A Lament on Tattoos

Hey, when did people who ink tattoos become artists? I say, let’s go back to the days when bikers and sailors got drunk and then got inked by guys almost as drunk as they were. I doubt those guys were sitting in a bar and turned to their drinking buddy and said, “You know what’s missing in our lives, Bob? Art! We need to get some art into our lives. We’ve been living like animals. Whatcha say we get some tattoos?”

The only tattoos I’ve ever seen that weren’t kitschy abominations were those worn by tribal warriors of the Polynesian islands. Simple geometric patterns inked in a plain, blue black. They decorated their bodies as a ritual for war. I don’t think they were trying to express their inner artist or get in touch with their feelings. You’re not expressing any great truth or emotion with a tattoo. As a matter of fact, you’re not expressing anything, other than bad taste.

Of course, nowadays everybody is an artist; so why not? But isn’t tattooing a skill, not an art? (a highly marketable skill these days). But even if you believe it an art, the person receiving the tattoo is not expressing anything. The person doing the inking is creating, not you; you’re just the canvas. Might as well say Rembrandt’s canvas was as creative as the artist. And having your girlfriend’s name inked on your arm doesn’t mean you love her anymore than I love my wife. If I had my wife’s name tattooed on my arm, she’d probably think it stupid, and the first thing she’d say, “How much did you pay for that?” Just another reason to love her. Someone once asked the actor, Tony Danza, if he regretted getting his tattoo. His answer, “Sure, it’s like wearing a sweater you can never change.

I grant that some tattoo “artists” are better than others, but so are some plumbers or electricians. It doesn’t make them artists. So again, let’s all quit kidding ourselves. Getting a tattoo isn’t the culmination of some great creative impulse. It’s just a bad decision, best made when drunk. I guess it makes sense from the tattoo parlor’s perspective. After all an artist can charge more. Just face it, the people doing the inking are selling you a bill of goods and laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe they are artists–con artists.

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Note from a New Blogger

I’m new to this blogging thing and, truth be told, got into it reluctantly. I was told it was something one has to do if you write a book and want people to know about it. How true that is, I don’t know. I believe the book has merit and would like people to read it; but I am an artist (painter) so I’m not looking for a career as a writer. Maybe that’s a plus these days if you want to write. People have said I need to be on Facebook too, but I’d rather shoot myself.

I tell you this because I got a few likes from a woman in Germany, a lawyer I believe, who also does photography. Her photoshoped images struck me as kitschy and I said so as politely as I could. I checked to see her response a little later and saw that my comment had been deleted. What the fuck! If you’re just interested in adding another follower, a sycophant who constantly strokes you, or wanting to engage in a mutual admiration society, please look elsewhere. I prefer an honest engagement of ideas and would rather have a half a dozen intelligent followers than a million that spout vacuous, meaningless comments. So if you’re just fishing for followers, fish another body of water. But if you have something meaningfull and insightful to say, I’d love to hear it—good or bad. Just be able to back it up!

On Popular Culture

Here’s a thought! Let’s quit kidding ourselves and put the bar back where it belongs. Not everyone is a genius or brilliant. The words are bandied about way too much. Pop musicians, popular writers and actors are designated geniuses with alarming frequency in our culture. I grew up listening to the rock “legends” and still listen to a lot of the music from that era, but as I matured in age and wisdom, I recognized its true value. It is an art form produced to be popular for a mass audience in and of its time, and I am in and of that time. So yeah, I like a lot of that music; but my grandchildren or great grandchildren? There was a time when Bing Crosby was a sensation and widely listened to, but aside from White Christmas, who listens to him now? The same is true of so many from his era. Even Frank Sinatra, the bobby socks heart throb, has seen his listeners dwindle. And in fifty years?? These entertainers (one could include the Beatles, the Stones etc.) and their music will eventually fade into obscurity when tastes change and generations pass. That’s the nature of popular culture. The electronic age has propped it up beyond its natural shelf life. The Beatles broke up in 1970. If not for radio, cd’s, albums and such, the last time anyone would have heard the Beatles as a band would have been 1970. I don’t know about you, but if I hear another singer covering a Beatles song, I change the station rather than hear them butcher the song. It just ain’t the same! Now compare it to the music of Beethoven, Mozart et.al. We don’t need the composer actually playing the piano or conducting to enjoy the music; we just need a good symphony orchestra. It’s about the music, not the personality.

