Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Kid Could Paint That

-- Creativity and commerce collide in the form of a four-year-old genius --my_kid_movieposter_pshrink30.JPG

"The American malady is a spiritual one, the commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized. Everything which sells has to sell on advertised merits which are not its true quality, everything which is made, is made to satisfy a demand artificially stimulated by sales propaganda."

The English poet Stephen Spender wrote these words in 1949 following a visit to the United States. By "spiritual goods" Spender was referring to works of art. It was true more than half a century ago, and it's true today: works of art and sales figures, creativity and commerce, rarely jibe (unconventional entrepreneurship excepted)

We all know American culture is consumer driven. By and large, Americans live in, by, and for the marketplace. And in today's age of global business, the effect of the marketplace is a great leveling out of culture, a homogenizing of experience. The marketplace likes broad appeal, it likes high sales figures, it likes a mass audience. It does not thrive on slow contemplation, individuality, eccentricity, or introspection. All of these things, which are at the core of real art -- both creating it and experiencing it -- are in fact a threat to the happy clatter of the cash drawer.

Thus, strange things happen when that which is spiritual, personal, and irrational meets that which is profane, collective, and statistical -- in other words, when art meets commerce.

This phenomenon is explored beautifully in the transfixing 2007 documentary My Kid Could Paint That, by director Amir Bar-Lev. The film focuses on Marla, a four-year-old girl who loves to paint. Marla lives in upstate New York with her parents and her little brother, and her life is much like that of any other healthy, delightful four-year-old who loves to paint -- except for one thing: Marla's colorful creations have made her famous.

Where most child artists stick to butcher paper and fingerpaints, Marla creates largemarla_fairymap_pshrink30.JPG vibrant canvases using fancy acrylics, brushes, and a variety of application techniques ranging from smears to splatters to complex overlays of colors. Marla has exhibited her work in exclusive shows at numerous galleries in the U.S. and abroad. Her works have sold for upwards of $20,000.

"The paintings are incredible," says gallery owner Anthony Brunelli in the film. Brunelli was the first to curate Marla's paintings in a solo exhibition. That show, highlighted by the New York Times, sparked widespread interest in the petite genius's work. Soon TV networks began calling. Marla became a media darling. "Even if a four-year-old didn't do [the paintings]," says Brunelli, "you'd like ‘em. The fact that she is four makes it really incredible."

The kid's canvases are gorgeous, to be sure (see the online gallery at MarlaOlmstead.com), and there is something indescribably moving at the thought of such beauty flowing so easily and unselfconsciously through the brush of a girl yet to lose her baby teeth.

"When I am in Marla's presence," says Brunelli on Marla's website, "there's a weird feeling ‘cause I know there's something inside this girl that many artists look for their whole lives and never have."

Marla's paintings vibrate with the mystery of childish wonder, of magical freeness and unhampered creativity, and this mystery is the lyrical heart of My Kid Could Paint That. The film makes us linger on questions like:

-- Where does such purity and ease disappear to later in life?

-- At what point do we surrender the productive freedom and harmonious accidents of play for result-driven work -- and why can't we retrieve what we've surrendered?

At one point in the documentary, New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman comments:

There's a spiritual element to it which appeals to people ... People could read all sorts of things into her pictures. That there was some force at work, something larger than even Marla. That this child is speaking almost as a medium. And her innocence also says something about the ultimate cynicism of the art world.... [where] probably the worst thing you could say about an artist is, ‘Everything this artist does is joyous and wonderful and openhearted and just simple and great.' ... Some of the appeal ... of the Marlas of the world is that it seems pure innocent joy, no cynicism, no irony, no sarcasm, none of that kind of stuff that goes along with modern art. Nobody's saying ‘f---- you' in this picture. They're just saying, ‘I'm a happy girl who loves painting.'

