Monday, February 26, 2007

The Web Has A Life Of Its Own

Just about all of us have had an experience with something going out in email, or being posted on the web, and having it take on a life of its own. (If you haven't, you will ... or maybe you just don't know about it yet!) I just had it reinforced.

A week ago, I sent out an email that announced some news from my art studio. It was pretty benign: I'm going to have paintings in three juried shows over the next two months, plus two solo shows this fall. So I wrote up a nice little blurb and sent it out to people on my email list. And promptly forgot about it.

So just a few minutes ago, I googled myself to see what, if anything, was new in my world. I found out that the local newspaper (Asheville Citizen-Times) ran my email as a news article almost verbatim. Pretty cool! And then I found that there were at least twelve other sites (count 'em, 12) that had the Citizen-Times article on their pages as well! Some of them seemed to make sense: they're local news sites or something. Others, I can't figure out what the hell they are. And some look downright strange. It was a strange experience to read my own newsgram on somebody else's really weird site. (By "weird", I don't mean goth or anything like that. I just mean that there doesn't seem to be any rationale behind the site at all. Just a collection of random bits of information and links.)

I also found several recent notices that a show of my prints is going on at a local business. What's really interesting is that the show never happened. When I went to install it, I found out that the company had gone out of business. So I took my prints and went home, considering myself extremely fortunate to have found out before the works were hung. A notice of the show's cancellation went out to local newspapers, but it doesn't seem to matter to these web sites. According to them, my prints are still hanging there, months after the place closed up.

So be careful what you post - it just might come back to haunt you!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Cult of Celebrity

I was watching CBS's Sunday Morning today. It's a wonderful show, slow-paced, that takes a deeper look at things than is typical of television. Since tonight is the Academy Awards, the show focused on the theme of the Oscars.

One selection in particular got me to thinking. It was about how celebrity is being packaged and marketed. A new fragrance, for example, would have a difficult future on its own, but if a Big Name lends his/her name to it, it'll probably be an instant success. Puff Daddy or P Diddley or whatever the hell his name is this week was cited as an example.

Yes, celebrities have always been used to market stuff, but now it seems they're taking over the whole process. Instead of hawking somebody else's wares, they're making and hawking the stuff themselves. And getting insanely rich in the process.

Which gets me to the core issue. Why do we think something that's marketed by a famous personality is better than something marketed by somebody else? Just because a guy is pretty good at acting in movies doesn't mean he knows squat about designing jeans. Or anything else. But we accept the idea that this guy is cool and stylish and we want to be like him and so we buy stuff with his name on it, even if the other brand is made better and fits better. Still, it's no big deal, right?

Well, yes, it is. It's much the same, really, as Wal-Mart and Target and K-Mart crowding out the mom-and-pop stores across the country (ooops, I mean, across the world). It's Big Corporations elbowing out the little guys, even if the little guys have better products. I think people just go with the Big Name because it makes their decision-making much easier. Instead of trying on several different brands of jeans to see which ones fit best and are made best, they'll buy the ones that have the Famous Person's name. Instant cachet and much simpler, too.

This has been going on for years in the retail and corporate worlds, and I can't say it's all a bad thing. For example, I like books, and a typical Borders has a much better selection than a typical mom & pop bookstore. But that's a qualitative difference. Marketing based on just celebrity names is what irks me.

Celebrity marketing extends beyond retail into art. Remember when John Lennon's drawings were exhibited, celebrated, and sold several years ago? His music was great, but his drawings were only marginal. Great talent in one area doesn't necessarily translate to great talent in another. Still, these works took in a lot of money simply because of the Lennon name. And a lot of that money might have gone to living artists who are, in fact, much better visual artists than Lennon ever was.

That, to me, is the problem: People buying Big Names just because of the name, while ignoring the Little Names who may, in fact, be more capable and deserving.

My examples so far have been of Big Names moving into areas outside their expertise. Actually, it happens within their areas of expertise as well. Last time I went to New York, for example, I went to a lot of galleries. I saw some work by some of the current hot artists, work that was selling way way way into the six digits or more. And almost every bit of it left me cold, even work by artists I'd admired in the magazines. In person, these works seemed sloppy, or calculated, or didn't have anything to say, or whatever. One famous artist's work was rather obviously painted from projected photographs.

On the flip side, I saw work by artists that I'd never heard of that just knocked me out. Whether in subject matter, or technique, or composition, whatever the case, it was the work by the no-names that bowled me over.

So my point is this: why all this fuss over the Big Names when there are so many good Little Names around? Especially when the Little Names are often even better? Is a major league baseball game really that much better than a minor league one? Is Britney Spears really a better singer than someone in your local bar? Is an Oscar-nominated actor really better than a guy in an off-Broadway production?

