Category Archives: Art

Art History and Destiny Join Forces


“Manifest Destiny” by Michael Paul Miller

On the first Thursday of every month, Seattle’s Pioneer Square art galleries throw open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. and hordes of art lovers rush in to admire (and often to buy) fresh works of art. Most galleries time their new exhibitions to open during these First Thursday Art Walks. Last night at the Linda Hodges Gallery I saw Michael Paul Miller‘s post-apocalyptic painting titled “Manifest Destiny” and was excited to recognize his inspiration right away. Take a look at Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s portrait of Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted in 1879, it hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has always been a favorite of mine for Joan’s pale-eyed, thousand-yard visionary’s stare  and the barely visible images of saints in full armor floating above the ground and delivering their messages from behind her in the trees.

Michael Paul Miller’s “Manifest Destiny” clearly reverses this same visionary woman and shows her having a powerful experience that we can’t fathom, but it seems her destiny has become manifest before her. She grasps at a plume of smoke that originates far behind her but miraculously also appears to extend to the spot upon which she stands, seeming to indicate that she has an ability to reach into other dimensions, perhaps the future, perhaps the past, and to literally grasp things that others cannot. The destiny the title refers to is not the land of endless opportunity that 19th century expansionists envisioned when they coined the term “manifest destiny” and used it to justify their push westward across North American, smug in their belief that they were entitled to dominion over all the land’s riches. Instead, this seer stands amid the destruction and desolation left in the wake of those who “advance” by using their technology and greed to seize and destroy rather than to build, refusing to work within existing systems or integrate into the world around them.

I admire both the painting, difficult as it is, and the clever visual quotation within in it. Just as jazz (and classical) musicians often quote other compositions in their tunes, playing a quick riff that adds to the overall complexity of the piece and provides a fun in-joke to those in the know, artists often make reference to other artists’ works both in homage and to tease new meaning out of old tropes. It is this sort of technical skill and richness of symbolism that makes a study of art history so profoundly moving and rewarding.

My understanding of the history of art has enriched my life daily since I studied history and art history at Mills College decades ago. That is why I become upset when I hear people being so quick to dismiss art history degrees and castigate those of us who believe in the power and importance of exploring and understanding the creation of visual art. Even President Obama derided the attainment of an art history degree in a speech recently, joining in with many who seem to believe that any non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or business-related major which does not lead directly to a $100,000+ annual salary in a technical field is  inferior and unnecessary to our culture and economy. Some colleges are even considering dropping their art history classes because students feel that anything that doesn’t lead to a likely increase in their earning potential does not seem important. (And who can blame them when a private undergraduate college education can cost $60,000 per year, and most students need to find remunerative jobs ASAP upon graduation to pay back their crushing student loans?)

The facts that such artistic studies enrich their hearts and souls, help them to better understand other times and cultures and allow them to make connections among disparate subjects and styles mean nothing to arts denigrators, even though studies show that people with a well-rounded liberal arts education not only benefit from their STEM studies but also benefit from their studies of the arts, since those studies make them better writers, researchers and synthesizers of information, all of which are skills in great demand in more technical fields. Many articles on this topic are popping up in popular media recently, including this one from the Washington Post.

How shortsighted and indeed stupid it is to assume that arts are mere fillers meant only for bourgeois, time-wasting rich people! The same people who disdain art historians often pay thousands of dollars per year to buy video game consoles and new games to play on them, and they download films and go to action movies that they enjoy specifically because the visuals are arresting and meaningful. They spend hours online each week looking at animal videos or comedy sketches, hungry for quick impulses of emotion that come from enjoying endearing visuals that provide instant sensory gratification. Because visuals matter. The arts in general matter deeply to people even if they don’t always recognize this. People listen to three-minute long songs at work or in the car or while running because they know that the power of acoustic arts gives them a rush, inspires a feeling, changes their attitudes and makes them feel more connected to the world or to their feelings. These are all arts created by sensitive people who believe in the importance of following their aesthetic dreams whether or not that leads to monetary riches, and we are all better for it.

If you are tempted to denigrate artists or those who seek to better understand them (such as teachers of poetry or professors of ancient Indian statuary),  remember that all of these arts and the appreciation of them are signs of mental and emotional advancement. They are the signs of a sophisticated civilization. They are the underpinnings of new thought, forms of expression and connections between people, times and cultures. These arts are what ancient civilizations (and the founders of the United States, incidentally) saw as signs of a great society. These are the fields of study that they believed proved that their cultures were truly great and not just concerned with how to put food on the table but also with how to see, feel and think with greater precision and insight. A world without art is one I would not want to live in, and a culture that does not honor its artists is at risk of losing its soul.

