Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Logical Consequence

"'Art for art' is a tactical slogan, a necessary rebellion against philistine didacticism and political control. But pressed to its logical consequences, it is pure narcissism."

- George Steiner

Friday, January 29, 2010

Climate Change, Dullardism, and What We Can Do About It

Below, I've reposted my most recent guest contribution to the Endangered Species Print Project Blog. Because it is pertinent, I've also included the National Resource Defense Council Action Fund's "This Is Our Moment" public service announcement.

Please devote three minutes to the PSA. The celebrity cast is definitely "of the moment," and some of their references won't make sense five years from today, but that's the point. We need to be calling our senators now! (Or, if you prefer, email them, as the PSA suggests. Click here.)

Legislative action on these issues is long overdue...and our ailing country will benefit from the new jobs and the display of a little moral backbone. Let's not pass up the opportunity. Call. Email. Rally. Please.


When the post below originally appeared on Hungry Hyaena, in June of 2005, polls suggested that the American public were increasingly aware of the fact that climate change (or "global warming") posed a serious threat to our environmental status quo. In fact, the number of Americans that favored legislative action to curb anthropogenic greenhouse emissions and to mitigate the negative effects of climate change continued to grow into 2008.

Recent studies, however, reveal a troubling trend: Americans' concern about climate change diminished in the last year, so much so, according to some polls, that a majority of United States citizens today doubt that climate change is a threat, and dismiss global warming as a fantasy. Whatever the actual numbers, the up-tick in skepticism is real, even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. The frightening anxiety of the burgeoning global village, our contemporary economic upheaval, and the requisite priorities of our elected legislators notwithstanding, action on climate change is no less a moral and ethical imperative today than it was five years ago.

"The problem of modern man isn't to escape from one ideology to another, nor to escape from one formulation to find another; our problem is to live in the presence and in the attributes of reality."

-Frederick Sommer, The Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics
Although surveys suggest that most of the American public still believes that climate change is a future threat, many thousands of species are already threatened by shrinking environmental ranges and changing precipitation patterns; some of these species are on the verge of extinction. The negative impact of climate change occurs now and later.

I encourage those readers curious about the subject, particularly those who believe that we will "solve" the problem via improved technologies, to read "Climate Change is Totally Awesome," a recent post at Organic Matter. The author dissects a Telegraph article by Robert Matthews, entitled, "Warmer, wetter and better (or the good news that the climate change lobby doesn't want you to hear)."

Interviewed for the Telegraph piece, Professor Philip Stott of the University of London argues that reducing emissions will not alleviate the threat, and that the steps required to significantly reduce emissions would render us technologically impotent.
"Even if we shut every fossil-fuel power station, crushed every car and grounded every aircraft, the Earth's climate would still continue to get warmer, according to Prof Stott. 'The trouble is, we would all be too impoverished to cope with the consequences.'"
I agree that the warming trend is natural and that, even were we to de-industrialize, the world would continue to warm. But anthropogenic action accelerates climate change to such a devastating degree that biodiversity and, ultimately, human stability are in peril.

Furthermore, Stott's concept of technological impoverishment is misguided. To be sure, if we First Worlders are to transition to sustainable development, we must give up many of the conveniences that we now take for granted. It remains to be seen whether we will make this sacrifice of our own volition or if we will do nothing until Nature demands it of us. In either case, the sacrifice will not make us incapable of coping with climate change.

It will, however, demand a significant restructuring of our cultural and technological priorities. Our taste for spectacle and distraction must be unlearned. Cultural critic and anthropologist Morris Berman, in his outstanding book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, dubs the social spirit of contemporary, industrialized nations "dullardism."
"With dullardism, the goal is simply to go unconscious, by means of tranquilizers, alcohol, TV, spectator sports, organized religion, compulsive busyness and workaholism, and so on (even though many of these do provide a short-term 'high')."
Dullardism is not endemic to contemporary, industrialized societies. Equivalent symptoms were documented in the late years of the Roman and Mayan civilizations, and I suspect that they also existed in Sumer and other early civilizations.

The human animal is not evolutionarily equipped to flourish in society; our brains remain "wired" for the Pleistocene, and the rapid transition to an agrarian, sedentary, and "civil" existence has been rapid and fraught. We therefore exhibit displacement behavior, seeking escape via fundamentalism, sports, entertainment, and drug abuse.

