Last night the Hammer Museum presented a conversation between John Baldessari, “conceptual artist,” and Christopher Knight, art critic for the LA Times (among other things). Baldessari came off imminently likable and immensely quotable and left me with many ideas to ponder. A recurring theme, obvious to anyone who knows Baldessari’s work, was what makes art Art, and what and where the art exists. In his use of painterly and photographic tools, the artist has worked through these ideas physically and mentally throughout his career. One of the more interesting statements he made was actually something once stated to him as the speaker entered his studio to find books and magazines bearing works of art and theories surrounding his work-space, “oh, so you import your culture.” Baldessari grew up in National City where he wasn’t exposed physically to art and his early paintings included text written by a local sign painter. He and Chris Knight pondered the importance of being exposed to the real works of art later in the discussion and another lovely quote arose, “a lot of art gets done by students who are just looking at reproductions; a lot of art gets done by art being misunderstood.” Knight brought up technology and internet access to great works as expanding this phenomena but fell short of really heading into a discussion of authenticity and aura in art.
Of course this makes me think of many contemporary photographers, notably the Starn twins who I mentioned in my last blog, and Joel Peter Witkin, who are influenced by and even utilize in whole, the iconic images of western art history in their work. This dimensionalizing of images, and focus on the fact or myth of reproduceability has certainly been a common thematic trajectory for fine art photographers in the late 20th century. Baldessari himself considered these ideas in his photographic work, as he says, trying to understand why photography and art has different histories and trying to understand what made something art (as he puts it, “it had to have canvas and stretcher bars,” and later “it had to be done by the artist.”). These are complex ideas, not light things, and Baldessari himself plays with them rather than espousing them. On the one hand, he felt at a point that art had to be done by the artist, while at the same time he was employing a sign-painter to execute his conceptual works and for other pieces he heavily incorporated found imagery into his painting (or, hesitant to call himself a painter, his post-studio work). The question is not only, what and is there an aura of the artist’s hand in anauthentic work of art, but also whether and what the ubiquity of reproduced imagery has done to art making today?
The conversation brought up a lot of big issues in brief segments, Knight and Baldessari only spoke for one hour, and Knight was clearly trying to give an overview of the full 30 year time period of Baldessari’s work, from the 50s through the 70s. Another of the important topics they glossed was the role of money and the marketplace in art. A quote that was all over twitter immediately following the talk was, “there should be a new dating system for art, Before Money, and After Money.” In this case, the 0 year being sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. Baldessari brought this up directly after positing that the tipping point for California art came with the students from CA schools deciding to stay and not flee to the art mecca of New York. His claim being that this greater talent pool staying in Los Angeles brought an influx of galleries to sell their work. This is the reverse of anything I would think; my impulse would be to attribute the expansion of the gallery network in Los Angeles to the great growth of creatives with money from the entertainment industry who were looking to adorn their sprawling homes with contemporary art works, and these more local galleries being a draw for artists to end up staying in town rather than needing to head east to develop representation. I guess in the end it is a bit of a chicken and the egg discussion, do patrons inspire a market which inspires artists, or do artists inspire a market which inspires patrons? No matter which way it goes, however, clearly something happened during that period on the west coast where the legitimization of the arts here through the development of not only a marketplace but also funded arts institutions, allowed artists to stay and flourish and inspire and change the face and history of Los Angeles for artists that followed.
Two more little quotes from Baldessari bear repeating today. Asked about the “occupy” protests and what he thinks, the artist was interested but less than enthusiastic about the outcome, saying “I’m reminded of the late 60’s, when we thought the world would change. It didn’t. Now there is that discontent again.” When Knight expanded the question to ask what role artists might play in civil movements, Baldessari responded a little more hopefully, saying, “art does change things–it may be preaching to the converted, but it can surreptitiously worm its way into people’s unconscious… in that way it can have an effect.” Again, this is one of those concepts that I keep coming back to in this blog, how art can change people and that in order to do so, it must find an “in” with the viewer, be it through beauty, through masquerading behind mass culture, or by catching one unaware in a moment of openness and reflection. Some of the most political art, however, is meant to shock the viewer and to confront them with an idea or image that is uncomfortable or disgusting, and I truly wonder whether this kind of work can have any effect to those uninitiated when all it makes them really do is turn away?
The conversation ended with a question about what inspires the great artist, he responded, “everything inspires me – a chance comment behind me on an airplane seat or in a restaurant– I don’t even know what it refers to… it is just a part of a thing.” He claimed that he is inspired by music or art, but could be just as inspired by a hot dog he ate for lunch. This is not surprising coming from a man who claims that if he lived in a beautiful city, he wouldn’t make art… but it was truly an inspiring thing to hear. Those who meditate regularly understand the concept of mindfulness in everyday life, but many of us lose this in our daily activities and obligations. Baldessari’s comment reminded me: be aware of the world around you, even something that initially seems irritating (those people talking loudly behind you on the airplane) might lead you to something inspiring in yourself. With that in mind, I drove home along the typically congested Los Angeles roads and rather than being frustrated, I tried to appreciate the drives between cultural institutions for the think-space they provide.