Squirrelly Silhouette

Pen and ink drawing on paper by Laura Grey
Pen and ink drawing on paper by Laura Grey

Here’s another recent pen-and-ink drawing which was inspired by my visit to Malahide Castle just outside of Dublin, Ireland, a few years ago. Malahide has a room filled with marvelous Victorian silhouettes of all sorts: individuals, families, animals, you name it. The castle was a highlight of my family’s short visit to the Dublin area, and its silhouette room always stands out in my mind when I think of our adventure.

Baaaaah, Humbug!

Ink on paper drawing by Laura Grey
Ink on paper drawing by Laura Grey

Though this little goat is quoting Ebenezer Scrooge, he actually wishes you a very happy holiday season. I’ve added this pen-and-ink friend to my gallery of drawings—click on the image to zoom in on the details. I love working with Micron pens; I drew this fellow with a size 005 Pigma Micron with a .2 mm line width. What animal should I draw next?

The Odd and Intriguing St. Vincent

Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?

—from “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent

Annie Clark, who goes by the stage name St. Vincent, is an art rock musician who, like her sometime collaborator David Byrne, former front man of Talking Heads, is strange but appealing, disconcerting yet compelling. Clark is known for lacing her lyrics with multiple meanings. She says, “I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit. I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I’m sublimating that into the music.”

Clark grew up in Texas and still maintains a home there as well as in New York City. As a teen she was a roadie, then the tour manager and finally the opening act for her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, and his wife, jazz singer Patti Cathcart, whom those in the Bay Area know as the popular duo Tuck and Patti. Clark’s stage name comes from the Nick Cave song, “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” which refers to the hospital in which poet Dylan Thomas died, and it’s also a nod to her great-grandmother, whose middle name was St. Vincent. She occasionally appears on the television show “Portlandia,” and her music has often been compared to that of British art-music stars Kate Bush and David Bowie.

In an interview in The Quietus, St. Vincent explained the thoughts behind “Digital Witness,” saying “Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior. We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress. In some cases, we have this total connectivity via the internet but if we are not careful it can actually disconnect us more than we know. I’m curious as to what that is going to lead to.”

Sunday on the Pot with George

Sunday on the Pot with George

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog .]

We’ve all seen ghastly paintings and prints at garage sales and thrift shops—sad clowns, unflattering portraits, homely florals and trite landscapes—and wondered not only why someone could have considered hanging them in the first place, but also who in the world could have wasted time making such things?

Most bad art is regrettable but forgettable, something we look past rather than at. But some masterpieces of bad art are so remarkably awful, so tasteless, awkward or outlandish that they deserve to be displayed in all their horrific glory. Pieces that bad deserve to hang in a museum of bad art. Happily, there is such a place, just outside of Boston.

The Museum of Bad Art is an actual physical place and is also a wonderful virtual space with its own highly entertaining website. Established in a Boston basement in 1993, MOBA moved to Dedham, Massachusetts, and has expanded and grown into one of the most entertaining sites on the Web. Their collection runs the gamut from shockingly bad portraits to awkward landscapes to disturbing animal pictures. MOBA’s website states, “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”

Oh, they’re special all right. An early acquisition and one of two masterworks in the collection is “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” a vivid and stirring portrait of an elderly woman whose head looks uncomfortably like Norman Mailer’s. Lucy prances through a field of flowers, her legs arrayed as if seated but her body clearly in motion. Her breasts sway in opposite directions under her bright blue dress, which appears to be floating off to one side for no apparent reason.

The Athlete” features a discus thrower described by MOBA’s curatorial staff as “A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.” I’m also quite fond of “Peter the Kitty,” a painting found in a Salvation Army store, which is, I agree, “Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. Is Peter hungry or contemplating his place in a hungry world? The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.”

Of all the pieces in the collection, my favorite has always been a pointillist tour-de-force done in homage to the genius of George Seurat, whose “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was the inspiration for the beautiful Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” MOBA’s “Sunday on the Pot with George” features an rotund older gentleman wearing naught but Y-front underwear sitting on top of what is either a chair swathed in thick blue folds of fabric, or perhaps a melting blue toilet. George’s sagging flesh drips slowly toward his nonexistent feet in cascading red and peach colored blobs of paint, the canvas sizzling and jittering before our eyes. The painting has a lively, psychotic quality. I love it so that I’ve enjoyed it in book, calendar and notecard form—items from the MOBA online store make excellent holiday gifts!