I think there's no doubt that for somebody to get to be a Big Name in their profession, they're almost always pretty good. But that recognition shouldn't transfer to other areas unless they prove their abilities there, too. In the meantime, there are a lot of Little Names out there who are just as good, if not better, than the Big Names.

And I think that a lot of the Big Names know it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nixon vs. Bush

I just watched a History Channel show about Richard Nixon. It brought back a lot of memories that I'd completely forgotten. I guess time will do that to you. The first time I could vote in a presidential election was in 1972, and having been raised in a Republican household, I voted for Nixon. I remember wondering what all the fuss was about something called "Watergate". I remember learning that the President really was a crook. And I remember watching Nixon's resignation speech on TV as if it was yesterday.

I see a lot of bumper stickers these days that say things like "Bush: Worst President Ever". Umm, no. Nixon was. George is pretty bad, but he's not in Nixon's league. Nixon was both brilliant and sick, driven and insecure, incredibly accomplished and an incredible failure. Bush is just a sloppy failure.

Monday, February 12, 2007


The news from "Scooter" Libby's trial is disgusting. As of today, it's been confirmed that Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and Richard Armitage, plus as-yet-unidentified others, were spreading the word in 2003 that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Since she was an undercover agent, that makes Cheney, Rove, Libby, and Armitage, plus the others, criminals. Where is the outrage?

The Fox-news-fans of the right try to excuse the action, saying that since she was not in a covert position at the time, she wasn't undercover. That's bull. Once undercover, ALWAYS undercover. Once her identity was in the press, it's known that governments who had anything to do with her, in any role, at any time, took a look at that time period and reviewed what she did, where she did it, and (most importantly), who she dealt with. The CIA won't comment on how many contacts have been rounded up, but I bet there were quite a few. And how many of those contacts lost their lives because of it?

So these a**holes in the highest level of the Bush administration deliberately compromised CIA assets, and probably got people killed, all in a vindictive effort to get back at somebody who was telling the truth.

Yeah, boy, that's some mighty fine leadership we have in the White House.

Friday, February 09, 2007

IG Report

Heard the news today about the Pentagon's Inspector General report on pre-war intelligence. They slammed an office run by a guy named David Feith, who was then the Pentagon's policy director, saying that he "took 'inappropriate' actions in advancing conclusions on al Qaeda connections not backed up by the nation's intelligence agencies" (quote from CNN). In other words, he distorted intelligence reports to make 'em say things they were never meant to say. Like that there was a link between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government.

I've been saying since day one that there was no link. I was a Navy cryptologic officer until late 1999, and I read the intel boards every day. And it was clear even then that there was no love lost between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden was (is) a religious zealot intent on destroying everything that conflicts with his version of reality. And Hussein was just a thug, a Tony Soprano in charge of a whole country. Aside from the fact that they both lived in the same general area of the world, and they both were in conflict with us, there wasn't anything - any thing - to bring 'em together.

So it was clear to me that Bush and his cronies were either listening only to the neocon wackos like Feith, or they were neocon wackos themselves, and in either case, the truth about Iraq was getting trashed in order to rush this nation to war. The Republican-led Congress couldn't beat the drums loudly enough and the right wing in general couldn't call dissenters "traitors" fast enough. And when it was clear that the whole Iraq war was a sham built on shams, they sat on their asses and did nothing but cover it up. And cover up their own culpability.

Thank God that's changing. We need more investigations into how this great nation was royally screwed by Bush & Co. Those who were responsible for key screwups need to be held accountable. Like Scooter Libby, who's about to get prison time for his role in covering up his role in outing an undercover CIA officer. There are a lot of others who should be in line right behind him.

The point isn't vengeance. The point is to remind those in power, and those who put them there, that with power comes the responsibility to use it WISELY, not in pursuit of a radical ideology. It's this blind pursuit of the radical neocon pipe dream that has killed so many of our soldiers, spent so much of our capital, and split our nation.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Keep it in perspective ...

This is typically depressing time of year. It's icy cold outside, and I have to spend many days out of the studio and in front of this computer working on my taxes. Tedious work and it's always a downer to see that cash in doesn't match cash out. So down in the dumps I go.

Then I see a report on CNN about an astronaut who just wrecked her life and the lives of many people around her. She tossed a promising career into the trash can in a big, big, nationally embarrassing way. And suddenly my problems are tiny by comparison.

Taxes? Hmph! I can handle that!

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Victory" in Iraq?

It really gets my goat when I hear somebody on TV talking about "victory" in Iraq. Inevitably it's some Republican or other right-winger arguing a case for increased military activity. It's clear to me that they don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Let's take a look at what "victory" means. My American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "final and complete defeat of the enemy in a military engagement." Now how does that apply to Iraq? Well, we achieved "victory" in 2003! We completely defeated Saddam's forces. Then we went from a military operation into something else. The problem was, we kept looking to our military to do all the things that somebody else should've been doing, like building a new Iraqi government, providing security, rebuilding infrastructure. They didn't do it, our military CAN'T do it, and Iraq is a hell-hole because of it.

