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Photo: Warhol art
Photo: Warhol art

Guest Column: Frames of Reference and Art

I was at an art gallery recently, an event put together by a new friend of mine who is serving as the director of cultural affairs and interim director of the art museum in El Paso, Texas. In a very genuine attempt to combat what I believe to be art’s greatest foe, my friend organized an event that was based off of Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory, and actually featured original prints and polaroids of the famed Warhol. The event was complete with a DJ who was spinning on vinyl, a cash bar, and a very diverse crowd that brought people from all different ways of life.

It was an eventful evening, and a very successful attempt to bring the El Paso community together in a way the El Paso community might not have seen before. In a very special way, my friend was inviting the El Paso community to see art in a different way, a way that isn’t commonly understood or accepted, a way that most think can’t exist.

While looking at one of Warhol’s prints, a member of the very flamboyant line of Queen Elizabeths, I overheard a conversation between a couple about their thoughts on Warhol. Now, I’m no stranger to prints, nor am I a stranger to art in any capacity. I have studied music since I was six-years-old, gotten my degree in music and education before my 22nd birthday, been great friends of incredible artists, and consulted for musicians, artists, bands, and creatives from all avenues.

Personally, I can honestly say that I understand art in a way that is very unique to me, a way that no one could probably understand no matter how much I tried to write it out or explain it in detail.

The couple was going back and forth about how Warhol was pretentious, about how he was no one special, and how his techniques are not very impressive when you think about the overall development of art over time. Of course, everyone is entitled to opinion, but when people begin referring to those who have been dead longer than I have been alive with such overambitious adjectives like “pretentious,” I think it’s time for us to stop and have a good look at what we’re really doing here.

Luckily for the world, the person who had to stand next to that couple and endure those long minutes of their bashful and distasteful criticisms of Andy Warhol, was me, someone who understands that this kind of arrogant conversation about art is coterminous with the improvisations one might see from a man trying to woo a woman at their first meeting. Fortunately for the world, I can brush it off and remember that it’s fair for everyone to have their own opinion, and just as fair for me to selectively hear the ones I wish to listen to.

But had another person been just as unfortunate and had to stand next to that couple during those moments, someone who is not as versed in art or creative endeavors as myself, the effects of their conversation might have been much more alarming and damaging than one might initially realize. You see, if that person had been someone who does not see themselves as an artist, or even one who considers themselves capable of grasping the esoteric nature of art, perhaps we might have lost the one thing we need the most as artists: an audience.

There’s a very frustrating conundrum that’s always plagued the artist. It’s the reason for the overly talked about stereotype and the often mocked profile of most artists which is, to be starving. But as with the case of most distasteful stereotypes, it’s true. The fact that few have seen this problem, few artists at that, makes me wonder if we as artists even value our most important necessity in life.

Why do we invite people into our minds and attempt show them the world the way we see it, knowing that the one of the most important parts of the creative process is for art to be received and consumed, why do we proceed to scare off and make our audiences feel unwelcome with our pretend opinions and unnecessary babble about the imaginary hierarchy of art?

Of course, we do this in more ways than just one. I’ve often laughed to myself during conversations with other artists, artists who would otherwise have nothing else to do with their knowledge but spew it out uncontrollably over dinners and bar conversations, at our feeble attempt to out do each other in all avenues of life.

It’s quite depressing, really, that the very industry that depends so deeply on people being receptive of your work, is fundamentally built on the premise that everyone should be a critic and have a million opinions about why a particular piece of art is just not as brilliant as the other industrious efforts you’ve come to know.

It is this very behavior which is driving our passions into the ground. It is the pretentious conversations about Warhol in a city that would otherwise never see Warhol on any other occasion, nor in this capacity, which makes new explorers of art feel unwelcome. It is why people feel that art just “isn’t for them,” because they’re, “not an artist.” When it is that our passions in art became a club and a secret society I am not quite sure.

