Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nobody Needs To Be Somebody

Like I always say, I’m not too sure about my take on this, but last week TWO artists in different situations within an hour of each other told me the same thing: that they couldn’t deal with not being somebodies.

Now you hear this all the time from artists in some form or another, but always more disguised. These two both used the same word: SOMEBODY! I don’t know if this is the result of having Paris Hilton go to jail and having to hear about it; that it got in the water supply somehow. I don’t know. But for two people who don’t know each other to use the same language to express the same lament within minutes of each other is amazing to me. I am sure my head must have rocked when the second person said it. And I wasn’t in Hollywood or New York, mind you; I was in Harvard Square!

In both cases I did my usual: careful what you wish for; be lucky you’re a nobody; you’re free. Clearly they didn’t feel that way, and in no way appreciated my attempt to comfort them. THEY weren't free; they were PRISONERS OF NOBODY!

And this gets to my previous post, and some before that. Don’t let life make you a prisoner of nobody. Don’t let anyone tell you your grass isn’t green, I don’t care what color it is. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not special. Don’t let anybody put Baby in a corner.

I heard that there is actually some jerk out there that wrote a book criticising Mr Rogers for telling kids they were special. Apparently the saint of kid tv should have been teaching them to work harder! Work for whom? Him? So we can dominate the global economy? Whoever you are I hope you get kidnapped into slavery making running shoes twenty hours a day in China. That should teach you about hard work and not feeling special and liking it.

On the other hand, paradoxically, NOBODY NEEDS TO BE SOMEBODY! Of course nobody doesn’t need to be somebody. I’m sure Mr Rogers would say just be yourself, and be happy to be yourself, and don’t look over the fence for greener grass. It is not going to make you a better artist, or a better person, that’s for sure. Just leave your campsite a little nicer. I loved that Fran Leibowitz, in the late 70’s for INTERVIEW magazine, once said that if she was interviewing someone the chances were they weren’t a very nice person. The point being that if they were somebody enough to be worth interviewing, they were a jerk getting there.

Ironically, again, over a dozen years ago the last words I said, blurted, shouted, to my friend the long since dead artist Leon Polk Smith were, unrehearsed and for being mean to my now wife: if you’re not nice, you’re nobody. To which as I was leaving he shouted down the corridor: then I’m nobody. To his credit. Of course I didn’t mean it that way. What I might have said was that the very least you might be in this world is kind.

Leon was just being himself, none the less. Did he fret about being somebody sometimes? Absolutely, and it could be scary. He thought that he had been denied the greatness he deserved by people who had stolen from him. He thought that Elsworth Kelley and many others had ripped him off and gotten the glory.

What was funny about that was that anyone who knew Leon admired him and could have cared less about that stuff. They liked him for him, not for being somebody. I did. I was glad to know him, and I was glad that he was not some big somebody so that I could know him, because he was real. Really real. Authentic, as they say. How he got to be who he was is a fascinating story, and it wasn’t because he went to the right art school, studied with the right people, and knew the right people in the right places. He wasn’t a Motherwell, or a Tuttle, or a Marden. He was the real deal. The real McCoy. Yes, he’s dead now, and I miss the old nobody.

Green Grass

If you don’t think the grass on the other side of the fence looks greener, then chances are people probably think you’re smug. So it goes. But the whole point is that the grass just looks greener; it isn’t really greener! Some people spend their whole lives looking for the greener grass and never figure this out.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll reference my one brief mentorship with Richard Tuttle yet again, to make my point. Richard Tuttle said one thing to me at the opening of my show at PS1 in 1980(and yes, by this time our relationship was already in decline after just a few years). I had two large murals in oils in a project space. I was hiding out in the basement listening to a Giants game with the janitor. I ran into Tuttle on the stairs. With a giddy smirk he dismissed my show, saying it was like a really nice truck sitting in the back yard; in other words, all dressed up and nowhere to go. I mention this for two reasons.

Yes, I was one of those people; my grass was plenty green, thank you very much. All dressed up and nowhere to go is just a negative spin on the fact that he was always looking for the action, while as far as I was concerned my grass was green enough for me. I was happy to get dressed up and just be. Maybe dressed up was just how I looked to him. It is a way of saying that there is no there there, of course, but who decides? One person’s frontier is another person’s back yard, and I learned that young. The “action” always made me want to take a shower. All those people caught up in the grass on the other side of the fence made me uncomfortable, mostly for them.