"Victory" implies an organized, identifiable enemy. The people tearing Iraq apart are not a cohesive, organized group, and even Iraqis can't tell who's on what side. So who the hell are we fighting? And how the hell are we going to achieve "victory"? And just what IS "victory", anyway?

No, we can't achieve "victory" in Iraq. Maybe we can help quiet things down in Baghdad long enough for the insanely corrupt pig-headed criminals and warlords (otherwise known as the "Iraqi government") to get a hold on things. Maybe. It's a long shot. I still think that we need to try this one last time. If the Iraqi's fail, then it's time to cut our losses and leave.

But "victory"? That term can not apply here.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Creative Process

This is the second try for this post ... I was almost done with it the first time, went to "preview", then hit the wrong button to back out and lost 20 minutes of thought ... I haaaate it when that happens!

Anyway, here goes. I've had several unrelated conversations lately with other artists about our creative processes. Funny how the same subject crops up repeatedly in a short period of time, isn't it? We were comparing notes about how we create our artworks. And we all do it in very different ways.

This is one of my newest paintings, Pleasantville. I was looking through an old family photo album some months ago and came across a picture of my family taken in 1964. For some reason it resonated with me ... didn't know why then nor now, but it did. A few days later, I had a vision of a painting based on that photo, only everybody would be wearing flak jackets and holding M16's. The painting developed over a period of several months, but the end result is essentially the same vision I had back at the very beginning. (So in case you're wondering: yes, that geeky kid on the left is me).
This is a classic example of how my paintings develop. I usually work on a series of related paintings; for the past two years I've been working on a series of political satire paintings, and for the past year I've also been working on one about war. This series gives my subconscious a framework to play with. Then I dump a lot of stuff into the framework: old photos, advertisements, news reports, conversations, "old master" artworks, you name it. And something magic happens. Somehow, all this stuff gets churned around and percolated or whatever metaphor you want to use, and then suddenly I have an image of a painting. It may take a short period of time or it may take weeks or months, but my subconcious always comes through. It's then up to my conscious mind to develop it into a full-blown painting.
I never really thought much about my subconscious before I became an artist. I would "trust my gut" on occasion, but didn't really put a lot of value on it. It was only later that I began to really appreciate what was going on in that vast black cavern. The art curriculum at UNC Asheville got me started on journaling, which has proven to be one of my most valuable tools. I don't use it as a diary; rather, I use it as a tool to get my conscious mind the hell out of the way, so I can have a direct dialog with that black cavern. When working on a painting, for example, I'll sit in front of it and stare, and let my pen record what's going on in my head. I can't direct my pen, I treat it like a tape recorder or something: just record what's there, don't interpret. This lets my subconscious (my "gut") do the talking. It'll tell me what needs to be fixed, what's working, where my attention needs to go next, and so forth. It's really amazing how well it works.
A friend of mine does some beautiful abstract paintings. Her method is entirely different. She starts a painting with almost random strokes: a little of this here, some of that there, maybe a slash going that way. Then she works with it to bring some things out, push others back, add, eliminate, move, until something tells her it's done. It's very intuitive. I can't work that way. I've tried, and it just isn't me. I'm a much more linear kind of guy and need a fairly specific idea to work with. By the same token, no way in hell could she do the kind of paintings I do.
One thing we both have experienced, though, relates to something Jackson Pollock once said about his process. "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well." This applies to me, too, even though my work is far removed from his. Paintings are like children: you can only control them for a while, but sooner or later they begin to assert themselves and tell you what it is they want. Sometimes you have an easy give and take with them, sometimes you fight 'em to the bitter end, but you damn well better listen, or you'll wind up with a mess.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Chavez and Venezuela

In the past couple of days, the Venezuelan government granted Hugo Chavez the power to rule by decree. I (almost) can't believe that this is happening. The only other government that I'm aware of that voluntarily gave a man the power to rule by decree was Germany in the late '30's. How in the world can a group of elected leaders say to their people "We're so stupid and so incompetent that we're just going to give away YOUR power to a raving lunatic. Have a nice day!" Jeez, you'd think they'd have some bigger cojones than that. Even the guys who lost out to Hussein, Castro, and Kim Il-Jung did so at the point of a gun. But no, these losers in Venezuela just gave it away.

I see a trend here: the more oil a country has, the more wacko its leaders are ... unfortunately, that means that the people of the oil-rich country are usually abysmally poor because their wacko leaders are busily siphoning off all the riches. Chavez included.

Have a nice day, Venezuela.