No art, worth its salt, is ever obvious. This is why art is enthralling, for art, in all its forms, constantly unfolds before us, often mysteriously. Throughout history we have never looked away from art despite everything that has shaken us. Indeed our compulsion for art exists to uncover all our stories. Bewitched by art we endeavor to understand and absorb all it tells us. Art criticism is about getting to the bottom of this creative instinct because we need, essentially, to live with this unfolding witness in the image, this wonder of artists’ minds which have marked humanity and nations for over 75,000 years. Whether the artist or the viewer knows why or if one ever actually understands a work of art – is not the point, because we make it anyway. Whether we like it or not or if it drives us mad, so what? We do it. It is our human need.
But in the last 150 years or so the nature of art has changed a lot. I would say humans have not really changed, but the character of art has certainly changed as we have become oh so modern. I state the word with attitude because that change seems to be a focus of much speculation these days. Especially when it comes to culture or its lack. Art is where it has always been, in struggle.
Art has been given a new function lately, especially in the habits of the professional art world. Art is big business now, used as a store of value in ways that delimit the fundamental characteristics of art itself. It is used as a trust cover, for tax evasion and wealth transfer schemes, to exchange currency, as bargaining positions in blue chip stock trades or position covers. Art is bid up, like stocks, by major dealers and trades on markets no different from a stock exchange. Banks own major art auction houses. Boards of directors are selected to lend their private art collections to museums for mutual financial advantage and often these boards dictate what a gallery or museum is to purchase in their collections so as to bid up the value of the art the boards themselves are holding. Massive mutual financial back-scratching is what the major museums often yield to, for they are in the game of survival and billions of dollars are at stake. Often the last to reap any financial advantage of these rigged transactions are the actual artists. Of course galleries are constantly on the search for young hot artists to promote, sell and then forget when maximum profit has been squeezed from them.
The young artists are urged to pay attention to the art market as the success measure in their lives; to abandon the reasons they ever decided on an art calling. And often they are left heartbroken, feeling betrayed by a march they had no control over. They will never realize if they were ever successful or unsuccessful (notice I did not say failure) on their own terms. Of course you are always being told you are crazy if you want to be an artist in the first place. It does take uncommon courage to be an artist. There are those who stay in one place, quite comfortably.
Those individuals are, perhaps, the hardest to communicate with critically, for often they know not how, or by what means, they may challenge themselves. This is a problem in anyone’s life but it is often tragically apparent in the arts; who can tell anyone the truth today? How effectively? It seems we have come to a critical halt in our culture, our politics, our economy, and even with one another. The present pandemic makes it no easier, but in an ironic way the pandemic is merely revealing a world that existed prior to Covid. History isn’t waiting for us. What are we to do? I say, think and have courage.
This state of stasis is a challenge to the artist, but the larger problem is just not being aware of it. It is usually this choice alone that separates the mediocre from those who make interesting statements and want the public’s attention to effect a noteworthy change. I think this is best dealt with through discourse and dialogue. Factors so pathetically absent in today’s cultural discourse because we are creaking under the weight of so much deferred attention.
Enter the New Art Examiner. When first created through utter frustration about articles not being published by the Chicago Tribune – articles that had been slated to be published – Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie chose to publish themselves what they thought was sorely lacking in the Chicago art scene. They took a courageous step to shake the rafters and lift some art souls. We are still doing that today: publishing criticism/discourse/dialogue that has never been, in my not so humble opinion, more warranted. The Examiner does not have the pressure of art games, commercial success or faculty positions to fill in some in-house political drama. The Examiner is composed of a uniquely international, visually sophisticated readership and staff. And the Examiner can be a beacon of light in these hard-to-navigate times, away from the deluded rough shorelines of mayhem, ennui, and insult, back to the normal seas of difficulty and accomplishment or whatever is interesting.
So start a drawing, pen a letter, perhaps tell your boyfriend he stinks but check out the New Art Examiner. Good medicine for the postmodern stomach ache. And who knows, we may connect.