December 28, 2010

The Gouldian Kit


The basic legend of genius pianist Glenn Gould is that at 31 he stopped playing live, describing his audience as a “force of evil” who scrutinized his performance, watching for any failure in his perceived and expected greatness.(1) We know, too, of his meteoric classical performing artist career, from the early performances in Toronto and on Canadian radio broadcasts, to his historic New York City debut, at a mere 22 years of age, that quickly lead to a Columbia Records recording contract. The resultant first recording sessions for Columbia yielded Bach: The Goldberg Variations, an album that had the rare distinction of becoming a best-selling classical LP, and Gould's subsequent concert tour of Russia was a resounding success.(2)

After 1962, and for the remainder of his life, Gould honed his various mythic eccentricities – wearing overcoat, gloves and scarf in all seasons, obsessively taking his own blood pressure and self-medicating with prescription pharmaceuticals, humming distractingly during recordings – and died of complications from a stroke just days after his 50th birthday.

What is among the lesser known facts about Glenn Gould is that he foresaw music’s future in the technology of the recording industry. He understood that the limits of any live performance were its dependence on chance and the psychic and physical conditions of the performer. During Gould’s early experience in the then-developing technologies of analog (magnetic tape) recording, he would discover the inherent promise within the multiple “takes” of a recording session and the production qualities of microphone placements. He was able to see that the wonder of music’s presence and immediacy would one day have the potential to shift from performer to listener, that the “product” might be re-formatted, re-presented through “interpretive” recording techniques in a kind of do-it-yourself “kit” for personal enjoyment. In 1968, he said:

“I’m all for the kit concept…I’d love to issue a series of variant performances and let the listener choose what they themselves most like. Let them assemble their own performance. Give them all the component parts, all the component splices, rendered at different tempi with different dynamic inflections, and let them put something together that they really enjoy — make them participant to that degree.”(3)

Gould foresaw that music would survive the vagaries of random performance by expanding upon the recording technologies. Through this “post-production” music might have an infinite, never-ending potential to yield multiple interpretations.

It should come as no secret that Gould’s vision has now become a reality. Various performers in different musical genres have begun providing ways in which their fans can now interact and participate in their music via access to recorded tracks and/or individual recorded components of their musical works. These “stems” can be re-mixed to suit the fan’s tastes, shared with others, or even submitted back to the “original” performer for approval.(4)

In the postmodern world, this kind of leveling of the “playing” field makes perfect sense. As the author has died and readers have become “producers” of meaning, so too will the binary of performer/fan be usurped. Gould was ahead of the curve in his perception of the necessary breakdown of “live” performance and the then burgeoning freedom of late Sixties’ recording techniques. As Kevin Bazzina has noted:

His creative approach to interpretation, for instance – that free, subjective, self-conscious engagement with musical texts without regard for inherited traditions or the composer’s intentions – call to mind contemporary literary ideas like Umberto Eco’s ‘open work,’ Roland Barthes’s novella critique, and the whole phenomenon of reader-response criticism, even, in some ways deconstruction…His atemporal, ahistorical view of musical works, his advocacy of a mixing of styles (as in his String Quartet or his ‘Baroque-ish’ Mozart performances), his defiance of avant-garde factions and opposition to the notion of ‘progress’ in the arts – all resonated with intellectual trends of his day, in various fields, to such a degree that we might call Gould the first postmodern performer of the Western classical canon.”(5)


Image: Glenn Gould at age 23 in Nassau, Bahamas; photograph © Copyright by Jock Carroll.

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1. Gould, Glenn. The Glenn Gould Reader, New York, 1984.

2. For more on Gould's life and career, see Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, playing this week on PBS stations this week – check local listings.

3. Bazzana, Kevin. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, New York, 2004, 267.

4. Former Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor figures prominently in the listing of performers who have provided such links.

