Scat Mask Replica IX

My favorite artists offend me on a personal, philosophical, and artistic level. They’re emotional robots who have as much sympathy for others as they do for themselves. My favorite artists might use some swear words and some provocative imaginary, but they’re not reliant on them. They’re also not offensive for the sole purpose of being offensive. They don’t care who they offend in their pursuit of artistic purity, and they don’t pick safe targets. Some might say that it’s not possible to be observant, creative, and artistic without sympathy, but my favorite artists ask how an artist can report on the world if they handicap themselves by being sympathetic to the people they report on. My favorite artists refute my worldview in a rational and constructive manner, and I find their challenges to my belief system engaging. They might not change my mind on one single issue, but I don’t think they care. I don’t think that’s why they’re here.

Acting is as difficult and specialized as any other art form, but for all the overblown accolades and financial rewards we provide actors, they’re little more than vessels who carry artistic messages to the people. It takes special qualities to convince an audience that they’re another person. It takes other qualities to capture emotions and convince an audience that those reactions are genuine. Taken down to their core, these elements involve lying, so an individual who wants to become an actor should be an unusually good liar. Those who spent an inordinate amount of their youth learning the subtle intricacies of convincing others of a lie, before they ever thought of becoming an actor, might have the qualities necessary to convince others of the lie that they’re another person. These qualities are difficult to quantify and qualify, but they do lead to some sort of ingrained qualities that is evident to all who seek them for their productions.  

For entertainment purposes, an audience agrees to enter into any fictional production with some suspension of their critical facilities, but at some point, the audience wants that latitude they offer rewarded. This is where those with ingrained qualities shine. Some are better at it than others are, of course, but at some point all inherent qualities are equal and it becomes difficult to distinguish one quality actor from another. Physical traits play a huge role, of course, as some casting agencies won’t let prospective applicants in the door without a decent headshot, but as with any profession those with a hunger to succeed, can overcome physical limitations, so what separates a quality actor from those who can never quite manage to capture the same on-screen magic?

If an actor has established a motif after acting in 40 different productions, how difficult is it to convince other people that they are a 41st character. Landing a key role in a beloved production can advance a career, but it can also kill it, if the audience’s association with a particular character is too strong. We call it being typecast. We’ve also witnessed some actors who are so charismatic they can play themselves every time out, but the others are chameleons and shape shifters who assume another’s characteristics so well that the audience forgets there’s an actor playing the role. How do any of these types wipe the slate clean, so they can help the audience wipe their slate clean? Is it easier for a quality actor to be an empty vessel? I would think that a strong sense of identity would be a difficult obstacle for any actor. If they have little-to-no character of their own, wouldn’t it be easier for them to assume the characteristics of another? When I watch a master craftsman accomplish what so few can do, I wonder if there’s an equation that suggests the less character an actor has in life the better they are at playing another.

On that note, we’ve all heard the stories of method actors who demand that everyone involved in the production call them by their character’s name. Is this a silly, childish game? No, according to some on the inside, and those who want inside, some actors demand this, so they can get “locked in” on their character. In order for them to play pretend properly, others have to join in on the façade. If someone breaks that spell by reminding them that they’re Joey as opposed to Esteban, they can’t continue. Does it kill the empty vessel thing? Is the spell is broken? I’m not an actor, and I have no idea about the process involved in playing another character, but I wonder how much of this is stoked by public relations outlets trying to hype a role one of their clients is in to build the mystique of the actor’s abilities. If it’s all true, and I don’t doubt that it is, in some cases, it seems so silly to me.

We’ve all met unusually good liars who couldn’t find a channel their ability in anyway. We’ve heard them lie about matters we considered so inconsequential that we wonder why they lied about it in the first place. After we hear enough lies from unusually good liars, and the quantity is not as important as the quality, it becomes apparent that they want us to think they have a master plan. They might not have a master plan, but some elements of their intangible qualities lead us to believe they do. Some of these qualities suggest that they pity the rest of us for our struggles, and they might even be laughing at us. They don’t look like they have a plan. They look as bored, unfocused, and as random as the rest of us, but what if they weren’t? What would we think of them if they were someone else? How would our opinions change if they had such an adventurous past that it informed their present? What if their past was so adventurous that they couldn’t wait to tell us their tales? What if none of them were true?