The same is true of writing. The publishing industry has always had a hard-on for detective stories, cheap romances and adventures. And if you enjoy reading it—fine! Just don’t tell me that John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Nicholas Sparks and company are great writers. To quote Don Corleone, “It insults my intelligence.” There work is uneven and formulaic, written for the mass market and movie rights. The same is true of so many artists. Thomas Kincaid, Leroy Neiman, Pino and many others are hacks not even making an honest effort to do something serious.

Our culture is still capable of producing real artists, usually unexpectedly and from unexpected sources. Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Lucien Freud and Houellebecq come to mind.

So go into a bookstore or a record store or an art gallery and say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to buy this anymore.” Not a big fan of Hollywood movies, but that one was pretty good. Till next time.

Basquiat Painting

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This just sold for 110 million and change, the change being half a million. It proves the old adage of P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” I’m not going to argue the merits or lack thereof of Basquiat’s work; make up your own mind. But I do think the price tag is indicative of the sickness permeating our culture–the obsession with celebrity. The pr machine was up and running before this artist’s death but really got cranked up after his early demise. The son of immigrant parents (hardly poor though), a drug addict who hung out with Warhol et.al. and he died young–perfect! Let’s make some real money off this guy. Not that he’s benefiting. I have no problem with artists getting as much as they can for their work, but let’s start judging on the merit of the work, not celebrity status; and that goes for everyone. Kim Kardashian has a big ass and made a sex tape and converts those two accomplishments into a multi-million dollar empire.

I know I said I wouldn’t comment on the merit of the work, but I admit there is a certain visceral quality to this guy’s painting that appeals to me. But then I always thought there should be a certain savagery in an artist’s work, but I prefer a controlled savagery. Otherwise you get a muddle. There’s a kind of savagery in late Rembrandt, Hals, Velasquez, Goya, Delacroix and on and on, all the way through to the abstract expressionists. It’s up to future generations to decide the real merit of Basquait’s work after the fashionable dust settles. But that’s true for anyone. Till next time.

On Art Galleries

If you ever walked into a commercial art gallery and felt intimidated—don’t! Most gallery owners are just glad to have a warm body in the gallery. They also know that only about 5% of the people who come in are seriously interested in buying art. Trust me, I know; I’ve gotten it straight from the horse’s mouth. And don’t think of art galleries as mini-museums. Think of them more as retail stores, because that’s exactly what they are. They sell paintings instead of clothes, shoes, furniture, etc. The most important criteria a gallery owner has when representing an artist is his ability to sell his work, not the merit of the work; that’s secondary. A gallery owner once asked me what I thought of a contemporary artist he represented. I told him the work was competent but a pastiche of impressionist paintings, down to the long dresses and parasols of the women in the paintings. “Yeah, you’re right,” he responded, “it’s not anything I’d want in my house, but he’s a nice guy and he sells well.” Do you think he tells clients or prospective buyers that?

Much of what is exhibited in commercial art galleries is bad, even terrible, but there is some good painting out there. So take a look and make up your own mind. Don’t be dictated to by gallery owners or anyone else, even me. I’m often astounded by the lack of knowledge about painting by people who run art galleries, so don’t be intimidated. Yes you say, but you’re an artist, you know about painting, what’s good. People sometimes ask me, “How do you know if a painting is good or not?” Painting is a language, an abstract language. Delacroix wrote in his journal back in the 1850’s that he could envision a day when painting would not need a subject. He, like all great painters, understood that painting is an abstract visual language. Hang a painting by Velasquez upside down and I’ll enjoy it almost as much as if it were right side up. I admit a preference for representational painting but only because I enjoy seeing how the artist uses that abstract language to interpret his subject. Still, I’d rather look at good abstract painting than bad representational work. Get an understanding of that language and you’ll no longer be at the mercy of curators, critics, gallery owners or anyone else. Let the great painters and their works inform you. Get your ass to a museum and when you feel it in your gut, you’ll know you’re on your way.

A quick analogy: Imagine trying to read Germinal by Zola in the original french; problem is–you don’t read french. You can see the printed page, can even mouth the words but you don’t understand it. The same with painting.

I feel generous today, so here are three contemporary painters whose work I like: Susan Jane Walp, Amy Weiskopf and Elizabeth Geiger. All different approaches to still-life but intelligent palettes behind their work, and all women—how ‘bout that! Interesting side note: Ms. Geiger’s husband is also a painter and has a bigger reputation, but, for my money, his wife is a better painter; a bit more honest and her paintings have bigger shoulders. Her husband is a poor man’s Fairfield Porter.

Red Socks