Refuge in the Not

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Motoi Yamamoto (Photo: My Modern Met)

Roberta Smith‘s response to the recent art auctions, Art Is Hard to See Through the Clutter of Dollar Signs, included a quote that has taken on a life of its own and is showing up everywhere online. After describing the spectacle of all time high prices and hedge fund managers tossing huge amounts of money at recent auctions (and her wry comment, “It seems that people really, really like art these days”), Smith simply stated the obvious: “These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.”

Polarity and extremes are evident everywhere in our lives, and the art world continuum is just another example:

The glittery auction-house/blue-chip gallery sphere is spinning out of control far above the regular workaday sphere where artists, dealers and everyone else struggle to get by. It is a kind of fiction that has almost nothing to do with anything real—not new art, museums or historical importance. It is becoming almost as irrelevant as the work, reputation and market of the kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade.

(Thank you Roberta for turning that knife. No harsher condemnation could be dealt than being compared to the universally dismissed Thomas Kinkade.)

It is in this context that the counter position takes on an almost sacral place. I am on the look out for art and expressions that aren’t being sucked into this force field of cultural consumption, of the myth of a mass market or a catering to the super elite. Tired of the artificiality and manipulative inauthenticity of a Miley Cyrus? Try catching a Cat Power concert. On Monday night I basked in her disregard for staging or self consciousness, watching her fiddle with her microphones like a first time performer at a community center talent show. But once she started to sing, it was transforming. She is there with you in a way that is so open, so vulnerable, so raw and so REAL.

Or the impermanence of the salt constructions by Motoi Yamamoto. His meticulously inventive saltscapes, breathtakingly exquisite, usually only exist for a moment in time. Like the sand mandalas of the Tibetan Buddhist meditative tradition, these are created through arduous physical effort. And then they are gone.

I posted the following quote when I first began writing Slow Muse seven years ago. John Russell‘s admonitions feel even more necessary now than they did then:

I think that art should be allowed to go private. It should be a matter of one-on-one. In the last few years, the public has only heard of art when it makes record prices at auction, or is stolen, or allegedly withheld from its rightful owners. We need to concentrate more on art that sits still some place and minds its own business. We all hope for a strong response from art, but the kind of buzz that we have to live with nowadays is the enemy of art. Quietness and slow time are its friends. Let’s hope that their turn will come.

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(Photo: CVA)

Note: For more about Yamamoto, a beautiful book is available, Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto.

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7 comments

  1. Maureen’s avatar

    I am in awe of Yamamoto’s works (I featured a video of one of his saltworks a while ago) and so admire how he involves the community in his work’s disassembly, with such reverence and respect for the ritual returning of the salt to a body of water that can accept it.

    So much in Russell’s wonderful quote could be applied to other spheres of life.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Maureen, I found that returning the salt ritual so moving. He is obviously an extraordinary person as well as a gifted visualist.

      Thanks for your comment. As is usually the case we are on the same page…

  2. Sloan Nota’s avatar

    Profoundly moving — especially as counterpoint to Roberta Smith’s yowl. I find myself equally pained by “art” getting showcased that’s random toss-offs and/or doodles. Gimme heart, gimme brain. I tire of flatulence in the face of Art. Hallmark chipmunks with curators’ notes? Thanks for this, Deb.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thanks Sloan. Gimme heart, gimme brain. GIMME SOUL.

  3. Diane McGregor’s avatar

    This post has so much richness to it – from Yamamoto’s work to Roberta’s very powerful words, and finally to John Russell’s wonderful comments. I am moved by Russell’s profound words — the quote is a summons to me, a reminder of what I’m in this business for — the quiet, the contemplation. Because you mentioned a post from seven years ago, I started reading the beginning of Slow Muse and now I’m just slowly drinking it in! Your first post, The Slow Muse Credo, featuring a brilliant quote by Robert Hughes, gives me more of this good medicine. Beauty, stillness, silence, an adagio of visual art — these are all so important to remember in our daily practice. The vulgarity of the marketplace and the auctions and the celebrity can overwhelm the sensitive soul. Thank you for this reminder, Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Diane, Thank you so much for your comment. There’s a whole tribe of us out there, and being more vocal is part of what I think you and I are about in what we post, what we read and how we approach our own work. Thank you for being a co-traveler.

  4. Ann E. Michael’s avatar

    I’m just finishing one of Umberto Eco’s overviews on aesthetics-beauty-art, and he suggests that art for art’s sake is a relatively new concept that got rolling in the 19th century and that art-commercialism’s rise with the decline of patronage and the hegemony of capitalism is not surprising.

    So, okay, that’s obvious; but that doesn’t explain the human urge to create art even in the face of no patronage, limited audience, and uncertainty regarding ritual effectiveness. Nor certain humans’ desire to work hard at said creations, exploring new techniques, studying, practicing, learning, revising…for (what? beauty? expression? communication? persuasion?). My question is, what is art for art’s sake?

    I love the meditative and ephemeral qualities in sand paintings (and Yamamoto’s pieces and some of Andy Goldsworthy’s pieces–the more evanescent ones). The mindfuness expressed therein! I would like to find more of that in my own approach to creative work.

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