so i had an interesing experience the other day...

Several people warned me, once upon a time, that grad school would "ruin your art." I don't think they really meant that it would be an ever-lasting effect, but that, instead, it would throw me for a loop for several years. It would make me think too much about something that sometimes requires one to just act, to depend on instincts, etc. That prediction has largely been accurate. It was probably a necessary part of growth, but i feel that school really has taken its toll.

Most everybody knows that i'm slightly disenchanted with this world we live in. i think this is an okay way to be--i mean, if i were totally satisfied then that would mean i was oblivious to some things that need help. But here lately i'm reminding myself of a character in one of hawthorne's short stories: the guy in cynic's glasses. At the outset of the story, this man explains that he wears cynic's glasses because they are going to help him find "truth." If i remember correctly, he eventually finds truth, and takes the glasses off. the rub, though, is that even though he's removed them, the many years of searching have ruined his eyes. The only thing he can see, glasses or no glasses, is truth in all its negative and painful glory.

This is like what i've experienced here at school. I came, a starry-eyed idealist, eager to explore methods of making things "by hand." I felt that machines were bad for us in a lot of ways, that the mis-appropriation of technology was to blame for a lot of the woes a lot of people feel, and that art could do something about this. Part of me still holds on to this belief, but labyrinthine investigations have led me down a philosophical path upon which one feeling has led to another feeling that has led to another feeling, and so on, until i've arrived at the conclusion that all art sucks. That all art is powerless. I can now say i know just what Leonard Koren (the westerner who can almost explain the japanese concept of wabi-sabi) means when he says that he finds "large, permanant objects too philosophically vexing to design."

I used to think differently. I used to be under the impression--had bought the party line--"that art can make a difference." Part of the problem has been the de-bunking of the mythos that surrounds being an artiste. you know: the concept of the artist-as- visionary, an individual "divinely inspired." hell, that's just some conspiracy a couple of italians cooked up 500 years ago; and an idea that most artists and the marketplace have done nothing to dispel. Another bump along the path has been an ever-increasing awareness of how western art and priviledge seem to travel hand in hand. And finally, like i said above, i had simply been a blind believer that art had real power, that it really could change things for the better. how surprising --and what a sick twist of reason--it was to find that art's much flaunted power was actually borrowed from that very myth of divine inspiration, that connection to priviledge! It has been a painful process to learn that art is really just a ninety pound weakling decked out in a muscle suit.

okay, okay. so maybe its more than that, but it didn't seem like it was working out that way for me.

anyway, all of this has produced in me a certain ennui. i was feeling kind of worthless and dis-illusioned. and then the interesting experience...remember the interesting experience?...happened.

Over this last weekend, new bedford had its first "open studios" tour, where, from 10-5 on sat. and sun., the public could go visit artist's studios and see their spaces, meet the artist, see thier works-in-progress, etc. Now, like most old industrial towns, new bedford has a wealth of abandoned mill buildings. you know the kind: large, bedragled buildings with lots of blank staring eyes for windows, looking out on the city's business sector. artists move into them because the rent is cheap. and, even though this is massachusetts, new bedford is a relatively inexpensive city to live in. space in mill buildings is even cheaper. given this, and the plethora of these old buildings, and the fact that we have a school here, we had plenty of artists to choose from. I think by the time they put out the brochure there were over sixty artists on the list. The event was a big success.

i went around on my visits on saturday. It was a smiling, sunny day. a nice little breeze was blowing. i had been in the studio myself, so i was wearing a raggedy old pair of paint-covered shorts, socks and sandals, my "total crap" t-shirt. i had on my blue glasses. i walked down to the southend to cove street studios--one of the forementioned mill buildings, old and three stories of red brick, surrounded with the detritus of a hundred years as a mill, ten years worth of discarded sculpture and "found" materials. J.t., a friend of mine with space in the building , had abandoned his post in his studio and, dodging rows of on-lookers, we went to sit on the fire escape and talk. Jeremy weiss, an amazingly good visual artist, joined us. and then sarah martin and then shara porter. we were quite a crew.