5. Op. cit., 267.

December 24, 2010

Martin To Go

“The lure in art collecting and its financial rewards, not counting for a moment its aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual rewards, is like the trust in paper money: it makes no sense when you really think about it. New artistic images are so vulnerable to opinion that it wouldn’t take much more than a whim for a small group of collectors to decide that a contemporary artist was not so wonderful anymore, was so last year. In the ebb and flow of artists’ desirability, some collectors wondered how a beautiful painting, once it had fallen from favor, could turn ugly so quickly.”(1)

As squeamish indictment of the fickleness of a certain type of art collector, Steve Martin’s description of moneyed and presumably powerfully influential collectors goes a long way to unveil the kinds of goings-on in the art world that we’d rather not know about. True, we are aware of the fact that artworks are not always collected by people because they are so absolutely moved by them that they cannot live without them. Certainly there is a jaded realization that art achieved its full commodity-status sometime in the late 1950s, if not sooner, and that art world predators are currently scouring the globe looking to corner the market on the next “Big Thing.”

Martin’s novel, albeit a work of fiction, intrigued a few of us denizens of academia because of its potential to reveal some of those inner machinations of that art collecting-art dealing world that someone of his collector status would be privy to.(2) After all, he is a multi-millionaire and former trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who has collected the work of Diebenkorn, De Kooning, Kline, Twombly, Hopper, O’Keefe and Picasso, among others. And while Martin made his fortune from his comedy and acting careers, he has self-taught knowledge of art history and theory, knowledge benefited through close relationships with more than a few art world stars and scribes who undoubtedly shared their expertise.(3)

An Object of Beauty is a mostly gossipy tome about a young woman named Lacey Yeager who works her way up the art world ladder, from Sotheby’s auction-house flunky to owning her own Chelsea gallery. However, interspersed infrequently, and not enough among the book’s narrative arc of the art world’s financial stresses, shenanigans and furtive couplings, are Martin’s rather insightful if not cynical takes on what our 21st Century art world has become. Particularly devastating are the sporadic glimpses of this seemingly small handful of billionaire collectors who have that kind of Collector Clout detailed above; a kind of competitiveness and take-no-prisoners attitude to art collecting that begins to become a bit more of a scorched earth policy to out-doing one another’s contemporary art collections:

“His [Pilot Mouse, a fictional DJ-artist] breakthrough had come when collector Hinton Alberg, the American equivalent of the dynamic English collector Charles Saatchi, swept through a modest downtown show and bought every one of Mouse’s paintings. The paintings, in retrospect, weren’t that good, but when Hinton Alberg bought them out, they suddenly became good. The theory of relativity certainly applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics. The difference is that gravity distorts space eternally, and a collector distorts aesthetics for only a few years.”(4)

Perhaps the more intriguing thing to explore would be why these paintings were considered not “that good.” What judgments of taste determine this or that artwork “good” and others not? Martin’s bitter rendition of how these paintings that “weren’t that good” to begin with suddenly achieve their desirable “aesthetic” valuation because of provenance is smugly satisfying to anyone who believes that the art world has become nothing less than a game of manipulation. Yet Martin’s perceptive tidbits about super-rich art collector dinner conversations or backroom dealer negotiations are not as scathing an indictment of the art world as the 2009 film, Boogie Woogie, in which a lesbian artist is catapulted to instant fame through a series of improbable, feverish conspiracies by both art dealers and collectors to acquire a Mondrian painting.

That it takes place in the art world is not surprising given Martin’s comfortably moneyed access to that world. However, his obvious mistrust of the motivations behind art collecting may be disguised within his misogynist depiction of Lacey. Because what we are left with in the end is a vapid and sketchy tale of this young woman who is not above trading carnal knowledge for position in her power-hungry quest for art world status. We might even further speculate on Martin's thinly veiled comparison of Lacey’s prostitution of herself with the misguided attempts by collectors to falsely attribute value through ownership. All of which does little or nothing to reveal anything more substantial about what art is, why it’s “eternally” valued in ways completely extraneous to its commodification and how artworks of significance came to be canonized within art historicity. That book remains to be written by another writer with greater depth of vision.

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1. Martin, Steve. An Object of Beauty, New York, 2010, 264.

2. However, Martin’s “fans” have not been appreciative of his recent appearances when he talked about art and his book.

3. Art dealer Larry Gagosian and arts writer Frederic Tuten are friends and Mr. Martin dated Cindy Sherman in the late 1990s.

