Friday Tips: Conformist or Nonconformist


An artist can be either. There is no written rule that says you have to be radically dressed, tattooed and pierced, and to the left of center in your politics to dwell in the art world. All you have to be is open-minded. If you can’t be that, at least be bloody good at what you do. Chances are though, if you were born an artist you were also in some measure born a nonconformist. This is something you won’t be able to help, and shouldn’t want to.

Without nonconformity, no democratic society can continue to evolve. If we didn’t have nonconformity, and therefore the drive the to question authority, we would still have institutions like slavery. Politicians, especially of the reactionary stripe, sometimes forget this essential part of our society’s makeup. So if you fall among the nonconformists’ ranks, take pride: you’re in good company.

Grandma Moses, in her quiet way, was a nonconformist. So was Whistler (God rest his turbulent soul). So were Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau, for that matter. So am I. I view life in my own untypical way simply because it’s how I see things, or have brought myself to see things. But that view hasn’t been arrived at haphazardly.

For me, I consider it one of my obligations, through my writing and gallery, to urge society to question itself, its direction, its purpose. I enjoy doing this, although it has a tendency to cast me beyond the pale. That’s fine. The artist is supposed to live beyond the pale, to be something of an outcast. At first this may anger you. Later, if you use good judgment, you’ll see the need for it, and the anger will slip away. Let it, although there’s nothing wrong with letting the anger back in once in awhile. Good work can come from that emotion if taken in doses, but self-destruction is more likely to come from it if used in abundance.

So sure, an artist can either be a conformist or a nonconformist. Whichever you might be, this is not necessarily a determining factor of the caliber of your work. But if you align yourself with the latter, no doubt the journey will be more interesting, and your contributions of a more enduring sort–provided you do more than just complain.

Ed Waldman and the 2007 Kansas Inauguration


Ed Waldman, Zohar

One of many of the pieces I’ve had the honor of helping to jury into Governor Sebelius’ inaugural art exhibit is this one, by Ed Waldman. Talk about unusual. It’s about 8′ high, and is made of stacked masonite, roughly cut and textured so that the entire stack has this jagged and dynamic–yet random–appearance.

Ed is actually a refined woodworker of the highest order. But I get the sense that his real passion lies in this direction. The committee agreed.

I don’t mind saying, this exhibition will be unlike any in the history of the state. Cool by me.

Quiet Day / Inner-City Gifts


I like the quiet of the house on Christmas morning, when no one else is yet awake. Take a quick jog, walk the dogs, make the espresso, set out some gifts. Not too many gifts. I’ve never been one for American excess, and don’t want my family to acquire that addiction either. Since our sons are virtually grown, I can safely say they haven’t.

One of the best parts of the day? Taking gifts to elderly folks on the East Side–people who have very little. You should see them light up when we come to the door. I’ve been doing this with my kids since they were old enough to reason, and it’s always helped them keep things in perspective on this day. The place they’re standing in front of is a run-down joint on McGee, filled with 10 floors of aged tenants, many of whom were formerly homeless. This was our last of 8 stops.

Dinner later with the relatives, then a movie. My wife voted for Pursuit of Happyness, my sons for Casino Royale. Me? I’ll just go with the flow.

Michael Ferris’ “Eric II”


I placed this portrait in the collection of the Overland Park Convention Center a couple of years back. I didn’t do this just because it’s executed with sensitivity, consummate skill, and pure passion also did it because OP is largely white,and any community that is made up of this inbalance, often suffers under a misperception of other races. Can a mere painting help correct the issue? In some ways, yeah.

Judith Regan Fired / Max Perkins, Where Art Thou?


Ok, so they finally got around to firing Judith Regan–after backing her on her 3.5 million dollar book deal with O.J., then pretending they had nothing to do with it. This, in the parlance of World War II vets, is pure chicken shit.

It’s not that I approve of Regan, her deals, her bosses, or any of the other scourges of her ilk. They have effectively ruined publishing for serious writers, shutting them out in favor of the O.J.s, the Paris Hiltons, the Madonnas. What this has done to our society is so obviously pathetic, and dangerous, that it’s not worth crying over anymore. Far more amusing to sit back and watch these barbarians go about their destruction, while lining their accounts (as if that will bring them to nirvana in the end).

