Thursday, September 29, 2011

What the Art Market Does to Art

The following is a paragraph taken from my earlier post, "Toward a Better Definition of Art:"

This is the key transposition that I think has confounded even the best of us: the feeling of conferred
importance has become, through bombardment of countless iterations of the Marcel Duchamp experiment, the experience that people understand as the feeling of art. Museums, galleries, and artists have begun producing objects and events that are designed to refer to other similar objects and experiences within the contemporary art canon, with the goal that they will appear to be influential among their peers, and therefore relevant and important. They call what they are doing “making art,” because it sounds silly to admit what they are really trying to do, which is to bypass art and make something that is simply “important”. But one cannot make an object that is artistically important before it is art, and then call it art because it sounds better. It would be like trying to make “delicious” ice cream before making ice cream, or filling the bestseller shelf in a bookstore with dictionaries.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Just something further from the DeCordova's website (what a goldmine!), that illustrates my point about the collaborative mechanism of museum/artist in fabricating culture that references other culture in an attempt to create importance (and therefore financial value) without necessarily creating art. For those who haven't been frantically reading my posts, this idea refers to my post of September 9, 2011:

"In Wall Works, six artists were invited to create site-specific wall installations in response to the Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary American art. In preparation for the exhibition, artists Kysa Johnson, Natalie Lanese, Caleb Neelon, Alison Owen, Justin Richel, andMary Temple trolled the Museum’s database of 3,500 objects and selected an artwork to serve as a source of inspiration for their proposed “wall work.” The artists identified artworks that resonated with their varied interests and aesthetics and have consequently assembled an eclectic assortment of objects from deCordova’s collection. Sited both in the gallery and the Museum’s Café, these new installations reflect each artist’s own practice while creatively engaging the Permanent Collection as an educational, historical, and inspirational entity.

Additionally, the artists reference longstanding artistic traditions of working directly on the wall. Caleb Neelon’s piece draws on the history of slogans through street art, placards, bumper stickers, and buttons in his graphic portrayal of the visual language of political activism. Alison Owen’s subtle investigation of space emerges from the conceptual practice of Sol LeWitt’s architectural wall drawings, while Natalie Lanese’s pop-tastic assemblage refers to the tradition of murals as narrative epics. Justin Richel’s delicately rendered sweets and Kysa Johnson’s dense chalk drawings on blackboard call upon early fresco techniques, whereas Mary Temple’s use of the wall as conduit speaks to the history of site-specific artwork.

Wall Works is part of a new initiative to rethink Permanent Collection exhibitions at deCordova. This “artist as curator” project invites the artists to curate their own exhibitions from the institutional vault, mining the collection for new relationships and meaning. By illuminating both the unique holdings of deCordova and the work of the participating artists,Wall Works aims to create a new space for dialogue between the collection and contemporary art practice."

Just came across this current event (below) at the DeCordova Museum website. A beautiful museum in a beautiful location (Lincoln, MA,) with an attached school for drawing, painting, ceramics, and other traditional arts.

I post this as an example of something that while cool, gets shoehorned in to the same notional category as painting. Is painting just so boring, or does it just have so few adherents and devotees that museums require a vaudeville lineup of disparate acts to survive? I guess the answer is yes. Perhaps we can work on changing this situation, a sad one for all the painters out there.

From the website:

"Visit deCordova Tuesday, September 20–Sunday, September 25 and witness Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson building their way from the first floor of the Museum to the fourth floor.

Ward and Doug will not come down from their "cat walk" until they have reached the fourth floor. Don't miss this chance to interact with the artists as they perform their high stakes building game. "

Friday, September 9, 2011

Towards a Better Definition of Art

Toward a Better Definition of Art

I’d like to make the argument here in favor of the idea that art should be understood as an attribute of a thing rather than as a thing.  My contention is that because an attribute is not a product, in an art culture  driven primarily by market forces thingness wins out.  The noun “art” has entirely eclipsed its adjectival form meaning "artful," particularly at the higher economic layers of the art world, and this eclipse has hollowed our culture. 

I would like to propose a new definition of art, which may at first seem inadequate, simplistic, and childish. But give me a little to time to flesh it out, and show why I think it is the most flexible, useful, and democratic one possible. The definition is this: art is something that is done well.

Is that all art is? Not a sublime experience? Not a cultural value? Not even at least “something that is done very, very well?” It seems like such a puny and bland definition, I think, because I have removed from it the quality that is more usefully contained in the word “importance.” In fact I think it is the conflating of these two ideas - “something done well” with “something important”- that causes much of the confusion and anger, especially over the past century, among art lovers and art mockers alike. I define something done well as tending toward having beauty, while something important will tend toward having value. Occasionally something done well also becomes important, and therefore valuable, and it is this combination that the public thinks of as the noun called art. The malign marketing genius of our era is the bypassing of art itself in the fabrication of artistic importance, while retaining and exploiting the name, the noun, of “art.”

