Tag Archives: art

Why Collect Art?

google-search-art-collector

Art collectors have probably been around since humans first started scribbling, painting, casting and throwing (clay). Some collect exclusively for financial gain or to reduce their tax bills. Others accumulate works to signal their worth and superiority over their neighbors or to the world. Still others do so because of a personal affinity to the artist. A small number use art to launder money. Some even collect art because of emotional attachment to the art itself.

A new book entitled Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors by Erin Thompson, delves into the art world and examines the curious mind of the art collector. Thompson is assistant professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Parts of her recent essay for Aeon are excerpted below.

From Aeon:

The oil billionaire J Paul Getty was famously miserly. He installed a payphone in his mansion in Surrey, England, to stop visitors from making long-distance calls. He refused to pay ransom for a kidnapped grandson for so long that the frustrated kidnappers sent Getty his grandson’s ear in the mail. Yet he spent millions of dollars on art, and millions more to build the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He called himself ‘an apparently incurable art-collecting addict’, and noted that he had vowed to stop collecting several times, only to suffer ‘massive relapses’. Fearful of airplanes and too busy to take the time to sail to California from his adopted hometown of London, he never even visited the museum his money had filled.

Getty is only one of the many people through history who have gone to great lengths to collect art – searching, spending, and even stealing to satisfy their cravings. But what motivates these collectors?

Debates about why people collect art date back at least to the first century CE. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian claimed that those who professed to admire what he considered to be the primitive works of the painter Polygnotus were motivated by ‘an ostentatious desire to seem persons of superior taste’. Quintilian’s view still finds many supporters.

Another popular explanation for collecting – financial gain – cannot explain why collectors go to such lengths. Of course, many people buy art for financial reasons. You can resell works, sometimes reaping enormous profit. You can get large tax deductions for donating art to museums – so large that the federal government has seized thousands of looted antiquities that were smuggled into the United States just so that they could be donated with inflated valuations to knock money off the donors’ tax bills. Meanwhile, some collectors have figured out how to keep their artworks close at hand while still getting a tax deduction by donating them to private museums that they’ve set up on their own properties. More nefariously, some ‘collectors’ buy art as a form of money laundering, since it is far easier to move art than cash between countries without scrutiny.

But most collectors have little regard for profit. For them, art is important for other reasons. The best way to understand the underlying drive of art collecting is as a means to create and strengthen social bonds, and as a way for collectors to communicate information about themselves and the world within these new networks. Think about when you were a child, making friends with the new kid on the block by showing off your shoebox full of bird feathers or baseball cards. You were forming a new link in your social network and communicating some key pieces of information about yourself (I’m a fan of orioles/the Orioles). The art collector conducting dinner party guests through her private art gallery has the same goals – telling new friends about herself.

People tend to imagine collectors as highly competitive, but that can prove wrong too. Serious art collectors often talk about the importance not of competition but of the social networks and bonds with family, friends, scholars, visitors and fellow collectors created and strengthened by their collecting. The way in which collectors describe their first purchases often reveals the central role of the social element. Only very rarely do collectors attribute their collecting to a solo encounter with an artwork, or curiosity about the past, or the reading of a textual source. Instead, they almost uniformly give credit to a friend or family member for sparking their interest, usually through encountering and discussing a specific artwork together. A collector showing off her latest finds to her children is doing the same thing as a sports fan gathering the kids to watch the game: reinforcing family bonds through a shared interest.

Read the entire article below.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Steps of Life

Steps-of-life-19th-century-print

Are you adolescent or middle-aged? Are you on life’s upwardly mobile journey towards the peak years (whatever these may be) or are you spiraling downwards in terminal decline?

The stages of life — from childhood to death — may be the simplistic invention of ancient scholars who sought a way to classify and explain the human condition, but over hundreds of years authors and artists have continued to be drawn to the subject. Our contemporary demographers and market researchers are just the latest in a long line of those who seek to explain, and now monetize, particular groups by age.

So, if you’re fascinated by this somewhat arbitrary chronological classification system the Public Domain Review has a treat. They’ve assembled a fine collection of images from the last five hundred years that depict the different ages of man and woman.

A common representation is to show ages ascending a series of steps from infancy to a peak and then descending towards old-age, senility and death. The image above is a particularly wonderful example of the genre and while the ages are noted in French the categories are not difficult to decipher:

20 years: “Jeunesse”

40 years: “Age de discretion”

50 years: “Age de Maturité”

90 years: “Age de decrépitude”

Image: “Le cours de la vie de l’homme dans ses différents âges”. Early 19th-century print showing stages of life at ten year intervals from 10-90 years as ascending and then descending steps. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Victorian Mesmerism

Victorian-hypnotist-at-work

Myth suggests that Victorians were highly moralistic, sober, earnest and straight-laced. Yet, a cache of recently unearthed posters shows that those living during the mid-1830s until the turn of the century had other things in mind. Mesmerism was quite the rage, apparently. Oh, what would her majesty, Queen Victoria, have thought.

See more of these curious posters here.

Image: Poster showing a Victorian hypnotist at work on a group of subjects. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

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Desert Earthworks and Cosmic Connections

Star Axis

Some timepieces are intimate, think Breitling or Rolex or your trusty Timex [does anyone wear a watch anymore?] Some timepieces are monumental — prime examples might include Big Ben in London, the astronomical clock in Prague and Munich’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel,.

But then, there are time-keeping instruments on an altogether different scale — ones that dominate a significant portion of the landscape. And, where better to find one such example than the stark, high desert of New Mexico.

From the Guardian:

Somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico, a nail is embedded into a type of flat-topped mountain known as a mesa. The positioning of this nail, shielded from the elements by a tin can, took days of trial and error, with astronomical measurements provided by the US Naval Observatory and the help of a surveyor. Finally, the correct spot was located: exactly in alignment with the axis of the Earth from the south pole to the north.

This nail – which I braved rattlesnakes to find, on a mountaintop strewn with slabs of granite – was fundamental to the success of Star Axis, an extraordinary naked-eye observatory that is the brainchild of artist Charles Ross. Only when Ross was sure he had the orientation precisely correct could he begin to build the structure he had dreamed about – an obsession that has consumed him since 1971.

Star Axis is one of the world’s defining earthworks, otherwise known as land art. In the late 60s, a generation of young, New York-based artists, inspired by the space race but also by the turmoil of Vietnam, decided that galleries weren’t big enough to house their visions. So they struck out, choosing instead to make works on an epic scale, sculpted from the elements, in the astounding desert landscapes of the US south-west.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Star Axis. Courtesy: Star Axis / Charles Ross.

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Bad Art of the Deal

Urinal-art

It goes without question that a billionaire narcissist — who just happens to be running for president of the United States in 2016 — will have any number of images of himself (there aren’t many billionaire narcissistic women). But for every photograph or artwork that celebrates and reinforces the narcissist — no doubt commissioned for or by the narcissist and hanging in a prominent spot in one each of his homes — there will be another work that seeks to counter the narcissist’s carefully curated image. This is what good political art does. It counters and questions, and it supplements our open political discourse so that we may see and weigh other perspectives.

