Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


January 21, 2011

A review of a show about artists’ day jobs reminded me of another aspect of my talk last week with the St. Olaf visual arts students—they mentioned a strong emphasis on minor studies, and I asked if these were subjects that contributed in a significant way to their artistic pursuits (I’m all for a breadth of knowledge) or if they constituted “Plan B.”

I am SO opposed to “Plan B.” 

How successful can you be at anything, when you’re simultaneously planning for failure? Especially now, when it’s impossible to predict future needs, it seems like a waste to spend time (and considerable money) on anything you’re not passionate about. My parents’ idea of Plan B for me, given that I liked art and bought a lot of clothes, was fashion illustration. I bet most of you don’t even know what fashion illustration is, since outside of a few Lord & Taylor ads that made it into the eighties, the field evaporated shortly thereafter. Besides, I hated it.

Lord & Taylor, 1984 (Copyright may apply)

However what my parents would really have liked was for me to get a good corporate job so I could live a lifetime of security, and we all know how long that lasted (it did work for my brother, a computer engineer, but only because he was ahead of his time—and he couldn’t have studied computer science in college because there weren’t yet programs for it).

It’s amazing to think that just a few years ago students were crowding journalism schools (Journalism? What’s that?), and last week the Times ran an article entitled, “Is Law School a Losing Game?”  Is nothing sacred?

[Interestingly, I did take a class in eighth grade that has always stood me in good stead: typing, a subject that was discontinued soon after, as it was seen as helpful only to those who would become secretaries.]

Outside of an ability to get to a place on time and actually complete tasks (qualities that are more unusual than you’d think), what do the times require? What will they require?  Well it’s always good to be the best at whatever you do, and those people will succeed, even if they choose to be journalists or lawyers. But also…people who are flexible and adaptable, who can think on their feet, think outside the box, are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, have good social and organizational skills and surprisingly—we didn’t expect this, did we?—can write well. People who know how to learn, since in the future we will no doubt be reinventing ourselves on a regular basis, if we aren’t already (and while I always hesitate to agree with David Brooks, he touches on some of these same issues here).

So where do you go to develop these essential attributes? For one, a school like Bennington College, where I used to teach, where learning to think for yourself is built into the program, and barring that—well, I never saw myself as an advocate of art studies, but it seems as good a way as any to find out who you are and explore what you can do.

And who knows? You might even become an artist.
January 16, 2011

In a talk last week with 18 bright and down-to-earth Senior visual arts majors from Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, in NYC for a month (!) of twice-daily talks with arts professionals (organized by artist Peter Eide), there was, of course—why else do we do these things?—a question that spurred a bit of self-examination: Do I think titles are necessary?

The appellation “Untitled,” as far as I’ve always been concerned, is a cop-out that makes whatever’s not being named seem flat, no more than a piece of decoration, as if the artist didn’t care enough about his/her work to put any more effort into it (I have a friend who always threatened to name his child, “Untitled”)—whereas a title can add, hopefully, another layer of poetry and mystery, or at the very least, help identify the artwork. So the question was easy to answer but personally annoying because it made me realize that I was going to have to title my spate of recent drawings—so many of them!—something I had conveniently avoided thinking about. As if just making them isn't challenging enough.

How do artists title their work? Hardly anyone talks about it. I remember that Walter Robinson once found names for his paintings by randomly stabbing a finger into Stendahl’s novel, The Red and the Black, always coming up with the perfect pithy and enigmatic phrase. At the time I copied his method using my giant antique Webster’s dictionary, and the words I retrieved that way were always surprisingly apt. I just now finished writing a review of Keltie Ferris’s thoroughly abstract paintings, and her titles—from oooOOO()()() to Rain Dogs Unplugged which, of course, has no rain or dogs in it—add extra zing.  My all-time favorite, however, is Frank Stella’s title for at least two of his early black stripe paintings: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor. 

If he’d left them “Untitled,” he might still be painting houses.


The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II

Frank Stella (American, born 1936)

1959. Enamel on canvas, 7' 6 3/4" x 11' 3/4" (230.5 x 337.2 cm). Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund. © 2010 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

January 7, 2011
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities,1859.

A friend, who’s in his 40s, commented at New Year’s that these are the darkest times he’s ever lived through. It’s true, things are awful in a lot of places; I wouldn’t want to be living in Afghanistan or Haiti right now. But the worst of times? You won’t find me yearning for “the good old days” –like the Sixties, when he was born and I came of age, when an inter-racial family such as his own would have been discriminated against by both races, there were still lynchings in the South, and African-Americans had to fight for the right to vote. When sexual harassment of women was the norm, abortions were done in back streets, and in Connecticut, where I lived in New Haven, birth control was illegal. An unmarried heterosexual couple would have had a hard time finding a place to rent, and gays…forget it (it’s important to remember that the reason gay marriage is an issue now is not because so many people are against it, but because so many are for it). Those were the days when my father’s problem with alcohol didn’t have a name, and life was lived through a haze of cigarette smoke. Not to speak of the fact that there was only one kind of lettuce and no one outside of Italy knew what a latte was.

Therefore my New Year’s resolution is, as it has been for the last several years, not to listen to or watch the news. I will read The New Yorker, as well as the headlines and anything I find interesting in the Times. I will remain informed, but I will not allow myself to be bombarded with every detail of every terrible thing that’s happening in the world this very minute. As far as I’m concerned, all of this is Mind Control in the form of negativity-training (not just Fox News but even—and maybe especially—your beloved NPR, whose lack of blatancy makes it even more insidious). I feel compassionate, but must I demonstrate it by being miserable?

So, while I appreciate the invitation, I will not be joining the culture of complaint. Instead I begin this year grateful for all I have to celebrate: I had a great month in California, a long-term legal hassle in my life has been resolved, my children are happy, I have a new baby grandson, the sun is out, and I’m on fire in the studio as never before. Welcome 2011!

Carol Diehl, Drawing 1/6/11, pastel on paper, 9 1/2" x 12 1/2"