Friday, June 05, 2009

Enough with the Apocalypse, Already

I just returned home from an art opening—yes, my small town supports an arts scene; it's partly the presence of the college in town, which has for some years always been on the list of "Top 100 Small Private Colleges." At this art opening, I walked in on the public speaking segment of the evening: introduce the artist; the artists says a few words; the MC asks the artist to talk about one of the pieces in detail; some Q&A; then music plays while everyone mingles and look at the art. Loud talk. Wine served. Snacks presented. Much discussion, not a little giggling.

The artist in question is a home-town boy, from this small town. He began as a graffiti artist around town, when in high school. When his talents were recognized, he was recruited to do a mural on a new school building—the principal himself actually drove him to Ace Hardware to buy cans of spray-paint—which launched his career. Now he has a studio in a nearby Midwestern Big City, where he produces commercial art, music, and fine art, all based on The Urban Experience. Has a studio, a business, and ambition. I applaud all of that: creativity channelled to make a career, make a living, be creative rather than destructive.

Now, let me be clear about something here: lots of good art is made from The Urban Experience. The art I just saw is actually rather good, in terms of its context and style and genre. Some of the large paintings include metal pieces worked in to the huge square boards assembled as canvas, adding nuance and complexity. It's thoughtful art. Some of the images are very evocative; one in particular caught my attention, as it's one of the better representations of a drug-induced ecstatic state of consciousness that I've seen in years. Off in one corner, behind some black hangings, was a backlit glass piece that actually intrigued me, but I saw no one else stop to look at it; a subtler, more abstract piece, evoking The Matrix. In front of each painting is an old stereo receiver—mostly old tech, dating from the 70s, you know, all those silver-paneled wood-grained units with the green-lit displays; I have one or two in my basement—connected to a music playback device with a track of original music associated with each painting. One can stand in front of the paintings with headphones on, listening to the associated track for a multi-media experience. The artist is involved in DJ club culture, and a mixmaster. Small town boy makes good, comes back to do a show in his home town, as a way of giving back and saying thank you. That's a good reason to do a show.

Nonetheless, a lot of art made from The Urban Experience recycles the same themes and tropes over and over again. I stood in front of these pantings, whose overall palettes are largely desaturated of strong color, this evening thinking to myself: These are really well done, and I'm not even remotely interested in the subject matter anymore. It's dark stuff, it's apocalyptic, and honestly, it reminds me, in terms of content although not in terms of execution of a lot of New York City and Chicago art I've seen for decades. Young artists constantly rediscover and recycle old tropes, as they encounter them.

I for one am tired of (young) artists expressing the apocalypse, be it urban or otherwise. Maybe it's a phase every young artist has to go through—especially young white male artists engaged with urban hip-hop, DJ, club cultures—before they find their true center. I certainly went through a long period of engagement with Industrial Music, which is most definitely an urban apocalypse genre; I played in a few industrial bands, and I was a music journalist engaged with and writing about the scene. (I even presented a paper on it at the 1993 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society.)

When a young artist discovers their own mortality—a necessary adolescent discovery—and starts to understand their own limits, what often gets expressed is a mix of rebellion and capitulation. One rebels by trying to change the world, to make it better—and sometimes, for a time, that happens. One capitulates by giving in to the commercialism of Teen Angst culture—the genre of post-grunge pop-rock music called Emo is the new Goth, the new industrial, the new grunge, with a weird blend of tropes taken from all those, and with rare exceptions transcending none of them, merely recycling their teen-angst themes—and becoming an individualist among many who all look the same, have the same haircut. It's partly a rite of passage to express one's individuality by looking like everyone else, especially everyone one idolizes. As long as it pisses off the parents, it's a job well done.

But at some point we all—artists, fans, rockers, teen angsters, high school athletes—we all must grow up.

That we have social ills to talk about in this country is no secret. That we need to do something about them, rather than just continue to talk about them, is also no secret. Yet talking is easier than doing, just as expressing one's feelings in one's art is easier than channelling one's art towards creating the antidote to the apocalypse.

That there is a lot of urban art about the apocalypse is as unsurprising as there is a lot of rural art about nostalgia: both styles reflect these difficult times. Which is harder to take, though, fields of poppies with a barn on the crest of the hill, maybe a puppy and child running across the lawn? or a graphic and violent urban landscape of jumbled forms and survivors? Frankly, I find both styles to be more or less equally escapist. Both styles express some reality the artist is fascinated by, in somewhat commercially or cynically, and both have large followings of buyers. Is commercial art more crass than fine art? Certainly not. But it does tend to carry more clichés in terms of content, if only because most art-viewers and art-buyers are more drawn to surface than to nuance.

Still, at this point I'm tired of seeing endless expression about the apocalypse. I want to see art about its solutions. Or art about apokatastasis. Or about ecstasy. Or if it's art about alienation and angst, then at least make me stop in my tracks when I encounter it.

Of course, these are artistic themes that are much, much more difficult to pull off than the apocalypse. Which itself has become so familiar that its tropes and themes and elements and ideas have developed a sort of shared-experience culture with enough familiarity to give birth to cliché. The art I saw this evening was good art—but for the most part its themes and topics were clichés of the apocalypse.

And in this way did this gallery opening contribute to the pornography of despair.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It's getting harder and harder not to be clichéd. I mean, what hasn't been done to death?

4:16 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Fair question.

Partial answer:

I saw this afternoon on TV a short documentary about Derek Jarman, which reminded that even at his most activist, in paintings and in his films, even when he was working with incredibly familiar and oft-overstated material, he managed to be original and un-clichéd.

So it is possible. It might be rare, though.

It might be that it takes an unusual mind, and/or an unusual perspective to avoid the pitfalls of the overly-familiar. Jarman definitely succeeded at saying things in new ways. Even his more apocalyptic films manage to deal with that material in surprising and fresh ways. Looking at snippets of his films, in the documentary, that really came through again.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Good point. But now anyone who does anything similar will be accused of being Jarman-esque so there's another pothole to avoid. It's the inevitable effect of history on art. What amazes me is that people still keep managing to churn out novel love songs. You really would have thought that everything had been said there wouldn't you?

12:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Good points in return. I've certainly absorbed Jarman's films enough that if I were to make one on a similar theme, the influence would be obvious.

Yet what I also get from him, which might not be obvious, is the willingness to do a film that is non-narrative, or perhaps more accurately non-linear. Film doesn't always have to have a linear plot, or a sense of continuous smooth action. It can jump around, the way memory does; or be episodic, highlighting special moments, again the way memory does. And it can be naturalistic in that way without being necessarily predictable. So that's an influence about film that I can get from Jarman that might not be obvious or apparent in my films themselves. A way of thinking, rather.

You're right about love songs. I think that there are periods of, shall we say, decadence, in pop song writing, during which its all imitation rather than creativity. Then some obscure singer-songwriter comes along with a novel approach, and freshens everything up again. Then they get imitated, and the cycle repeats itself.

For a few months I've been absorbed in listening to Sarah McLachlan. Some of her song lyrics verge on the poetic in terms of ambiguity and evocation. I get the sense that there are layers going on; things implicit rather than explicit. I don't get the sense that she's being obscure for the sake of being obscure, though. Some one or two songs that have been really getting my attention have some really shocking lines in them; or one feels "the shock of the new" because one never quite thought of it that way before. I do like that she writes the occasional anti-love song; that sort of thing almost always captures my attention.

10:34 AM  

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