Oh, and it’s sharply and darkly funny too!

Image: Donald Trump meets Rolling Stones-inspired urinals at Belushi’s sports bar in Paris. Artists: William Duke and Brandon Griffin have added. Photograph: Meike van Schijndel.

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A Trip to Titan

titanNASA is advertising its upcoming space tourism trip to Saturn’s largest moon Titan with this gorgeous retro poster.

Just imagine rowing across Titan’s lakes and oceans, and watching Saturn set below the horizon. So, dump that planned cruise down the Danube and hike to your local travel agent before all the seats are gone. But, before you purchase a return ticket keep in mind the following:

Frigid and alien, yet similar to our own planet billions of years ago, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere, organic-rich chemistry and a surface shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane. Cold winds sculpt vast regions of hydrocarbon-rich dunes. There may even be cryovolcanoes of cold liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter was designed to peer through Titan’s perpetual haze and unravel the mysteries of this planet-like moon.
Image: Titan poster. Courtesy of NASA/JPL.
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The Random Darknet Shopper

Good art pushes our boundaries; it causes us to question our accepted views and perceptions. Good art makes us think.

So, here’s a great example — the Random Darknet Shopper.

Briefly, the Random Darknet Shopper is an automated shopping robot; actually an automated process running on a laptop. It makes random purchases online, and then has its booty delivered to an art gallery in London where it is displayed. Once a week the shopping bot will spend up to $100 on Alpha Bay, one of the Darknet’s largest marketplaces — a trade zone for many dubious and often illegal goods and services.

Google-search-RDS

During its first run from October 2014 to January 2015, the Random Darknet Shopper bought a dozen items from the deepweb market Agora, including: replica Diesel jeans, Hungarian passport scan, Sprite stash can, baseball cap with integrated spy camera, ecstasy pills, fake Nike trainers, platinum Visa credit card.

This may not be altogether visually appealing, but it’s thought provoking nonetheless, with an added twist — the artists and art gallery may end up in legal hot water should the robot make some dubious purchases.

Read more about the artists and the project.

From the Independent:

On balance, it’s unlikely that police will swoop on a south London art gallery this week and apprehend a laptop that will be busy making random purchases from a secretive part of the web known as the Darknet.

Then again, it depends what the automated shopping ’bot known as Random Darknet Shopper chooses to buy online and have delivered to the gallery. Fake trainers or a counterfeit designer T-shirt are unlikely to attract the interest of the authorities, but Class A drugs or a gun would be a different matter.

“We just don’t know what’s going to turn up [at the gallery] which is what makes it difficult legally,” said Susan Singleton, the solicitor who has provided legal advice to the Swiss artists who designed the Shopper. “The major caveat here is that the artists are not telling it to buy drugs, so they wouldn’t be responsible. But once the goods come into their possession you move to an entirely separate set of offences.”

Artists Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf are well aware that their creation may land them in hot water when it begins an eight-week shopping spree at the Horatio Junior gallery in Rotherhithe on Friday. Every Wednesday, the ’bot will spend up to $100 (£66) in Bitcoins on an item selected at random from Alpha Bay, one of the largest marketplaces on the Darknet. Each item will be delivered to the gallery, where the artists will add them to a display they describe as a “Darknet landscape”.

“It is both exciting and nerve wracking,” said Smoljo, 36, who created the Shopper with Weisskopf, 39, last year as a means of exploring and understanding a secret part of the web. “I sleep badly the night before it goes shopping  … it is something that is out of our control. We feel vulnerable, but at the same time we like it.”

When Darknet Shopper was exhibited in Switzerland last year its random purchases included a pair of fake Nike trainers, counterfeit designer jeans from China and 10 packets of cigarettes from Ukraine. Swiss police took an interest when it added a bag of 10 ecstasy tablets to its haul and the pills were put on display.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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PhotoMash: Two Kinds of Monster, One Real

I couldn’t resist this week’s photo mash-up. This one comes courtesy of the Guardian on December 3, 2015. It features two types of monster very aptly placed alongside each other by a kindly newspaper editor.

Photomash-Trump-vs-Monsters

The first monster happens to want to be President of the United States. He seems to be a racist, misogynist and raving bigot, and unfortunately (for some), he’s very real. The second, is a story of photographic artist Flora Borsi. She’s tired of perfect models with perfect hair in perfect fashion photographs. So, she retouches them, or in her words “detouches” the images into her “little monsters”. These are not real.

Our real world can be rather surreal.

Images courtesy of Guardian.

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Art and Money

Google-search-Damien-Hirst-Dots

The process through which an artist finds fortune and fame is a complex one, though to many of us — even those who have spent some time within the art world — it seems rather random and obscure. Raw talent alone will only carry an artist up the first rungs of the ladder of success. To gain the upper reaches requires and modicum of luck and lots of communication, connections, sales and marketing.

Unfortunately, for those artists who seek only to create and show their works (and perhaps even sell a few), the world of art is very much a business. It is driven by money, personality (of the artist or her proxies) and market power of a select few galleries, curators, critics, collectors, investors, and brokers. So, just like any other capitalist adventure the art market can be manoeuvered  and manipulated. As a result, a few artists become global superstars, while still living, their art taking on a financial life of its own; the remaining 99.999 percent — well, they’ll have to hold on to their day-jobs.

From WSJ:

Next month, British artist Damien Hirst—a former superstar whose prices plummeted during the recession—could pull off an unthinkable feat: By opening a free museum, called the Newport Street Gallery, in south London to display his private collection of other artists’ works, Mr. Hirst could salvage his own career.

Just as the new museum opens, an independent but powerful set of dealers, collectors and art advisers are quietly betting that a surge of interest in Mr. Hirst’s new endeavor could spill over into higher sales for his art. Some, like New York dealer Jose Mugrabi, are stockpiling Hirsts in hopes of reselling them for later profits, believing a fresh generation of art collectors will walk away wanting to buy their own Hirsts. Mr. Mugrabi, who helped mount successful comeback campaigns in the past for Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Richard Prince, said he owns 120 pieces by Mr. Hirst, including $33 million of art he bought directly from the artist’s studio three months ago.

Other dealers, such as Pilar Ordovas, are organizing gallery shows that place Mr. Hirst’s work alongside still-popular artists, angling for a beneficial comparison.

New York art adviser Kim Heirston, whose clients include Naples collector Massimo Lauro, said she has been scouring for Hirsts at fairs and auctions alike. “I’m telling anybody who will listen to buy him because Damien Hirst is here to stay,” Ms. Heirston said.

If successful, their efforts could offer a real-time glimpse into the market-timing moves of the art-world elite, where the tastes of a few can still sway the opinions of the masses. Few marketplaces are as changeable as contemporary art. This is a realm where price levels for an artist can be catapulted in a matter of minutes by a handful of collectors in an auction. Those same champions can then turn around the following season and dump their stakes in the same artist, dismissing him as a sellout. Like fashion, the roster of coveted artists is continually being reshuffled in subtle ways.