Screenwriters love coming-of-age scenes, and to express their views of coming of age in the compressed time a movie allots them, they use common tropes. One of their favorites tropes involves an actor playing a teacher asking a pre-teen actor a question about a classic book. The child actor’s answer is often far too complex for their age. (The screenwriter is attempting to rewrite and vicariously relive their pre-teen years by appearing more intelligent than they actually were in junior high.) The child actor’s lines often involve shocking, adult swear words that sophisticate their answer in a manner that the screenwriter intends to shock the audience’s sense of moral values. Using children in such scenes feels like a cheat, because moviemakers know adult audiences will feel silly if something a child says offends them. We are to forget that we’re watching a movie created by adults, and that the child actor is reading the lines adults write for them. In the movie, the principle suspends the kid for using offensive language in class. While in the principal’s office, the adult actors playing the child’s parents are dutiful and respectful before the principal. While walking away from the principal’s office, the adult actors offer the child actor sympathetic condolences that suggest that not only is the matter closed as far as they are concerned, they are actually quite proud of the spunky kid for speaking his mind. The supporting character actors, playing the teacher and the principle, eventually develop an indirect way of showing support for this precocious child actor by rewarding him for an unprecedented level of sophistication. (The screenwriter is receiving the vicarious accolades that they felt they always deserved.) (End Scene.)

“I don’t care if you disagrees with some of the ideas expressed in that book,” I would tell my child, as we walked away from the principal’s office, “you sullied your reputation with the language you chose to express your opinion. It’s immoral and disrespectful to say such words in a classroom setting, but more than that, it leads others to believe that you are not capable of formulating a decent argument without using such words. If your argument begins and ends with swear words, no one will remember what you said in between. They will only remember that you “had the cajones” to say a swear word in class, and while that might pay some immediate dividends among your peers, they will not respect you long-term for it. If however, you drop an articulate refutation of the book that expresses a passionate view, you might blow those kids away. No one cares about a book at your age, and they won’t care what you think of it either, unless you say something so profound that they can’t help but notice. Trivial moments like these define you. They might also affect who you’re going to be.

“If you insist on offering your class such a provocative refutation, don’t forget to back that characterization up with details,” I would add. “It’s not enough to call your philosophical opponents a name. You still have to defeat their arguments. Most provocateurs forget to do that when they are trying to sound cool, and most of us forget to hold them accountable for this failure. Most of us will only remember the name you called them. It’s pointless. If you choose the other road, while standing on this philosophical fork in the road, and you strengthen your mind to a point that you can defeat other people’s ideas with concise factual data, and/or a persuasive opinion that is not dependent on emotional provocation, you will leave an impression on them that you are an intellect.”

The Joker is one of the greatest bad guys of all time, and I love stories that involve The Joker, but I never feared the character in an artistic sense. For most of my life, The Joker never really hurt anyone. It was all a game. He said things that made him sound psychopathic, and he had a deranged laugh, but the worst thing he did, for decades, was create precarious James Bond-like situations for Batman to undo, under time constraints, to save the good citizens of Gotham. I never feared The Joker, in an artistic sense, in the manner I did the Tommy DeVito character that Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese created for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, based on the real-life actions of Tommy DeSimone. Their Tommy DeVito character made me so uncomfortable that I wanted it over. I didn’t care how it ended. I just wanted to return to my comfort zone. I don’t recall ever having such a visceral reaction to a character before, and to my mind, that’s art. If The Joker ever caused such a reaction to an audience, that ended when DC Comics’ editors put an end to any killing in the second year of The Joker’s publication history, and they did it because they didn’t want to influence young, impressionable minds to commit violent acts. Their goals were laudable, but they essentially defanged The Joker. The psychological games The Joker played were some of my favorites, but in the era of The Sopranos and Quentin Tarantino, The Joker seemed like nothing more than the other team in an exciting chess match, until Christopher Nolan and Todd Phillips changed that in the movies.

“I pay hard, cold cash for such an experience,” I informed a friend after she said she didn’t care for another movie, because it made her feel uncomfortable. I told her about my experience with Tommy Devito, and how uncomfortable he made me, and how much I loved it. She couldn’t understand that mindset. She considered such characters and their movies too realistic and too unnerving. I told her that I think that should be every moviemaker’s primary goal.

