Walter Gabrielson

Why suck the mainstream if you don't live in New York?

ART IN AMERICA January-February l974

Drawing by Walter Gabrielson
Why suck the mainstream if you don't live in New York?

Because we've been taught to. Because it's more expedient. Because its easier.

The paucity of real imagination, original thought and wit demonstrated by most work seen today is symptomatic of a terrifying con game called "mainstream art". MA bubbles from the New York crucible, filters through the provinces, and pops out in an ever expanding proliferation of second-rate artists jumping on the bandwagon with increasing zeal and puffery. Mainstream Art has been around since the fifties under legit labels like Abstract Expressionism, HardEdge, Minimal, Pop Art, etc. which tended to authenticate (for artists one or two steps removed from innovator status) a certain decay toward art-for-career, slap-dash quality, and a nationwide homogeneity of imagery and technique. The casualty in this process has been any sort of qualitative regionalist or individualist art that existed in portions of the country outside of New York before the raising of MA to deism.

Today's Mainstream kick--Process-Conceptual-Performance, etc. --continues the slide in new and more fascinating vulgarities; we must wade through the spectacle of thousands of little people doing their gawd-awful trendy "pieces". It is all so easy to do. At least in the (gasp) past you had to go out and make a painting or something, and perhaps the whole act of doing it and the painting itself were less attractive upon completion. Now it's all very attractive. That's what is wrong with it. Everybody in the boondocks is seduced by the easiness of becoming a Process-Conceptual cutie-pie heavy with lots of PR coming at you, and the infinite joy of finally being with-it. Like, WOW!

The silent generation of Business Administration corporate debutantes that I hopefully left behind in the fifties has been reconstituted in the seventies as artbiz designers cranking out dry-cleaned hip art safely within the with-it gang. These people cheerfully eat up the art corporate line pumped by nonrevisionist artmags, suck up unabashedly to the revolving power brockers (curators, critics and dealers), and work terrifying hours making art for somebody else.

And what does that get anybody? possibly a mention in a legit review, hurried inclusion in a yearly museum survey, a communal loser authentication in various group shows and eventual but swift replacement on the circuit the next time around by another hotshot whose careerist hunger is just a bit more ravenous. The trouble is, you can too easily sympathize with these predicaments. Here you are, a nice person (with TAL-ent) from the MIDDLE class who wants-to-be-an-artist ("But how can you make a living at thaat, Murray?" "Well, Mom, with an MFA you can practically get a ......"), gets pumped through a serious degree mill (if you get lucky, there's even some Professor you have to fight the whole way through school who doesn't like your stuff) , and then gets dumped into the artvoid.

The system itself creates a kind of face-saving art. Today almost everybody goes through art school and then, to justify the time already wasted, has to come up with some work, to get a job, have some shows, get written about, etc. Obviously, something has to happen, and it does. The Mainstream Option is obvious: it has currency, it is there, doesn't take too much bothersome facility, makes one a viable job applicant etc. Presto: here is what I am INTO:
I mean, my thing is to document in tapes, films, postcards and other media, the scatological insight. This phenomenon has been with us for the lifespan of man, and is descriptive of evolution and change, biological imperatives, perching discourse and ductility in plastic shapes and forms.....

The stuff is packaged in expensive advertisements in the national art journals, using bold white drop-out type to play the macho line, or with a photograph of the artist as an adult-child doing something unseemly but wistful (you can see that the artist has sensitivity but needs INTERPRETATION). If unlucky or dull enough not to have brand identity ("Oh yeah, he's the shit guy") , an alternate gambit is to identify with a current technology for all the wrong reasons, and mentally slip into the pew of an authentic superstar to "take his ideas one step further." WHOOPEE! In the late sixties there were cadres of ill-fitted recruits entombed in clean rooms, wearing smocks and paper shoes and other paraphernalia, mixing excruciatingly precise toxic mixtures of resins, hardeners and dyes, sanding on the damn things forever, and then trying to figure out whether the odd pubic hair glaring out from the center of the piece ruined the whole thing. It isn't that process is inherently bad, it is bad for nontechnicians to be remodeling themselves in the technocrat vise for no apparent aesthetic reason other than to come up with a work that will stand with that of people who are seriously doing this sort of work. People playing the Mainstream game are not adding to, but detracting from and violating the Mainstream by their lousy work and the clutter they create doing it.

This hoopla has created some problems: (l) Recent Art History (one to six months) is becoming too large a portion of any artist's premise. Artist Z is doing a wrinkle on artist Y wo moved a half a step from X who sifted through the remains of Artist W who stole the idea in the first from Artist... "The basic substance of Art has become the protracted discourse in words and materials echoed back and forth from artist to artist, work to work, art movement to art movement on all aspects of contemporary civilization and of theplace of creation and the individual in it" (Harold Rosenberg). That is another way of justifying a highly developed in-game in which only the full time openings-goer and artmag reader wil be able to unravel a piece of work. In the process, (a) most aspects of contemporary civilization are NOT being dealt with, just the arty parts, (b)the place of creation within a Mainstream context is very irrelevant to whatever pieces are birthed outside of NY (work in Alamagordo and Abilene resemble each other and are indistinguishable from Big Apple Art), and (c) individuals are surely the least identifiable commodity in today's corporate art.

(2) Mainstream artists have a decided lack of humor. The option of making art is combined with the ludicrous spectacle of setting one's self up to pontificate at the outset. By Seventies rules we are asked to accept everyone's premise and work without disclaimer or comment, or even a laugh. Mainstream art criticism has mostly dropped to a position of intellectual PR puffery, benign description, or playing the stratosphere game of art history stud books. When last have we seen the statement (in effect): "Well, folks, he gave his all but this stuff is really crap!"?