With increasing media attention came a fervor for Marla canvases in the art market. Her prices soared. As of February 2005, after less than a year in the limelight, wee Marla's work had earned her more than $300,000. But that same month brought a blow that sent the family of this miniature master reeling.

marla_lollipophouse_pshrink40.JPGThough Marla herself was the embodiment of innocence and spirit, her bright canvases -- those reverberant spiritual documents -- had nevertheless become commodities. And the commodification of a thing, given the unavoidable cynicism that attaches to money, is necessarily a cynical process. So with widespread commercial attention came a qualitative shift in the public's fascination. The clamor surrounding Marla went from adoring to suspicious when TV journalist Charlie Rose hosted a 60 Minutes segment examining the Marla craze.

He interviewed Marla's first curator, Anthony Brunelli:

-Charlie: So what do we have here?

-Brunelli: You have a genius.

-Charlie: Genius?

-Brunelli: Yes.

-Charlie: (leaning forward, bearing down) Is there any other explanation?

Rose also interviewed a child psychologist, an expert in gifted children who'd observed Marla painting. The pyschologist's remarks were a mother lode to a primetime program lusting for an exposé:

I don't see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished-looking paintings, because they look like a different painter.

The art world was unnerved. Major media hungrily took up the possible scandal. Was the kid a fake? Were her parents pulling the wool over the eyes of art aficionados? Was this four-year-old girl no more than a public stand-in for her dad, a brush-wielding trickster?

If it was all a fraud, the stakes had become very high. Large sums of money had changed hands, after all. People got nasty and Marla's parents were harangued with hate mail.

Personally, I believe the girl's for real (what kind of four-year-old could pretend to be a painter without, at some point, spilling the beans?). But whatever the truth, a peculiar thing had occurred. While in the wake of the 60 Minutes bomb people still appeared to be talking about Marla and her work, the engine of the conversation was no longer art and beauty, it was money. The market had intervened in Marla's creations, and people had begun to buy -- not Marla's paintings themselves, so much as the story of Marla's paintings. And as buyers began to suspect that they weren't getting the story they'd paid for, trouble ensued.

Recall Stephen Spender's words: "Everything which sells has to sell on advertised meritsmarla_sickteeth_pshrink35.JPG which are not its true quality." Was the art still beautiful? Of course. But money had muddled that truth. The "value" of the paintings had become an exclusively monetary matter. Aesthetics were suddenly irrelevant.

The story of Marla's quasi-scandal epitomizes the clash of commerce and creativity, two often uncomplimentary forces. For anybody seeking the fulfillment and spiritual enrichment that comes of art or creative work, the crucial trick is to remember the natural opposition of spirit and commodity -- and perhaps to rebel quietly against the American mindset author Morris Berman calls "the reduction of values to commodity fetishism," a mindset so money-warped that it can fail to behold the still evident beauty of a painting regardless of its authorship.

Toward the close of My Kid Could Paint That, journalist Elizabeth Cohen observes:

The whole story, really, is about grownups. It's really not about this kid. She's just a little girl painting in her house.

Marla's art did not begin from the base concerns of the dollar. No child's art does. We start from joy, exuberance, inquisitiveness, and serious play. And to the extent that we maintain and cultivate these attributes as creative adults, the more life our creations will possess -- and the more readily we will recognize beauty and be inspired by it.

The dollar is a different matter altogether.

(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Do We Need a Cultural Bill of Rights?

– And by the way, are you getting the Expressive Life you’re entitled to? –absent_art.jpg

Here’s an egregious adaptation of some famous words by William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult to get current events, wealth or social standing from the arts, but people die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

Author Bill Ivey would agree, as attested in his stirring new book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is convinced that America’s collective appreciation for — and cultivation of — art and culture is withering in a social climate where the mentality of big business reigns and a mania for the bottom line severely impoverishes the cultural lives of Americans.