If art is indeed better understood as a thing rather than an attribute, what kind of “thing” is it? Is it a kind of magic that infuses an object? Or perhaps a thing that has a mystical significance for anyone who is “in the know?” Or perhaps it’s an alchemy that occurs when just the right combination of physical and thought ingredients are placed together, by an artist attuned to some secret channel?

I find these the only sorts of descriptions that are up to the task of explaining what confronts us in many contemporary art contexts. The jargon-filled wall text, and presence in a gallery, are often the sole indicators for the lay-person that he or she should recognize what is being exhibited as an esthetic or intellectual experience at all. What is on exhibit can be anything, and any attributes or qualities of that thing are simply supposed to be infused with art, like a dry sponge cake soaked in liquor. Attempts to categorize and evaluate independent elements for actual "artfulness" are looked upon with scorn. The contemporary art establishment argument that "it looks easy, but it's really not" is the traditional way of quashing legitimate suspicions as to the location of any artfulness that would qualify the work as art. In the contemporary art context, an industry-sanctioned artist (or gallery or museum) has a more or less unquestioned right to pronounce any object or act to “be” a thing called art, independent of any of its attributes or lack thereof.

How convenient for the art world!
Yet, oddly, to a great extent art-as-a-noun is satisfying to both the general and the elite art public. People are not overly taxed by the experience of this sort of “art,” and can indulge in a little pseudo-religious tingle when told that everything in a high-end gallery or museum with a label “is” art. The relatively recent growth of this belief is illustrated by the fact that art (at the highest price points) has been for many recent decades arguably the most lucrative speculative product available- a fact not the case in the centuries preceding 1950. Every time the wealthy invest, of course, they solidify the values of the objects as things called art for the believers, and increase the stranglehold of the word “art” as a noun on the culture. Everyone is happy; money is made, “culture” is produced on a prodigious scale, because anything can be magically transformed into art (and wealth) by a mere word from the right authority. But the culture is slowly hollowed out, as the things people are told about culture become more disconnected from what they see and feel.

But let’s step back for a moment and take an example to begin to illustrate the usefulness of separating the concept of “art” from the concept of “importance.” My contention is that any act that is performed with a greater than average quality, that is to say, “artfully done,” is art. I consider that my friend, who for some peculiar reason has a way of tying his shoes that is fascinating to watch, is a shoe-tying artist. Why is he not celebrated and put in a museum, after all he is perhaps in the top one percent of shoe-tyers? Because what he does, and the category he does it in, is simply not that important to very many people. A few lucky people may notice and enjoy his particularly rhythmic and graceful way with shoelaces. Yet perhaps because the act isn’t inherently complex enough to carry much information, it probably won't have a noticeable impact on the culture, no matter how well it is done. The fact that he performs a specific act well makes him an artist- just not a culturally important one.

This kind of democratization of art is a good cause morally and a healthy one culturally. Without being overly saccharin about it, everyone indeed can potentially be an artist, as long as we don’t demand that art be conflated with cultural importance and financial value. If we keep artfulness distinct from importance, any person has the potential to bring meaning, beauty, and pleasure to their life by doing something well, and being justified in calling themselves an artist even of a small kind. Not everyone will, or must, but they could.

The average person’s artistic actions may also be understood as the building blocks of the more complex creations that ultimately do deserve the moniker of “important.” In the democratic art world arising from our definition there is no qualitative difference between simple small artful actions and those that make up good or even great art actions and creations. A masterpiece may be defined by emergent qualities, cultural shockwaves, and chain-reactions that immensely amplify the effect of a complex group of artful actions. Yet at base, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling are made of the same words and grammar and color and structure that any of us may employ, and the knowledge of this commonality is precisely what makes them magical.

Let me be clear: I’m not writing a screed against conceptual art, or installation, or video art, or anything in particular. I don’t propose this only as a partisan of painting, but as a fan of clarity, pleasure, and satisfaction. For me the whole human project of life is the separation, categorization, and organization of the primordial soup of experience, in order to make meaning out of it. Biology works this way, against entropy and the collapse of categories and systems, and the resulting human consciousness depends upon a similar logic in culture, if it is to remain vital and to grow. An intellect must be permitted to look at an object and ask: what categories do the artful elements belong to? Yet in the present culture and art marketplace this act is a revolutionary act that is punished with mockery and banishment.

What is real meaning? It is meaning that is at least palpable to a community of people before marketing, before explanation, before the intervention of experts whose conflicts of interest ought to be obvious. Anyone familiar with the last decades of the American and British art scene knows the guilty shiver of excitement when something seemingly worthless is bought for an astronomical sum or anointed with a coveted prize. The actual qualities, or attributes, of such an object are instantly encased in an unbreakable capsule of perceived value: it has become a “thing” of value, and of cultural meaning, by virtue of external fiat. There is no point in examining it for any particular elements or attributes, as they have all been fused together as one inviolate unit endorsed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Art.