Most artists with lengthy careers have seasons of ebb and flow, and collectors who sync their buying and selling can profit accordingly, experts say. Before the recession, Mr. Hirst, age 50, was an art-world darling, the leader of London’s 1990s generation of so-called Young British Artists who explored ideas about life and death in provocative, outsize ways. He is best known for covering canvases in dead butterflies and polka dots whose rainbow hues he color-coded to match chemical compounds found in drugs.

During the market’s last peak, collectors paid as much as $19 million at auction for his artworks, and he staffed multiple studios throughout the U.K. with as many as 100 studio assistants to help produce his works. Mr. Hirst is reportedly worth an estimated $350 million, thanks to his art sales but also his skill as a businessman, amassing an empire of real estate holdings in the U.K. and elsewhere. He also co-founded a publishing company called Other Criteria in 2005 that publishes art books, artist-designed clothing and prints of his works, as well as other emerging artists.

But his star fell sharply after he committed an art-world taboo by bypassing conventional sales channels—selling works slowly through galleries—and auctioned off nearly $200 million of his work directly at Sotheby’s in 2008. While the sale was successful and proved his popularity, it became his undoing. He irked his galleries and some longtime collectors, who felt he had flooded his own marketplace for a singular payout. These days, it’s “much riskier” to trade a Hirst at auction than it was a decade ago, according to Michael Moses, co-founder of an auction tracking firm called Beautiful Asset Advisors. Collectors who bought and resold his works since 2005 have mainly suffered losses, Mr. Moses added.

Read the entire story here.

Image: A collection of some of Damien Hirst’s “dot” works. Courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Art And Algorithms And Code And Cash

#!/usr/bin/perl
# 472-byte qrpff, Keith Winstein and Marc Horowitz 
# MPEG 2 PS VOB file -> descrambled output on stdout.
# usage: perl -I :::: qrpff
# where k1..k5 are the title key bytes in least to most-significant order

s''$/=\2048;while(<>){G=29;R=142;if((@a=unqT="C*",_)[20]&48){D=89;_=unqb24,qT,@
b=map{ord qB8,unqb8,qT,_^$a[--D]}@INC;s/...$/1$&/;Q=unqV,qb25,_;H=73;O=$b[4]<<9
|256|$b[3];Q=Q>>8^(P=(E=255)&(Q>>12^Q>>4^Q/8^Q))<<17,O=O>>8^(E&(F=(S=O>>14&7^O)
^S*8^S<<6))<<9,_=(map{U=_%16orE^=R^=110&(S=(unqT,"\xb\ntd\xbz\x14d")[_/16%8]);E
^=(72,@z=(64,72,G^=12*(U-2?0:S&17)),H^=_%64?12:0,@z)[_%8]}(16..271))[_]^((D>>=8
)+=P+(~F&E))for@a[128..$#a]}print+qT,@a}';s/[D-HO-U_]/\$$&/g;s/q/pack+/g;eval

You know that hacking has gone mainstream when the WSJ features it on the from page. Further, you know it must be passé when the WSJ claims that the art world is now purveying chunks of code as, well, art. You have to love this country for its entrepreneurial capitalist acumen!

So, if you are an enterprising (ex-)coder and have some cool Fortran, C++, or better yet, Assembler, lying around, dust off the diskette (or floppy, or better, yet, a punch card) and make haste to your nearest art gallery. You could become the first Picasso of programming — onward to the Gagosian! My story began with PL/1, IMS and then C, so my code may only be worthy of the artistic C-list.

From WSJ:

In March, Daniel Benitez, a cinema executive in Miami, paid $2,500 for a necktie. It wasn’t just any strip of designer neckwear. Imprinted on the blue silk were six lines of computer code that once brought the motion picture industry to its knees.

To the unschooled eye, the algorithm script on the tie, known formally as “qrpff,” looks like a lengthy typographical error.

But to Mr. Benitez and other computer cognoscenti, the algorithm it encodes is an artifact of rare beauty that embodies a kind of performance art. He framed it.

The algorithm sets out a procedure for what copyright holders once deemed a criminal act: picking the software lock on the digital scrambling system that Hollywood uses to protect its DVDs. At the turn of the century, hackers encoded it in many ways and distributed them freely—as programs, lines of poetry, lyrics in a rock song, and a square dance routine. They printed it on T-shirts and ties, like the item Mr. Benitez purchased. They proclaimed it free speech. No matter how many times the entertainment industry sued, their lawyers found the algorithm as hard to eradicate as kudzu.

Now it is exhibit A in the art world’s newest collecting trend.

Dealers in digital art are amassing algorithms, the computerized formulas that automate processes from stock-market sales to social networks.

In March, the online art brokerage Artsy and a digital code gallery called Ruse Laboratories held the world’s first algorithm art auction in New York. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where the auction was held as a fundraiser, is assembling a collection of computer code. In April, the Museum of Modern Art convened a gathering of computer experts and digital artists to discuss algorithms and design.

It is a small step for technology but a leap, perhaps, for the art world. “It is a whole new dimension we are trying to grapple with,” said curatorial director Cara McCarty at the Cooper Hewitt museum. “The art term I keep hearing is code.”

Read the entire article here.

Code snippet: Qrpff. A Perl script for decoding DVD content scrambling.

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Self-Absorbed? Rejoice!

aricsnee-selfie-arm

From a culture that celebrates all things selfie comes the next logical extension. An invention that will surely delight any image-conscious narcissist.

The “selfie arm” is a wonderful tongue-firmly-in-cheek invention of artists Aric Snee and Justin Crowe. Their aim, to comment on the illusion of sociableness and connectedness. Thankfully they plan to only construct 10 of these contraptions. But, you know, somewhere and soon, a dubious entrepreneur will be hawking these for $19.95.

One can only hope that the children of Gen-Selfie will eventually rebel against their self-absored parents — until then I’m crawling back under my rock.

From Wired UK:

A selfie stick designed to look like a human arm will ensure you never look alone, but always feel alone. The accessory is designed to make it appear that a lover or friend is holding your hand while taking a photo, removing the crushing sense of narcissistic loneliness otherwise swamping your existence.

The prototype ‘selfie arm’ is the work of artists Justin Crowe and Aric Snee and isn’t intended to be taken seriously. Made of fibreglass, the selfie arm was created in protest against the “growing selfie stick phenomenon, and the constant, gnawing need for narcissistic internet validation,” according to Designboom.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Selfie arm by Aric Snee and Justin Crowe. Courtesy of Aric Snee and Justin Crowe.

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The Me-Useum

art-in-island-museum

The smartphone and its partner in crime, the online social network, begat the ubiquitous selfie. The selfie begat the self-stick. And, now we have the selfie museum. This is not an April Fool’s prank. Quite the contrary.

