Why Contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of race, gender and ethnicity

“Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?”

A response to Wall Street Journal article by Sohrab Ahmari located here.


“When all culture is reduced to group identity and grievance,
tyranny is around the corner.”


This is both an astute and compelling statement. But then ever has it been so. Even the Wall Street¬†Journal tends to represent a certain economic oligarchical perspective. The history of art is no more the history of beauty and justice than has been the history of humankind itself.¬† The history of humanity has predominantly been a history of tyranny. At least from its origins in river valley civilizations, art’s function was predominantly to deify those in secular power. Beauty was not so much its priority as was intimidation. Art largely existed within a cultural context in which secular authority was divinely ratified and the purpose of much of art throughout history has been to remind audiences of this fact. As civilized people, we went from worshipping nature, to worshipping its personifications, to worshipping ruling elites who appropriated allegedly divine auspices to legitimize their secular authority. Art served to focus the viewers’ attention on the religious and secular dogma being proffered.

In the contemporary imagination, Michelangelo’s statue of David with its idealistically rendered Apollonian figurative perfection, has for many come to represent perhaps the definitive icon of beauty. But though its beauty was from its origins considered marvelous, the figure of David also had an important political connotation for the citizens of Florence. ¬†The Florentines of the Renaissance viewed their city as an underdog up against its neighboring city state rivals like Rome or Milano which would have been considered to be the political and military Goliaths of the era. Michelangelo’s sculpture represented the Florentine sense of its own political identity, idealized, outgunned and defiantly resistant. ¬†The symbolism of David provided both secular identity and Divine auspice to the citizens of Florence and served to ratify the legitimacy of the city’s leadership, a cohort led by the Medici who were not entirely disinclined to tyranny themsleves. To erect such a confidently imposing, if somewhat ironically scaled figure, was a way for Florentines to appropriate the status of a Divinely chosen people destined to prevail against overwhelming odds.

While the creating of effigies has from time immemorial been a metaphysical practice associated with sympathetic magic, as civilization emerged, art’s metaphysical function became more and more conflated with social and political propaganda, usually with the generous fig leaf of religious auspice. Interestingly, there isn’t a lot of extent ancient literature that deals with the subject of beauty.¬† Not until the Greeks does this seem to become a rhetorical priority.¬† Each society has had its version of artistic “canon” but even this term has a connotative meaning that confers at least a quasi-religious aegis.¬† It implies that imagery which falls outside its parameters is somehow heretically suspect, or at least of dubious legitimacy.

In virtually every society throughout history, artistic canon has been secularly regulated, this was particularly the case during the Medieval and Renaissance periods of European history.  Not surprisingly, the terms of that regulation were authoritarian and reaffirmed the secular power of the political establishment of the period. Predictably, that secular authority tended to rest on appropriated religious auspices. Even in the modern case of Soviet Socialist Realism, that art canonical dogma tended to be derived along fanatical if materialist lines accompanied with all the iconographic accoutrements of an Akkadian cult of ruling personality. It is a relatively modern phenomenon to even consider the function of art outside this quasi-religious political rubric.

With the rise of Humanism, so too came the rise of the cult of beauty.  The elite had always sought out the finest craftsmen to articulate their propaganda and art from its pre-civilized origins had to some extent functioned as a metaphysical oracle. But the oracular power of a work of art was not always predicated on its beauty. It is comparatively recently in human history that beauty came to be perceived as an indicator of metaphysical relevance.  It is with the rise of individualism that this very personal mode of artistic experience became more pertinent.

It could be argued that the very concept of “art” as the term is commonly used is a byproduct of Eurocentric patriarchy.¬† While people of all cultures and ethnicities have historically fabricated imagery, it has only been in modern times in which that imagery has begun to occupy the role it currently has in the individual imagination. Had it not been for the emergence of the merchant middle class, one might argue that discussions about sculpture, painting and other forms of imagery would still be largely the exclusive domain of craftsmen, clerics and politicians.

With the democratization of the artistic experience came the emerging democratization of its messages and hence of its canon.  The contemporary artistic canon is undeniably a cacophony and its chaotic din might quite understandably make one nostalgic for a more ordered and hence more comprehensible age.  But it is no more politicized than it has ever been. Even during the relatively brief period between the New International Style and the rise of Modernism, as beauty, reason and personal aesthetic epiphany became more relevant, it might be the case that this set of priorities was a luxury of socioeconomic class.

Art tends to reflect the values of the society that produces and consumes it. To the degree to which that society is obsessed with the negotiation of the dynamics of secular power, then so too should its art be expected to reflect that fact.  We are living during period in which imperial power structures that reigned for millennia have begun to fragment, though much of their legacy still remains.  The negotiations of power in the current generation tend to prioritize race, ethnicity and gender because these are the legacy of a postcolonial period.  It was that largely Eurocentric society which dictated these terms when it decided to dispense justice along nationalistic, racial, ethnic and gender lines.  Admittedly, ethnicity has been historically associated with imperial identity since empires first emerged in the aforementioned river valleys. But with the rise of the nation state, that ethnicity and genderization became formalized and codified in an ever more secular context that provided it the auspice of reason rather than metaphysic. Unlike the metaphysical auspice, reason tended to lend itself to discourse and challenge. This would make any rational aegis subject to political contention.

From an examination of the entirety of the history of art, one could derive that the politics of power have been the greater priority than the pursuit of any personal epiphany derived from beauty. So if, in the contemporary era, this seems to be art’s preoccupation then this should not be surprising.¬† What perhaps some might find disruptive is that the terms by which this dynamic of power are currently being dictated tend to be slightly less according to the priorities of the established power structure that is the legacy of Eurocentric empire.¬† As more voices emerge, they tend to be inclined to identity advocacy for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

There is a fine line between advocating for justice and seeking personal power through group hegemony. Likewise, there is a fine line between moral consciousness raising and mere exploitative appropriation or simply self serving sanctimony.  There can also be an equivalently minuscule distinction between bonafide aesthetics and mere political correctness. Aesthetic discourse is quite difficult but politically correct cliché is much easier and predictably more ubiquitous.  Aesthetics requires a mastery of comprehension of the artisanal craft and the metaphysical invocation as well as the political context; whereas PC cliché only requires the affectation of one of these priorities and not even bonafide expertise in it.

Throughout history, there has been a plethora of mediocrely conceived and crafted imagery much like there has been a plethora of charlatanism masquerading as oracular illumination or a plethora of political regimes commissioning glorification of their tyrannical reigns.¬† In the contemporary era, that tyranny is evidently the dictatorship of a kleptocratic plutocracy of college educated bourgeoisie who consolidate oligarchic authority in their aegis as keepers of the contemporary artistic canon. That cohort is, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with political correctness around the rhetoric, if not the substance, of what it euphemistically calls “diversity.” But this is itself a Eurocentric preoccupation, a seeking of absolution from mere rhetorical self-flagellation and, hence, the continuing legacy of imperialism in yet another idiom.

While the discussion of the history of politics and power in the creation of artistic canon is an absolutely essential one, (and I confess, somewhat of an obsession of mine) this is not to conclude that all or even most of what is proffered along these lines is itself constructive in either bringing a more culturally objective optic to the artistic canon or to creating a more just and harmonious society. We must recognize the inherent inequity in the process of canonization but this inequality will not be corrected by tokenism, clich√© rhetoric or by political fashion trends.¬† What is required is bonafide mutual cultural initiation. This comes from immersion and not from periodic canned experiences. Genuine multiculturalism will not be created by mere gender tourism or ethnic exoticism. In a world of cynicism, it is sometimes contemporary art’s inauthenticity, its lack of either intellectual credulity or ethical credibility that makes so much of the current crop of identity obsessed art seem so disingenuous, so self serving, so banal and sanctimonious.

Genuine aesthetic communication rests on empathy between the artist and the viewer. If art is to maintain some intrinsic cultural relevance then the audience indeed needs to be broadened. With that broadening of the audience must also come a broadening of the messages and the identity of the messengers as well, even at the risk of a disquieting cacophony. But ideally, each artist would be endeavoring to expand that empathic communication to edify as wide a range of humanity as possible. If artists are to speak with their audience rather that merely at it, then they should seek to find at least a point of common ground on which to plant that seed of empathy.

If however, artists are satisfied preaching to a choir, or worse, merely seeking hegemony for their own identity group, then art will remain in its more traditional role as yet another weapon through which power is attained by the ambitious and tyrannically wielded to dominate its politically manipulated audience.

Who is the audience?

Within the last ten years, a director at The Whitney was asked, “Why isn’t there more Chicano Art in the Biennial?” His response was, “What’s Chicano Art?”

His question was telling. He probably intended no malice but was simply ignorant of the phenomenon. He had been at the alleged epicenter of the fine art world his entire career. He had personally known hundreds of illustrious artists of what he believed to be remarkable diversity of styles and identities. He was the archetype of the “ideal” audience; the appointed meta-arbiter of contemporary aesthetic value. He could not imagine that any artistic movement of aesthetic significance had evaded his awareness.

Yet he was not jefe in the barrio. There no one gave a shit what he thought. Almost nobody even knew he existed and they certainly didn’t need his stinking badge to call themselves “artists.” Painters, poets and musicians have always abounded in Mexican-American communities where aesthetic culture has neither been presumed the exclusive province of the economic elite nor an expendable aspect of social existence. Art is everywhere and pretty much for everyone. This is not to be Pollyanna about the harsh realities of life but only to observe the flowers that stubbornly bloom from the cracked earth.

There are the rich cultural traditions infused with a Mestizaje mixture of Arte de Populare, Catholicism, la familia, colonialism, indigeny, exploitation, deprivation, immigration, violence, assimilation and resistance. It is a complex stew that is fluid at once self-awarely highbrow and lowbrow, self-defeating and self-empowering, concerned with authenticity but intrinsically hybrid.

A Chicano artist may reference a baroque religious source on one day and low rider car culture the next, sometimes in the same painting. Painters as different as Rigoberto Gonzalez and Adan Hernandez may depict the violent consequences of the drug war and, like Rigoberto, ennoble the victims in a Baroque Pieta, or like Adan, depict a romanticized pachuco executing a drive by in a stylized film noir aesthetic. Seemingly continuous yet Pyrrhic struggles for liberation may be alluded to through the invocation of Zapatistas whose political relevance extends to contemporary battles for social justice and economic enfranchisement. An image of a calavara may convey subtle political content and be a reference to the prints of Guadlupe Posada but it might also simultaneously reference a Catholic tradition of familial reverence like Dia de los Muertos as well as an Aztec statue of Xochipilli, the god of art, games, beauty, and homosexuality, seated in a trance and moaning under the influence of the psychotropic flowers that ornament his body. All these meanings are potentially simultaneously present.

In the unlikely event that the elite contemporary art maven might be exposed to such imagery, all they generally perceive is folk art and Halloween. This is because they are limited by the scope of their own social geography. They are self-congratulatory for their memory of MLK and Selma but their recollection of Caesar is a little fuzzy, he may have had something to do with raisins. Even then, the presence of the calavara seemed a bit too literal, too melodramatic, too low brow for their tastes.

