January 25, 2008

Kathleen Vanesian in The Land of a Thousand Dunces

How did you survive
Waiting 'til I arrived?

--Ira Gershwin, "Isn't It A Pity?"

by Jerome du Bois

Lucky us, that we have Kathleen Vanesian emerging every once in awhile from whatever limbo she lingers in to give us bumpkins the sophisticated skinny on the local art scene, complete with a report card on our progress. This one, about controversial public art, is in two parts, past and present, the tales of the Freeway Pots (a good thing because she liked them) and the Echelman Jellyfish (ditto), and she concludes that the big difference between then and now is how much the "arts community" has grown over the past fifteen years.

But first she has to put us in our place. Following the template of New Times editor Amy Silverman, she begins her piece with the wonder of her-- the obligatory transplant tale, sophisticated California cool among the desert rednecks, but complaining --this is an adult-- like a spoiled brat--

A refugee from the severe economic downturn wracking my beloved native Southern California, I had rolled into Phoenix in late '92, kicking and sobbing. That particular day, it was 105 degrees and two of the three money-sucking air conditioners in our rental house were down. No one, except for government types, had an Internet connection, cell phones were the size of small suitcases, and satellite radio was not an option to avoid Rush Limbaugh harangues as you drove across the desert. Resorts, retirees, and right-wing conservatism seemed to reign supreme here, with not a Vietnamese restaurant in sight. I thought I was going to die.

Then I saw those pots.

--and all was not lost; drama queen takes deep breath; but then she makes sure to insult us Phoenicians:

Those pots [along Highway 51] gave me a flicker of hope that Phoenix wasn't as culturally desiccated as I'd thought —that someone here in this vale of triple-digit temperatures and double-digit I.Q.'s actually had a pretty artfully honed sense of humor.

This kind of disdainful crap is nothing new from either Vanesian or New Times. Do you think that when she and her husband are cruising through the Third World collecting their charming little artifacts, that they care about the IQs of the people they hand their greenbacks to? Do you think that someone who had to leave Southern California --land of bimbos and car chases, sometimes simultaneously-- for economic reasons should try to come across as smarter than most Phoenicians? (I don't really think that way about Southern California, but you see how easy it is to come up with insults.) Is she only writing for the other people in "the smart quarters," her fraudulently elitist coterie? Does she really think she's not insulting a million people, the fooking twit?

The dowtown Phoenix "arts community" has definitely grown, but not grown up--grown only in numbers and noise and coalitions and playing city politics, not in talent or meaning or the making of significant art. And definitely not encouraging anyone who works outside of their comfortable, school-bred mainstream. What impresses Vanesian is the political scene, not the art, which remains thin, cartoonish, adolescent and derivative. That includes the Echelman piece --"Mommy, get me a balloon like that!"-- which Vanesian doesn't judge or critically evaluate at all; she just accepts that it's sophisticated. And, even though her article is meant as a summary of the two controversies, Vanesian doesn't broach any of the specific objections to the Echelman piece --about wildlife danger or vandalism, for example-- which were brought up at public meetings or published as online comments to newspaper stories. Ms. Andrea Norman ignored them, too, along with all our other commenters. (Vanesian does mention two instances of vandalism to the Pots, yet still remains verbally mute about the Echelman's vulnerability.)

And her heroes, the "arts community," acted in exemplary fashion:

Armed with facts, ferocity, cell phones, and one hell of an e-mail list, the local arts community, supported by downtown business-development coalitions, and citizen support groups, rallied the troops and elegantly took down the opposition at council meetings and in print.

I wouldn't say it's "elegant" to gang up on two number-crunching bureaucrats, who folded after one meeting. Their previous action, though --spiking the Jellyfish-- revealed a flaw in the vaunted "memorandum of understanding" "hammered out" over "a year of my life" by lawyer Richard Goldsmith, an active member in the "arts community." Why did those two City Manager people create this brouhaha? According to Vanesian:

Let's keep it real, folks. This was a purely political move in tanking economic times designed by City Manager Frank Fairbanks and deputy manager Ed Zuercher to blatantly circumvent the bureaucratic steps put in place years ago to ensure fairness in the public arts selection process.

