January 1, 2017

Forget the Gears & Do the Work

Sometime in the early Sixties, Tommy Jackson saw a South Bend, Indiana rock band play a song called "Hanky Panky." The tune stuck with him and back home in Niles, Michigan he worked it out with his high school garage band, The Shondells. "I really only remembered a few lines from the song, so when we went to record it, I had to make up the rest of the song…I just pieced it back together from what I remembered."(1)

Tommy and his Shondells recorded it at local radio station WNIL and Snap Records released it in ‘64. It sold well in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, but without national distribution the single disappeared from the airwaves. Tommy moved on, finishing high school in 1965 and The Shondells broke up.

Cut to 1966: An out-of-work Tommy Jackson got a call from "Mad Mike" Metrovich, a Pittsburgh DJ who’d been playing the Shondells’ "Hanky Panky" 45 on the radio. With the single now a regional hit, Tommy decided to re-release it, hired a Pennsylvania band to become the "new Shondells" and changed his name to "Tommy James."

James took the master tape of the WNIL recorded track of "Hanky Panky" to New York and sold it to Roulette Records. "The amazing thing is we did not re-record the song. I don't think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good…I think if we'd fooled with it too much we'd have fouled it up."(2)

Roulette released that original mix and “Hanky Panky” soon became the Number 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in July 1966.  Tommy James and the Shondells would go on to have several hit records throughout the Sixties, including “Mony Mony,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover” and others.

What can we learn from this little footnote in pop music history? The machinations of the recording industry and its concomitant relationship with radio in the 1960s are rife with intrigue and scandal. However, the story of Tommy Jackson and his unforeseen hit record has little to do with that. When Tommy's record and band petered out he probably thought his career was over, not knowing about those other events that were afoot to give the little single an unexpected life. Clearly, Tommy's commitment to act on his stroke of good luck made the difference and launched his career.(3)

What I want to talk about is how events and actions that are taking place completely without our knowledge may intersect with our lives to change our very destiny. For artists, this is a powerful idea that has to be recognized. The simultaneity of our lived experience with hitherto unknown events that might just alter our life path are a gift from the Universe. Our acceptance of this theory is simple: forget about what unknown gears are turning and continue to make your work.

Several manifestations of this alternative destiny trope have affected my own life, and with positive results, fortunately. The most powerful example is a chance telephone call I received from a woman living 2,500 miles away who would later become my wife. Moreover, her belief in and comprehension of this unknown factors of the Universe theory has schooled me about the importance of maintaining calm focus as I proceed as an artist.

Most recently, I was engaged in dialogue with a curator about an art proposal I had submitted for her planned exhibition. My proposal was to travel to the site and construct my participatory installation; I also offered to give public talks and to launch the installation at the opening reception.

Several weeks had gone by with no email or call from the curator. I was anxious so I mentioned to my wife I was going to send an email to learn about my proposal's status. She said: "There are events occurring in the Universe that you know nothing about. People are talking and things are happening. Just be patient."

This wisdom was incredibly calming and I took her advice to heart. Sure enough, within a few days I got an email from the curator. She accepted my proposal with genuine excitement, and guaranteed me airfare, hotel accommodation and per diem; she also organized talks with art departments, local artists  and the public.

This truth about trusting the Universe and moving forward with what you do is all the more potent when it is learned first-hand. But whether or not "success" or "fame" comes to you, the essence of what you do - the art you make, the music you play, the poems you write - should remain your focus and goal.

Simply put: Forget about the gears turning and the events occurring that are unknown to you - just do your work.

IMAGE/LINK: The Shondells original release of "Hanky Panky" on Snap Records in 1964; video accessed via CrisVangel1958 YouTube channel.    

1. The song was originally composed by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich for The Raindrops. Barry has said "As far as I was concerned it was a terrible song. In my mind it wasn't written to be a song, just a B-side." 

2. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, New York, 2003, p. 203.

December 2, 2016

My Gaga Dream

I had a dream last night about Lady Gaga. As some of you may know, she studied art before she became a pop singer. So in my dream I was at an opening of some of her artwork – which is hard to describe, but it was composed mainly of text, with some imagery that was smallish and secondarily placed. The text was apparently embossed, white raised lettering on a white background. The gist of the words’ meanings has faded over the daylight hours but I do recall there were footnotes and the further exposition of the “meanings” there in the footnotes is also lost on me – but I was left with a profound sense that it was my responsibility to explain these works of art to my students.

I am not teaching currently so I don’t have any students. However, I often dream of teaching, prepping for class lectures and carrying out longish conversations – which remain steadfastly logical and pedagogic, even in the unconscious realm of my dreams! 

Several things struck me about this dream, as my consciousness came into focus throughout the morning, and I began to reflect about the uniqueness of the transference of knowledge in the act of teaching. I recalled something my old professor, Richard Klank, had said about understanding, that essentially it describes the state of “standing under” whatever the term or concept we’re discussing, as if under an umbrella. The physicality of that image and the way it conveys how knowing something feels has remained with me all these years.