4. Op. cit., 113.

December 17, 2010

Bad Design



Design thrives on function; it lives, breathes, eats purpose and use. To achieve good design in something, first a designer asks, “How is it to be used?” Or designers might also want to know, “What do you want it to do?” This works universally for architecture, coffee grinders, weapons or pharmaceuticals; you find out what the end-user (client) wants and work out the kinks to make the thing (product) to be made.

It’s the philosophy of telos, defining the purpose via the schematics of functionality. When a designer steps outside of that structure he/she becomes something other than a designer; he/she becomes an artist.

Don’t get me wrong: I suppose designers can be called “artists” as long as we understand that doing so is framing them within ancient aesthetics, returning to classic art theories that handed out the title of “artist” to anyone engaged in the “right making” of any thing, whatever that entailed, regardless of whether it was culinary or carpentry.

A recent New York Times piece muddles this issue further by confusing the nature of design with the contemporary artmaking practice of process art. In her article on the German designer Konstantin Grcic (GEAR-tichich), Alice Rawsthorn mistakes his innovative designs as being determined through a methodology of process artmaking, when in fact Mr. Grcic is simply designing things artfully.

Mr. Grcic recently assembled (curated?) a number of objects whose design he has admired, and these objects happen to be (mostly) black rectangular things, and presented them together in an exhibition “Black2” at the Swiss Institute in Rome. There you will find a Marshall amplifier, a gravestone, a television set, a floppy disc, a Moleskine notebook, etc. Mr. Grcic also includes one of his own “designs,” his Diana_B table.

Well and good. But it is Ms. Rawsthorn’s fuzzy impression of his “design process” that caught my attention:

“Many designers begin a new project by imagining the end result, but Mr. Grcic starts by anticipating how it will be used and shapes it accordingly. This means that the form of the object evolves during the design process, and is determined by its function and constraints.”(1)

This reveals either Ms. Rawsthorn misinterpreted what Mr. Grcic may have said, or that she does not understand the basics of how form might be determined by process, and how process art is not design; form doesn't evolve during design, design evolves during design.

As an artistic development, process art was a reaction to the overly schematized forms of Minimal Art that artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt were making in the 1960s. Later, a younger generation of artists rejected this pre-ordination of instructions, blueprint and designed artworks, often not even made by the artists themselves but sub-contracted out to industrial fabricators. So the solution they came up with, also called “Anti-Form” or Post-Minimalism, was to devise a process or sequencing of actions whose resultant form became the art object. This held true to a couple of Minimalism’s theories about rejecting “composition” and “relational painting,” as they introduced new concepts in terms of shifting the emphasis back to the artist’s hand. (See Eva Hesse.) Robert Morris, who had earlier worked in both Conceptual and Minimal Art, wrote of this new process of making in 1968:

“Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work's refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.”(2)

Now if you’re a designer you can certainly make “artful” or “intuitive designs.” However, the concept that an end result product might be designed through randomness is anathema to fundamentals of design. And even though that cell phone pictured above is fairly “out there” in its differentiation from all the others at the store, you can bet it was designed to function as a cell. Designers simply don’t monkey about with the odds and ends of electronic circuitry to stumble upon a functioning telephonic device. Like Louis Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function.”

Image: Rawphisticated Cell Phone by Branko Lukić.

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1. Rawsthorn, Alice. “It's A World Of Black Rectangles,” New York Times; Dec. 12, 2010.

2. Morris, Robert. “Anti-Form,” Artforum, 6:8 (April 1968), 34.

December 10, 2010

Quinque viae 3



"Quinque viae: Proof 5" was "erased" on Nov. 18, 2010, in Salve Regina Gallery at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. The work is MCB's text-bisection of the "5th Proof" of God's existence by Thomas Aquinas. Visitors to the gallery were allowed to complete text by using provided dry erase markers to write upon the work which is composed of acrylic paint on clear acrylic sheets. The erasure of the work returned it to original condition to initiate further participation by visitors during the exhibition.

© Copyright 2010 by Mark Cameron Boyd. All rights reserved by the artist. No reproduction of artwork /text /image /video without written permission.