Artists on the age of brainwashing
Creative vibrancy starts with advocating for artists.
Americans like to live dangerously. Why else would we be in this position where so many aspects of living put us in collective jeopardy? Every place one looks there is turmoil and under-development. It can be seen acutely everywhere but not in the world of art where I live. What I see in this unique world is the ability for individuals to achieve greatness against serious odds. No matter how long it takes and even when we think nobody is noticing, artists innovate. Sadness? Artists have ways to lift ourselves up. It usually starts with sharing something simple. A delicious fruit, a beautiful sunset, a good night sleep, a cold beer on a hot afternoon etc... Under-capitalized? Artists can re-imagine so at least it is not too painful, plus there is the occasional magic that happens when one person's trash is an artist treasure. However artists are lucky because as a community it is typically generous with one another. Coming together in times of sorrow and joy are natural for most communities but when it happen in artist world, everyone should be prepared to walk away inspired because it happens all the time.
When I first came to Brooklyn in the mid 1980s I became friends with so many people who have long since passed away. Two of them in particular stand by me today with nearly everything I do. Sculptor Alan Glovsky was one of the most open minded, tenacious, capable people I knew. He was a wonderful influence on my children and I can still ask myself the question he asked me all the time.... "are you happy?". If I answer "yes" then... I feel lucky but if I answer "no" it is on me to change that direction. I appreciate this simple clarity. The other great influence in my life was Tessie William, the District Manager for Community Board 2. She advocated for me when nobody dared and she stood by me when I turned my dream into a reality. She was so proud of everyone's creativity. As she started to decline she "made the rounds" with her friends to say a fond farewell carrying a few choice strawberries to share. She told me a story that I want to tell now. Her story explained the difference between heaven and hell. In hell there was bountiful foods and drinks but people lacked elbows to help themselves. It was sad angry place, but in heaven it was the exact same situation except people learned how to feed one another and it was peaceful loving place. So... the moral of her story was that if a community works together then shared problems are solved easily. RIP Tessie and Alan, my love never stopped.
Despite all the unhappiness, greed, fear and hatred there is all around us, we do not need to dance with the devil to accomplish something good. We just have to pick our friends more carefully.
Pictured here: Teresa Adams
Psychopathic thoughts are a fact of living but when people actively motivate their body/mind/spirit connection to purposefully do great harm to others, the only logical response is to morn the death of those trapped by someone's sick actions. The pain is layered and deep. It sends me spiraling into thoughts about what makes people tic and feeling my artist mind begin synthesizing. Part of my artist credo is to delve into what motivates people. What sparks spontaneously communication (spoken/unspoken) and how perception is applied to human nature. Kind of like the cartoon character - Homer Simpson - where he looks at his body in the mirror seeing himself with good muscle definition unlike his authentic slothfulness. Self perception is the determining factor between someone who builds and someone who destroys, both emulate the power of self confidence. Some people are more susceptible to mass-manipulation because the rapid-fire decision-making role of an alert mind also requires self-doubt. Much like the well loved "golden rule" we gain commonality by having humility, by having respect for one another and by imagining that we could have the wrong impression of another person or situation. To give others the benefit of doubt just like you would want for yourself. A well-rounded mind has aggressive thoughts frequently but vetoes subsequent fatal actions. I have no answers about the diverse forces of global life colliding violently since it is happening in front of our very eyes, I wish I did.
Summer 2016 is starting to feel more like being in the 1998 fantasy movie "The Truman Show" directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey where the reality for one un-ironic man is a fabricated movie set. Network TV has story-boarded his life. Isn't that supreme manipulation? A life that is not your own. The TV teams are making a nice chunk of change using the main character as ratings and entertainment proxy, much like a pet. The un-reflected main character sees a small flaw to his perfect world and spontaneously discovers a whole new world beyond his imagination or in movie-land-speak "he finds out the truth." I forget how the movie actually ends... but in 2016 we need a happy ending.