As an example, let us deconstruct the experience of looking at a Jeff Koons ceramic sculpture. Where is the artfulness located? We might start by de-coupling the craft of the fabricators who sculpt, glaze, and fire the ceramic from the experience of his piece more generally, and judge how the overall effect would change if that part was crafted without any art (i.e., not well). The difference in the effect is precisely the fabricators’ contribution to the overall art experience. We might more usefully contemplate each contribution to the experience if we put them in categories: The fabricators are the sculptors, Jeff Koons is an idea man and producer/promoter- and perhaps a great artist at that craft. We don’t need to take anything away from Mr. Koons, while we surely could credit the fabricators more. We can do this by allowing them to remain in their categories.

They are categories that are as distinct from one another as Lucien Freud is distinct from the promoter of the boy-band Menudo. That is not to say they share nothing; yet few who ever attended a concert by Menudo would have sat without complaint if they were instead treated to a show of Lucien Freud paintings. So why do we, at least potentially more sophisticated perceivers, mutely accept when our esthetic categories are intentionally trampled? Because we have been taught that trampling categories is in itself an art event- an event of importance that we may not question unless we are cretins and anti-art. For me, however, categories are the friend of logic and meaning, and the enemy of marketing.
What I am arguing is not that great art is simple and everyone is equally capable of sensing, analyzing, or making it; each of us will have different levels of capacity for understanding and creating. My estimation of the level of relative skill of my friend’s shoe-tying is limited by the breadth of my experience; if you have an exhaustive knowledge of the subject, you may find him decidedly less impressive. The contention is that art will not be any poorer, its analysis any less rich, if we begin to describe the effect of an art object or event in terms of the art (the “thing done well”) in each part of the whole. What we do when we categorize for ourselves the location of the art (of “what is done well”) is to reclaim for ourselves the right to control our own experience, so as not to be duped or deprived of real and nourishing pleasures. A really meaningful experience of art would become easier for all of us to have, and to discuss, and harder for the marketplace to simulate.

Another instance: an occurrence that is perhaps one of the formative cases in our modern art-historical memory: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” exhibited at the 1917 Armory Show in New York. It consisted of a urinal turned 90 degrees and signed “R. Mutt.” Perhaps the act of putting the urinal in the gallery actually changed the esthetic content of the object? The art history I learned said that it did- that the great philosophical coup of Duchamp was to assert his authority as the artist, as a magician waves his wand, nominating something into the realm of art by “giving it a new thought.” Now this is a very, very helpful assertion for the art dealer, as well as for the university professor, whose contribution to the status quo I write about elsewhere, and for whom “new thoughts” are bread and butter.

It is certainly true that moving something into a palace or a dump or a museum may affect our perception of it. The Museum (or gallery or dealer), however, would like us to believe that it has the power to anoint objects it embraces as art. Yet if we deploy our simple, new definition here, we may reply that the only art a museum can make is what it is capable of “doing well.” As what a museum is most skilled at doing is conferring importance, what the museum (or gallery or dealer) adds to an object is mostly just that: a sense of importance.
This is the key transposition that I think has confounded even the best of us: the feeling of conferred importance has become, through bombardment of countless iterations of the Marcel Duchamp experiment, the experience that people understand as the feeling of art. Museums, galleries, and artists have begun producing objects and events that are designed to refer to other similar objects and experiences within the contemporary art canon, with the goal that they will appear to be influential among their peers, and therefore relevant and important. They call what they are doing “making art,” because it sounds silly to admit what they are really trying to do, which is to bypass art and make something that is simply “important”. But one cannot make an object that is artistically important before it is art, and then call it art because it sounds better. It would be like trying to make “delicious” ice cream before making ice cream, or filling the bestseller shelf in a bookstore with dictionaries.

Museums, galleries and dealers today often purvey manufactured, artificial, conferred “importance” as a stand-in for art. They offer the public an experience of importance as it is defined in the self-referential and labyrinthine art world. This experience is then called “art” to disguise what is essentially a balance sheet tied up in a bow. People are offered the word “art” in place of the experience of art; the blunt noun “Art” in place of the subtle adjective “artful,” and much of the time they seem to accept it, consume it, and unaccountably to be satisfied with it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Press Release: It Figures




BOSTON, MA – August 29, 2011 William Scott Gallery and Boston based figurative painters Damon Lehrer and Rick Berry announce the September exhibition of their work “IT FIGURES” with the opening reception to be held September 9, 2011, 6-9 pm at William Scott Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave, #65, Boston.

Berry’s refined brutalism and spontaneous generation of bodies under strain and release contrast hypnotically with Lehrer’s perverted baroque style. Together their work expresses a joyous explosion of the possibilities of “traditional” media, and different approaches to knitting together new and old, street and museum culture, the synchronicity of pop and salon.

