Eels and the genius artist

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Post by Dan Schimmel

A response to Colette Copeland’s post on the show at basekamp.

I once had an argument with several other artist/curator types at a bar north of Northern Liberties. The issue was whether there was a difference between looking at a painting in real life (i.e. standing in front of it) or looking at a reproduction of that same painting in a book. I argued there was an immeasurable difference in experience and in the information that was transferred via the experience. I was one against many, and everyone else, to my complete astonishment claimed there was no difference at all (right, a digital reproduction based on a photograph of a 6.5-foot-square, oil-on-canvas painting, Schimmel’s “Swimmer,” that he made in his studio, presumably by himself)!

I haven’t seen the show at Basekamp, so I am really responding to something in the Artblog review, just to be clear and fair. But my recollection of the heated argument (in the best sense of the word) with that group of ‘post-Duchampian’ peers (my characterization), as well as some passages in the Artblog posting, pushed some buttons.

I find most of this ‘artist as genius’ rhetoric (too often a ubiquitous call-to-arms of the ‘anti-establishment’ establishment art crowd) absurd and tied to a deep political agenda that is more reactionary than enlightened. And I find the art and exhibits that come out of this reactionary stance, for the most part, very heady and ironically non-communicative of anything significant, other than a critical attack on a mode of communication that has become esoteric and marginalized, anyway (i.e. art in general).

It’s really kind of funny and ironic that art projects by artists and curators claiming to be about art and audience, and the attempt to be less ‘white-box’ and more ‘of the people,’ in the end reduce the audience even more, or so it seems to me.

The project described in Copeland’s posting, and others of that ilk, seem more like inside dialogues between people in the know who like to think they are outside the traditional audience. And I’ll be the first to say I am of, or associated with that ilk! So I am not attacking or criticizing any of my peers. I actually think all points of view are valuable and needed to sustain a dialogue and keep things from getting stale.

The cultural space in which art operates is getting smaller and smaller. On the other hand it influences far more accessible mass-media modes like television/magazine commercials and cinema, but quickly changes in translation to something more akin to fashion.

Art itself has a shrinking audience. And attempts to launch critical attacks from within, in the guise of ‘outreach’, using the level of discourse that we of this art club traffic in, is merely rattling the chains. I mean, who is it that comes to see these shows anyway? Us!

I am not against any of this, I just see it as….i don’t know…..’in-fighting’. Like the U.S. Senate. And to really simplify things, the sides seem to be drawn on pre- and post-Duchampian lines, though not in a chronological sense, more in the sense of attitude.

Which artists and curators would play the part of the “Democrats” and “Republicans” (if we could even use those terms as characterizations) would be an interesting discussion. The conclusion might be surprising!

As a painter, I always feel under attack for being part of the ‘old guard, establishment, white-box, escapist breed’ in the eyes of artists like those doing tricks with eels and mock reproductions of old paintings. In the end, we are all artists. We are all trying to give visual form to our ideas and communicate something from within to share without.

Painters, sculptors or any individual artist who spends a lot of time locked up in his or her studio ALONE do not necessarily see themselves as genius or separate. Would any of you have told Emily Dickenson to go out and party more??? I don’t think Pollock or De Kooning cared one way or the other. I mention those two because a lot of the redundant flack I keep hearing (it’s been a decade now since graduating Art School) against painting. The ‘individual artist in his studio’ attack is, I think, a generalized, stereotypical and hostile reaction to the hyperbole of some of the art historians and critics who tried to deify those dudes and dudettes who were busy slapping sticky color shit to canvas.

Lofty aspirations of art historians and writers like Clement Greenberg, who used his pen like a baton to orchestrate a movement (pun intended), served their own grandiose sense of genius! (And it’s interesting that most of that art and curated exhibits I am taking issue with, for the purpose of this long-stemmed rant, are really based in theory and written words, not the art. In other words……

Anyway, if I seem defensive, it’s probably because I presume the worst: that many of my peers (artists and curators) associate painters as bedfellows with commodity, entitlement and elitism. I would argue that those eels are more elitist than a simple painting. It’s a good debate.

Dan Schimmel is an artist and director of the Esther Klein Gallery

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