There are many reasons we are in this ponderousness political pickle brine. I am practicing emotional detachment. There is too much punditry to go around from idol worship to selective amnesia to opting-out entirely. Perhaps that is how humans survive, after all we do live in "distraction-glut" intersections. A teacher once said to me "make sure you don't use your shortcomings as a crutch." As a kid I took that to mean "bad news! my shortcomings are showing" but over time it changed into "challenging my perception of self". Removing blinders, expanding our knowledge base, accepting other points of view as valid and participating in democracy practices are the tools we use to provoke social change, it pretty much is the only one we have right now. One thing is certain, the 24/7 News-cycle is committed to their shady distortions, willful manipulations and using the greatest propaganda devise ever invented: if a story is repeated long enough it becomes true. It is hard to know what to believe but since I only believe in art, here's a little story.
I have said it before and I will say it again, WE NEED NEW STORIES, but today I am reminded of an old one. "The Adventures of Pinocchio" by Italian author Carlo Collodi written in 1883. Where a wooden puppet wants to become a true boy but is both gullible and cruel. He finally becomes a true boy after helping someone who was suffering more then himself. The morality tale is long and winding encounters with a talking cricket, a woodpecker, a criminal fox and cat team, an albino blackbird, a fairy with turquoise hair, an owl, a falcon, a gorilla who is a judge in a court of law, a poodle who becomes a stagecoach driver, a serpent, 4 undertaker rabbits, glowworms, a pigeon, a dolphin, a snail, an island called "Busy", a dormouse, a place called Toyland, chicken-stealing weasels, 2 donkeys, a green fisherman, a father and puppet eating dogfish, a ringmaster, the ghost of the talking cricket, a tuna fish as large as a two year-old horse, a ladybug and finally a goat with turquoise hair who is really a fairy in disguise. We all know the tale of Pinocchio as the puppet whose nose grew every time he lied but that is a gross over-simplifying or just direct Disney-fication. The story is a wild journey that becomes more nuanced and fanciful as it unfolds. In today's clickbait culture I am sure the headline would read "Pinocchio Almost Died Before Surviving".
Once the decision is made, after all the options are weighed, it is relatively easy to get a plan and work the plan. Interdisciplinary art discipline is a great tool-box. If there was a need to build, direct, fix, design, clean, solve, invent, create, conceptualize etc.... - then being an artist works well but if the goal is to influence NYC legislative policy - that was my Waterloo. Individual artists are arguably a strong force for economic empowerment so beginning in 1990 I began lobbying Borough Hall City Hall, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, NYC Council, NY State Assembly and US Congress for fun. They would have to listen to me for 3 mins and the questions often asked were "why does artist's sweat equity matter since it cannot be measured?" or "why should I care if artists cannot make a living? They must be terrible artists." So meeting up with those powerful people was a tad discouraging, even tho for me it was still fun, since I was striving as a mother of 2 elementary students to have an experience that was out of my maternal elements.
Fast forward to 2015, NYC Council is involved in developing a new city wide cultural plan. The NYC Council members believe their plan could begin being implemented in 2017/2018. As I attended the announcement meeting at NYU with a diverse group of interested players, one by one by one young artists expressed that their personal/professional needs were dire. They needed help yesterday with housing, public presentations opportunities and various health/human services. Since bureaucratic wheels turn very slowly in big city life I, for one, hope artists can hold on because NYC is a very sad place without them. However individual artists have a shorter rope to hold onto than the average citizen. Micro Museum has made it our mission to create a vibrant place for a tribe of achieving artists. I have seen their determination up close. I sincerely hope this NYC cultural plan comes with a serious budget because you know.... 'if wishes were horses beggars would fly."
Recently watched BANKSY DOES NEW YORK – a documentary about the 2013 residency in NYC. Banksy’s 31 days of art initiatives became an internet sensation and by extension became a form of virtual graffiti. The filmmakers followed the art journey by turning NYC into a progressive art treasure hunt. The residency exploded into 31 collisions with art relatively unbound by ownership, like a donated painting to “Housing Works”, that eventually was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Later the painting went to the 2nd bidder since the top bidder could not deliver the money; or a rock formation in Queens that was dismantled and reassembled in an undisclosed location for later resale; or neighborhood guys who actively charged viewers to look at the art work under a piece of cardboard. Zabar's installed a plexiglass piece over the one on their building. It did not take long for NYer’s to get creative. It is kinda the reason I love this place.