This kind of dissection of words can be fruitful and I do it often. So I worked on this dream a bit more, considered that feeling of responsibility I had while walking through Gaga’s dream, that I would need to be able to talk about Gaga’s work with my students, to explain it. This easily granted me insight into the nature of responsibility, that I had that “response-ability” and that my pedagogic duty was to transfer my understanding of Gaga’s art through my responses to her work.

At a Thanksgiving dinner with friends last week I listened as a fellow educator, now retired, spoke of his own “life-long learning” as a science teacher. It is well known among us teachers that one is constantly researching our subject areas to stay abreast of developments in our various disciplines. For me in the fine art area, particularly with relevance to theory, this meant subscribing to art periodicals, perusing the Internet’s art sites and blogs to read reviews, essays and critiques. Additionally, I toured DC’s museums and art galleries, usually got up to New York City each season and foraged through whatever world-class cities' venues I found myself in, from Denver to Hong Kong.

We became learners to be better teachers. My syllabi evolved over the years, expanding into new eras and covering new artists for class lectures. I also was able to create another Corcoran College class based on my research on postconceptual tendencies in contemporary art.

All of this takes time, of course, and the educator who hits that 10-year, 15-year, or even 20-year mark does benefit from the specialized knowledge gained. But what do we do with it besides lecture?

There’s publishing, obviously, if you have the stamina for it. But with the wealth of free material awash over the Ethernet, one shouldn’t hold out for a career in the academic textbook niche.

Be that as it may, I want to return to that dream. Lady Gaga is a pop phenomena, and she seems like a respectful person, as she impressed Tony Bennett – probably not easy – and performed and recorded with him. We know that she studied art, and I’ve lectured on her savvy appropriation of Tania Bruguera’s lamb-meat dress (1) and her obvious emulation of Madonna’s persona shifts – possibly inspired by David Bowie’s brilliance in pop star “shape-shifting.” But she doesn’t make art...yet.

And those “white-on-white” words and sentences, even without knowing their context or intent, bear some close reading. If we can see that it’s almost invisible, would that help? Is it “Art” with a Capital A if it’s hard to see, hard to make out, and even harder to respond to?

It is precisely because my 13-year tenure as an art theory professor, coupled with those concomitant “response-abilities” to my students, had recently ended, that I find myself reflecting on my continuance of research and critical discourse as “Art.” And this moment is when the dream has emerged in my unconscious. Did my unspoken yet anticipated critique of Gaga’s word-works represent my indecision vis-√†-vis my own art practice?

Any thoughts?

IMAGE: Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the 2010 VMA Awards; taken from YouTube without permission.

1. Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak created yet another meat dress ("Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic") in 1987; go here for more. 

November 19, 2016

The Future [4/12/07]

UPDATE: I feel that our current political and cultural climate requires us to carefully consider our future as artists. With the President-Elect taking time off from the transition process to chastise the audience at last night's performance of "Hamiltion" for boo-ing the Vice-President-Elect, we know we're in for a rough 4 years - hopefully he'll only be in power that long.
In making a selection "From The Archives," I found my former theory student Arash Mokhtar's piece from April 2007. Arash is still in Brooklyn, still writing and working in film, I believe, and his take on art, power and history deserves a second read. Let us move forward with trepidation but a courageous will. 
Administrator’s note: Arash Mokhtar lives and works in New York City, maintaining a studio in Brooklyn where he works on his paintings, photography, collage and sculpture, continually entertaining studio visits to court gallery representation. He also writes, and his essays and reviews are considered and occasionally published online at ArtCritical. Professionally, Arash transitioned from the decorative and scenic art world to the independent film industry in New York, working as Assistant Director, Art Director and Production Designer on productions, features and shorts. He is currently working on a feature screenplay and adapting a Mark Twain essay into a short film.

His essay, “The Future,” represents a recently graduated fine artist’s view of contemporary art’s possibilities. While maintaining an incendiary and distinctively critical tone, his inquiry ranges from the art market’s “power” structure to the scourge of “relativism,” finally yielding to the dialectics of historicity. I am particularly impressed with Arash’s mind and his writing abilities, and I publish this piece because I feel it is essential reading for art students and practicing artists.


“Endurance is more important than truth.”
-Charles Bukowski

It is the first day of spring. For some ancient cultures it is New Year’s Day, the vernal equinox. Our American culture is facing off against other nations in an increasingly troubled era. Our limited resources undermine our expansionist tendencies. Art today reflects our limits.

Like U.S. politics, art culture has taken many missteps in the recent past. Relative to its place among the rest of society, the “art world” in America, that is to say, galleries, museums, so-called collectors, board of directors of fine (read High) art along with many well-established “emerging” artists are in a state of crisis, or perhaps more importantly, the work is. Not an impending doom like a horrible natural disaster coming in off the horizon, but more like a catastrophe brought about by a toxic mix of insouciance and greed.