Chicano art is about both affirmation and resistance. The very word carries political and class connotations that make almost everyone uneasy. Many middle class Mexican-Americans are reluctant to affiliate themselves with the term and its class laden imagery that might impinge on their upward social or economic mobility and may not reflect their personal political sentiments. The Anglo bourgeoise tend to see the term as threateningly militant and its imagery occasionally macabre and potentially disturbing. The newly arriving Mexican bourgeoise too often tend to loathe the word and any affirmation of the pocho culture they think it represents. The Northeastern elite simply see Chicano Art through the prism of primitivism and as a marginal subcultural phenomenon, superstitious, uncomfortably Catholic, graphically violent and out of step with their aesthetic pretensions. Chicano art is not cynical enough, not materialist enough, not epistemologically neutral enough to lend itself to the fatuously ambiguous rhetoric that dominates high brow aesthetic discourse.

This goes to the question of “Who is the audience for Chicano Art?” In my hometown of San Antonio, there is a tellingly cruel joke, “Why are so many Chicano artists print makers?” The cynical reply: “Because nobody will buy a Chicano painting.” Like most harsh humor, it reveals an uncomfortable truth. Go ahead, name all the important Chicano Art collectors trying to astutely amass collections that document the movement…. Cheech Marin, Dr Guerra, Ricardo Romo, Joe Diaz…. yeah, I just shot my wad, if you know of others I would like to meet them.

Even these gentlemen are not actually supporting a “market.” They don’t generally compete at auction to acquire works nor do they usually purchase from galleries. The Chicano art world is small enough that these few collectors tend to go directly to the studios where the handful of artists they collect are eager to provide them with valuable works just to be in their collections or to pay the back rent on the studio. This is not to say that these collectors have not done their share to advocate for the art by willingly lending works from their collections for exhibition or have not helped many a struggling artist get over a financial hump. Indeed, they have been individually generous but their mode of activities has not tended to foster the creation of a more formal and stable market for Chicano Art.

But what about the museums? Museums are stages for social theater as much as they are cathedrals of enlightenment. Most directors and curators have never attended a university that even offered a course in Chicano Art, let alone committed themselves to the discipline. Go ahead, name all the Chicano museum directors…. ??? Name the important Chicano Art curators, regardless of their ethnicity…. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Ruben Cordova, Cathy Vargas ….. there are a handful of others but mostly working out of marginal or regional venues. As for Chicanos on museum Boards that come armed with substantial enough check books and political clout to command the Boards’ attention and dictate curatorial and collecting policy, well these are more rare than hen’s teeth. As both Mao and Zapata realized, all power flows from the barrel of a gun and big guns cost big money.

You can find the Chicano artworks at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the Centro Cultural Aztlan and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and occasionally at the Blue Star Art Space. David Rubin (formerly at the San Antonio Museum of Art) has been an enthusiast and included acquisitions and display of works by David Zamora Casas, Jesse Trevino, Alberto Mijangos, Albert Alvarez, John Hernandez and Vincent Valdez among others. The McNay Museum has even offered the obligatory nod in Hispanocentric San Antonio with exhibitions that included works by Vincent Valdez and Alex Rubio.

SAMA’s initiative over a decade ago to mount Cheech Marin’s “Chicano Visions” exhibit was a groundbreaking effort, despite its curatorial issues, but it never generated the momentum that its advocates had hoped. Indeed, disciplined curation has been a challenge for Chicano Art as long as I can remember. Chicano exhibitions are most frequently one person shows that tend to idealize the biography of the artist and offer an almost voyeuristic perspective across class lines for the museums thus allowing a window into a kind of exotic danger. They tend to either fall prey to idealization and noble savage laden presumptions or to reaffirming stereotypes that are ostensibly rationalized by Latino voices. As often as not, Chicano Art exhibits are occasions for political flag waving and celebrating La Raza more than critically examining the aesthetics of La Cultura. Serious examination across disciplines comparing and contrasting sub-phenomenon in the movement are rare, as are bonafide efforts to make formalistic or qualitative distinctions between works by Chicano artists. Curators of Chicano Art are not always held to the most rigorous standards. Sometimes even the museums themselves can become fiascos as in the case of the much troubled Museo Alameda in San Antonio who’s viability was from its inception precarious, despite some first quality exhibits curated there by Ruben Cordova and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto.

Even I have made a few admittedly feeble attempts including an “Apocalyptic Visions” exhibit at the University of the Incarnate Word that compared the paintings of Alex Rubio to those of Graham Toms. In my capacity as Executive Director of IMAS, I oversaw the exhibitions in the museum’s annex galleries that featured artists like Rey Santiago, Jesus De La Rosa, Manuel Miranda and a fellow named Paul Valadez. But these exhibits were not in the main galleries of the museum. They were executed in haste on shoestring budgets and the caliber of curatorial integrity I would have preferred was not on display. This was by no means the fault of the artists but due to the neglect by a distracted and underfunded museum director that wasn’t exactly getting resounding cheers from his Board for attempting to exhibit Chicano Art. Mexican national maestri were politically permissible but more expensive serious exhibitions of indigenous Tejano art were not welcomed with forthcoming financial contributions.

This goes to another issue about the market. When one is trying to seduce a Board of Trustees or other funders to provide resources for exhibitions, those funders tend to be business people, not art aficionados. Their knowledge is often superficial and their motives, at best, mixed. As often as not, they affiliate themselves with museums in order to garner social prestige and upward social mobility. If one thinks that one can best social climb via a trip through the barrio then one hasn’t been paying much attention. The two things these alleged patrons tend to comprehend are celebrity and money.

With the possible exceptions of SAMA and the McNay, when a director of a typical museum rattles off a list of names like Mel Casas, Jesse Trevino, Caesar Martinez, Gronk Nicandro, Adan Hernandez, Luis Jimenez, George Yepes, Jacinto Guevara, David Zamora Casas , Albrechto Alvarez, Richard Hernandez, Alex Rubio, Vincent Valdez, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Judy Baca, Cathy Vargas, Jessica Correa etc. the director is met with glazed stares as his Board asks, “Who are these people and why haven’t I heard of any of them.” “Perhaps because you haven’t spent many evenings down on South Flores Street” is the reply. When the inevitable follow up question is asked, “Well, how much is this art worth?” The disappointment is palpable when the answer comes back, “A few hundred to a few thousand dollars a piece.” What your Board is thinking even if they are too coy to vocalize it is, “Where’s the prestige in being associated with this art? How can it be good if I haven’t heard of it and it isn’t worth any money? Why should we allocate scarce resources to something that is potentially controversial and divisive? Why should we mount an exhibit that nobody on the East Coast or in the art press will even acknowledge took place? How is this a good thing for our reputations as individuals and as an institution?” At which point, said museum director is left with little more than moralistic platitudes about the museum’s mission and obligation to the wider community. Perhaps he even offers a critical aesthetic justification that simply goes over their heads. Regardless, they are generally unimpressed and remain unpersuaded that this is an appropriate endeavor that commands their money.

If this is what happens in museums in South Texas, imagine the surreality of such a proposition at The Whiney, the Gugenheim, MoMA, LAMoCA or the de Menil? Despite their multimillion dollar Latin American Art initiative, don’t hold your breath waiting for the MFAH to become the oracular vehicle for the canonization of Chicano Art anytime soon. Cheech has been courting LACMA for awhile and claims to have made some headway at that venue but I doubt that institution will enthusiastically dedicate the resources to the promulgation of Chicano Art that they would eagerly commit to an artist or movement that has been pre-canonized by the Eastern establishment.

So who is the audience for Chicano Art? At the opening of the “Apocalyptic Visions” exhibit Adan Hernandez was in attendance to support his amigo Alex Rubio. While I admire and respect Adan as an artist and a friend, those that know him and love him, and those who don’t, will readily acknowledge that he is prone to being a curmudgeon. That evening, in typically frank fashion he opined that he didn’t care much for the works of Graham Toms, they were too slick and Disneyesque for Adan’s more colloquial tastes. But he predictably affirmed his appreciation for Alex’s paintings even though he thought them somewhat diminished by association with work to which he thought it didn’t relate. Adan observed, “Chicano Art should be made by Chicanos to be seen by Chicanos alongside other Chicano Art.” Despite the fact that one of the primary reasons I had chosen to curate these two disparate outsider artists together was because I believed that Chicano artists would not get the respect to which they were entitled until their work was presented outside the ethnocentric context of the barrio, I still couldn’t help but think that to some extent, Adan might be correct. After all, Adan Hernandez had put his money where his mouth was when he ostensibly declined a solo exhibition of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art simply because he felt they didn’t have enough Chicano artists in their collection and didn’t understand the work. The Contemporary art curators at the Met haven’t exactly been eager to collect Chicano Art after that unprecedented snub.

I began to ask, “What was wrong with leaving the art back in the barrio where I had found it? Did it really need the canonization that I was so intent on seeing it achieve? Was it not rich enough, relevant enough and vibrant enough in the culture in which and for which it was created? Were the murals not glorious on the old buildings and freeway underpasses where they ennobled and empowered their communities? What was wrong with it remaining Arte de Populare and why was I so insistent on seeing that it was awarded the stinking badge that I thought it deserved?” The more that I thought about it, the more I began to think that its canonization was more my hang up than it was of the artists themselves. After all, if the fine art aristocracy didn’t want it and the artists didn’t need a badge who was I to try to force a cultural melange that nobody seemed to require?

Then I had a selfish epiphany, Chicano Art and Chicano artists had illuminated my life. They had changed my perspective on the potential legitimacy of contemporary art. They had provided me with narrative and social justice, with craft and figuration, with moral high ground and complex moral ambiguity. Chicano artists had provided me with a contemporary art culture that I could actually respect and with art with which I could finally empathize. I realized that blond haired and blue eyed though I was, I had inadvertently become a byproduct of the Mestizaje experience and, at least for me, there was no turning back. I didn’t need Adan’s stinking badge anymore than he required mine.

I came to appreciate that this art was inevitably going to be of increasing cultural relevance even if the barrio didn’t demand it and the Academy didn’t currently value it. The demographic destiny was clear. Art of this period and this culture, while under-appreciated in the present, was inevitably going to become cherished by future generations and would ultimately extend its influence beyond the contemporary barrio to the wider culture as a whole and we would all eventually be more enriched for it. Adan was wrong, we all needed Chicano Art’s passion, its integrity, its innate hybridity, its capacity to conflate the low brow and the high brow into a visual language that was more democratic, less elitist and ultimately more historically significant than any of the decadent capriccios and monuments to vanity that could currently be found in the oligarchical cathedrals of aesthetic dogma. I came to believe that this destiny was inevitable regardless of anything I did or didn’t do. So why not just do it?

Chicano art will always be fluid, defy easy categorization and will always be evolving in dogmas, politics and imagery. It is art that authentically flows from life and that life is ultimately irrepressible.

So who is the audience for Chicano Art? Right now, it is principally other Chicano artists showing in studios and makeshift galleries sharing the work and providing inspiration to each other, mostly off the radar of the dominant aesthetic arbiters of either mainstream or elite culture. But it is eventually coming to a place near all of us and all who appreciate artistic integrity, authentic cultural expression and profound narrative illuminating the human condition will be the wiser and more genuinely human upon its arrival.

