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where winston smith and i part ways

i've been reading interviews from punk planet recently and came across one with winston smith. i'm ashamed to say i had no idea who the man was. i mean, i knew what he did, loved his artworks, but i didn't know that was his name. my friend even had his IM name as winston smith and i never thought to ask him. turns out, he's the guy responsible for the DK Dead Kennedy's logo. And the album artwork for In God We Trust, Frankenchrist, Give Me Convenience, etc, etc, and a tonne of politically motivated collage works, used by american punk bands of the 80s and 90s.

anyway, in the interview, smith talks about the importance of art in political messages, the collaborative process between him and jello biafra and his process of collage and straight-up narrative. i was totally inspired by him, until he and the interviewer josh hooten started talking about 'high art':

WS: ".. every now and again I'll open one of those magazines like Art In Ameria or some other big-time gallery magazine and I'll see photographs of rooms with little piles of sand in them with a string running from one end to the other or a pile of twigs. I don't know, call me old-fashioned, but I can't scope that at all! It's so obscure. But some people pee their pants over this stuff and I wonder what I'm doing wrong. Maybe I should do some bullshit installation like that and people will just start offering me money. Sometimes I just scratch my head and wonder why, if they're really trying to say something, don't they just come right out and say it?"

JH: When I was in art school, I produced... work that didn't require a reading list for you to figure our what the meaning was. But there were so many people who were wrapped up in being vague for the sake of being vague that my friends and I, when we would see this kind of work, would just attribute it jokingly to the artist "working out their inner struggle".

God how i wish doing bullshit installations would guarantee people throwing money at you..

And while I wholeheartedly applaud not taking oneself too seriously, and hate the art wankers as much as anyone else, I think a prescription for art only being explicit, or self-explanatory, or just political is as dangerous a proposition as art only reflecting the party line, or other such socialist realist maxims.

And I agree that art can be intimidating and exclusive through its written communication (right doddsy?), but ultimately i think not understanding art is actually vital. if you translate the idea into literature, hooten and smith are basically suggesting that all art has to be either political propaganda, detective novels, or Hello! magazine. surely finnegans wake in its deconstructed madness is as vital to the written word as catcher in the rye. Surely haiku poetry is as important as the 4/4 anthemic singalong?

installation art, conceptual art, etc is the difficult poetry to the airport novel: yes, it's a pain in the arse to try and understand. you have to take time. you may have to have a reading list. and actually, i think the valid criticism of high art from an underground perspective is the commodification of it and the slimy, manipulative aspects of the industry. but if being punk, underground or political means taking away the mystery or the poetry out of everything, then fuck that.

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At 04 September, 2008 05:53, Anonymous Angus said...

I'm intrigued with a particular area of this post. Poetry doesn't always have mystery. Why does art have to be hard to understand, to be good? It might make it a fun challenge, but it there's amazing stuff that's simple to get.

As an ignorant consumer, I don't group installation with conceptual art, by the way. I see wanky art across all areas, conceptual art across all areas and great art across all areas. Installation is one area. Some of it is bullshit, and some of it is amazing. In my opinion.

I'm fine for something to be intimidating, and I'm fine for something to be intriguing. But I don't think that not understanding is vital.

At 04 September, 2008 06:31, Anonymous lauren said...

i'm so glad you left this comment angus!

firstly, you're not an ignorant consumer - you have an understanding/interest in art. you're engaged in what art has to say and actively seek it out sometimes.

and perhaps i didn't make myself clear, but i'm not suggesting that art has to be difficult to be good. i don't think it does at all [i.e i agree that simple and great are amazing], but what i am trying to say is that being good doesn't necessarily mean easy to understand. i think there has to be room for not understanding. the fact that you're fine with not understanding is fantastic. the dangerous bit is when everyone believes that everything has to be understood all of the time. and that to 'get it' on an intellectual level is the only mark of 'good'.

and you're right about installation,conceptual and great art spreading across all genres - in fact, some of the wankiest art i have seen of late is graphics-based watercolour works on paper. but i digress. smith and hooten in the interview were using installation art as the main area of 'bullshit' art, so i just focused on that area, especially as its the main area-ish that i kind of hang out in.

At 04 September, 2008 06:41, Anonymous Angus said...

Thanks for responding lovely, glad to see you agree. And yes, some art that you don't understand is still amazing.

The area I, and many others, struggle with, actually, is art that appear incredible 'simple', when perhaps to the artist it's not. Like being at an art gallery in Barcelona and seeing a huge white canvas with one red dot on it. That's where my bullshitometer (or ignorance) sometimes (not all the time) kicks in, rightly or wrongly. And therein lies the battle between what is valuable and meaningful to the artist and what still has the 'magic' and 'value' to the viewer.

'Not understanding it' never seems to be a blatant trigger for me. But simplicity can be (which might ultimately be 'not understanding it' ironically).

At 04 September, 2008 13:54, Blogger Rob Mortimer said...

It's fight club syndrome.
It's brilliant once you get to the point of working it out, the discovery and understanding is part of the journey that makes it a different type of art.

At 05 September, 2008 02:54, Blogger Rob @ Cynic said...

The beauty of art is that there doesn't have to be a reason for its existence - it can simply be personal expression - which is possibly why some people just can't understand it because they've been educated to believe we must understand everything.

There's something quite magical in the selfishness of it all - I wish I could embrace that more often.

At 05 September, 2008 18:56, Blogger john dodds said...

If the artist doesn't worry that we don't all understand their work, that's fine by me. It's when the explanation is couched in terms that are incomprehensible that pisses me off.

If they're going to explain something, then explain it - otherwise they're just being pretentious.


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