Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ramon Novarro

A lovely portrait of silent film "Latin lover" Ramon Novarro by Angel Zarraga. I wish American culture today weren't embarrassed by the idea of male beauty.

(I cannot find who the photographer was for the second portrait. Sorry!)

Monday, October 11, 2010

When Bad People Make Good Art

My dad was watching a baseball game when one of the best players stepped up to bat. "You know, that guy can really play ball. It's really too bad he's such a shit-ass."

Unfortunately the art world has some shit-asses too. There are the Leni Riefenstahls of the world, who have been associated with abominable things and whose art, too, is associated with those things. Their stuff is easy to admire once in a while from a technical standpoint and then stay away from the rest of the time. How often do I really want to watch Nazi propaganda, no matter how artfully directed? And then there are people like Chris Brown who do abominable things but the content of their art is unrelated. But the Chris Browns and Mel Gibsons of the world don't bother me so much either because their art sucks and I would've disliked it anyway. But then there are the Wagners, the Larry Riverses, the Buster Keatonses whose stuff is a little harder to stay away from.

Sometimes I have to bend backward over historical attitudes to appreciate art. Wagner was a raging anti-semite and even in his time that wasn't completely acceptable. But it was a lot more accepted by his society, pre-Holocaust and chauvinistically Christian. Caravaggio actually committed murder, which wasn't historically acceptable but I guess it was such a long time ago no one really cares anymore. And I adore Buster Keaton's silent movies... but not the black-face scene in The College. I get the feeling that it was completely acceptable to white Americans in the twenties, and all in good fun but there is no way I feel ok watching that. And Hugh Laurie, whom I adore, appeared in black-face in the fantastic series Wooster & Jeeves, which is so recent that I was absolutely shocked by that scene.

And then there's Larry Rivers, a contemporary artist who died in 2002 who made a "documentary" film of his two daughters growing up through puberty, which is so insensitively made it is certainly tantamount to sexual abuse and possibly child pornography. His daughters, now adults, seem to have been hurt by his actions and do not approve the artwork or the public's possession of it. There's really no historical attitude he can hide behind, either. It colors the rest of his work for me; for some reason knowledge of sexual abuse, more than anything else, affects how I see a person's every action thereafter. I think people see Roman Polanski's movies the same way now. Drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl is pretty hard to forget. All his films are a little ickier now.

But I have the option of stretching to see beyond that. After all, if I can appreciate a Wagner piece or freak out in front of Rosemary's Baby I can only gain from that experience. Mahler, who was Jewish until converting for possibly political reasons, welcomed the chance to conduct Wagner pieces, remarking that Wagner had never composed an anti-semitic note. Ultimately if I reject great art because it's tainted, I lose out.

Not everyone sees it that way though. Denial seems to be a popular option. But even IF members of the general public acknowledge that the artist did a terrible thing, many people declassify the art as "art." I definitely consider Rivers' documentary to be art as well as evidence of sexual abuse but the popular opinion of commenters who did not defend his actions was that the film was simply not art and he was simply not an artist. People also seem to be piping up to say that Polanski's films are not all that great, or that a filmmaker isn't really an artist, or some variation on the theme of "Hollywood blows." The drummer from the Velvet Underground has recently joined the Tea Party movement, which is seen as politically reprehensible to the leftist fanbase. Suddenly comment sections are peppered with, "whatever, the Velvets weren't that great anyway. And she was just a drummer." This is easy to get away with because many people can't see weird contemporary art as art even when morality isn't an issue. We're still expecting museums to be filled with Monets. (This isn't applicable to problematic art that predates Modernism, perhaps, because the art historians have declared it to be Great and no one can really argue with that).

People are kind of hostile to art, ready to take it down a few notches at the slightest provocation. This may seem like a leap but I associate this attitude with mob attitudes toward minorities. When women fail to please or act "wrong" people claim she's not really a woman: she's got a penis hidden in her pants, she's a cold childless un-mother, she's just a whore, she's unfuckable. People do this to Black people sometimes too, sadly. "So & So doesn't act how I think Black people act, therefore they're White at heart [insert offensive food product slang here]." It happens, in fact, to most people at some point in their lives for some reason.

The common problem, it seems, is that people are trying to define the world without listening to other people's definitions of themselves and their worlds, without accepting that paradoxes and contradictions exist (usually even within one's own rigid definitions). Maybe it's easier to start expanding one's mind with morally ambiguous artwork, and then tackle something else a little tougher.

Portrait of a Lady (or, "Your Hair is Fine, Really")

So: I'm a portrait artist. I like strange, daring or intensely thoughtful portraits and do them when I can, but every Saturday I go to the Farmer's Market and sketch charcoal portraits of people that take about a half-hour each. It's fun. I love people's faces, it's good exercise, it pushes me out of the analytical-painter-rut I sometimes get stuck in. Plus I like tourists.

I draw lots of different kinds of people--and pets-- and I'm surprised by how much more I enjoy drawing them than I anticipated. The dogs are a great exercise in texture. Kids say beautifully contemplative stuff after sitting still for thirty minutes. Couples are so sweet to draw (usually) and the confident, curious adult who simply wants a portrait is always interesting.

I thought I already had strong views on feminine beauty and its place in the patriarchy (hell yeah I'm a feminist!) but again I have been surprised by what I've learned.

First, I have only drawn five women, ever, who did not say something apologetic, worried and peppered with nervous laughter about their hair as they sat down. Only one girl under 18-ish ever mentioned her hair, and she was an elementary-school-aged kid whom her mother had dressed as a beauty queen. Yeesh. Personally I try to emphasize messy hair because it breathes a bit of life into a portrait. It keeps people from looking... embalmed. And for the record: their hair always looks fine in real life. Always.

And then there are the modest ladies.

The husband/boyfriend will see the Portraits sign, light up and say "Honey! You should get a portrait! C'mon, you're gorgeous!" But Honey has to act embarrased, argue, be persuaded, and pretend to be reluctant. Usually I can tell she is secretly delighted but has to put on the act of modesty anyway. It's not like there's any socially acceptable way for a woman to say "You're right, I am gorgeous. Let's get this shit framed!"

In fact, the only way that many women can be persuaded to get a portrait is to include a mom or child, and make it a "me & mom moment." To simply have a portrait of oneself would be vain. I suppose they figure it's only a short leap from having a framed photo of yourself, to filling your bedroom with "boudoir photos," to starring in Sunset Boulevard. It's sad because many single and married men will stop by alone who are completely unencumbered with painful self-awareness, declare the awesomeness of portraiture, and sit happily for a portrait simply because they're curious.

I guess the Man Version of 'Aww shucks,' is, "Ha! You don't wanna draw me, sweetheart! I'm so ugly your pencil would break!" Followed by hearty laughter. But no shame. I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "But ugly people make the best portraits!"

So this got me thinking about female beauty in a new way. I'm going to do a few posts here exploring that. I promise, though, no nonsense about women's beauty being God's gift to man or carelessly conflating "sexy" with "beautiful." Ugh.