I am further impressed by Banksy’s ability to remain unidentified, although my sense is that these art actions might not be one person. The works were brilliant and accentuated complexities of life in the 21st Century for artists and others. They brought out a deep agonizing desire to “get rich quick.” It was a great art experience as a citizen of NYC and re-visiting it through the film directed by Chris Maukarbel for HBO got me thinking more about my theme of “artist as hero” and feeling that truth, justice and the American way are still good reasons to pursuit art. I regret that young individual artists are migrating away from NYC because there are few options and scant resources to keep our local artists, local? It is still advantageous for the NYC powerful to care about individual artists. I am hopeful NYC Council will recognize artists as inventive economic development catalysts but also people who desperately love their city.
A girl can dream can’t she? My current dream has little to do with fashion, culture, politics, money, art, romance and world peace, which are usually my "go to" topics. My dream is to edit out all forms of riff-raff. As social media players we are routinely publishing our thoughts, actions and all aspects of living online, making us expert story tellers and narrators. For many reasons we leave out details that seem inconvenient, distracting, or long winded. Making a long story short take intellectual cunning but saying it with 140 characters or less is a modern challenge. I wonder what American Icon and Author Mark Twain would have thought about Twitter since he once mused “he would have written it shorter if he had more time.” Time is what we always run out of or so it seems. It is possible that time is spiraling even faster as I age. There is some science behind that idea. It gives me no comfort but at least I can appreciate that there are bigger powers at play.
Today my elder painter friend remarked, “people are good at pretending and pretenders always make artists appear more authentic”. Hmmmm…. I will mull that comment around for a bit because being authentic is a core part of my dream. There are stories where rock legend Jimi Hendrix espoused humility because “even a compliment is a distraction”. Or when Patty Smith wrote in her award winning book “Just Kids” about her life with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe; as their successes were mounting, managing people who manipulated them through compliments was hard to do because it was too easy to believe it yourself. She seemed to weather it better than Mapplethorpe but then again we are talking about a music genius who heard Jim Morrison perform the song "Gloria" with The Doors and said to herself, “I could do that.” She seemed to have better self-perception plus of course, proved to have the artistic grit.
There are no more quiet epiphanies with the proliferation of cameras, who needs NSA monitoring every electronic transaction when there are so many media outlets for public display? We are becoming modern everyday broadcasters, manipulators of personal narratives, manufacturing idealized versions of ourselves, electronically staging our “good times” by ignoring our unvarnished selves. This is all understandable since humans aspire to be more than we actually are. Not one to be depressive but the slope is slippery. In our over-exposed time-stamped world it appears that the power of self expression is also an economic development concept. We are always trying to sell ourselves. As much as we blur the line between our original thoughts and scripted social media updates, it would be good to ask ourselves about our own authenticity. I am afraid that this blurring is unfortunately not pretty and that is too bad because there are so many ways of documenting it.
I am happy it is spring. Winter is like the beloved but untrustworthy friend who returns again and again unchanged. You know what to expect and you are on guard but resigned to co-exist at least for a few months. I tell myself, I am fashion hound and it is fun to play with hats/gloves/scarf/boots but the truth is NYC winters are painfully dreary. There is nothing fashionable about muck. So while May opens up to us, I sigh a sigh of relief. I have always been a big fan of ebb and flow (being a child of the ocean) but lately winters feel like being in a rip-tide. One has to be a very strong swimmer and swim in the direction of the rip-tide in order to survive. It's counter intuitive. Nature forces you to do strange things to survive and seasonal changes bring this phenomenon into view because before I know it I will be melting in 100 degree weather and wishing for winter.
