Friday, December 19, 2008

Measuring a work of art

It makes me deeply envious.
It pulls me out of my skin--floating, dreaming, wandering.
It pushes me deeper inside myself.
I suddenly know something important and new.
I want to rush to my studio to try again.
I am connected.
I recognize I must have a voice, too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

contemporary art

Here are some observations on contemorary art:

1. Beauty is not just pretty anymore.

2. You can't get vaccinated against it.

3. It's nothing you learned in school.

4.It's just as susceptible to market forces, fads, superficiality, spectacle, arrogance, triviality and fashion as any other part of society.

5. It's vastly more important than most people think.

6. Contemporary artists must be responsible for their work and its consequences.

7. We have to own it; it's the art of our time.

8.Wrestling with it is a hell of a lot of fun.

9. You don't have to like it all.

10. You should mistrust the one-night stand.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


We have been betrayed
by capitalism into needless needing,
by art into spiritless images,
by life into empty rituals,
by society into freedom without responsibility,
by culture into shallow lives,
by education into learning without heart or wisdom,
by routine into death without life,
by spectacle into facile awe.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


As an artist, there are numerous ways to judge the excellence of a piece of art. A colleague of mine, Walter Driesbach, once commented that he recognized quality in a work of art if it made him envious. We think of envy as one of the seven deadly sins, and uncontrolled it is acid demon. But it also has quiet messages that tell us achievement, standards, perseverence and the tremendous transformative power of the personal creative act.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What is art? (continued)

Art is what you ask it to be. Ask it to be merely pretty, and it will be. Ask it to make you feel happy, and it will. Ask it to give you status, and it will. Ask it for a return on your investment, and it will. Ask it to blend into your wall, and it will. Ask it to ask you questions, and it will. Ask it to make you uncomfortable, and it will. Ask it to make your world bigger, and it will. Ask it to help you understand what it means to be human, and it will.

Ask and it will deliver.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What is art?

What is art? Some digging will uncover all kinds of definitions. These definitions will clarify, confuse, provoke, give insight, seem laughable, contradict one another, hang on the past, try to define a future, muddle the now, be conscientious, be flippant, be genuine, be self-serving...

What can someone who cares about art do? First, don't give up. Whatever the definition, it contributes something to the dialogue and could teach us something. Second,look with an open mind at lots of art. It's the art that triggers the definition, not the other way around. Third, come to some resolution, even if a transient one, of what you expect of art. The more you expect of it, and consequently the artist, the subtler, richer and more incisive a definition would be.

And, in the end, it's your definition, your expectations, of art that will determine how it enters and transforms your life.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Born Human

None of are born human. Well, that's arguable, but let's start there. What then do we acquire that makes us human? Do we grow into it, or do we earn it? How do we know we are there? How do we define that we are there? Are we human at only our very best or very worst or in the struggles with the muddle of best and worst?

Who shows us how to be human? How do we reconcile the violence, wars, slavery, brutality, greed, dishonesty and hatred? How do we reconcile each of our own tiny murders?


In the end, our lives revolve around a handful of events, each the center of an expanding presence: ripples radiating from a stone dropped in a small pond, a firework expanding into a sphere, a black hole, the thump on a cathedral bell. They extend outward into our past and future in mediated collisions, resonances, chaos and other manifestations of psychological physics. We aren't ever sure that these events are true or real or even happened since they come back to us wrapped in memory or anger or childhood innocence or the layers of others' interpretations. But they direct our lives, sculpt our realities, form the web of our relationships.

I have mine. And the best sense I can make is little sense at all.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I soon will teach a course where I will ask the students to construct a general definition of drawing and a personal definition of drawing both of which to be refined throughout the semester. I know full well that in this contemporary context this is a near impossible task. But I also know that the chasing after the mark is more important and more likely to be productive than ever hitting it.

Drawing is elusive, perplexing, slippery, built on technique, not built on technique, what you think it is, what you'd never think it is, our first language, the language most readily ignored in our educations, magical and mundane. In defining drawing do we start at its practicality, its heart, its soul, its poetry, its possibility, its visuality, its essentiality, its vitality, its nakedness?

I've tried my own definitions often and seem to both move ahead and fall short at every try. Maybe I'll share some them in a later post. What's your experience?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Henry Geldzahler Said

Henry Geldzahler said, "There is no shocking art that doesn't reduce itself either to triviality or to beauty." Art can shock from its sheer newness to its spectacle to its blunt honesty to its gratuitous self-indulgence. But beyond the idea of art that shocks, could all art be reduced to triviality or to beauty. For me, this is a question worth considering.

Let's allow no grays, no middle standards. High or low is it. As artists, all our intentions end essentially in material objects. Should we first question whether our intentions begin in triviality or beauty? Are we measuring in each piece or in the body of work? Does the work and working itself direct us from triviality to beauty? What demands does this exercise put particularly on the term "beauty"?