Perhaps it was Andy Warhol’s pandemonium factory itself, or the romantic obsession with which we’ve come to admire some of our greatest fellow artists through time, or maybe, it is the indoctrinated belief that we are only allowed to deeply understand only one thing in our lives. Truthfully, it is probably a number of things, but until artists, the brilliant minds behind this very problem, decide to stop and take a look around for a second, they might never realize that people are walking right out the front door.

Of course, this kind of problem is not only prevalent in visual art. For the past decade, major orchestras around the world have been trying to wrap their brains around why it is that annual subscriptions and concert attendance are declining. There’s a huge debate going on about how classical music is supposedly dying, which most intelligent musicians fundamentally disagree with, that is yet another testament to our necessity to reevaluate.

Andrew Balio from the Future Symphony Institutes explains:

“What is often overlooked in the dire obituaries declared periodically and popularly in the press is the fact that interest in classical music has multiplied worldwide. There are more people listening to and participating in it now than ever before. In fact, there are more people participating at a higher level of technical and musical mastery today than there ever has been in the past. We have an embarrassment of riches measured by the number of expert musicians and the growing number of orchestras that play better than any that came before them. What is more, classical music is now more widely performed throughout the world than at any point in history. Notably, China, Brazil, Venezuela, and Japan have got into the act with significant investments–including first-rate concert halls and conservatories – and already they boast several generations of our top musicians to show for their dedication. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Singapore are also now boasting terrific orchestras thanks to major investments. For proponents of progress, there it is.”

And yet, overall, attendance at major concerts in the United States and Europe has declined. Charitable gifts to institutions of classical music are shrinking. Orchestras are closing their doors. How do we understand these facts?

Indeed it is a problem worth looking at, at least if we value the future support of our so-called passions. The bigger problem, however, is that we’ve spent so much time asking all of the wrong questions and pursuing the wrong initiatives, when in fact, the real solution doesn’t involve big budgets, nor does it involve professional marketers or a need to start taking superfluous factors like SEO into account. The real solution potentially lies within the very conversation which I overheard while standing in front of Warhol’s print of Queen Elizabeth. We, as people and artists, are not the problem and the potential solution.

Today, while orchestras are trying to recreate AC/DC and Led Zeppelin in classical arrangements and using smoke machines behind the conducting podium in an attempt to make classical music relevant again, orchestra directors are at the same time being falsely misguided by an annual spike in ticket sales from these events, conversely and confusingly believing that people are actually beginning to enjoy classical music in large numbers again.

When we do these sorts of things, these feeble attempts to make art “relevant” again, we are turning our art and our very livelihood into a disposable experience. one that people see as an “experience,” one that’s great to have once, but just not as cool the second time.

If directors at orchestras, and directors of art museums truly want to “solve” this issue, it must first be tackled with the fundamental understanding that art never actually became irrelevant to begin with. In fact, art has never been more relevant in our world than it is today.

Everyone has an eye for art. It’s why when you go over to your friend’s apartment and don’t like the way the curtains look, you have a very personally established opinion about it. If you’ve ever gotten a phone call from your significant other and in two words have been able to tell if they are upset or frustrated, you too have a musical ear capable of “understanding” Beethoven and Mozart. Art has never been led to be made irrelevant, we just forgot why it is that we started doing it in the first place.

Out of our insane duty to conform and to be understood, we have allowed ourselves to become an average of what’s around us. For better or for worse, this perpetual habit comes with a price. For one reason or another, we have this innate need to see the world the way others see it.

We become so consumed with trying to do this that we ourselves forget that we’ve been given our own eyes and our own lenses through which to look. In these attempts, we’ve become desperate to understand the way others understand, and when we realize that our experience of art is not the same as the next person, we assume that we must wrong.

The caveat to this is that confidence is the main driver of criticism. If three people walk into an art museum, none of them having any particularly developed background in art, and one person decides to rant passionately about a certain piece of art, giving her full opinion about why she feels the way she does about it, the entire group will nod and be curious, while at the same time realizing that they did not see the same thing, and hence, they must not “understand.”

