An Artist Against the NEA, Part 1: The Case of Karen Finley

Karen Finley: This is what you get when art and politics mix

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

-Benito Mussolini

The wailing commenced as soon as the numbers appeared. After decades of threatening noises from concerned conservatives and fiscal hawks, a Federal government budget was produced that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

As an American artist, I think this is a wonderful development, long overdue.

Defenders of the NEA make the usual accusations, conflating being anti-government intervention in the arts with being anti-art. They justify the expense by pointing out how little the expenditures are out of a budget now reckoned in trillions. And they make the great leap to define withholding state funding of the arts as censorship. All of these assertions dodge accountability for results. How has the NEA improved the artistic life of America?

The NEA was the creation of the corrupt President Lydon Johnson in 1965. One quick measure of the program’s success is whether the visual arts are in better condition now than they were then.

On the contrary, contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance, with hardly any interest and engagement from the public. I would suggest it’s the top-down direction of arts development encouraged by the NEA and its fellow traveler, grant-giving foundations which have helped cause this great alienation. Far from encouraging a vital, thriving culture in the United States, the handout and non-profit mentality is propping up a sick and decaying model of art as an elitist virtue signalling endeavor.

Make no mistake, the cultural institutions supported by such programs hold the values and founding principles of America in contempt. It’s key for acceptance. The long march was so successful that the entry to the establishment now requires allegiance with globalism, Post Modern relativism, and Cultural Marxist deconstruction. It’s the partisans of these ideologies that get the funding and support.

The art world has been warped by the priorities of the subsidizers. If you want their checks, better get on board with their agendas. Leftists have to taint everything with their politics, their own petty little version of God, and their fantasy of the all powerful state as a benefit dispensing Utopia. There’s no way I want anyone subject to such delusions in charge of recognizing artistic achievement.

Many years ago, I had my own special encounter with a NEA star, a typical example of what elitist culture has to offer.

She’s nothing but a historical footnote now, but in the early 1990s performer Karen Finley was big news. She was one of the so-called NEA Four. These controversial artists were up for the federal agency National Endowment for the Arts grants, and came under intense political criticism. The artists had their grants vetoed, although they eventually won a court case about it, and got paid.

However, as a result of the firestorm the NEA ultimately stopped funding individual artists. At least Finley can take credit for helping end that particular abuse of tax payer resources. But at the time I encountered her all the legal maneuverings were still in flux. When she came to speak in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s  sculpture building, Finley was still notorious as a casualty of the Culture War.

Finley is a performance artist. Her claim to fame was hooting obscenities while smearing her naked body with yams. I wish this was a joke or an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Of course it was all about gender roles and social critique and whatnot, so that made it Serious Art.

We students didn’t know what to expect. Would we be spattered with tubers? Should we wear raincoats like we were going to see a Gallagher routine? Anticipation ran high.

As it turns out Finley kept her clothes on, and no vegetables were applied anywhere unusual. I suppose a group of mere students didn’t warrant the full Karen Finley experience.

She addressed the standing crowd gathered around her from a podium. I can’t tell you anything she actually said, as nothing she said was memorable. But we weren’t there for an insightful or intelligent lecture, we were there for a Serious Art Performance. And after her remarks, still standing behind her podium, Finley let us have it.

A Serious Art Performance, to Karen Finley, apparently meant yodeling, rolling her eyes and whipping her head around for a couple of minutes.

It was an annoying and mannered display. I felt the burning sensation of folly receiving the institutional stamp of approval. If that was art, then I’ve seen plenty of schizophrenic meth addicts hanging around convenience stores dumpsters that must be undiscovered geniuses.

Coming from her, it was all so phony. Her actions didn’t seem passionate or intense at all. It was clearly a ploy, a unconvincing simulation of being in a shamanistic frenzy.

My problem with Karen Finley’s art wasn’t because it was immoral; it was because it was stupid. There wasn’t an issue with obscenity, the issue was the failure to present a genuine and creditable work of art. And this is representative of the cultural experience our Washington elites wanted to throw money at.

As a bit of compensation for the dumb histrionics, Finley did show us a few nude video clips. She apparently liked to strip down in museums and pose next to actual art. That was kind of funny. The University was obviously putting all our student fees to good use, bringing in talent of such caliber.

During her fifteen minutes of fame, Finley got to play cultural martyr. She became a symbol, the fulfillment of the art world’s conceit of itself as an oppressed band of brave rebels.

The fact that what she called her art was a contrived, pathetic display was overlooked in the rush to the barricades. Her stated political agenda trumped any concerns about quality.

Finley has drifted into obscurity now, safely cloistered away  in New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts (annual undergrad tuition over $53,000.00), still trying to spark some interest in her sagging shock art. Museums are willing to throw her an occasional opportunity. In 2014 she did AA one better, and came up with a 13 step program for artists whose “lives have become unmanageable because of art.” Here’s a helpful hint: I wouldn’t blame art for the need to seek attention through grotesque displays.

