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We Have to Invest

Monday, 8. February 2016 0:56

Two stories: (1) the drama department in which I work negotiated four inexpensive workshops for acting students which cover areas not covered in depth in any of the courses we offer. The offerings were based on a poll of students. Six weeks after the workshops were posted, only two or three students had signed up for each. In exhorting the students to sign up, I asked why the lack of response when they had said earlier that they were interested. The answers varied from non-answers to “I don’t have time.” One person with a Starbucks cup sitting on her desk told me that she didn’t have the money to spare.

(2) During the same time frame, a lighting designer I know complained to me over drinks about a favor he had tried to do for some friends. The friends, who are arts promoters, had wanted to combine performance art with one of their art shows and asked if he could give them some help with the lighting for the performances. Although he has virtually no respect for performance art, he said yes, and worked up a very inexpensive system, only to find out that what they really wanted was for him to provide the lighting equipment and set-up for no charge, as well as run the controls. Like most lighting designers, he owns no equipment and certainly was not interested in a five-plus-hour gig for no pay. The friends were determined to have something, so after much back and forth, he convinced them that the best they could get for a small amount of money was a DJ package which he thought would suffice for their needs. As he worked with them to set up their newly acquired package, he discovered that what they really wanted for their $500 was a professional-level lighting system designed to provide exactly the effects they had imagined operated by an unpaid technician.

The lighting designer suggested ways to enhance the function of the inexpensive system and suggested that they play with it for a while. My strong suggestion to the students was that they reconsider their priorities since it was their future careers that these workshops were designed to help.

My takeaway from both of these stories is that there are a number of people, both students and non-students working in the arts world who are reluctant or even unwilling to invest in their art. Teachers in the arts see this attitude all the time: talented music students who will not invest time to practice; painting students who will not invest the money required to purchase good brushes; dance students to refuse to invest in proper footwear. It happens outside of school as well: photographers who can’t seem to save the money to pay for good lenses; musicians who go out to perform with junk sound systems; singers who won’t allocate the time and money to continue voice training to maintain and improve their voices. Yet all of these people expect to succeed in their chosen art, perhaps by magic or luck.

Since magic and luck are in short supply, most serious artists attempt to leverage every opportunity that could reasonably contribute to their success or allow them to better their art. They understand that art is not easy, and succeeding in the art world is less easy. And most know that in order to develop their art, in order to succeed, they have to invest, usually both time and money. And that too is not easy because time and money are also in short supply. But if we are serious about our art and sufficiently determined to improve and succeed, we will find the time and the money. We must, because in order to grow as artists we have to invest in ourselves.

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It has to Resonate

Monday, 11. January 2016 0:59

Sometimes a particular movie or book or painting or sculpture or live stage production will speak to us. There is no immediate explanation of why this happens, but it does. I used to say that in some way those pieces allowed a glimpse of some sort of universal truth. I have since learned that the same pieces that speak to me leave others cold, so perhaps the truth is not so universal after all.

This has nothing to do with whether the piece of art in question is considered “great art” or not. In some cases it is a masterwork and in others it is a “cult” work, and in others it is some obscure piece that no one has heard of. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but I rather suspect it is.

And it does not have to be the whole piece; sometimes it’s just a single scene or even a single line. In the case of visual piece, it could be a small detail or a juxtaposition of visual ideas. There is no way to predict what element might reach out and grab my (or anyone else’s) psyche. But it happens; some works of art resonate and some do not. And that’s really the only thing to call it: resonation.

Nobody seems to know exactly why or how it happens. In speaking of the cult status of the movie Nomads, Lesley-Anne Down says that it was not a “popular movie” but one that appealed to those with “strange minds” who were not interested in the predictable. The implication is, of course, that certain pieces appeal to those with certain mind-sets. Perhaps that is true.

Even though there is no real predictability in terms of what will resonate, the work of particular painters, writers, sculptors, photographers, choreographers touch me repeatedly and the work or others do not. Again, I suspect this is true for others. Whatever the reason, it seems fairly consistent.

And if whatever “truth” an artist presents resonates with a small group of like-minded people, there may be a “cult following,” as in the case of Nomads. If there is a larger group, the work becomes “popular.” If there is an even larger group, it can become a “classic.”

And beyond classic are those artists who become immortal by speaking to multiple generations across space and time. These artists have presented something in their work that continues to communicate, to resonate, long after they have passed from the scene.

