Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Portrait of the Artist as Supraman

Most heroes of Hollywood action movies aren't supermen, they're suprahuman. They’re beaten, shot at, dropped from buildings - they get cuts on their faces, their shirts get bloody but they never die. This is not because they have magical abilities like Spiderman or Dracula. Freddy Krueger is super. Hannibal Lecter, supra.

But not all supramen are created equal, there is a range. Some are just working stiffs - cops or firemen or some such - dropped into an extraordinary circumstance and forced to rise to the occasion. Bruce Willis' detective John McClane in the film Diehard is the best of the Joe-average variety.

Others are natural wonders, geniuses, like Bill Pullman's detective in the film Zero Effect (please make a sequel), these characters are in some ways clearly superior to us, they have mental and physical resources we can imagine having. All the same these supra-heroes are human, they aren’t bulletproof. Either the bad guys they face are just dependably bad shots or the the supra-hero is consistently very lucky.

Finally there are those who have been some how honed to perfection like Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. These characters verge on the super human, they can catch bullets, survive wounds that would kill the average man or woman.

It is possible to find examples of artists at every point on the spectrum, but what is interesting is different points are occupied by very different types of artists. "Stick-up artists" in Hollywood films aren't artists at all. Bank robbers, con men, magicians and prison break movies often have the same sort of material focus as sculptors.

The planning, plotting, fabricating, and execution all remind me of mounting a large installation, or piece. This is that baritone intersection of the dandy and Ben Davis. They are the David Smiths of Hollywood movies. But while these bank robbers/magicians/et al are uber-competent craftsmen, they are hardly ever supra. Sculptors are really rare in Hollywood movies, so one can't be too picky. The Iron Giant is a great movie, but I love it because one of the main characters is a beatnik sculptor (but not at all supra).

Detectives are more conceptual. Unlike spies, like James Bond, who are awesome but not artists in any sense (they are the fantasy of the early adopter), detectives like Sherlock Holmes are graphic designers. They are Hollywood's version of the branding experts and font geeks featured in Gary Hustwit's film Helvetica.

Sherlock Holme's attention to detail is mirrored in the awesome specialty knowledge designers trade in, but most of the rest of us take for granted. Just as Sherlock Holmes can tell all that needs to be known about a man from his walking stick, for designers differences appear in the use of fonts, and proportionate spaces. In a piece for the times Michael Bierut explains:

“I think sometimes that being overly type-sensitive is like an allergy... My font nerdiness makes me have bad reactions to things that spoil otherwise pleasant moments... Cooper Black is a perfectly good font, but in my mind it is a fat, happy font associated with the logo for the ‘National Lampoon,’ the sleeve of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ album and discount retailers up and down the U.S... I wouldn’t choose it as a font for St. Agnes Church even as a joke. Every time I go by, my vacation is, for a moment, ruined.”

We are all Watson in relation to Bierut. But also like Sherlock Holmes and Daryl Zero, designers are a bit lost between cases. Their passion is dependent on an assignment. They need a challenge in which to apply their creativity. Between jobs I imagine they all collapse into a drug fueled depressions.

My personal favorite artistic supraman is Richard Dreyfuss' character, Roy Neary in Close Encounters. His line, "Next time try sculpturing." has always seemed the perfect justification for the primacy of sculpture over painting. Neary is a really interesting depiction of the artist. Unlike most artists in Hollywood films, like Jack Dawson, Leonardo Decaprio's sketch artist in Titanic, who are throwbacks to a romantic idea of the artist, Neary is a post-war hybrid. He's Jackson Pollock but he is Pollack after Duchamp.

Unlike the fey Duchampian serial killers, who have their origin's in Hitchcock's re-imagining of Norman Bates as a young sensitive Anthony Perkins (Bates was a fat bald drunk in the book), Neary is very similar to the ideals of both his action hero and Action Painting equivalents. Like John McClane, he's a failed family man. Duty destroys the cop's family, visionary passion the artist's. Either way they both easily fit within the same non-threatening social norms of working class life that post war artist were made to fit.

