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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Closing arguments, part five:
To any new readers: I began writing this blog in April, 2013. To read the earliest entries, find the archive of posts, at the bottom of this page.

Ah yes, the tweet; and teenagers texting and playing digital games, transfixed day and night  in the glow of  their smartphones. It's a wonder that any of them survives crossing the street. Conversation? What is conversation to these young people? Can meaningful dialogue be somehow extracted from thousands of thoughts that are no more than "What's up? Not much, what's up with you?" How can they possibly enter into dialogue with a work of art? How can we expect these children, who have spent their entire lives with computers and flashy moving images, ever to engage seriously with some still image or object – a painting or a sculpture?

As to making art for the present moment – thinking of the past as a burden and discounting the importance of a future that may never unfold – again, this is nothing new. You and I know first-hand about the struggles that followed two world wars and the advent of nuclear weapons. So much of the art of the 1950s and 60s was made by artists who abandoned the rigour of time-tested materials and methods that conservators now spend so much time on work of that period that older, more stable paintings, for example, receive less attention. I'm not sure how worried one needs to be about art that ignores past and present. This is not a new concern.

You have been very quiet, David. We are all here having accepted your invitation. What are your thoughts about all of this? 

Newkirk, concentrating on his empty cup and fiddling with the spoon as he speaks:
Well, I did see something at the Giardini that I found very encouraging. Just inside the grounds of the Biennale, a young woman who I assumed was a teacher stood talking with her class of about twenty children who were six to eight years old, I would guess. 

There is hope in this; wouldn't you agree? It's not an easy thing managing twenty young children, but clearly the teacher felt that the Biennale was important for them to see. And all of the children seemed quite happy about the adventure. I can't imagine where we are headed with this smartphone generation. On the face of it, it certainly seems that they will utter more words with less meaning. But as long as there are children who visit galleries and museums, and teachers who will take them there, I think there is hope. After all, not so long ago there was novelty in the electric lightbulb and in trains and automobiles, airplanes, radio and television, cinema, rockets and on and on. As you said, Pablo, each generation deals with its distractions and its tragedies. Kids today will somehow manage their smartphones. I don't know how, or what the next 50 years will reveal in the world of art. But in the end, I am completely powerless to affect the outcome ... except, I suppose, that I will continue to try to make good paintings, and to hope that somehow, people will still enter into dialogue with me through my art. In short, I see what you have done as having value for others, as well as for yourselves. That is a big enough idea for me to engage with. The conversation is everything, and for people like you and me it is, I think, the most generous, honest and intimate dialogue we can hope to have with the world.

It is quiet now. My eyes focus, and I look up from my coffee. Velazquez, Picasso, Vedova and Tintoretto have vanished. As the shadows lengthen in the piazza, I sit alone with my thoughts, my empty cup ... and my iPad.

è tutto

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Closing arguments, part four:

Velázquez (chuckling):
No, no, no, Pablo. These are big enough ideas that your metaphors are welcome explorations. We are, a bit presumptuously trying to decide amongst ourselves some rather weighty issues. What is art? Which artists and art forms are worthy of our attention? What should we expect to see in an exhibition like the Biennale? Who is to decide which artists are good, and which are mediocre? And, for us at least, where does painting fit within this new carnival that may or may not be great art?

I like very much your suggestion that art is a conversation, a dialogue between the artist and viewer. This establishes a vital link between us and those who would enjoy art. Bravo! Es muy buena. And everyone is invited to the discussion, no? Those who choose to take part will be the better for it.

Leonardo, seeming somewhat distracted:
Uh ... uh, yes. That's right. Yes. What a good idea. I think I thought of that a long time ago. I am extremely intelligent, you know. This tobacco is a very good idea too. I wonder if it has medicinal properties. And why, when I look to the sea or the sky do the words "far out" so insistently enter my thoughts? Uh ... excuse me my friends, but I must make some notes while my mind is so clear ...  (pulls a notebook from a hidden pocket in his cape, stands and looks at the group for a long moment, and then, without a word, disappears in the streets that lead southwest from the piazza).

Velázquez (smiling indulgently and nodding to Leonardo as he leaves):
I come back to the point I made earlier about the amazing variety of art and artists that we see in this Biennale. Not only have people of all descriptions embraced their legitimate right to be artists, but they are using so many new materials and methods ... it's quite astonishing, and it is very difficult to appreciate such a broad array of creative expression, let alone decide which things are good and which are bad. For these reasons, it seems to me that the "sifting" we have talked about will take much longer than it once did when everything was a painting, a sculpture, or a close cousin to one of those.