Finley serves as a nice bit of trivia and nostalgia, a walking wounded veteran of the culture wars. The establishment takes care of its own. What they haven’t been taking care of is our society’s need for real art.

The NEA has failed in its mission. They’ve squandered their credibility. We will be better served by trying to find new ways to express an authentically American culture, one than the bureaucratic ideologues of the NEA never believed in.

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“It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

“I was not expected to be talented.”

Karen Finley

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

STUDIO: Stretcher Construction

Stretcher 2

A stretcher support for a new canvas, 36″ x 36″

I’ve written before on starting a new painting from scratch: Creating a Canvas.

It’s an elaborate process, involving lumber and quarter round, wood joiners and brad nails, a miter saw and a staple gun, gesso and sandpaper. It’s a big savings over buying prepared canvases, but that’s just one facet of it. There is a sense of thoroughness and craft I get from working on a support I built myself. I will use store bought canvases as well, but my most significant pieces were done on stretchers I’ve constructed myself.

This time I’m taking the process back a step further, and showing the underlying framework.

Today I’ve built another stretcher for a major painting, another 36″ by 36″ piece. The key to the way I build stretchers are these vicious looking little metal plates, which are called wood joiners:

Wood joiners

More than once in my painting career I’ve carelessly knelt on one these while building a stretcher; I don’t recommend it.

These days I’m using poplar wood for my supports. It’s an inexpensive soft wood which takes the wood joiners well, and it’s usually straighter and smoother than the pine wood I used to use. After using my chop saw to cut 1″ x 2″ lumber to the correct lengths, I use the wood joiners to fasten the pieces together. Then I nail quarter round molding to the outer edge on one side of the frame.

quarter round

Quarter round molding

This will elevate the stretched canvas material off the wooden supports, creating a smooth surface to paint on.

Stretcher 1

Detail shot: quarter round nailed on 1″ x 2″s, held together with wood joiners

This was the method I was trained in when I went to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’ve experimented with other methods in the years since, but I never found anything else that worked as well.

I intend this new canvas to be a companion piece to the painting I covered in my last series on a work in progress, “A Tale of the Forked River.” It was enjoyable to share the developments as I worked out painting issues of the course of many weeks, running from March 15, 2015, to July 1, 2015. See the entries here:

Creating a Canvas

Painting in Progress 1

Painting in Progress 2

Painting in Progress 3

Painting in Progress 4 – Completion

A Tale of the Forked River

The finished product, completed June 28, 2015:

“A Tale of the Forked River” acrylic on canvas 36″ x 36″

I have the vision for the new painting. For the moment it exists only in my mind, so there is nothing to show yet. But the title will be “What Does It Take to Make a House Haunted?”

I can’t wait to get it going, so everyone can see what I was shown.

PAINTINGS: “The Determined Sailor” and the Art of Perseverance

Determined Sailor036

Richard Bledsoe “The Determined Sailor” oil on canvas 48″ x 36″

circa 2006

I must admit, there was a point I didn’t keep very good records. So I find myself uncertain of the exact timing of a certain troubled interlude in my life. The best I can reckon it, it probably ran from about 2004 to 2005.

I graduated with my BFA in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993. In all the years since, I’ve never stopped painting; but during this dark period, my production slowed to a crawl. I had become fascinated with working on wood panels, a  rigid, unyielding surface to paint on. When things were clicking I had made some really inspired pieces in this format, but during this ebb of my artistic energy I couldn’t overcome the resistance of the medium, and even worse, the resistance in my spirit.

I made some truly terrible paintings during this period. If I get really brave some day, I will post those incompetent, blighted images. There are a lot of unfinished panels, and even the ones I called completed are in no way resolved. I haven’t gotten rid of them. They live in my garage now, safely out of sight.

But worst of all, the visions ceased. The basis of my art, the fully formed pictures that come out of nowhere, the profoundly meaningful images that are revealed to me in unexpected flashes, stopped appearing. It was like losing the key to Wonderland.

It could have been the end of my art. Things were really that bleak and frustrating. But it’s not the way I chose to approach life, to be a passive recipient, battered by forces out of my control.  Once I saw the real jeopardy I was in, I took action.

I decided no more wood panels. I went back to first principles, and constructed a canvas  in the same format I had been taught in my first semester of Beginning Painting, back in 1991: a wooden frame 3 feet by 4 feet, the canvas stretched by hand, and stapled, and gessoed.

For the image I also reached back to an earlier time. I remembered an idle doodle I had once drawn in ballpoint pen on the back of a flier, during a dull afternoon of gallery watching many years before. That was the icon I needed now.

The result of this effort at renewal became the painting “The Determined Sailor.” This was how I felt then. There’s also some Popeye in there, and some Winslow Homer. So much gets poured into each painting, it’s impossible to summarize all the inferences and connotations.

The example of this sailor I summoned worked. I found my way back into my art. In time the visions began to creep up on me again. Now the problem I have is I have too many ideas, which is a great problem for an artist to have.