Much as I love the images, the oh-so-serious “interpretations” of the pieces are equally enjoyable. Here’s the caption from a pastel and acrylic piece titled “Inspiration“: “The organ master stares, transfixed by twin mysterious visions: the Neanderthal saint in the setting sun and the Gothic monk proceeding out from the cathedral’s sanctum, each framed by a halo of organ pipes, reminiscent of #2 pencils.”

MOBA truly lives up to its tag line: “Art too bad to be ignored.”

The Robin Hood of the Art World


[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Is graffiti art? And if it is, is the defacement of others’ property ever justifiable in the service of art? When is graffiti (or “guerilla art,” or “street art”) okay? When it says something meaningful? When it’s well done? When it’s pretty? When famous people say it’s art?

Let’s suggest for a moment that it’s always wrong to deface others’ property. After a graffiti attack, once a property has already been defaced, is there ever a justification in leaving the defacement/art in place? What if it’s really great-looking, astonishingly intricate, brilliant in its message: would those circumstances justify the illegal (and some would say unethical) action that created it?

These are important questions to consider when discussing or viewing graffiti art or “street art,” and a documentary that addresses them would be fascinating. However, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the excellent new documentary on street art, doesn’t address any of them. And it doesn’t need to. Subtitled “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie,” it’s a fascinating film on its own merits, even though it leaves the ethics of all the principal characters in the film essentially unexplored. The film itself may be at least in part an elaborate hoax. If it is, it’s still worth seeing.

The most famous graffiti artist in the world, and certainly one of the most talented, is a Briton who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy is a wily and elusive character who has been creating graffiti art, first in England and then internationally, since the early 1990s. He began as a common tagger but after too many run-ins with the law, he decided he needed to develop a new style that would allow him to prep a public outdoor space, create his art as quickly as possible, then disappear before cops could show up and arrest him. He developed a system in which he created a series of stencils, then smuggled them to various spots around Britain and used one or more of them to build up intricate and often sophisticated images, sometimes adding freehand strokes to the stenciled areas. His pieces often feature wry comments spray-painted next to or within the images. Subjects have ranged from small single-color rats (a frequent motif) to huge murals of policemen in riot gear dancing with daisies. He’s often created life-sized people or animals, including policemen kissing each other and children in surprising situations. His messages are usually usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment.

Over time, Banksy’s wit, talent and cleverness at hiding his identity made him a cult figure, and his art became so desired and in such great demand that people began removing his works from walls, cutting chunks out of tagged buildings and selling them at auction, even on eBay. He has created a number of pieces on canvas as well, and they now sell for grand sums at no less august an institution than Sotheby’s.

Banksy often paints works that mimic the style and subject matter of old masters but which show clever twists, such as a 17th century village scene in which the buildings are covered in modern graffiti. He has repeatedly smuggled his paintings into major art galleries such as the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, then hung each piece, complete with fancy frame and descriptive placard, among famous masterpieces. Sometimes museums have taken weeks to discover the subterfuge before removing his works. In 2005 his version of a primitive Lascaux-style cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart was hung in the British Museum. When it was discovered, the British Museum, home to such important pieces as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, wisely added Banksy’s painting to the permanent collection.

Despite his remarkably varied artistic talent, Banksy fits well into the graffiti artist or “street artist” genre because of his guerilla-style illegal forays into public places, which he then vandalizes, albeit wittily and with great skill, leaving evidence of his cunning alongside artistic talent. Many street artists have more swagger than technical skill, and the “Screw you, society!” anarchic message their graffiti announces to the world is usually more compelling than the actual art they produce. Banksy is not unusual among graffitists in his desire to remain anonymous and avoid arrest for his illegal activities, but he does show particular skill, subtlety and cleverness.

Some of his ruses, such as cutting a red British telephone box in half, reassembling it and welding it so looks as if it’s been hacked in two and bent, and then burying a hatchet in it, take not just daring and skill but some major resources to create, transport and maneuver into place. For fun several years ago, he counterfeited a million pounds worth of British currency with the face of Princess Diana taking the place of Queen Elizabeth II, but the results were so believable that attempts to spend the faux currency were all too successful, and he ended up with boxes of funny-money that he didn’t dare distribute for fear of being prosecuted for a federal crime.

Banksy’s story is perhaps the most compelling one in the world of graffiti art, but it takes an unexpected back seat to the story of his videographer in the Banksy-made film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is packing arthouse cinemas around the world just a few months after its debut. The gist of the story is this: In the 1990s, Thierry Guetta, a French-born entrepreneur, ran a successful LA clothing boutique which sold vintage rock-and-roller and punky clothes which he bought for almost nothing in scrap bundles and sold for obscenely high prices. On the side, he began obsessively videotaping everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a French graffiti artist who made small mosaics based on bit-mapped Space Invaders videogame characters. His cousin, who called himself Space Invader, allowed Guetta to film him gluing his guerilla-art mosaics around Europe and America, and Guetta’s videotaping obsession finally had a focus. He started documenting almost all the top players in the street art movement to the exclusion of doing almost anything else throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s.