These are all interesting ideas, but I have a different concern. My worry is that no one cares anymore. Well, perhaps I am overstating. Young artists sometimes seem not to care about the past (their predecessors, like us) or about the future. Their art is transient and disposable, and they are fine with that. It appears to me that people increasingly live for the present, having decided that the past is burdensome, and that the future is irrelevant, and may not even happen! Of course I am painting a whole generation with a very broad brush – an analogy you will all appreciate (he smiles) – and such generalizations are unfair. Then again, perhaps these artists are right, and I am simply old.

And there is this: if art is a conversation, has the conversation become so attenuated as to be no more than what is so pervasive today, a tweet?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Closing arguments, part three:

I completely agree with your characterization of me, Jacopo; and with your candid assessment of yourself as well. And, as you say, we two are not unusual among successful artists. But I think that our behaviour – well, mine at least; I won't try to speak for you – is more about living life fully than it is about what we have chosen to pursue as a career. Yes, I pushed my way through the crowds in order to join the parade rather than to simply watch it go by. I have tried to live fully – my ex-wives might say, too fully (laughter around the table) – I see this as my job, my obligation to my own life, as short as it has been. An artist, or anyone genuinely involved in any meaningful pursuit for that matter, must strive to declare "I am" with all the force and authenticity he or she can summon. The result of this effort is sometimes a connection with others who struggle with their own "I am." This connection begins a conversation, and that, my friends, is a beautiful accomplishment.

I shouted out the fact of my existence loudly enough that others began to listen, and to look at my art. I connected with those people. They asked questions, and looked for the answers in my work, and even sometimes in my words. We began a conversation, and it continues to this day, as it does with your work, Jacopo. My god, think of all the people who have "talked" with you in that one building alone – San Rocco. It staggers me each time I think about it.

So ... to get back to what we were discussing ... it is my job to do what I can to be and to declare who I am. This I have tried to do. But it has not been my job to keep a checklist of those over whom I have stepped in order to improve my ranking as a tennis player would. That part of the conversation is among others. Think of me as a pebble dropped into a pool. My job is at the centre. As waves of "conversation" broaden and roll away, my impact seems to get bigger, but those waves near the shore of the pool are far from me, and often beyond my hearing. I am still the pebble at the centre.

To take this analogy a bit further, one might imagine that artists are the drops of rain in a storm that passes over a lake. The thousands of circles of waves expand, collide and intersect, but each artist can only be one drop of rain, always at the centre. 

Oof. Forgive me. I am becoming far too metaphysical, and I begin to wander. Parades! Pebbles! Raindrops! Must be the cigar smoke making me dizzy. More coffee! (general laughter)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Closing arguments, part two:

Tintoretto, who has appeared to be interested only in the few pigeons that strut hopefully near his feet, puts his cup on its saucer with a quiet clank, and without looking up, addresses Picasso:

For one who has lived so ... what? ... aggressively, perhaps competitively, Pablo, your remarks seem a bit disingenuous. I speak, of course, as a kindred spirit. No one ever accused me of being a shrinking violet – quite the opposite in fact. Now and then I hear people mutter, "Egli è molto presuntuoso." He's so full of himself (grins and chuckles along with the others, whose interest has been piqued). The point I'm trying to make is that you and I, and to some extent all of us here, certainly have cared about our ranking, if you will, our position among those we consider to be great artists. We have taken advantage of circumstances, and even of other artists from time to time, to advance our careers, and to elevate our status. I did not wait for history to decide whether my work should be revered, I grabbed my opportunities by the balls and scrambled to the summit of my profession by the force of my own will. And, I believe this can be said with confidence also about you, Pablo. Does it not follow that we are obliged to look for remarkable talent among young artists? If everyone leaves these decisions to history, and time, as you say, we'll all be waiting forever for some list of exceptional artists to descend from heaven. Someone must care. Someone must choose. Do you not agree? After all, someone chose you above others, and someone chose me too.

Several in the group have begun to smoke. Velazquez puffs reflectively on a cigarette; Leonardo smokes something similar but with a torpedo-shaped wrapper and a pungent, though not unpleasant aroma. He looks very pleased with himself. Picasso takes a pull on his cigar, and exhales a cloud of smoke that quickly drifts away. He too is grinning broadly. He enjoys being challenged.


Ah, but I did say that today's young artists and curators will make those choices, Jacopo. I think we are talking about two different things here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Closing arguments, part one:

The group of men, having regained most of their composure, wanders back through the twisting streets and passageways of Venice toward Piazza San Marco, where once again they find themselves at Caffè Florian. It is mid-October when temperatures here can drop dramatically for periods of a few days, and when one must be alert to the possibility of the aqua alta, or high water, which can appear quickly and frequently during this season. But today it is warm, and the sun has barely begun its decline; so the artists have gathered with their coffee around a few closely placed tables outside in the still busy piazza.

