Painting with blood and guts

Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant is a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era.
One of my children works with severely handicapped adults. His duties include stopping clients from smearing feces on the walls. These non-verbal, intellectually-broken adults share a means of communication with some of the more rarified intellects in the art world.
From left: Lucas, 2001, by Marc Quinn, sculpted of human placenta and umbilical cord. Self, 1991, by Marc Quinn, sculpted from the artist鈥檚 own frozen blood.
Last night my kids and I were discussing the worst trends in millennial art. We came up with the following list:

         Bodily fluids and excretions
         Abortions
         Nail clippings
         Placental anything
         Tumors
         Body parts
         Things in formaldehyde
What struck me was how self-referential this art is. They aren鈥檛 just Vagina Monologues, they鈥檙e My Vagina Monologues. It鈥檚 not just a bullwhip in an anus; it鈥檚 a bullwhip in Robert Mapplethorpe鈥檚 own anus. It鈥檚 not just art about abortion, it鈥檚 a project where Aliza Shvarts impregnates herself and then induces as many abortions as possible.
Piss Christ, 1987, by Andres Serrano, outraged the American public because it received public funding. It seems almost quaint in comparison with more contemporary bodily fluid art, much of which offends even my sensibilities and can’t be posted here.
This is the final step in Cartesian dualism: when you get to the point of ultimately rejecting the non-material, all you鈥檙e left with is your own body fluids. Can such art have any lasting meaning or value? I鈥檓 afraid it can; if we are the age of self-centered nihilism, such art perfectly represents us.
This is not to say that modern sensibilities cannot inform art beautifully. Alison Lapper Pregnantis a beautiful, difficult work that would not have been possible before the modern era, when our ideas of disability have undergone such a profound shift. But even this is a one-off in the oeuvre of its creator, Marc Quinn. He diddles endlessly with a work called 鈥淪elf,鈥 which is a frozen sculpture of his own head made from 4.5 liters of his own blood, and has been known to sculpt in feces.
But some of us are repulsed by this, which tells us that nihilism hasn鈥檛 completely triumphed. To counter it, we should ask ourselves why we are not nihilists鈥攁nd then paint the answer.

Let me know if you鈥檙e interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

On Art and Culture

Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant was the first commission for the Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square (2005-2007). It combines the best of audacity and craftsmanship.

This weekend I had the good fortune to see the great Irish-American band Solas on the second stop of their 鈥Shamrock City鈥 tour. Solas quarries material earlier explored by the Irish band Horslips: the Irish immigrant experience.
While Horslips were pioneering Celtic rock in the 1970s, Solas is more or less a straight-up Irish traditional band, a tradition that extends back before the mists of time. But layered on top of the music, 鈥淪hamrock City鈥 includes a video projection in the style of Ken Burns鈥 鈥The Civil War,鈥 which was a groundbreaking documentary released in 1990. I felt in some ways that I was in a cultural time warp.
 
