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If We Were But Artists

I confess to being the kind of person who reads the exhibit brochures you can pick up in art museums. What I notice right away is that while nominally written in English, the prose is in a distinct mode; it seems to come from some hiply Latinate planet in a far distant corner of the universe. Call it Critico-Deconstructivo.

Thirty-six years back in The Painted Word Tom Wolfe exposed the secret of modern art: ya gotta have a gimmick – a set of tony, professor-friendly phrases explaining your work – if ya wanna get ahead. The deadpan Wolfe summarized his thesis in these words, “Frankly, these days without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”

I got to thinking about all this recently when I checked out the “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. There are some entrancing visual images in this exhibit, but the gallery seems to think it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that curatorial zing.  Each of the seven artists gets a little write-up explaining the significance of her work (six of the seven are youthful women) and then an Artist Statement in which the artist gets to explain it all again for you.

Photo of Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe, author of the The Painted Word expose.

As I read these, it occurred to me that perhaps Kaze and I flubbed it when we did not opt for Critico-Deconstructivo prose in explaining our blog here are at 317am. I just read our 317am “About” message again, and, in comparison to these committed young women artists, we sound like two jovial uncles on holiday, musing merrily about writing, cats, and eternity as time flows on by. Where’s the gravitas, the vitally transgressive rebellion, the exposure of oppressive social structures in that?

So in hopes of coming up with a better schtick and more page views, I’ve mashed up various phrases pulled from the Artist Statements in “Portraits of Encounter” and slightly adapted the results around the edges for our own purposes. So here it is in draft, our new, hipper, more au courant statement explaining 317am to the world:

About 317am

Keenly aware of distinctions in expectations for the appropriate behavior for men of a certain age, the artists’ collaborative known as Kaze and Ras have created a body of work that addresses feelings of awkwardness and transforms everyday activities into sites of confusion. We gravitate toward self-portraiture through norm-upending blogging as practice and process. In particular, we lean toward the idea of fragmentation within the self as being a fluid, evolving, and never-ending process.

Our work can also be viewed as investigation into different social constructs and subcultures as seen  through black-and-white films, story fragments, cat-litter boxes, retweets, dance videos, steampunk fan fiction, and remaindered novels available online for 1 cent through used-book merchants.  Briefly considered, 317am is subject to signification as a series of self-portraits that started out as simple convenience. Our selves were always available, and we did not need to give guidance to any model or pay obeisance to any gate-keeper. We found it easiest to be at once the taker and the taken.

artwork: Roger Shimomura's "American Hello Kitty";

Roger Shimomura's "American Hello Kitty"; (c) Roger Shimomura

So what do you think?

7 Responses to If We Were But Artists

  1. What do I think? I think that maybe the visual artists went into visual arts because no one could make head or tails of anything the artists said or wrote.

  2. I am a visual artist Cindy, though when I began no one said “visual”. But then no one spouted the sort of pseudo intellectual gibberish we have come to expect from artist’s statements and art critics. It is out of the same stable as management speak. Hot air, signifying nothing. Cats and uncles are fine, Ras. Muse on.

  3. I think I simply love Amanda White’s comment. Muse on, Rasoir, muse on. I’ll be musing along, as usual.

  4. Washington Buckeye Oct 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Ah, now I get it. The only thing missing is the word “subversive.” Just stick it in there somewhere. Anywhere will do.

  5. Now anyone can be an artist with the Postmodernism Generator Lots of fun! Still, I have to wonder…these are smart people who write this stuff, is what they’re writing really unintelligible – or just to me? Insisting that “The emperor has no clothes” takes some confidence. Perhaps one should not be so timid, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by cultural expressions that mean absolutely nothing to oneself but evidently have a profound impact on others.

    • I’d have loved to have read the Artists’ Statements of Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt. What’s that you say? They didn’t write one? Golly, have they gone down in my estimation.

    • Thanks to all for joining in a most fascinating (at least to me) comment chain. Even though I am having fun in this post playing around with the conventions of art theory and criticism and my BS detector is beeping, I’m not quite ready to write off the whole universe of curators and critics – the word people of the visual arts. Petter says it well: “cultural expressions that mean absolutely nothing to oneself but evidently have a profound impact on others.” I would note that the intellectual mindset of Critico-Deconstructivo contains some commanlities with the High Lit Tradition: for example, the idea that small gestrures are powerful, or that the effort to put “reality” into words creates layer upon layer of additional meaning. It seems that the artists and the word folks exist in a symbiotic relationship. My undertanding is that the Impressionist painters we all know so well these days took much of their theory of painitng from Baudelaire.

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