"I spent a year of my life crafting what was eventually called a 'memorandum of understanding,'" says Lewis and Roca attorney Richard Goldsmith, a member of the Phoenix Arts Commission from 1998 to 2004 and chair of the Art in Public Places Committee during the height of the pots debacle. That memorandum of understanding was a carefully drafted compromise hammered out between the Arts Commission, whose very existence was on the line because of the pots, and city staff, including the mayor, city council and city manager's office, regarding the public process, procedures and guidelines for public art selection and execution. It also provided for extensive community input and participation.

A year? Carefully drafted? The obvious question, then: why didn't Mr. Goldsmith anticipate a move like this from the City Manager's Office, and close off that possibility? That is, following the process, learning from the Pots thing, keeping an eye out for potholes and potshots, how did Goldsmith not see that the whole train could be brought to a stop by one person? Don't look at me for the answer; I'm out here orbiting Pluto when it comes to insider art politics in Phoenix. I don't know any of these people, never met them. But sure, I'll speculate for a moment.

Let's keep it real, Vanesian. Neither City Manager Frank Fairbanks nor deputy manager Ed Zuercher are political neophytes. They know all about the untouchable sanctity of the Most Holy 1% for Art Program. They earmark money every day, so they knew in advance they'd never get to use that money for something else. When some people complained about the price of the Echelman piece, I think they saw the weak spot in Goldsmith's scheme, and, combined with their own dismay at the whole bloated idea of the Echelman blob itself, they decided to float a balloon, to test the limits of the "understanding" --and generate some more publicity, too. I didn't know about the Echelman piece until those two guys spiked it, so I'm glad they did; they got a lot more people talking --and making aesthetic judgments-- than all those vaunted volunteers in the arts community combined have ever stimulated about anything. Wankers, spun by two bureaucratic pros, and the "arts community" responded, as we've come to expect, like shrill, entitled children.

And the City Manger's Office got their answer, but let's be clear that it was not from "the public," but the bullies of the "arts community."

Vanesian transfers the shrillness to the real community itself --the people of Phoenix:

Funny that the proposed contract-nixing also just happened to occur after the sculpture was shrilly criticized by a chorus of disgruntled citizens squeezed by yet another economic slowdown, most of whom never participated in the selection process. These armchair cowboy critics — people who apparently can't get past kitschy kokopellis, howling coyotes, and cutesy cacti — predictably screamed about the sculpture being "too arty" and City Hall squandering unspeakable sums on a piece of sculpture when Phoenix was in the throes of a serious budgetary shortfall. . .

It's Vanesian herself who can't get past the kokopellis and cacti, and who blithely thinks she can get away with stereotyping huge diverse groups --citizens, cowboys, critics-- and denigrating their behavior. The "arts community" "troops" were "elegant," but these hoi polloi were "shrill" and "disgruntled" and even "screaming."

Some jumped-up, piss-elegant nouveau class you have there, Kathleen Vanesian. God forbid you or any of your friends would be so gauche as to raise your voices. But then, I heard that Andrea Norman was "furious" that anyone would question her judgment, and that Susan Copeland called Civic Space Park "a little nothing park" without the Echelman. Our betters, eh? No way.

She also overlooks that the Echelman piece is the ultimate in tourist schlock; somebody's already working on the little helium balloon shaped like the thing which you can purchase for five dollars from the nice man in the umbrella cart. It changes color, from red to blue, a mood balloon . . .

Vanesian ends her piece with the big difference between now and fifteen years ago:

Even more important has been the flowering of arts advocacy groups . . . and the maturation of the Phoenix arts community, which has learned how to organize, petition, lobby, and push the political process to its advantage and for whom there are more public art commission opportunities. Most important, a political process exists through which the mayor, City Council, city manager, and citizenry have active roles in choosing what they want to see in their city.

Again, I think most important are the numbers in this "arts community," and the sustained campaign to legitimize art-making as a "practice," like architecture or law. There's a huge wave of entitled post-students who have been taught that they deserve a living just for being artists, and the politicos and arts bureaucrats see them through their own eyes: as a constituency, people who "commissioners" can use to help secure their jobs and their own legitimacy.