We did see some painting, and some sculpture – and I am speaking here of our traditional understanding of those arts and the materials used to create them – at the Biennale; however those were not the art forms that one would say dominated the event. Our arts are being replaced with "sculpture" made from new and unusual materials, and it seems that painting is the preoccupation of fewer young artists as they turn more and more frequently to new media, just as we once largely abandoned painting with tempera on wood in favour of oil on canvas. Now, as you know, I was never strictly a painter or a sculptor, or an architect for that matter. So I applaud the many new areas of inquiry that I have seen here. As with any other period in the history of art, the great artists of this time will gradually be sifted from the rest. I am certain that in this exhibition there are wonderful practitioners of painting, but I must say that from my point of view, they are difficult to appreciate amid the cluttered spaces I visited. 

... murmurs of assent from others in the group ...

Are painting and sculpture still relevant? Is Bach still relevant, Vivaldi or Mozart? Of course they are, as are we; and so too are those who follow our path. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that perhaps painters and sculptors may now be pursuing something like a classical life as artists. Yo Yo Ma, for example, is an exceptional artist who plays an 18th century instrument with which he sometimes performs music even older than that.

Smiling, his gaze directed at the dainty demitasse that he seems preoccupied with rotating on its saucer.
Are we ... are you, artists/practitioners of a classical persuasion?

Vedova, also smiling in a bemused way ...
I'm not sure I am ready to be relegated to a particular "classical" bin, Leonardo. 

Picasso scowls, presses the palm of a hand to his forehead ...
Ah, screw this "classical" nonsense. We are who we are, and nothing more or less. What is art now? A video of some sourpuss woman saying something, saying anything with intensity? Recorded events of "difficult" things to do as we saw in the Japanese pavilion? The talking trees of the Finns? Who the hell knows, and what's the urgency to know anyway? Time passes. Things change. Despite our deep-seated desire to classify and rank everything, there is never an adequate formula to do so. It's for the young artists, and the young curators to separate the mediocre from the great. Accept things as they are and stop torturing yourselves.

There is something about this Biennale that strikes me as being very positive. Look at us, again. No, don't laugh. We are men, we are white, and aside from Leonardo who has never made a firm decision about who he prefers to sleep with (Leonardo grins mischievously), we are all heterosexual. The day of the white, male, heterosexual painter or sculptor is done. Think how, for so many centuries, anyone from anywhere who did not fit that description was considered an outsider. No, that is not correct. Many great artists through time have been homosexuals. But until recently, even they were white men. In this exhibition, we see the work of artists of every race and every persuasion, both men and women, striving to express themselves with clarity and honesty. This is wonderful to see, no?

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Laugh at Yourselves!

As if on cue, the tall, handsome figure of Leonardo wafts elegantly into the room. He pauses at the top of the stairs to sweep his luxurious cape to one side, glances to his right, then left. A mischievous smile flickers, and he turns to approach our little group. 

Da Vinci
Well, well, well. What have we here? You look like one of those groups of old men who gather every day to gossip over coffee.

Welcome Leonardo. I suppose we were gossiping ... Pablo was just giving us his impression of the Biennale. Essentially – please correct me, Pablo – he feels that there is nothing new here, that it has all been done before. Is that a fair summary, Pablo?

As far as it goes, yes.

Da Vinci, his smile broadening
Look at you! Look at yourselves! (begins to laugh aloud). You think that the Biennale needs more innovative art? Ha ha ha ha ha. Sour grapes, my friends. You're a bunch of painters, for heaven's sake! You've been left out in the cold with your shrouds of irrelevance, making pronouncements about the art of those in the 'salon.' (Now he is laughing so hard that he has trouble catching his breath, he bends over, and wipes tears from his eyes).

Heads are swivelling as the rest of us begin to take in our little group. Da Vinci's laughter is infectious, and as we all realize how ridiculous our situation is, grins and chuckles erupt until, like a gang of fifteen-year-old boys, we are howling with laughter, slapping each other on backs and knees, and shaking our heads in disbelief.

A distraught guard bounds across the floor wagging a finger, and breathless, delivers a stern scolding:

Signori, signori! Dovete rispettare la quiete di questo spazio! You must not do this; it is too loud. Please leave now. Andate all'uscita immediatamente. Come, come ... this way. Go now.

Properly chastised, but still snorting and harrumphing, the adolescents make their way past the ticket booth and gift shop, and into the brilliant sunshine that awaits them on the steps outside.