What is the task of the artist who aims for beauty and not just hopes for it? How are surface beauty and the deeper beauty related?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

As an artist

As an artist, my work has been seen by only a handful of the 6 billion people on the planet. Of that handful, only a fraction give it the time and consideration it deserves. So to think of making art as the goal of the artist seems misdirected. Rather, art is the consequence of the efforts of the artist whose goal, in my experience, is to make sense of and even love the world in a way that resonates with and expands the perception of others. In this sense, mathematics, literature, dance, science, music, psychology, etc. can end in works of art. Likewise, works of art can become literature, music, dance, science and psychology.

The artist should go about his/her work with passion, integrity, humility and generosity. This is a difficult prescription and certainly one I stumble over all the time. Still, there it is.

My current favorite definition of art is from Eugene Ionesco: "Art is the collision of a man with the universe." I suppose this collision could be accidental, careless, swaggering, desperate or arrogant. But a collision leaves things in pieces every time. Pieces of the man or pieces of the universe or both. But if one has the courage to put the pieces back together, then there's always a new man and a new universe.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Here's a recent poem:


Hell, they’re just black savages.
3,000,000 / Belgian Congo

The virile Mao took an annual swim
in his river of blood.
56,000,000 / China

Would the rotting corpses, end-to-end, reach the moon?
And their stench reach the nose of the Emperor?
1,750,000 / Japan

A carpet of dead bodies
so a few could wipe their feet.
20,000,000 / World War I

How many disemboweled bodies, hearts exploded,
brains splattered, souls lost in frozen mud?
25,000,000 / Soviet Russia

Men, women and children became meat.
Spirit became meat. Victory must be fed.
55,000,000 / World War II
Killing neighbors, friends, brothers, children,
really meant killing themselves.
600,000 / Spain

Severed limbs and hacked bodies. Blood-screams
of hate and powerlessness. Whispers of non-violence
1,000,000 / India-Pakistan

Whomever you kill, bathe in their blood, lie in the grave with
them. Explain the madness.
4,000,000 / Korea

Some died in vain. Some innocent. Some scared. Some in battle.
Some believing. Some by their own hand. Some heroes.
Some still remain the living dead.
3,000,000 / Vietnam

Their mourners, flies and maggots. Their shrouds, parched earth.
Their coffins, the arms of their mothers.
8,000,000 / Nigeria

Night after night…TV. Piles of empty eyes
at the moment just before…
2,500,000 / Ethiopia

Rouge. Red. Blood. Stains. Spurts. Warm. Spill. Soak.
Hack. Slash. Wash. Eat. Drink. Piss. Fuck. Die.
1,700,000 / Khmer Rouge

Each bullet propelled by a good cause. Each body torn open
for the very best reason. Each child dead for the political good.
1,700,000 / Afghanistan

God permitted us to shoot them down, to cut them down,
to rape them down, to stand tall on mountains of their dead flesh.
1,000,000 / Iran-Iraq


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Being Human

Being Human

What it means to be human has always been a fluid thing. Few of us have recognized that, and fewer of us have recognized that we have a part in determining it. But now the chaotic, screaming, absurd, demented spectacle of life doesn’t give us much choice. We can either hide and, cower or we can fling ourselves headlong into the struggle—and what the struggle requires--to be fully realized, contemporary human beings.

We used to be able to look in the mirror of the God we had created to understand who we are. But now that mirror is so faceted and shattered that it’s hard find any God there. We used to search for deities and their hideouts in nature. But now a universe of unimaginable expansiveness seems nothing more than matter following elegant, but predictable, laws. We used to find God in our own mysterious and magical creation. But now we begin life in Petri dishes and will soon clone ourselves. We used to admire our own flesh-and-bone beauty. But now we are made of plastic and metal and synthetic chemicals and silicone and computer chips. We used to take great pride in the brains that affirmed our human potential. Now we fry them with drugs, and in a century we may find that they played the greatest trick of all on us.

I believe that in any age few find their way to the awareness and the practice of a deep and full humanity. But I also believe that any person with just a drop of true awe before the world can take on that journey. I believe we are presented with a dizzying number of social, cultural, moral, ethical, physical paths to being fully human. And I believe, traveled at the deepest level, they are all the same and lead us to the only God that can save us, the God within us. But when the stakes are as high as they are now, I wish I could believe that we will all get there together.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


The fuzzy mythology about the lives of artists makes us believe there is magically tragic artist life that we somehow grow into or create as an identity. I believe an artist's life is authentic to the artist in forms that are myriad. Then I ask myself if there a core of values or characteristics that define this authenticity. I suppose I could just ask myself that question answer it for myself and assume I had the answer for everyone. And maybe that's all I could do and the best I could do. So I'll give the big answer a try.

-- Art should be wrapped in a creative approach to the world.

-- Hold on to personal integrity as an artist for as long as possible.

-- The desire and passion to do art are not enough, even if practiced. The intention must be to seek something profound.