Does this mean that advanced civilization makes us ill-equipped to deal with environmental catastrophe? Not necessarily (we have to hope not!), but we must reexamine our social mores in order to create something akin to a new social order, one that balances our primitive lusts for progress and power with pragmatism and stewardship. It's a tall order, to be sure, but one that we must fill.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Quantity or Quality?

Nathan Abels
Acrylic on Panel
24 × 48 inches
"The world we inhabit is not, in this sense, a determinate set of objective processes. It is our larger flesh, a densely intertwined and improvisational tissue of experience. It is a sensitive sphere suspended in the solar wind, a round field of sentience sustained by the relationships between the myriad lives and sensibilities that compose it. We come to know more of this sphere not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience all the more richly and wakefully, feeling our way into deeper contact with other experiencing bodies, and hence with the wild, intercorporeal life of the Earth itself.


In truth, it’s likely that our solitary sense of inwardness (our experience of an interior mindscape to which we alone have access), is born of the forgetting, or repressing, of a much more ancient interiority that was once our common birthright: the ancestral sense of the surrounding earthly cosmos as the voluminous inside of an immense Body, or Tent, or Temple.


Experiential qualities once felt to be proper to the surrounding terrain—feeling-tones, moods, the animating spirits-of-place known to reside in particular wetlands and forests—all lost their home with the dissolution of the enclosing, wombish character of the pre-Copernican cosmos. Such qualities now had no place in the surrounding world, itself newly conceived as a set of objects connected by purely external, mechanical relationships: a world of quantities. Unlike quantities, qualities are fluid, mercurial realities arising from the internal, felt relations between beings. Qualities—these ephemeral and fluid powers—require at least a provisional sense of enclosure to hold them. When they could no longer be contained by the visible world (no longer encompassed and held within the curved embrace of the spheres), these ambiguous, ever-shifting qualities quit the open exteriority of the physical surroundings, taking refuge within the new interiority of each person’s 'inner world.' Henceforth they would be construed as merely subjective phenomena."

- David Abram, "The Air Aware", Orion Magazine, September/October 2009
David Abram's essay "The Air Aware" eloquently expands on ideas that I attempt to present succinctly in my artist statement. Brevity is difficult, however, for those of us who are preoccupied with the exciting interchange of anthropology, ecology, ethology, phenomenology, and theology.

It's interesting, then, that the work of visual artists who explore this conceptual terrain is often quietly awesome. Interesting...and yet so natural.

Christopher Saunders
"Whitenoise Suite no.6"
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches

Image credits: both painting reproductions, courtesy the artists

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK Jr. Day: Prayer As Action

In March 1965, after marching alongside Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, the celebrated theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Heschel's formulation explicitly equates righteous action (or activism) with prayer. In this time of increased fundamentalist agitation and violence, Heschel's notion is vital to both contemporary religion and secular humanism; that is to say, it is vital to every human being.

It seems very appropriate, then, that King, Jr. Day is observed by many in the United States as the King Day of Service, a day in which we honor the message and aspirations of Martin Luther King, Jr. by volunteering our time and effort for humanitarian causes (or, as I've also done this year, signing up for forthcoming volunteer projects and donating money to important aid efforts).

It is also a day, of course, to remember the man and the many he inspired to act or speak out against prejudice and oppression. May there be many more such prophets.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Vision Quest"

I am delighted to announce that one of my 2007 paintings, "a cruel and beautiful faraway place," is included in "Vision Quest,' a group show curated by the celebrated artist/art blogger/musician Pam Grossman. The exhibition will be on view at Observatory, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, NY.

The opening is this coming Saturday, January 16th, from 7-10pm. The reception will surely be a lovely way to start your Saturday evening, but if you can't make it, I hope that you'll have an opportunity to visit the show while it's on view (through February 21st). Full exhibition details and the press release follow.


"VISION QUEST – A Group Show of Neo-Shamanic Art"

543 Union Street (at Nevins)
Brooklyn, NY 11215

On View: January 17th– February 21st, 2010
Opening: Saturday, January 16th, 2010, 7-10pm

Gallery Hours: Thursdays & Fridays 3-6pm; Saturdays & Sundays 12-6pm

OBSERVATORY and Phantasmaphile's Pam Grossman are proud to kick off 2010 with VISION QUEST, a group show of neo-shamanic art, on view from January 16th through February 21st.

