“You don’t understand, Mr. Genn,” said a tall, acerbic gentleman who rustled a chocolate wrapper as he spoke. He had the full attention of the auditorium. “Art is not about light and shade any more, or drawing, or composition, or little pictures of landscapes. That’s dead,” he said. “Art is now about shock and awe and protest and making a statement. The greatest artist living today is Banksy. Have you heard of Banksy, Mr. Genn?”
I allowed sufficient time so he might begin to think he had me. The audience sat nervously, as if an IED was about to go off. Then I said I knew Banksy’s work and had been following his career.
“Who’s Banksy?” whispered a small woman in the front row. Since the question was directed at me, and I was the one who had the mike, I told them Banksy is the guy who arrives quietly by night in various big cities and puts up fresh graffiti, generally in the form of life-sized stencils such as a valise-carrying businessman with a sign that says “Will work for idiots.” Another of Banksy’s images is a stern policeman leading a muzzled dog that happens to be made of pink balloons.
The gentleman sat down, giving me the look of one prepared to take on new knowledge.
“Some property owners get upset when they arrive in the morning and see what’s been done to their wall,” I said. “Some will have someone come and paint over the Banksy art. On the other hand, some Banksys are put under plexi to protect them from defacement. Some are put under 24-hour paramilitary guard. One property owner reportedly took down his Banksyed wall and sold it to an art gallery for a couple of hundred grand.”
The audience was now noticeably squirming. A guy said, “It’s bull shit.” He said it just loud enough for everyone to hear. Scattered laughter rippled. “But is it art?” asked a girl in a yellow frock.
“The world of art,” I said, “is big enough for all flags to fly.” I decided to invite another mind into the discussion: “Andy Warhol said, ‘Art is anything you can get away with.'” The acerbic gentleman stood to his feet. This was good, I thought. It would be nice to give him the last word on the subject. “What you are encouraging these people to do,” he said, “is to get away with making crap.” I’m sure there were some people who had to agree.
PS: “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?” (Ludwig van Beethoven)
Esoterica: So much of the art that many of us like to make is “skilled” (for lack of a better word) art. For most, it’s difficult to do. Sure it can be done, but it’s difficult to do well. Skilled art may take a few years of private effort, studentship, technique development and maybe even apprenticeship. Shock and awe art takes imagination and courage.
Banksy committed to social change
by Ana H Galindo, Mexico City, Mexico
Banksy is a public artist. He never intended to be in galleries (like Basquiat, unlike Warhol), his anonymity says so. He wants to communicate his nonconformity with social issues, or protest in a passive way, awakening people in the streets of things that don’t work in society for the great majority, and arousing awareness. His talent lies in the concept (like most contemporary artists), not in the technique itself. And there, in the idea, lies his skill. He is an artist committed with social change. I admire his courage, and his incisive humor. Perhaps the pictures in your clickback are not the representative paintings that had earned him the status of an artist. Here I send to you two more about the abuse of violence and force.
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Art of a finer reality
by Jonathan Wiltshire, Escondido, CA, USA
Was it Warhol who also said, “It’s art because I say it’s art?” My experience with art has led me to understand it serves a higher, more universal purpose than representing the social issues of a given place or time. I also doubt that art serves its highest purpose by providing a new mental concept that requires several pages of text in order to understand it (See the book by Tom Wolfe The Painted Word).
While there are many levels of understanding art, I find soul satisfaction in attempting sublime art that leads from ego to an uplifting experience of a finer reality. And to our beloved Beethoven I would respond, with whom can one consult concerning this great goddess? Why the Great Goddess herself, of course.
The state of ordure
by BJ Bjork, Foxborough, MA, USA
This supposed state of confusion is quite clear to me. In the visual world there is art that appeals to our senses. It can be the awe of the process, deciding what to admire in life, the beauty, strength, energies, intelligence, and all the amazing things that can be done and seen in life!
OR . . .
Look at a pile of shit! It’s your choice, or you can just make it. You have a choice in where you find what is beautiful, thought provoking, joyful, or sad, something that makes a statement (I prefer to let the writers do this). Most people will read and listen to crap, but most will not stop and examine it. Bad art is like dog shit, it’s everywhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. There are two ways of watching what you eat. Going in or coming out. As for making money and selling, I only buy cow manure, and that at least is beneficial to my garden. Shock and awe art is very short lived, and a FOOL is soon parted with his/her money.