What that something is that continues to resonate with such a far-removed audience is the stuff of academic monographs and seminar discussions. The fact is that nobody quite knows. All we know is that Shakespeare and Van Gough and Praxiteles and Beethoven and Walker Evans continue to move and inspire us today. When asked, all we can say is, “the work resonates with us.”

What we do know is that resonance is not something that can be planned. Marketers spend millions attempting to do that and still fail. The best that we can do is put as much truth as we can—perhaps that same sort of truth we recognize in works that resonate with us—into our own work and hope that our truth will resonate with others who encounter our art.

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Edit Hard

Monday, 28. December 2015 1:04

Some people will tell you that art is hard. It is. While there is no question that art is more interesting and engaging than thousands of other jobs, it’s not easy. There are difficulties in every art: sculpture, photography, painting, writing, dance, acting, directing, choreography. Not only do all arts have predictable associated difficulties, but individual artists bring their own individual issues to the work. Yes, art is hard.

Among all of the difficulties associated with any given art, perhaps one of the hardest is editing. Some believe that editing is simply a matter of correcting a few obvious things and polishing a little. Such people, I would suggest, are either amazingly good or an amazingly bad artists. Or perhaps they are simply unaware that editing one’s work stringently will invariably make that work better.

Most of us create in flow or some other altered state, so often our art needs fine-tuning. Editing is the procedure by which we refine our previously rough work. It is not simply correcting a few obvious things and polishing; it is an exacting and difficult process.

The difficulty stems from the fact that we must look at our work with what amounts to new eyes. These “new eyes” give us the necessary objectivity and discipline to do the job. The task is to see and correct all flaws, lapses, inconsistencies, and omissions. We must complete all ideas that are incomplete and fill in any holes we might find. At the same time we need to cut away the irrelevant and unnecessary. Even digressions, perfectly acceptable in most art, must be made somehow relevant or removed.

While completing, filling-in, and modifying are sometimes tough, it’s the cutting-away that is the most difficult and causes the most concern. When we create, our minds make jumps and connections, which, while valid, may not be relevant to the current project. Such elements must be either brought into relevance or excised. Often, the latter is the correct solution, but it’s not easy, particularly when the portion to be removed is good work. Our inner editor, however, is telling us that because of a lack of relevance that good work needs to be on the cutting room floor.

But, as much as we dislike our own work—the case for many never-satisfied artists—it is still part of us and somehow deserves our protection. This means that our objectivity and discipline can never waver. We must cut out every scrap that does not contribute to the piece in question. We must look at every line, shape, action, stoke, step, movement, paragraph, and syllable to determine whether it contributes to the work or does not. If it does not, it has to go.

This does not mean, however, that those excised elements—particularly the good ones—have to be assigned to the trash; they just can’t be used in this project. Perhaps the excised portions can be stored—in a notebook or digital file or the back of the studio or a storage area or somewhere else. Perhaps they can be used elsewhere: perhaps they can add dimension to another project, or perhaps they can form the basis for an entirely new project. What they cannot be is part of the current work.

And that may cause us some angst and perhaps even some tears, but it has to be. We must edit hard. Only that way can our work be the best it can be.

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A Matter of Inspiration

Sunday, 15. November 2015 23:57

Inspiration, artistic or otherwise, is a gift from the universe. Dictionary.com says that to inspire is “to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence.” I have written a couple of times about the necessity of discipline and the futility of waiting for inspiration (here and here). I have also written about dealing with serendipity or inspiration when the universe presents it (here and here).

But then recently I ran across an article in the October issue of Rangefinder Magazine by Amanda Jane Jones. In the article Jones says that she has been inspired by Carissa Gallo’s “ongoing study in color.” Although Jones briefly discusses what it is about Gallo’s work that is inspiring, she does not say how Gallo’s work inspires her or in what way this inspiration manifests itself.