Additionally he is a man lit up by a passion, struggling against himself, an alienated visionary. In 1966 the artist Robert Smithson mocked this romantic notion of artistic passion, quoting a press release for the bio pic Lust for Life: "Shot in Cinemascope and a sun-burst of color on the actual sites of Van Gogh's struggles to feel feelings never before felt." Having visionary passion is the artistic equivalent of dodging bullets. Neary is a Hollywood supraman, but in a particularly 1977 way.

In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut explains that "after WWII alienation ceased to be seen in the United States as a deviant condition and began to be viewed as a way of being. The period saw a reevaluation of madness and, more generally, alienation:"

The years 1947 and 1948 saw formation of such an organization and the establishment by the avant-garde of a new standard reference based on alienation and on the notion of freedom of the artist individual, together with all the anxiety and contradiction inherent in such an approach.

According to Guilbaut, American Cold-Warriors were pushing the idea that "true freedom" could be recognized by the "anxiety and frustration that the individual feels when faced with a choice." that in contrast to the "totalitarian certitude" of Soviet socialist realism:

The free world offered the exuberant Jackson Pollock, the very image of exultation and spontaneity. His psychological problems were cruel tokens of the hardships of Freedom. In his 'extremism' and violence Pollack represented the man possessed, the rebel, transformed for the sake of the cause into nothing less that a liberal warrior in the Cold War.

That narrative of tortured angst was largely abandon by the contemporary art world sometime during the 1960s. Smithson was not alone in his distain for that romantic idea. In his essay Notes on Sculpture II Robert Morris dismissed the "retardataire" part-by-part "Cubist esthetics" of the post-war sculptors and painters: "Such things as process showing through traces of the artist's hand have obviously been done away with." he wrote. (The painter Chuck Close is even harsher: "Inspiration is for amateurs.")

In a favorable piece on Sol Lewitt, an artist famous for not executing his own drawings, the critic Lawrence Alloway wrote that traces of the artists hand were believed, "because of there intimacy, authentic evidence of the artist's presence. Personal touch is highly valued on this bases." Elsewhere Alloway wrote:

The process-record of the creative act dominated all other possibilities of art and was boosted by Harold Rosenberg's term Action Painting. This phrase, though written with de Kooning in mind, was not announced as such, and got stretched to cover new American abstract art in general. The other popular term, Abstract Expressionism, shares with "action" a similar over emphasis on work-procedures, defining the work of art as a seismic record of the artist's anxiety.

A sea change was taking place at the time Allow was writing. It was a change Hollywood has absorbed unevenly at best.

In a talk for the Frieze Art Fair the historian Thierry de Duve said that the most famous modern artist going into the nineteen-sixties was Pablo Picasso (the father of the "Cubist esthetics" Morris dismissed), but by the end of the decade it was the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. In the 1970s artists like Robert Smithson abandon painting and object making and headed into the desert. Neary is a great depiction of the artist in that moment.

"This means something, this is important." he insists. This is the cry of an abstract artist at a loss. He is looking at a shape carved out of potatoes. The 1970s were a time when abstract art was falling from favor, but hadn't completely collapsed (it never quite did but there were some years where it was no fun making abstract work in art school). It was a transitionary moment when artists were still struggling to find meaning in abstraction, but meanings wholly separate from the narratives of the Cold Warriors. If his visionary passion is a relic of a Cold War artworld, his alienation clearly isn't a dated stand-in of freedom and democracy.

From the first moments we see him, its clear he is not a great match to the world he occupies. He is a bit of a man-child. A distracted father. And while he is shown displaying knowledge and competence at work, its clear he's not a guy with a lot of responsibilities. After his close encounter he is distrustful of authority, and while he is hardly a revolutionary, Neary's desire isn't a straightforward mater of self-expression. He wants to know "What the hell is going on!"

1 comment:

  1. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!
    Portrait Artists From Photo