My oldest is doing graduate work. His teacher is a well-known contemporary art historian. He is in the same position as a Richard Tuttle, or that I was at one time as a New York art writer and teacher at RISD. Decider! People look to you for judgment. Judgments. It is a corrupting force. It is why I quit writing art criticism and why I quit teaching. I refused to go there. I was reminded of the whole thing with Tuttle because my son told me that this teacher just saw his new paintings and that the first thing my son was aware of was: would his work be dismissed, in this case with a sound his teacher makes with his lips. Apparently that didn’t happen. Instead he got something more positive, more along the lines of pleasant surprise, which was nice for him.

The thing I tried to give my students, as well as the artists I wrote about, was that other sense; that sense that their grass was green enough, if not really green. Of couse the whole system collapses if we are not driven by the doubt, the need, the greed, the lust for greener pastures. And of course, we will be reviled for being smug.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stranger In Paradise

I saw an old friend of mine yesterday. At one time an old boss. It was very interesting. She was part of an effort to show the work of an artist who was getting the support of a nearby gallery. The artist's work was everywhere. The nature of the work was in some ways what one expects if one is to be an artist: obsessive.

What was interesting to me was two-fold. This was my old boss. Someone who was a good boss, and had my best interest at heart. Best of intentions. Maybe even right. Just not right for me. Not the first time someone had plans for me that put being an artist a distant second to a career that was kind of like art that would give me financial security. A mentor/professor in college wanted me to be a museum world person; conservator/curator sort of thing full-time and a painter on the side. I transfered. Needless to say this was the same. Be a graphics artist during the day; artist in your spare time. Problem is graphics, like architecture, is not just inside the lines, it is draining work that demands long hours. I quit, of course. Would rather be poor and live under a bridge. Would rather risk losing approval(affection-place-belonging) to be true, salvage the little bit of integrity and honor leftover critical to being an artist.

The reason I mention all this was that my boss never understood how I could be so ungrateful to blow off her generosity, the life-saving opportunity she gave me. How could I chew off my paw to be free? The professor never understood or forgave me either. But here, right in the middle of my old bosses life was a less polished version of me, I suppose, this strange guy making strange sculptures because it was his life. It was all he could do. My problem, of course, was that I could do these other things. My father was the same way, always trying to figure out what I could do with my talents other than be an artist. He still does after all these years. First it was architecture since I was good with numbers; then it was illustration because I liked writing; then it was interior design because I liked fixing up my home; etc, etc, etc. The difference here was that this guy was a vet, and really wasn't suited to be anything but an artist, socially, mentally, or careerwise.

He was what people call an Outsider. Outsider Artist. Outsider Art. Untrained, untutored, uniformed, unaffiliated, unpedigreed, uninfluenced, un-fucked-with. That is sort of what that means. Outsider. Outsider Artist.

To me that is what every artist wants to be. Has to be. Free. They put up with the training, tutoring, informing, affiliating, influencing, fucking-with, so that they can get permission to be an artist. This guy, and other outsider artists, generally come late to the game, without all the crap. They didn't choose it young and therefore they didn't have to go through the "proper channels." Everybody knows you can't teach art, but they still try. The irony is, of course, if you can't teach it, then what's going on in art schools: doesn't it occur to just about everybody that maybe they are doing something contrary, oppositional, messed up? Making something happen that will make being an artist impossible. Every artist is self-taught(since you can't teach it) but maybe art school does something worse. Something destructive, maybe permanently damaging. I always found it interesting that RISD 's most successful grads NEVER graduated; they always dropped out. You have to consider yourself lucky if you have gotten to be an artist without someone trying to mess with you.

And this is what really pisses me off. Me and other artists who were forced a million times to jump through hoops just so we could make stuff, make art, whatever, just wanting that freedom. When people sort of ou and ah about "outsider" artists. What? You're going to make a fuss about someone who didn't jump through YOUR hoops. Huh? It's one of those lose/lose things. The same people that gush about some guy who is untrained(self-taught) are the SAME ones that tell you that you HAVE to have the training, LEARN technique, LEARN to draw, LEARN art history, etc.(To RISD's credit, and no one but me seems to appreciate it, they didn't try to teach much of that stuff.)

Which gets me to my next point. Insider Outsider. As far as I am concerned, I don't care if you're Brice Marden(the ultimate insider); every, EVERY, artist is an outsider. By definition. Think about it: originality is the benchmark of art. Originality. In other words, unique, in other works DIFFERENT! Original is by definition different. Different: outsider. Same thing.

Artists have to be different every day to distinguish themselves. From cradle to grave. Insiders on the other hand are all the same, they have to be, they want to be, and that is not the artist. I don't care if you went to art school and have a PHD(you still taught yourself!). Some artists even want to be insiders. Not going to happen. If you an artist, you're not the same. If you're not the same; you're on the outside. Artist: Outsider. Enough said.