Cultural Imperialism and the Canon of Financialism

The process of canonization reflects a de facto cultural imperialism. Genuine globalization has not yet fully crystallized in the art market. Canonization still reflects the the social geography of finance more than it does the social cohort of culturally relevant aesthetic production.

In contemporary metropolitan society, whether art or any other commodity, whatever garners the highest price will tend to gather the most attention. The presumption is that those with the most money are Darwinistically favored with good taste or, at the very least, can afford the best advice about what they should buy. The prima fascia reasoning is that wealthy people presumably can afford the best and are disinclined to squander their money on art that is not important, or at least won’t retain its market value during their lifetimes. Hence, if one wants to be “successful” at anything, even collecting art, simply emulate the wealthy.

Where is the most money to be found? New York, London, LA, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai….. Whatever trend that dominates in these markets will tend to become the global imperialist taste. It will find its way into the cathedrals of MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Tate, the Whitney, the Venice Biennial, Art Basil etc… Of course it’s the chicken or the egg thing. Ostensibly, once an artist has been canonized by one of these elite venues, then the commercial galleries with elite client lists come calling, secure in their investments.

But the distance between the elite gallery and the cathedral is not so far. Curators in these “cultural capitals” are usually well acquainted with the elite gallerists and thus to make the radar of either tends to lead to awareness by the other. They operate in the same social milieu and are dependent on the same class of individuals, often the very same individuals, for patronage.

Hence, in art, as in most things, concentrated wealth tends to call the shots. Problem is, money doesn’t always know the actual value of a commodity. In recent memory, all the “wealthiest” financial institutions in the world couldn’t seem to figure out the value of a 5,000 sq. ft. house, plus or minus 50% let alone what a market might actually be willing to pay for it. How much less likely are the wealthy to be reliable arbiters of the aesthetic value or historical importance of a work of art? Why does the fact that the work of art was purchased by a wealthy collector or exhibited in a cathedral in the vicinity of that wealthy urban resident make it inherently more important than any other?

The answer is financial imperialism. As long as our cultural values prioritize money as the definitive metric of success then the tastes of financial imperialists will dominate. In such a context, financial imperialism will dictate the aesthetics of cultural imperialism. And to the degree to which the society at large inculcates the materialist priority then to that degree the cultural imperialism will prevail. It will in essence have a democratic mandate for its imperialism.

Must we necessarily presume that one has not yet achieved virtuosity until one has played Carnegie Hall? Does exhibition in a cathedral necessarily indicate the presence of supreme virtuosity? Or does it simply indicate awareness by a cultural cohort who’s singular greatest auspice is its geographic proximity to the social cohort of concentrated wealth? The relationship between aesthetic canonization and wealth is currently a convenient bit of circular reasoning in which, much like in real-estate, value is often self created from virtually thin air.

Artists sometimes like to rail against commodification, but you don’t hear many of them singing this tune once someone starts offering them six figures for a work they created. The problem is not so much commodification but the irrational nature of the market itself. Once all art became subjective, then the value of any given work of art became predominately political. Artists are to some extent to blame here. With the rise of the irrational as a subject in art, with the deprioritization of objective technique, with the meaning of a work becoming more driven by the psychological idiosyncrasies of the artist, then determining the objective value of almost any work becomes essentially irrelevant. Indeed, to even attempt to postulate such a thing became heresy.

It is often said that “truth is the first casualty of war.” At the dawn of the 20th century, in many ways, truth became a casualty of art as well. Is it any surprise then that in a world where such epistemological uncertainty reigns that profiteers alone will prevail? When as a culture we come to better appreciate the distinction between what is true and what is false, that distinction will inevitably be reflected in our art and how we determine its intrinsic value. Until then, we will get the culture and the art we deserve, and it will likely continue to reflect the arbitrary values of cultural imperialism and its deity, Finance.

Originally Written: September, 2013

Apocalyptic Visions

Requiem for the Amazon

Requiem for the Amazon


This work was painted as the final installment of a series of paintings Graham Toms created for an exhibition entitled ‚ÄúApocalyptic Visions.‚Ä̬† The series was part of an intellectual investigation of the cultural phenomenon of millennialism.¬† At the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, the 15th and 16th centuries and again at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, Western Civilization has tended toward a preoccupation with apocalyptic prophecies and a fear of an impending End of Days.¬† In recent years, this preoccupation has again reemerged, but this time, not only among traditional religious communities. ¬† Millennialism has ubiquitously appeared as a meme throughout pop-culture.¬† In the last couple of decades, we have been inundated with a plethora of documentaries and publications reexamining the Book of Revelations, the writings of Nostradamus, the Mayan calendar as well as movies featuring Indigenous Americans and Egyptians conflated with extraterrestrials in the context of cataclysmic global destruction in 2012.

A pious intellectual, Graham Toms, found this pop-cultural phenomenon simultaneously fascinating and disturbing.  For Graham, Eschatology, is a serious discipline requiring rigorous hermeneutics, semiotic sophistication, a respect for the complexity of the process of deriving meaning and an appreciation of the cultural context in which interpretation takes place.   It is the artist’s contention that the current cavalier exploitation of eschatology, by both religious and secular constituencies, has amounted to trivialization.  Despite years of serious study of the Book of Revelations, Toms ardently insists that he is by no means a master of its mysteries, but he is thoroughly acquainted with them.   Graham felt compelled to offer his own visual eschatological commentary and to put that into a contemporary cultural context.  In doing so however, he was intent on avoiding what he perceived as common pitfalls.   Toms did not want to simply illustrate scary Bible stories; nor did he want to feed the pop-cultural superstition about the year 2012.  Instead, the artist chose to use the imagery found in the apocalyptic text as a metaphor to examine environmental, social and political phenomenon in the current era.




In the first painting of the series, entitled ‚ÄúChernobyl,‚ÄĚ Toms shows an archangel sounding a trumpet which spews figural hell-spawn into an ominous pneumonic¬† image that alludes to a radiation warning symbol.¬† In the background, we see the denuded¬† forests surrounding the notorious nuclear reactor.¬† Graham observed that the ‚Äúwormwood‚ÄĚ in the apocalyptic text equated to the word ‚ÄúChernobyl‚ÄĚ in the Russian language.¬† The painting was a warning of our irresponsibility leading to environmental annihilation.

The Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen


In the painting entitled ‚ÄúThe Four Horseman,‚ÄĚ Graham depicted the bringer of death astride a pale horse festooned with hypodermic needles as it charges across a poppy field landscape in Afghanistan.¬† The horse is preceded by a shock wave headed toward a disintegrating Islamabad, the capital of the nuclear armed Pakistan.¬† The painting was intended as an examination of the consequences of the War on Drugs and its escalation to a War on Terror.

The Sakhrah

The Sakhrah


In his work entitled ‚ÄúThe Sakhrah,‚Ä̬† Toms addressed the conflict in the Middle East by depicting the Foundation Stone of the Temple of Jerusalem beneath the Dome of the Rock.¬† In Graham‚Äôs painting, the Dome is torn back to reveal the allegedly sacred stone upon which a seductively beautiful, yet appallingly eviscerated, Angel of Death pours out gore and pestilence. This shocking image was deployed to convey what the artist felt about the struggle over sectarian possession of a sacred rock, and what for Toms, constituted something tantamount to idolatry. ¬† According to Graham Toms, it is undoubtedly no small irony that to this day three iconoclastic Abrahamic faiths still fanatically contend for political sovereignty over an allegedly sacred stone.

The Whore of Babylon

The Whore of Babylon

In his painting, ‚ÄúThe Whore of Babylon,‚ÄĚ Toms depicted a voluptuous temptress who morphs into a multi-tailed dragon beneath the Dome of St. Peter‚Äôs.¬† Around her neck she wears a charm depicting the symbol of the European Economic Community while from her eviscerated belly emerges a grotesque image of a fetal, yet elderly, Leonardo da Vinci.¬† An unprecedented conflation of images, this painting was intended to point to the often undemocratic and corrupt tendencies of globalist economic and political forces that operate in a secular humanist ethical context.

‚ÄúRequiem for the Amazon‚ÄĚ is the most developed and perhaps the most conceptually ambitious painting of the Apocalyptic Vision series.¬† In it, Toms depicts three contemporary males, intended to represent people of mixed Amazonian and African extraction, standing in a desertified landscape.¬† By pointing to an Afrocentric subject in Latin America, the artist breaks from stereotypic conventions.¬† The young boy holds a McDonalds‚Äô cup which implies the reason the jungle in the background is being annihilated, namely to make room for cattle.¬† The emblem on the boy‚Äôs shirt is the coat of arms of the King of Portugal who¬†lobbied the Pope to repeal the Vatican prohibition of human slavery.¬† The reference to the religious sanction of slavery is an indictment by the artist and also accounts for the presence of the African descendants in a Brazilian jungle.

The formidable masked figure at the left holds a chainsaw and wears a harlequin‚Äôs cap. The harlequin disguise is a literary reference to Joseph Conrad‚Äôs, ‚ÄúHeart of Darkness,‚Ä̬† in which a traveller up the Congo River encounters a harlequin character who warns the protagonist to venture no further because ‚Äú…beyond this way madness lies.‚Ä̬† The harlequin is the truth teller, the only one sanctioned to speak truth to power.¬† But even then, he must wear a disguise and play the fool for the sake of plausible deniability. He is in this instance forced by political and economic circumstance to participate in his own exploitation, and inevitable annihilation, as is indicated by the Ouroboros emblazoned on his chest.

The figure at right also holds an implement of deforestation while the very fabric of his being seems to be unravelling as it merges with  a double helix DNA strand flowing from a giant wounded pulsating heart in the lower foreground.  The heart signifies that the Amazon is the beating heart, and even the lungs, of the planet. It is the source of essential genetic diversity that springs from it.  The butterflies are symbols of resurrection and rebirth and reflect the potential in the genetic diversity of the jungle.   That the strands are indistinguishable from the unraveling fabric of the man’s being is to show that as humans we are part of this same global genetic fabric and its wholesale destruction will be our undoing.

The green glow behind the figures indicates the Egyptian god Osiris, who was himself dismembered and yet still resurrected.  The peacock feathers, the butterflies and the spiraling DNA are also all symbols of hope and resurrection.  Even the plumes of smoke rising from the burning jungle feature the souls of the indigenous people slaughtered by conquistadors. These souls are symbolized by herons rising to heavens. This painting is undoubtedly a warning and a call to action.  The artist used the apocalyptic metaphor to place current events in a cultural, genetic and ethical context.  Toms connects history, anthropology, theology, politics, economics, literature and biology in a suma panlogica that is a tour de force of concept, composition and color.  For Toms, the ultimate outcome of the Apocalypse, much like its cause, is in our own hands.  If we appreciate the pious meaning of carpe diem, if we realize the error of our ways, if we cease the senseless cycles of destruction and descents into hubris then there may indeed be redemption after all.

Abstract Expressionism:  Degenerate Art or a Cold War Conspiracy?

