The Performance of Contemporary Art (Part 2)

Portrait of Carey Chrome, an art model living in Easton, PA

In part one, I wrote about a theme that has emerged in this column of the mercurial nature of artistic quality. i.e. one day this is good art; the next day that is good art. Even the eye of the beholder is fickle.

I continued by identifying some trends among the professional artist community. In general, the traits listed were those of non-conformists because conformity is antithetical to individualistic creation. If one is expressing oneself, then one is not marching in formation.

Expression of truth is inevitable because the human animal is not strong enough to suppress it indefinitely. Even a poised exterior houses an inner conflict between what is felt to be true and what is said to be true. And that expression surfaces in myriad ways, art being only one of them.

Contemporary art is simply an aspect of human nature. Human beings create art when they don’t know what else to do. Automatic expressions such as body language, whistling, fidgeting, and doodling happen all day every day. Much of art education is pairing those expressions with an explicit societal purpose.

A satisfied mind—one at rest completely and content—has no reason to create artwork or express itself in any way. A mind like that reacts to events as they occur, drawing on past experiences to resolve conflicts and sustain the well-being of self and community. It’s when the mind gets confused that art appears.

In the early 20th century, a group of French painters set the tone of modernist expression. The small but impactful group, which included Matisse, became known as les fauves, the French word for “wild beasts.” It was a reaction to early industrialization and its incomplete understanding of human potential outside of formalism.

Artists are artists because they are outcasts, not the other way around.


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The Performance of Contemporary Art (Part 1)


What is a professional artist? That sort of word game can sometimes be trivial semantics. Or at best, a predictable Socratic inquiry that ends in “who can say?” But this question informs the way teachers advise students to enter the world as artists, so it’s important to form a basic answer, even if it is incomplete.

The commonsense answer in American capitalist culture is something like ‘someone who earns an income from the sale of their art.’ In other words, an artist is a person running a small business who produces art objects marketed as such. By this definition, anyone else posing as a professional artist is a fraud.

That excludes a huge community of people with advanced degrees, passion, talent, and success in being exhibited in museums and galleries, who just happen to be getting paid little or nothing for their contributions.

There are some who would say “Too bad. They’re still frauds. The art world contains a network of fraudulence.”

Although that may be literally accurate, since the term ‘profession’ means a paid occupation, it is unproductive in terms of rating artists, since not all artwork is made for money. The alternative is to be an ‘amateur’, a person who engages in art for the emotional reward of it rather than for income. The problem with the word ‘amateur’ is that it is used in common speech and listed in dictionaries as also meaning unskillful. The expression “amateur hour” is used as an insult.


I encourage artists to reject that stance and learn the usefulness of the amateur model in life. Charles Darwin was famously an amateur scientist; Socrates criticized the sophists for charging for knowledge, making him an advocate for amateur teaching; the Chinese literati school of painting was an amateur tradition; so what’s the shame in being an amateur? If income is the goal, that’s a different story. But there’s no reason to condemn someone as unsuccessful just because their expression doesn’t link to a revenue stream.

However, if skills designed for the amateur model are being taught by a school, that should be explained up front. A criticism I have of art programs is that their marketing often implies direct training for a paid career, but fails to actually deliver any marketable skills. That’s not to say artistic skills need to be marketable, but schools should not be deceptive about it; it’s dishonest to the students.

I think it’s possible to teach skills that are both enlightening to the amateur and practical to the professional, which is how I (at least attempt to) design my classes.

But here’s the puzzle. If there are people contributing to the art world who are not professional, who are doing it for the love of it, and there is no objective way to rate or measure artwork, then how do individuals and institutions sort out what has quality to it? What should be collected and exhibited?

Enter the myriad alchemies of The Performance of Contemporary Art.

The art world as it currently exists resembles a loosely organized religious system. The idea of ‘fine art’ somehow keeps surviving. By the in-group, art is revered as an imperative practice—something indispensable and valuable to everyone. To suggest otherwise is met with contempt—“How dare you question the merits of art and art education?” If backed into a corner, artists often turn to scientific studies to prove the universal worth of art in people’s lives.