Yeah it’s disgusting, but you have to admit it’s also pretty funny. What gets me though is the way they fired her: accusing her of anti-Semitism after she complained about her bosses forming a “Jewish cabal against her–those same bosses who earlier approved all of her moves. I can’t say whether she’s anti-Semitic or not, but I can say that those bosses–who undoubtedly include WASPS and Catholics–should offer to put their heads on the guillotine with her (faux guillotine though it is). But that kind of moral courage in publishing these days is rare; I ain’t saying it doesn’t exist, just that it’s shouted down by these obstreperous mornons.

What the hell ever happened to editors like Max Perkins and Richard Simon? We could sure use their type now.

Bamboo at Block / Script in LA


I don’t remember the name of this dude, but I’ll dig it up in the next day or so. Either way, he creates the most colorfully stunning work. Medium? Simple: he takes bamboo poles, and very tightly wraps them in electrical wire of all colors: blue, yellow, green, red, exposed copper, etc. Only it really isn’t simple. The intricacy gives me a headache just thinking about it; the artistry humbles me.

BNIM selected this artist. Good choice.

Finished another revision of the script today. I think this is #14. Is that a lucky number? Sure, why not. This one goes off to a well-known director in LA. Others still reading.

Bigots and Christmas Parties


My wife and I threw a Christmas party for our block last evening. We do these things now and then; it keeps a neighborhood feeling like a neighborhood. That party ended at 8:00, and I could tell everyone had a great time.

Afterward we went to a different party, at the house of a friend. It was what I called a Bipartisan Gig, being equally made up of Democrats and Republicans–not that politics came up. In Kansas City everyone goes to pains to avoid those discussions.

The party was a hoot, the drinks good, the stories better. But somewhere around midnight, a self-proclaimed frat rat–albeit one of 45–began telling racist jokes to a small group of sympathizers. They all laughed covertly, but I heard some of it, and couldn’t help inserting myself where I obviously wasn’t welcome. Well, that’s why I did it.

Eventually this dude began exhibiting some sense of restraint, and backed off his line. But before he realized that I was the only one not laughing, it dawned on me how this sounded disgustingly similar to cocktail jokes I’d hear as a kid, in the 60s, when unwelcome business associates would show up at my parents’ parties. It also dawned on me how much work I have left to do as a writer. I mean you can hate guys like this–and he certainly was easy to hate–but your true job is to try to enlighten them. Sure, that ain’t likely to happen with his type, but that doesn’t excuse you from trying.

It was a good party otherwise.

The Critics


The Critic, by Weegee

Sooner or later, as you do a series of shows, an art critic is bound to cover one of them. As with literary critics, theater critics, and every other kind of critic, you will probably agree with almost nothing they say, and will wind up wondering if they understand your work at all. Some will understand, some won’t. You may be flattered by what they write, you may be offended, you may be perplexed, but somehow their interpretation of what you do, and your vision of it, will almost never mesh. Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to. The critics are just trying to do their job from their perspective, and keep discussion of the arts alive. The fact that they covered your opening is what counts. Most collectors will forget what was written about it, good or bad, and go on and decide for themselves anyway.

I’ve encountered many fair-minded critics over the years who understood how to write an informed article, and to intelligently give their views. I’ve also encountered many who seem to be composed only of vitriol and pettiness. These critics often have very definite prejudices about what they consider art–meaning that everything that doesn’t fit within the confines of those prejudices, be it toward contemporary or traditional, is disregarded or panned. This attitude often makes me wonder how complete the educations of these people are, and whether concepts of open-mindedness are alien to them.

Just because an artist paints in the manner of Turner, and does it well, doesn’t make him shallow because Turner did it so long ago. Similarly, just because an artist creates an installation out of crushed beer cans doesn’t mean he is without talent because of the lack of craft. (Installations out of excrement and vomit? I’m amused by them, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever carry them. Anyway one of the Dadaists, Leonor Fini, did all that in the 1920s–with predictable results.) Still I encounter this narrow attitude constantly, and am always disappointed by the bigotry it reflects.

You’ll encounter this narrowness in certain critics too. Ignore it. In the long run, the critics will never have as much impact on your career as you, your galleries and collectors will. Critics can exert tremendous influence, but it’s a toss of the coin as to how substantial that influence will ultimately be. I advise you to not count on it one way or the other. Learn to count on yourself. There’s greater satisfaction in that, and far greater worth.