Sunday, August 12, 2007

Back to School for JaxCAL

After reading Byron’s lament, his call to action in regards to helping the general public see contemporary art as a public good vital to civilization, and to also clarify why so many artists only create work that is sure to sell (be it seascapes or cute fuzzy monsters with antlers), I think it is time for us all to attend a special topics seminar. You won’t be graded, and it might be worth more that grad credit to you if you take the idea and run with it.

So enter the JaxCAL reading room and join me for a real discussion on what I believe is a fundamental issue- the image of the artist’s role in society.

Our reading selection today is by Dr. Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, from her 2003 book of essays entitled “Surpassing the Spectacle: Global Transformations and the Changing Politics of Art”

The Artist as a Public Intellectual

“Of the multiple images that exist for artists in U.S. society, most continue to be fraught with complexity and contradiction. There is, for example, the romantic image of the artist on the fringe- wild, mad, alone, ahead of his or her time, misunderstood, somewhat like the prophet raging in the desert. There is the artist as bohemian, socially irresponsible, less than adult, immersed in the pleasure principle, at times able to create something truly extraordinary and at other times able to fool the public with work that passes for art but is really fraudulent—“putting one over on its audience”—or so esoteric that only a handful of people “get it” or want to “get it.” There are images of artists working out of their intuitive selves, in tune with the universe, envisioning the future. And there are also images of artists as shrewd businesspeople able to out-psyche the difficult, sophisticated and fickle art market, make a fortune, and live like celebrities. At the same time there are images of artists whose work never sells in their lifetimes, who die unacknowledged, poor, and depressed, only to be discovered later when others can make a profit from their vision and friendship. At times we have been known to revere artists, to think of them as unique or even superior beings who live deeply inside their creative selves, while the rest of us forfeit these more ephemeral aspects of ourselves for jobs that we may find less fulfilling, but that might provide us with more stability and a greater anchor to the reality principle. Art collectors or museum curators pay exorbitant prices for work that has gained market value—a type of recognition that often comes too late for the artist. These purchases often have everything to do with admiration for the work and little to do with attitudes about the artists who made them. We may revere the work, but we may still mistrust artists, imagine them as self-serving and lacking in the practical skills that would enable them to be statesmen or public personalities, capable of running the world. To further complicate these issues, U.S. citizens, still often seeped in a dominant though hidden puritanical tradition, may unconsciously fear the power of graven images and want to inhibit the right of secular individuals to create images that might become icons or focal points of adoration. Perhaps this is why North Americans largely do not condemn the moving images of pornography, degenerateness, violence, voyeurism of various kinds that appear on TV or in film, but become indignant when such images are frozen in time, transformed and manipulated by artists, the presented to a general public as art.

It is this ambivalence, predominant in the culture, that young artists enter into unwittingly. Such confusion causes ontological insecurity—a primal fear and uncertainty about their place in the world, an unstable location from which to meet an unarticulated and often precarious future. At the same time artists have played into these complex ambivalences, defining themselves as a subgroup, outside society, relishing their otherness, while often at the same time longing to be embraced by society, understood and acknowledged.

In our collective Western consciousness, and probably our unconsciousness as well, we do not have images of artists as socially concerned citizens of the world, people who could serve as leaders and help society determine, though insights and wisdom, its desirable political course. We do not typically ask artists what they think about social conditions or politics—the degeneration of our cities, our natural environment, school systems, or young people. We do not ask them to help solve these problems, even though problem solving and communication at the visual and spatial levels are much of what they are trained to do. Artists are also conscious of negotiating audience involvement and response, skills that are not taken into account when most people describe the work of artists.

I have tried for years in my own writing to articulate the vital place of artists in society because I believe in the educational process that produces them, a process that encourages the crossing of all creative and intellectual boundaries and affirms the importance of the work that results from such training. Artists have sensibilities that are distinctive and important to the well-being of society. Were artists taken seriously within U.S. society, were they sought out for their opinions and concerns and recognized as having rare skills, some of which are about how to see the world, they would enter their chosen profession with a much greater sense of confidence and self-esteem. Were society ready to accept them into its fold as fully participating citizens whose function, like that of intellectuals, is to remain on the margins, asking the difficult questions, resisting assimilation and socialization in the traditional ways, refusing to accept the simplistic moral values that reflect the present political climate, there would be a great deal of psychic relief for artists. Perhaps under such conditions artists would be less engaged in a frantic clamor to reach the top of the art world pyramid. Artists might be freer to focus on what they do best—concentrated visual experimentation that, when successful, advances society’s ability to see itself more clearly. “

Discuss amongst yourselves.