One artist who allowed Guetta constant access was Shepard Fairey, first famous for spreading over a million images of Andre the Giant‘s face on stickers and posters around the world, all atop the word OBEY, as if he were the ubiquitous Big Brother of Orwell’s distopian classic 1984. Later Fairey became famous for the red and blue poster of Barack Obama above the word HOPE that becames an official image of Obama’s campaign and has since been endlessly parodied. Fairey is now being sued by the Associated Press because he didn’t have permission to use the AP photo he based the poster on. A likeable guy who gets around, Fairey had become friendly with Banksy. Fairey was impressed after seeing Guetta’s obsessive compulsion to document graffitists and Guetta’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way and spend his own money and time helping Fairey and other street artists create and hang their work. According to the documentary, he felt Guetta could be trusted to meet and even videotape Banksy when Banksy came to Los Angeles. Guetta proved himself an extremely willing, friendly and helpful assistant, driving Banksy around, showing him the best public walls on which to ply his craft, and making his life and his art easier. Banksy soon allowed Guetta to film him at work, trusting that Guetta would keep his identity safe, which he did.

Here’s where the questions of who is an artist and what is art get confused. If you want to keep the upshot of the documentary a mystery, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Eventually, Banksy felt it was time for Thierry Guetta to edit his huge collection of Banksy videos into a documentary, something Guetta had said he would eventually do but for which he had no training or experience. According to Banksy, after six months Guetta had cobbled together a headache-inducing, chopped-and-diced fiasco of a film without any narrative at all, a barrage of undifferentiated random images from his thousands of uncataloged videotapes of Banksy and other graffiti artists. Upon seeing this mess, Banksy suggested that Thierry give over access to all the videos and Banksy himself would create a movie out of them. To distract Guetta, Banksy suggested that Guetta should go off for six months and create art of his own and then have a little show. This made some sort of sense; the videographer had started doing some stencils of himself around LA and signing them MBW, which he said stood for Mr. Brainwash. Banksy thought Guetta would have a small vanity show someplace and the distraction would get him out of Banksy’s hair while Banksy put together a reasonable documentary out of Guetta’s frightening mishmash of videotape.

However, Guetta, now consumed with the idea that he was an artiste who could make a fortune and have a giant, splashy, expensive solo show that would wow the world, mortaged his house, hired a cadre of actual artists, prop designers and contractors, and rented a huge, expensive space in downtown LA. He told other artists to make largely unattractive knock-offs of Andy Warhol-style pop art pieces and spray painted silkscreen images of pop culture icons, claimed and signed them all as his own work, and relentlessly hyped himself around LA as the next big thing. Seven thousand people lined up to see Mr. Brainwash’s opening and his hundreds of derivative paintings, many of them created by others with almost no or no input from Guetta at all.

LA loved him. He sold a million dollars worth of “art” in two weeks. So many people flooded the gallery that what had been expected to be a two-week show stayed up for two months. Madonna asked him to create a Warholesque image of her for her latest greatest hits album. Mr. Brainwash has his first New York show this spring. And the joke was on Banksy. Or was it? While it illustrates the phoniness of the art world that he’s always reviled and parodied, a significant contingent of art world critics and followers believe they recognize the clever guiding hand of Banksy himself behind this cynical, clever and amusing film; they believe he put up the money for Guetta’s show and is using Guetta as a frontman for his ruse.

Whether this is a clever con or simply a wild situation that spun out of control while Banksy was distracted by the editing down of Guetta’s archive of tapes, it is a perfect illustration of the sort of art world nonsense Banksy has always opposed. Banksy has staged it as the story of an authentic (if anarchistic) hermitic artist who hides out among us and goes by a pseudonym vs. the faux-artist con-man entrepreneur with little if any talent for art and no insight into what makes it good, important or inspiring. Even when Banksy has created art meant to be sold to the throngs angling to pay real money to own a genuine Banksy, he has happily bitten the hands that feed him.

In 2007, Sotheby’s auction house auctioned off three of his pieces for a total of over £170,000; to coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In his quest to meet and videotape all the bright lights of the street art movement, Guetta, on the other hand, became so hungry to be seen as a creator and star rather than part of the supporting cast of the art world that he created a huge show out of nothing but borrowed money and chutzpah, and, horribly, pulled it off.