I don’t presume to know exactly how to sort out which art is better “medicine for the soul,” if indeed art has a positive, measurable effect on the psyche beyond temporary pleasure. But I do think it’s productive to call the belief system of art into question. Because things change. I would love to see art education in the 21st century begin treating the Western grand narrative of artistic “progress” and the current dominant institutions as an anthropological and psychological curiosity.

For instance, let me laugh at myself by pointing out the trends among my artist friends and peers, who live mainly within the northeastern megalopolis with New York as the epicenter. Note: I fit much of this stereotype profile myself, so it’s not meant as a criticism:

  • Artists dress casually and/or eccentrically
  • They advertise that they live in a densely populated city, such as New York
  • They have had their work in large empty spaces with white walls and track lighting
  • They have a neatly designed and lengthy list of places their work has been: a “CV”
  • They generally reject pop culture as illegitimate culture except as irony
  • They are likely to be atheist or to construct their own spiritual system
  • They are deeply suspicious and often antagonistic toward authority figures
  • They value obscurity when selecting literature, movies, and music
  • They are less likely to conform to gender binary norms
  • They are more likely to be gay, bi, or have a fluid sexual preference

What’s notable about this list, and why I lay it out this way, is that it has nothing to do with the creation of art objects. For whatever reason, in my experience, this is the type of person who permeates this region’s art institutions. It bears repeating that this is not a criticism, but an observation.

To be continued…

Note: The photos in this post are of “Tiny Gallery,” a structure I built in 2010. From one perspective, such as the top image, it resembles a full-scale professional gallery. In reality, it’s about waist-height.



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Relativity in Art School



There are lessons learned in art school from the coursework, and there are lessons learned in art school from the experience. Both are instructive.

The lessons taught in classes generally relate to the history, theory, technique, context, and vocabulary of that discipline. This is true across the arts and is the basic structure of an education in those various fields. To what degree each aspect is taught depends on the school, the nature of the class, and the teacher.

There is no objectively correct way to teach art, so sometimes the balance between two of those categories can cause conflict—a common one being theory vs technique. A conceptually minded artist may dismiss a craft-oriented curriculum as undesirable since it is focusing too narrowly on a specific set of skills. Meanwhile, a technically minded artist will lament that the tradition they admire is being constantly called into question and not being taught as it was to artists in other cultures at other times.

Art school, as it exists currently, is a relativistic affair. Once, when I was in graduate school, a professor suggested that we move on from such designations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when critiquing work. She didn’t mean that she wanted us to be more specific. She was suggesting that statements regarding quality in any way were not productive. That position did not appear to outwardly surprise or trouble any of the MFA candidates in the room.

It didn’t surprise me either, but it confirmed something I found troubling about art school—its illogical structure. If nothing is better or worse, then how is improvement possible? Why have an art school if not to improve?

I understand her position better now, and concede that it has merit. It may be fair to say that artists do not actually improve; they just learn new methods of expression. What is the measure of a quality? What scale does one use?

While I’m tempted to conclude with a working theory of how to rate artwork fairly, it would be disingenuous. The truth is I still struggle with this one. I have never found an objective way to judge art. When I need to pick favorites, or make creative choices, I still simply rely on intuition.



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Image by Adam MacHose

Have you ever heard of Chen Lizra? She’s this person who talks about Cuba and their culture of flirtation. She says seduction is something that can be applied to everyday life. It rang a bell because my bestie, Marlana, who runs TERSE. and cohosts an online show with me, once described the look of the show’s set as “seductive.” She didn’t mean anything sexual. That’s one of the things people get wrong about seduction, they think it’s all about sex.

Google lists the definition of seductive as “tempting and attractive; enticing,” which is the broader definition I want to cover. That could mean a business deal, a nice vacation spot, a personality, a title, the look of a TV show set, etc. It doesn’t need to be sex.