A healer, a medicine (wo)man, a guide: the shaman is a figure who interfaces with nature magic and the invisible world at large, for the betterment of the tribe. Fluent in the language of symbols, and a perennial student of plant wisdom, the shaman is also a translator – bringing back messages from a place veiled thick with leaves, bones, smoke, ghosts.

This journey to the other side – to the innerside – is not just a flowery promenade of song and trance; of friendly animal spirits and ancestral reunions. For while this land is rife with vibrant, variegated beauty, it can also be a danger zone. Images of decapitation and dismemberment abound - though ultimately act as portents for personal transformation and rebirth. This shadowy terrain is trod only by those brave enough to encounter whatever may be found along the way, as each sojourn is mysterious, thoroughly unpredictable, and entirely individual. However, the results of the trip often prove invaluable, as the traveler returns armed with knowledge that will in turn illuminate and repair the community, and fortify his or her own soul.

While the role of the shaman has traditionally been fulfilled by experienced elders in indigenous groups spanning culture and time, VISION QUEST posits that our artists fit the bill as well. Today, with more of us living in an urban jungle rather than a real one, it has become all the more important to figure out ways to internalize the lessons of nature: its growth, its brilliant bloom, its death. And in an age of digitization and distraction, of wire vines and humming screens, it’s no wonder we long for deeper, more sensory experiences of self - with all of its darkness and divinity.

As such, each piece in VISION QUEST explores the archetype of the shamanic voyage, using the tools of paint, pencil, or paper in lieu of fire, flower, feather. Taken together this work represents a full spectrum of what it means to go underground and out of body; to go there and come back again, perhaps just a little bit wiser or, at the very least, more wide awake.

Jesse Bransford
William Crump
Scott Gursky
Juliet Jacobsen
Ashley Lande
Adela Leibowitz
Jason Leinwand
Christopher Mir
Joe Newton
Herbert Pfostl
Christopher Reiger
Christine Shields
Erika Somogyi
Jessie Rose Vala

Image credit: Jason Leinwand "Accepting Fear Rather Than Trying to Understand It"

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Art Community and Common Sense

Ryan Trecartin
"Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense."

- Gertrude Stein
We're a week-and-a-half into 2010, and I'm hoping that the din produced by so much fin-de-decade media will soon die down. It's no secret that we citizens of the United States (and all other essentially "Americanized" peoples) are principally defined by our consumption. What's more, after decades of adaptation to the consumer role, we've become so fond of the talk surrounding our consumer products that the consumer reviews themselves have become another kind of consumable. Regrettably, this is no less true in the arts.

I've made a contrarian effort this year to avoid most of the "Top" lists and their Op-Ed equivalents, but I've not been totally chaste. The diviners of social, political, or cultural trends have been working furiously to meet their deadlines, and the surplus of art-related stock-taking is in large part responsible for the dearth of new HH content. Anything that I write here will only add to the pervasive and stupefying hubbub; it is further distraction from the business of life well-lived.

And yet, here I sit, writing this post. Like all the other commentators, I'm guilty of editorializing and contextualizing that which is better meditated upon individually or mulled over with our loved ones. And I'm guilty of adding one more perspective to the countless millions already vocalized, furthering the unfortunate and wrong-headed belief that subjectivity reigns. What I'm engaging in, then, is dangerous. While post-modern notions of relativism are valid and philosophically valuable, our globalized culture must strive to sort, such that we can, the wheat from the chaff. That is to say, in a time of increasing cross-cultural interaction, the need for some consensus, some agreed upon hierarchy of moral, ethical, and aesthetic value, is acute. It is a dangerous and exciting era; as such, it is a good time to be a artist.

I agree with Roberta Smith's contention that "the years 2000 to 2009 saw the emergence of a tremendous number of really good, interesting, promising artists." My list of "really good" artists, however, is very different from hers, and Ryan Trecartin, one of the artists that the New York Times' critic celebrates in her recent article, "Make Room for Video, Performance and Paint," is definitely not on it. I don't know Trecartin personally, and he may be a well-meaning, pleasant enough person, but his artwork is poisonously self-absorbed. In this respect, at least, Smith is right to assert that he is an important representative of the decade past. The art world, and especially that of New York City, the community to which I'm most attached, has seen an explosion of navel gazing.