The Art in Island museum in Manila is making the selfie part of the visitor experience. Despite the obvious crassness, it may usher in a way for this and other museums to engage with their visitors more personally, and for visitors to connect with art more intimately. Let’s face it, if you ever try to pull a selfie-like stunt, or even take a photo, in the Louvre or the Prado galleries you would be escorted rather promptly to the nearest padded cell.

From the Guardian:

Selfiemania in art galleries has reached new heights of surreal comedy at a museum in Manila. Art in Island is a museum specifically designed for taking selfies, with “paintings” you can touch, or even step inside, and unlimited, unhindered photo opportunities. It is full of 3D reproductions of famous paintings that are designed to offer the wackiest possible selfie poses.

Meanwhile, traditional museums are adopting diverse approaches to the mania for narcissistic photography. I have recently visited museums with wildly contrasting policies on picture taking. At the Prado in Madrid, all photography is banned. Anything goes? No, nothing goes. Guards leap on anyone wielding a camera.

At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris photography is a free-for-all. Even selfie sticks are allowed. I watched a woman elaborately pose in front of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe so she could photograph herself with her daft selfie stick. This ostentatious technology turns holiday snaps into a kind of performance art. That is what the Manila museum indulges.

My instincts are to ban selfie sticks, selfies, cameras and phones from museums. But my instincts are almost certanly wrong.

Surely the bizarre selfie museum in Manila is a warning to museums, such as New York’s MoMA, that seek to ban, at the very least, selfie sticks – let alone photography itself. If you frustrate selfie enthusiasts, they may just create their own simulated galleries with phoney art that’s “fun” – or stop going to art galleries entirely.

It is better for photo fans to be inside real art museums, looking – however briefly – at actual art than to create elitist barriers between museums and the children of the digital age.

The lure of the selfie stick, which has caused such a flurry of anxiety at museums, is exaggerated. It really is a specialist device for the hardcore selfie lover. At the Musée d’Orsay there are no prohibitions, but only that one visitor, in front of the Manet, out of all the thousands was actually using a selfie stick.

And there’s another reason to go easy on selfies in museums, however irritating such low-attention-span, superficial behaviour in front of masterpieces may be.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Jean-François Millet’s gleaners break out of his canvas. The original, The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) was completed in 1857. Courtesy of Art in Island Museum. Manila, Philippines.

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Exotic Exoplanets Await Your Arrival

NASA_kepler16b_poster

Vintage travel posters from the late 1890s through to the 1950s colorfully captured the public’s imagination. Now, not to be outdone by the classic works from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, NASA has published a series of its own. But, these posters go beyond illustrating alpine ski resorts, sumptuous hotels and luxurious cruises. Rather, NASA has its sights on exotic and very distant travels — from tens to hundreds of millions of light-years. One such spot is the destination Kepler-16.

Kepler-16 A/B is a binary star system in the constellation of Cygnus that was targeted for analysis by the Kepler exoplanet hunting spacecraft. The star system is home to a Saturn-sized planet Kepler 16b orbiting the red dwarf star, Kepler 16-B, and  is 196 light-years from Earth.

See more of NASA’s travel posters here.

 

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Nightmares And Art

Sleep-Nicolas-Bruno

You probably believe that your nightmares are best left locked in a dark closet. On the other hand, artist Nicolas Bruno believes they make good art.

See more of Bruno’s nightmarish images here.

From the Guardian:

Sufferer of sleep paralysis Nicolas Bruno transforms his terrifying dreams into photographic realities. The characters depicted are often stuck within their scenes, unable to escape. The 20 year old New York native suggests ‘Sleep paralysis is an experience in which the individual becomes conscious and is left immobile in a state between being awake and asleep.’

Image courtesy of Nicolas Bruno / Hot Spot Media.

 

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New Street Artists Meet Old Masters

Some enterprising and talented street artists have re-imagined works by old masters, such as Rembrandt. An example below: Judith with the Head of Holofernes by 17th century artist Cristofano Allori, followed by a contemporary rendition courtesy of street artist Discreet, 2013.

Judith-AlloriJudith with the Head of Holofernes, 17th century, Cristofano Allori. Photograph: Dulwich Picture Gallery.

 

Judith-DiscreetJudith with the Head of Holofernes (2013), Dscreet, formerly on Blackwater Street/153 Lordship Lane, London, SE22.

See more juxtaposed, old and new images here.

Images courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery and Discreet (photograph by Ingrid Beazley), respectively.

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Ten Greatest Works

PicassoGuernica

 

 

 

 

 

I would take issue with Jonathan Jones’ top ten best works of art, ever. Though the list of some chosen artists is perhaps a fair representation of la creme de la creme — Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Velasquez for sure.

One work that clearly does belong in the list is Guernica. Picasso summed up the truth of fascism and war in this masterpiece.

See more of Jones’ top ten here.

Image: Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937. Prado Museum, Madrid. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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The Power of the Female Artist

Artemisia_Gentileschi-Judith_Beheading_Holofernes

Despite progress gender equality remains a myth in most areas of our modern world. In most endeavors women have made significant strides in catching men — vying for the same levels of attention, education, fame, wealth and power. It is certainly the case in the art world too — women have made, and are continuing to make, progress in attaining parity — but it is still a male dominated culture. That said, some female artists have managed to rise above the male tide to capture the global imagination with their powerful works and ideas.

Jonathan Jones over at his On Art Blog lists for us his top ten most subversive female artists from the last several hundred years. While it would be right to take issue with his notion of subversive, many of the names on the list quite rightly deserve as much mind-share as their male contemporaries.

From the Jonathan Jones:

Artemisia Gentileschi

When she was a teenager, this 17th-century baroque artist was raped by a painter. She responded by turning her art into a weapon. In Gentileschi’s repeated paintings of the biblical story of Judith slaying Holofernes, the Israelite hero is helped by her muscular servant. As one woman holds down Holofernes on his bed, the other saws through his neck with a sword. Blood spurts everywhere in a sensational image of women taking revenge on patriarchy.

Hannah Wilke

In her SOS Starification Object Series (1974-82), Wilke was photographed with blobs of chewing gum stuck on to her flesh. Dotting her face and bare body, these bizarre markings resembled a modern form of tribal scarification (this was before ritualistic body modification became fashionable) and resemble vaginas. Or are they eyes? Wilke’s “starification” marked her with the burden of being objectified by the male gaze.

Adrian Piper

In her Catalysis performances (1970), Piper turned herself into a human provocation in public places such as the New York subway. In one performance, she rode the subway after soaking her clothes in pungent substances for a week to make them stink. She muttered in the street, entered the elevator of the Empire State Building with a red towel stuffed in her mouth or simply made eye contact with strangers. Her purpose was to dramatise social unease and ultimately the unspoken tensions of race in America.

Georgia O’Keeffe

In the early 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe posed nude for her lover, the modernist photographer and art impressario Alfred Stieglitz, and painted abstractions that have an explicitly vaginal beauty. Compared with some artists in this list she may seem soft, but her cussed exploration of her own body and soul mapped out a new expressive freedom for women making art in the modern age.