I specialize in making enticing collaborations. Lehigh Valley Dancers is a simple formula: offer dancers free professionally filmed videos of their dancing. Naturally they show up in droves. That’s it. Why did I want to meet a lot of dancers? Because I wanted to meet new people and those were the ones whom I had something to offer. It really is that simple.

I don’t know how many, exactly, but I’d estimate that I met about two hundred dancers and conversed with them for about an hour while filming their solos. I always assumed they were just there for the video, but occasionally I’d make a friend. It was a way to connect with people.

Sometimes I describe myself as a minimalist, and that’s what I mean. I’m a minimalist in that the core of my art, that exchange, is as simple as I can make it. There is an allure to certain types of lighting, shooting, and editing. Mix that with politeness and you create a system that attracts people to your location. You might occasionally make a friend.

Other people use a similar formula, but most of them want something more. There are photographers who go online to Model Mayhem to look for a date. But most commonly, people just want money. Artists beware: the moment you charge, the person paying becomes the boss of what you do. They become a client who can make demands of you. You can say it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s that way. That’s the price of a price. It ceases to be enjoyable to me. I don’t have the energy after my full time job to do that.

A free system like Lehigh Valley Dancers has its other advantages. It creates an enormous body of work and presents an opportunity to challenge yourself as an artist and learn new skills. If you’re an artist, I recommend trying small collaborations. There are a lot of avenues I’ve considered that I haven’t tried yet. Consider if I did a series where I went to artists’ studios, interviewed them in a video, shot b-roll of their studio space, and maintained a YouTube channel of it. Why not? What better way to network with artists in the area? (By the way, if you use that idea, start with me, I’m sooo interesting.)

My point is: if you’re an artist, you can use the skills taught in art school in ways that don’t involve money. It will make your life better. And you might accidentally help someone.


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Horror Paradise

Collective intelligence currently exists in the form of mobile devices, search engines, democratized content, and social media. A move from this current state to one where we are connected via implant would represent a dramatic shift in human condition, a grand unification into one unimaginably powerful cybernetic creature.

This affects aesthetics in the medical sense. Would an implant network act like a sixth sense or utilize the usual five? Would these implants create a new connection between our mind and the outside world, or simply augment what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling?

I’ll pause here to acknowledge that there is reason to be skeptical. After all, who really wants an implant connected to their brain?

However, necessity is the mother of invention. Someone with a neurological disorder would likely be willing to try anything, including attaching an electronic device to their mind, if it means survival. After that, what’s next? Weight loss implant? Viagra implant? How long until implants become normalized?

I understand this is rather wacky, but there doesn’t seem to be any scientific reason we couldn’t become effectively psychic. If we are able to send and receive messages using only our thoughts, are we not telepathic?

Regardless of whether or not fantastical powers become a reality, I want to introduce a concept I call the “horror paradise” to describe the challenge of being tapped into the full spectrum of human experience at all times via technology. As devices make the population more connected, each individual faces the practical and ethical question of what to tune into.

What is a responsible amount of time to spend informing oneself of the horrors of Syria? The gruesome information is available for anyone who is interested, and it is important for the world’s population to know what is going on there: hell on earth. So how often, and for how long, is a responsible amount of time for an American to pay attention to that?

Most people spend some time not thinking about horror, whether it be Syria or the macabre meat industry or mass shootings or people being crushed daily using our transit system. But suppressing thoughts and focusing on the more hopeful and prosperous aspects of civilization gives rise to an intense cognitive dissonance. The result is more pain.

To tune out means to risk these problems spreading or not being fixed. But how does one compartmentalize all of these extremes? Can a contemporarily educated informed citizen feel joy? Will we in our lifetimes be liberated of horror? Probably not. So adults worldwide need to find ways to address it and deal with their cognitive dissonance in productive ways. The alternatives: ignorance or madness.



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