As implied earlier, I am a believer in not waiting for inspiration, but rather in doing the work in a disciplined fashion that invites both serendipity and inspiration. But Jones’ short article caused me to consider the nature of inspiration and consider how it works and how to handle it when it pops up. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Sometimes a visual, verbal, and/or aural experience will set off the idea for a similar project, probably in a different medium or from a different viewpoint from the inspiring piece. This, of course, is considered stealing by some. (That has been discussed here and here.) The similarities in this case can range from subject matter to treatment.
  2. Another possibility is to develop a project that essentially contradicts the original inspiring piece. This certainly is not stealing and may or may not make reference to the original. Certainly if the piece is solid, it can stand on its own without obvious reference to its counter-example.
  3. Of course, the artist can always go meta and make a piece about the original piece. Such a piece can either acknowledge the original or not.
  4. One of the better choices, at least in my opinion, is to use the inspiring piece as a jumping off place, creating a completely new project that bears little resemblance to the original. It just happens that the artist would not have thought of it had he/she not experienced the original. This choice can encompass everything from thinking that the subject of the original needs further development to developing an extension of the techniques used in the original.
  5. Yet another situation might be that the original piece simply triggers an original idea. This is usually a result of a quirk in thinking—an association of thoughts unique to the artist. Again the circumstances are that the artist would not have made the mental connections had he/she not experienced the original.

This list is certainly not exhaustive; there are many more possibilities, but these represent what I consider to be the primary ones. Along the way from inspiration to finished artifact, there can be many twists and turns resulting in work that is far removed from that which inspired it.

What inspires us is simply that which resonates with us in a way that connections can be made with our own process of creativity. And while we cannot wait on inspiration to create, we can, through discipline or ritual or habit, attempt to maximize our openness so that when the universe presents us with a gift, we are able to take full advantage of it.

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It Took an External Nudge

Sunday, 1. November 2015 23:36

Many of us have multiple to-do lists. Mine consist of day-job lists, theatre lists, photography lists, household chores lists, shopping lists, and others. Needless to say, many of the tasks fail to get done in a timely manner and continue to occupy a place on the list—sometimes for weeks or months. Periodic reviews always result in the same “Oh yeah, that.” And “I need to get to that.” And they continue to occupy a place on the list while newer, more pressing matters get take precedence.

Then something happens and that item soars to the top of the list. Recently I had such an incident. One item on my list was “finish web site.” The project was a complete makeover of my photography site, which, as the to-do item indicated, had not been finished. The major changes were complete and what was left was tedious and time-consuming and not very interesting. So it got put off.

Then early last week I got a text from a friend telling me that she had shown some of my work to a person who came with an impressive set of credentials and who had indicated sufficient interest that she was planning to look at the website later and that she might get in touch with me. Photography inquires had been slow, so this lifted my spirits considerably. Then I remembered that item on my photography list. Quickly I grabbed the nearest device, my iPhone, to check the site—I wasn’t sure exactly where I was in the process of updating. The first thing I saw on the opening page of the mobile version of the site was an error that I had not known was there.

As soon as I could, I sat down at my desktop and began to find and fix first errors and then obvious unfinished work. In just a few hours, I had the site looking pretty good. The errors that had shocked me were repaired in all versions of the site. A couple of galleries had been activated, and some images had been resized. It no longer looked broken or incomplete.

But it wasn’t finished. As I had worked to fix things, I discovered other things that I wanted to tweak—and I will, but at a less urgent pace. The item is still on the list, but it’s priority has shifted because I became aware of what I should have known already—that the web site is all some people know of my work, and, more importantly, I never know who might be looking at it at any time, so it needs to look as good as possible—all the time.

The larger lesson is that an artist should not have to wait for an external nudge to do what needs doing. We teach and are taught that we must learn to create without external validation, that we must be able to evaluate the quality of our own work without waiting for outside praise or criticism. The same thing applies to putting our work out there. Another friend of mine holds that art demands an audience. Given that, we must motivate ourselves to let our potential audience see our best work presented in the best possible way. And we must keep current; we must make it a practice to nudge ourselves.

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Sometimes You Fail

Monday, 19. October 2015 1:12

Failure is, in fact, part of creative life, and it actually does happen. Sometimes it blindsides you, and sometimes you see it coming at you like a locomotive. If the latter, you take what measures you can to avert what you think is sure to be a disaster, but sometimes those measures fail as well.

And you know all the maxims about creative activity and failure (see previous writings here, here and here) and you are prepared and you know it’s not the end of the world or anything like that; it’s just part of the creative cycle: sometimes you miss the target. It happens. But maxims are cold comfort when it’s a real failure in the real world, not just something you say, hoping it will never happen or some abstract thing in a blog essay on creativity.

And sometimes, it happens in public. It’s commissioned work with a deadline; it’s a scheduled performance; it’s an advertised opening. If you see it coming, you spend some time planning how to lower expectations in the eyes of those who will surely see the completed project, even while you are still trying to turn the impending train wreck into a near-miss. And you discover very quickly that while private failure is never a pleasant thing, failure in any kind of public situation is deeply humbling experience.