Art, as a concept and a practice, possesses power. Many of the conflicts our nation seems involved in, and many of its scandals, are about this power, the power to represent. (The Middle East has been in a conflict to represent itself, unmediated by imperialists, colonialists, and “free-market” capitalists for nearly a century…) People’s minds can be affected, perceptions altered, lives and histories changed. The power to affect, to cause an effect, is an increasingly unpopular notion among the upper classes of art world insiders. (In the interests of full disclosure, I myself was at one point an art school rat and have been graced with the academy of High versus Low and exposed to the doctrines of post-art’s relativisms and theory.) Artists and dealers, academics and gallerists, enthusiasts and collectors, are all in a state of market-driven appeasement. The roster of endless art fairs circling the globe rather seamlessly testifies to this. Who is feeding this market? Who is driving it? What is the product? Has art, or what we’ve come to regard, and reward, as art become simply another negotiating tool? A product whose mutability can suggest an infinite market of goods that ride the guise of creative liberties? After all, who can really say what is art and what is not? What has quality and what does not? Can a judgment really be made?

This mish-mashed understanding of relativism has bred not only unimaginative imitators who find no need to endeavor to invent (and don’t believe in the concept altogether) and a cynical marketplace unwilling to seek out freshness and vitality in its young art. Of course, these traits can be imitated, much like the co-optation of underground and once transgressive subcultures throughout the U.S. as evidenced in stores, clothes, magazines, sports, and movies…ad infinitum. It almost seems like the human compulsion for rebellion, especially adolescent rebellion has been replaced by the deep desire for conformity and success. Art, as seen in commercial galleries and fairs, is fronting the cynical machinations of the desire and envy industry, most notably Fashion. Art is no longer in a relationship with fashion, it has become it, stripping away any real power it has. Possessive appeal usurps meaning. It no longer represents, it duplicates. The broadest possible appeal has brought with it the most irresponsible kind of neglect. The marketplace has infiltrated the studio, and worse, the creative imagination. Is there even an ongoing discussion in the intelligentsia, through magazines, newspaper articles, online forums, schools, etc. or is there only a whole lot of self-congratulatory validation going on? One senses that criticism has ceased to exist outside of the minutiae of what was created when and by whom and exhibited where; a veritable celebrity digest of who’s who in art now. How many artists compete for a chance to have a place in a true cultural dialogue, rather than a spot in the so-called “canon” as exemplified and disseminated throughout the market? How many works are made heavily tempered with a learned careerism that dismisses originality, struggle, failure and accomplishment as outmoded human qualities that belong only to Greenbergian notions of art? Works are made pre-conscious of their place in the bazaar. This is not a marketplace of ideas. It has degenerated into a self-actualized boast, a grandstand of privilege. There are now many easy prisons of thought seeking to restrict any art that attempts to provide something that could be called experience.

American art is moving through a state of crisis and denial, a deluge of newly minted art and artists of the anti-ecstatic. Real connection and parallels have been replaced by isolated gestures. A sense of proportion, or scale, is lost, in terms of where one’s work fits in any historical context. The idea of history itself is dismissed as mass appeal has replaced individual curiosity. This is the dictum of marketing. Art can, and should be, more. Young artists in the States seem to be embarrassed and repelled by honest exchange. The work masks emotional response with a superabundance of stylistic metaphors and clich√© colloquialisms expressing ennui. Art is ideas and can provide truly unique and independent experiences for people. This, in fact, can be a responsibility of art, if artists choose so. This is not a precept of artmaking, or necessary condition, as any cursory glance at the history of art would easily demonstrate. Anything goes, obviously. There should, however, be more than lazy intellectualism and regurgitated theory; stylistic meanderings of the comfort class. Outside of a handful of artists, art seems so safe, an easy commodity that doesn't dare disturb the ether of sales, but only postures and poses in neo-punk platitudes and stylings.

This is a crisis that comes in the form of willful neglect. We live in a time of global connectivity, radical change and superb action. Being disconnected from change and relying on heavy-handed imitations with total disregard for invention and investigation should be detestable, not readily rewarded. Too much that passes for Art today avoids connections that could provide experience. It dabbles in fashion-driven marketing practices. It has been recruited and reprogrammed to drive the engines of mass culture: to forget history, deny experience, and forego relationships. These things can be messy, awkward, “uncool” and discomforting, much like our troubled times. But art in America today reflects little to none of this. It relies highly on distorted capitalist notions of success--fame and fiduciary evidence being the proving factors. Connections to history are crudely drawn in afterthoughts only to prop up the artist’s myth and to provide depth to otherwise vapid art. It has become a race to the bottom. Forget history. Broadest possible appeal. Lowest common denominator. Is this the future of American art? Is everyone really so tired that they feel actually “feeling” something is too much effort (and much too embarrassing)? Our culture, our collective American consciousness, is at a low point. Artists seem afraid, uninterested and not up to the challenge. They should attempt something more but don’t. Why should they compose work when an isolated and meaningless gesture will do? Why should they develop if imitation is enough? Race to the bottom…when we reach it, I hope some of us will continue to possess the desire, and energy, to find our way back up.