Art and the Citizen—Through the PST Lens of Southern California

The Pacific Standard Time gathering of artists, through the generosity of the Getty and Hammer funding collaboration, portends an invaluable insight and commentary regarding the creative voice in Southern California following the armistice and conclusion of WWII.  David Wiles has written definitively on the role of artists as a citizen within society.  The author states:  “Today we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, preeminently, individuals—that is, unique personalities complete with feelings that we assume are peculiar to ourselves—and it is an article of faith that we are endowed with free will that equips us to make democratic choices.  Seen through this contemporary lens, citizenship is a function of ‘me’, not ‘us’…Our modern common sense is challenged when we try to get inside the head of Aristotle, who declared nearly two and a half millennia ago:  ‘It is clear then that the state is of its nature prior to the individual’.  Most of Aristotle’s contemporaries would have agreed with him, and reasonably enough, for no human being can grow up or survive without social interaction.  From the Greek perspective, there was no distinction between selfhood and citizenship, because it is in the nature of developed human beings to gather themselves in communities.  A view from the ancient world gives us a critical purchase on what it is to be a ‘citizen’ and will help us understand how citizenship could, should, or might relate to what we have learned to call ‘the arts’.”

What are your thoughts/ideas/comments on David Weil’s attempt to tie the artist to citizenship through free will?

Artist/Art/What is it to be Human

Picasso insisted that artists needed to be chroniclers of their time.  He felt the responsibility to let people know his thoughts about events—even at the global level—for those who were contemporary to him AND to those who would come after Picasso’s time.  The American philosopher and writer Cornel West takes up Picasso’s staff of the artists responsibilities and refines the vision to the human condition within the art of living.  West exclaims:  “You can’t talk about the struggle for human freedom unless you talk about the different dimensions of what it is to be human.  And when you’re talking about art you’re talking about meaning, you’re talking about love, you’re talking about resistance, you’re talking about imagination, you’re talking about empathy.  All of these are part and parcel of what it is to talk about human freedom.  And so art is about those who have the courage to use bits of reality to get us to see reality, in light of a new reality.  So it’s about vision by means of imagination, it’s about empathy in terms of looking through this world and seeing the possibilities fo a new world, a more decent, a more compassionate world.  And so be one a painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, in fact, be one a human being who aspires to learn the art of living, because in the end I think that’s what the arts are really about, how do we become, all of us become, artists of living?  Which has to do with courage, which has to do with love, which has to do with justice, which has to do with leaving the world better than we found it.”

So, what are your thoughts/insights/comments on human freedom as evidenced in the cry for freedom expressed by Southern California artists after WWII?  Do the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that popped up within the Getty/Hammer collaboration embrace Cornel West’s philosophy about being human and about being an artist?

Artist/Painter/Passionate Chronicler/AnInstrument of War

During the 20th century to the present time, artists have been very cognizant of the fact that they have an opportunity to comment on the human condition.  One of the great contributions of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) exhibition we have been focused on this Fall 2017 semester is the range/depth of curating an installation of Southern California artists many of whom took the responsibility of being contemporary commentators.  These highlighted artists in PST have accepted what Pablo Picasso said some years ago about what an artist is.  “What do you think an artist is?  An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles?  Far from it:  at the same time he is also a political being constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.  How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly?  No, painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war.”

What are your thoughts/insights/ideas/comments regarding Picasso and his clarion call to be a commentator of one’s era?  Is art decorative and meant to be placed over the couch?  Or is art far more significant and substantial within the cultural context of its time?  Your thoughts please.

Artists—To Being Taken Serious Or Not—That is the Question!

For many Americans, art may be defined in a number of ways.  Warhol believed most Americans thought art was first and foremost a person’s first name!  Others feel art is something that looks good on the wall over the couch!  There are some Americans who believe art chronicles both the time and the context of the artist’s life.  There are perhaps a few who still believe that art and artists have a responsibility to express something significant with their ‘gift’ be it beauty, criticism, insight, or some form of thought-provoking insight.  In an interview with a journalist Billy Al Bengston was asked to reflect back on his career as a Southern California artist in the early Post WWII days and express his thoughts.  The artist made the following observation:  “For me, the heyday was in 1959. It was before the Ferus Gallery moved across the street, in the days when Ed Kienholz and Walter Hopps ran it. At that time, art was taken very seriously in terms of being an artist, and not as a profession.”

As art students close to graduating from an art program of study, how do you see art?  What does art mean to you in 2017?  And, what is your role as an artist in the 21st century?

Billy Al Bengston, Venice, 1973

Billy Al Bengston, Sonny, 1961

Billy Al Bengston—How to Keep One’s Attention!

Have artists in the United States become entertainers?  Do we, the audience, really want our artists to divert us from the realities of contemporary urban living by redirecting our eyes and thoughts to those things an artist’s gaze deems beautiful?  Maybe I am being too literal here but the following message from Southern California artist Billy Al Bengston may be interpreted from a number of different points of view—none of which seem especially uplifting or forward moving.  Bengston stated:  “I paint stupid things; that’s what I do. I can’t think of anything more boring than a really beautiful thing. You have to mess it up. There has to be something a little kinky to keep their attention.”

Maybe this statement from Bengston relates to his youthful extreme experience of racing motorcycles and embracing the motorcycle culture of Southern California.  What are your thoughts of the current role American artists play in today’s urban society and how does that perception fit into the driving force of the Ferus Gang in Los Angeles during the late 1950s through the 1960s?

Entrance to Billy Al Bengston’s Retrospective Designed by Frank Gehry

Billy Al Bengston Racing

Billy Al Bengston, Buster, 1962