Claude Cahun

In photographs taken from the 1920s to 1940s, this French artist often portrays herself in male clothes and hairstyles, contemplating her own transformed image as she experiments with the fictions of gender. Cahun’s pioneering art is typical of the freedom the surrealist movement gave artists to question sexual and social convention.

Louise Bourgeois

The labyrinthine mind of the last great surrealist envelops the spectator of her art in memories of an early 20th-century French childhood, intense secret worlds and the very interior of the body. Collapsing the masculinist art form of sculpture into something organic and ripely carnal, she is the spider of subversion weaving a web that has transformed the very nature of art.

Read the entire list here:

Image: Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, c1612. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Art From the Tube

london-underground_art

The tube is question here is not one containing an artist’s oils or acrylics. And, neither is the tube the Google owned YouTube site. Rather, the tube, is The Tube — London’s metropolitan subway system, also known as the underground. The paintings are part of an exhibit to honor the 150th anniversary of the initial opening of the, mostly, subterranean marvel.

From the Telegraph:

Artist Ewing Paddock has spent three years painting people travelling on the London Underground. The Tube is the place to observe Londoners in all their glorious diversity and Ewing wanted to try to capture some of that in the paintings and also the slightly secret voyeurism that most of us indulge in when watching, and wondering about, our fellow travellers under ground.

See all the wonderful paintings here.

Image: Adam, Eve. An old, old story, deep underground, by Ewing Paddock. Courtesy the Telegraph.

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Here Be Dragons

google-search-dragonsDragons have long filled our dreams and nightmares, and maps. Until recently, cartographers would fill in unexplored areas on their hand-drawn charts with monsters and serpents. Now, most of the dragons we encounter are courtesy of the movies or the toy store, though some of us harbor metaphorical dragons within (or at the office). Thus with the next Hobbit movie — The Desolation of Smaug — on the horizon it is fitting to look back at the colorful history of our most treasured and terrifying dragons.

From the Guardian:

I doubt if JRR Tolkien would recognise his Smaug in Peter Jackson’s new CGI Hobbit spectacular, with its colossal, grandiose dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Tolkien’s beast, at least in the author’s original illustrations, was an elegant Rackhamesque creature: a fire-orange, slightly languid lizard, all stuck over with jewels from years of lolling about in his lair, where his vast treasure was stored.

Smaug was created by Tolkien out of his love for Beowulf, whose hero battles with “the fiery dragon, the fearful fiend”. But Tolkien also threw in a little wordplay for good measure: the name came from the old German smugan, meaning to squeeze through a hole, presumably in reference to the biblical parable about rich men and needles; while Smaug’s treasure-guarding echoes the origin of the word dragon itself, from the Greek drakon, “to watch”.

For all its contemporary role as a cliche of fantasy epics, the dragon’s true power comes from a darker place. It casts a long shadow over our folk memory, across the caverns of our collective fears. It may even reach back into prehistory: when the fossilised bones of sauropods were first discovered, they were claimed to be the remains of dragons – a notion encouraged by the convention that dragons didn’t really die, they just cast off their bodies.

But the dragon cannot be contained by palaeontology. It writhes out of reality and into western creation myths, from the pagan Norse beast Níðhöggr, gnawing away at the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, to the Book of Revelation and its “great red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns” that attempts to eat the offspring of “the woman clothed with the sun” as she gives birth.

Throughout the Bible, in fact, the dragon is the embodiment of evil, a stand-in for Satan. There’s a wonderful 15th-century oil in the Prado, attributed to a “master of Zafra”, that depicts the archangel Michael (looking rather girly with his crimped hair and bejewelled breastplate) straddling an extraordinary dragon. This medieval mashup has the paws of a lion, the wings of a vulture, the neck of a sea serpent and a head seemingly composed of a horned cow crossed with the archetypal Chinese dragon familiar from 1,000 vases and takeaway menus.

It’s a mark of the monster’s shape-shifting qualities that its satanic western aura is sharply contrasted by the rearing, joyous, prancing imperial dragons of China: symbols of good luck and nobility rather than of disaster, often bearing pearls and surrounded by clouds and fire. At least one emperor, Yaou, was said to have been the product of a liaison between his mother and a red dragon.

In fact, so rich were the oriental legends of dragons that they convinced the Victorian geologist Charles Gould that dragons had really existed. “There is nothing impossible in the ordinary notion of the traditional dragon,” Gould declared in his 1886 book Mythical Monsters. “It is more likely to have once had a real existence than to be a mere offspring of fancy.” Gould surmised that these dragon stories drew on a “long terrestrial lizard, hibernating and carnivorous, with the power of constricting with its snake-like body and tail, possibly furnished with wing-like extensions”. Since Victorians regularly read reports of maned and long-necked sea monsters in their newspapers, such faith in the fabulous was by no means unusual.

For all his mentions of Darwin and “rational study” of the evidence, Gould betrayed his creationist beliefs when he declared that the dragon disappeared during the “Biblical Deluge”. Nevertheless, his fellow cryptozoologists not only insisted that dragons had existed, but that they still did – in the brontosaurian shape of Mokele Mbembe, cavorting in the Congo’s swamps like an African Loch Ness monster.

The Prado painting proves that the medieval world thronged with dragons; its skies were as full of them as ours are of 747s. But it is to the 19th century that we owe our contemporary image of the dragon. From Tennyson’s “Dragons of the prime, / That tare each other in their slime”, to the art of William Blake, Edward Burne-Jones and Aubrey Beardsley, the period teemed with the beasts. Blake’s Great Red Dragon watercolour series revisited the baby-eating beast of Revelation, and has much in common with Swiss surrealist HR Giger’s designs for Alien (itself a sci-fi version of the dragon). Morphing weirdly between human and beast, they are so intensely physical they must surely have emerged from Blake’s many hallucinations. To Burne-Jones, the dragon was a more muscular physical reality, a bleeding, biting beast to be wrestled by St George. Beardsley, on the other hand, produced an epicene, ambisexual Arthurian dragon, all curlicues and decadent flourishes – an enervated, languorous, stupefied beast, barely capable of a roar.

It has always struck me that the pterodactyls and prehistoric lizards that hang off London’s Natural History Museum, not to mention the terracotta dragons perched on the eaves of suburban terraces, were really only excuses for the Victorians to invent their own gargoyles and demons as a retort to the worrying new doubts of Darwinism. Like all monsters (the word comes from the Latin monstrum, “to warn”), dragons fulfil a particular niche, whether for a Chinese emperor, Victorian artist, or contemporary film-maker: they become precisely what the age demands of them, their roars tailored to contemporary concerns. In his intriguing, postmodern study The Last Dinosaur Book, WJT Mitchell sees the dragon as “the cultural ancestor of the dinosaur … the ruling reptile of premodern social systems, associated with kings and emperors, with buried treasure and with the fall of dynasties”. Rather than exorcise the atavistic monsters, the appearance of real dragons – in the shape of Tyrannosaurus rex et al – merely reinforced belief in their imaginary predecessors.