That was probably about 10 years ago. For several of those years the painting hung in my studio, but ultimately it sold. A lady who had overcome some major difficulties in her own life saw the image online, and was so taken with it she made it her computer screen saver.

Naturally her husband sought me out, and bought it as a surprise for her.

I miss the painting, but the way it found a new home and family remains one of the most touching experiences of my art career.

“A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. Spiritual art does not mean the painting of Madonnas or Buddhas. Spiritual art is the painting of things that touch the soul of the artist. Spiritual art does not often look very spiritual, it looks like everything else because spirituality includes everything.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

 

 

COMMENTARY: Creating the Art of the Future

A Young City in an Ancient Land

Richard Bledsoe describes the principles of Remodern America

6. Modernism has never fulfilled its potential. It is futile to be ‘post’ something which has not even ‘been’ properly something in the first place. Remodernism is the rebirth of spiritual art.

-Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, The Remoderism Manifesto

My wife Michele Bledsoe, self taught artist, is now also a self taught video maker. I’m amazed by the results she accomplished in just a few days. DIY! See the video here.

She put together the piece above featuring my paintings and writings. I’m describing my thoughts on a seismic shift in ideas about how contemporary art is made and experienced: Remodernism.

It was probably around 2009 when my life was changed. Late one night, doing some random internet surfing, I came across the story of the Stuckists, and more importantly for me, the Remodernism Manifesto.

I’d been involved in the arts my entire adult life. I have a BFA in Painting from Virginia Commonwealth University. After art school there came the galleries, non-profits, arts organizations. It’s been a fascinating and joyful pursuit.

I love art and artists. Unfortunately the art scene also hosts a festering pit of toxic ideas and attitudes: the aggressive delusions of Post Modernism. This deconstructive system of nihilism, relativism and sophistry is presented as the only correct ideas to to proclaim, the only acceptable philosophy.

When I read Remodernism’s forceful denunciation of the failures of Post Modernism and their practical suggestions for an alternative approach, I was relieved to discover I was not alone in the world. Others recognized the issues our civilization was facing. Even better, they were doing something about it.

Childish and Thomson articulated ideas I’d always held but had not been able to express. It was trying to come out in my art, but even there I lacked clarity.  Reading their words made me intentional.

In Remodernism these 2 UK artists identified an open source art movement that comes right from the soul and reflects a tectonic change in the collective unconscious. It builds on the traditions of the past to create an art for the future, an art that is accountable to the people.

When they wrote their statement in 1999 they were ahead of their time, just like a good artist should be. Events have caught up to the observations they made. They stated that in the art world, the self proclaimed elites were dysfunctional and self serving. The establishment had bungled things terribly and now it was up to the rest of us to step in and set things right.

What was true about art then can now be recognized as a global phenomenon as our political classes frantically try to tighten their grip on the power they have mismanaged in a spectacular fashion.

The story of the twenty first century will be about the dismantling of centralized power. One of the first victims of the evolution in thought will be the rotting shambling corpse of Post Modernism. It was never really alive to begin with. Post modernism was a grand manipulative marketing scheme  by the establishment to create a baffled and distracted populace. Its collapse had been announced many times before but you can’t replace something with nothing. Remodernism provides the choice we’ve been denied by our cultural gatekeepers for so long.

 I am grateful for the integrity and generosity of the originators of Remodernism. A Remodernist artist is recognized not by a particular style but by a motivation: to connect on a deeper, more enriching level with his own nature, his fellow humans, and God, and to demonstrate this connection with his artistic expression.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my own art and words in the inevitable ongoing renewal of our culture.

STUDIO: Creating a Canvas

studio1

A new world, waiting to be discovered

I received a Bachelor of Fine Art in in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University. Even while I was going through the program, I often stated I was educating myself, in opposition to the ideas many of the instructors presented.

These days Academia is not so much about education as it is about indoctrination, the training of young minds to embrace the warped perspectives, distracting self-regard, and paralytic sophistry of the elitist class. It’s doubtful whether there is any true value left in most higher education under the precepts of today’s politically correct university model, especially in the arts. However, I was able to take a few tangible lessons away from my college years which have continued to serve me well. One of the most important things I learned as a painter was how to build my own canvases.

It’s an elaborate process, involving lumber and quarter round, wood joiners and brad nails, a miter saw and a staple gun, gesso and sandpaper. It’s a big savings over buying prepared canvases, but that’s just one facet of it. There is a sense of thoroughness and craft I get from working on a support I built myself. I will use store bought canvases as well, but my most significant pieces were done on stretchers I’ve constructed myself.

I’ve just completed a new one, a three foot by three foot square. Over the coming weeks I will post periodic pictures of the work in progress. Since I paint based on visions that are revealed to me, I know the image I intend for this canvas. However, as an intuitive painter, exactly how that image will get created will be a journey full of surprises, missteps, corrections and sudden inspirations.

Artist Maurice Denis is famous for stating painting “…is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” This simplistic and materialistic view, while technically correct, manages to miss the point and power of painting. A real painting creates a whole new world to explore.