Didion, Fischl and Why We Make Art

I've been reading a lot of Joan Didion again. As I walked around the gallery district of Chelsea NY yesterday, after having just finished her new book Blue Nights, thoughts of her kept echoing in what I saw. Of how she takes in the world and is able to make the intricacies of human life worth living, a fascination and wonder in every aspect- from loss, to the building of a tacky government mansion, to the patterning of a generation. The looming Didion was even more pronounced when, to my surprise, I entered Mary Boone gallery and saw a portrait by Eric Fischl of Didion with her husband John Dunne (image below). Fischl's show was strangely beautiful...composed of mostly grotesque pictures of the famous, garish yet reflectively painted, like exalted posed photos taken by a family member on a beach during a vacation but rendered in strokes so crudely precise and huge and thoughtful that the connotations of celebrity lead to pathos, enjoyment is confused in an expression: wonderful!

I started thinking of the work I did like in Chelsea (aside from the Fischl's there was one piece by Alan Rath, pictured below, made of feathers suspended on motors, that cooed and vibrated like a living thing, making us fear the future loss of nature, to wonder if the mating dance will be stripped down to this weird voyeuristic interaction that has no chance of procreation...and I also liked The Dolemites Project by Olivo Barbieri too, geologic porn with the oddest field depths that the nature lover in me couldn't help but resonate with) and the art I didn't like in Chelsea (cutesy little snowy staged landscape images and another show of painted & drilled carpets with kitschy concrete hobo clowns?). I read the artists statements, many of which just described the work and then added things like "it is obviously political" or "I was thinking a lot about walls" with no more explanation or depth. Then, on the way home from New York as I was reading The White Album by Joan Didion, I came across this passage:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

I do tend to prefer narrative art. Things that tell stories or are implicating a life experience in them, looking for a meaning or reason or beauty in a line, written or drawn. What I do not like, is things that are not only missing this aspect but are also not affirming much of anything... When abstract art first arrived it wanted to express an intangible quality in being and things, to stray from exact representation and show the philosophically changing world. I think the current contemporary art world tends to think it is following in this tradition: abstracting things, creating a lexicon of images that express the confusion of a new time. But, when the abstraction reaches a point where neither meaning nor feeling is apparent, where no Dada or Fluxus manifesto or profound artist statement is outlining the terms, or even apparent skill is present, then what happens? What story are you guys trying to tell? Is it that the world is so crazy it doesn't make sense? No, it doesn't make sense. But, as artists, writers, filmmakers, thinkers and all other people who are crafting our culture the stories and works we decide to leave behind-whether inherent in the work or as the people making them- should be ones of experience and hope, they should tell a history of when we live and why we live and how maybe we can do so better. If for no other reason, art should do these things in order for there to be a future. We make art in order to live and more contemporary artists should take this truth to heart...or they should at least be funny!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.