The question of whether what guerilla street artists do (trespassing and defacing property that is not theirs) is ethical or justifiable is never addressed in this film. That’s understandable; Banksy is an outlaw hero who probably sees himself as akin to Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood, someone who points out the flaws in the system in an outrageously public way while remaining essentially invisible, only popping out often enough to build his legend and prove his existence. There’s no reason why such a person would want to draw attention to the dark side of what he does, especially when he doesn’t appear to recognize any darkness in it.

A film this cleverly and entertainingly made adds to his allure and stature while presenting his actions in the best possible light. Without ever explaining or justifying himself, he wangles his way into the audience’s affections and makes the story unfold in a way that builds sympathy for the characters, all of whom are literal outlaws. We find ourselves rooting for them to get away with their trespasses without ever feeling like we’re being manipulated or spoonfed with obvious and unnecessary explanations or justifications. Banksy really knows how to tell and sell a story, and, like a sleight-of-hand master, how to distract us from many of the important issues without our stopping to think, hey, what about the elephant in the room?

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in which Banksy places an actual live elephant in the middle of a gallery show in order to prove a point. Of course, the point is lost on the media; they report that PETA (and LA Animal Services) didn’t like him painting an elephant with children’s facepaints and putting it on display, which is indeed newsworthy, but they seemed to have no concern with what the point of his painting the elephant was. This example of his disdain for people who don’t think about the meaning or point of art is astute, but it also shows his arrogance in thinking that, because others don’t share his sophisticated ideas and opinions on art, their own tastes, questions and concerns about what he does and how he does it are not just debatable but abominable proof of their philistinism. While I share his disappointment that people are so happy to accept pop culture simplifications of art rather than develop opinions of their own, I find his open contempt for people who don’t share his worldview distressingly self-absorbed and arrogant.

Banksy shows himself to be a witty and articulate man, both via his art and in the speeches he makes to the camera in this documentary. He speaks and gesticulates while wearing a dark hoody that obscures his face and and has his voice altered digitally. He could have been interviewed off camera and had the documentary’s narrator Rhys Ifans, the dryly entertaining Welsh actor, repeat his words to ensure that nobody could recognize his speech patterns or accent, but Banksy clearly enjoys scooting out of the shadows just a bit, providing blurry-faced proof of his escapades to the world via Guetta’s videos, letting people hear his accent, albeit in altered form. He is playing with his anonymity here, heightening the drama yet again, just as he does in his art, working the darkness and spray cans and stencils until he’s constructed a shadowy version of himself that he can carefully control access to.

Banksy appears to have a strong system of values (often fine ones, like looking out for the little guy and avoiding governmental tyranny), but seems to have little respect for the rights of others whose values differ (such as those who own property which he would like to cover in examples of his self-expression). This places him squarely alongside other heroes of the anarchistic British punk movement who have determined that destruction and defacement of things that they don’t value is justification enough for ignoring laws which seek to respect property and and which respect the needs of a society based on the rule of law.

In an attempt to focus attention on exploitative flaws in the capitalist system, socialists or, even further to the left on the political spectrum, anarchists like Banksy sometimes feel justified in ignoring property rights entirely, saying they are an artificial and damaging construct which enslaves the poor and empowers the rich, thus denying basic human rights and dignity. If you believe that an entire system is wrong, it can be tempting to determine that you will no longer acknowledge its rules or its power over you and decide to do things your own way. But just as unfettered capitalism can lead to great selfishness and a lack of awareness or concern for the needs of others, unfettered socialism can lead to societies which refuse to give incentives or rewards for exceptional efforts or remarkable talents, and which can be perverted into unhealthy organisms which stamp out originality or innovation. Fortunately, hybrid societies with capitalistic bases and strong (though imperfect) social safety nets exist in several nations around the world. They show that a respect for the innate worth of every individual and the responsibility of society to look after its weakest members can be balanced with respect and recompense for exceptional talent and effort. They also show that respecting a person’s property rights is an important component in respecting the person herself. No nation balances these opposing needs perfectly, but it is encouraging that millions around the world still strive to perfect their systems.

A healthy and safe hybrid society runs on respect for all the people in it, as well as for their legally-obtained possessions. And while Banksy has often shown himself to have a certain integrity, pointing out flaws in the art world and questioning the values of modern society, he has also shown a willingness to profit (sometimes enormously) by engaging in the same art world he mocks. To have true integrity, one could argue that he would have to turn down chances to make money off his art, but by selling works directly through Sotheby’s, even as he mocks the process, he has become a part of the system he claims to disdain. On the one hand, I want to see someone so talented and original, someone of his wit and insight and great skill, benefit from his ability and be able to make a good living as an artist. On the other hand, it saddens me to see him revel in becoming rich off the sale of his own private possessions while feeling no compunction about messing with the possessions of others and mocking the owners in the process. He then makes those whose property he has vandalized look bad when they seek to remove his art, even though, if they leave it in place, they give a message to all graffiti artists and other vandals that if you’re famous and clever or do a good enough job at it, the rules of respecting other’s space and property no longer apply.