To be fair, most artists engage in some level of narcissism. At the end of the 1990s, when I was in my early twenties, I had puerile aspirations to produce "art videos" of my ejaculating penis (paging Sterling Ruby), and my paintings were dominated by angst-ridden self-portraits and hyper-sexualized imagery. The few paintings of that period that survive are today stacked in my parents' Virginia garage, partly covered by a plastic tarpaulin and years of accumulated mouse shit and winter-killed wasp corpses. Such is the fate of personal history. Serpent-like, we periodically shed our skins and move on, hopefully a little more wise. Some of us, however, put our sheddings and bruises on display, mistaking personal exposure for bravery. Indeed, in some contexts it is brave, but when the sharing is marshalled in service of a cult of personality, it is a celebration of individual dysfunction. And when such exhibitionism is mistaken for art, it is an indication of critical and cultural dysfunction.

Believing that art is fundamental to humanity, and that it is transformative and sacred, I don't accept Freud's famous contention that the artist is a neurotic who seeks to attenuate or postpone confrontation of his or her mature psyche. In fact, for most of our species' tenure, the role of the artist was precisely the opposite; we were called upon to ground our brethren is real experience, be it material or metaphysical. Yet Freud's categorization accurately describes much of the juvenalia that passes for contemporary art. Certainly, we artists should be embarrassed by this trend, but you can't kill the messenger, as the saying has it; Trecartin and others creating hysterical or megalomaniacal artworks are reflections of the dominant (and apparently yet ascendant) iCulture. It is instead the critics and the gallerists, the purveyors of taste, that should be most ashamed of themselves.

Essayist, critic, and philosopher George Steiner is far more intelligent and incisive than I, so I include a pastiche of pertinent excerpts from his 1989 book, Real Presences.
"The usages and values predominant in the consumer societies of the West today [are] the secondary and the parasitic[...]. Literate humanity is solicited daily by millions of words, printed, broadcast, screened, about books which it will never open, music it will not hear, works of art it will never set eyes on. A perpetual hum of aesthetic commentary, of on-the-minute judgments, of pre-packaged pontifications, crowds the air. Presumably, the greater part of art-talk or literary reportage, of music reviews or ballet criticism, is skimmed rather than read, heard but not listened to. None the less, the effect is antithetical to that visceral, personal encounter[...]. There is little 'ingestion'; it is the 'digest' that prevails.


The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual and social configuration; but the honing is uniform. Political enormity and the circus, the leaps of science and those of the athlete, apocalypse and indigestion, are given the same edge. Paradoxically, this monotone of graphic urgency anaesthetizes. The utmost beauty or terror are shredded at close of day. We are made whole again, and expectant, in time for the morning edition.


Two principal impulses energize the American spirit: immanence and egalitarianism. The crux of American time is now. The past matters in direct reference to its usability in and by the present. [...] No other culture has so dignified the immanent. [...] Poets, novelists, choreographers, painters of the most derivative or passing interest, are made the object of seminars and dissertations, of undergraduate lectures and post-doctoral research. The axioms of the transcendent in the arts of understanding and of judgment [...] are invested in the overnight."
Steiner, I presume, frowns on the Top Ten lists and "best of the decade" summaries as much as I do. I also believe that he would dismiss as "derivative or [of] passing interest" most (though not all) of the artists that Smith praises in her article. The cultural longevity of most on Smith's list is questionable, certainly alongside the likes of Alec Soth, Bill Viola, Matthew Day Jackson, Omer Fast, or Tom Uttech, all contemporary artists crafting intelligent and soulful artworks.

Smith writes, at the article's close, "In all, we are confronted with the distinct possibility that quantity and quality may not be so mutually exclusive after all. More means more better." That's very true. But more also means more bad, of course, which is why we today have an urgent need for critics, curators, and gallerists who, like Steiner and Donald Kuspit, are willing to reside outside the community, to avoid political entanglements, and to judge, sometimes harshly. To those critics, artists, and gallerists already plugged in, let's begin this decade, this arbitrary but useful marker in our human journey, with a renewed commitment (a resolution, if you prefer) to be more rigorous, contemplative, and socially committed. The art world, like the world at large, needs fixing, and responsible action is the only thing for it.

Happy Twenty-Ten. Here's hoping that it's healthy and auspicious.

Image credit: Ryan Trecartin, 2007