Byron said...

James, I posted this comment on my earlier Post but it addresses this post also so I reposted here... Thanks for posting this article. Maybe I could borrow Dr. Becker's book from you sometime?


maybe the path of least resistance is the best path for situations like this. I do feel it's sort of my obligation to educate. But where does one start? Especially with someone who adores Thomas Kinkaid, Painter of Light.

Maybe it really is just another world we live in. I'm still trying to explain what I do to my family and they've known me since the beginning. I'm still dealing with them rolling their eyes as they begin to glaze over.

I like the article James put up about Artist as Public Intellectual. He passed this to me a few months ago. I don't particularly like the title Public Intellectual as it seems a bit elitist. I am right on with her definition of it though. I really wish there was a place for artists as thinkers and philosophers in our society.

On NPR yesterday I heard of a new breed of rap that's catching on. It's called Conscious rapping. It's about being conscious of your role as a public figure. The power of the spoken word and how it has the power to change the world. It seems Conscious rapping has caught on and a handful of successful rappers are stepping up and talking about issues that could possibly not get them anywhere commercially.

An interesting title might be Conscious Artist. Being aware. Trying to make a difference. Of course we could play with the title all day but the concept of artist as thinker, philosopher, social activist is where I would like the general public to see artists. How to get there? I suppose the best bet is to focus on the work ourselves and the rest will fall into place.

And maybe the path of least resistance for those who are too far out of the philosophy to get it? But then maybe being an artist is sort of like spreading the gospel and if there really is a message to be had we should step down off our mountain top and deliver it to the masses? I'm not quite sure what direction to go with it. Maybe it's not something that has to be decided now but chosen when the situation presents itself?



Jaime Verde said...

Actually, Byron, I've only posted the first 2 pages of her article. In the section I posted she's not defining the artist as public intellectual yet, she's pointing out why there is a need for artists to be public intellectuals.

She doesn't specify that an artist needs to be a philosopher or an activist, she's saying that in a cultural climate like the one that exists in the US today, artists need to engage themselves in society the way an intellectual might- the way an author or journalist or priest or professor might involve themselves in the community as a whole. To this end, artists can elevate or perhaps better define their role in society instead of being defined by it in the ways she starts off be describing (bohemian, pauper, fraud, magical mystic, etc.)

Byron said...


well she does point to the fact eventually in the article that she believes artists should considered public intelectuals.

regardless of what it's called it's the core concepts that she's talking about that I believe we as a culture should focus on.

we should redefine the word artist.

Byron said...

I guess I was jumping the gun a bit James.

I suppose it really doesn't matter what she calls it. It's the topics she's addressing.

How do we ourselves create the redefining action she is talking of though?

Focus on the work? Be educate on current events, politics, literature, science, philosophy, etc., etc. where the general public will be automatically drawn to our "Wisdom?"

How do we take this "Wisdom?" and present it to the public in a way that it doesn't seem elitist and pompous? In the end the general public will have to get what you are saying or care enough about the work to want to learn about your message. If not then your message will be lost and no roles will be redefined.

We risk distancing ourselves even more from the public if the work is not easily accessible.

kelly said...

Should we redefine entirely, the word "artist", or just refine the existing definitions--sift through the dirt and let the gem(s) be revealed?

I'm interested in her point of latent traditions in the US; the residual Puritanical aspects of our society. I wonder if most people in America appreciate "hotel art" and Thomas Kinkade, et al, because of that. Maybe our society still values its artisans and craftspeople, but not its artists/philosophers.

And I wonder if her article will spur change in how decisions are made in society. We are problem solvers, critical thinkers, and we can approach an issue from indefinite angles because of these abilities. And yet, where are the artists? Locked in their studios, only allowed out for meals and exhibitions. I should like to see an artist/philosopher group working for the city, perhaps, and coming up with solutions for its problems--lack of culture, homicide, homelessness, etc.

Jaime Verde said...

We don't need to be philosophers to be actively engaged. We can make work that is engaged in society- work that at least addresses societal conditions and brings consciousness- work that sees the world clearly and helps us see the way the world could be.

In other words we could put our skills to work for society. Consciousness is our only way to this.

We could support artists who make thoughtful work- radical work in that it refuses to simplify its meaning. Radical because it takes a strong stand about where we are as a society and strives to communicate its meaning to many.

Those of us who can do so need to continue to defend the intention and importance of such engaged work by creating critical discourses that provide a proper reception for it, so that its importance to society is understood, so its meaning is not distorted by the media, and it is not lost to us.

