Friday, May 11, 2012

A Long Dialogue with Artist Ann Klefstad (Part 3)

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." ~Thomas Merton
EN: The visual arts world is fairly fragmented right now (and maybe has always been) so that it has no real center. What are the pros and cons of this contemporary situation?

Ann Klefstad: There have certainly been times when the visual arts world in the West has had a strong center—in fact, during most of Western history it has. The various art worlds in other parts of the world have also had their centers—usually, the capital of whatever place. In T'ang China, it was Xian, in 18th-19th-century Japan, it was Edo. In the European Renaissance it was urban Italy. In the nineteenth century in Euro-American culture, it was Paris. After WWII it was New York. The tendency, as a matter of fact, for the various art worlds is for artists to travel to whatever is the art capital at the time, to access the intense discussion and interest and availability of materials and infrastructure (and money and patrons) that such centralized communities produce.

The contemporary situation is fragmented for various reasons. One, the visual arts world is no longer in the cultural forefront, as it truly was for centuries in a number of cultures. So the economic force has shifted to other forms of creativity—digital, filmic—which tend to rely on the same kind of complex infrastructure and funding that an entity like Raphael's studio had need of. Those worlds are somewhat centralized: Seattle and Silicon Valley are certainly creative centers in much the same way Rome or Paris were in their days. Los Angeles or Mumbai are creative centers in that way too.
Second, when what you are making can be made by you, a lone individual, in a room somewhere, and sent to wherever you need it seen by means of the web; when galleries are seen online far more often, by far more people, than they are seen in person, the need for physical centers changes.
Also, the rise of replicable imagery over the past 200 years, culminating in the wide availability of the entire art history of the world in studios from Latvia to subSaharan Africa to Beijing to Fargo to New York, and the availability of blogs and forums to discuss all this, means that the Cedar Bar is everywhere, and there is no dominant style. All bets are off; critical mass is irrelevant; and transient memes are as relevant as signature styles. 
Benefits are obvious: communities can have artists in residence that are as formidable, as talented, as committed, as artists in the capital used to be. If they're lucky in the artists who live there. If they can support them. 
Drawbacks are perhaps less obvious. The Cedar Bar, and studio visits back and forth, supported a mode of artmaking in which people couldn't do such a part-time, back-burnered practice as is often now done. In those days, you were on. You had to produce, or people wouldn't take you seriously. Now you can be far more surreptitious about your art life. I think that may mean that people sort of hobbyize it. That's fine, but not if you want your work to make a difference in the world. I'm guilty of this myself.

EN: You made reference to the manner in which Duluth really has something to offer as a cultural model to emulate, chiefly due to the manner in which it has both a rural and urban sensibility. Can you elaborate on this a little bit.

AK: Duluth's oddly rural components are good for artists, as people have a habit and a value of made things, of making things. They are not only consumers.

Duluth also has, considering its size, a surprisingly urban sensibility. It's an old-fashioned, not much sprawled or malled, city. A fair number of its people look for cultural experiences that are challenging and skilled.
It also has such intensity in its setting and weather that people are sensually more alive than in some places, I think. This is good for artists too.

EN: You recently referred to the artists of the world as "border scouts"... What did you mean by this term?

AK:  The artists of the world have always been border scouts! That is, most people do not have the luxury or the desire to roam the edges of their psyches, or the borders of what’s possible. But the collective human enterprise needs to have news of those edges, those borders, for a number of reasons: new discoveries; keeping a culture from being overwhelmed by lies; and allowing individuals access to collective truths.
New discoveries come from the borders of the psyche, the edges of experience, new knowledges of what makes us human. Someone needs to bring news of the realms that tie us to the nonhuman world, those conduits to our animal natures, or our soul-natures, or our object natures, that we don’t consciously focus on but that do form huge and necessary parts of our psyches. But that exploration has risks. Not everyone wants to run the risks, or thinks that it’s worth it to do so.
Artists are often those who invite those risks, both psychic and physical, who are willing to patrol those borders, and bring back the news to the rest of their people. Nowadays, in the post-shamanic era let’s call it, that isn’t how the artist’s role is often described, but it is a very old role, probably the oldest role of the artist, and one that is still current, I believe. In the modern era people as different as Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol (who were fans of each other) have performed this role. When Beuys spoke of his life as “posthumous” what he meant was, he had resolved to leave his old life of reasonable expectations and self-centered accumulation and enter instead a life of exploration, in which he gave himself to whatever he might find. Warhol was not so different, although the wilderness he explored was the urban and social one of New York.
To my mind, artists do three basic things. One is to patrol the borders; the other (and this is just as important in its way) is to decorate— that is, to find the forms and colors that symbolize, or iconize, meanings that people share—doesn’t have to be the whole community who shares them. Maybe just a maker and the person whose face she is decorating; or a group of friends who all love to drum and sing together. Art doesn’t need to change things to be utterly authentic and necessary. It just has to embody something that is authentic and necessary to its maker and to some form of audience. And sometimes it’s just done for fun— and that’s also so necessary! Open-ended play— that kind of exploration is another role of the artist, maybe the one that creates the artist, who can then create art.

EN: It seems you have thought about these issues for a long time. Who have been the primary sources of the ideas that form the foundations of your thinking?

AK: I studied aesthetics (not in the sense of “making things look nice” but as a branch of philosophy) in college, working with Fred Stoutland at St. Olaf’s Paracollege, who kindly agreed to a series of tutorials even though he was primarily a philosopher of language, influenced by Wittgenstein. So that grounded my thinking in many ways. The ways in which things mean, and what those ways imply for the forms that things take. I eventually wrote a paper on metaphor as a sort of master trope that can be found in mimetic visual arts as well as in language.
Arthur Danto’s ideas on what makes art art were influential. And I found Panofsky’s film writings interesting— film being a medium that incorporates visual signification, story, temporality, all that.

But I was always more invested in making art than in doing philosophy, and so I looked mostly among sculptors for good thinking about art. Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and very much Robert Smithson were important for me.  Fluxus artists like Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and Ken Friedman. Though arts critics like Rosalind Krauss were also important. In later years, Dave Hickey’s writings about art in the context of daily life as well as the artworld have been important—and they’re a gas to read.

And you’re right— this has been a continuous study for nearly 40 years. I’ve fallen away from art-magazine reading in part because they seem repetitious at this point— the issues they address have gone round and round in the culture . . . It’s like watching the dryer at the laundromat. There’s that shirt again! (For people who aren’t so damn old, it’s likely fine. They’ve maybe never seen the shirt before . . . ) What I’ve been reading now is online stuff like “Dazed Digital”, the online instantiation of “Dazed and Confused,” a London arts-and-culture magazine that covers everything from ad culture to poppy music to weird music to photography and sculpture and design and shoes, all in the same context. And not as a shoppers’ guide, really— they write about things as actions and not as objects. That seems fresh.

EN: Thank you, Ann, for enriching us this week.


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