That’s why, in the movies of Ray Harryhausen and other fantasy films from Godzilla to Jurassic Park and beyond, dinosaurs and dragons are almost interchangeable: a reflection of new 20th-century myths, auguries of a nuclear age. From Tolkien and CS Lewis to Dungeons and Dragons (with a particular appeal to boys – and quite a few men), they speak of an alternative existence into which we might escape when reality threatens. Perhaps that’s why the abusive term “dragon” is reserved for “terrifying” women (despite all the phallic symbolism of a dragon’s serpentine neck).

Enter not Bruce Lee, but Carl Jung, stroking his beard and declaring that the dragon is an archetype of our unconscious fears: the devouring nature of our mothers, or our fear of sex – the dragon inside us all. Furthermore, Jung diagnosed the dichotomy of the dragon and its two faces: as feared enemy in western myth; or as the positive, transformative power within ourselves (“the Great Self Within” in Jung’s phrase) in the eastern tradition. Cue a parade of new-age dragons, their sulphorous breath replaced with pungent patchouli.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Graffiti Gets Good

Modern graffiti has come a long way since the days of “Kilroy Was Here” during the Second World War. Nowadays its a fully fledged alternative art form having been fully assimilated into pop culture and, for a lucky few, into contemporary art establishment. And, like Banksy, some graffiti artists are making a name as well as innovative and engaging street art.

See more graffiti here.

Image: Woman’s face in Collingwood, Melbourne by Rone. Courtesy of Guardian.

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Propaganda Art From Pyongyang

While the North Korean regime is clearly bonkers (“crazy” for our U.S. readers), it does still turn out some fascinating art.

From the Guardian:

A jovial group of Red Guards bask in the golden glow of cornfields, waving their flags at the magnificent harvest, while a rustic farming couple look on, carrying an overflowing basket of perfectly plump red apples. It could be one of the many thousands of posters issued by the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department in the 1950s, of rosy-cheeked comrades brimming with vim and vigour. But something’s not quite right.

In the centre of this vision of optimism, where once might have beamed the cheerful face of Mao, stands the twisted loop of the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters, radiating a lilac sheen. Framed by the vapour trail of a trio of jet-planes performing a victory flypast into the sunset, the building stands like a triumphal gateway to some promised land of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The image could well be the mischievous work of its own architects, the Rotterdam-based practice OMA, which has made its own collage of the building alongside Kim Jong-il, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein and Jesus for a book cover, as well as an image of it bursting into flames behind a spread-legged porn-star. But it is in fact the product of artists from a North Korean painting unit – the very same that used to produce such propaganda images for the Kim regime, but now find themselves designing food packaging in Pyongyang.

The Beautiful Future, which comprises six such paintings to date, is the brainchild of British ex-pat duo Nick Bonner and Dominic Johnson-Hill, who both arrived in the Chinese capital 20 years ago and caught the Beijing bug. Bonner runs Koryo Tours, a travel company specialising in trips to the DPRK, while Johnson-Hill presides over a street-wear empire, Plastered, producing T-shirts emblazoned with Maoist kitsch. The paintings, on show earlier this month as part of Beijing Design Week, are the inevitable result of their mutual obsessions.

“North Korean artists are the best people at delivering a message without slogans,” says Bonner, who collects North Korean art and has produced documentaries exploring life in the DPRK – as well as what he describes as “North Korea’s first feature-length rom-com” last year, Comrade Kim Goes Flying. “We wanted to show contemporary China as it could have been, if it had continued with Maoist ideology.”

One painting shows a line of excited comrades, obediently dressed in Mao suits, filing towards Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium. The skyline is proudly choked with glassy skyscrapers on one side and a thicket of cooling towers on the other, belching smoke productively into the pink skies. An elderly tourist and his granddaughter look on in awe at the spirited scene.

See more propaganda art here.

Image: “KTV Gives Us a Voice” Image: The Beautiful Future. Courtesy of Guardian.

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A Home for Art or A Home for Artists

Most art is made in a location that is very different and often far removed from the location in which it is displayed and/or purchased. In this time, it is highly unlikely that any new or emerging professional artist will make and sell art in the same place. This is particularly evident in a place like New York city where starving artists and wealthy patrons co-exist side by side.

From the New York Times:

Last week The Guardian published an essay by the singer-songwriter David Byrne, which received a fair amount of attention online, arriving under the headline “If the 1% Stifles New York’s Creative Talent, I’m Out of Here.”

What followed was considerably more nuanced than the kind of diatribe, now familiar, often delivered by artists and others who came of age in the city during the 1970s and yearn for the seductions of a vanished danger. In this view, the start of the last quarter of the 20th century left New York populated entirely by addicts and hustlers, painters and drug pushers, and the city was a better, more enlivening place for the anxieties it bred.

“I don’t romanticize the bad old days,” Mr. Byrne said in his piece. “I have no illusions that there was a connection between that city on its knees and a flourishing of creativity.” What he laments instead is that our cultural capital now languishes completely in the hands of a brash upper class.

On one level it seems difficult to argue with him. Current market realities make it inconceivable that anyone could arrive today in New York at 23 with a knapsack and a handful of Luna bars and become David Byrne.

We also famously live in an era of diminishing support for the arts. According to a report released last month, government arts financing reached a record low in 2011 at the same time the proportion of American households giving money to the arts dwindled to 8.6 percent. But perhaps the problem is one of paradox, not exclusion, which is to say that while New York has become an increasingly inhospitable place to incubate a career as an artist, it has become an ever easier place to experience and consume the arts. The evolution of Downtown Brooklyn’s cultural district is emblematic of this new democracy. Last week saw the official opening of BRIC House, a 66,000-square-foot building with a gallery space and another space for film screenings, readings, lectures and so on, all with no admission charges.

BRIC House, which is under the direction of Leslie Greisbach Schultz and occupies an old vaudeville theater into which the city has poured $41 million, also contains a flexible performance space where it will be possible to see dance and music from emerging and established artists largely for under $20. The ticket price of plays, offered as works in progress, is $10.

The upper floors are host to something called Urban Glass, a monument to the art of glass blowing. “There are people in this city who get as excited about glass blowing as I get about Junior’s,” the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, marveled to me.

Both BRIC, which offers classes in digital photography and video production for nothing or next to nothing, and the nearby Mark Morris Dance Center involve residents of Brooklyn public housing in free dance instruction. At Mark Morris it costs less to enroll a 3-year-old in a dance class with a teacher who is studying for a doctorate in philosophy than it does to enroll a child in Super Soccer Stars.

Further challenging claims about the end of culture in the city is that the number of public art exhibits grew under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s tenure. Additionally, through his private philanthropic efforts, Mr. Bloomberg has donated more than $230 million since 2002 to arts and social service organizations across the city. Over the summer, his foundation announced an additional contribution of $15 million to a handful of cultural institutions to help them enhance visitors’ experiences through mobile technology.