What we miss is that while art continues to push its own boundaries, always taking on new forms and new mediums, why should the opinions of it also not evolve with the same kind of perpetually infinite possibility? Unfortunately, this is the case for many pretentious so-called art connoisseurs, those who criticize every piece of art for not being equally as brilliant as something else, while they themselves fail to create anything new or offer any sort of original insight.

Artists, first and foremost, despite their infamous curse of never making a fortune, need to first humble themselves. Truth be told, artists are usually the worst art critics. As a classically trained musician for almost all of my life, I have personally experienced what it’s like to sit through performances and never hear a single phrase being played nor appreciate the skill and hard work that is being displayed before me, all because I was too consumed by my unconscious criticism of every note and phrase, simply because I would have done it differently. For the first time in many, many years, while I am just now beginning to put my heavy performance days behind me, I was finally able to sit back and enjoy a friend’s recital. For the first time, I think I finally heard music.

Art is simply the process of letting someone borrow the lenses through which you look at the world. It’s a way of showing someone how you see things. When I was very young, being a child who desperately needed eyeglasses to see, I would often partake in the entertaining experience of trading my glasses with someone else and seeing how radically different our prescriptions led us to see. I would often put someone else’s glasses on and see things either extremely magnified to the point of making life temporarily incomprehensible, or things would look very, very far away.

This always concluded with a laugh and a return of each other’s glasses, thankful for the ability to see through our own lenses again.

This very simple experience of trading our perspective is the artist process in its entirety. We often forget that we all have lenses through which to look at the world, and at the very least, let us not forget that it’s the same world we’re all looking at. I’ve never put on someone else’s glasses and said, ‘Life must be terrible for you, I can’t see anything,” because the moment that person puts their own lenses back on, the world is clear again.

We forget that everyone has their own pair of lenses, and neither of us, not the creator nor the audience, is better than the other. We are both entirely dependent on each other, and with such a profound dependence on each other, perhaps we should begin to cultivate an extreme respect for one another.

However it is that you as a person look at art is perfectly fine enough. It doesn’t need to be shrouded with academic terminology and analysis, nor accompanied with such an ostentatious opinion about every line and shade. Your view and understanding of art does not, and should not ever be founded upon the way someone else looks at it. However it is that art makes you feel, however it moves you, is exactly how it is supposed to happen. There’s nothing more to it.

It’s a bit of a vicious duality, the artistic process. One one hand, we as humans obsess ourselves over being deeply understood. We yearn to tell our story and make our presence known to the world in hopes that we might finally be understood in the way that we want to be understood.

And yet, the very moment we realize that someone else has finally begun to understand us, we flee, and we return to the argument that no one is capable of understanding us or our work.

This vicious cycle is most probably why art will forever exist. It is one of the greatest mysteries of human nature, why it is that we’ve turned our greatest desire into our greatest vulnerability. At the end of the day, after those few moments of listening to the couple dismantle Warhol’s attempts at printmaking, I still have the same lenses that I did before, Andy Warhol still lies in the same grave as he did before, and the couple will still go to the same bar that night that they would have gone to anyway.

At the end of the day, the real losers are the artists, because while we try to make art more “relevant,” and while we continually try to wrap our brains around how we will one day be as popular as professional sports, the more we lend ourselves and our fate to the empty critics and at the same time, alienate the people who take the critics as the spokespeople for the art form.

I made a decision in those moments, to never be an art critic and at the same time made the decision to never be a high brow artist. Instead, I put myself in the position of accepting that my lenses will never be clear for someone else, and perhaps neither will theirs be for me. And so, the next time I want to talk with someone about art or a symphony or Andy Warhol, that conversation is going to begin with something along the lines of, “How does it look for you?” and then proceed to laugh it off and put my own lenses back on.

IMG_0972Gabe Fernandez is an El Paso educator, musician, writer, co-founder of TextRev, Inc., and host of The Gabe Fernandez Podcast.

He writes at www.gabefernandez.net and can be reached at gabefernandez97@gmail.com.

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