(3) Youth is getting too much play. The hordes of prodigies groomed for stardom suggest, at worst, cynical doings in the back rooms where power and investment brokers are using young people to promote a "hotshot of the season" phenomenon for their own self-serving interests, or at best, Summer jobs in the art schools.

The Mainstream option has created a sameness of intent across the country, an over-reliance on litany and supporting documentation, and a stultification of critical values. There is an overabundant careerist ethic slopping out of most work, an implied conspiracy to never call the game for what it is, and a clogging of communications between dueling egos over who has done it first, purer, faster, cooler, etc. So, sucking the Mainstream does the job for getting some sort of art out, it is also a way to make art that looks just like the Mainstream. It is the most expedient way to assume legitimacy in the boondocks, but the catch is, one must move to the Big Apple to be serious about the issues raised in the work itself. No artscout from Leo Castelli is going to blow into North Platte and discover a guy just out of Iowa U doing conceptual pieces with manhole covers on Main Street. But here we have all sorts of people pitching this warped game in Dubuque, Portland, Sand Diego and St. Paul, and with not a chance in hell of having the work penetrate further than a mini-hop from the original cut-out recipe (Sears #341156): the most it can do is blow the minds of the local figger painter, abstrack gang.

This work is never going to be much good. The artist is doomed to a lifetime of reading artmags, eating his heart out, taking the occasional trip east, and anguishing over failure to get into the regional open. Well, what else IS available?

Sam Francis, Charles Biederman, Mark Tobey, Morris Louis, John Altoon, Emerson Woelffer, Richard Hunt, Richard Diebenkorn...artists who are the exception, have developed within MA contexts outside of New York. They represent the case that one can pull it off: it should be noted that they are also very strong individualists. Is it possible to play the game and not be in New York today and come up with anything of substance?

H.C. Westermann, Edwar Hopper, Bruce Connor, David Park, Thomas Hart Benton, Ed Kienholz, Ivan Albright, Ed Ruscha, Peter Voulkos...all represent (a) work of great richness and variety, (b) being descriptive of the time and influences on them while operational, (c)giving a legacy;; to their culture instead of succombing to its siren calls. Listing a few artists does not a case for regionalism or indiviualist work make; it does indicate that true believers have been able to accomplish an end-around aesthetically and politically, and implies that the ground is ripe for those willing to risk the wrath of the system.

What do we in the boonies have to lose? Why does art have to be all the same at any one time? If work outside of Gotham is to become any better in intent and execution than New York remakes, there will have to be a few changes, (1) Artist-training megaversities should stop, take a look at themselves and stress more student motivation, introspection and digging into personal maggotry and history at the expense of a certain amount of role-playing through real MA artists; (2) local museums and "showcases" could look in the backyard of their own gardens for strong personal artists to exhibit as a point of local pride of accomplishment and a review of the insight the region is capable of (museums are, after all in the authentication business, and normally afraid of creating controversy over building up locals; it is easier to further anoint a foreign superstar ); (3)emphasis on individuals (vs. the current Mainstream schools of thought.). Stylistic micro-deviations and mannerist politics could also be dealt with more fully by artmags and other establishment channels instead of their present love affair with the yearly New York fashion cycle. The move should be inward instead of outward.

"Regionalism" as I see it, implies an emphasis and support of individualist artists vs. large art movements or lines-of-inquiry that are advertised today. Strong artists within a regional context could also breed ideas particular to the area as hinted in the recent past by the surfacing of West Coast figurative work in the late fifties, Chicago looney-surreal works, and funky cartoon images coming from Texas and the Southwest. It would be a great joy to drop into Montana or Detroit or Atlanta and experience and art peculiar to the region and its people instead of another rehash of the same old Mainstream stuff. It would be worth going to a travelling show of work from the lower Atlantic Coast or upper Midwest if the artists were liberated enough from the Mainstream to actually express ....themselves!

In this land of immense beauty and diversity, filled with characters, operators, canny inventors and dull middle classes, seething with incredibly complex human and resource pressures, spawning artists in tonnage figures, why, why should what is authenticated everywhere as are have all the excitement of coal production figures in Pravda or the art page of the good grey New York Times?

Walter Gabrielson

Addenendum----Looking over this piece some thirty years later I have some humbling reactions, I still think the body of the argument is valid, and in fact, you could almost say, with some name-changes, the same issues are before us now. In fact, some schools on the West Coast, UCLA, Art Center, CalArts, etc. advertise and promote themselves as trade schools on how to get in on whats-happening-now. At the time I thought that the best art was private, small, coming from personal place within one and not many were qualified to do it. I still believe that, but times have proven me mistaken---artfactories and movements still prevail. I don't know if that will ever change. But perhaps the internet will be a new creative place to make work, that is, if the porn industry doesn't wipe it out. This was the first piece of writing I ever had published, and I hit the jackpot, Art In America printed it and I almost succombed to becoming an artist/artwriter because of it. But the more I thought about it I decided I didn't want to go down that road in a big way, I did do some stuff for local underground mags in LA and a few institutional pieces, but I never was comfortable with the ease of a market and career that writing offered and painting didn't seem to. Plus, I seem to enjoy the more quirky kind of story and the artworld hates funny. One very positive result of the piece was that I came in touch with many like-minded people around the country because of it and that was and is a joy. If I had to do it today, I would condense it a lot and perhaps become more polemic. As it was, I believe I went through six drafts to get it into shape . Since it was published, I have seen a few other articles saying much the same thing but it appears this idea will never go any place, art seems to go wherever it damn well pleases and that is that, I guess you gotta do your thing and go along for the ride and not bitch....too much!

But I have some ideas for small essays and they will appear on this site from time to time.

w g

Santa Barbara, California February 4, 2004