A society which makes exceptions for disrespect of property and laws of trespass invites evisceration of the social compact. Sad as I am to see some of Banksy’s work disappear, I cannot blame the owners of the defaced spaces for showing their resolve not to let themselves become victims of vandalism, even clever or attractive vandalism, without a fight. Furthermore, Banksy knows that much of his work will be defaced or destroyed; he has chosen his medium and locations for precisely this reason. The impermanence makes seeing it as quickly as possible imperative, and that makes him an extra hot commodity and burnishes his oppressed outlaw image. It makes him a romantic figure of brash mystery.

Banksy can act as cynical about the superficialities of the art world as he wants, but he’s making huge sums of money off that very world nowadays, so he’s benefiting from the system he finds so corrupt. His hands aren’t clean, either.

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” —Andy Warhol

But Is It Art?


“Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” a life-sized porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons, 1988.

I take art seriously, and often have very strong opinions about it. There are artists whose technical skill, taste or vision doesn’t match mine but whose work I can still respect and admire in some capacity. And there are a few whom I find so weak, irritating or vapid that I’ll admit to expressing some scorn for them in private. But while their work may not feel like it merits being described as art according to my internal art-o-meter, I am willing to be liberal in my acceptance of the use of the term “art.”

Multiple times, upon learning that I am an artist, I have had people tell me with big smiles and bright eyes that their favorite artist is Thomas Kinkade, and each time I bite my tongue and agree that his works are, um, quite cheerful. We can agree on that. Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” was hugely successful until shortly before his death in 2012. He was less an artist than a kitsch commercial illustrator with impressive marketing skills. He did not provide what I look for in an artistic experience, but he moved others, so when his admirers tell me how much they love his work, I do my best to show them respect. I may dislike the soft-focus, Kleenex-box-art style and subject matter of his work, but he touched people with his paintings, and their emotional reactions are real and important to them. Kinkade’s work prompts pleasing visceral reactions in people that bring them joy and comfort. So, much as his work turns my stomach, even it is art.

Essayist Joan Didion wrote, “A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.” I must admit to laughing and nodding in agreement when I read those words.

The glowing houses, churches and street lamps in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings are extraordinarily popular because they evoke an instant and comforting emotional reaction in so many people. His imitations of light were meant to bring to mind thoughts and feelings of an idealized old-time American home life: clean, cozy, quaint, old fashioned, oozing charm and warmth. As a nation our taste often runs to the sweet, the peppy, the saccharine, and we admire and appreciate those who serve up our stereotypes in the most sanitized and friendly way. A man who sells reproductions of his paintings in the hundreds of thousands, many touched up with selected highlights by worker bees so that they look more like actual paintings than the cheap copies they are (so they can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars each instead of the ten dollars they might be worth), Kinkade understood his market and grew rich by never underestimating the public’s desire for clichéd and emotionally manipulative imagery. According to Wikipedia, he was estimated to have made $53 million from his art works from 1997 to May 2005 alone. Yet in the last few years of his life, the manufacturing arm of his empire went into bankruptcy and he experienced a backlash from formerly devoted franchise owners who said he had misled them and knowingly ruined their finances.

Thomas Kinkade’s subject matter, style, technique and execution give me the willies, but his work is art, albeit bad art. Some disagree with me, saying that merely evoking a cheerful reaction with one’s creations doesn’t make one an artist. Art may be meant to provoke thought and emotion, to make us ask questions, to challenge, confuse, reward or transform us. And decidedly bad art like Thomas Kinkade’s does indeed challenge, provoke and confuse me—usually in ways I find unpleasant. But not every work needs to accomplish every artistic goal. Art can exist merely to delight, to embellish, to decorate, to provoke laughter or to express whatever thought, feeling or impression the artist wishes to convey. Bad art is still art.

Art can elevate or soothe, excite or inspire. Many works which I revile are still, in my estimation, important art because they successfully innovate, surprise or make me think. Beauty speaks to the soul, and each of us finds beauty in different forms. We seek out things that please our eyes and our hearts. Art does transform, but it can do that through humor or subtlety, elegance, spareness or outrageous joie de vivre. Art can also be kitsch, and sometimes that’s great fun. Takashi Murakami‘s pop-art pieces are terribly popular, and though my favorites among them look a lot like the vinyl flower power stickers found all over beat-up VW beetles circa 1970, they’re fresh and freeing. They’re genuine art.

