The Age of Youth
Artillery, Vol 2, No 2, November/December 2007
I just turned 40. Yep. That's right. 40. And I suppose, (according to art world standards) that means that I had better invest in a shovel and a suitable patch of earth somewhere maybe east of the Mississippi where my "people" hail from, but then again a mausoleum has a nice ring to it. I'm 40 and a woman and an artist a triple whammy! But, believe it or not, I feel more alive than ever, and have been known to wield a paintbrush with great aplomb (despite the fact I'm obviously getting on in years) No, but seriously folks, is it really true that 40 is the new 60? If so, then the "art world" should provide us octogenarians with a suitable pension, right? Is time really running out for us?
Think of the 1976 film Logan's Run, based on a novel by William F. Nolan that depicts a dystopian future society in which population and the consumption of resources is managed and maintained in equilibrium by the simple expediency of mandating the death of everyone when they turn 30, thus neatly, and according to the story's moral, "inhumanely" avoiding the issue of overpopulation. The story follows the actions of Logan, a Deep Sleep Operative or "Sandman" charged with enforcing the rule of execution. Logan 5 symbolizes the artist in that he ultimately betrays his government in the search for personal freedom and a life of the imagination. Similarly, today's art world has become its own strange and alienating machine whereby wisdom and life experience seem nearly worthless, and youth, the calling card of the day, leaving any artist worth his salt, perpetually on the "run." My bags are packed and waiting by the door, and I guarantee, no one will lift a finger to stop me from my cinematic exit.
It used to be in the 1950's and 1960's that making art was a moral obligation, a difficult but necessary personal choice, but today's artists are so influenced by the consumerist market that all the love has gone out of the making of art, replaced instead by an insatiability not to speak the truth, but to score the next sale. Artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, John Cage and Merce Cunningham were more concerned with creating a dialogue of inquiry and imagination with themselves and with each other. They lived in cramped New York apartments and the basements of old factories, (yes, the age old notion of the garret still prevails, if only romantically), ate at a local coffee house and shared late night thoughts on art, literature, dance and music. Johns in a recent interview said "If in the work you're able to be in touch with the forces that make you and direct you, then that's a perfectly reasonable conception of what happens creatively. What we do as artists holds a kind of energy that you wouldn't just put there, that comes about through grace of some sort, and has no direct relationship with fame or money or the pursuit of it." The "process" by which Johns created his work was more important than the outcome of who bought it, and what people said about it. In today's art world, process has been replaced by outcome. Collectors and art dealers scour graduate and undergraduate studios searching for the next provisional rising star. No one seems to care why an artist makes specific choices and what those choices mean culturally. What counts is homogeneity. Does this work resemble other work being done? If so, then it's a sure bet. God forbid an artist working today should be over thirty with passions, ideas, and a deeply rooted ethical intention to translate his/her own human experience. The only requirements for success are art school affiliation, beauty, youth and money. Any combination of these will work just fine. Sounds a bit like Hollywood, doesn't it?
Instead of making art for art's sake, which might seem an arcane, romantic ideal, artists are compelled by monetary possibilities, but these so called possibilities are empty in that the consumerist art market will bear them only for so long before the next wave of young blood becomes available. Young artists today make the mistake of believing that their work sells based on its intrinsic value when in fact art sells because it is deemed valuable monetarily for a very brief time. Christopher Hitchens in a recent interview with the LA Weekly spoke about the death of art and ideas in place of a fiercely unforgiving religiosity, stating that "religious inquiry is a literary question; it's about ethics and the origin of ethics, and the best way in which they're expressed is a dilemma - ethical dilemmas are in literature, art and myth." Hitchins, who was in Los Angeles promoting his newest book "God Is Not Great," was of course referring to the fanaticism of the religious right, however, zealots will be zealots, and it can be argued that the cult of consumerism to which Hitchins so often refers, is not an isolated faction, but a far-reaching, and often perverse global reality.
I would venture to say that imaginative inquiry is much the same in that it requires, or at least it used to, a commitment to decipher experience, and this, as Hitchins pointed out, almost always involves a story, personal or political, intimate or broad, and every good story has at its core an essential, and dare I say, universal ethical dilemma, a moment of pathos or self-reflection that goes beyond the typical human conundrum of choosing the perfect tomato at the grocery store, yet the art being made today seems flagrantly to sidestep the human experience, opting instead for a simpler, less threatening dialogue about said tomato, albeit glistening and ready to eat, but really who cares? Tomatoes, while tasty, rarely lead to great epiphanies, but then again is it a stereotype to say that artists need epiphanies at all to make good work? Maybe so. Nevertheless, tomatoes somehow don't cut it, and a more sustainable human involvement is required. Aren't artists the conscience of the world? Don't they, by virtue of being artists, have some intrinsic responsibility to translate their experience?
Just as Logan 5 took to the underground in search of a new world where he might grow old in peace, today's contemporary artists, those among us who live by a creative imperative, must carve out a sacred space where they can make work that has meaning for them, and if no one else in the world ever sees it, at least it exists in time and space as a tangible reminder of better days. Really, at the end of a long day, making good work is all any of us have left to remind us we are alive.