And here we come up against another subject, one I've been working on for three weeks, called "Community, Authenticity, and Meaning." I won't go into it now, but I'll end this piece with the opening of the next one:

. . . blame [the delay in posting on] Jonah Goldberg, who gave a name to my pain --the Valley arts "community"-- with his bell-clear modern history Liberal Fascism. The book kept me away from this writing, but its contents fit right in with what I want to say. I kept thinking while I was reading, He's describing these local people to a T. Uncannily, and I swear this is true, I came up with the title for this piece several days before I even heard of Goldberg's book, and yet those three linked concepts, and the words themselves, recur throughout the book, from the lips of demagogues from Hitler to Hillary Clinton. And so they will in this pastiche as well, from the lips of Gregory Sale, Joe Baker, Susan Copeland, Matthew Moore, and others.

So don't run away yet. I'll just try to dial it down and keep the focus tight: I claim that contemporary artists, including many "practicing" here in the Valley, substitute "community" for "meaning," since they don't know what the latter is, or how to find it: all meaning has been leached from their souls through the Dispositions (socialist justice, white guilt, deconstructionism) taught to them in their high schools and then extended and confirmed by the teachers at, for example, the Herberger School at Arizona State University.

But "community" is a cipher, an empty set, so they're left with nothing within nothing for content and motivation, and only each other for consolation. So they make up issues --"you need to know this"-- as a substitute for legitimacy. The art-support nexus has created an inauthentic, jumped-up faux-community wallowing in nanny-state liberal fascism and seething with insecurity beneath a decal identity. That's what's behind the driving need for legitimacy, another word for authenticity, in the use of the word "artistic practice," for example, as if artists were licensed architects or attorneys. Which they are not.

A necessary corollary to the comfort and success of these networked artistes --and the rechannelling of their self-loathing-- is the denigration and demonization of the artist who works alone, the solitary who goes his or her own way: the true archetype of the artist. Because the true artist --an irreducible and inviolable individual-- shames the sham artists.

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January 14, 2008



Nature Photography by Catherine King. Do not reproduce in any form.

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January 08, 2008

First Sunday Update

by Jerome du Bois with Catherine King

[Necessary background to this posting is comment #20 in First Sunday.]

We're not talking about Pink Unicorns anymore, are we? We're not taking religion playfully anymore, are we? But Michelle is still bypassing Catherine's original point. Catherine wrote that a line had been crossed. It has nothing to do with atheism. Here were the pagans, gentle people who worship the earth and its spirits, its cycles and mysteries, its signs and symbols, its traces in uncanny orbs and Parrot Goddesses. You don't hear about any pagan suicide bombers, do you? They don't claim that they have all the answers, even as they build up the world. But it's somehow okay to ridicule these sincere seekers as a crew of infantile fantasy freaks. No, Catherine said, you don't get away with that.

I won't be answering Michelle point by point, but last thing first and it's got nothing to do with religion: where the hell you do get off calling us "racist"? There isn't a scrap of evidence that this is true and a mountain of testimony that it's false. So no matter what else you have to say, you'd better settle this first, because it's a goddamned lie! I am proud of my heritage: I am homo sapiens sapiens, and a white guy, but like all of us, I came out of Africa.

Now: Dawkins is probably the most arrogant of them all. Glad you brought him up. This is the guy who thinks religious instruction is child abuse and would advocate hauling the poor helpless empty vessels right out of the classroom. Guy's a closet fascist. Page 318 of The God Delusion:

I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

On the other hand, Lee Smolin is a genius physicist and an atheist, and he would never advocate the kind of arbitrary authority Dawkins would arrogate to himself. Nor would Christopher Hitchens. Nor would Daniel Dennett (I hope not, anyway).

