I have been reading the painter Eric Fischl's memoir, Bad Boy, My Life On and Off the Canvas. It's been an interesting book to read just now. I checked it out of the IU Library (now that I know how it works and that I can request books online and they deliver them to the desk!).
Fischl is a Baby Boomer, from the generation before me (born the same year as my oldest sister). So he grew up in the 50s and 60s. He was in the first class to attend the brand new CalArts in California in 1970. It sounded like a crazy time filled with drugs, sex and rock n' roll, what I stereotypically think of as the 70s (when I was in grade school). Artists argued passionately about art, what is art, is painting dead. It was radical at that time to actually paint. After moving to Chicago, then Halifax, Nova Scotia to teach, he finally landed in New York in 1978.
Fischl essentially lived the 1980s Artist Dream: painting, exhibiting, then catching a ride on that long wave that was the explosion of the 1980s Art Market. All the while arguing with his fellow (male) artists about what was or wasn't art, what was or wasn't good art, etc. He drops a LOT of names in this book, tons of celebrities he knew or didn't realize who they were till he was told, actors to rock stars to other art celebrities.
At first I read this book with fascination. Fischl's suburban childhood and upbringing with an alcoholic mother. Then, the excitement of studying art at a cutting edge art school And then, being immersed in the New York Art Scene. He was living the DREAM, right? Making big paintings, selling out shows, selling paintings for six figures each. Except for the drugs, that part sounds nasty. But he was in the world I wanted to be in. When I was an undergrad in the mid to late 80s, I would page through Art News and Art in America and look at all the artists living the life that I wanted to live.
I liked the part where he said that left-brain thinking is not the language of painting, that he's a narrative painter telling himself stories, and that is very different from thinking (p. 149). He talks about his artistic processes a lot throughout this book. His process was very loose and he allowed the paintings to evolve as he painted them, often painting parts out if they didn't work, adding figures and then removing them.
Into the 90s, the art market cooled off and prices fell. I can understand his bitterness over this, especially after some stories he tells, such as a collector buying a series of paintings only to unload them at another gallery immediately where they were for sale at a higher price. But when he's writing about the 90s and later years, discussing his disbelief and disgust with the art being shown and sold in galleries, it has the air of a cranky old professor, befuddled at the state of the world with 'these kids today.'
I'm certainly not defending every crazy thing I've seen in the Art World, but a lot of current art is exciting and new. It doesn't all deserve the derision of old people pining for - what? The Painting Academy? I am certainly not defending Jeff Koons, but when Fischl claims Koons "wraps [his art] in a Warholian or Duchampian rationale to give the work some ballast or credibility" I had to laugh out loud. At the time people said the same about Warhol and Duchamp! There is so much criticism of current art in this book that after awhile I was just shaking my head. Maybe it's just his generation and their propensity to argue about what is art, with attendant hand-wringing and indignation. But I thought it was a bit much. Sorry, Eric.
And it's not like there hasn't been crap art made before the 80s or 90s or today. Wanna talk Minimalism? Look beyond the famous/popular artists of any movement and you will find lesser artists copying the style, badly. Eric seems to feel personally affronted because this bad art is being shown on his lawn. I'm actually writing this blog post while I finish the book and: Geez we're still on about Damien Hirst's shark. Next section: Geez, still the shark! Now we have to discuss the merits of the Idea of an Artwork vs. Actual Artwork. Fischl states he has been debating this since CalArts - yes, I can tell (p. 306). Oh, god, still more about the shark! [It was the week of Christmas when I started this blog post.]
The entirety of page 308 sums up the stereotypical Baby Boomer perspective. It is very Big Chill-esque in Fischl's defense of his generation. Of course he understands the "forces" in the art world that were in play back in the 80s - money, celebrity - but, damn it! He and his fellow artists were serious artists! They didn't even expect to make any money! It was all about the art! And now These Kids Today want to know about "branding" and career! Because - and I can certainly attest to this - zero career knowledge was so extremely helpful in my LACK OF Art Career. My art professors, most of whom were from his generation, seemed to think us art students should career-advise ourselves. (More on this below.)
Eric considers himself an expert in what is art, and also what is emotional art. You could say about any time in history that the art made is devoid of emotion. Personally, I prefer art with figures, because my art is about the figure, specifically the female figure. But I also see a lot of art - not figural - that I find interesting, fascinating, even emotional. I love it that the Art World has expanded to include more than just paintings - sculpture - photographs. I like the openness and acceptance of new art forms. Yes, they still have to be good, but really, hasn't beauty always been in the eye of the beholder? What they say now is that all art has an audience somewhere.
