Philip Guston talks about art the way I would expect someone of his stature to talk, and it’s fantastic reading. He talks in circles, he talks about things that aren’t necessarily to the point, he shares his own thoughts about his work in the same tone that he talks about the entirety of art, and everything seems to be just as it should. He shares anecdotes about the way his work is received, how he creates it, even doubting whether or not his subjects are appropriate or whether they would make a good painting. He spends a lot of time talking about a period where he was painting a lot of pictures of the Klan when the Klan was actually a threat to society. He talks about how, if they were accepted as a social norm, they would also have to appreciate things like abstract expressionism, a fairly clever subject for self-reflexivity. It makes sense that the Klan would want to suppress such a painting, but in all reality, why should they? Do they deny that humans need to express themselves? Do they deny that their own activities in the KKK are a similar form of expression? Do some people only express themselves through violence?
I think that it may be hard to apply Guston’s words to current waves of art, but I’d like to try. In Guston’s day, things like intellectualism and appreciation of current waves of painting seem to be an accidental form of elitism, something that can only exist inside smaller pockets of society. Ask anyone above 60 who was not in this pocket about these types of paintings and you will generally receive bafflement or even anger at the audacity of painters to call things like abstract expressionism ‘painting.’ Avant-garde cinema, by contrast, has been a part of cinema since cinema’s beginning, and therefore is more abstracted from what people call Hollywood cinema. In other words, a new medium provides opportunity for new artists to go in and make ‘amateur’ works, and until professional works arise in the medium, the amateur works become the only works.
I believe people that work in an old medium, like Guston, simply try to find ways to (in his own words) ‘stay on the treadmill,’ to trust themselves and their instincts and to try not to be derailed by new trends. I think there’s a trend in art you could call ‘aggro,’ but I’ll choose just to call it annoying. I saw a performance a few days ago where a guy acted as if he was a ‘gameboy musician,’ and the point of the show was that he was ‘drunk’ and subsequently destroying and attempting to fix his equipment throughout the show. When he could no longer continue he began apologizing and describing his pathetic life. I initially couldn’t tell if he was serious, but I found out through youtube that every single one of his shows follows the exact same format. 20 years ago, no one would have given the guy a second thought.
Another person who seems to follow a similar format is Nardwuar, a punk rock ‘journalist’ who shoves his microphone in the face of musicians and miraculously, obsessively lists off idiosyncrasies in their careers and the careers of musicians related to them, while also taking on a bizarre and nerdy stage personality. Initially I thought of him as a recent phenomena, and his newer videos really work. Our generation really values that sort of obsessive researching and bizarre presentation. Comparing his newer videos to the videos he did in the 90s gives an interesting new perspective. Shoving his microphones in the faces of Kurt Cobain and Thurston Moore circa 1991, despite even his greatest efforts at running circles around them research-wise, the musicians either don’t care, or know more about what they’re talking about than him! I realized that in the information age, his sort of nerdy confrontation makes a lot more sense, and he seems to be enjoying an influx of success through blogs, twitters and forums who obsess about music just as much as him.
It proved to me that it can often take a long time for your process to be accepted, but also that annoying things are really popular now, that the gap between pop culture and performance art is closing, and that these things that have become the internet, these new mediums, don’t even matter on their own, but rather effect us bit by bit until attention deficiency and obsessive compulsivity become the norm. People like Nardwuar, despite his inherent lack of intellectual inquiry, can come off as ‘smart’ through a combination of presentation and insignificant facts written down on paper. Guston talks about how his trifles become subjects, that painting doesn’t necessarily have to exist and generally gives a Hemingway-esque disconnect between his ideas and their own importance. He is modest, but also realizes that the fact that his style has been accepted is a combination of luck and perseverance. The same can be said of these internet phenomena, the ‘new medium’ is just changing the way we’re able to read them, as well as the reactions who become the subjects.