Lately I have been fascinated with how people unlearn ideas that are patently false - like "evolution is just a theory" and not our collective fate. Understanding evolution should not be a matter of personal conjecture. It is a fact and a mature point of reference for educated minds, as well as a method for community well-being. As an artist I wonder a lot about how to open a closed mind. It is breath-taking that 40% of Americans believe that evolution is someone's opinion, demonstrating the sensory overload of information because clearly humans have to filter through a lot of misinformation. Institutional religion is mentally unhealthy if its dogma stops the human mind and imagination from evolving too. Since evolution is spiraling away from us whether we accept it our not. It might be too late in the game for the individuals who actively resist common laws of nature because unlearning false ideas is a life long educational process. It begins by being brutally honest with yourself. I have noticed that people who cannot course-correct their self perception are often bitter as the world, their friends/family, jobs, etc.. leave them behind. Human thinking grows with the ability listen for your muse and to be adaptable to that new vital information. What good is a belief structure if it is wrong?
I blame the stagnation of intellectual culture on the broadcast "24/7News" TV for blurring all lines of discretion while diligently erasing practically all journalistic standards. If there ever was a "Fourth Estate" in governance through the press, at this moment it is lost at sea. Altogether our media culture is indistinguishably noisy and filled propaganda. We have grown to accept the dichotomy. Reality TV is deliberately staged, News TV emulates entertainment, our comedians teach late-night civics yet we are remain loyal spectators. As the results society is over-saturated with paid punditry whose sole purpose, it seems, is to dilute and deflect discussions about the plight of modern lives. No wonder folks are confused or maybe they just gave up trying to filter out all the metal debris and actually prefer hocus-pocus. Whatever the root causes for these ills of society, it is not going away anytime soon because the broadcast industry has no incentive to change unless people get to the place where they stop being passive consumers and exercise their curious mind. When that epiphany manifests, it will begin when people walk away the 24/7 repetitive news noise, celebrity trivia machines, useless commercial drivel and get outside to become a part of the weather.
I look forward to being with my friends and family when there are less demands on our time. I know you do too. In fact I dream about these beautiful windows of time when we get a chance to see a different kind of light together or to maybe by chance, hum the same tune. Not that I dislike that laser point focus that keeps us all sharp in our choice fields of employment. I like my work. However every Friday evening I can feel an energetic renewal sweeping over me like a gentle ocean wave. In my youth it might have been the night for wild and crazy madness but as I age there is less ambition for the outlandish and more capacity to take a well deserved breather with a couple of friends over wine and snacks. I don't know when this part of me changed. It might have just quietly evolved as my relationships developed. Time changes you for the better. We have many opportunities in the course of our lives to learn more about the inner most parts of ourselves. It is that journey that inspires me to savor brief moments together.
This week's highlights include a friend who has always talked about a tuna fish dish I made decades ago as if it was yesterday, gave me 3 cans of tuna commenting "no pressure." A young 15 year old fan of Micro Museum dropped by to say hello. He and I had the same flash of color in our hair. He said "This just proves that we are super cool." A neighbor stopped me on the street and thanked me for being inspiration because the museum's AC/DC Window on the second floor is a "treat for my eyes and soul." Another business owner remarked that he wished for my creativity. I suggested that he could cultivate his creativity too. He replied "I know but next to you my candle seems dim." I finally finished several drawings that were lingering on my desk. I have so much gratitude for these simple exchanges, which makes my Friday evening feel tranquil when I know there is a teaming metropolis right outside my door that is far from peaceful.
Trust me the pressure is on, but just not tonight. An artist life is full of ups and downs. I can hardly wait till tomorrow because we get to work with a favorite art handler and prepare for 2 semi-public events next week. But for the moment it is fun being in relaxing Friday night mode.
I am reminded about a great story I heard from Gloria Steinem where she said that lots of people ask her about passing her torch onto someone else. She said "I am holding onto my torch but I am happy to light yours so that you can have a torch too."
Early advise to my ears sounded like this…. “There is no use in complaining because that changes nothing.” Or “Complaining is for losers, winners get pro-active.” I guess over time I adopted that creed and developed a thick skin to go with my thick head. However occasionally I flare up in righteous indignation with the term “starving artists” as a stand in for “lazy.” This is one of those times.
