Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Open Letter to CBS Sunday Morning

I just sent this note to CBS Sunday Morning:

I’ve been a regular watcher of Sunday Morning for many years now. I’m a big fan of your slower-paced examination of all sorts of interesting things. As a visual artist, though, I’m not quite so happy with your treatment of visual art. This morning’s story on the Armory Show is no exception.

I’ve noticed that your stories on visual art usually fall into one of three categories:
- The retrospective. In this one, you examine a recognized master, who is always either dead or really old.
- The gimmick. This one looks at an artist who has a cute trick that sells well but is really meaningless. An example is the artist who created “paintings” out of old license plates.
- The “what the hell is that?” piece. Today’s Armory show falls into that category. It talks about how strange some artwork is (ie, “does that really go in somebody’s living room?”) and how much it costs (“somebody’s going to pay $42,000 for that?”), while simultaneously showing weirdly-decked-out art freaks (the two with shaved heads and heavy mascara, or the guy in the mask).

What I don’t see on your show are the stories that delve thoughtfully, and with respect, into some aspect of contemporary art that may seem strange to Middle America at first, but with a little attention, may become deeply moving pieces. There are a lot of artists who are working as hard as they can to create things that express something very personal and profound to them. Sometimes their methods are readily accessible to the average American. Sometimes they’re not at first, but with a little attention, and respectful listening, they can be.

I know this first-hand. I’m a painter and work in a very representational manner that is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But my primary subject matter is war, so I often get asked by casual visitors whether I actually make a living at it, why I do it, and who buys stuff like that. The answer, of course, is that I do these works because I have to, regardless of whether they sell. I need to put my thoughts and feelings down in a way that means something to me. My messages are easily understood by the average Joe, but since they can’t imagine my paintings on their living-room wall, they still generate confusion.

This confusion is nothing compared to the confusion about artworks that are more challenging. Yet these are probably the ones that most need your quiet, thoughtful approach. Take, for example, Marc Quinn’s sculpture entitled “Self”. This appears at first glance to be a straightforward lifesize bust of the artist. However, it’s made of his own frozen blood, maintained in a beautifully-crafted cryogenic container. In a very real sense, it’s not just an image of him, it is him, while its required refrigeration equipment makes a strong statement about contemporary reliance on technology. If the equipment fails, the sculpture (literally) dies. A work like this can be repulsive at first, but very meaningful once you contemplate it for a while.

And please don’t talk about the “red-hot art market”. I keep reading about it and can tell you that it doesn’t exist except in the most elite part of the art world. It’s like talking about the “red-hot automobile market” because they’re setting records at the Barrett-Jackson automobile auctions, while in the real world, car manufacturers are facing huge losses. Something like 95-99% of artists don’t make a living at their art, even the extraordinarily gifted ones, and even in normal economic times. We do it because we need to, not because of ridiculous prices.

So please, add a fourth category to your repertoire of art stories. Add the “thoughtful look at some kind of challenging art or artist”. Don’t treat us like freaks; instead, assume that we have a good reason for doing what we do. Respect the artists, respect the works, and use your soapbox to shed a little light on something different from the Middle American norm.

Skip Rohde

1 comment:

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