On the way home, we launched into a spirited discussion in which we weighed the superior musicianship of Solas against the innovations of Horslips. Which was absolutely the 鈥渂etter鈥 band? The answer, of course, is both and neither, because all such debates are ultimately pointless鈥攂oth bands are poetic and moving and justified in their place in musical history.
The experience got me thinking about the ways in which art is and isn鈥檛 temporal. Is Bach any less of a genius because the Baroque was in decline at the time he was writing? Time has a way of leveling these bumps in the road. I keenly appreciate the difference between skinny jeans and parachute pants, but I鈥檒l be darned if I can identify the difference between various phases of Regency dress. It鈥檚 of absolutely no moment to me that Bach didn鈥檛 invent the fugue鈥攚hen I鈥檓 feeling fugal, he鈥檚 my go-to guy.
On the other hand, art is also nothing if not relative to its time and place. I was looking at a highly mediocre photo manipulation on Facebook yesterday. It had a middle ground of golden trees, some lavender action in the far distance, and the requisite figure on the foreground.  I said to myself: 鈥淭hat would make a very marketable painting.鈥 Photoshop has, no doubt, affected the way we paint.
There is nothing new in technology driving art. The introduction of new pigments in the 19th century drove French impressionism and indeed made alla prima painting possible. But that is a matter of materials, not outlook. What has changed with the recent acceleration of interactive media is how viewers perceive the world.
We are all familiar with the idea that photography liberates the visual artist from the need for representation. We鈥檙e less easy with the idea that it also creates other obligations. What magic can painting create to compete with Peter Jackson鈥檚 鈥淭he Lord of the Rings鈥 trilogy?
At first glance, heeding the siren call of mass media seems like inspiration, but it stops the artist from looking for their internal voice. Despite any other consideration, that internal voice must be individual; it must have the attitude of 鈥渇— it all,鈥 which is the polar opposite of whatever mass media is driving toward. In fact, that inner 鈥渇— you鈥 is the most important tool an artist has.
We live in one of the most beautifully-designed worlds in history, certainly the best-designed period in my lifetime. One need look no further than modern cars on the highway. With the exception of the Nissan Juke, cars are far more beautiful than they鈥檝e ever been before. Modern architecture is beautiful, modern highways are lovely, and if I compare the humble disposable pen of today to that of my youth, I鈥檓 practically transported.
Part of the improvement is in materials, part is because we鈥檝e shaken off the thrall of modernism and are again paying attention to history, and part of it is computer design. Part of it may also be a first glimmer of a change in attitudes about art鈥攖he end of the cult of genius.
Not comfortable? You’re not smart enough!
Frank Lloyd Wright鈥攑eace be upon him鈥攚as unquestionably a 20th century genius. In fact, he was such a genius that all minor matters such as livability, waterproof roofs, etc., were subservient to his brilliance. Heaven help you if you found his interiors damp, dark, or uncomfortable, or couldn鈥檛 read a trashy novel seated in one of the chairs you were required to keep in situ. Elevate your thinking!
However, nobody could accuse him of ignoring craftsmanship, which sets him apart from many other geniuses. In visual arts for the last century, audacity has generally been revered above craftsmanship.
This semester, my Sandy was required to watch a movie in her graduate-level Art Theory and Criticism class. I repeat her description, because I cannot find the actual video without wading through a lagoon of porn: 鈥淣aked men smeared bright red lipstick slowly, erotically, all over the lower half of their faces, then danced naked. In the next scene, they were in a pile, naked. Then one man grabbed another鈥檚 penis and flung it.鈥*
The point of showing this movie in an art theory class was that audacity quickly pales. One must constantly accelerate the offensiveness of the material to engage the viewer. But where is craftsmanship in this? If American teens can effortlessly film their own naked bodies with their phones, how can it be a question of skill?
Jake and Dinos Chapman鈥檚 Turner Prize-winning sculpture, entitled Death (2003). Yes, they鈥檙e audacious,
but it makes me think that if you’ve seen sex once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.
There was a proverb that still had some currency when I was young: 鈥淗e that touches pitch shall be defiled.鈥 This proverb presumed that purity is a value worth preserving. A Victorian could not have seen that video without feeling that he had 鈥渢ouched pitch,鈥 but I can鈥檛 imagine an American born after 1960 who has any clue what that proverb means. But this too鈥攁s every paradigm ever has鈥攕hall pass.
So how does one move past audacity? Marc Quinn鈥檚 鈥Alison Lapper Pregnant鈥 to me is the apotheosis of the modern ideal. The model is obviously handicapped, suffering from a congenital disorder that left her without arms and with truncated legs. She was raised in an institution. This is, frankly a far more brutal reality than any mincing, lipstick-wearing penis-slappers could ever attain. And the sculpture itself鈥攃arved from Carrara marble, is technically beautiful.
*You try searching for this on the net!