Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Interview with Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Here is the interview that was aired as a segment on KPCC on Friday. I recommend listening to it rather than reading the transcript, if possible. There is a lot lost in the transcript, and the whole mood of the thing really benefits from hearing our voices. Cadence and inflection add so much to the meaning of what we say. My post from the 17th contains some of the stuff I wanted to convey that wasn't in the interview...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A note to Adolfo Guzman-Lopez on artists in society

Today, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, whose name will be familiar to anyone who listens to NPR on KPCC. He is reporting on the effect of the downward spiraling economy on artists and arts workers. Since my job at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles was recently eliminated, he contacted me to discuss my story. By the time we had a chance to sit down, I had already been talking about myself with various people all day (that's another story... ), and I was, therefore, perhaps not at my best. For the most part, I think my responses to his questions were sufficient, but when he left, I was overcome with thoughts of all of the things I did not say. So, I wrote him this note, which I am posting below. When the interview is aired, I will post a link to it as well.

Dear Adolfo:
Thank you so much for your interest in arts workers in the new economy and in my story in particular. Just as a follow-up, I want to try to articulate something more thoroughly.

Regarding your questions about adapting to new challenges and the importance of art in society: Right now, it is essential for me to believe that we are all going to come out of this alright, despite the very real fears that we may not. That said, here goes...

Artists are inventive by definition; it is our charge to reflect the world through our own ideas and visions. That inventiveness extends beyond artists' studios into the world at large through deep community involvement. Artists and arts administrators, arts educators, etc. give tremendously to their communities, not only by giving us their work but also by teaching, volunteering, voting, paying taxes, etc. Artists and arts workers are also - along with everyone else in the world - subject to the ebbs and flows of the economy and the culture and participate equally in civic life.

Part of the reason that the arts are so important to society is that artists are often the originators of new ideas and new approaches to the the way we live, as well as give us new ways to see ourselves and the world we live in. There are many contemporary artists who are using their inventiveness, creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability to confront the many changes taking place in our world, not only to reflect our world back to us but to posit hypotheses for the advancement of our well-being as a collective social body.

There are strains of contemporary art that have become increasingly rarefied. Perhaps that is because, while our consumer culture (which is inherently concerned with deriving individual gains) has expanded, our collective interest in social culture (which perceives the individual as part of a larger whole) dwindles proportionally. The more this country's government - and therefore this country's society, for this is a democracy wherein the government is the voice of the people, right? - espouses a disinterest in (and, at worst, a disdain for) the arts, the more artists turn to one another as an insular community, addressing only one another. But there are also contemporary practices in which artists use their work - and often their own lives - to turn outward to connect with their communities and their environments, filling a void that is left when other artists and the society at large turn inward.

I view both approaches as equally valid. Further, I do not mean to suggest that these are the only two conditions under which art is currently produced. On the contrary, there is always a broad spectrum of art in production. I do think it's a useful observation, though, for anyone interested in the way art impacts - and articulates - the culture. It's a tough row to hoe, because on one hand, I believe that art should touch everyone and should be supported by our governmental agencies, because, as I mentioned to you earlier, art's positive effect on individuals is immeasurable. But on the other hand, artists are often at their best when left to their own devices. Artists are accustomed to inventing their own worlds every day, often quite literally, but also metaphorically through images and songs and words, etc. But just because they are capable of being extraordinarily self-sufficient doesn't mean they should have to be. Like everyone, artists must eat, be in good health, care for children and elderly relatives, and tend to all of the myriad responsibilities and requirements of daily life that we all must.

Through all of the above ambivalence, I think what I am trying to say is that, like people in any profession, artists should be included in and embraced by society and not be forced to use their inventiveness for their own survival alone. I think this society would be given a great gift if it brought artists farther into the fold, to shake off whatever fears it has about a perceived (and probably mis-conceived) radicality they might bring to the table and to see what could happen if artists were given more of a voice in the world at large. Artists are problem solvers. That's what artists do all day in their studios, is solve problems. They are often small-ish problems of their own making, but sometimes they are problems related to the big, big issues of our time. There is tremendous value in that ability. For, not only do artists excel at solving problems, they often devise their solutions with beauty, grace, and elegance that add richness and dimension to both the problem and the solution. Artists might just be able to help us out of this mess that we're in in ways we can't even imagine.

It was a pleasure to meet you and to talk with you, and again, I really appreciate your attention to this story and your reporting at large.
All the best,

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

Jimi Hendrix and Alice Neel

In the past few days, I've watched two documentaries, both named after their subjects: Jimi Hendrix and Alice Neel. Sure, their backgrounds and lives and means of expression couldn't be more different, but encountering their work through these films got me thinking about the same kinds of things...

Watching film footage of Hendrix playing guitar put me in a sort of exalted state of jubilance. The reassurance that his kind of utterly defiant, beautiful expression is achievable got me through what was a quite difficult weekend. I realized that part of the power of his guitar playing - apart from the obvious transcendence of skill (and for what it's worth, I'm left rather cold by the theatrics and am always more impressed just watching his fingers on the neck of the guitar than by the teeth thing, etc.... Well, OK, the fire conjuring was pretty fucking great... ) - is the volume he used. This is probably totally obvious, but I just want to write it down here. In order to get the kind of feedback he liked to use as punctuation as well as a place for extra notes and texture, he would keep his amplifiers at a constant extreme volume, as far as I can tell. This requires the ability to maintain tremendous control over the positioning and pressure upon the strings, pickups, neck and body of the guitar. But what it does is it gives that sense of anticipation driven to exuberance that his music has, because the sound is quite literally always at the edge of going out of control. As a result, it's super sexy and joyful as hell.

Alice Neel was 70 years old when Jimi Hendrix died in 1970. The documentary was made by one of her grandchildren and includes wonderful footage of Neel painting interspersed with interviews with her friends and family as well as artists and writers who knew her. Neel led an extraordinarily difficult life as a single mother raising two boys after her first child - a daughter - died before she was even a year old and her second child - another daughter - was taken from her by the father's family. Neel and her sons lived in extreme poverty. She never had a studio other than the living room or the kitchen of her apartment in Spanish Harlem. Anyway, my brief biographical overview of her life is published in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and there is a detailed biography, numerous monographs, and this documentary, for anyone interested in the whole story.

Neel's paintings are deeply moving for their unrelenting directness and their tremendous beauty. Neel painted portraits, almost exclusively. Now that we are in an era that accepts a broadly heterogeneous array of styles and subject-matter, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to paint portraits in New York City in the 1950s when abstract expressionism was championed as the only art worth scholarly attention, and the tenacity it required is evident in the volume of paintings Neel amassed in her long career as well as in the obsessive attention to contextual and psychological detail she was able to express in them. She managed to paint her times through the people she encountered in the many cultural sectors she engaged. Every time I have the privilege of encountering one of her paintings, I feel like I've been given an incredible gift. In 1974, Alice Neel was the subject of a one-person exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art. The footage of her greeting friends and admirers at the reception had me in tears. At the age of 74, it was the first and only major museum exhibition of her work to be mounted in her lifetime.

Hendrix, of course, succumbed at a very young age, and Neel somehow kept going until she died from cancer in 1984 at age 84. They gave us sounds and images that help remind us of the great unquantifiables, of that which is intangible and soulful. It helps me, anyway, because sometimes it's easier for me to give in to the material world than to become amorphous to absorb and encompass everything that is the world, like all great artists must.