Thursday, November 18, 2004

Go to the Art-O-Matic and think about quality and community

LOCATION: Corner of 3rd and H St TIME: Through December 5 EQUIPMENT: Yourself, steady nerves OPTIONAL: Flamboyant outfit, notebook

I went to the Art-O-Matic on Friday and Saturday last weekend and it was very interesting - squicky encounter with Jorge aside. Friday, the opening night, was filled to the gills with a selection of DC's artsy fartsy types, gleefully crowding together in one of their rare chances at community. Wandering around made me feel I'd drunk about fifty cups of coffee: colours! shapes! ideas! people in interesting clothes! music! poorly ventilated paint fumes! My nerves were tingling and I kept jumping up and down whenever I had to stand still. Even the phenomenally relaxed Sadao was looking perkier than usual, and Natalie, who is like a sensitive Alpine flower and frazzles readily, had to leave early: "I'll come back sometime when I can concentrate on the art," she said.* (On the other end of the spectrum, I met an extremely relaxed and eerily magnetic Burning Man veteran in a fuzzy cowboy hat, Ky, who said he just wasn't excited at all. "I'm too jaded."**)

The Art-o-matic space is huge and labrynthine, with five floors and long series of rooms leading into each other, punctuated by installation rooms, larger meeting rooms, bathrooms and sink rooms (usually with buckets of paint and supplies in the bathtubs). It's also, unfortunately, rather dirty: the air everywhere smells of chemicals, there's quite a bit of dust, and some rooms have ancient grungy grey carpeting that remind me of a horrific scene in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, where the hero's psychotic father vacuums underneath a mattress that hasn't been moved for twenty years. The spaces crowded with people are ridiculously stimulating - but the eerie empty corners, with just you and the art and the paint fumes, deep in a conceptual rabbit warren, are probably the closest simulation to tripping on hallucinogens I can imagine.

As for the art: there's a huge selection that varies hugely in quality. Blake Gopnick recently wrote a scathing review of the show in the Washington Post that seems to have become the locus of a lot of internal debate in the DC arts scene (my favorite forum is here). Gopnick's basic argument seems to be: Most works at the Art-o-matic are not fine art! Their standards are incredibly inclusive! Nobody applied any critical judgement! Why waste $100,000 on what's essentially a big party for woolly-headed, slipshod, shallow-minded, politically kee-rect schmaltzy liberal hacks to clap each other on the back, when we could be concentrating on the Real Stuff? Bring back elitism! And responses to his article seem to fall in two camps: 1) defending the quality of the work itself (pointing to individual exhibits that are good) 2) Arguing that quality standards aside, the camaderie and collaborative aspects of Art-o-matic are worthwhile - encouraging everyone in a community to nurture their creative instincts, even if they will never be a Great Artist.

I think that there is real merit to argument #2, connecting to the larger "buy local" movement that seems to be picking up across the world in response to globalization. I spend time reading Shakespeare because he is the best. Even though he had a completely different life, in a completely different place, he touches such deep human universals that his writing is incredibly valuable to me. But I also spend time - precious minutes from my dwindling store before I die - reading emails from my mother, not because her writing is as good as Shakespeare's, but because she is directly relevant to my life. Both Shakespeare and my mum matter to me - Shakespeare because he's a genius, and my mum because she's close to me. And of course there's an infinite grey scale between those extremes. I might not have actually known the artists at Artomatic, but many of them are quite close to my age, living in a similar social setting in DC, and reacting to many of the same political and social issues that I have to deal with. They might not be talented enough to tap complex human universals to make their art immortal, but they are nonetheless very relevant to my life. So I would strongly recommend that anyone living in DC pay a visit - but it's probably not worth it to travel all the way from California for (hugs, however are another story).

*I think she should do yoga! It would help her process the stimulation!
**I think he should do yoga! It would help him become more sensitive to life's smaller pleasures again!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

3:59 AM  

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