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Talk'n about Art
An edited version of an email exchange between Fred Camper and Michael Bulka, stemming from last issue's Quick Shot about Kerry James Marshall at the Ren.
Fred Camper: I find your squib about Marshall really offensive. You're making assumptions about his motivation for presenting work other than painting that you don't back up. You don't like the work, fine; try the harder task of saying in a sentence or two why. Instead you wind up attacking the person. This is, by my lights, always bad form-one should attack the work, not the human being who made it.
Michael Bulka: It's not that I didn't like the work, but, in general, I don't care about artwork at all. I am interested in the artist, as revealed through the work, seen in context. I try not to care what the artist says, or what his real motivations are, until I try to figure out what the work says. The context that is relevant to me in this instance is the measure of fame, success, popularity he has received for the work not like that at the Ren.
The other important factor is commentary like that of Kathryn Hixson at the Art Chicago talks. I couldn't believe she referred to 'his people'! As much as I try to avoid PC thinking, unless someone is an official delegate, I don't want to presume who 'his people' are. For all I know, they could be the other Circle faculty, or the other MacArthur Geniuses.
Of course, another factor is the sentiment that no one would dare
say anything negative about KJM. I can't help but see that as a challenge,
not only to my persona as a trouble-maker, but to KJM's right not to be a
protected token. And, as you suggested in your response to my negativity,
I do have another agenda than fealty to the artwork. Especially for our newsletter,
I want to be entertaining and provocative.
Camper: I don't see what the problem is with Kathryn's reference to Marshall that you cite, though I don't remember it from her talk, which by the way I found very illuminating, but he is certainly someone who has put the question of African-American identity on the table, in his paintings.
You 'don't care about artwork at all.' Well, I don't care much about critics' personae, whether as a trouble-maker or an anything else. I'm interested in criticism to the extent that I can learn something from it. And I learned nothing from your fatuous speculations on Marshall's motives, backed up by no facts. If you care about the artist, why not start by talking to the artist. In Marshall's case that may prove impossible, as he isn't very available, but there are plenty of other artists who are.
Also, I wasn't aware of all that much writing on Marshall, certainly not enough to make him feel forced into a box he is then compelled to break out of. Plus, if you look at the careers of artists far more famous than he, for every Guston there are ten Rothkos, happy to continue to refine what they did rather than break out into new territory, to say nothing of new media.
Our positions are diametrically opposed. For me a successful work of art makes visible some aspects of the artist's mind, in a way that makes thinking about the person unnecessary, though I admit it can often be helpful. That to me is the meaning of "aesthetic experience."
Bulka: You're right. There is probably little that either of us care about that the other wouldn't argue. But, here we are. It's an interesting world.
Change is good; experimentation, daring to fail, is even better. For every Rothko there are hundreds of artists (especially in academe) painting the same painting for twenty years. It is certainly possible that KJM's new work comes from boredom, from the stimulation of his students, from being able to use his new security to support ideas he previously hadn't been willing to explore. Or a combination. It may also be that I am partially right. I have talked to him-he's a very pleasant, engaging man-but not about his work.
I don't much like talking to artists about their own work. Because or in spite of my working with words, I am very suspicious of them. If you ask me a question, especially about my motivations, and take my answer at face value, even if I attempt to give a clear and honest response, all you will get is my best attempt at what I think I know, possibly delivered in the way I think it will best get through to you.
Art making is much more complex than conversation. Even a very smart, skilled, self-aware, manipulative artist is not in control of a piece, or a body of work, the way he is of his part of a dialogue. There are usually more things to be seen in viewing an artwork than the artist intends, even things he would deny. The viewing process is neither him nor me, but both and between.
The full story about not caring about the artwork is this: The only
things that any of us have any chance of understanding are things in the
little sealed boxes of our heads. Everything is ultimately a figment our
imagination. When I look at anything beyond it's immediate use value, I am
still looking for something I can use. Anything human-made points to the
human. I have to imagine what it would be like to make such a thing. If I
can't explain it away in terms I can understand (most art is in this category),
I have to invent in my mind a picture of the mind that made the object. Then
I have something -a cartoon surrogate mind that I can compare to my own.
Then, I might learn something. I don't call it 'aesthetic experience', but
maybe we aren't so far apart after all.
WHO & WHAT All of the members of the Chicago Art Critics Association regularly express ourselves in reviews and carefully thought-out essays of fact and opinion, in venues ranging from the Reader and Sun-Times, to ArtForum. This newsletter is not that kind of paper, not just another page of reviews. This is critics trying out ideas, letting off steam, saying things that might not find a place in our regular publications. Think of it as a conversation staged for the benefit of interested eavesdroppers-artists, students, gallerists, collectors, other writers. While we don't have a space for your letters, they are read. Feel free to send comments to the address in the disclaimer.
A NOTE ON DISTRIBUTION We don't have a formal mailing list. Copies are available at C.A.C.A.-sponsored events and are dropped off at galleries around town. Like most things in life, it helps to know someone; if you see one of us and ask nicely, we can probably get you the current issue. Copyright for individual bits remains with the writer, but feel free to photocopy the issue to send to your friends.