Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's Interesting, But Is It Art?

Ken Burns' documentary Jazz has so much to say about so many things that a once through experience of watching is not enough. Race relations and the American experience are but one of the threads that weaves through this story about music and musicians. Another thread is how the reclusive edge of the avant-garde jazz scene bled into the broader culture in so many various ways.

Yesterday was the last episode in the Robert Hughes documentary "Shock of the New" which the Duluth Art Institute so graciously shared at the Zinema 2 downtown. While watching this film series, which explores how modern and post-modern art came to be, I couldn't help but see parallels with the music scene. Many of the problems were similar. What is important? What is good? Who determines value? If the public likes it and it's popular, can it really be great? (This was Updike's complaint with Stephen King.)

When the narrator in Jazz put this out there I had to set it down in writing because of all that it conveyed. The basic truth, Artie Shaw concluded, is that popular music has little or nothing to do with musical values at all. “I still wanted to play music and the audience was saying, ‘Play what you’re playing. Over and over. We like that.’ They never could understand that what they liked was something I did on my way to getting better. That record that they liked… became a millstone, became an albatross around my neck.”

So yesterday, we watched the final installment of our series, which was really more like an addendum. The original series appeared circa 1980. This last piece was produced post-9/11 in 2005. Hughes' aim, he stated, was to discuss "what was good, what was bad and why it is important to know the difference." Just because something is novel and new doesn't mean it is vital or important or good.

To make his point he has us join him as he visited with Jeff Koons, whom he said was probably the most successful living American artist. Koons used to be a commodities broker before leaping headlong into the art scene. Koons is an American artist who built a reputation around reproducing banality it seems. It's hard to take him seriously, but he's audacious enough to suggest with a straight face that he is simply a modern equivalent of Michaelangelo. Certainly he's learned a thing or two from Warhol about how to capitalize on his chosen path.

It just so happened that a couple days ago someone shared with me a link to Morley Safer's 60 Minutes segment on Contemporary Art. And look who's in the limelight... It's Koons. His fifteen minutes evidently didn't end here. (Be honest, does this excite you or turn your stomach?)

In late March, in the midst of Hughes' film series there was a guest lecturer at UMD who presented his take on developments these past 150 years in the art scene. Greg Volk, an art critic and curator himself, gave a lively and thought-provoking overview from a bit more esoteric perspective. Volk's fascinations end in a space that was different from Hughes' final pronouncements and ruminations.

Volk's heroes are artists like Katharina Grosse, Ayse Erkman and Roman Signer. Each was following a path into uncharted personal territories without boundaries. But I couldn't help simultaneously hearing in my head Morley Safer's take: "Who are these people trying to buffalo?"

Hughes comes full circle back to draftsmanship and painterliness. His heroes in the end are very different: Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Paula Rego. "Painting is about stories," Hughes stated. He dislikes the fast art of modern times as much his distaste for fast food. And he finds sensationalism appalling.

What I liked about the way our series was presented was that each week ended with a little discussion period which sometimes had almost as many insights as the films themselves. A couple weeks back one of the points made afterward was that all these various movements from Cubism and Dada to Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art were helpful for artists today in that they were now free to pursue their inner vision in any direction they wanted. As Duchamp once pointed out, however, only posterity will decide what was important. Right now, we're standing too close to the oyster.

What's your take?

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