Most people don’t think this way about artistic enterprises. If they attend violent or horror movies, they want them toned down just a tad, so they can maintain a comfort zone, and they don’t want to pay their hard-earned money to experience anything that rattles their core. I’ve experienced moments in other movies when they tweak my comfort zone, and I always think back to my friend saying that she doesn’t want to be uncomfortable in a movie theater. If she had a particularly violent past, or even a violent incident that such movies unearthed in an uncomfortable manner, I could understand, but she didn’t. She was just a casual moviegoer who doesn’t enjoy it when movies, or art in general, take her to uncomfortable places. I know most people don’t think this way, as evidenced by most of the movies they make, but as a movie connoisseur, I seek those that offend me, horrify me, and takes me to uncomfortable places. The theme of my rant might be violent movies, but I often wonder if the world would be a better place if more people welcomed, with open arms, those who constructively challenge our ideas and ideals in a rational manner, as opposed to those who just provide us more blankets in our comfort zone.  

Artistic Images vs. Artistic Creations

Imagine that someone tells you that an artist’s self-portrait is now on sale.  “Who is it?” would probably be the first question you ask, and if it turns out to be the work of a relative unknown, “What’s his story?” would probably be your next.  If the answers to these questions aren’t very satisfying, all of your follow up questions would probably involve the story behind the particular self-portrait painting in question.  If these questions yield no satisfactory answers, your final question might be, “Why should I be interested in this piece?”  The quality of any artistic piece is subjective, but most art enthusiasts generate enthusiasm based on a number of factors, most of which have little to do with the actual quality of the piece.

It may be a little unfair to criticize the desire some art enthusiasts have for “a story”, or more information, of a self-portrait of a relatively unknown author before vesting any interest in a piece, but in the case of artist Bryan Lewis Saunders such interest has been generated.  This event leads to the question, how does a relatively unknown artist generate interest in his work?

That’s easy: paint a masterpiece.  Most works of art are not masterpieces, however, and they fall into the subjective, relative arena of appealing to the patron on some level.  Very few pieces of literature, musical productions, or sculptures are so great that they can attract an audience without a great accompanying story.  Most art falls into the middle ground of subjectivity, and it’s that subjectivity that requires a great story we can identify with, or that which tantalizes us in some fashion.

Computer Duster (2 squirts)

Computer Duster (2 squirts)

The self-portraits of Bryan Lewis Saunders appear to be –to the non-enthusiast crowd– marginal works of art at the very least.  For those that are interested in making their own determinations on his art, these works can be viewed here and here.  In the second link, and in Jon Ronson’s piece on Mr. Saunders for the Guardian, you can learn of the story behind these self-portraits, and how they involve Mr. Saunders doing roughly fifty different self-portraits on fifty different drugs, be they of the prescription or controlled substance variety.  This story has generated a tremendous amount of interest in Mr. Saunders, and his work, and it appears to have added tremendous value to his pieces among the chichi crowd that wants to have his story hanging on their wall.

Let’s say, for a moment, that I’m right about the artistic merit of Mr. Saunders’ work, and the greater value exists in the narrative.  Are you one that would love to give that narrative to visitors of your home?  Are you one that would love to have a Saunders hanging above your shabby chic armoire, so that you could say, “Mr. Saunders did that while wrecked on the prescription drug Klonopin, otherwise known as Clonazepam.  And let me take you down the hall here,” you say with excitement.  “This is Mr. Saunders interpretation of himself after experimenting with butane honey oil, and in our master bedroom is my personal favorite that Mr. Saunders created after taking 250mg of Cephalexin.  He actually mixed some of the cephalexin into the painting with water and a watercolor pencil.  It’s the prized piece of my Saunders collection,” you say with pride.

If your audience isn’t necessarily impressed with the paintings, they would probably find the narratives so exotic, that they probably wouldn’t want to discuss the actual artistic merits of the piece.  They also probably wouldn’t want to enter into a moral discussion of recreational drug use, and how your piece seems to glorify it in some way.  Most people do everything they can to avoid appearing puritanical, and they want others to perceive them as hip and cutting edge.  That having been said, if the pieces are as marginal as I believe them to be, most of your friends will silently wonder if your interest in the narrative may have clouded your judgment.  They would probably not call you out on it, however, with something along the lines of: “So, if it came out that Mr. Saunders was actually completely sober when he did these pieces, would you feel like you were robbed?”