The primacy of imagination
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
You make a good observation when you draw the distinction between “skilled” and “shock and awe” art. Much like in today’s politics, there’s a deep division between the two extremes that really doesn’t need to be there. It’s like saying, which is more important for survival, air or water? We’ve all seen artworks that are intended to shock, but are clumsily conceived and ineptly executed. Then there are the skilled practitioners who have nothing to say but they say it very well. The point is that both skill and shock are vital parts that make up our ever-changing and intriguing art world. If I ever have to make a decision between the two, though, I follow Einstein’s advice: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Matching the couch
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
It’s the same old story. In the ’60s ’70s ’80s ’90s and now, the 2000s; these being my only frame of reference, I think what counts As art is simply what someone is willing to pay you for your “creation.” It was the cartoon with Calvin & Hobbes that said it best. Calvin was trying to sell Hobbes on the snow landscape of the back yard, where he lived. Hobbes replies that Calvin did virtually nothing to warrant a cost to him, just because it snowed and besides, it “doesn’t match the couch”! Calvin then looks back at the reader to exclaim something like the art of being avant guard is knowing who is fooling who!
Oh, well, I am going to get dressed and wear my “taupe” shirt with my green shorts, try to keep cool in this stifling heat. After all, I gotta look the part today — I’m doing an installation of my prints at Landmark Bank of Topeka, Kansas. It is the State’s 150th birthday January 29th, 2011 and we’re gearing up for the big birthday… And I need to match the couch.
Let freak flags fly
by Catherine Orfald, Brooke Valley, ON, Canada
It’s well-known by many designers and fine artists that we need to consider CRAP principles in each piece we create: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. The gentleman who implied that Banksy’s art is NOT about light and shade or drawing or composition, but only about making a shocking statement, is clearly not really looking at Banksy’s work. Enough with the “art is dead” naysayers! I agree with you that the world of art is big enough for all flags to fly. Let your freak flag fly!
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The unique position of visual art
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA
There is a closed minded attitude within the visual arts that traditional skills diminish an artist’s creativity and importance. It is interesting that this is not as prevalent in the world of music or writing. It is unpleasant to hear music that is completely discordant, and boring or to read writing that rambles on. Is a piece of writing more relevant if it lacks punctuation? Knowledge of how to paint light and shade and how it affects form allows the artist a greater range of expression. These are skills that have been passed from one generation to the next and it is arrogant to dismiss them. To me art is about shared experience. Shock is powerful when it has a purpose and that artist skills allow them to make their ideas clear. Kathe Kollwitz used her skills to show us loss and suffering that was part of her life. Art can also be about beauty. It is equally as powerful to lift the viewers’ spirits as it is to repel them. In response to the gentleman’s statement “Art is now about shock and awe and protest and making a statement” — If shock and awe and protest become common place doesn’t it become mundane?
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Our different crappy ways
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
What interesting times we live in when creative vandalism is heralded as the greatest art, but Banksy’s images are engaging and I agree that “the world of art is big enough for all flags to fly.” I find a certain irony in your acerbic gentleman’s preference for shock and awe and intolerance of drawing, composition and landscapes. We all have our own crap to make and different crappy ways in which to make it.
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Will stay a reactionary
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Art without ‘religion’ becomes bull manure. By religion, I am not talking about labels like Catholic or Jew or Hindu or Christian or Islamist. I see ‘religion’ as spirit, something that is in the human heart that seeks good and is noble. It is our connection with our creator, our best nature which is about love and beauty and respect for all living creatures etc. Religion calls us upward to the heavens. It makes us strive and shine. It is what makes human beings special. People without it become addicts and murderers etc. Very negative. Take that religious spirit away from art and you have Warhol and all that follow his doctrine, like Banksy and his fan in the story. It becomes peeing on a wall and selling it for a million dollars in a gallery. It becomes marketing and what can be more absurd than what marketing can accomplish? Baseball cards sell for hundreds of thousands, graffiti for millions, basketball players make twenty million a year, etc. Warhol’s views are as antique as El Greco at this point. It’s existentialism in paint. It’s boring and old hat, as boring is the reams of rhetoric that accompany the ugly paintings in the alleyways or galleries. I’ll happily stay a reactionary myself and try to create a little beauty while I am around.
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The progress of spirit
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
The problem with shock and awe art is, what do you do with it once you have been shocked? I can’t see that much of it is going to continue to thrill and uplift after months and years on your wall, like a good “skill-based” painting can. Subtlety and nuance unfold themselves over time, when the lighting changes, when our mood changes, when we are open to see in different ways. As we grow in our consciousness and hence our ability to perceive, a really good painting unfolds its mysteries to us.
