The Breakup

Life should not be only about seeking success; art and music reveal that to us. And culture should not be about parading around fund raising galas pretending to understand art one secretly finds meaningless just to appear intellectual or accomplished. One of the worst things the baby boomer generation did was teach our young people they should become “successful.” What a colossal mistake. What an incentive for and incitement to fakery. Indeed, society does not need more success. It needs greatness.

-Richard Dare

Today is the start of a new school year. Two days from now, my students will be in homeroom, in classes, looking to me to set the tone of whatever learning will happen in the 45-minute chunks of their day that fall to my responsibility. That responsibility, on paper, is to teach art.

Last summer, I broke up with Art. It happened while I was exploring the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. I’d taken a bus for several hours with high school students and colleagues from an idealistic summer arts program that also fell to my responsibility. We were touring an exhibit called ‘Fragments in Time and Space‘ (see, I told you, idealistic).  I got a parent call during part of the docent tour, so I was wandering the galleries independently with a few students.  The Hirshhorn seemed largely quiet and empty, aside from our group’s hushed conversations.  These are good kids.

In a large, darkened gallery, a projection of a life-sized elephant slowly walked around several screens. This description of the piece describes it as two screens; I remember it as more, but the actual number doesn’t mean much.  If you stood still and watched the elephant for long enough, she (research tells me that her name is ‘Minnie’) lays down flat on her side for a bit, then stands back up and continues walking.  The artist, Douglas Gordon – the linked article refers to him as an ‘international art star’ – commissioned (read: paid for, probably with some grant or benefactor funding) to have an elephant brought to a New York City gallery, along with her trainer, while he arranged to video tape her on-demand performance.

Teenagers cooed.  “Coooooool.”  “That’s sick.”

I cringed.

Staging a circus-like event in this conspicuously circus-like environment can’t help but make you think of alpha males like Richard SerraAnselm Kiefer,Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel, all of whom have thrown their weight around this same space. This charges the atmosphere with something caustic.

The air is also filled with art-historical ghosts. There’s Bruce Nauman walking in funny ways around his studio or filming marauding mice there; Dan Graham‘s circling cameramen shooting one another; William Wegman and Joan Jonas putting their dogs through their paces on camera;Joseph Beuys sitting in a gallery with a coyote; Jannis Kounellis exhibiting live horses in a museum; and Maurizio Cattelan hanging a stuffed mule from a gallery ceiling—the perfect metaphor for what it must feel like to have your work on display.

Ten ‘international art stars’ are named in that paragraph; I profess to have some mental image of the work that seven of them have produced without clicking on the links or doing research, although I’d have to do so in order to talk succinctly about their work.

But… that’s it.  I’ve tried to research Gordon’s piece, to figure out what I am missing.  There’s nothing.  The piece is just… an elephant in a room, haunted by “art-historical ghosts.”  That’s… all.  Even the critics and the writers don’t seem to be able to add much more context to it, and whatever context they add seems as contrived as that list of ten.

Too many cultural institutions have become inward focused, navel gazers, forever asking what constitutes art and obfuscating meaning behind overly complex explanations that do little to help the people they ought to attract and serve; turning our once great institutions into mausoleums for ideas rather than classrooms for exploring and managing life.

As we walked out of the cool, dark, mostly-empty galleries into the sunshine of a Washington DC summer afternoon, my reaction was physical; my stomach cramped up and a headache pushed at my skull.  I had dedicated most of my life to art – to making it, teaching it, living with it.  And as that elephant marched on, Art exposed himself to me as a self-absorbed, self-referential, wealth-flaunting, snobbish, artificial, just-plain-irritating partner.  Sure, the teenagers thought the elephant was “cool,” and, sure, that very small upper-middle-class-plus audience able to dedicate a Wednesday afternoon to exploring the Hirshhorn galleries may have paused at the ‘playing dead.’  But in a painful instant, I realized that my expectations for art had grown far bigger than what I’d just seen.