Berry and Lehrer met through mutual friend and sometime collaborator, Phil Hale (cult illustrator and also official portrait painter of British Prime Minster Tony Blair). Lehrer has since founded the collective known as the Boston Figurative Art Center; Berry joined in response to its mission to promote figure painting in its many incarnations as a primary focus for contemporary art in Boston and beyond.

Damon Lehrer received his Master of Fine Arts degree at Boston University in 1994. His work is in the collections of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, The Acadia Foundation of Richard Estes, The New York and Boston Public Libraries, Dartmouth College, Tulane University, Bowdoin College, and Boston University, as well as many private collections in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Rick Berry left high school and started at 17 in underground comics, expanding into popular culture with art for Marvel and DC comics, major book and gaming publishers, television and feature film (including acting as Keanu Reeves’ cyber stunt double in Johnny Mnemonic.) A pioneer in new media, Berry created the world’s first digital cover for a novel in 1984 for William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Authors Frank M. Robinson, Stephen King, Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman have commissioned his illustrations and collected his work. His fine art paintings are also in private collections across Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as in two books of his work, Double Memory (with Phil Hale) and Sparrow: the Art of Rick Berry. He recently worked for three seasons in residency with OperaBoston, then with the American Repertory Theater for Amanda Palmer’s Cabaret.

Immediately following “IT FIGURES,” William Scott Gallery will host a group exhibition called "National Figures" for the month of October in which Berry and Lehrer invite selected nationally and internationally known figure painters, many with Boston connections, into the image-driven conversation. Artists include Phil Hale, Anne Harris, Ken Beck, Bill Carman, Ed Stitt, Paul Goodnight, Jim Burke, George Pratt, Scott Bakal and others. The Opening Reception will be on October 7 from 6-9pm.

Lehrer interviews Berry:

William Scott Gallery, Provincetown - Boston

Brian Galloway, 617-542-4040,

Boston Hours: Wed - Sat 12 -5pm, Sunday 12 -4pm

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who Defines Art, and Why?

Posted by Damon Lehrer

The value of art, as it generally has no intrinsic or practical value, is always in question. Everyone involved with art has a stake in the question. On the small end of the scale, most of us unconsciously tweak our art criteria to elevate our own or our friends’ artwork, for example, or a gallery may try to increase our desire for an artist’s work and therefore its value by paying for media coverage of that artist. But the surest way to fiddle with the value of art is to fiddle with its basic definition.

As I described in my previous post, the culture of the university frames art in a way that privileges the attributes of the university, and the marketability of the university experience. The universities are in the uniquely influential position of being the conduit through which most young people flow, as they move into larger cultural spheres. Universities are the Walmart of the intellectual world- their enormous cumulative size, and perceived necessity for a successful life, causes them to change the culture that exists around them, whether they mean to or not. The colleges and departments built around teaching art have become key constructors and gatekeepers of the contexts in which art is seen and understood. The nature of their business, which acquires, alters, and dumps large volumes of students into the culture, has managed through sheer numbers of graduates to swing the entire intellectual framework of the art world in their favor. Universities have rendered our art culture at once more similar and more amenable to university culture.

If you ask the average person on the street in a moderate sized city today who has NOT gone to college to define the word “ART”, their response would probably be fairly straightforward. For the average American a piece of art is still a painting that looks like something. This is a definition that serves the purposes of the average citizen. They can recognize when something before them requires an esthetic reaction, because it has a frame around it.

But ask the same question to a denizen of the contemporary art world of 2011, and you will likely get some version of this also seemingly simple kind of answer: “art” is something made by an "artist". Now why would they answer like this? It seems straightforward enough, not that different from the average uneducated citizen’s response. It’s almost a tautology: it appears obvious. But the reason a member of the contemporary art scene answers like this is not at all obvious to most of us. The reason is that this answer pays.

The contemporary art dealer’s greatest sales tool is the same one that serves other aspects of the capitalist marketplace so well: branding. Imagine what would happen to sales at a department or specialty store if every piece of clothing had to be tested for quality, fit and fashionableness individually. What if there were no brands whose quality, fit, and fashionableness were understood, and therefore of a certain minimum value to the consumer? That store would have to hire an army of attendants, all extremely versed in testing clothes and proving to customers that they were paying a fair price. Or, alternatively, consumers themselves would have to all be experts in cloth and seam quality, durability, the subtleties of fashion, and so forth.

The implementation of the Brand is an inevitable consequence of mass-market society, and is desirable in most contexts for the convenience of both sides of many transactions. The marketer gets a marketing tool, which helps them in their attempts to increase perceived value of their merchandise, and the consumer gets a buying tool, which at least purports to guarantee a certain degree of quality, and carries that same perceived value and status into the life of the purchaser. In the normal world of commerce, these benefits permit the economy to run in an efficient way, and give rise to an advertising industry. But what about in the non-normal world of art commerce?