Art that is just an original idea, badly executed as so much of it often is, may win awards for its creativity, but I doubt if much of it will stand the test of time. Satire is a valid art form, but genuine satire exposes the wrongs of society in order that they can be made right, and satirical art that only attacks and never provides an alternate vision comes precariously close to the rantings of a teenager having a hissy-fit. The interesting question is, what kind of art will emerge when these rebellious young spirits grow up? If they ever do!
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How art becomes real
by Pat Kelly, Ramona, CA, USA
I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow when paintings are brought in for appraisal. The artist may or may not be well known, but some of the paintings are incredible. Others are simply heirlooms passed down, of sentimental value only. I marvel at how over the years someone, some ordinary person, recognized their value, cared for and preserved them. There are paintings in museums simply because at some point a person, someone, somewhere, loved them, spent time and energy to preserve them. Great art is the art we choose to carry with us. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it becomes real over the time because it is loved. Will Banksy’s art become real? Time will tell, and unfortunately, Banksy, there was quite a bit of graffiti in ancient Rome; almost none of it has survived.
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by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA
“Shock and awe art takes imagination and courage” has got to be the biggest line of bunk I’ve heard come from your keyboard! Sorry, Robert, but that is just plain copping out. Shock and awe art is mostly narcissistic with a huge ability of bullshit thrown in. Just because it’s making news and people are paying huge sums of money for it does not make it any more or less than “skilled” art. What takes imagination and courage is to be able to paint/create something that uses your skill, talent and determination. What a lost and confused society we live in today when everyone wants to be so popular they are willing to overlook the most basic gift bestowed on us all; Our uniqueness.
If you want to teach and encourage artists then you should be telling them that yes, they can shock and awe people with their art or they can calm and soothe or any other way they choose. Art can be anything. The definition of Art is and always will be unidentifiable and inarticulated because it is as unique as the person who creates it.
Copying the method of a popular shock artist is just a lesson in disappointment. Your expression of your talents is what makes your art unique and if that means shocking or awe inspiring art that is who you are as an artist. If, on the other hand your manner and form is to be subtle and inspiring using your labored skills, then who judges your efforts worthwhile?
Give me a break. Imagination and courage comes from being authentic not from shocking people and watching their jaw drop open. Encourage the expression of uniqueness not replicating the actual act of someone else’s means of expression and if that means any idiot can do it, so be it.
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No state of confusion about skilled art
by Melissa B. Tubbs, Montgomery, AL, USA
In response to your Esoterica included in “My State of Confusion” I must say that “skilled” art requires every bit as much imagination and courage as Shock and Awe art. “Skilled” art requires imagination in putting a unique twist on the traditional and courage to put it out there when the current culture is clammering for shock and awe. You are correct in saying that there is room for all types of art. It does seem to me that the traditional, skilled art is what remains (historically) while shock and awe lasts only until the newest shock and awe arrives.
The image of skilled art is purveyed as that of stodgy art. People don’t seem to realize that a lot of traditional realism is quite abstract. It has been said that Whistler’s Mother is one of the most abstract works of art ever created. It requires skill to combine the two, yes, (knowledge of composition certainly); also imagination, confidence, experience and courage. For me, and many others, there is great beauty in light, shadow, drawing, composition and little landscapes because we can all make a connection with those things. I want more than to be shocked, I want to be able to get past the shock and really see the art.
I believe that there is also skill in creating shock and awe art that really stands out as with any other type of art. We all have to be good at what we do. I guess I get tired of the current culture of “If you’re not edgy, no one is interested and there is no room for your art” (meaning that if you create traditional art you can forget it). We are all led to believe that shock and awe, edgy art is all that people in the know are interested in and that is just not true.
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Featured Workshop: Alan Soffer
2 plate woodcut on paper 18.5 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes James Bright of Ottawa, ON, Canada, who quoted the manifesto of Claes Oldenburg:
“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a staring point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.
I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
And also Mary-Sonya Conti of Clayton, OH, USA, who wrote, “‘Nothing determines your creative life more than doing it. This is so obvious and fundamental, yet how much energy is wasted on speculation, worry and doubt without the relief of action.’ (Ian Roberts, from Creative Authenticity)”
Enjoy the past comments below for My state of confusion…