Artists may be impoverished due to society’s cultural illiteracy and financial disrespect but they represent a success that is tenacious. Many artists I have come to admire over the years have a remarkable lifestyle while producing original work. What is not to love? They have a personal driving force that is second to none. No other industry operates with such self-determination plus - on top of it all - artists seriously know how to have fun. I am reminded of the earliest days of Micro Museum when we hung out on the sidewalk on white wicker furniture. We would entertain ourselves royally with storytelling, re-enactments, and political discourse with dinners from neighboring businesses. Artists are walking economic development players who are entrepreneurial by nature and determined to explore new things. Artists deserve respect.
Americans would be wise to operate like artists by emulating their focused passion, their ability to never give up, their inquisitive minds, the desire to ask a lot of questions and to see where it all leads. Creativity is our best commodity like a fully untapped resource ready to be bottled. Maybe take a minute to let that soak in because we need artists to show us how survive without a north star guiding the way.
So short of retiring that horrible phrase that I feel is inaccurate and old fashioned, I will just point out the fact that artist have work ethic that goes beyond some people’s imagination. Artists rock our worlds and the correct response to their good works starts with stepping away from outdated stereotypes.
Recently I met my beloved at the MOMA garden before we looked at the Sigmar Polke exhibit “Alibis”. Most of our dates revolve around art, music and theater. It was a treat to connect while looking at boisterous statues, listening to splashy water fountains and dodging aggressive tourists. I thank summer for bringing us together at dusk. The Polke show was fascinating because his work offered cunning variety. Throughout his five decades of art production all pieces were witty, irreverent and inspiring. Especially, I found enjoyment in the elements of his techniques, enchantment by his sustained will to experiment and in awe of his expressive, prolific nature. His work seemed to be filled with “love of life”.
When we returned to our humble abode full of NYC cultural wonder, there was a movie being played in the schoolyard behind the facilities. It all seemed so pleasant and summery. We listened in vain to see if we could sense what movie was being screened but it was too distorted. More importantly, we were deciding on the amount of tequila for our margaritas and the choice of the movie we intended to watch on the television. I later learned how various neighbors complained bitterly on a chat site online about the movie’s amplification. I can only wonder what kind of sourpuss lives they are leading. People say they want “community” but when that community is loud for one night they seem to freak out. Can they not understand that being open – minded is the price we sometimes pay for having living breathing healthy communities? Besides it is summer, aren’t people allowed to be a little loud, wild and crazy? Not that this outdoor movie qualified as such, since it seemed like a family-friendly musical and it was over well before 11PM, (which is the legal limit for noise in NYC). The movie we selected to watch was an adorable French film called RUMBA. It was a typical French comedy, very corny! Basically it involved a young couple who were teachers at the same school. They were also amateur competing rumba dancers but as pratfall, automobile mishap and chaos ensue the female character (Fiona Gordon) loses her leg and he (Dominique Abel) loses his mind. Both principle actors/dancers were also the directors, along with Bruno Romy. Despite this crazy collection of setbacks, they still kept the pleasant, silly vibe going. The film offered every stunt gag imaginable but it never got tedious. Probably by then, the tequila was working its magic on our Friday night.
Winter is so physically limiting since wearing layers and layers of protection against the cold is far from the casual luxury of sandals and a sundress while sitting in a beautiful outdoor garden waiting for your beloved to arrive. Seems like winter wears me out and summer restores me. It has always been that way for me. Summer frees me to think “deep thoughts” like my new theory about age. We are only one age: alive or dead. Either, we are alive and therefore spontaneously permitting shared fun-loving possibilities as they become available. Or we are dead and frustrated because controlling community expressions during the height of summer is ripe material for an early grave. If I were to offer a word of advice to my angered neighbors, please step outside feel the night air on your skin, look up at the stars and realize we are all stardust. There has got to be some humor in that.
There is something magical about that tiny window of time where all the museum workers have vacated the worksite and I am left to my own thoughts. It is a special kind of calm where my thoughts are not colliding but entering politely one at a time. So composed, so serene. I could get used to this pace but this window is fleeting but while it is here, I’m allowing myself a moment for mental stretching.