Not only is our intake of art reduced to “product” that best “performs” — i.e., conforms to market analyses — but since the early twentieth-century our nation’s artistic heritage (in other words, private art-making passed down through tradition) has been increasingly threatened, a result of America’s steady development into an almost strictly consumer culture (recall that our recessional woes owe much to our 70 percent consumer-driven economy). Ivey writes:

By the 1920s new arts companies offering new arts products were converting engagement in art into an act of consumption. The notion of participation was reshaped — its sense of doing replaced by passive activities like purchasing a recording or attending a concert or exhibition. … The commoditization of emerging art forms pumped up the taking in (consumption) at the expense of making art.

As revealed by the virtually unrestrained media conglomeration and rise of big-box retailers over the last quarter-century or so (witness your neighborhood’s own big_box_stores_pshrink40.JPGWal-Marts, Targets, and Best Buys), this culture of consumption-over-creation has only gotten worse. Which means, says Ivey, that we are all being cheated out of something that ought to be endemic to any thriving culture built upon democratic, pluralistic values, namely: our “expressive life.”

The term is Ivey’s coinage, and refers to “a reservoir of identity and spiritual renewal powerful enough to replace the fading allure of empty consumerism.”

Today this Expressive Life is rarely attributed the importance it deserves, but is nevertheless a vital-sign of culture and societal health, or as Ivey puts it:

A realm of being and behavior that …can be as distinct as ‘family life’ or ‘work life.’ …[It is] something akin to tradition, a place where community heritage interacts with individual creativity, maintaining the past while letting in the new.

Who is working effectively to repair our diminished Expressive Life?

Ivey pleads passionately for Americans to take the pulse of their nation’s cultural wellbeing and see if we don’t need a new cultural fitness program. Not only is personal art-making at risk in a society where the marketplace rules all, but professional art-making is in distress, thanks in no small part to bottom-line thinking, as well as to the predominance of “intellectual property” and broad expansions in restrictive copyright:

By failing to link our expressive life to America’s public purpose, we have placed our nation’s heart and soul at risk. We are forcing our great artists to navigate a complex and discouraging marketplace in order to survive. We have converted the shared memory embedded in our priceless cultural heritage into mere ‘intellectual property,’ which is bought, sold, abandoned, or simply locked away in the vaults of giant media companies.

For the record, Ivey’s subtitle, How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Culturalarts_inc_bk_cvr.jpg Rights, dangles unfittingly; better if it continued: … And What We Can Do About It, for he offers a range of fresh policy ideas, all of which gravitate around his astonishing central premise that America ought to adopt a “Cultural Bill of Rights” and establish an office of cultural affairs dedicated to the protection of those rights.

Arts, Inc. even includes Ivey’s prototype for just such a document (which, it should be noted, would advocate not for the rights of any one artistic community, but for artistic culture in the broadest sense):

The right to explore [the arts of]…both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.

It’s wonderfully fresh thinking — and makes for an affirming read. Surely we’d all agree that more art for everybody can only be a cultural positive. (Writer D.K. Row hints as much in this fine Oregonian article in support of gallery-going in hard economic times).

But … there’s a frightful prospect that inevitably accompanies any vision of legislative cultural advocacy like Ivey’s, and that is a government empowered to tell us what art is, how it should sound, what it should show, etc. Censorship, and all the gray areas that come with it, is the big ugly genie in the bottle here.

Or … maybe not. Ivey (who, by the way, was an advisor on President Obama’s transition team) compellingly demonstrates that de facto government censorship is already with us, through heavy fines levied by the Federal Communications Commission.

We must lay our fears of a new McCarthyism to rest, says Ivey, if we are to counterbalance the prevalence of corporate mindset in our arts system.

One example of that prevalence (not mentioned in Ivey’s book): Ever heard of BookScan? It’s a point-of-sale technology used by mega-bookstores (nefariously) to track the sales history of authors — and to excise store inventories of those writers whose “product” fails to “move.” This means that if your last book sold less than 20,000 copies you’re likely to miss your shot at shelf space in such a store — that is, unless your publisher coughs up the fee for a special co-op display. “Who can argue with that?” say BookScan apologists. “Sales figures don’t lie.” And so the gatekeepers of the present cultural system (read: market executives) keep on looking for the next sure “big thing.”

black_canvases.jpgUntil we articulate our cultural rights and take measures to protect them, such cash-cow worship will continue unfettered, and will further narrow what cultural offerings come readily available to the public.

