Am I dreaming?

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, December 2012

We all need a sanctuary from commercial interests.

A few weeks ago… I am seeing Red. And I am looking forward to it. Red, John Logan’s celebrated play about the American abstract painter Mark Rothko is playing at the Belfry. This Tony award-winning two-hander hones in on the relationship between Rothko and his assistant, Ken—just Ken, he is never given a last name. The pair verbally dance around the studio; around art ideas and issues; around, finally, the very philosophy of art practice itself.

A play about art practice—yeah! Kudos to Artistic Director Michael Shamata for bringing it to Victoria. His tight, unadorned, focus-on-the-actors direction is entirely appropriate for Logan’s script—the characters never leave Rothko’s confining art studio.

In Red, as in his actual life, Rothko has just been commissioned to create a series of paintings for The Four Seasons—a luxury restaurant in New York. It is 1958. He bemoans the commercial context of his future paintings, yet he sets to work on them. 

The intellectual duelling between the professorial Rothko and Ken, his “I will not be silent” assistant, begins. Is art to be opposed to commercialization? Is a painting a commodity, or a sacred object? What is a person supposed to feel in the presence of art? Emotions? Lust? A spiritual moment? A tragic forewarning of death?

Who defines the meaning in a work of art? The painter? Colleagues? Critics? The viewer? History?

The actors bring to life this explicit historic moment when Abstract Expressionism as a movement had currency; when it was being touted as the truly American form with influence; when New York was coming into its own as the art centre, eclipsing Paris. Never mind that Abstract Expressionism, as a style, actually had its roots in Europe. In the fifties and sixties, it matured and galvanized in the US. The movement vibrated with its great-man-of-art-history pomposity; its pretension that art had moved beyond mere representation; but also the fresh, liberating feeling that painting was now free to deal with colour, canvas texture, brushstroke, shape, etc., on their own terms. Not to mention the paint itself—go ahead—throw it, drip it, pour it, push it onto canvas with exuberance and delight. 

And yet within 20-odd years, Abstract Expressionism historically fell on its own pointed paintbrush as the art world splintered into genres as diverse as Op and Pop; Conceptual and Collage; Fluxus and Feminist. Not to mention land art; minimalism and mail art; video art; installation and performance art. And that’s just a sampling.

Leaving the theatre, I wondered out loud to a friend whether Abstract Expressionism really has anything to teach us in this 21st century.

 

A few days ago… A colleague announces her plan to start a communications and marketing company for artists and other creative economy folks. She is asking for a bit of advice. Would I mind filling out a survey? I say sure. 

Soon, I start thinking about her words—communications and marketing. These days they are almost synonyms. In our heavily media-saturated culture, all sorts of messages drip out of our screens and it seems that every one of these communications has become some form of marketing. Of course, there is the obvious blurring of advertising with art. And the manufactured cool of communication commodities (think the new Apple iPhone) whose actual cool is being both celebrated and mocked (think the new Samsung Galaxy phone) in an artful, sarcastic way. Making fun to make meaning to make money.

In 1958, Rothko worried so much about the commercialized context in which his paintings would be hung, he eventually withdrew from the Four Seasons contract and just gave back the commission money. I wonder what he would think today, not just about the contemporary context, but the fact that his actual artworks, as commodities, are worth tens of millions of dollars!

Even when a communication is not explicitly commercial, it still inevitably involves some form of persuasion. Even all that well-intentioned social marketing. All manner of non-profits and NGOs are worried about their marketing. “Donate money to our cause; write letters to the powerful; come to our events; become a member. Please let us ‘sell’ these activities to you.” They use the tools of publicity, advertising, social media, branding.

Are there any surfaces, any spaces free from all this persuasive and pervasive peddling; this sell, sell, sell? Updating Rothko, one asks whether the museum or the public gallery could become, in the words of political theorist Chantal Mouffe: “...a sanctuary from commercial interests...seen as a privileged place for artworks to be presented in a context that allows them to be distinguished from commodities.” 

Am I dreaming? The art world is increasingly dictated by the needs of collectors—both corporate and individual. Free from commercial interests? Hah! Today, paintings are commercial interests.

And then there are the art show blockbusters. You know, those amazing touring exhibitions that promise us works by Picasso or Matisse, Kahlo or O’Keeffe. For a special extra $27 fee. Oh, and don’t forget to stop by and purchase a souvenir poster or a plate or a belt buckle. Or even a special cubist toy for your pet!

These days, artists, galleries and museums are marketing and branding as if their lives depended on it. And as the public funding dries up, maybe they soon will.

 

A few hours ago… Yet another invite to join yet another internet discussion group. Ho hum. But I check it out. The group is called Inclusive Museum. These people are serious, an international gang of academics, curators, cultural administrators, and a few motley artists. They want nothing less than to change the entire institutional framework for what a museum could be.

They toss around concepts like visitor diversity, knowledge frames, measuring participation, the virtual museum, the ethnographic framing of First Peoples, and exhibition didactics.

They speak of public spaces as knowledge makers or as cultural creators. Other than asking me to think about museums in this way, they are not really trying to sell me anything. In fact, they approach the whole notion of the museum not as questions to be answered but rather as answers, that we have been given, to be questioned.

Rothko was half right. There is a point, even a compelling reason, to preserve spaces, places and traces for the sacred. Away from any kind of commercialized influence.

Places for contemplation, wondering, questioning, day dreaming, meandering, thinking, contradiction and awe. And for feeling the feel of the day, the feel of this moment.

But Rothko was also half wrong. This is not a privilege reserved only for the art elites. It can and should be shared by all citizens. Everyone needs respite from the blind noise of the hawkers. Everyone could spend a few fruitful moments with a Rothko painting.

I look a bit deeper into the Inclusive Museum group. A word that recurs in their vocabulary—community. One of their many goals is to bring communities into cultural institutions. But also to turn them inside out, bringing the inner workings of cultural spaces to listen to communities.

Are they dreaming? Maybe. But I decide to sign up. I would like to dream with them.

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. He has just completed, along with France Trépanier, the first Audain Aboriginal Curatorial Fellowship at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Together, they are authors of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.