One more point: you make a mistake when you assume that the reason for religion is comfort and easy answers. (You think walking with Jesus is easy? Get real.) Right now we're doing research for an art installation proposal that would use over three hundred distinct representations of gods, spirits, imps, kami, ancestors, forces, from all over the world and down through time. This sampling represents a small fraction of the myriads of partial, tentative answers humanity has come up with over thousands of years to the question: What's out there? Who's out there? What does it look like? Is it anything like me? Atheism effectively closes the door on such rich explorations, because atheists already assume it will be a dead end. Why bother? There's nothing out there, nothing but the darkness.

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January 07, 2008

V Is For Vampire

by Jerome du Bois

And vulture and vanity and vapidity, too, all wrapped around the same axis. We received a comment two days ago on our second piece about the Echelman jellyfish from a marketer for RSP Architects in Tempe named Andrea Norman, who also volunteers, she insists we know, as a member of the public art committee of the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission. She wrote:

I am NOT paid. I have volunteered over 1000 hours to the City of Phoenix for over five years. I welcome others to volunteer, also. It's always good to have divergent opinions. I'm sorry that you don't agree but please know that I volunteer because I care about Phoenix, not because I stand ANYTHING to gain. If anything, myself and other commissioners, take a loss (i.e. vacation time, comp time, time from families, etc.) to volunteer.

Andrea Norman

When I give an impassioned speech, and the first reply is that my shoe's untied, my answer is to step up to the interloper and demand what they're trying to hide. Let's find out.

First off, the rudeness. No salutation, no "I read your piece and I must say . . ." Just --boom--

I am NOT paid.

This is a marketer, a person who is supposed to be sensitive to the feelings of strangers, to cold-calling. To scoping out a situation. But not here because, well, who are we, anyway? She can just reach out a claw and clamp on our elbow and try to spin us around --hey you--as I say, rude.

I have volunteered over 1000 hours to the City of Phoenix for over five years.

That works out to less than three months out of sixty. Big damned sacrifice: I've spent that much time on a single work of art. What did she do? Go through proposals from a couple of hundred sycophantic "artists" whose only talent is working the system? Have coffee or yogatinis with Dwight and Joe and Susan from time to time, sifting through the proposals, watching the discard pile grow . . . ? Real hard work.

You may not be paid, Ms. Norman, but you cost me money every time you turn on the light in the office or meeting room of the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. I've paid for part of every paper clip and wastebasket liner and watt of energy in that office. If for some reason the POAC lost its funding for public art, you'd have to find something else to get puffed up about.

We're done with the wonder of you, now, okay, Ms. Norman? We're very clear that you VOLUNTEER. What's strange to me, though, is how you ignore everything else we wrote about the Echelman sculpture brouhaha, in two postings, or brush the whole thing off with the phrase "divergent opinions." Why is that? I wonder, and it doesn't take long to conclude that you don't really have to be accountable to the public; after all, when the Echelman thing was dumped by the city, all you and Susan Copeland and your crew had to do was get angry and vocal, and the city folded.

So you may not get paid, but you sure are costly.

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January 06, 2008

First Sunday

by Catherine King

So how's your 2008 going so far? Very well, I hope. Here's to a New Year with less conflict!

Having said that, there are times when one absolutely must say, or write, what's on their mind, no ifs ands or buts. Such a moment happened for me, unexpectedly, this First Sunday morning of the brand-new year. Someone crossed a line with me and now I've got to go on the record defending, of all things, Goddess Religion.

No, I'm not crazy. Not by a long shot. I do perfectly normal things like reading about Art and Culture in the Sunday morning media.

But I realize I'm probably alone here. No one else would have been offended by the female atheist "artists" mocking religious art made to female dieties. I feel sorry for these female "artists"-- they are so empty inside that they can't imagine that Life and the Universe have any meaning.

These childish "artists" make crappy art, can't come up with any real ideas, and make Woman into a bratty whore. What do I care about these people's "artwork" or their refusal to acknowledge FEMINISM? I don't, or I would have mentioned it a long time ago.

Let them go ahead with their pole-dancing and Dr. Sketchy burlesque. But don't go mocking Goddess Religion, you little idiotas.

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January 01, 2008

Word Art



The Twin

Whyn Weirds Kaleide

After Jasper Diver Johns: A Maquette. 2006. Digital Net Art © Jerome du Bois

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