And ironically, some of those times you fail in a public forum, nobody knows. The client, the audience, the patrons look at your work and judge it fine. It’s baffling, and surprising. And it’s not, at least in the eyes of your audience, the catastrophe you thought it was; on the contrary, they like it. Some even like it a lot. And then there come those moments of confusion before it dawns on you that not everybody’s taste is your taste; not everybody’s standards are your standards. (And thank the universe for that.)

But still, it takes a little getting used to. Hopefully, you recognize that the real danger here is not that of failing, or risking, or any of those things with which creatives must come to terms. The danger here is far more insidious. It is the danger of adopting your audience’s taste and standards. And there is that temptation. You have moments when you think, “Well, if they can’t tell the difference, why am I ripping my metaphorical hair out to make this piece the best it can be?”

If you’re lucky and thinking properly, those thoughts last only a moment. Then you realize that the risks you are taking and the standards that you impose upon yourself and the demands that your work meet those standards are the reason that the audience really likes what, in your opinion, is less than mediocre. Once you get past that hurdle, you can restore some balance to your artistic world.

And once that balance is restored, you can accept your failure and move on. This is not to suggest that you welcome failure, just that you are grounded and mature enough to recognize that it’s part of the package. Any genuine risk carries with it the potential for failure; otherwise, it isn’t really a risk. And if you aren’t really risking, you aren’t really creating.

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Quit Your Whining!

Sunday, 26. July 2015 23:33

Frequently, I hear artists complaining about the lack of support the arts receive in today’s America. Theatres, except those on Broadway and a few select others, are running at less than capacity; some run at such reduced capacity that a half-house is considered good. So we whine.

Older artists will tell you that this was not the case in the past, that there was a “golden age” when all seats were full and paintings flew off the wall. How long ago that was depends largely upon the age of the artist making the statement. And there was a time—within my memory—when theatres had far more audience support that we see today. That, of course, was before 200+ channel cable television and the internet. Now we have not only the competition of cable television, but of multiple web sites streaming video and games on demand 24/7.

So those who were just looking for an entertainment to fill their time now have more choices than they can consider. Why would people dress to go out and sit with other people they don’t know to see actors perform when they can sit at home in their underwear watching the best that Hollywood has to offer? In terms of entertainment, many audience members see little distinction between live theatre and streaming video, so live theatre artists whine.

What also seems to be gone are the days when buying original art was popular, if such days ever existed. Walk through any gallery; visual and plastic arts are not moving, particularly those pieces that are priced in the three-digits-plus range—at least until one gets to the multi-million dollar level. (And those auction purchases seem to be not so much about art as about conspicuous acquisition and investment.) The vast middle-ground moves very little original art, and for much the same reasons that theatre doesn’t: reproductions are everywhere. If a person is looking for decoration (and, face it, most people are) there are thousands of pre-framed lithographs of both famous and unknown work, “original oil paintings” mass-produced in “painting factories” in Asia, illustrations, internet images. So why pay for the real original vision of a living artist? The artists whine.

But whining about today’s conditions is not productive; neither is longing for the “good old days.” Those days, if they ever existed, are gone; now we have to deal with it what is.

A multimedia artist I know says that acquiring art is like making a love connection and I think she may well be right. The collector sees the art, connects with the art, wants or needs to have an on-going relationship with the art, which means, unless the art is available to view on the internet, that the collector must buy the art. So the art goes home with its new owner to continue the love relationship.

And we know there are all sorts of “love connections,” some deep and long-term and some shallow and temporary. Different aspects attract differently, and most know that we can change those to attract a different sort of interest from a different sort of person. Likewise, the artist can modify his/her output to attract a different kind of collector.

That’s one way of dealing with things. Another way is to remember why we got into art (or art got into us) in the first place. It wasn’t about money. It was likely about having something to say or having a need to create. If we remember why we do it, and recognize what the market conditions really are, we can produce our art, put it out into the world, and quit our whining.

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Seeing with New Eyes

Monday, 29. June 2015 0:04

One of the most difficult things that artists have to do is to look at their work with new eyes every time they review what they’ve done. While we might get away without doing this in the creation phase, it’s an absolute must in the editing phase of making our art. If we don’t bring new eyes to our work, we miss things, we wander off in nonproductive directions, only to wonder later how we missed this or that or the other thing. The explanation is simple; we didn’t see it.