There was no way around the ensuing breakup.  Art and I were splitsky.

Life is too short for me to be spending my time with a subject that is “navel-gazing” and self-referential.  But, as Dare alludes to in his essay, this was not always the case.  Art used to play a central role in our society.  My friend Dave Griffith – whose upcoming book hopefully is going to help me sort all of this out – quotes Ingmar Bergman in his book blog:

Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God.

In better times, Art carried the stories of our culture, put faces to names, inspired us to pray or to fight, led us to think about what is really important.  In order to do so, Art had to get its hands dirty; living with the masses and fighting off elitism, in pursuit of some higher meaning.  But Art, in its current definition, seems to spend more time in too-quiet galleries behind guards and admission fees, discussing its artworld references and brat-pack colleagues, than it does trying to inspire us or get us to think beyond those gallery walls.

It’s over a year since the impact of that elephant in the room, and I don’t have any good strategies, yet, for how to spend my days living with one whom I despise.  Art hasn’t moved out of my life.  We’ve broken up, “for reals,” but we still share the same home, classroom, piles of books, and head-space.  I’m reminded of (some of) my married friends who seem just-barely so, in these days of tight economy and overbooked schedules, and I wonder if I share responsibility for our estrangement?  After all, if I hadn’t started thinking so much, or if I was making more art instead… maybe, “it’s not you, it’s me?”  Occasionally, Art will remind me why I first was smitten.  I’ve been carrying a book of poems in my purse since summer.  I’ve heard from a few former students who are starting the art school journey with stars in their eyes, and it’s hard not to echo their excitement.   I left the Sagmeister show with familiar butterflies in my stomach.

And now, it’s the end of August, and it’s time to face another year of students who have signed up for art classes.  Art and I can weakly wave at each other now, but I’m about to spend my year assessing grades to my ex.  In my thirties, I’m starting to realize that previous human breakups have resulted from one or both of us being unwilling to make choices.  Butterflies are fun, but I admire those married couples who have made the choice to stay together even after the butterflies have been rained out.  Since Art and I don’t seem to have an obvious escape route, is it time for us to make some big decisions?

Dare’s essay has haunted me since I read it.  All this feels like a call-to-arms, but I’m going to need a few more cups of coffee first, and to get through a few days of in-service.

I’m open for suggestions.

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2 thoughts on “The Breakup

  1. i’m sorry you’re in this place. i have lots of thoughts about this, i think i may actually end up writing a response on my blog. the general malaise i’ve felt coming from you for the last few months now makes sense. i hope you can find a way to make it lighter for yourself (remember what John Cage said: “Enjoy yourself whenever you can. It is lighter than you think.”)

    i think there is something deeply wrong about what goes on in high class institutions and among international “art stars”. but remember, it’s the mark of a disciplined mind to entertain a thought without accepting it. that’s the attitude i’ve always had going into situations like this: these people are on a different journey from me, i take from their work what i can, even if it’s near nothing, and then move on. i think you’re stronger than you think, stronger than allowing some stupid self-referential artistic wank video to change your fundamental world view.

    artists have been making art about art for a long time, it’s occasionally done well, but usually not. the art world you live in is not Gordon’s – it is material, tactile, gorgeous and dirty and not easily pigeon holed. you should stop thinking about Gordon and remember the makers who really touch you – Staley comes to mind. THAT’S what’s important. just because a piece is in a major museum doesn’t mean it’s important – current artistic taste is guided by many things – a major one being money. we’d like think that what gets held up as the highest art is the best, most intelligent, most enlightened thing our society has to offer, but often, like i said, it’s just wanking. and you have the ability to look at it and declare it complete bullshit.

  2. *thanks* Bethany. Hopefully the malaise isn’t too symptomatic.

    I think that Art and I are stuck together. It’s in our blood now. It’s just a matter of figuring out how we fit. Good advice, yours, as usual…

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