Art asks questions of its viewers. Sometimes it’s crude and confrontational, other times sly and amusing. It provokes anger, excitement, disgust, even tears. Other times it invites laughter or thoughtfulness, or merely prods us to stand still and feel. It is not a bad thing to feel comfort or simple pleasure. Schmaltzy art may not be high art, but art it remains. Obvious, twee and soulless prints feel like caricatures of landscapes to me, but they bring joy to millions. I look down on an artist’s decisions to use technical ability in the service of creating sub-par paintings with trite subjects with no aspirations to be anything more than derivative dreck. But whether I like it or not, it is still art.

Thomas Kinkade achieved something that many artists of integrity cannot: he managed to evoke strong feelings in many of the people who view and enjoy his work. Just because those of us with art history degrees may look down on untrained eyes as having inferior taste doesn’t mean that the feelings of those without our training aren’t real or legitimate. We may denigrate Disney’s homogenized, dumbed down, often sexist animated fairy tales for blandly pandering to the lowest common denominator, but the fact remains that the technical quality of their creations is usually superlative, and their understanding of the needs and desires of their market segment has been remarkably keen for nearly nine decades. They evoke genuine strong emotion with imagery so powerful that indelible icons come to mind when we think of Disney.

Watching Disney’s simplified versions of stories and illustrations supplant the more elegant, subtle or powerful imagery found in its stories’ source materials can be upsetting. Disney’s Winnie the Pooh animation is nowhere near as gorgeous as Ernest Shepard’s original illustrations for A. A. Milne‘s books are, for example. But Disney’s work is still art. It may not be high art, it may not always be good art, but it is valid art, as are Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s S&M nudes, Picasso’s “Guernica” and Jeff Koons’s ridiculous, goofy and disturbing sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles. Even Koons’s images of himself having sex with his real-life porn star ex-wife Cicciolina are works of art, if not art I’d want to own. Others’ artistic expressions don’t have to match our tastes to be valid. The art world is complex and ridiculous, but it also has endless room in it for an exciting panoply of expression—just like the rest of the world around us.

Impressions on Impressionism


[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When Americans think of art museums and so-called great art, Impressionism usually comes to mind. Impressionist artists and their work are among the most popular in traveling exhibitions and Impressionist paintings are frequently reproduced on coffee cups, calendars, posters, stationery and other gift shop items. The art section of any bookstore is likely to be well stocked with books on Impressionists; in fact, you’ll probably find more of them represented than you will artists of any other style or period. If you have children in public schools, any art education they’re likely to receive probably includes repeated lessons about and images by Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir, with some nods to Picasso, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (who should always be referred to as “Leonardo” and not as “da Vinci,” by the way, despite what Dan Brown tells you—”da Vinci” isn’t a last name, but means “from the city of Vinci”).

Is this because Impressionists are better or more important artists than those who came before or after them? Probably not. Were they revolutionary? Yes, some of them were, some of the time. They emphasized a fresh way of seeing and of expressing what they saw, although artists had used loose brush strokes and tried to capture evanescent moments, the shimmer of gold, a quick impression of a lace collar or a glinting eye hundreds of years beforehand with fully as much wit and originality, to my mind. The influence of 17th century artists like Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Velazquez on the Impressionists is well-known. In fact, I find those original, inspiring 17th century works more beautiful, more exciting and more inspiring on the whole. The huge popular appeal of the Impressionists is largely because they’re more accessible; the pale colors are pretty, the shapes are indistinct and inoffensive, the subject matter is usually G-rated, universally acceptable and pleasing. Dark portraits of unattractive people, who were the subjects of some of the greatest works of the old masters, don’t have the same popular appeal as fields of poppies or women with umbrellas standing in sunny Provençal lavender fields. They look nice on cards to Grandma or on the dentist’s waiting room walls or on your office calendar. Pastels are pretty. Waterlilies are nice. We all like flowers.

Of course Renoir and Monet and their pastel-fancying contemporaries did see the world with fresh eyes and provided us with a new way of seeing and of expressing what we see. They are great artists, many of their works do challenge and please, and their works are worth knowing. But there’s so much more beauty in the world to challenge the eye and delight the heart, I wish people would look beyond the easy and obvious more often and think outside the Impressionistic box.

Some Impressionists move me greatly and delight my eye, of course. George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” (“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte”), inspired Stephen Sondheim‘s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George for a reason: it is bold and arresting, beautiful and unusual, and the placement of thousands of dots of paint next to other complimentary or contrasting colors in order to create a freshness, depth and a magical reaction in the eye is delightful and original.