WDKooningSeveral articles have been floating around the Internet connecting the rise of Abstract Expressionism to the politics of the Cold War.¬† These include verifiable claims that the CIA and the US State Department threw their not inconsiderable influence behind this aesthetic movement.¬† While this may be news to many, for years it has been widely understood among art historians that Cold War politics played no small role in the rise of the hegemony of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States. Despite many of the artists having enjoyed substantial US government patronage during the FDR administration, the Social Realists found themselves aesthetically and politically out of fashion almost overnight following the end of WWII and the rise of the Communist block.¬† Cold War politics and the Red Scare of the 1950’s led to the official suppression of Social Realism in the United States. But Realism itself, and representational painting in general, were going to experience their own challenges, regardless of their political content, for reasons that had as much to do with European aesthetics and academic fashion as they did with the American political context in which the artwork was created and presented.

pollockTateModernMrs. Rockefeller had a longstanding interest in early Modernism initially at a time when the avant guard was largely shunned by members of her social cohort. By all accounts, her enthusiasm for this artwork was sincere. Her son Nelson was also an avid supporter and, for the most part, they didn’t concern themselves too much with the political ideology of their artists.

Then Nelson Rockefeller had his notorious run in with Diego Rivera who took the opportunity to bite the hand that was feeding him. At the time, Diego was taking considerable heat in Mexico from Left leaning artists who resented his commercial success in the United States and were, somewhat accurately, accusing him of becoming a Capitalist lackey. Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned Rivera to create a mural at the new Rockefeller Center knowing full well that this might prove to be a problematic proposition.¬† Diego included excoriating images of John D. Rockefeller Sr. among others in what amounted to a Marxist manifesto which also glorified Lenin and that Rivera knew would provoke a reaction from his patron. Nelson asked Rivera to modify the fresco and the artist predictably refused. Then Nelson, somewhat reluctantly, had the mural destroyed. This served Diego’s purposes by making him a martyr and he returned to Mexico to recreate the mural and polish his somewhat tarnished reputation among the Mexican Leftists.

kazimir_malevich_-_suprematism_-_google_art_projectConversely, early Modernists, like Kazimir Malevich were having their own difficulties back in the workers’ paradise of the new Soviet Union. Many of the Russian avant guard had initially been enthusiastic Bolsheviks and eager supporters of the revolution. The shine quickly wore off when it became clear that not only did the new Leninist regime have no use for the avant guard, they saw it as decadent bourgeoise easel painting that did not advance the cause of Leninist Marxism. In the case of Malevich, the regime went so far as to brand the artist and his work as “counter revolutionary.” Malevich was barred from teaching, exhibiting and ultimately even creating new works in the Soviet Union. By essentially banning avant guard art and persecuting it adherents, regardless of their personal political ideologies, the Soviets created an official aesthetic around Socialist Realism that would dominate artistic production in Communist countries for the better part of the century. They also created a new wave of artistic political refugees that would follow the previous wave of refugees from Nazi tyranny to New York.

As NYC was seeking to replace Paris as the artistic epicenter after the war, the city was filled with avant guard luminaries with their own aesthetic agendas. At this point there was an almost irresistible confluence of interests that made for some odd political bedfellows.

13whiteredonyellow-rothko-58The Socialist Realists behind the Iron Curtain seemed coarse and anachronistic. The work was brutish, grandiose in scale and boringly consistent in its overt propaganda. The Social Realists in the United States, were too avant guard in their aesthetic and too Leftist in their narratives for the more traditionalist conservatives in America who were at that point obsessed with anything that implied the slightest whiff of Communism. Conversely, the American Social Realists were themselves at risk of looking anachronistically provincial in the context of all the latest European avant guard that was now inhabiting New York. The artists like Ben Shahn found themselves in the unenviable position of being too aesthetically avant guard for the Right and too aesthetically conservative for the New Left. This combined with their politically incorrect narratives spelled their doom for the better part of a generation.

The Abstract Expressionists provided an irresistible opportunity for Cold War propaganda. The work was fresh, new, certified by decades of Rockefeller patronage and had the auspices of the European inteligencia. These European auspices were essential if New York was going to make its ascendency to the role of aesthetic capital of the world. Abstract Expressionists had the added advantage of being derided by the Soviets as “counter revolutionary” and hence had profilaxis from charges of being Communists, regardless of their individual political orientations. The rabid anti-Communists in the United States, as a rule, were no fans of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, most of this cohort shared Hitler’s view of the avant guard as decadent, degenerate and debased but they didn’t really understand the artwork and were frustrated when trying to accuse it of being somehow inherently Communist since the Communists themselves had so vociferously rejected it. Abstract Expressionism was the perfect foil for the New Left because it annoyed both the far Left and the far Right. This made AbEx the ultimate instrument in appealing to the Western European Left while simultaneously making Communism appear conservative, repressive and anachronistic by comparison. The Rockefeller Republicans and their ilk needed something that reflected their cultural Leftists sensibilities without overtly threatening their economically Rightist global political agendas. Abstract Expressionism was essentially made to order for this purpose.

But that being said, it would be a gross mischaracterization to propose that Abstract Expressionism was simply a globalist Capitalist conspiracy. Most of the artists did not share the political orientation of their patrons nor did they create the artworks with the intent that the aesthetic would simply be a tool of the economic elite to advance that elite’s Cold War agendas. The political climate created a sometimes uncomfortable and ironic coincidence of interests. The hegemony of Abstract Expressionism for a generation was not so much the result of Cold War machinations as it was the fruition of a half century of European aesthetic development that had ultimately been forced to find a home in New York City coincident with the rise in the hegemony of the American economic empire after the war. It was inevitable that these two phenomenon would be co-branded and would share auspices as well as guilt by their mutual associations.

Not much as changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The economic elite still drive the market and still collect works that offend the sensibilities of frontier-motherwell-58most cultural conservatives. The majority of contemporary artists still create the preponderance of works for their own aesthetic reasons and hope to win the lottery by making it into the collections of an economic elite with whom they may share little in the way of political sympathies. These contemporary Modernists and Post-Modernist artists tend to take their aesthetic cues from each other and from the Post-Modern academy rather than from the fickle dealers and collectors who are prone to acquire whatever they are told to buy from the art consultants and the academics. This phenomenon is still contributing to the cultural hegemony of New York City as the new oligarchs in places like China and Russia are sheepishly following the lead of the global cultural trend setters in New York. Given the predilection for the political suppression of artists in China and Russia, and the aesthetic free-for-all in New York, it is not likely that we will see a mass migration of artists to these emerging markets. New York City is not likely to find itself challenged anytime soon for its title as heavyweight aesthetic capital of the world.

With the rise of the Internet, however, the necessity of a having a cultural capital at all is itself being challenged. Artists and audiences have more tools at their disposal than ever to disseminate and discover new art while circumventing the hegemony of the cultural arbiters that dominate the contemporary art scenes of New York and London. As the world flattens economically and culturally, the importance of cultural capitals will inevitably diminish and aesthetic power will become more evenly geographically distributed. One no longer needs to travel to New York City and ask a Rockefeller where to find the greatest in American painting. One can simply travel to Ventura, CA in November of 2015 if they are seeking to find some of the most ambitious and innovative talents in the world of contemporary art.¬† But don’t count on the currently reigning aesthetic arbiters climbing down off their tarnished thrones in the Big Apple to make their pilgrimage to see the new avant guard emerging from the provinces where the less derivative works for a 21st Century aesthetic can be found.¬† The democratization of aesthetics for a new era is not likely to be led from the capital of the declining cultural empire.

A Metaphorical Slap for FIAC

It is the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) director and the city officials who instigated this installation who should be metaphorically slapped for this preposterous display.

TREE-UP_3077382cThe artist’s rationalization is glib at best and demonstrates the banality of his pseudo intellectual proposition.¬† That McCarthy thinks that simply declaring the work an “abstraction” absolves him of any accountability for the work’s obvious iconic narrative is utterly disingenuous.¬† To assert that the subject is ambiguous is ridiculous. It is a portrait of a butt plug plain and simple and coloring it green doesn’t make it a Christmas tree anymore than painting an American flag on its side would make it a space capsule.¬† Yes, the commercialism of Christmas is tragic, but McCarthy’s Christmas themed works are simply another form of this commercial exploitation and all his sanctimonious rhetoric amounts to an insufficient merkin to conceal this fact.

McCarthy’s proposition in transgressive art is to test the limits of the emotional tolerance of his audience.¬† In this case he seems to have exceeded that limit, probably to his own satisfaction, if not to the satisfaction of those forced to be subjects of his sadistic social experiment masquerading as art. He has a history that indicates a perhaps unhealthy anal fixation, which although it may be his prerogative, doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of us are obligated to view his obsession as a particularly appealing spectator sport.¬† McCarthy claims to seek to undermine the “myth of artistic greatness” and the heroic character of the male artist.¬† In this regard he might have unintentionally and somewhat ironically succeeded.¬† Yet one cannot avoid the evident monument to the male ego and the cult of the identity of the artist that this installation inherently invokes. The fact that this artist’s imagery is more anal than phallic doesn’t obfuscate its intrinsically masculine perspective. One could not imagine even the most provocatively avant guard feminist sculptor creating such an image in such heroic scale.

TREE-DOWN_3077383bPaul McCarthy’s work is adolescently provocative and redundant, stylistically derivative and unimaginative, obvious and unclever.¬† His rhetorical rationalization centers around a critique of commercialism but what could be more commercial in its aesthetic?¬† Not all self-contradiction indicates an interesting paradox.¬† The whole thing smacks of self-promotion and a PR stunt. It is a marketing ploy and no amount of fatuous art speak and disingenuous anti-capitalist rhetoric can get around this fact nor can it absolve McCarthy of the obvious hypocrisy of the artist’s alleged social commentary as an implausible justification for making a grandiose butt joke.

The French must be desperate to appear culturally relevant if they feel they must pander to an American commercial pseudo-pop aesthetic in a pathetic attempt to be hip.¬† It is bad enough that the French had to come to America to find what they mistook to be a relevant contemporary artist whose greatest claims to fame are a turd that blew away and shoving a Barbie up his own ass.¬† It is just sad that they think that a 67 year old man telling tired fart jokes from the ’70’s fits the bill for what constitutes contemporary cultural relevance. Yet another example of Baby-boomers mistaking nostalgia for their lost adolescence with genuine “contemporary” aesthetics.¬† This stuff doesn’t represent contemporary art any more than Henny Yougman telling Catskills’ jokes represents contemporary humor.¬† If this is the best FIAC could come up with, then France should be ashamed indeed.

Houston Fine Art Fair 2014: Brilliance Blossoms from a Field of Manure

For the most part, the artworks at this year’s Houston Fine Art Fair were not particularly different than in previous years.¬† Indeed, more than a few leftovers from the 2013 HFAF reappeared.¬† Despite exhibiting galleries coming from countries as divergent as South Korea and Holland, one could not help but be underwhelmed by the lack of diversity of tastes or imagination.¬† The artworks on display were, on the whole, gimmicky, slick, superficially pop, decorative, shallow and utterly banal.¬† To invoke the pejorative “derivative” in this instance would be a gross understatement.¬† There was hardly an original idea, a provocative thought or a sincere sentiment to be found at what largely amounted to a third rate Kitsch Fest.