-- Art must never lose sight of its humanity.

-- Art must never lose sight of its responsibility.

-- Art must never become complacent, spoiled, condescending, flabby or compromising.

Living the life of an artist

Recently, I've heard or read from students that they want to live the life of an artist. Is the the life of inspired madness and eventual suicide of Van Gogh? Is it the corporate marketing of America's most collected artist spilling over onto tea cups and lounge chairs? Is it the drug-fed-art-super-star life of Basquiat? Is it the obsessive and closeted life of Henry Barger, only becoming an artist after his death? Is it last year's hot artist of the moment, written about and endlessly examined into oblivion? Is the artist whose coffee table book status made him status quo? Is it the artist who will have no life until he is dead and discovered?

I've got to go now. Answers to come later.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

10 Ways

10 ways to know if it's really art:

1. It makes you envious.

2. It makes you want to rush home and make art.

3. It's confusing, but in a brain-activating way.

4. It's embedded in you somewhere.

5. You keep returning to it.

6. You want to own it.

7. You feel a little (or alot) different since you first experienced it.

8. You still haven't gotten all you can from it, and you probably never will.

9. You're discouraged and elated at the same time.

10. You wish you had done it first.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Response to Clayton Eshleman's question

What might a responsible avant-garde in visual art today include?

1. Radical, investigational image making that is raw, often wayward, in process: art as an intervention within culture against static forms of knowledge, schooled conceptions, cliched formulations (both inside and outside of art itself).

2. Art that evinces a thoughtful awareness of racism, imperialism, ecological issues, disasters, and wars and wants to do something about it.

3. Multiple levels of language--the arcane, the idiomatic, the absurd, the erudite, the vulgar, the scientific; relentless probing; say anything once, but say it a second time only if you believe it; not just "free speech" but freed speech, taking the consequences of its freed-om.

4. Transgression, opening up of the sealed sexual strong rooms; inspection of occult systems for psychic networks; the archaic and the tribal viewed as part of everyone's fate.

5. Treating boundaries like stage scenery, necessary but illusionary and not permanent.

6. Exploring what it means to be fully and deeply human.

7. Seeking out mystery and its rewards.

8. Living the consequences and responsibilities of the avant-garde.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The failure of contemporary art

In the beginning of the 20th century, art had the hubris to plunge into the chaos of a world in transition. It thought about the mind, about space-time, about power and energy and about the human condition. But science moved on, changing the world at every turn, while art moved inside the white box of its own concerns. Progress in science is in the access it gives us to new mysteries. Progress in art is in its discovery of the profound. The purest science is measured by the kind of answers it brings and questions that tumble from them.

The purest art can be measured by the same standards. In art, like science, true beauty is elegant and deep and so endures. The rest is just pretty. Art that endures as part of the experience of being human in the universe must ask profound questions, embrace mystery and never back down.Too much of contemporary art lives by the white box, feeds on its own self, asks small questions, offers only entertainment and comfort, believes cleverness is enough, is self-congratulatory, and views spectacle as depth. It's not humble, and doesn't stand in awe before anything.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Stages of Art-making

These are may stages of art-making. I welcome comments.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A question

What happens when you ricochet off a good piece of art?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Another question

I'm currently working on a poem that's composed of 1000 questions. I'm about half way finished. So here's another question.
Is evil necessary?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Today's message

What illusions do you live by?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A question

Can you identify for me a work of visual art that, in an essential way, tells us what it meant to be human in the 20th century? I've often asked myself this question. I've seen much work that talks about being a human or being inhuman or struggling with meaningless or being lost in empty spectacle. But I really don't have an answer and feel I don't know enough to answer.

Message of the Day:


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What demonstrates that I am serious about the art I produce? For me, it's not quantity--though my studio storage shows I've made plenty. It's not size and spectacle--though I've made some big pieces and have certainly made a spectacle of myself. It's not precious materials--I recycle, go on the cheap, don't always frame stuff, am a pack rat. It's not fame--I'm far from it and don't really go after it and don't have lines of patrons waiting to leap on the next piece. So what is it?

That's a question an artist must always ask himself, but lately I've asked that to myself more seriously. The answer. The vision gets maintained no matter what. It's not sidelined by time or the lack of it, by materials or the form of them, by life and the demands of it. And just as important, it's a generous vision--not undemanding, not unquestioned--but in love with the world and caring about the viewer.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Welcome to Cosmic Absurdity

Does it make any sense that 2/3 of the world's population lives on less per day than the cost of a cup of coffee (not even good coffee)? Does it make any sense that violence is one of our favorite forms of communication? Does it make any sense that we are living on a spinning ball hurtling through space at the edge of an ordinary galaxy? Does it make any sense the we can all trace our ancestry back to a clever and feisty molecule?

To me, that's all a part (and a very small part) of cosmic absurdity. It makes the whole thing, in one gasp, hilarious and profound. Lots to think about and to make art about. So I do.