Edouard Manet‘s portraits of demimondaines in paintings like “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (“The luncheon on the grass“) or “Olympia” are worldly and confrontational, darker and starker than the sweet mother-and-daughter paintings of Mary Cassatt or the rotund, soft-focus, spun-sugar nudes of Renoir, who sometimes look to me as if they were dipped in frosting and rolled in candy sprinkles. Manet handles the paint roughly and uses flatter patches of light and dark to evoke dramatic lighting and moods, and his characters face viewers unapologetically and draw us into their world with some force.

Van Gogh is justly famous for his sunflowers and irises and his starry night, and I do love them, but his more disturbing portraits of working people and of himself really prove him to be a master. His work reproduces badly because his impasto technique of applying paint so thickly to the canvas as to make it almost a bas relief is so vivid and three-dimensional, it simply can’t be adequately represented in a two-dimensional approximation. Also, we’ve become so jaded by the endless reproductions of his work, it’s hard to see them as fresh and original and world-changing the way they were when he painted them.

Among Impressionists one of my favorites is Gustave Caillebotte (roughly pronounced KY-uh-BOT). His compositions are bold but pleasing, and his mastery of perspective and prodigious technical skills are extraordinary. His angles are dramatic and add such movement and excitement to a painting, and the people within aren’t frantic even though they are active, on the go, moving toward or away from us at a steady clip and with a sense of purpose. “Jour de pluie” (“Rainy Day”) has people walking directly towards us and being cut off at the knees, they’ve come so close.

The way they’re cropped makes them seem that much nearer to us, and we see just the elbow of someone retreating, so he’s right on the edge of the picture plane, pulling us with him into the thick of the action. Then there are the smaller figures cutting across the middle and the one carriage wheel moving off to the left, so while our eyes are drawn to the couple approaching us, there’s just enough cross-traffic to keep our eyes moving through the layers of activity toward the back.

Finally, there’s that marvelous flatiron-shaped building on the left jutting toward us, and the perfectly receding wet cobblestones on the left and the modern sidewalk on the right bisected by yet another diagonal. All those diagonals and perfectly executed examples of perspective are at just the right angles to imply movement without cluttering the composition so much that we’d be left exhausted and distracted by too many competing areas of activity. There are enough places for the eye to rest before moving on to keep us from getting tired out by too much clutter, and those resting points give us enough time to satisfy our curiosity before we move on.

It’s pretty nearly perfect compositionally. Consider the languid, calm faces of the couple approaching us; they’re engaged and active but not frantic, and that keeps the attitude of the piece right, too; too much animation in their faces would feel like overkill in such a busy painting.

Another favorite painting of mine is Caillebotte’s “Les Raboteurs de Parquet” (“The Floor Scrapers”). The angles of the diagonal lines vary from left to right to accommodate the shift in our perspective because we’re standing in front of and above the planers on the right. Again, the perspective feels perfect and makes us feel we’re right in the room, part of the action, so close we can hear the wood curls being shaved up from the floor.

I love the shininess of the unplaned wood planks versus the dull pallor of the planed areas, and the fact that the planers are shirtless, their skin buttery and similar in tone to the newly planed wood. The only curves in the room are the curves of their heads and arms and arching backs, the curve of the liquor bottle and glass on the right, which promise relief from their tiring work, and the swirling arabesques of the wrought iron on the balcony shown through the glass door. The men, the bottle and the iron work look so much more sensuous and sinuous than they would otherwise because of the severe contrasting lines of the floor and the molding on the back wall.

This picture makes tiring manual labor and tedious craftsmanship look sexy. The fact that the men are shirtless also makes us think it must be a hot day, and that lets us imagine the smell of the wood shavings and sweat. The exciting combination of perfect composition and the implication of controlled but constant motion and intensity of focus of each man elevates a painting of three hot, tired workmen toiling on their knees to strip a floor, the most seemingly mundane of acts, into something extraordinary.

Again, each setting and each character within the setting is perfectly composed. Not only is the relationship between elements harmonious and pleasing, but the faces of all the people in each setting are calm, unaware of the gaze of outsiders (i.e., we, the viewers) who have burst into their presence. We’re just a short distance from them yet they remain distant from us emotionally, which lets us feel safer and less confronted by their proximity, so we can peer at them more directly without feeling challenged by them, like voyeurs. That a painter can create such realism and intimacy with imaginary characters by applying some oily pigments to a stretched piece of fabric is astonishing. To me, that is great art.


My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary


[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.