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Art. Or not.
March 16, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
Every semester, I take the class I teach at UH-Maui College over to Schaefer Gallery at the MACC.
The class is English 100, Introduction to Expository Writing. The assignment is to do a descriptive essay about whatever the current exhibit happens to be. I never know what we’ll find, from photos or paintings of Maui’s past, to whimsical creations or topics more abstract and edgy.
Considering that some of the students have never been to Schaefer — or any art gallery before — the visit is usually an eye-opener. Ditto for the rest of the class, not to mention the teacher.
I tell them that what they have to say about what they’re looking at is as meaningful and valuable as the so-called professional critics who write about such things on Maui. This is true. It comes as news to them.
They just have to figure out what they’re looking at, and how to talk about it. They have to engage.
It always works out well. Besides constantly showing me things that I may have missed, or failed to get on my own, what’s fun is seeing how empowered they become as a result of the gallery visit.
Hey — they realize — that wasn’t so intimidating, or painful, or boring, after all. You can see the light bulbs going on over their heads all over the gallery as they stand in front of the creations, pondering.
They’re making all sorts of discoveries about the difference between Art and art.
Art — with a capital “A” — is something they can’t understand. It’s for rich people to buy, and critics to talk about using words and concepts they’ll never get. But actual art, they discover, is something they can grasp and, to their surprise, talk about. It means something to them. Often something very powerful that touches their hearts.
Our gallery visit was a few weeks ago, before the current exhibit, Art Maui, opened. I’ve told them they can get extra credit if they go back and see this show — the annual juried collection of works by Maui County artists now in its 33rd year, featuring 139 pieces by 126 artists juried from 592 submissions. Kehaulani Cerizo’s wonderful write-up of the show appeared in last Sunday’s Currents. You can get to it online at mauinews.com/page/content.detail/id/ 547134/Diversity-on-display.html.
The story offers its own provocative picture of what’s in the show. It doesn’t talk about what’s not there.
Art Maui annually sparks, uh, debate in the arts community. In past years, this debate has sounded just a bit like gossip and sour grapes from those who didn’t make the cut.
This year, it went to another level.
In the days preceding the show’s opening, we began receiving e-mails at work, slugged “Important Art Maui Update.” The message claimed to be from group’s board of directors, warning about possible protests of the show’s policy regarding art installations. It urged demonstrators to remain “calm and civilized during your protests.”
Accompanying the message were a series of clips, purporting to be taken from The New York Times, with photos of wild-eyed demonstrators around the world, some lighting things on fire. Along with the clips, the lead article by a local Maui art critic, announcing the board’s decision to prohibit installation art this year.
“No installations!” it bellows. “Who came up with that idea? Installations have been the cutting edge of art. They have defined modern and contemporary art and pushed it to another level. You mean if Marcel DuChamp or Allan Kaprose submitted a piece to AM, they would be denied?”
There’s only one way to respond to such an impassioned plea: You go straight to Google to find out who the heck Marcel DuChamp and that other guy are. And while you’re at it, you might as well look up art installations, too.
Marcel DuChamp, you learn, was a Surrealist in France in the last century known for acts of playful subversion like proclaiming a urinal a piece of art titled “Fountain.” I don’t think he would have been eligible for Art Maui. He didn’t live here.
But the urinal provides a pretty good working definition of what installation art is all about.
Looking over all the “New York Times” clippings, it takes a while to realize the protest is a hoax.
When the next round of e-mail clippings arrived, they included a doctored photo attributed to Maui News photographer Amanda Cowan.
My byline didn’t appear until the third round of e-mail clips. They made reference to modern sculptor Lynda Benglis, but the story I had allegedly written was accompanied by a photo of a woman being taken into custody. The photo, I was later informed, was actually of a woman charged with murdering her children.
The person who forwarded “my story” to me was outraged, on my behalf, at whoever was behind it. She wasn’t alone in the island’s art community.
Obviously they weren’t seeing the, uh, humor in the matter. The whole “protest” was soooo clever and snobby —way hipper than just acknowledging the hard work and humble talents of the artists actually in the show.
A short time later, another writer from another local publication wrote to express her envy that I was part of the “protest.” How cool was that?
Not very, I answered.
The first e-mail raised the obvious issue that copyright laws were being broken. By the time it was my name being used, without my knowledge or permission, it all was striking pretty close to home.
But when Art Maui members who were not amused raised the possibility of filing suit, I told them what a bad idea I thought that was.
The perpetrators of the “protest” would like nothing more than that kind of attention. It would legitimize their so-called art. They would make it part of the installation … just like this column.
As far as identifying the folks behind the hoax, in Scene we have our own definition of attention deficit disorder. For us, it refers to people who can never get enough attention.
Rather than enabling their addiction, we refer to them as “those who shall not be named.”
Andy Warhol was a pioneer of this sort of thing. He was great at turning a mirror back on media —along with comic strips, soup cans and the then-young cult of celebrity — showing that art could be defined as whatever you put a frame around.
Of course, Andy Warhol was good at transforming his personal outrageousness and audacity into works of art, too.
He didn’t have a corner on outrageousness. But when it comes to being audacious, it helps to be a genius like he was —an artist capable of showing us our times in a brand-new way.
If you’re not a genius, you’re liable to be mistaken for a poseur. That’s one of those Marcel DuChamp kinds of words. It means someone who strikes poses and hopes people notice.
Which brings us back to the discussion of Art—the province of collectors, connoisseurs, experts and great pretenders.
I prefer my students’ version.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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