That being said, there were a few specimens of high quality artworks that emerged from the tsunami of schmaltz backwashing up the Houston ship channel.

On display were several splendid examples of the Optical Art of renowned Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diez.

"Legartos," Luis Jimenez, colored lithograph

“Legartos,” Luis Jimenez, colored lithograph

The drawings, prints and paintings produced by Mexican artists exhibited by Houston’s Redbud Gallery were among the strongest art to be found anywhere at this year’s fair and featured impressive works on paper by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Francisco Toledo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, David Alfaro Siquieros, Lynette Saldana McDonald and Leonora Carrington.¬† Among the most exciting artworks were the exuberantly expressive lithographs by Luis Jimenez.

The were a few notable works by the old guard Modernists on display including several significant paintings by Neil Williams from his 1965 Paris Series. Among other artworks in this idiom were a monotype and an acrylic on paper by Helen Frankenthaler, although frankly, these were not amongst her most successful efforts.


“Region of Unstruct Sound,” Carimon Von Wiegand

Perhaps the finest of the deceased Modernists’ works exhibited was shown by Houston’s Parkerson Gallery and was an impressive painting by Charmion Von Weigand entitled Region of Unstructured Sound in¬†which the artist’s influences from Der Style and her time spent with Mondrian were clearly evident in her design and execution of the painting as well as her preoccupation with metaphysics and synesthesia.

For an art fair that purported to represent a globalist perspective, there was an almost oppressive Eurocentric aesthetic apparent even amongst a majority of the plethora of Asian artists represented. Evidently, regardless of one’s country of origin, it is currently all the rage to appropriate Damien Hirst’s Spots into the background of any pseudo-Pop pastiche a derivative schlock slinger seeks to proffer.¬† Unless you personally slept with Norma Jean, then for the love of Pete, no more images of Marylyn please! Norma’s dead and so is Andy, just let them rest for awhile.


“Yaika (Blue Onion Dreaming),” Peter Mbitjit Palmer

A notable exception to this 1980’s Eurotrash/Ameripop morbid nostalgic tendency came from the Australian artist Peter Mbitjana Palmer whose brilliant painting entitled Yaika (Blue Onion Dreaming) is an exquisite example of an artist drawing on Aboriginal metaphysical and pictorial traditions to create a strikingly contemporary artwork that remains authentic in its invocation of an indigenous aesthetic over 50,000 years in the making. This was one of the finest contemporary Aboriginal dot paintings that I have seen on display anywhere in North America in many years.

The painted bronze figurative sculptures of Daniele Matalon were striking for not only their verisimilitude but their unapologetic candor.¬† Eva Hild’s stoneware sculpture entitled Stratum was lyrically composed and impressive for its technical mastery of the medium. The sculptural works of Gyorgy Gaspar and Peter Borkovics were beautifully designed and demonstrated these sculptors’ brilliance as contemporary masters of the glass maker’s art.¬† Randall Mooers’ Papaya still life and Danny Heller’s automotive portrait entitled, DeSoto On Street, were both fine examples of the reemergence of skillful Neo-Realism.


Untitled, David Ligare

Warwick Wilson Art showed David Lingare’s exquisitely painted image that elegantly combined the formats of still life with seascape in an architectonic setting. Lingare’s articulation of light and shadow lent a quiet drama to the Zen-like contemplation the subject seemed to viscerally invoke.¬† Yet despite the painting’s laconic quality, one cannot help but wonder about the artist’s more subtle narrative and the possible implication of his depiction of a natural sponge resting atop a potentially ominous fascio.¬† What first strikes the viewer as a viscerally benign image, upon further contemplation, tends to imply a more menacing, if subtle, social and political commentary.

Sunday Afternoon

“Sunday Afternoon,” Jorge Santos

But for me, the highlight of the Houston Fine Arts Fair was the discovery of the painter Jorge Santos exhibited by the Evan Lurie Gallery. Santos’ large canvas, entitled¬†Sunday¬†Afternoon, allowed him to invoke the Grande Jatte as well as the convention of the leisurely beach scape in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek manner.¬† His less than idealized figures create a humorous visual contrast with the superfluity of¬†naval and aeronautical architecture on display.¬† The artist mischievously peeks out from the lower right hand corner of the frame in this indulgently playful work.¬† The painting doesn’t take itself too seriously but its nostalgia and sentimentality are forgivable for their sincerity and for the virtuosity with which they are rendered.

"Love Birds," Jorge Santos

“Love Birds,” Jorge Santos

Jorge Santos’ other tour de force was his painting entitled Love Birds, in which a contemporary young Narcissus gazes into a pond to commune with a Koi.¬† The young lover in the foreground is grasping romantic correspondence while behind him a winged nude female crouches over the love letters she has authored.¬† Behind her, another nude cherub swings from a tree in the direction of a romantic missive flying just out of her reach but evidently bearing the imprint of her lipstick.¬† The enigmatic m√©nage is set in an immaculately rendered pastoral landscape.¬† In this work, Santos implies a mythical reference that may be entirely idiosyncratic and imaginary.¬† The narrative offers clues but leaves much to the imagination of the viewer offering as much ambiguity as clarity in its¬†available meaning.¬† Santos’ painting reflects recent trends in Neorealism in which ambiguous references to mythology or history are offered in contemporary contexts in which they conceal as much meaning as they reveal. The paintings tend to imply a hermetic quality but the viewer is never really certain if they have sufficient information to confidently derive the intended narrative reference.

It is almost obligatory to lambast the ostentatious display of mediocrity that was featured at the Houston Fine Art Fair last week.¬† One cannot help but be appalled at the shameless commercialism that currently passes for aesthetics.¬† Indeed, the vast majority of work on display in Houston’s NRG Center was obviously, and evidently unapologetically, just so much tacky “product.” ¬†Hence, I have declined to offer it any more undeserved exposure in this review.¬†

But even amongst all the decorative pomposity there were moments when artistic integrity rose to the forefront.  Unfortunately, at least half of those moments were produced by artists who were either deceased or well-advanced in years.  There does indeed seem to be a crisis of creativity, at least for the vast majority of the global mid-career artists who found themselves exhibited in this relatively mediocre venue.

Nevertheless, there is evidently an emerging movement of representational painters whose works are now standing well above the undeniably noxious sludge currently spilling throughout the majority of the contemporary art market.¬† These Neo-Realist artworks are unmistakably contemporary in tone and outlook despite their unapologetic homage to 19th Century craft.¬† Many of these Neo-Representationalist paintings and sculptures are refreshing and intriguing as well as psychologically and epistemologically complex. ¬†There is intrinsic delight available for the viewer despite these emerging artists’ proclivities for esotericism and enigma.

After the last few decades, one should not be surprised if most of what one finds at a fine art fair anywhere in the world, let alone in Houston, leaves you more than a little put off your appetite.¬† But once you get over the initial nausea, one would do well to remember that great art has always been relatively rare and that sometimes the greatest beauty blooms from what is euphemistically called “fertilizer.”

Forget what the decorators and art advisors tell you. Ignore the pretentious rhetoric rationalizing the derivative ideas passing for justification of unimaginative unskilled art.¬† When one is confronted by the tidal wave of excretory effluent that is typically encountered at a contemporary fine art fair, simply clear your mind, pull up your waders and just perambulate until you stumble upon the rare artworks that demonstrate sincerity, integrity, profundity, innovation, craft and just enough enigma to keep you coming back to discover their revelations for years to come.¬† Those artworks are still being made as beautifully and artfully as ever.¬† They are not old fashioned or anachronistic but reflect the transcendent qualities of the human condition as filtered through the priorities of our current cultural context.¬† You will know them when you see them and they will sing to you in a siren’s song that is impossible to ignore. ¬†If you manage to keep your lunch down and your eyes peeled long enough, you just might find them in the most unlikely of places, including the 2014 Houston Fine Art Fair.


  • Sunday Afternoon


Pop Art or Pop Colony?

Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons and the Culture of Hyperbole

A “Culture of Hyperbole,” indeed!


Jeff Koons, ‚ÄúMichael Jackson and Bubbles‚ÄĚ (1988), porcelain; 42 x 70 1‚ĀĄ2 x 32 1‚ĀĄ2 in, private collection (¬© Jeff Koons, image courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art)

It is called, “Pop Art,” but few dare ask, “whose Pop culture does it represent?” Not all popular culture is inherently banal so why does so much of alleged Pop Art seem so intent on reification of banality? Could it be that the elite aesthetic arbiters actually perceive the proletariat as banal and that this alleged celebration of the banal is in fact simply¬†an elitist condescension? They certainly seem oblivious to the evident racist and classist subtext inherent in their aesthetic premise.

To selectively borrow from popular culture in such a way as to rob that culture of the sincerity of its sentiments, the nobility of its virtues or the heroism of its aspirations does not constitute a bonafide celebration or even an elevation at all. Rather, Pop Art as typically presented by the high art establishment, amounts to little more than a colonialization of a culture of which one is not an initiate in an effort to highlight what is perceived as its most “primitive, alien and infantilized” aspects so that its alleged vices rather than its inherent virtues occupy center stage.

We have been down this road before and we known exactly whose interests are served by such context. This same class of cultural arbiters initially excluded the aesthetic production of non-Western societies from consideration in the fine art canon. Such art was relegated to anthropology museums whose raison d’√™tre was to justify the underlying racist and ethnocentric presumptions inherent in these colonialist societies. When the non-Western art was finally allowed admittance to the sanctuaries of the fine art museums, it was only so that its imagery, but not its substance, could be appropriated as a rationalization for the colonialists’ own decadence. Removed from its original authentic cultural context, appropriated to serve a purpose for which it was never intended by its creators, then allegedly reified by its ultimate “inclusion” in the sanctuary, non-Western art was finally allowed to be celebrated because of its new found affiliation with the White power structure of the colonialists. For this self serving agenda, the same colonialists then assumed the mantel of cosmopolitanism and sought prophylaxis from charges of racism because they finally conceded to appropriating another culture’s artworks to serve their own agendas to establish and maintain their own socioeconomic and political power.

For the 1%’ers, the proletariat are the primitives, to be dominated, colonized and ruled. Popular culture is to be mined for its most undesirable characteristics so that it might be mocked and appropriated simultaneously. As was the case with colonialist appropriation a century ago, this is done to rationalize the decadence and banality of the contemporary high art of the establishment by granting it the license to be as banal and infantile as it erroneously perceives the Other to be.

But unlike the case of non-Western art, the unmediated artworks of authentic popular culture have yet to be accessioned by most elite fine art museums. Evidently, unless popular imagery is filtered through the meditation of the establishment elite’s anointed “fine” artists, then it is deemed unworthy of serious consideration.