What if you spoke to the author of the painting, at a gallery that presented his work, and you found out that he was actually a loving father of four that had a full time job as a UPS truck driver, and he did the particular piece you love on a caffeine buzz, as a result of putting down an extra cup of Folger’s, and the only reason he came up with the whole “drug thing” was to build some sort of mythology that his artistic career lacked.  Would you give that narrative to prospective admirers?  What if it turned out that this author had a sensible haircut, wore Levi’s jeans, and spoke in a manner that never wavered from the Queen’s English?  How would you enhance your admirer’s enjoyment?  What if your friend didn’t enjoy the piece you purchased, what kind of defense would you have?  What would it say about you that you even purchased such a piece?

Too often, the definition of art is conflated the image of art, and we like those images to be festooned with notions of troubled, reclusive individuals that suck in a potent drug at high volume; and we prefer them unhappy, inconsistent, singularly focused, and driven by the vagaries of the heart as opposed to a concrete, rational mind.  We want to hear that our artists are so singularly focused that don’t understand how toasters work; that they didn’t know how to tie a tie, until they were forty; and they don’t understand the intangible merits of kissing.  The only images we want in artistic profiles are those of quirky individuals that never learned how to fit in with society properly.  The normal person that happens to have a creative flair about them are just not very interesting, so we choose to believe that all artists, true artists, fit an image we’ve constructed in our head.

If you’ve ever watched a docu-drama about an artist, you know these images well.  By the time these movies are over, you’re left with the impression that it’s far more virtuous to be labeled a creative genius than it is to create art.  The constraints of these entertainment vehicles being what they are, the director cannot have a 90-minute movie about a guy painting.  That wouldn’t be very entertaining.  It might also be just as boring to have the characters sitting around discussing interpretations of the pieces, but when the directors of these movies portray the polar opposite, and focus on nothing but the narrative behind the artist, and the subsequent image of the artist, the notion of the narrative of art being more important than art is fostered, until it’s possible that some truly brilliant, yet unnaturally normal artists could remain obscure.

Those of us that have heard about the near divine inspiration that informed the masterpieces we all know, occurred within an elegant hotel room that overlooks the streets of Pamplona, Spain –where the running of the bulls occurs– begin to question these narratives after hearing them for the thousandth time.  Is it a marketing campaign that they use to influence the perception of the final product, or do some people really go to “different places” and receive a degree of insight into the human condition that overwhelms them to such a degree that a seemingly inhuman masterpiece is born?  It’s possible, and it’s likely that it has occurred on occasion, but for the most part, most art is created in boring places, on the backside of all of the mundane routines, and the dogged determination that has persevered through all of the trials and errors that eventually led to a product that an enthusiasts might find so pleasing that they litter their walls and book shelves with them.

Artistic brilliance can be defined as an individual perspective of the world, and the presentation of said material.  It can come from the most unusual places, but it can also come from such usual places that it doesn’t fit the mold of artistic brilliance.  Does this presentation of material require a narrative, does a well-crafted, somewhat spruced up narrative make a final product more beautiful or more interesting?   Maybe, maybe not, but I’m sure that every mid-level artist that has made their way into the chichi art world would tell you, it doesn’t hurt.

Mr. Saunders work can be used as the idyllic form of the mold, but it shouldn’t suggest that there is any less merit to the artistic creations Mr. Saunders decided to produce.  That’s his art, his niche, and it’s what he does, and how he perceives the world through a purposely unfocused lens.  What should bother anyone attempting to create art is the manner in which the world views the artistic world.  If you create an excellent piece of do you have to indulge in mind-altering substances to tantalize the imagination of the chichi contingent, or should you just lie and tell them that’s what you’re doing?  My advice would be to do the latter, and simply give them a narrative to sell to their friends.  Your art may be better received for it, and you may be invited to live the artistic life, for the chichi crowd is vehemently against drug-testing, even if it means that they’re being duped into believing in it.