood for my trip, I watched the video Screaming Masterpiece, a survey of Icelandic music in which Barði Jóhannsson, of the band Bang Gang, answers the question: “Why is Icelandic music so special?” For a country whose largest city is about the size of Akron, OH, and where they speak a language shared by no other, it produces an amazing amount of great music. Barði says it’s because “all the bands that are any good know that their music won’t be played on the radio and that they won’t sell more than 200 albums in Iceland, so they make music just as they please.”
Human beings are by nature spiritual beings, created by God to receive the Holy Spirit. The evidence of this receptivity is that we cannot be human unless we live ecstatically. In other words, each of us lives by participating in a larger reality than our particular location and perspective, than our particular consciousness, and, conversely, each of us, enriched by that larger world, adds his and her unique sensibility to it.....
Our spiritual potential is given a particular inflection in everyday life through music and literature. We all know what it is like to be moved by a poem or a novel, or any other work of art, for that matter. An aesthetic work enables its audience to enter and explore a different way of seeing something, a different way of feeling about the world, or, a way of feeling that is already ours, but which we may have repressed. To appreciate a literary work, for example, is not simply to be informed about the author’s point of view. It is to feel the sense of things expressed in the work.
You enter into the characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their clothing. Hence literature, music and art do not isolate us in egocentric desire or self-pity; rather, they invite us to actualize our capacity to love, that is, to abandon our self-preoccupation, to stand outside ourselves and within the world as experienced by others. This is what love does, and what art fosters. It enlarges the boundaries of the self.
I love your place. Such artistic order. Carol's Blog reminded me of a story about my friend Peter in Stuttgart. I was staying with him about 4 years ago and was struck by how impeccably the place was organized. He doesn't have your artistic sense so it was just super neat and very clean. When we left in the morning, after the beds were made, the dishes cleaned and put away, the sink wiped down with a fresh, dry rag (who wants those unsightly stains on the stainless steel?), he stopped in the doorway and turned around one last time to make sure everything was in place. Sharing with me that he "doesn't like it when things are too perfect", he went back inside and took a coat off of one of the hooks by the door, walked over to the couch and tossed the coat on the armrest. Not happy with the way the coat had fallen, he picked it up again and threw it a second time. Ahhhh. Now, for him, the place was imbued with just an air of the casual.
Note to manically tidy self: go downstairs and throw some magazines around.
Scott Cole is often mentioned in my posts, sometimes as Scott Who Knows Everything, as he’s frustratingly multi-accomplished. Musician, painter, and chef (Scott owns
When I’m there I’m always taking pictures and the only challenge is editing—basically you can point the camera anywhere and get a beautiful vignette. For instance you can guess what vantage point I took this from. But really, isn’t this just the world’s sexiest toothbrush?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Scott, preparing the dinner he made last night for a few friends, in his kitchen which, except for the black cat lurking nearby, is white and innocent:
Because it fit him perfectly, I gave Scott this kimono, which was made for my uncle when he served in China during World War II. He wore it once for Halloween, then hung it on the wall:
And outside, the hand-carved pickets on the fence that came with the house. Even they tell a story:
I was back in Pittsfield today, at the Berkshire Medical Center (for an MRI on my foot which, of course, was completely cured by the fact that I was going for an MRI—just the way a snuffly, crying baby turns into a smiling picture of health the minute you enter the pediatrician’s office) where this sculpture caught my attention. Although I’d go for something a little more comforting and calming for a medical center—incorporating a water feature perhaps, or vegetation (it would be a great place for some surprise topiary)—the sculpture itself is not so bad, and its sleek lines and mirrored surface contrast nicely with the traditional architecture of the building behind it. But what’s with the sign at the bottom? What’s the point of installing something if you’re going to overwhelm any redeeming qualities it might have with a tacky sign? Who’s thinking here?
So I’m driving home, ranting to myself about how I’ll gladly add public sculpture to the list of things (museum wall text, artists statements, children’s music) that I plan to outlaw when king, when I see this—unmarked, unattributed, and perfectly at home in its environment—and am reminded, as with the Kinderhook snow sculpture I came across last winter, that the human artistic impulse has a place outside after all, just best, perhaps, when it’s not institutionalized.