Where are the exhibitions of the original Elzie Crisler Segar¬†comic strip artwork or the animation cells created¬†by¬†Max¬†and¬†Dave Fleischer‘s¬†Fleischer Studios¬†who produced¬†the original Popeye animated cartoons which were allegedly Jeff Koons’ muse? Where are the original war comics featuring artwork by Jerry Grandenetti¬†which Lichtenstein stole for his own purposes? Where are the originals of the ubiquitous CocaCola and Campbell’s soup advertisements that have become associated with Warhol as much as their original brands? You won’t find them on exhibit at MoMA or the Met. Instead, these authentically populist artworks will, for the foreseeable future, undoubtedly be relegated to more heretical sanctuaries like the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. George Lucas has been marginalized by the establishment for his role as an unapologetic populist and his proposed new museum will undoubtedly be met with predictable derision and scorn from this same elitist aesthetic establishment that is so eager to reify the banality of artworks so long as that banality is mediated through a member of its sanctified priesthood, like Jeff Koons.

Alas, it is not necessarily popular culture that is so inherently banal. Rather, it is the cynical affectation of infantilism by the clergy of the high art establishment that has devolved past being genuinely offensive to being merely boringly banal and hence utterly irrelevant as an authentic expression of culture, either high or low.

What is Happening to San Antonio’s Luminaria?

LuminariaBy my understanding, Luminaria was not originally conceived as an Art Basel type international art fair. That’s another species of creature altogether. Luminaria was, by my understanding, conceived to highlight the aesthetic production within the local arts community. It was a unique opportunity for regional artists to show their works to mostly suburban audiences who were otherwise oblivious to local art culture. It was the only time of the year when large masses of Looplanders would come downtown to engage local art. Luminaria was beginning to make inroads into the heretofore impenetrably vast cultural wasteland of the Northside and those residents were beginning to, for the first time in San Antonio history, become cognizant of the importance of art to the quality of life of their city. Luminaria was becoming a point of civic pride amongst both bourgeoise suburbanites and urban artists. Getting these two disparate demographics to share a common cause was no small achievement. As veteran local artists and cognoscenti can testify, one can hardly overstate the importance of this unprecedented phenomenon. Luminaria was perhaps not so prestigious as an international Biennial, but it served a legitimate, essential and relatively unique purpose.

Luminaria was, to some extent, a victim of its own success. As Luminaria became noticed outside the community, it seems politicians began to prioritize Luminaria as a public relations opportunity for the City.  It became something to be exploited for political and business purposes that had less and less to do with the arts and cultural life of the community, or even enhancing the local arts industries. Does anyone in city government find it bizarre that, in forty years, almost no art gallery has managed to become profitable by locating in the areas of the city whose residents have the most disposable income? In other cities the size of San Antonio, there are copious successful art galleries selling antique paintings and sculpture, fine quality antique furniture, investment quality contemporary art as well as reasonably priced works from local contemporary artists who have loyal followings among viable numbers of local collectors. Why is San Antonio perpetually stuck out in the cultural and economic cold when it comes to creating a viable local art economy?

The problem is an absence of cultured leadership. Those that have the political power don’t have the culture and those with the culture don’t posses the political power. It is not so much that’s San Antonio’s economic and political elites have bad taste, so much as no taste at all. It would be one thing if the Civic leaders decided to prioritize putting on a bonafide world class Biennial instead of Luminaria. It might not serve the same essential purpose as Luminaria, but it would, on balance, still be a positive development for the cultural life of San Antonians. From such an endeavor, prestige would begin to be associated with art collecting and its appreciation in the city and this might indeed have certain positive trickle down effects for local artists.

But who are we kidding? We are not losing a local arts festival and gaining a prestigious international Biennial. We are losing a viable and serviceable local Luminaria and instead getting a pathetic attempt at politicians putting on cultural airs that will be all too transparent to genuinely cosmopolitan audiences. It will be neither serviceable fish nor gourmet fowl. As a result, we will be squandering an historic opportunity to create a viable local art economy. I’d rather have a populist local arts festival that unites the diverse community and creates genuine cultural economic momentum than have a poor excuse for an international arts fair that is a waste of scarce local resources and will ultimately only serve to demonstrate how provincial a community can actually show itself to be when its uncultured leadership is merely pretending to be cosmopolitan.

Why Is The Artworld So Irrational And What Can Be Done About It?

There are two phenomenon at play here, the academy and big money. When all art becomes subjective then determining which art is best becomes essentially political.

The source of the problem is in the academy itself. The university has become a place of indoctrination rather than bonafide critical thinking. Hiring and tenure at the university have become almost entirely political. Dissident scholars and artists are either denied access to tenure or not hired at all. But to be fair, there are precious few dissident scholars trying to get in because undergraduate indoctrination has been so successful that meaningful dissent is practically unknown. There are more dissident artists but, without their corresponding colleagues in art history and philosophy, there is nobody in a position of authority to advocate for outsider art.

Magazine cover lauding Jeff Koons.

New York Magazine cover lauding Jeff Koons.

Many in the fine art field voice their dissatisfaction with the arbitrary nature of exorbitant pricing for contemporary Bluechip art. ¬†But few in the field are inclined to ask the underlying reasons for the arbitrary values of contemporary Bluechips. ¬†The academy has itself created a value vacuum. ¬†As Jonathan T. D. Neil observes in his piece for the Summer 2014 issue of ¬†Art Review entitled, On Derivatives and Value in Art, “So ‚Äėliberated‚Äô from categories of talent, taste, skill, history, innovation or critique, the work of art ‚Äėfloats free‚Äô in an unregulated sea of differential value whose prices can inflate, bubble and pop according to their own autonomous dynamics.” It is the academics who “liberated” art from these constructive, if delimiting, categories. But nature abhors a vacuum and so a value is set by the market.

Since the Bluechip market is overwhelmingly made up of people in the finance industry then it is not surprising that, in lieu of any other authoritative mechanism for establishing value, these financiers would in turn resort to the instruments they know best and attribute value in the same manner they do for other speculative financial instruments, namely the derivative.  Until the academy regains its sense and derives some more concrete mechanism for establishing aesthetic and intrinsic value then the market is going to use its own mechanisms and most of what we read in the press regarding art is going to sound more like a report on oil futures than a discussion of the aesthetic merits of the work.

We need not wait on the academy, however, to address some of the problems that have created such a distortion in the evaluation of contemporary aesthetic production. ¬†As Neil states when comparing the contemporary art Bluechip to a futures contract, “left unregulated and fed back into the financial system, they can generate greater uncertainty and augment risk to a perilous degree.” ¬†So as much as I am loath to suggest it, some constructive regulation is in order. ¬†The key is in getting the incentives right.

Art is a relatively unique commodity in that it is not fungible, unlike a barrel of oil or a pork belly, it has no intrinsic financial value and one work is not of equivalent value to another. Contemporary art is not unlike the tulip market: its financial value is inherently arbitrary. This problem is compounded by the phenomenon of the monopoly inherent in the art market. Only Jeff Koons’ shop can create a Koons. So regulating art as one would any other monopoly is inherently problematic.

Gallerist Helly Nahmad

Gallerist Helly Nahmad

But regulating dealers is more practical. Perhaps eliminating dealer exclusivity on works by artists whose art brings six figures and up might be a place to start. Dealer exclusivity on Bluechip artists can be viewed as a restraint of trade.

Perhaps the least onerous types of regulations would be those that were designed to create more transparency. Transparency on transactions would be a mechanism for reducing market manipulation. If there were reporting requirements for all transactions in excess of $20,000 then a centralized database could be set up to reflect real time market values for art. This database should include the price for the work but also the transparent identity of individual buyers and sellers including of individual members of consortiums who go in together on a sale or purchase. In this way the activities of market manipulators could more easily be tracked and monitored. This would also allow the market a better sense of which collectors are sitting on large stockpiles of works by a single artist. 800 Warhols in the possession of a single owner are a looming threat to anyone who intends to invest in a Warhol that comes to market.

A handful of speculators are dominating the market for works by a select group of artists and they simply shill up the price on any new work that appears lest the asset value of their stockpiles be substantially diminished by a single bad day at the auction house. Since they borrow against their art assets to create liquidity for other investments, then their incentives to ensure the stability of value of their leveraged art are immense. Perhaps regulating the percentage of value by which art may be leveraged might be a constructive step. If collectors could only leverage up to 20% of an art asset’s value then this would reduce incentives to shill up prices to maintain the art portfolio values. If collectors require more liquidity then they can transparently sell their art for a fair market value.

Larry Gagosian

Larry Gagosian

At the high end of the market, transactions are not always done in cash and this is a significant problem. Gagosian and others make tremendous commissions on brokering art swaps. This practice is fraught with corruption, is inherently clandestine, is widely used to hide assets, conceal transactions and lends itself to international money laundering, bribery and a host of other illicit activities. It is also a way of avoiding capital gains and sales taxes that can amount to hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars on a single transaction. Wealthy collectors view art swaps as a loophole in the current financial regulatory schemes and this loophole must be closed. Prohibiting art swaps on works valued in excess of $20,000 would be a significant step toward bringing much needed transparency to the market.



The other problem is the monopoly of auction houses. Sotheby’s and Christies dominate the worldwide auction market in a manner that is obviously a restraint of trade. They have both been convicted of price fixing, trading in stolen and looted works, forgeries, false provenance and optimistic attributions yet nobody seems to want to tackle these giants and break up their stranglehold on the auction business. Indeed, the two auction houses seem more inclined than ever to stray into the role of commercial galleries in contemporary art so as to engage in pump and dump schemes that only further exacerbate market manipulation. Nobody seems to have an interest in breaking the stranglehold of this duopoly. Artists, collectors, speculators and dealers all profit from these one stop shops’ ability to inflate market prices. Smaller auction houses mean smaller turnouts of bidders and lower prices for works. Speculative greed from all players in the market is producing selective blindness to the corruption.

Government has tended to view auction houses as if they were a “natural” monopoly like a stock exchange or a commodities trading floor. But unlike other commodities trading, there is virtually no regulatory oversight to protect consumers and traders against pump and dump, self dealing, insider trading and various other conflicts of interest. And there isn’t likely to be anytime soon. The only people with a stake in the auction houses are the economic elite and they are not complaining about auction house ethics because the fuzzy practices, as often as not, serve their interests. There is no political pressure to more stringently regulate the auction houses because this is a rich guy’s problem which the rich don’t seem to mind and the rest of society doesn’t care.

The more intransigent problem is at the university level since they are the source of the subjectivity and politicization that facilitates the irrational nature of the contemporary art market itself. The problem of hyper-politicization of epistemology did not emerge over night. It took the better part of a century for us to reach the status quo and this will not change over night either. One might acknowledge that epistemology always had an element of politics in it, but to simply acknowledge this fact and then use it as an excuse to unapologetically reduce all epistemology to raw politic has produced an untenable situation in the academy. Politics got us into this situation and some politics will ultimately be required to get us out.

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes

People who are dissatisfied with the status quo in the arts and humanities must reenter the fields and not be content to simply throw stones from the sidelines. If you don’t agree with Derrida and his ilk, then pursue advanced degrees in philosophy and author tomes to refute him. If you are interested in art but are appalled by what you see, then pursue a PhD in art history and write articulate critique of the current canon. Form coalitions with like-minded intellectuals to establish publishing houses and academic periodicals. This will not be easy but they don’t call it a “Culture War” for nothing.

