Sunday, November 20, 2011

Looking at Art with David Brin - 1

The cover art of the first David Brin book I can remember reading: Sundiver; David and I talking on the Highline 25 years later.

A couple weeks ago I gave a gallery tour to the scifi author David Brin and his wife Cheryl. They were visiting NYC for the Singularity Summit, where David had been invited to give a talk. I have been a fan of David's speculative novels since high school. For the past few years I have enjoyed reading his thoughts about today's world unfold in real time on his blog; and more recently via twitter. The tour was my opportunity to meet an author whose ideas about the world I admire. I offered myself, as a working New York artist, to be his "native guide" to the artworld of Chelsea. But it was also an opportunity to make my case for the modernity and Modernism I know and love best: the universe of useless things that make up our visual culture, and the greater part of our built environment - the art and the architecture, that David has dismissed as being based on "grandiose theories [that] serve largely to promote elitist snobbery" - and therefor antithetical to the modernity he loves most.

The events leading up to my invitation began a few years ago, before I started this blog, and just after I wrote Star Wars: A New Heap for Triple Canopy. While researching A New Heap I had run into an essay David wrote for Salon just after Episode I was released. In it, David damned the Star Wars franchise as anti-modern. In my own piece, written years later, I ignored the prequels and argued that the original 1977 Star Wars movie "hot-rodded Modernism." It may seem like a strange place to begin a correspondence - but David is a self-described "contrarian" - so there is wiggle room on his side. For myself, I enjoyed David's take on Star Wars, and believed that as different our positions appeared to be, at root we shared a common conviction: that the art we make for one another (all of us), and the stories we tell each other about it (all of them), are deeply important.
Cover for Star Wars on Trial; Frontispiece for Star Wars: A New Heap

By default David's occupation as a scifi author makes him a futurist, not an uppercase 'F'-Futurist like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (that'd be awesome though), he is more the lowercase 'f' variety, as in Faith Popcorn. But he is not a future-for-the-future's-sake prognosticator like Popcorn- he is a Progressive - a believer in Progress with a capital P. What I admire about him is that he looks to the future, not just for a NEW world, but for a BETTER world. He believes that modernity is best expressed as "reciprocal accountability"; the ethic that underlies science and (in theory) democratic governance: "This crucial modern innovation," he writes, "is what has finally moderated abuse of power, that was endemic in human affairs." Searching for signs of that ethic is the thread that unites all his writings, from his scifi novels to his non-fiction essays on the transparent society, he is imagining, and advocating for, a world that is more modern; and therefore, more BETTER.

He (rightly) associates Modernist architecture, from the early Nationalist Modernism of Frank Lloyd-Wright, to the International Style Modernism of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses, to a very different ethic: top-down command and control. And, like a lot of my friends, he believes that the contemporary architecture of Gehry et al. lack an ethic of any sort. The sin that these Later-Day Modernists are most guilty of in David's judgement is incompetence. In his mind contemporary Starchitects, like Frank Gehry, are fit to decorate sheds but they are not to be trusted if one needs a space in which to work or live.
"Howard Roark laughed..." (because he was a Sith)

I was interested to learn, that for the most part, David gives artists a pass: "At worst, such an artist wastes money or wastes my time." And he jokes (as an artist himself), "Art is exactly where that magical, ego-crazed part of human nature needs to go." I was glad, but not surprised to discover on our tour that David has real warmth for the lyrical abstraction of early European Modernists like Kandinsky, Klee and (most) Picassos.

I invited David to look at galleries with me confident that he would enjoy a day looking at art (the guy isn't a trog after all). But I had an agenda beyond being an entertaining host. The reason I invited him was that I hoped to convince him that the visual art aren't harmless; that it is an important circle of intellectual activity that should be tracked. That art, alongside technology, politics and the sciences, is a place that should be watched for signs of Progress. I am aware, however, that that conviction is at odds with over 30 years worth of consensus - inside the artworld and out.
"You don't have to have a point to have a point."

The hubris David is put off by peaked in the the early seventies. In the aftermath of WWII the Modernists had told the world that they knew exactly what they were doing; that they knew what was good for us - that they would MAKE IT NEW. Their credibility was undermined by the stridency of their rhetoric, the corruption of their politics, the violence of their foreign policies, the racism of their housing programs, and the toxic runoff of their technologies. 

Shaping the the future is an ambition that artists, along with architects and designers of every stripe, came to associate with the Modernists' brand of inflexible father-knows-best authority. 30 years ago most artist abandon all pretense that Progress was, or even should be, part of the program. By the time I started art school in the mid-1990s it was an unspoken given that the NEW and the BETTER were opposing forces. For the past ten or fifteen years, however, that separation has been eroding. In the wake of Steve Jobs' success, it is (at the very least) no longer despicable to want to make NEW things. The documentary Helvetica showed that it is no longer shameful to want to reclaim some of the Modernist's ambition for a BETTER future.
Redeeming Modernism

Making NEW things is important. It is a waste of time; it is a waste of energy; but so are the vast majority of cherry blossoms. A tiny margin meanwhile, are crucial to the survival of the tree. Art is a display of fertility. The irrational exuberance of starchitecture is the modern city's fruiting bodies. Any success (of any kind) is going to be a partial success. Most often, the best anyone can hope for are tiny marginal gains, but that is the stuff Progress is made of. We will soon have nine billion people to feed and house - we can't do that the old way. We need the NEW so we can find the BETTER (even if it is only a tiny bit better). Contemporary art is nothing like Modernist art's formalist 'laboratories' of abstract composition and material experimentation. The NEW art I wanted to show David was art that helps us see BETTER how we can live with ourselves; as citizens, as individuals, and as moderns.

I often feel cut off from my counterparts in literature, politics, and technology. Watching Occupy Wall Street take shape has been painful for me - not because I don't believe in exactly the same things as the protesters. I entirely share their outrage. But I do not share the OWS aesthetics of abjection, it looks suspiciously like old fashion sackcloth and ash. That is not to say I know what progress should look like. In the visual arts, shifts and changes come from all everywhere at once and have no discernible directional momentum. All of the art I showed David and Cheryl could be dismissed as overbearing, vulgar, and/or decadent. A lot depends on the stories you choose to tell about it. The stories I look for, the kind I told the Brins, are those that help us see the relationship between the NEW and the BETTER, no matter how lean the margins may in fact be.
The NEW reflecting the BETTER

I could not agree with David more when he characterizes modernity as "something much more fundamental than some trendy fads and formalisms." But I believe it is important to understand the Modernists, not only for what they (and their critics) say about the movement; not just for their narcissism, over-reach, and failure, but also for what goes unsaid. The marginal gains, and modest victories. Its those stories that explain why so much of their legacy survives and thrives all around us.

I am the first to admit that my goals for the day were lofty - but I really lucked out. David and Cheryl's visit coincided with three of the best shows that I have seen in Chelsea in years. I took them to see Richard Serra at GagosianNick Cave at Mary Boone, and Do Ho Suh at Lehmann Maupin. Three very different shows that engendered three very different conversations. As I told David at the end of the day when he told me his only regret was that we hadn't taken the time to see one more show: the best art you will ever see, anywhere in the world, is on view in Chelsea, but the worst art you will ever see, anywhere in the world, is no worse than the worst Chelsea has to offer. (Continue Reading Part 2)
David and Cheryl Brin, standing in front of Nick Cave's art and bracketed by Richard Serra and Do Ho Suh

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