In the art world, the dealer’s definition of art (that art is what is made by an artist) immensely favors the dealer. And the more open-ended the accepted definition of artist and art is, the more power the dealer has to create value out of nothing. In our department store example, the power balance is between buyer and seller is upheld by the relative expertise of the buyer in identifying a shirt, pants, shoes, etc. The only thing at issue is the quality of the stitching, materials, and fashion taste. Most of this information is clearly labeled by law, and only the taste of the buyer is left to chance and individual savvy. But what if taste was not the only variable left; what if the purchaser of clothes was not allowed to rely on his or her definition of what clothes should DO; what if clothes were allowed, for example, to be invisible?

Why is contemporary art seemingly all about knocking down boundaries, overturning categories, and destroying preconceived notions? To be sure, it’s an interesting and refreshing exercise to air out and test the usefulness of categories that have been with us for centuries. But it is much easier to knock down a structure than to build one up, and the task for the artist in this paradigm soon becomes finding new “old structures” to overturn, or attacking “old structures” in new ways. All fun and exciting, but why has knocking down assumptions and undoing established boundaries come to define the character and philosophy of most of contemporary art?

A history professor might answer this question with something like the following statement: following in the mold of many successive rejections of earlier art establishments, and accelerated by the cynicism about traditional culture and values provoked by the industrialization that culminated in the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, irony and mistrust of institutions and the categories that they support became a dominant cultural mood. This kind of explanation certainly has merit, but there is another force, like dark matter, that remains undetected by most of the art consuming public, and has nothing whatever to do with history or esthetics or philosophies of art. It is simply that in the absence of categories, the capitalist marketing tool of branding becomes a supercharged, unstoppable mega-tool.

Imagine a world of general commerce where all categories had been intellectually obliterated. A car dealership might decide that it wanted to make more money, and so begins to populate its showroom with large boulders, which it continues to refer to as cars. With the right marketing, and the right branding, these new “cars” fly off the lot, as people come to “understand” the colonialist and exploitative paradigm that the old form of car represented, and although their travel and commuting sensibilities are no longer stimulated by the new form of car, they feel cleaner and much more modern.

This is the reality of the contemporary art world. It is a fantastically profitable one for well-placed art dealers, as well as the critics, magazines, and university art departments that encircle, support, and are enriched by them, and whose inexorable adoption of and investment in this reality make it nearly impossible to make a credible contrary intellectual claim. The only way to take on this interlocking, mutually profitable cultural matrix of cardboard meaning is to begin with a new definition of art. While there isn't much hope of defeating the edifice that is built on the current definition, at least we can offer an alternative at the grassroots of the culture. If we begin to provide young people at the grassroots level with the means to satisfy the craving to actually go somewhere in a car, then they will begin to see that interesting and groovy as the boulder in their garage is, it DOES NOT DRIVE.

In part 2 of this post, I'll offer a alternative to the dealer's definition of art, and talk about the deliberate misuse of the word itself. The word "art" in this past century is commonly conflated with the word "important" in a very un-clarifying, and immensely remunerative way. Only the culture is impoverished, so who cares?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Art School Screed: Make Art, Pay Forever

Posted by Damon Lehrer

I suppose it was a little below the belt of me to actually post Harvard’s VES courses... But having taught in many art schools over a recent ten-year period, I have developed a deep skepticism about the teaching of fine art in colleges and universities. Art schools offer the students who pay dearly to be in them a four-year simulacrum of relevance, tidy hierarchies, and fashionable unruliness. And that’s often about it.

In the case of undergraduates, no efforts are spared in luring students to come to art school with promises that they will be able to live their dreams. The cover page of one high school recruiting booklet I have in front of me states simply: “Make Art, Live Forever.” Naïve and impressionable teenagers are flattered into coming to art school, encouraged to take out loans whose future consequences they can’t imagine. The bloating effect the art education industry has had on the wider art culture by convincing waves of adolescents to consider themselves artists, in order to harvest them like crops, is a toxic topic for another post. Ditto for the question of what today’s undergraduate education in painting or drawing trains you to do in life. (Hint: Very little except to go to grad school, where the same scheme awaits).

I am not accusing the mostly individually good people who make up university culture of perpetrating deliberate fraud and larceny on the youth of America. I long aspired to be one of them: to settle into a spot where I would be paid to argue over curricula, collectively bargain for salaries, teach students who mostly don’t care about drawing and painting something about drawing and painting, and go home and have a few hours to myself. Most professors are doing what they can to live, just like the rest of us. And if they do sense the small and large compromises that are made, they cannot speak out, because they are part of a system that depends on those compromises.

The reality is that in most art schools and departments, student tuition supports seven or eight permanent professors who have been there for decades and have decades more to go before they retire. And the phalanx of administrators and their gym memberships and the buildings and physical plant of the school, as well as the dozens of migrant-worker-like adjunct teachers, who were recently students themselves, hustling and waiting and hoping for a hinted at permanent job (which they will almost certainly never get).