At BRIC — “the epicenter of the center of the artistic universe,” Mr. Markowitz calls it — as with other Brooklyn cultural institutions, a good deal of the progress has come about with the help of a quiet philanthropic community that exists far from the world of hedge-fund vanity. A handful of wealthy residents support the borough’s institutions, their names not the kind to appear in Women’s Wear Daily.

Read the entire article here.

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The Golden Age of Travel

Travel to far flung destinations was once a luxurious — some would say elitist — affair. Now that much of the process, and to some extent the end result, has been commoditized, we are left to dream of an age that once seemed glamorous and out of reach for most. And, what better way to market these dreams than through colorful, engaging travel posters. A collection of wonderful marketing posters from that “golden age” is up for auction.

Many of these beautiful works of art were published as commercial pieces so the artists often worked under the covers of their advertising or design agencies. While a few, such as Willy Burger, Maurice Logan, went on to be recognized by the art establishment, most worked in anonymity. However, the travel poster art they produced beginning at the turn of the previous century formed at key part of the Art Nouveau and later the Art Deco movements. Luckily this continues to influence art and design and still makes us dream of the romance of travel and exotic destinations to this day.

See a sample of the collection here.

Image: Roger Broders, Sports D’Hiver, c 1929. Courtesy: Swann Auction Galleries

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Art and Aliens Collide in Nevada

Not far from the alien conspiracy theories of Area 51, artists and revelers gather for the annual pilgrimage to burn the man in the Nevada desert. With attendees now numbering in the 50-80,000 range the annual, week-long Burning Man festival has become a mainstream media event.

It was originally a more humble affair — concocted by Larry Harvey and Jerry James as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice or as they called it an act of “radical self-expression”. They held the first event in 1986 on a San Francisco beach, where they burned a wooden effigy of a man and his dog. The event has since grown and moved to the Nevada desert; the Burning Man moniker has stuck ever since and the (radical) self-expression lives on.

For more images from this year’s event jump here or visit Burning Man online.

Image: Burning Man 2013, art installation. Courtesy of the Guardian.

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Marina Abramovic is Not a Vampire

Pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic admits to not being a vampire, when asked about her eternally youthful looks. Self-described as the “grandmother of performance art” she is constantly examining the relationship between artist and audience, body and mind. And, while the artist may not be a vampire, the Artist is Present.

From the Guardian:

Marina Abramovic abolishes all boundaries between art and life. In the 1970s she pioneered “performance art”, but the reason I have put that well-worn term into inverted commas is that it is too narrow a description of her, even if it’s one she chooses. The exciting thing about Abramovic is that she makes art into life and life into art. This was made very apparent when she went on Reddit this week to converse with her fans in an “Ask me anything” session.

Her love life, her money life, her age (and whether she comes from a long line of vampires from Montenegro) – the questions covered all these, and Abramovic gave disarming answers.

In the 1970s she collaborated with the artist Ulay who was also her lover. Their personal and working relationship ended with a performance on the Great Wall of China that culminated in a last hug. So one Reddit question was: how did that last hug feel? Here is her answer:

“One of the most painful moments of my life. I knew this is over, I knew it was the end of a very important period of my life. I just remember I could not stop crying.”

It’s an answer that says more about Abramovic than a pile of textbooks on contemporary art might express. This is what she does. She makes art that is directly emotional, in which her entire being is at risk: her work with Ulay was a massive part of her career, so when their relationship ended they risked shattering their artistic legacy as well as their lives. She tells another questioner why artists should never fall in love with artists: “I have done this three times, and each time I had the heart broke …”

And another still on why she doesn’t have children:

“I never wanted to … I never had the biological clock running like other women. I always wanted to be an artist and I knew that I could not divide this energy into anything else. Looking back, I think it was the right decision.”

This is more like an audience with a famous soap opera star (or character?) than a conventional art seminar. Abramovic is asked how she appears never to have aged (she was born in 1946) – is she a vampire? She replies that her grandmother and great-grandmother both lived to more than 100 and kept their youthful looks.

Like a crazy soap opera, this has an impossibly dramatic climax. Abramovic is asked what it felt like when Ulay came to her 2010 performance The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: “Entire life of our 12 years together went like a fast forward film …”

You can see this moment on video. In her MoMA performance, Abramovic simply sat there for 700 hours and people were invited to sit opposite her, looking into her eyes. Most of them ended up crying. But she was caught in a drama of her own on the day Ulay arrived and sat with her. It’s an amazing thing to see – a soap opera of MoMA’s own.

Read the entire article here.

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CSA

No, it’s not another network cop show. CSA began life as community supported agriculture — neighbors buying fresh produce from collectives of local growers and farmers. Now, CSA has grown itself to include art — community supported art — exposing neighbors to local color and creativity.

From the New York Times:

For years, Barbara Johnstone, a professor of linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University here, bought shares in a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program — and picked up her occasional bags of tubers or tomatoes or whatever the member farms were harvesting.

Her farm shares eventually lapsed. (“Too much kale,” she said.) But on a recent summer evening, she showed up at a C.S.A. pickup location downtown and walked out carrying a brown paper bag filled with a completely different kind of produce. It was no good for eating, but it was just as homegrown and sustainable as what she used to get: contemporary art, fresh out of local studios.

“It’s kind of like Christmas in the middle of July,” said Ms. Johnstone, who had just gone through her bag to see what her $350 share had bought. The answer was a Surrealistic aluminum sculpture (of a pig’s jawbone, by William Kofmehl III), a print (a deadpan image appropriated from a lawn-care book, by Kim Beck) and a ceramic piece (partly about slavery, by Alexi Morrissey).

Without even having to change the abbreviation, the C.S.A. idea has fully made the leap from agriculture to art. After the first program started four years ago in Minnesota, demonstrating that the concept worked just as well for art lovers as for locavores, community-supported art programs are popping up all over the country: in Pittsburgh, now in its first year; Miami; Brooklyn; Lincoln, Neb.; Fargo, N.D.

The goal, borrowed from the world of small farms, is a deeper-than-commerce connection between people who make things and people who buy them. The art programs are designed to be self-supporting: Money from shares is used to pay the artists, who are usually chosen by a jury, to produce a small work in an edition of 50 or however many shares have been sold. The shareholders are often taking a leap of faith. They don’t know in advance what the artists will make and find out only at the pickup events, which are as much about getting to know the artists as collecting the fruits of their shares.

The C.S.A.’s have flourished in larger cities as a kind of organic alternative to the dominance of the commercial gallery system and in smaller places as a way to make up for the dearth of galleries, as a means of helping emerging artists and attracting people who are interested in art but feel they have neither the means nor the connections to collect it.

“A lot of our people who bought shares have virtually no real experience with contemporary art,” said Dayna Del Val, executive director of the Arts Partnership in Fargo, which began a C.S.A. last year, selling 50 shares at $300 each for pieces from nine local artists. “They’re going to a big-box store and buying prints of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies,’ if they have anything.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Daily Camera.