And I understand the frustration with art students only wanting to know how to make money. Many of the artists I follow online express annoyance at artists who quiz them on marketing and selling and are essentially asking how can they become just like that artist. The Art World today is so fluid that enterprising artists are making their living selling through various venues online, which seem to change from year to year. It's a whole new world out there. As my husband Steve is fond of saying, "1983 ended a really long time ago!" (That's a line from an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy but I couldn't find a clip.)
I also realize that I am viewing this as a complete outsider to the Art World, and he is a complete insider, celebrity artist and Art Star of the 80s. But, still, the Get Off My Lawn was strong with this book.
It's now approaching New Year's. And it's taken me a week to figure out why Fischl's writing rubbed me the wrong way. It's so full of Baby Boomer Patriarchy. And "I Know Best" pronouncements. It was a long bitter tirade over what replaced him in galleries.
His generation, for the most part, stepped into a world made just for them, in particular the white males. When I was an undergrad, I thought that teaching art at the college level was a pretty cushy job, because I didn't see my professors working very hard. Except the female professor who did not get tenure. I asked many of them how they got into teaching. My drawing professor said, "Through the back door." I remember in the med tech department where I worked part-time, the Chair would tell us stories about getting 20% raises, back in the 70s when everything was cheap, from cars to apartment rents to houses. His wife put a cigarette burn on the seat of their car and he got mad and immediately traded it in. Times were free and easy. One of my grad professors started teaching Life Drawing in the late 70s and said he had no idea what he was doing, that his models helped him and showed him what to do. Yet when us students dared to ask how we get into teaching, we got scoffed at and derided. We were given no help because the Boomers got in and locked the doors behind them.
Then in the 80s some of this generation figured out how to funnel the wealth all to themselves, by diverting it away from the rest of us. They were living the Wall Street Gordon Gekko dream. And then they crashed it all for the rest of us. The generations coming up behind them didn't have the same opportunities.
Technically I am considered the last year of the Baby Boomers, which is absolute bullshit. By the time I graduated with my undergraduate degree, it was useless. And then I made the biggest mistake of my life, going for an MFA, still believing that I could get a job teaching art at the college level. Colleges and universities were clearing out their faculty and hiring only part-time labor so they wouldn't have to pay them, tenure them, or insure them. By the time I was applying for jobs (late 90s), all the ads said "Teaching Experiece beyond T.A. REQUIRED. Extensive Exhibition Record REQUIRED." I read an article recently that said university art departments strive to hire artists who are even more qualified than their current faculty. Today, why would anyone get an MFA? (Hint: They shouldn't.)
So to read for pages and pages the incessant whining of a wealthy white male New York Art World Celebrity Artist really left a bad taste in my mouth. Particularly his harsh criticism of current art. His story becomes comical into the new century. After 9/11 he decided "the people" needed to face death, so he made a big sculpture of a "Tumbling Woman" and unveiled it on the first anniversary of 9/11. Which he at least admits was the wrong thing to do. A few years later he decides "the people" need art brought to them and tries to organize a traveling art show, until funding dries up. It sounded like a bad 80s sitcom. Boomer Knows Best.
The art world has changed, along with everything else. Gallery representation is not the only way to be an artist today. I follow artists who got their start selling on Ebay. I follow artists who paint pretty girls and teach others mixed media, others who draw cartoons, or paint whimsical animals. I follow many artists who are charting their own paths.
There are also many creatives who are writing books and blogging about Creativity, encouraging others to follow their creative pursuits. I recently bought Austin Kleon's books, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work! and we ordered two copies of his newest book, The Steal Like an Artist Journal. The Art World has been set up for a privileged few for so long, but now the internet and new technologies have leveled the playing field and opened up new opportunities. And that's a great, disruptive development. The Boomer Generation doesn't get to be the Gatekeepers any longer. And a lot of collectors are joining in as well, finding artists via Instagram and Tumblr.
Recently on the art site Artsy, I read an article about how to be a good collector, and it specifically said galleries don't want to sell to collectors who are only going to turn the work around to sell it at a profit. It seems the Art World has had enough of that, too.
Steve and I were talking about what would have happened had we gotten what we dreamed about - if he'd gotten a job in D.C. or if I'd gone to New York to be an artist. It might have worked out well, but there was also the potential for disaster. Steve would have likely ended up frustrated and depressed, unable to make a difference with policy analysis. And I may have crashed and burned in New York City. Or been trapped painting my messy abstract figures, unable to find my way to my current Female Figures.
I'm getting over my wistfulness about 'lost opportunities' and past failures. Maybe I am finally embracing my own path. More on this coming soon. And perhaps I will find my own disruptive path to an art career of my own making. Without any help from belligerent Baby Boomers.