Likewise, private ownership of our cultural heritage will only grow broader. (Did you know that the monolithic firm CORBIS owns the famous photograph of JFK Jr. standing in short-pants and saluting his father’s coffin? Thought that image was a part of every American’s heritage? Actually, it’s “intellectual property.” Happen to be a teacher and want to use it in a history lesson? Fine, but it’ll cost you.)

Where, in such a system, do we see the artists and cultural advocates having their say? Federal cultural initiatives and endowments, says Ivey, are well-meaning but politicized to the point of dysfunction. Lacking a central and binding proclamation of cultural rights, such organizations inevitably get bogged down in petty congressional partisanship. The public non-profits sector, on the other hand, is in a shambles and has succeeded in little more than polarizing culture by class: expensive highbrow versus popular lowbrow. (Maybe Creative Commons, for one, is a start.)

But what we need is an organized office working in service to our fully articulated rights to cultural wellbeing.

Ivey asks the right question:

How could a department of cultural affairs possibly generate a cultural system less functional, less attuned to public purposes, than the one we’ve been handed by a century of marketplace arrogance and government indifference?beginning_artist_shrink35.JPG

Are you ready to claim your Expressive Life and stand up for your cultural rights? Read Arts, Inc. and decide.

* * *

A society that does not labor to be beautiful becomes indifferent to smog, litter, what Henry James called ‘trash triumphant,’ lurid communications, wretched TV, billboards, strip malls, blatancies of noise and confusion — or it considers these things the price you have to pay to make more money. --Denis Donaghue

(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prime Passage: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

“Status anxiety may be defined as problematic only insofar as it is inspired by values that we uphold because we are terrified and preternaturally obedient; because we have been anesthetized into believing that they are natural, perhaps even God-given; because those around us are in thrall to them; or because we have grown too imaginatively timid to conceive of alternatives.

Philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia have never sought to do away entirely with the status hierarchy; they have attempted, rather, to institute new kinds of hierarchies based on sets of values unrecognized by, and critical of, those of the majority. While maintaining a firm grip on the differences between success and failure, good and bad, shameful and honorable, these five entities have endeavored to remold our sense of what may rightfully be said to belong under those weighty and dichotomous headings.

“In doing so, they have helped to lend legitimacy to those who, in every generation, may be unable or unwilling to comply dutifully with the dominant notions of high status, but who may yet deserve to be categorized under something other than the brutal epithet of ‘loser’ or ‘nobody.’ They have provided us with persuasive and consoling reminders that there is more than one way—and more than just the judge’s and the pharmacist’s way—of succeeding at life.”

Monday, March 09, 2009

Prime Passage: Arts Inc. : How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights by Bill Ivey

"Artists feed an important part of our expressive life, the world of ideas, sounds, and images that greet us every day. These individuals dedicate themselves to employing their talents, bringing insight and invention to life. Artistic vision makes a special contribution to the quality of our society. If citizens have a right to a broad engagement with artists across the spectrum of public life, what elements must be in place for artists to flourish in American society? I believe three things must be present. First, conditions must be conducive to originality; artists need to be able to find a way to enter and function in our complex arts system. Second, they need respect for their ideas and their approach to problem solving, and respect in the form of sufficient compensation to maintain a creative life. Third, artists, must be free to draw on—to synthesize—the work of contemporaries as well as creativity from the past. Respect is critical in securing the benefits of a vibrant arts community. If society sees artists as irresponsible eccentrics, if the arts system is shaped by big companies that value only the big-hit superstar, and if a writer, composer, filmmaker, or even classroom art teacher must pony up a stiff fee every time he or she needs to reference the work of others, then we are a long distance from fulfilling the right of every citizen to the imagination and understanding of the most talented among us."

Buy Arts, Inc here.