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Mike Kelley Arena #7

Mike Kelley, Arena #7 (Bears) (1990) Stuffed animals on blanket.


It’s so well-understood it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but a friend recently remarked: “There are too many people who aren’t artists making too many things that aren’t art.”

This head-scratcher raises two obvious questions: what is a real work of art and what is a real artist? It’s become popular to say that anything is art that is called art and anyone is an artist who calls himself an artist. No linguistic gymnastics can make this true and everyone knows it. Not a single working artist ever believed this past the age of 35, when they looked up and realized they’re either still broke or don’t make art anymore.

The question of the artist and his egg is answered at the same time: a real work of art is anything that an artist must make and an artist is anyone who must make art. This human need to figure out how he’s put together through the act of making is no respecter of money and will happen in the presence of a glorious career or in the supposedly sad shadows of obscurity, which is where most art will be made for the foreseeable future.

Making art is basically a spiritual quest for self-knowledge in an incredibly disappointing world that results in strange pictures and weird objects that begin to decay as soon as the artist stops touching them. I said this to my friend and she asked if I really said that art was a spiritual quest. I did and I’m going to stand by this one for now and see where it goes.

Michael Smith, Baby Ikki, Out and About, 1978/2008

Michael Smith, Baby Ikki, Out and About, 1978/2008

A human baby is an artist, and adult artists are in the business of scheming interesting ways to age backward toward infancy. Babies, like good artists, are always stretching their fat fingers out into the world, trying to pull it closer to them, turn it around in their hands, stick it in their mouths. The terror and joy on a baby’s face when he experiences something for the first time is what artists crave.

The most essential needs of a baby, to be fed and sheltered and to play—to transform himself through a combination of physical and imaginative acts—shouldn’t change as he begins to transform into a child, an adult and finally moves to old age. Luckily, artists are born with the unlucky inability to leave childhood behind and deny their human nature via the inevitable necessity to work for a living.

Raymond Pettibon

Raymond Pettibon by Sebastian Kim for Interview Magazine

As my friend’s incredulity showed, it’s pretty embarrassing—in an age in which art is literally no more meaningful to most of its makers and buyers than a barrel of oil or shares in a new app—to claim that art is still the most powerful means toward and manifestation of spiritual activity, through which the artist knows himself and participates in love, friendship and community like a human being, instead of an imagination-deprived drone.

But that’s what it is. That’s what it has always been. That’s what it will always be.

Making art can’t be penciled into the hours after 5 p.m. and weekends anymore than a baby can stop its monstrous little brain from devouring information. It’s a process that begins the moment the artist passes out  at night—beaten down by the onslaught of screens, text, ideas, jokes, questions, and collection agency phone calls—to the moment he collapses again the next night. His consciousness never rests.

Alas, for the beleaguered artist, he lives in a world that runs on gasoline and money, not love and imagination. This completely unnatural reality forces the poor soul, after seven years of studying how to be a professional child, to discover that the invisible social lubricant that slid from loan applications, shitty jobs and paternal checkbooks to booze-soaked bank accounts has turned into money.

The brave artist who still insists on not giving up his psychological masturbation in the face of this child-proof gate—money—turns his art into a “practice” and tries to slide under it.

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

The ignoble hope of the working artist is to collect enough money, through the sale of the beautiful traces of his childlike explorations, to buy the food and shelter he left behind in his mother’s womb, and without stomping his own imagination to death in the face of high-traffic office carpet or breaking his back at the end of a hammer.

Mike Kelley, Arena #10 (Dogs) (1990) Stuffed animals on afghan.

The contradictions in this absurd position are clear. It mostly it can’t be done. Personal relationships and financial realities (too much money or too little each do their special damage) smack the gurgling baby in the face and suddenly a world that seemed magical becomes violent and boring. This is when it all goes wrong. Most quit and the ones in it for the Spiritual Quest are in danger of finding themselves, like Dante, on a very bad trip.


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