There are two main reasons to go to graduate school in painting or drawing. The first is to improve your work while living for a couple of years in an artistic community. The second is to get an MFA degree, which in theory allows you to teach in art colleges and university art departments.

Now while an MFA does give you the credentials to teach college (two years of “low-residency” study apparently makes you a “master”), there are a vanishingly small number of permanent jobs available in proportion to the number of “masters” anointed each year. Graduates who want to teach will most likely find themselves working as adjuncts, easily replaced by the oversupply of adjuncts they themselves are helping to reproduce. The situation has gotten worse as the economy has slipped, but even in the preceding two decades, it has been extremely hard to land a good teaching job. Our voracious industry of art education is enjoying an economic bubble similar to other recent economic bubbles. The cost of an art education cannot keep rising so ludicrously relative to its value.

(A related topic: the profitability to art schools of expanding the definition of art to “anything," as they have done… so many more student/customers are interested in “anything” than in painting or drawing! And what of the effect on our culture as those “art is anything” students go out and form our culture?)

The Boston Figurative Art Center (BFAC) formed last fall from a group of artists who were enrolled or were considering enrolling in graduate school, but who believed they could achieve a better, more specifically tailored community without the high price.

The Center is part of a trend toward re-establishing guild and atelier-like structures in which professional artists can share knowledge, support and compete with one another. Students can learn about the tools and crafts that are specific to the form of art that they intend to pursue in their professional lives. There is no promise of an empty degree, or a non-existent job, or indeed even of success; only the promise of community and the valuing of real and germane artistic knowledge. To draw and paint well one mostly has to practice and learn by observing how others succeed, and we want to provide an environment that matches that reality.

The group that became the core of The BFAC started in August, 2010 as a class. There were about three students, which slowly grew to six, of varying intensities of attendance. We charged $25 per class, about the price of adult education classes. We bore all the risk if students stopped coming or missed classes. The model got paid, and I usually didn’t.

In October 2010, I was on the verge of giving up when I went out for drinks after class with two students, Mike Pina and George Ratkevich. George was applying to grad school, and Mike was thinking about doing the same. Both were looking for a change in their artistic lives. Needless to say, they got an earful from me about the value vs. expense of graduate school.

On the way back from the bar, I started to think that although we couldn’t grant a useless degree, we could perhaps create an artistic, social, and intellectual community for the many figurative artists without one. And we could probably do it for a lot less than the cost of graduate school. A month or so later, we broke the rent up in six parts, made that the membership fee, and had our first model session as the BFAC.

Now, three and a half months after the official beginning, we have model sessions in three studios, and upcoming gallery shows in July and October. We are contemplating a move to a larger space on the third floor of Vernon Street Studios, and we have a small group of devoted artists and a larger group of artists who work with us and who are beginning to identify with us.

We are seeding a movement of people who are tired of waiting for the culture to come around to acknowledging that what they do is valid and contemporary. We will make our own culture around what we think is valuable, and if there are enough of us, we will start to shift the larger culture toward us. Complaining is no longer enough- now we are going to make an alternative to the absurdity all around.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I'm going to interpose what I hope will be a bit of dark humor, to soften up the audience for an un-funny future post which is tentatively titled My Art School Screed: Make Art, Pay Forever. What follows here are entries from Harvard University's Department of Visual and Environmental Studies online course catalog from 2009. That's what they call the Art Department at Harvard- "VES"; a not so tacit admission that art making does not belong in the university. They are only a sampling of the humorous class descriptions to be found there (or also, I imagine, in the most recent catalog- I haven't looked at this year's offerings.) I have inserted brief observations of an ironical sort after most of the descriptions, as I couldn't turn off the commentary in my head as I read these the first time- they are followed by my initials, DL. I also leave in the course numbers and administrative numerology just to make it possible for anyone to cross-check that these indeed are real. We may take these examples, I think, as bellwethers for any American high culture university art department, and expect to find similar follies across the country.

*Visual and Environmental Studies 38. Baggage: Studio Course - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 43153 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Andrew B. Witkin

Half course (spring term). M., 9–12. and additional times to be arranged.

Engaging personal and public notions of authorship, veracity, legibility, history and value, this class focuses on exploration and performance in collecting. Students will examine possibilities and patterns to understand choice, advice, intuition and peculiarity with the goal of better communication. Sources include information distribution models, history, exhibitions in and out of art contexts and a focus on comfort. This will aid students in investigations into personal and collaborative projects employing a variety of media, methods and modes.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary. Students from other disciplines are highly encouraged to take the course

Note the (could it possibly be unintentionally?) ironic phrase “with the goal of better communication.” DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 53a. Fundamentals of Animation: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 1360 Enrollment: Limited to 10.