Although I have tried to train myself to look with fresh eyes, I recently failed to see what was right in front of me. Another photographer for whom I have a great deal of respect offered a critique of one of my latest photography projects. He said that he thought the work looked “forced” (although he was not quite satisfied with that word). He is of the opinion that no matter how much time and preparation goes into the making of a photograph, the result should look effortless, an idea that I agree with and have written about. He went on to say that all of my work that he had seen up until this point had had that quality of effortlessness, but this project did not.

And he was right. I had had so much trouble with the project that I wrote about it, but thought that I had resolved it. And even though I thought that I had found the right new forms for this undertaking, I had known that something was not quite right with a number of the finished pieces. I had no idea, however, what that something was. He told me—at least what he thought. The conversation caused me to go back to my other work and examine it in a new light—never a bad idea. Once I had done that, it was easy to see what he was talking about with regard to this project.

Although I hardly ever think of apparent effortlessness as a separate component, I do think that is a quality of good art. I therefore try to make it a part of all my work. In this instance, I failed to do that. So then I had to deal with the why of that. And the why was that the project had been so difficult, had required the development of completely new structures, that I was ready to sign off on it before it was really done. Otherwise, I would not have had that uneasy feeling that something was not quite right.

The feeling was correct; something wasn’t quite right, but I was so ready to close the file on the project that I missed it. In this case, I needed someone outside myself to see with new eyes. Once he had done this and told me what he saw, it was glaringly obvious. The project is not finished.

All of this could have been avoided had I not gotten so wrapped up in the difficulty of the project that I forgot to look with new eyes. And that cannot be. If one is to produce really good art, one must approach the work at every session with fresh eyes.

It’s why we put things away before we put things away before we edit them—to give ourselves time to forget a little so it’s easier to look with fresh eyes in the editing process. And it’s certainly not true just for photography. No matter what medium we work in, we must approach our work daily with new eyes—if for no other reason than to insure that our vision is being properly realized. If it’s not, we need to stop and fix it. It’s not easy; it sometimes requires great effort. The results, however, are worth it.

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Where is the Line?

Monday, 9. February 2015 1:10

Some artists have been told in school that their work is “too commercial.” Some have been told their work is “not sufficiently polished,” which is another way of saying that it is “not commercial enough.” Ultimately, most artists do what they want to do and try to express their inner vision. But somewhere down the road, they decide that selling to an audience wider than friends and family seems desirable, and unless they have already established a practice that produces salable artifacts, they may be faced with the decision on which direction to take their work. Advice is always forthcoming—often from many directions and with zero consistency.

The questions confronting an artist in that situation are always which direction, if any, to go and how far. And exactly where is that line that indicates that he/she has gone too far?

These are questions that producers of both film and the theatre know well, as do other theatre and film artists. Playwrights, actors, and directors all want to do edgy work. If the work is too bland, it won’t be appealing to the artists. On the other hand, general audiences want material with which they are comfortable, and that usually means less edge. If the audience gets too much edge, they close their pocketbooks.

One might think that the solution is to find a niche audience, and that does help for some artists, but regardless of the size or specificity of the interests of the audience, these questions must still be answered.

These questions are just the beginning; others follow: how much, if any, am I willing to change what I’m doing? Will the potential change still allow me to say what I need to say? Will it allow me to better say what I have to say? Will a change really benefit me as an artist? Am I selling out?

Of course “selling out” is not really selling out. What it really means is “trying to reach a wider audience.” This sometimes means the artist modifies what he/she does in order to do that. This happens often with bands. The band signs with a label and suddenly are faced with the prospect of a larger audience. They play larger venues. They record in a different studio with a different producer. They may develop different concerns. Somehow their work is no longer “pure” in the eyes of their old audience. The band probably thinks it is just trying to reach more people with its music.

And the ultimate question, of course, is “where is the line?” and that is a question with many dimensions: where is the line that separates “real” art and “commercial” art? Where is the line between “real” art and self-indulgence? Where is the line between staying true to oneself and “selling out?” Where is the line between “just enough” and “too much?”

Like film and theatre producers, the individual artist who is interested in selling art must try to determine where that line is, or if the line even exists. And then, of course, comes the question of whether that artist wants to approach the line or just stay where he/she is. Maybe that depends on why the artist is making art in the first place and how widely he/she wants that art distributed.

Only the individual artist can answer. Where are your lines?

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Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

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