Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!
gone down the American river!
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole
boatload of sensitive bullshit!
-from “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg, 1955
I’ve always considered myself pretty tough-minded when it comes to the evaluation of art – I don’t go in for mysticism, or, at the other end of the spectrum, jargon-laced psuedo-science (which is the new mysticism). But of late, I’ve been periodically meeting up with Mark Stone (the principle here at Henri Mag), and two other artists for whom I hold a great deal of respect; Michael Zahn and Dennis Bellone. And when I talk about art with this crew, it would appear, much to my chagrin, that I am an inveterate romantic. O, horrors!
So how does my romanticism manifest itself? In the form of earnestness, and faith. I want to speak about these things mainly in terms of how I make art, but it carries over to the way I write about art as well. The work that I admire and the work that I make rarely takes a bird’s-eye look at itself, with the attendant critical distance that suggests. Much art since postmodernism has proposed the following equation: The work you are looking at is not “X,” it is about “X.” And “X” can be any number of things: abstract painting, bad painting, art, my identity, and on and on. An old friend of mine used a smart analogy for this phenomenon, calling it the “second lap around the track.”
This second lap serves a lot of purposes; the most obvious is that it insulates the maker from a great deal of criticism. To go back to the proposition above: “The work you are looking at is not bad painting it is about bad painting.” Without this declaration of purpose, a given work would have to be critiqued with painting criteria, and would, by definition, come up wanting. Any number of substitutions for “X” would yield the same result. The amount of art made since the late ’60’s in this spirit and with this modus operandi is impossible to calculate. This methodology is also taught, and thereby codified, by the big schools.
The second thing the second lap accomplishes is more subtle and profound: it guards the work against being read as overtly personal and emotional (it also tends to subtract from the aesthetic content, but that’s an argument for another essay). Making art is kind of like singing karaoke – you’re all by yourself with the mic, and if you start to emote way off key people are going to laugh at you. One response to this problem is to never show emotion (or pretend not to, a la Judd and Serra), another is to come up with a formula that blunts or distracts from the impact of emotional content. Think of Bill Murray in the karaoke scenario.
When I’m in the studio, I’m really doing the best I can – I want it to be so good, just like a little kid. And I’m willing to fall flat on my face; to get laughed at, or criticized, or ignored. This may not sound like I’m risking all that much, but I am – I’m not a kid, and if it turns out that I’m emoting off key at top volume, then it means that a great portion of my life up to now has been a joke. Try facing that possibility some time.
So what is romanticism, at least my own? The desire to do this thing in spite of the fact that it’s exhausting, expensive, time-consuming, and promises little; to declare that my individuated existence is utterly unique and others should take the time to look at the things I offer as proof; the belief that this output can enrich other people’s lives along with an unwavering faith that the best art can change hearts and minds; and, perhaps most importantly, the resolve to not give a fuck about how shockingly corny all of this sounds.
Go ahead and snicker at me if you want, I can take it.