Sarah Jane Lapp

Half course (spring term). Tu., 1–5, and weekly film screenings F., 1–3; .

Strategies for creating an alternative cosmos - imagined, utopic, glorious.

Great! which drugs will we be taking? DL

[*Visual and Environmental Studies 58r. Image, Sound, Culture: Studio Course]

Catalog Number: 6680 Enrollment: Limited to 10.

Lucien G. Castaing-Taylor

Half course (spring term). F., 9–12, F., 2–5.

Students use video, sound, and/or hypermedia to produce short works about embodied experience, culture, and nature, and are introduced to current issues in aesthetics and ethnography.

Note: Expected to be given in 2010–11. No previous studio experience necessary.

Hypermedia? And yet another coup for limited scope- the students are strictly limited to explorations within culture OR nature. DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 37. Lay of the Land: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 3090 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Stephen Prina

Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

The pursuit of and response to the horizontal in art will be the focus of this studio class. To cite a few examples, abstract expressionist painting, cartography, earthworks, landscape photography, 19th century German Romantic landscape painting, and Rayograms will provide models of the horizontal that will be points of departure for studio projects, the forms of which will be determined by what the investigation provides. Students will shift medium from project to project.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

Follow on: Course on the use of Yellow in the wardrobe of Beethoven’s hypothetical cross-dressing lover. DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 36. Making as Thinking: Sculpture - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 23095 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Helen Mirra

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

A studio course in which to experiment with simultaneous making and thinking, with simple yet unbounded materials and methods.

Note: No studio experience necessary.

“The hills are alive with the sound of music…”; and by the way, I wonder if Harvard students are up to the task of both making and thinking at the same time- I anticipate frustration. DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 32. Reconstruction: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 1790 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Helen Mirra

Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

A studio course, for making things out of other things, attending to the realms of demolition, waste, surplus, and detritus.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

No previous studio experience required?! What are these people thinking- HOW COULD YOU EVEN CONTEMPLATE TAKING THIS WITHOUT A PH.D! DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 29. Painting Day and Night - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 44403 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Drew Beattie

Half course (fall term). Tu., 1–6.

A studio course emphasizing the fundamentals of oil painting. Students will capture the illusion of form, space and light through the handling of paint and color. Subjects will include still life arrangements, the interior of the studio and views out its windows. Images from the observation of daylight will be followed by those belonging to night.

Note: No studio experience necessary.

Wait- you’re going to teach us how to paint something? How did you get in the building- SOMEONE CALL SECURITY! DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 22. Subtle Skills: Studio Course - (New Course)

Catalog Number: 88474 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Instructor to be determined

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 9–12.

In this beginning-level studio course, students get acquainted with a variety of painting and drawing media. Students paint and draw during and outside class, working to find their own painterly practice. The course aims to put skill into perspective while unassumingly practicing and studying some of the tools used for image making. Critiques, readings, and exhibition visits are integral to the course.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

Could this be another interloper aiming to undermine our vision of the university in which students pay money to us in exchange for being confused? Oh, no, wait; phew! The course promises to put skill into perspective, which has at least three possible and completely unrelated meanings so that’s O.K. then. DL

*Visual and Environmental Studies 80. Loitering: Studio Course

Catalog Number: 9394 Enrollment: Limited to 12.

Stephen Prina

Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 1–4.

You will hang out in the vicinity of culture and make things in response to it. This class is not thematic or linked to any particular discipline.

Note: No previous studio experience necessary.

This is more like it! DL

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The first mark

Posted by Mary Helen Miller

Last Saturday was the start of a new pose with Dawn. We fiddled with the few elements that we can change from pose to pose—the lighting, the backdrop material, the way Dawn sat. This time, we kept her clothed, in a silky floral dress, then stuck her in a bright blue camping chair and had her keep on one sock. The sock looked a little lopsided and goofy to me, but her feet never made it on my canvas anyway.

It’s funny what happens next, in the time between setting up the scene and setting up your easel. You pull down your eyebrows, scrunch up your cheeks and nose, and amble around the room looking at the model from different spots. The squinty-wander isn’t something they teach you, it’s just something you find yourself doing one day.

When I start a painting, I usually don’t map out my composition in great detail. Instead, I block in the outline of some major forms, wipe them away, and do it a couple more times until I’m vaguely satisfied. Then, I cover my canvas up with paint. Lots of it. Too much of it.

I’ve been watching Mike paint for a few weeks now. While I search for forms by pushing around thick, slick paint, he slowly builds his up with thin, careful lines and layers. When we started the new pose, I told myself that just this one time, I’d do my best to guard my clean canvas from my goopy brushes. But then I kept dipping back for more paint like an addict, and by the end of the three hours, my canvas was coated.

So I asked Mike about how he goes into a new painting—what does he try to accomplish on Day 1? Why is he so frugal with his paint?

