September 24, 2004

Is that modern art, or something useful?

The reasons I haven't written here lately are:

(a) I've plunged into a stream of fantasy and vampire novels

(b) I've changed my life, and

(c) I've been away.

I'll start bottom to top.

(c) I went to Ontario, Canada, where I'm from, for a week to see family and friends, and to convene 12 meetings in 2 days. It was really fucking tiring. The organisation I work for is in a tenuous place right now, kind of between bosses, and so nobody wants to do any risky shit and definitely nobody wants to do anything fast. The shareholders, so to speak, are watchful and everyone's running scared.

(b) I have applied for a leave of absence from work to go back to art school. Because I'm rarely sure of anything, I'm petrified I'm making a huge mistake. Do I really want to stop working on environment issues? Do I really want to do art? Life would be easier if all I could do was jump hurdles. Then I'd be a hurdler. So I wanna do art about environment issues. We'll see how it goes. I'm having trouble feeling un-guilty about leaving.

(a) Lots of novels, lots. Anne Rice, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Sharon Shinn. My waking brain is so strained I'm just pretty much burying myself in them. Somewhat disorienting, but good. The best novel I've read lately, though, was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, not so much for its literary qualities, but for all the psychological and mathematical observations sprinkled throughout. Also, as someone swimming in a sea of spin, angles, and PR, seeing the world through the eyes of a literate-minded, simple child is so pure, it lulled me into longing for a more truthful world.

In my adult years, I've tried to get used to the facts, to face reality, and accept the conditions of life, but I've never grown to love it. Four years ago I lost a job because I didn't work well with people, indeed, I didn't pay much attention to co-workers, just tried to work as hard and as smart and thoughtfully as I could. I really like working, so. It never occurred to me that others might worry that I wanted their jobs, worried they looked bad to our bosses because I was so iconoclastic and new in comparison, never thought I should be sensitive to the fact that people needed to adjust to me (and I them) before I sprung my project ideas and my hard criticism on them. I never "sussed the group out," didn't try (or know how) to be tactful, didn't think at all about how people received the things I said. When I asked someone how she thought I could progress in the company, it never occurred to me to imagine she might assume I was bitchily asking her how I could steal her job. I was really innocent and, let's face it, pretty cruel as a result.

I paid for it by losing the job and also by adopting a terrific amount of anxiety about relating to others. Diplomacy and sensitivity eventually became what I was known for, to some. I think I mastered what had beaten me.

But I never liked it. I still believe that we should be independent of our baggage, fresh, clean, searching only for the truth or the best idea, instead of worrying about how the fact that we didn't dream up the great idea might mean we don't get promoted. Of course it's totally unrealistic and disgustingly insensitive of me, but I really preferred how I felt in my head about myself then. Sure, now, people don't feel alarmed around me and I'm happy about that. I actually hate to make people uncomfortable now. But I was happier when I spent my energy worrying about progress instead of about public relations.

But there's so much to lose in leaving this job! The ignorance, arrogance and isolationism in artistic communities is staggering. It's not everyone, and it's not for everyone to not be this way anyway, but I find generally that the art school makes people navel gaze (the artistic vision apparently sees better when it looks for the artist within. So artists make art about, usually, nothing that anyone needs to care about or with untested and irrelevant observations). It encourages them to forget society, disdain it and politics too, and to consider themselves better for it. And if that wasn't enough, the burden of self-employment and marketing removes the energy and opportunities necessary for a person to remain relevant and engaged. That's a surmountable hurdle if you have a good foundation in understanding your world, but they don't. If they are politically or socially active, it's often with an amount of passion well in excess of actually understanding the issues and the Way Things Work. I dread re-entering that milieu.

Maybe if high school did what it should, and taught kids what governance and politics are and how they work here and world-wide, then you'd get artists who saw a place for themselves in society and wouldn't be so marginalised, or wouldn't choose to do art that made everyone ignore them. Or maybe I'm the naive one to think there can be a relevant art outside advertising/illustration/design in a functioning, though indolent, culture.

I don't know. I'm just tired of going to Western art galleries and seeing things that have no bearing on the ENORMOUS PRESSING PROBLEMS of my generation. By contrast, I go to the African art gallery and there's piece after piece about democracy, health, race struggle. Why aren't North American artists doing art about business and governmental corruption, flawed democracy, the environment, Aboriginal policy? Am I missing it? Is it sandwiched in between the unmade beds and the vertical stripes and the old shoes and rocks arranged on the floor? The prevailing theme of Canadian literature is memory and the immigrant experience of multiculturalism. Well, what the fuck for? There's a future to worry about, and it looks both interesting and dim.

Where are the futuristic novels trying to picture the hopefully-beautiful, still mysterious next step in Canada's multiculturalism? Or, the paintings about a Canada covered in new jurisdictions governed by Native peoples? I mean, that's a pretty fucking interesting topic, how cool is Nunavut! It's barely been done anywhere in the world -- we are the pioneers. Where are the poems about the disappearing Arctic ice? The drought in rich Alberta? There are stories pouring out of the East about the suffering Maritimers, but what about the savaging of B.C.'s rainforest?

Not every artist needs to be political or current or whatever, but wouldn't you assume these topics would be interesting to the majority of them? Why aren't we in touch? In other countries, you can be put to death for the things you write, dance, draw, sing. In ours, you go straight to the Museum. Is it that they just don't know about these things, or they don't know how to think about them through art?

I need to understand this, or there will be no point in picking up a paintbrush. I need to speak to someone with the paint and to know I said something that might matter and be heard and commented on, ridiculed or loved or something. Even if it just stirred one cell among millions in just one human body.

Over the years I've been told in countless ways that I need to do art for myself and that I cannot care if other people like it or are stimulated by it. I say now this is wrong. How many times has someone said to you, "I just don't feel like anyone cares if I do X or not. If I disappeared from this field, no one would notice." I am not the only person who longs to COMMUNICATE, even if it is not fashionable to. Dammit. I do not want, like so many of us have been lured into doing, I do not want to turn my back on all of the things that are happening around me and to forget that my single, small life is part of this collective and that it has a voice, purpose and something to contribute, however marginal, just so I can be some aesthete in a loft pondering which brand of viridian to slap on a piece of cloth.

Once, I walked by a bunch of people setting up strange contraptions on the grass in McGill campus. The engineering student I was flirting with said, "Is that modern art, or something useful?"