As artists we need to instigate a necessary collision between what is and what wants to be. And do it in public.

I've been giving a lot of thought to the idea of doing a monthly artist night at MOCA downtown, one night a month where artists could convene in the theater and each give short Powerpoint slide presentations of their latest work and hear what others have to say about it. This could would anyone else be down with a public art forum like this?

kelly said...

I would very much enjoy a public art forum. You cannot imagine how much I need something like that at this point in my life.

Byron said...

I'd definitely be interested in this. I couldn't do but one powerpoint brief a year though as my concepts are evolving rather slowly these days. It takes time to pull together a body of work.

So count me in for one presentation annually if this actually happens. Great idea James.

Jaime Verde said...

I'm thinking it could be on a Sat. or Sun. afternoon seeing how the Museum is only open late one night a week- and during that time there's a movie playing in the theater. So I don't think it would be a good thing for Wednesday night MOCA in the Middle.

But it would have to benefit the museum in some way beyond just being a partnership with local artists. It could be used as a membership builder- as a way to get more artists to be members. Meaning you would have to become a member to get in or something like that.

Our local contemporary artists should all be members anyway, seeing how MOCA is the only institution devoted to contemporary art.

But Byron, you would be perfect to show many times a year. You could show just one or two slides and get feedback from other artists.

We did something like this at UT during my first year of grad school. It worked pretty well to build community.

SharlaTV said...

What I found was most interesting about this article was the inability for the public to seperate the artist from the artists work. It's as if through public expectation we are ranked with actors.

CREATEjacksonville said...

a public forum like that would be great james. i would love to be a part of it....this sounds like something that could really build community with artists in the area. and the best part is the variety of artists that would be interested in this (young, old, established, emerging, professionals, students).

Byron said...

Actually it would be something that would seem to function more in an Arts Center versus a Museum. Am I wrong?

Why don't we reserve this type of function for the Beaver Arts Center?

Jaime Verde said...

Sounds like a plan for the Art Center too. How far along are things with that? Because that's something you could start doing before things are even finished there. We could even start doing it at the San Marco location...

Pedestrian Projects said...

I think it is important if you are talking about contemporary art in today's culture to check out Komar & Melamid's exploration of what paintings people want. The home page for the project is:

Dia's second artists' project for the world wide web, begun in 1995, was created by the Russian emigrant artist team Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. The Most Wanted paintings, as well as the Least Wanted paintings, reflect the artists' interpretation of a professional market research survey about aesthetic preferences and taste in painting. Intending to discover what a true "people's art" would look like, the artists, with the support of the Nation Institute, hired Marttila & Kiley, Inc. to conduct the first poll. In 1994, they began the process which resulted in America's Most Wanted and America's Least Wanted paintings, which were exhibited in New York at the Alternative Museum under the title "People's Choice."
Under Dia's auspices, and with the sponsorship of Chase Manhattan Bank, the artists expanded their market research to more than a dozen countries around the globe and in turn, created Most Wanted and Least Wanted paintings for each country. Digitized versions of the paintings and the survey statistics which inform them are made available to the public through Dia's web site. In addition, visitors to Komar and Melamid's web page were invited to take the market survey questionnaire. Between November 1995 and March 1997, 3001 visitors completed the online poll. The results have been tabulated and can be see online, along with the Web's Most Wanted and Web's Least Wanted images. The web's images are exceptional from those of the individual countries. Although paintings were made, the Web's Most Wanted and Web's Least Wanted are images of the paintings in context, intended to be viewed only on a computer screen.

FOR sure : check out the "PAINTING" section.
it is amazing the most wanted and least wanted paintings................sw

Jaime Verde said...


I actually did lectures about Komar & Melamid's America's Most Wanted Painting project during docent training seminars at the muesum when I worked there. The results are a bit disheartening, and it's funny that they are pretty much the same results all over the world. Except in the Netherlands.

Kelly remembers that lecture, right?

Thanks for bringing it up in this context.

Are you saying that the public likely has no appetite for anything other than what K&M's survey reveals?

You may be right, but remember their questions were specifically about painting, and secondly, they related to the kind of paintings people would want, as in, to own.

What I want hanging in my home is different from a lot of the work I make, to be sure. And the art I own isn't necessarily what I'd get excited about in a gallery.

I have 3 Sean Mahan paintings in my home that actually do go with my couch. Sean hates them, but they rock with our decor.

I think there's more to the story. And I have faith that artists can do more in for the public than what K&M's survey says.

jim draper said...