Mike’s a drawing nut. I think he’s been to every life-drawing group in the Boston area, and he makes a point to practice frequently. And it shows.

He started his painting of Dawn with a single vertical line down his canvas. When he looked at Dawn sitting in the camping chair, he noticed that her ear, her neck, her fingers, and the back of her knee all lined up. So, he drew a line with his paint, and that was his point of entry.

“If I see something in the pose—a drawing element that helps me unify it, that I can get on the canvas—I can start attacking it with paint,” he said.

He lets himself be excited about the drawing and composition on that first day. Focusing on those elements, and enjoying them, can be hard for some of us. On the days that I’m just drawing, I find joy in it. But on the days that I’m painting, drawing becomes a tedious chore that I have to do to get to the fun part. The temptation is to flippantly scribble a drawing, then start laying on paint. Then later, I’m mad at myself because I’m stuck with a wobbly drawing to paint on.

But drawing doesn’t have to be just a cold, mathematical task. It can be a chance to spot exciting passages, and plant little seeds. Mike says that when things don’t line up exactly how he’d hoped—like, say, the ear above the hands above the knee—he starts to think more abstractly. He looks for curves and lines that aren’t blatantly obvious but that turn into a gestural mark.

“When you start to find these abstract lines in it, it starts to become more of a painting or an object in itself,” he said.

Then, he pulls the painting out of the drawing, by adding color. After that, he says he doesn’t know what happens, but a painting surfaces.

“Something comes out, and it either stinks or it’s good.”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The figure: The subject that feels

Posted by Mary Helen Miller

As artists, we can find beauty in a roll of toilet paper.

Maybe the ribbon has unraveled in elegant turns, or the light has turned the white paper into an exciting puzzle of tones. We catch a glimpse of it just sitting there, and we compulsively start to work out how we would show that little bundle of cheap paper on a canvas.

In a split second, a roll of toilet paper has seduced us.

When we work from life—whether we’re drawing a still life or painting a scene—we’ve got a million problems in front of us. They’re primarily problems of perception: How dark is a shadow? What’s the curvature of a shape? We squint and concentrate. We’re looking and thinking. It’s a mind-driven process.

But when we get the chance to work from a model—a living, breathing, feeling human being—we enter a new realm of making art. We’re not just going off of what we see and think anymore. We’ve got to evoke our own physical experience of having a body, too.

When I dropped in at the Boston Figurative Arts Center for the first time a few weeks ago, I hadn’t worked from a model in several years. I’d been painting infrequently, mostly working on landscapes and still lifes. I could remember that working from a model was somehow different, I just couldn’t recall how, exactly.

First, there’s the shock of nakedness. When you haven’t worked from a nude model in awhile, it takes a just a minute or two before you can relax and forget that she’s naked. Once you’re in the habit, it seems perfectly normal for an unclothed person to stand still in front of you while you stare intensely.

Once I became comfortable with the nudity, it came back. I remembered what was unique about working from the figure.

The body isn't like other objects. It has a gesture. It feels. And when you see it sitting or standing or leaning in a certain way, you know how it feels. You hit the squishy, fleshy spots in a specific manner with your paintbrush—maybe an easy stroke, sopped with paint—and for the tight, weight-bearing places, you make a hard, sure dash on your canvas. You might dig with a sharp mark on the bony angles, like elbows and ankles.

On Saturday, after we finished our afternoon session with Ansu, I lobbed the question to everyone: Why paint the figure, why is it different than other subjects?

Marc, who usually paints landscapes, said he paints the figure because “there’s something to be said for upholding a tradition, especially one that’s older than Western culture.”

I asked Osama, who is primarily a still life painter, how painting a live model is different than painting, say, a still life of a mannequin.

“I would do a mannequin in 10 minutes,” he told me.

The biggest challenge is getting flesh to look like flesh, Osama said.

“It’s not just ochre and red and white, you have to have atmosphere,” he said. “Skin has blood and veins, it has cool colors and warm colors.”

Damon said that the figure is like 40 still lifes put together, and that there’s “so much complexity, even though it’s, in a way, simple.”

It’s true, our initial approach to a figure is the same as a still life. You must make the usual, tedious calculations: How will I compose the page? At what angle are the hips tilted? What’s the true shape of that foreshortened foot?

But here's the delight in working from the human figure: Even as you work through those calculations, you're dancing over your page because your understanding of your subject is biological. You get what it feels like to be a person with a body, sitting on a cold folding chair or perched upright on a pillow. As you pore over every block and shadow, your image is laced with an innate empathy for your subject.

The figure gives you a unique challenge—can you let your own experience of having a body inform how you show the model’s? When you succeed, your art will give that same feeling you had to the viewer.

The figure is the only subject that we have a chance of understanding on such a physical level. After all, we may never know what it’s like to be a roll of toilet paper.

The images used in this post were created on February 26, 2011 by Mike Pina and Damon Lehrer, respectively.