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

Author: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

12 thoughts on “Billy Al Bengston—How to Keep One’s Attention!”

  1. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the current role of artists in the urban environment. I know that there have been artists that created cultural centers or community engagement projects as art, and artists that have staged happenings or else created artwork around the urban environments they grew up in, but how much of that has actually affected most people…I dont know, and I highly doubt. Art is still something that is somewhat elitist and untenable to most people. No matter how “un” elitist arts try to make artwork…at the end of the day, it is still a high-concept thing that only those with the luxury of time and money have the privilege of being apart of.
    I feel like the Ferus Gallery was also one such place. Though they had a beatnik attitude, it was still a liberal, hippyish type of place that most urban, working class people dont have time for.


  2. I think that artist in urban communities can play a significant role in the community by creating a culture or vibe, I don’t know if that makes sense. If artist come together in a community then the art produced by the artist members of that community will likely have similar art styles which leads to the community having a distinct mark. This idea is very relatable to the Ferus Gang because all the artist of that region ended up coming together to establish an art scene in SoCal. The same is true for artist today, collectively they can create a distinguishable community through their artwork.


  3. For me, I feel that the artist in today society does not get that much recognition as in the past. Even though we have a social media and all this fast pace technology at your fingertips. The Fetus gang just need to advertise around there own community by putting out flyers, radio or newspaper add and they have it made unless the artwork was bad.


  4. Firstly, I disagree when Bengston says that he paints, stupid things,” because the audience may not perceive his work as stupid. And if the artist says his work is stupid, what does that say about the audience? Anyway, I believe in todays society, artists have to be more entertaining than ever. Artist’s have never had so much recognition and personality than ever thanks to social media. You cannot only be an artist, you have to be a character, your character has to reflect your art, and your art has to be consistently liked by your audience. The Ferus Gang did whatever they wanted and gained a following through their innovativeness, but artists today have to be likable right off the bat or risk the chance of never gaining a following at all.


  5. I think that artists are entertainers in the sense that they have to grasp people’s attention and create some kind of emotion or change. Art wouldn’t really have any meaning if it didn’t make its viewers feel some kind of way. The Ferus Gang got its fame by making an enormous impact on the art scene. They wouldn’t have been able to do that if their viewers weren’t entertained or fascinated by the art. After all, that is how you keep people coming back for more.


  6. In my opinion, anyone being depicted in the lime light is an entertainer. An example that I use often are professional boxers. While they are professional athletes at the end of the day they are putting on a show for an audience. Artists are very similar. While both groups are not entertainers in the sense that they are acting on broadway, or television they both present their creations to an audience. The viewer is the audience for the artists, and I believe that that is enough to consider the artist an entertainer.


  7. Art is an outlet of expression for the artist including the observer. I think Bengston acknowledged this in his remark; seems like he was mocking this reality. Regardless, this realization motivated him and his Gang members to continue making their work. Motorcycle racing was something Bengston enjoyed doing for himself; it was also an attractive aspect of his life. The current role of American artists has expanded: they create identities and influence all aspects of our daily lives, but these actions are more intentional.


  8. Artists have tended to shift from role to role depending on the era given. I believe for the most part their role as an artist has stated the same in order to influence others. As for the statement given I believe he is correct in saying that something should be altered in order to gain something truly peculiar as it gives the viewer something to truly focus on. I believe the truly beautiful things to come from things which become peculiar as they provide some sort of thought provoking moment. I think it’s these kinds of moments that really create something beautiful, this is something I believe the Ferus group did and something I think which really created something beautiful, In a sense The Ferus Group created beauty by capturing their audience much in the same vain as the featured artist.


  9. I believe that artists have definitely become entertainers. The art scene has become so popular and welcoming that with so many amazing artists coming about, showing their work, each individual has to work twice or even three times as hard as they did back in the 1950s to get their work seen. With the internet creating many platforms for everyone to put their work on display, artists have to get even more creative in order to have someone look at their work because if they slack off, someone else will jump out and take the spotlight. That could have been their moment to shine, but they didn’t realize it. If you want to go into creating art for a living, you have to be an entertainer. You want to be liked, you want to create a following, and you want people to buy your work. Artists nowadays will get interviewed on television or on podcasts and they have to sell themselves as fun and entertaining to get people to like them and follow their work. When the Ferus Gang started out in the late 1950s, that was a time where art scenes were essentially still new. That was a time where artists were just starting to be able to show their work in public and have it be view by a few hundred people. Now, if something is shared online, it will be viewed within a few hours or even minutes by thousands if not millions of people. So being an entertainer has helped many artists show their work and will continue being an important role for them in the future.


  10. I think in todays society, people are always looking for that next thing to grab their attention. Unfortunately, that attention span is now about one day if that and then people go looking for something else. As an artist this could be very difficult to keep up with. People want artists to grab their interest in a new and unique way, but only for a short time until they want to see something more and more… it honestly never ends. We can thank social media for that. I believe that’s why artists are having a hard time keeping up.
    Today, an artists that can find a new away of do something different then the rest, seems to standout faster in society do to the internet and something going “virtual”. If the artists can get in the users/viewers subconscious and satisfy the need of the user/viewer before they know they need it, then this will make a successful artists. The hard part is that society changes to fast, it becomes a constant struggle to keep the viewers attention. Ferus artist must have known that art wasn’t keeping the attention of people who attended galleries and it was that tapping into the subconscious that allowed them to create things to keep the attention of their viewers. Whether their viewers like the art or not, they viewed it and couldn’t stop viewing the art even after disagreeing with it. This is what artists today want to do. Stir the pot and give the viewer what they don’t know they want, but need to see.

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  11. I feel as though art has had a slight drop in current years. People don’t really seem to be concerned with it much anymore due to the rapid increase in technology and innovations. People are so consumed by their phones that they hardly ever look up from the screen to see the world around them. And when they do take the time to observe the world, they end up doing it from behind the screen. All anyone cares about is taking snap shots or their life to post and get as many likes on social media as they can. Everyone seems so desperate to get that minimal amount of satisfaction that they don’t care about what’s happening around them. The role for artists now is unclear. Except for to continue with your craft and hope that the interest doesn’t falter to a point of no return.


  12. I have the same opinion as Lansang when he says: “in today’s society, artists have to be more entertaining than ever. Artists have never had so much recognition and personality than ever thanks to social media.” With social media and mobile phones we live in a time of instant recognition for good and for bad. It is quite possible that in today’s technological age the Fergus Gang would go “viral” and be recognized or hated much faster. Because artists today do have to be somewhat of entertainers the “I don’t care attitude” of the Ferus gang would not go as well, not they would still care but that is the reality of today.


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