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Portrait of a Royal Baby

Royal-watchers from all corners of the globe, especially the British one, have been agog over the arrival of the latest royal earlier this week. The overblown media circus got us thinking about baby pictures. Will the Prince of Cambridge be the first heir to the throne to have his portrait enshrined via Instagram? Or, as is more likely, will his royal essence be captured in oil on canvas, as with the 35 or more generations that preceded him?

From Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian:

Royal children have been portrayed by some of the greatest artists down the ages, preserving images of childhood that are still touching today. Will this royal baby fare better than its mother in the portraits that are sure to come? Are there any artists out there who can go head to head with the greats of royal child portraiture?

Agnolo Bronzino has to be first among those greats, because he painted small children in a way that set the tone for many royal images to come. Some might say the Medici rulers of Florence, for whom he worked, were not properly royal – but they definitely acted like a royal family, and the artists who worked for them set the tone of court art all over Europe. In Giovanni de’ Medici As a Child, Bronzino expresses the joy of children and the pleasure of parents in a way that was revolutionary in the 16th century. Chubby-cheeked and jolly, Giovanni clutches a pet goldfinch. In paintings of the Holy Family you know that if Jesus has a pet bird it probably has some dire symbolic meaning. But this pet is just a pet. Giovanni is just a happy kid. Actually, a happy baby: he was about 18 months old.

Hans Holbein took more care to clarify the regal uniqueness of his subject when he portrayed Edward, only son of King Henry VIII of England, in about 1538. Holbein, too, captures the face of early childhood brilliantly. But how old is Edward meant to be? In fact, he was two. Holbein expresses his infancy – his baby face, his baby hands – while having him stand holding out a majestic hand, dressed like his father, next to an inscription that praises the paternal glory of Henry. Who knows, perhaps he really stood like that for a second or two, long enough for Holbein to take a mental photograph.

Diego Velázquez recorded a more nuanced, even anxious, view of royal childhood in his paintings of the royal princesses of 17th-century Spain. In the greatest of them, Las Meninas, the five-year-old Infanta Margarita Teresa stands looking at us, accompanied by her ladies in waiting (meninas) and two dwarves, while Velázquez works on a portrait of her parents, the king and queen. The infanta is beautiful and confident, attended by her own micro-court – but as she looks out of the painting at her parents (who are standing where the spectator of the painting stands) she is performing. And she is under pressure to look and act like a little princess.

The 19th-century painter Stephen Poyntz Denning may not be in the league of these masters. In fact, let’s be blunt: he definitely isn’t. But his painting Queen Victoria, Aged 4 is a fascinating curiosity. Like the Infanta, this royal princess is not allowed to be childlike. She is dressed in an oppressively formal way, in dark clothes that anticipate her mature image – a childhood lost to royal destiny.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Princess Victoria aged Four, Denning, Stephen Poyntz (c. 1787 – 1864). Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Highbrow or Lowbrow?

Do you prefer the Beatles to Beethoven? Do you prefer Rembrandt over the Sunday comics or the latest Marvel? Do you read Patterson or Proust? Gary Gutting professor of philosophy argues that the distinguishing value of aesthetics must drive us to appreciate fine art over popular work. So, you had better dust off those volumes of Shakespeare.

From the New York Times:

Our democratic society is uneasy with the idea that traditional “high culture” (symphonies, Shakespeare, Picasso) is superior to popular culture (rap music, TV dramas, Norman Rockwell). Our media often make a point of blurring the distinction: newspapers and magazines review rock concerts alongside the Met’s operas and “Batman” sequels next to Chekhov plays. Sophisticated academic critics apply the same methods of analysis and appreciation to Proust and to comic books. And at all levels, claims of objective artistic superiority are likely to be met with smug assertions that all such claims are merely relative to subjective individual preferences.

Our democratic unease is understandable, since the alleged superiority of high culture has often supported the pretensions of an aristocratic class claiming to have privileged access to it. For example, Virginia Woolf’s classic essay — arch, snobbish, and very funny — reserved the appreciation of great art to “highbrows”: those “thoroughbreds of the mind” who combine innate taste with sufficient inherited wealth to sustain a life entirely dedicated to art. Lowbrows were working-class people who had neither the taste nor the time for the artistic life. Woolf claimed to admire lowbrows, who did the work highbrows like herself could not and accepted their cultural inferiority. But she expresses only disdain for a third class — the “middlebrows”— who have earned (probably through trade) enough money to purchase the marks of a high culture that they could never properly appreciate. Middlebrows pursue “no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

There is, however, no need to tie a defense of high art to Woolf’s “snobocracy.” We can define the high/popular distinction directly in terms of aesthetic quality, without tendentious connections to social status or wealth. Moreover, we can appropriate Woolf’s term “middlebrow,” using it to refer to those, not “to the manner born,” who, admirably, employ the opportunities of a democratic society to reach a level of culture they were not born into.

At this point, however, we can no longer avoid the hovering relativist objection: How do we know that there are any objective criteria that authorize claims that one kind of art is better than another?

Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view. We may say, “You can’t argue about taste,” but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.

For example, fans of popular music may respond to the elitist claims of classical music with a facile relativism. But they abandon this relativism when arguing, say, the comparative merits of the early Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept.

Further, given the standards fans use to show that their favorites are superior, we can typically show by those same standards that works of high art are overall superior to works of popular art. If the Beatles are better than the Stones in complexity, originality, emotional impact, and intellectual content, then Mozart’s operas are, by those standards, superior to the Beatles’ songs. Similarly, a case for the superiority of one blockbuster movie over another would most likely invoke standards of dramatic power, penetration into character, and quality of dialogue by which almost all blockbuster movies would pale in comparison to Sophocles or Shakespeare.

On reflection, it’s not hard to see why — keeping to the example of music —classical works are in general capable of much higher levels of aesthetic value than popular ones. Compared to a classical composer, someone writing a popular song can utilize only a very small range of musical possibilities: a shorter time span, fewer kinds of instruments, a lower level of virtuosity and a greatly restricted range of compositional techniques. Correspondingly, classical performers are able to supply whatever the composers need for a given piece; popular performers seriously restrict what composers can ask for. Of course, there are sublime works that make minimal performance demands. But constant restriction of resources reduces the opportunities for greater achievement.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Detail of the face of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Cropped version of the painting where Mozart is seen with Anna Maria (Mozart’s sister) and father, Leopold, on the wall a portrait of his deceased mother, Anna Maria. By Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Cos Things Break, Don’t They

Most things, natural or manufactured, break after a while. And, most photographers spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their subject — usually an object — is represented in the best possible wholesome light, literally and metaphorically. However, for one enterprising photographer it’s all about things in their broken form, albeit displayed exquisitely in a collage of their constituent pieces.

From the Guardian:

Canadian photographer Todd McLellan makes visible the inner workings of everyday products by dismantling, carefully arranging the components and photographing them. His book, Things Come Apart, presents a unique view of items such as chainsaws and iPods, transforming ordinary objects into works of art.

See the entire galley here.

Image: Raleigh bicycle from the 80s. Number of parts: 893. Courtesy of Todd McLellan/Thames & Hudson / Guardian.

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