I actually saw one of the Komar
and Melamid elephant paintings
the other day. It was amazingly
interesting. It is going to be
really significant when Tom Kinkaid
(sp?) steps up to the plate and
admits that he has put forth the
biggest conceptual art project
ever. Definition of art=not real.
i.e. artificial. If it is real,
then it is not art.

Pedestrian Projects said...

i agree. one must admit the scope of mr kinkaide's little project is impressive. i also think it interesting that most of the imagery is strangely like that of the "most wanted" komar and melamid paintings...............

Pedestrian Projects said...


your comments are right on! Certainly artists can offer more than what K&M's survey suggests. I mearly wanted to throw that into the discussion as it is relevant from my perspective.

I wish i would have heard that lecture..............

kelly said...

I actually don't recall the lecture, James. As of late, I've rarely left the house but for school, and this summer I've been out of the country and in Boston for the last month. Sorry.

But while in Boston I visited a curious museum a couple of times. The Isabela Stewart Gardner Museum is the preserved home of Mrs. Gardner, and oh my god if there wasn't art everywhere you looked. There was no such thing as "Don't blink or you'll miss--" This woman's house was wall to wall to floor to ceiling art. Mind you, she was in her prime in 1880, but still. She didn't collect for her couch. I think she had one room filled with couches, actually.

Jaime Verde said...

Kelly- are you Kelly Eason? If not then sorry for name dropping. I thought you were in on docent training last year...

kelly said...

Nah, I'm Kelly Pope. I go to DA, class of 2008.

Jaime Verde said...

Sorry Kelly, I had you confused with the painter from UNF. My bad. But if anyone knows Kelly Eason, tell her she should be on JaxCAL.

That's cool that you're in high school and being a part of this.

Monday I start teaching art at Lavilla. Molding young minds...

kelly said...

Oh, cool! I left a little mark at LaVilla. It's this Technicolor rendition of Escher's Metamorphoses that goes along the math hallway where the Administration office and Guidance offices are. I haven't seen it in years, and I think someone may have finished it? I don't know. That thing is my claim to martyrdom, though.

Good luck this school year. :)

CREATEjacksonville said...

i have tried to get kelly eason on jaxcal more than once...the girl is just too busy. but i will be sure to give her a bloody nose from jaxcal the next time i see her.

Jaime Verde said...

I was just admiring the metamorphosis mural yesterday! It's fantastic. For an homage to as familiar a figure as Escher, it's incredibly original.

Have you ever checked out the illustration work of David Wiesner? He's done a number of great kids books, but he has one called Freefall that honors Escher in an equally original way. He's pretty great- my little boy loves his books.

Man, so Kelly Eason is too busy to talk to little old us? Shame.

Oh well. When school starts many of us will be far too busy, I'm betting.

Thanks for coming back to school with us! And thanks as well for a swell thread!

kelly eason said...

hey guys, sorry to join in the conversation late... please don't punch me in the face! i've been a quiet observer lately, but i know i need to be more active (a bit ironic to be saying that in this particular thread).

this post has raised some interesting questions about how the public views artists. i do feel that it is important to be mindful of our role as artists from a "big picture" standpoint; however, it is not fair to expect people to listen to us merely because we are artists. trust and respect must be earned through action.

i think it is a view that we all share that aritsts have a responsability to use our talents in ways that will have a positive impact on our community. some of us may consider ourselves activists of sorts, fighting to make changes.

we do this in different ways. artists like byron or james are making strong social statements directly through their work, but this is just one way for artists to get our messages across. many of us are also educators who play important roles in the creative development of young minds and fostering public understanding of the importance of art in society. a great example of artists coming together to directly benefit the community is the humane society benefit art show that brittni organized. art with a heart for children brings joy and hope to children and families through art. these are just a few of the many different ways we as artists are taking our roles seriously. we know that personal responsability comes with the territory.

sadly, there are too many artists out there who are solely concerned with personal glory. these artists are attempting to give the people what they want, what they will buy. unfortunately, what the people want is not always what the people need: hence, you have thomas kinkade and all his mall galleries filled with blind followers. thomas kinkade art is just as bad as art that attempts to look just like the trendiest paintings featured in the latest juxtaposed magazine. it's all "american idol art". this kind of empty art mainly benefits the artists themselves, not their audience.

the statement i'm trying to make here is that more artists need to realize that we do have a certain amount of social responsablility. the ways of creatively undertaking that responsibility are endless. we make statements through action. the public's view of artists is a direct reaction to what they view, feel and hear. when artists' voices ring clearly in the form of a positive impact on our communities, we will not be misunderstood.

side note to james: enjoyed your lecture on komar & melamid. also think a public art forum would be great. count me in!