Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Dying to Make a Name for Yourself

The desire to elevate your own existence above the sweaty unwashed masses and make a name for yourself, is literally a compulsion for some people. Lacking a true talent or gift that allows a person to pursue a life as an artist, those who crave the spotlight will go to extreme lengths to be heard and recognized. A recent article from the Greenwich Village Denizen highlights this phenomenon:

Greenwich Village, New York City-

At the heart of New York's bohemian artists' enclave, Smerlie's coffee shop is the place where you will find many of the neighborhood's resident painters, musicians and writers. The majority of them can by no stretch be considered "working" artists, as most of them hold down day (actually mostly night) jobs as waiters, bartenders and the like.

One topic that is always on the lips of the locals who stop by for a cup of coffee and the latest gossip is who has "made it". Despite the myth that artists shun commercial appeal and the big payoff, the opposite seems to be true if a person were to judge from what they hear in a few hours of small talk at Smerlie's.

Everyone agrees that painters are the group of artists who seem to have the hardest row to hoe. Wide commercial appeal amongst musicians and writers is not rare; in fact, that is one of the true indicators of success for those individuals. For painters however, it is a much different and complex set of circumstances that determines whether they will ever gain any degree of fame. Any recognition that does come their way will be confined to a relatively small group of people. The names of most painters who are known and command top dollar within the narrow and esoteric world of art connoisseurs would elicit a look of puzzlement from the average person.

In the past twenty years there are countless tales of painters with questionable talent who have gone to extreme measures to break into this rarified world of successful artists and those who pay them the respect they feel they deserve. Some of the examples of those who have tried to gain acclaim are in fact individuals who simply tried to put one over on the patrons of modern art who have rightly or wrongly gained a reputation for their pretentious attitudes.

Two painting exhibitions come to mind, both of which were lauded at the time but later turned out to be hoaxes of sorts. Post modernistic paintings that revealed in one case to have been painted by a group of 5 years olds, and in the other by...elephants. These facts were never mentioned at the time of the exhibitions. After the truth had been announced and the laughter had died down in the non-art world population, the question had to be asked "Did the fact that these paintings were made by children and elephants change the opinion of those so called experts who had initially praised them?"

The silence from those critics and patrons seems to be proof of their embarrassment and the fact that in many cases, self appointed experts are so desperate to create an esoteric world where they are the only ones who "get it" that they have lost touch with reality.

The sometimes nonsensical and multi-layered comments about artwork offered up by the members of this strange cabal whose opinions seem to shape the trends and direction of painters and critics, leaves many wondering if they are the ones who are usually having a laugh at the expense of the rest of us.

Let's be clear about who we are referring to. Those wealthy individuals who pay top dollar for paintings, are major contributors to the top galleries and whose purchase of a painting from a rising star can ensure acceptance of that painter into the connoisseurs clique. There are many artists who see approval by these individuals as proof that they have made it, and have gone to bizarre lengths to receive this acceptance.

In 1982, a New York City artist named Ike Maven made the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to achieve fame in the art world. Maven purchased a 10 ft. x 10 ft. canvas, dated and signed the untouched fabric, positioned himself on a chair ten feet away and blew the contents of his skull onto the virgin surface with a 12 gauge shotgun. Maven had left explicit instructions to ensure that his "point of death" painting would not be a wasted effort, in a ten page letter to his lover.

Within weeks, word had circulated amongst those in the know who are willing to pay top dollar for a unique piece of artwork. The piece sold and Maven had achieved his posthumous bit of fame albeit amongst those handful of purveyors. The whereabouts of the painting are still unknown, although the word is that the initial 10 x 10 canvas was far too generous a size for the amount of gray matter that was splattered forth.


I've long wondered about those self appointed wackos and the crap that they hold up as modern art.

One of the many reasons that you will hear from expats as to why they have chosen Thailand as their new home is because human nature doesn't seem to have disguised itself as much as in other parts of the world. The multi-layered pretentiousness and bullshit that dominates life back home hasn't taken hold to such a degree.

Still, I was curious as to what type of art world crap there exists in the land of smiles. If it exists anywhere here, surely it will be in the gilt-edged cesspool known as Bangkok where the aforementioned western style outlook on life creeps a bit deeper every year.

My philosophy regarding art is basic; if it is visually appealing, I like it. The "story" surrounding the piece of work or the artist is meaningless to me until after I have been drawn in by the beauty of the work. Even then, the fact that the artist may have enjoyed fucking goats rarely changes the enjoyment I get from what he or she produced. Similarly, regarding music, I am rarely interested in the political view of the cunt that is singing the song and if I am, it doesn't change one way or another my opinion of the music. Artwork, music or literature that appears dubious on the surface must always rely on surrounding myths and hype if it is to achieve any kind of recognition.

Seeking to get some real insight into whether there are any counterparts in Thailand to those talentless wonders from back home who have to rely on gimmicks and publicity stunts to be heard, I checked out a private gallery in Siam square. I have walked by this gallery numerous times and thought that one of the paintings would look nice on a wall in my flat, but knowing the price tag was outside my means I always admired from a distance.

"The kind of people you are talking about, no doubt are lacking any real knowledge about art but use their money to become 'important' in a local scene. They pay for exhibitions, buy the paintings and enjoy the circus like atmosphere and the fact that they are part of it," the sexy young woman working at the small gallery advised me.

"Any specific examples in Thailand that you could tell me about?"

"Well....there are a number of what you might call Khun Yings (old rich Thai bitches) who have spent some years abroad and now have returned with their husbands, or often times alone, to live in Bangkok. Maybe they are convinced that the time they have spent living in Europe or the US has somehow given them a unique sense of sophistication (one look at the helmet like hairstyles most of these broads sport is proof that they have no right dabbling in anything to do with aesthetics).

Together with having too much time and money on their hands they take a young, usually male artist under there wing and become almost like a sponsor for them. It's about control and more often than not the old hag is probably getting her insides painted as well. So she supports this artist, pays for an exhibition of his work and feels as though she has discovered him. The fact that the work being produced is awful is never really considered. It's also surprising the number of people who heap praise on the old woman's protege and the circus like atmosphere increases."

The young woman at the gallery, whose name is Pookie, turns out to be friendly and offers me a snifter of brandy as we sit down. She warms up to discussing the absurdity of the pretentious wankers who look at absolute bullshit paintings with a stern and knowing look in their eyes.

"Through my connections I learned that one of these questionable young artists was producing a series of paintings in which he had used an inkpad and a dead cat, pressing the cat's arse onto the inkpad and then mashing the ink stained carcass onto the canvas. The ridiculous looking effect seemed to impress numerous wealthy individuals and his paintings are hanging in half a dozen apartments around Bangkok," she laughingly told me.

The paintings on the wall of the gallery I am in certainly couldn't be classified as "modern" in the sense that you don't have to "get it". Most of them just look nice. Without being able to provide anymore specific examples of the type of crap I'm looking for, the young woman gives me the names of a few Khun Yings that have been known to discover new artists. It actually sounds like not a bad gig. I've already planning my breakthrough piece....force a few plate loads of som tam down my throat, position a 10 x 10 canvas against the wall and spray paint the fucker from 15 feet....and voila, Som Tam Explosion!