Realize that there are more than two sides to the Culture War and develop more holistic, interdisciplinary and inclusive methodological approaches to art criticism that address the legitimate concerns raised by Modernism and Postmodernism. (Yes, there were legitimate concerns!) It is not sufficient to just turn back the clock to the 19th century and act as if none of the phenomenon of the last century ever occurred. It is time for dissident scholars to be more than merely conservative.

Sabin Howard, Atelier

Sabin Howard’s studio

They must be innovative and conceive new arguments for the role of art in a new society. These arguments must be inclusive and multicultural without succumbing to the knee-jerk self advocacy of the past few decades. Start enthusiastically advocating for the best of art produced by women and minorities and you will earn the credibility required to legitimately critique the work that is merely mediocre and politically correct. Multicultural doesn’t inherently mean “anything goes.” Come up with better defenses for legitimate intellectual and moral justice and better intellect and better justice will be the result. Pursue this arduous course and we will all be blessed with better art as well.

The Artist as Strange Attractor (Keynote Speech)

SAC Multicultural Conference 2014 Poster

SAC Multicultural Conference 2014 Poster

Multicultural Arts Conference

Keynote Speech

San Antonio College, April 24, 2014

I would like to talk to you today about the importance of the fine arts and humanities to the progress of science and technology and why encouraging the mastery of these disciplines should be a national priority for policy makers.   First, I would like to address the widely held misperception that fine arts and humanities are impractical, tertiary or somehow superfluous to our strength as a society and economic health as a nation.  Then I would like to look at the historic and evolving role of arts in the progress of science and technology.  Finally, I would like to propose a new nonlinear paradigm for considering the fallacies of current metrics for evaluating the essential contributions of the fine arts and humanities as catalytic agents to scientific progress.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math

We have all seen those statistics coming up in our Facebook feeds, you know the ones…those doomsday figures demonstrating that no loving parent in their right mind should let their children study fine arts or humanities lest their scion be condemned to a life of eternal debt burden and a career of underemployment and poverty. ¬†Is anybody actually surprised by these figures? ¬†The linear conclusions drawn seem self-evident enough. ¬†After all, most civilians at some point in their lives encounter a variety of professionals. ¬†We all eventually need to call an information technology specialist, a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a plumber or someone from the service industries. ¬†But how many ordinary folks, regardless of socioeconomic class, can honestly say that someone in their family actually pays a mortgage or feeds their children by creating paintings, composing music or writing novels? ¬†How many people have in the course of their daily lives had to commission the services of an artist, a sociologist or an art historian? ¬†For most people in our society, artists are out of sight and out of mind. ¬†They are a mysterious class of people we know exist in the shadows, garrets and garages and then become of aware of only when they become famous. ¬†Otherwise we either presume they don’t exist or that they live on the social and economic margins of society. ¬†To be fair, artists have some culpability in promoting that myth.

Many commercial artists flourish in our economy.

Many commercial artists flourish in our economy.

The reality is a more dynamic and hyper-complex picture than linear extrapolation of select statistics would indicate.  Hundreds of thousands of commercial artists are employed in this country in the advertising, marketing and entertainment industries alone.  These industries in turn contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy.  Hundreds of thousands more are employed in art and science museums around the country and most of these are positions that offer a respectable middle class wage and benefits.  Tens of thousands more are employed by universities, although many of these are horribly exploited adjuncts that are indeed undervalued and underpaid.  There are tens of thousands of art galleries across the country employing staff and providing a livelihood for their owners.  Thousands more art professionals are employed at auction houses that are offering remarkable returns to their shareholders as Bluechip art prices have shot through the stratosphere and, for the first time in history, the artists fortunate enough to be collected by the economic elite are now routinely seeing six, seven and even eight figures for a single work in their own lifetimes.

As for the non-elite fine artists, there are tens of thousands of painters and sculptors in this economy who are selling work and executing commissions in the $2,000-$40,000 range and making a respectable living doing it.  There are indeed countless others who are struggling to find markets for their talents.  But this is not so much because they chose the wrong course of education but because the fine art business model is essentially a 19th century entrepreneurial craftsman model.  The current state of arts education does little to prepare students to become independent business operators in the 21st century.  One must also realize that in this country, success as an entrepreneur in any field requires heroic tenacity and that the typical American entrepreneur will fail at their first fourteen ventures before they finally succeed.  Given the often entrepreneurial nature of a fine arts career, it is not surprising that there would be risk involved but not necessarily substantially more risk than many other entrepreneurial endeavors.

Can you get employed with an Arts Education?

Can you get employed with an Arts Education?

It has become a cliche to blame unemployment and poor economic performance on people choosing presumably non-lucrative majors to study at the university. It is a conveniently self-serving canard for politicians of all stripes to drag out as an instrument to rationalize their own failures of economic policy. The arts and humanities are routinely bipartisanly misrepresented as a waste of resources as the state has for years directed educational policy to focus on science, technlogy, engineering and math. Be suspicious of politicians, of either party, who disparage the study of history since it is those who are ignorant of history who are most likely to repeat its mistakes. Be suspicious of policy makers who devalue liberal and fine arts education in favor of vocational training aimed at producing a society comprised entirely of unquestioning worker drones and technocrats at the service of an elite class of plutocrats.  It might do us well to recall this admonition from John Adams:

¬†“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy,geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture,¬†statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

America’s recent obsession with technological careers has in no small part been due to the economic impact of the information technology boom of the 1980’s and ’90’s.¬† With the advent of personal computing and the Internet, vast fortunes were quickly produced out of thin air creating an economic infusion that masked the underlying weakness of many other segments of the economy. As good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector evaporated and low paying service industry jobs replaced them, technology came to be seen as the economic panacea that was going to float all boats. Many of the innovators in the field were in fact college drop outs and, for many people, this confirmed their skepticism of the necessity of a university education. But lest we forget, if not for a man named Steve Jobs, a person whose relatively unique vision at the time was that computers might be useful to everyone, especially artists and creative personalities, computers would still be the size of refrigerators and the sole province of pocket protector wearing technicians. It was Jobs’ humanities education and appreciation of artists that afforded him the vision that changed the world.

Steve Jobs, 1977

Steve Jobs, 1977

The geek culture of the ’80’s and ’90’s that produced the unprecedented wave of innovation and prosperity was not a product of technocratic society and corporate culture. At the time, it was geeks running with artists and musicians outside the mainstream that produced a hybrid culture born of the fertile cross pollination between arts and technology. Geeks weren’t being driven to innovate by corporate incentives but were motivated to create innovations for much the same reasons as artists. As evidence of this, witness the rapid development of innovative shareware and even open source UNIX programming that underlies most of current information technology and utterly baffled corporate technology leaders of the time. Why would someone author a new and useful software product only to give it away? The establishment was flabbergasted. Just look at how geeks of the period dressed, they derived their fashion sense from Seattle’s grunge music scene, not the corporate world that most utterly disdained. This is why so many innovators struck out on their own to form a new generation of companies that didn’t require their employees to submit to the cultural hegemony of the corporate sphere.

I know these things to be a fact because in 1994 I quit my job at an art museum to form a start up Internet company and one of the first Internet cafes on the planet. We built POP Internet switches for dial up ISP’s and produced hundreds of the first websites in the world, including one of the first museum websites back when the Metropolitan Museum of Art naively believed that to post art images online would evaporate their copy-right revenues and discourage audiences from visiting their galleries. How many people would be surprised to discover that the San Antonio Museum of Art had over 600 images from its collection online, complete with copious didactic copy and virtual exhibits at a time when most employees at MoMA didn’t even have an Internet connection?

TX-2 Machine at MIT (1969)

In the beginning there was ARPANET (1969)

What drove me to make this career move was when I saw my wife upload one of the first images to ever be posted in HTML back a couple of years after ARPA net was opened to universities and before the potential of the first commercial Internet service provider was even a gleam in a greedy entrepreneurs eye, let alone an ATT and Time Warner monopoly. I’ll never forget the epiphany of seeing that two color logo on a grey screen downloading torturously slowly over a 14.4 modem and thinking to myself, “Eureka! Virtual Museums!” I immediately turned to my wife and said, “can we make this thing go faster?” From that point on we were off to the races. When the university, then dominated by corporate cultural myopia, took down the university’s only web server to give the server computer to a vice-president’s secretary to use as a word processor, we saw that plutocrats were not going to initially appreciate the potential of the technology and it would be years before degreed computer scientists, then writing in Fortran or COBAL, and their stodgy university administrators would posses the vision of this new technology’s revolutionary potential.

Did I mention that my wife, the groundbreaking programmer and ultimately software engineer, had majored in anthropology and English, or that she was perusing an MFA in creative writing as a poet at the time she had been hired by the university to be a technical writer for users of the university’s mainframe computer? It was evident to her that the majority of academics were never going to develop the technical skills to effectively utilize the mainframe computer no matter how many manuals she authored. But she appreciated that the new HTML technology could revolutionize access to computing for scholars in the arts and humanities and it was this realization that drove her to create information products for people who didn’t own a pocket protector or speak binar.

Mandelbrot patterns are infinitely fine as you look closer and closer, and they indicate order in the presence of chaos. (credit: Gilberto Santa Rosa)

Mandelbrot patterns are infinitely fine as you look closer and closer, and they indicate order in the presence of chaos. (credit: Gilberto Santa Rosa)

The symbiosis between art and science, unfortunately, is not commonly perceived by the general public which is why politicians, institutional administrators, corporate executives and other policy makers are obtuse about the essential nature of this cultural cross pollination. For anyone familiar with recent literature in science, a few terms seem to be coming at us from all directions, from astrophysics to neuroscience, from nanotechnology to autoimmune research, from molecular chemistry to sociology, from economics to meteorology, from artificial intelligence to computer generated animation… we keep hearing about “hyper complexity, nonlinearity, derivative equations, chaos phenomenon, fractals and strange attractors.” ¬†It seems that for the epistemology of contemporary science, linearity is widely understood to no longer be sufficient. ¬†To understand almost anything, including the significance of the fine arts and humanities to the progress of science and technology and the role of art in the wider economy and society, we must first recognize that these are intrinsically hyper-complex phenomena and simple linear models like, “study art=earn $X‚ÄĚ are not only insufficient, but are utterly misleading and result in ill-informed policies with catastrophic unintended consequences.

