My heroes and my values seem to be recycling and resurfacing in the best of places these days. You know what they say about trends, if one holds on to something long enough, eventually it comes back around into fashion.
That commentary can be both encouraging and/or derogatory, depending upon the context. Take the very popular low slung jeans for example, which everyone is wearing again. They were oh so cool way back when I was in high school and in college. Of course in those days, one didn't eat very often, usually in view of the fact that economic circumstances didn't provide much budget for such indulgences. It was easy to be thin without food. However, truth be told, youthful vanity was always hovering in the air, even though the women's movement forced those of us demon "mascara lovers" to take our narcissism underground for a few decades. Ah secrets...
And then too, in those days I was a naive and dreamy student in undergraduate school, falling head over heels in love with the confrontational styles, theories and irreverence of the art makers of the 1960s (well to be historically accurate, the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s). It was, for me, work that reached bedrock of the soul. Those days provided the unique opportunity to examine and explore such concepts in a safe and nurturing environment; wonderful to have the time and intellectual space to be able to survey such dynamics with little or no interference from the real world and the business of art. When one is investigating art without the pollution of the politics of capitalism and academia, it is certainly a fabulously electrifying world.
Back in the day, my idols were understood in glowing and creative terms. I loved the artwork, the aesthetic and the energy emanating from magnificent, intelligent and wildly brilliant people who were allowed by history to count themselves among the abstract expressionists.
Now, as a world-weary adult and professional, having been through the many grinders of the corporates, the galleries and the academics, I tend to feel a bit more reserved and cautious when I think about art and when I make it. And when I move about in the world, as well. I still love passionate recklessness, although its' harsh reality has often left me with many rather nasty battle scars and so I now walk the path in a more guarded fashion. Still, surprisingly enough, I continue the trek and with an agile, energetic pace. Who knows why...
There is an ongoing exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg's combines at the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now, organized by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and installed by Nan Rosenthal. Why should we care?
Well, besides the fact that I am always looking for an excuse to be in NYC, I suppose one should care because some of us came up through the generation of art and artists who see the world as an endless resource for art and who believe that the significance of the creative act influences every aspect of culture. Perhaps, it is simply comforting to think that we did not exercise our innocent imaginations in vain.
"It is largely, if not exclusively, thanks to Robert Rauschenberg that Americans since the 1950's have come to think that art can be made out of anything, exist anywhere, last forever or just for a moment and serve almost any purpose or no purpose at all except to suggest that the stuff of life and the stuff of art are ultimately one and the same". This, from NY Times writer Michael Kimmelman (New York Times December 23, 2005 Art Review 'Combines' Art Out of Anything: Rauschenberg in Retrospect').
If you believe as I do, that art can be anywhere, exist in any form, happen at anytime and need not be confined to galleries, museums and other stuffy and often oppressive and uncreative environments, then it is always worth one's time and effort to look at this phenomenon in art history.
Admittedly, Rauschenberg has always been one of my art-heroes and I truly respect his work and its energy. And I must heartily agree with Kimmelman that the cultural mindset of 2005 --- "mental processes of a generation of multitaskers", as Kimmelman so aptly puts it --- has finally perhaps caught up with work of the 1950s and 1960s. Why are we always a half a century behind our best thinkers?
While teaching in a remote area of northern California where I was on the faculty of a small college for several years in the 1990s, I encountered many students who regarded Rauschenberg not only with aversion but also with outright disgust. Of course, the response was due in large part to a complete lack of experience, cultural exposure and a sluggish approach to pursuing any sort of intellectual discourse and discipline; such are the habits of today's middle class college student, generally, I am loathe to observe.
The distressing attitude of my students there finally made sense to me when an executive director of a local arts council (who was preparing to leave in utter desperation, as he too was disintegrating for lack of stimulation or cultural exposure) said to me that people are retreating to remote locations to get away from the real world and to avoid coming to terms with it. For that reason, the sort of art (ala Rauschenberg) that confronts reality and exercises contemporary thinking is also something to be shunned dreaded and avoided at all costs by folks in those places. After spending many frustrating years, struggling with student artists who refused to face their own authenticity, I have always felt better about my exit of the stifling world of pseudo academia not so many years ago. Someday soon, I hope to return to the world of teaching if only privately or as an adjunct; I enjoy my personal freedom and opinionated political privileges far too much to ever sacrifice either again simply for the sake of a scholarly "position". The most prestigious position I can possibly conjure is that of being truly in one's own self. Sounds corny, still it couldn't be more difficult.
Still, there is nothing better than an encounter with a bright, curious art student who is young and passionate enough to challenge the intellectuality and inspiration of a higher education in the arts. I miss the persona of those few dazzling luminaries and hope to have such excitement and intensity in my professional world again, one day soon.
As Kimmelman says, the world is evolving and my heroes and the values I embrace are once again in vogue. Presently it will be my turn once again, methinks.
Read the full text of Michael Kimmelman's NYT article.
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