Recently I watched a PBS series about sleep and they discussed how sleep gives you the time/space to settle mental confusion. This struck me as appropriate because I routinely dreamed choreography threads for the rehearsals with my dance company. The dreams were vivid, I can still see them today. The human mind is remarkable like that because years later certain memories are clear as a bell. Sleep is always inspiring
One memory involves the beautiful performer, designer and artist Geoffrey Holder. Last year his son wrote a brilliant tribute to his father and described the last hours of his life. According to his story, Mr. Holder was choreographing and dancing not just to the end but through the end of his last breath. He is a huge inspiration. RIP Mr. Holder, even in death you are guiding us towards the joy of living.
Continuing this exploration of inspirations, I recall attending McArthur Genius Awardee Basil Twist’s “ballet without dancers” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. It was a trilogy of kinetic theater highlighting Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring” with the St. Luke’s Orchestra performing the still haunting picturesque music. The “dance” presented was profoundly amazing puppeteering on all accounts because the scale and timing were pitch perfect. Mr. Twist has a knack for other-worldliness and he deserves high praise for delivering a masterful work. He calls himself a choreographer and one of his dancers referred to being Mr. Twist’s puppet during the lovely wine reception offered by the White Light Festival.
Finally the telephone is the supreme interrupter with different ring tone for different members of my family and friends. In this case my best beloved is letting me know he is hitting the train to come home. So my window just closed and it appears that a door is about to open for me to exit. Sweet dreams you’all.
I am a very slow reader. So it is with some pride I can say that I finished reading Jonathan Letham’s “Fortress of Solitude” recently. The story tells of several boys and their families as they grew up in the Gowanus area of Boerum Hill. My backyard. One of the character was named the same name as my son, so what mother doesn’t love reading that? It turned out to be a pure pleasure read. The story involved aspects of gentrification, public schooling, race relations for children at an early age, drug use or abuse, vandalism and comics book fantasies. All of this instantly shot me back to my youth. Mine was not a neighborhood decaying like the demanding urban “fixer-upper” Gowanus. Mine was a newly tilled sub-development that encouraged America’s metropolitan sprawl. I was keenly aware of race/class structure. I encountered systemic sexism that scarred me more than I understood at the time. All I know is that I had to get outta there if I wanted to survive. Seven days after high school graduation, I left and never looked back. Letham’s characters, much like myself used their imaginations to evolve out of a dead end situation. There was no future in the past.
Letham’s “coming of age story” is universal. NYC is a city where one could sustain a whole career with a fraction of recognition, spotty financial support, or the satisfaction that your work will be exhibited in a meaningful way. Instead NYC artists find happiness with dedicated viewers and uneven moments of pure accolade. I remember being a Texan artist where all we had to do was take out one little ad in the local newspaper and the place was packed with curious minded people willing to pay money to see what we were doing. There was literally nothing else interesting to do. I sold artwork, without even trying. There were large commissions and pre-sale opportunities but I yearned to break away. NYC is my adopted hometown. The youngster in me identified with Letham’s wayward boys as they reacted to their world in irrational ways, ways that prevented positive results. The characters spoke to me because I know how a dangerous childhood can encroach on decisions years later. The one major difference was that none of these boys could become pregnant, unwillingly. This was the fear that so many girls lived with because there was so much violence around them. Imagining girl life –vs- boy life with fictional characters is my idea of an intellectual month well spent. However living people struggle long past the end of the page. So while I manage to make artworks to share, while I sustain a proud partnership for nearly 4 decades, while I enjoy my children as they became men, while I support my friends through their ups and downs, I hope all living youngsters will find a way of expressing themselves through another medium like dance, paint, words, object, music, and media as an alternative to self-destruction. It is possible to embrace a future through friendships that sustain us over a lifetime but you have to get through adolescents first.
When there were regular weekly gallery hours at Micro Museum® I greeted visitors. Two women from Canada who ironically I meet on the F Train platform the day before, came for a visit. During their visit one announced that they have been friends for 45 years. I asked them what allowed them to remain friends all that time, through marriages, children, different cities, different careers, and obviously different fashion since one was decked out in 100 colors and the other wore jeans and t-shirt and they both answered “ART”. Apparently they love it and because of that answer I loved them too. It was that simple. Slow friendships that evolved over many years are worthy investments plus I should add so is art.