so there we are, laying all about, smoking and talking on this ancient fire escape. a little pile of beer bottles had started to form (i had my soup container full of coffee). j.t. had been up until four in the morning cleaning up his space in preparation of the day. his thick dark hair was dirty and piled really high on his head. like me, he, also, was covered in paint and sawdust. shara porter makes crazy shirts and pants with old 50's looking domestic tools silk-screened on them. That day she was wearing a wrap-around silk blouse with an enormous wood screw screened right across it. she was holding a giant pair of wildly ugly, black and green, leather boots. her hair is dyed impossibly black and she had a big flower berrett, doing absolutely nothing, stuck in it. jeremy was looking fairly normal, but he smiles constantly and has enormous teeth. sarah was in her usual getup of studio clothes--pumpkin colored work pants, autumn yellow v-neck t-shirt, red hair, funny glasses. seagulls honked and the sunlight slanted as we sat and talked and laughed and watched fishing boats and sailboats come back into the harbour.

and then i heard a woman say "oh look, honey!"

a conservatively dressed woman, in her mid-sixties, had appeared, camera in hand, on the fire escape behind us. her husband followed behind her, toting the shopping bags that held the things they'd bought that day: a wheel-thrown clay pot, one of shara's shirts, maybe a small painting. "Artists hard at work!" she joked as she took picture after picture. sarah and shara stood a couple of steps down, drinking from paper cups filled with wine. jeremy was propped against the wall. i was lying prone with my feet in j.t.'s lap, who was sitting precariously close to the edge of the rusty, crooked landing. i noticed a look of disappointment on the woman's face as i started to get up. i laid back down. she took more pictures.

before her arrival, we had just been a collection of random people, in soiled work clothes, talking of nothing special. but then, i started to see what this woman was seeing through that lens of her camera. i realized that what she was taking pictures of might have been almost as important to her as the art-things she carried in her shopping bags. to her, we were more than just a construction. we were a neccessary part of society. she needed us there: a rag-tag group, living on the fringes, doing things a little bit differently than most folks. the obvious delight she took in seeing us told me that what we were doing was important to her.

sometimes, i guess it's just a matter of perspective.


Alison said...

Wow, this is a lot. Let me just give one small response for now.

Maybe the issue isn't that art CAN'T make a difference--maybe it's just that you're recognizing that art makes a DIFFERENT difference than you thought it did. Art has a different kind of impact on the world--one that's not totalizing, but small. Micro-revolutions, little tiny sites of resistance and possibility.

You know who I want to hear from on this? Kenneth Burns. Kenneth, post something here!

Kenneth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kenneth said...

I think the paradox of artists is that on the one hand, if they think too much about how other people react to them -- about audiences -- then they risk compromising their artistic integrity, and the work suffers; but on the other hand, the work exists to be consumed by audiences (unless they're Emily Dickinson, quietly writing away for posterity), so of course audience reactions are a concern. The answer, it seems to me -- for artists and everyone else -- is to delight in one's gifts and in one's work and keep the what-the-hell-does-it-all-mean ruminating to a minimum. And lord knows, no one is worse about that than me, so this advice is as much for yours truly as it is anyone else.

christiemckaskle said...

I love this story, and at the same time, I think, "Why do we (as artists or individuals) have to earn the right to exist?" You don't see many astrophysicists' blogs wondering if they make enough difference. They were bolstered their entire educational careers with the societal belief that math and science are a priori worthwhile.

It's the old big ego/low self esteem thing writers get, too. Like you have to do something fabulous with it to be allowed to do it. I read a great example that shows us how we internalize our culture's fear/hatred/love of art. We think nothing of it that we must justify music in schools by proving it improves algebra scores: No one thinks we need to prove algebra improves music. (Well, I actually think we should prove that, but no school boards think so.) Algebra is thought worthwhile in and of itself.

Okay, repeating myself. Bye!