In a recent article published in the Huffington Post, entitled, “Our Brains on Art,” sociologist, Dr. Patricia Leavy shares some interesting new information about the relationship between art and science. ¬†She describes:

“Arts-based research as an emergent paradigm whereby researchers across the disciplines adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research projects. ¬†….. While most people know on some level that the arts can reach and move us in unique ways, there is actually science behind this….. there is a growing body of scholarship on the relationship between neuroscience and literature, often referred to as literary neuroscience. …The preliminary results of this work have been revealing. Phillips and her colleagues found that the whole brain appears to be transformed as people engage in close readings of fiction. Moreover, there appear to be global activations across a number of different regions of the brain, including some unexpected areas such as those that are involved in movement and touch. …. Gregory Berns (2013) led a team of researchers in a study published in Brain Connectivity that suggests there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel….There is an emerging field called neuroaesthetics that considers how our brains make sense of visual art. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel (2012) explains that visual art activates many distinct and at times conflicting emotional signals in the brain which in turn causes deep memories….. ¬†For example, there is a growing relationship between art therapy and neuroscience. Many in the field now suggest that both hemispheres of the brain are involved in art making and are necessary for artistic expression…. ¬†There is clinical research on drawing as well. A study by Rebecca Chamberlain and colleagues in the journal NeuroImage (2014) debunks right-brain and left-brain thinking to argue that those with visual artistic talent or who identify as visual artists have increased amounts of grey and white matter on both sides of the brain….. So whether we are consuming art or involved in art-making ourselves, art impacts us in profound ways not previously understood. There are serious implications for how we might teach, learn, conduct and share research most effectively. These are primary drivers of the arts-based research movement.‚ÄĚ

It is not just from reading scientific literature, and certainly not simply from reading the Huffington Post, that I know these things to be true.  I can testify to them from personal experience in the field.

Sebasti√°n with "Quantics" sculpture.

Sebasti√°n with “Quantics” sculpture.

In the last year I personally made several trips to the electron microscopy lab at UTSA where I conferred with physicists and nano-technologists working on esoteric materials engineering. I was there because I was working with the world renowned Mexican sculptor, Sebastian, to mount an exhibit of his recent sculptures from a series entitled “Quantics” that is currently on exhibit in McAllen, Texas. Sebastian had sought out his lifelong friend Dr. Miguel Yacaman, a physicist, to consult with him on the shapes of subatomic geometries that he intended to use as sources for his sculptures. ¬†It seemed like a very intriguing idea to me for an artist to make gigantic recreations of nano-structures in nature that would simultaneously be geometric abstractions and representational sculptures. While it was clear to me what Sebastian saw as relevant in the work of Dr. Yacaman, I was less clear on why this illustrious physicist was making his expensive lab so available to this artist. When I asked Dr. Yacaman about this, his answer was intriguing. He said that the mathematicians and physicists on his team were in a quandary and that Sebastian’s inductive reasoning and intuitive understanding of geometric potentials was offering much needed new insights for his scientists that enabled them to tackle conceptual problems from a fresh perspective.

MIGUEL YACAMAN Professor and Department Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Professor and Department Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Dr. Yacaman was adamantly opposed to the political preoccupation with STEM curricula and was concerned that the too narrowly trained young scientists coming into his department did not possess the wider range of intellectual skills required to conceive innovation. Dr. Yacaman thought this a sufficient crisis such that he was networking with many of his scientific colleagues to form a coalition to advocate for the reintegration of arts and humanities, or STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), into the educational system. It was Dr. Yacaman’s hypothesis that until business and political leaders were lobbied by the science community, these policy makers would continue to deploy government mandated misguided approaches that were counterproductive to integrated education and, in essence, represented a strategic national threat to the health of future technological innovation in this country.

Charles F. Winans

Artist Charles F. Winans

When I opened my Internet cafe back in the mid-’90’s, one day a scruffy looking artist who resembled a cross between Gandalf and Punchinello came in to see what we were up to. This artist was named Charles Francis Winans and he had been a mercurial but catalytic figure in the birth of the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. He had been the person who suggested that Ken Kesey get a bus. Charles had been influential behind the scenes in Rock ‘n’ Roll culture and had designed posters for many of the bands playing the Filmore. He had also been a compatriot of Charles Crum and these two outsider artists would revolutionize the world of underground comics. Charles Francis Winans was the inspiration for Crum’s ubiquitous Mr. Natural character. But Uncle Charlie, as we called him, had interests that were broad, his insights deep and he was fascinated by innovators in all walks of life and they tended to be fascinated by him as well.

One of Charles’ associates in the early 1960’s was a prominent physicist who was employed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator lab. One day this scientist was frustrated while trying to get information down his primitively limited bandwidth on one of the first computer networks ever created and the prototype for what was going to evolve into the Internet. Charles, who was no programmer but was an innovative problem solver, suggested that the physicist¬†cut up his bulk information into smaller pieces and then use a simple code to reassemble the pieces at their destination. Sabersky tried this, it worked and, voila, packet switching was born! I confess that I was skeptical about this narrative when Charles first shared it with me and then one day in 1995, out of the blue I received an email from this scientist, a fellow with whom I was not personally acquainted. His old friend¬†heard that Charles Winans could be reached through my coffee house and wanted to reestablish contact with him. I took the opportunity to ask the man about these historic events and he confirmed Winan’s narrative and added that Charles was not likely to ever let him live it down. While he might confess to getting a little help privately, he refuses to admit publicly that a hippie artist Had a more nimble mind and consequently, more inventive ideas than a Stanford Don. ¬†Such emminent¬†scientists probably still have giant egos (and can afford lawyers to claim heresay).


1960’s counter culture protested and won aluminum recycling initiative.

One day Winans was walking by the corporate headquarters of Kaiser Aluminum. Outside was a group of raucous hippies protesting the corporate giant’s role in contributing to the pollution of the planet. At the time, aluminum cans and their pull tabs seemed to be on the way to covering the surface of the Earth. Charles sympathized with the hippies’ agenda but understood that the executives upstairs were looking down through their windows utterly baffled and annoyed by the chaotic events taking place bellow. In typical Punchinello fashion, Uncle Charlie got an out of the box idea that involved creating a very special box. Charles loaded up a foot locker with hippy paraphernalia and ephemera. He then decorated the box in psychedelic fashion and sent it up to the Kaiser Aluminum headquarters addressed to the CEO. When the executives opened the footlocker, spilling out along with all the psychedelic contents was a note from Charles saying that if the CEO wanted to understand what was going on outside his offices that he should agree to spend several uninterrupted days with Winans at a Malibu beach house where Charles would explain to him what was so upsetting the counter culture about Kaisers business practices. Intrigued, the corporate executive took Uncle Charlie up on his offer.

Over the course of that week, Winans persuaded the CEO of the environmental necessity and economic viability of recycling aluminum. The executive protested that it would be cost prohibitive for Kaiser to employ legions of people to collect all the discarded metal. But Charles knew from his association with broke recycling hippies, who were gathering returnable soda bottles to supplement their lack of income, that people would of their own volition gather up the discarded cans and, if paid a reasonable price per pound, collect the aluminum and deliver it to the recycling plant. This prospect had never occurred to the CEO or to any of the other allegedly “smartest guys in the room” at Kaiser. Charles demonstrated to the executive that recycling aluminum was cheaper than mining and refining new ore and that there was negligible costs associated with having it returned to the manufacturer for recycling. The Kaiser CEO saw the wisdom of this argument and took the bait. Soon ALCOA and other Kaiser competitors followed suit and, from that point on, the economic viability of recycling was not generally questioned. The next time you are taking out your recycling segregated from your trash for pick up, remember that it was the catalytic function of what many considered a flaky artist that is responsible for a profitable new industry and a healthier planet.

Lest one mistakenly believe that these are isolated anecdotes, consider the history of scientific progress.  It is commonly believed that scientific progress is incremental and torturously slow plodding methodical work.  But the greatest achievements in science are rarely the result of incrementalism.  The history of science turns on the relatively sudden and, generally unanticipated, shifting of fundamental paradigms.  What is it that causes certain individuals in the scientific fields to have epiphanies that elude their theoretically equally brilliant and hard working colleagues?  The answer is:  their association with humanists, philosophers, writers, musicians and artists. The greatest scientific minds are remarkably often also artists, musicians and writers themselves.

Ray Kurzweil - Director of Engineering at Google

Ray Kurzweil – Director of Engineering at Google

Silas Weir Mitchell (1824-1914), one of the founders of American neurology, was also a fiction writer who published an astonishing nineteen novels, seven poetry books, and many short stories.  Ray Kurzweil is an American author, scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google. Aside from futurology, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments.   His interest in music enabled him to revolutionize the electronic keyboard and change the course of popular music forever.  It also made him a fortune that enabled Kurzweil to be able to afford to engage in a plethora of technological innovative pursuits that continue to change the world in fundamental ways and now continue to make Google stockholders a good deal of money themselves.

Had Isaac Newton not been fascinated with the writings of the Scandinavian mystic Swedenborg, Newton would not likely have ever set out on the course of action that led him to develop calculus.  Without calculus, where would modern technology be?  Why was a patent clerk named Albert Einstein able to conceive of the theory of general relativity when these ideas had eluded the most illustrious physicists of his generation?  At the time, Einstein was spending a lot his time in the company of the Nobel prize winning syncretic philosopher Rapinidrat Tagore whose ideas derived from Indian monism were impacting Einsteins thinking on relativity.

"From the Earth to the Moon" novel by Jules Verne, 1865.

“From the Earth to the Moon” novel by Jules Verne, 1865.

Science fiction authors, ie. “artists,” like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick would provide inspiration for thousands of engineers, astronomers and technologists to create everything from smart phones to satellites, robots to prosthetics, and submarines to radio telescopes. Artists and creative thinkers of all types are essential catalysts to scientific progress and technological development.

A ‚Äústrange attractor‚ÄĚ is defined as “an equation or fractal set representing a complex pattern of behavior in a chaotic system. ”¬†Artists function as strange attractors in this hyper-complex chaotic phenomenon of scientific advancement. ¬†Like other strange attractors, calculating their event horizons and the likelihood that any single artist is going to be at just the right place at just the right time can be incredibly difficult to predict. ¬†But what we do know is that in the absence of their essential catalytic function, the greatest leaps in science will not likely take place.

When policy makers are deploying their medieval linear models and considering cutting fine arts education in favor of allegedly more pragmatic disciplines, they should remember that those so-called ‚Äėpractical‚Äô pursuits would be mired in the muck of incrementalism if not for the role of artists. ¬†A society and economy with fewer artists is not simply a less decorous, less entertaining but a more practical place. ¬†In point of fact, fewer artists will constitute retarding technological progress, cutting off the lifeblood to innovation and hobbling the greatest generator of economic prosperity in the contemporary economy. ¬†¬†Devaluing and defunding arts education is not only bad policy, it is bad economics and bad science as well.

The next time you encounter one of these well-intended, but shortsighted philistines, remind them that the world isn’t flat, that algebra isn’t the highest form of math, that nuclear reactions release immense amounts of energy, that we no longer communicate by carrier pigeon, that the universe cannot be characterized as a linear phenomenon and that ultimately we can thank artists for the fact that we know these things to be true. ¬†Remind them that the Internet and personal computers were not brought to us by stodgy incrementalists at IBM, but rather were brought to us by quirky bohemians who would not have been hired by American corporations of the period.

If these worshipers of mammon, who believe earned income revenue to be the epitome of all metrics, still think that an arts education may not be the surest route to prosperity for the artist, remind them that if not for the oft time invisible, or at least translucent, contributions of artists, that these policy makers and corporate leaders would be sitting on considerably shorter stacks of Benjamins in their own portfolios.

Explore McAllen – “Amazing” Ron English Video

  • Explore McAllen independent production “Amazing” video. ¬†The community really enjoyed having Ron English in town and experiencing the exhibit we produced at IMAS.