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the thinker in the gates of hell

Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell (detail), 1880-191


Getting paid to think out loud and make confident pronouncements and sharp judgments means it’s never a bad idea to step back from the easel and take a hard look at the sketch I’m making of the world. Artists who are persistent enough to carve out a space in their mind in which art and knowledge protects them against violence, stupidity and the fact that life is short, will fight for every inch of that space. They also spend a lot of wasted time tilting against imaginary enemies.

Knowledge is dangerous without empathy. Without the ability to feel and understand the pain of others, knowledge is just another link in the chain that binds art to power. Growing out of the foundation of Humanism, Modernism tried to free art from its enslavement to power. Artists, who for centuries were thought of as vessels for the expression of a religious or national narrative were given the responsibility of cultivating a radical individuality represented by an inimitable style. This vision of the artist represents the democratic ideal in which every human being is a dense and complex subject.

Rothko Chapel, 1409 Sul Ross, shown Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, in Houston had its 40 anniversary this year. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX

In its pursuit of this ideal, Modernism created the myth of the autonomous artist unrestrained by convention or form. Where once only an emperor was able to take the names and inhabit the forms of gods, the modern artist is his own god, building forms out of which he creates his own monument to himself. The road from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Rothko Chapel is not as long as we might like to think.


Priapus, God of fertility and nature, Roman frescos, Pompeii, 50-79 AD

The inhabitants of ancient civilizations depicted the reality of their world in the form of eternal gods and powerless subjects, but they experienced the same human sense of individual consciousness we do. They ate, drank, sang songs, fucked and raised families. Human life, like the dirt it’s eventually found in, has many strata. If you excavate deeply enough you’ll find a dick joke in every epoch. But for all our similarities to ancient people they had the comfort of being able to believe in gods and life after death in a way contemporary people no longer do.

The six-thousand-year transformation from Sumerian civilization to 20th century Modernism is often seen as a great explosion of human knowledge mirroring the expanding universe of the Big Bang. But a collapsing universe—the Big Crunch—eventually pulled by gravity into black holes, might better describe contemporary human civilization, as well as its art, which is experiencing its own great implosion.

egypt tomb

Anubis, God of mummification and the afterlife, Egyptian Middle Kingdom

For ancient people, the afterlife was a physical place to which they travelled with supplies, money and an entourage. Gods lived above in the sky, or below the ground. But because ancient graves have been found and plundered by the living, the modern artist cannot help but see that the road trip to the other side never left the driveway. Travel to the Great Beyond since that time has turned toward the deep interior of the individual mind. The universe is now contained in the mind of a single, helpless human being.

terracotta army

Terracotta Army, China, 210-209 BCE

Relational Aesthetics seeks, through its reliance on the language of the internet and the deconstruction of the individual into a collection of cultural symptoms, to reestablish a version of the ancient order in which the artist returns to his role as a “node” or “vessel” through which universal meaning travels. But individual artists have to fabricate purpose because human life does not inherently possess it. The contemporary artist, like the artists who built the first Chinese Emperor’s terracotta army, ends up more often than not as a means to an end in the service of a curator-as-king.

This effort to re-mystify art is clear in many Post-Modern theories which become increasingly obscure, requiring specialized, often nonsensical interpretation. But the scales are falling and instead of revealing a grand design or even a coherent community, the Enlightenment has drawn a convincing portrait of a human being without cosmic purpose and mostly unknown to itself. Like Descartes’ and Rodin’s thinkers, we still don’t know much more than that we think.

Artists have come to find their selves walled up in an Empire of One. Who could have imagined that such a crowded world would be so lonely? Can there be unity in this isolation, or are we asleep like the soldiers in Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army? Originally, those sculptures were brightly colored, their eyes painted wide open looking into the future. The role of the contemporary artist in society is more blurred than ever.  Before it can come into focus, artists will have to paint their own eyes open again, look out of their empire and see if any other soldiers are awake.


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21 Responses

  1. Rainey Knudson

    Yes, the previous 5 comments all came from the same IP address.

    Which leads me to wonder who can come up with the most clever aliases? A Glasstire t-shirt and shot glass goes to the commenter (using their real name) who submits the best 5 anonymous names!

  2. I want a Glasstire t-shirt and shot glass! I love Glasstire and would love to walk around with a Glasstire t-shirt.

    Rainey, I absolutely loved the “roundup” video that you and Michael Bise did where you talked about zombie formalism, Artprize etc. I posted it on my Facebook wall and told several people about it in person and watched it again with my girlfriend. It was so good!

    Michael, love reading what you think about art. I especially liked your article “The Palace” and again, I read it several times and put it on my Facebook wall and talked at my friends about it. I am a draftsman as well and have come to many of the same conclusions about the art world and I absolutely loved seeing someone else expressing them in such a public way.

    Here are my 5 anonymous names;

    1. Chris P. Bacon

    2. Aiken Johnson

    3. Holden Milode

    4. Anita Goodlay

    5. Iva Woody

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Thank you for reading. I heard from an artist friend that they’ve been going around and defending me against people who were outraged by what I said about abstraction in that video. It’s always nice to be reminded that ideas really do matter.

      Which leads me to my own list of aliases (don’t worry, I can’t win the contest):

      1. deconstructedpitchfork
      2. yesIwentthere
      3. Queen Shadow (my randomly generated rap name)
      4. everyoneslostbutme
      5. heavenswhatasound

      1. Rainey, Pygmalion is my favorite movie,

        …Indiana Jones is good too.

        I already have a shirt, but yes, you can put many noun sounding surnames with mine to make it weird.
        Iva Johnson, Iva Wang, Iva Bush, etc.
        Lotta men my mom has told me I can’t marry.

        Michael, apologies we’re not discussing your writing, though the comment section will bring more attention to it.

        *(what comes in the shot glass? make this competition worth our time).

    2. Why are draftsman so down on abstraction, formalism, etc. I never hear the “art market” darling formalists, zombies, vampires, or otherwise actively rail against illustration. What’s with the hate? Someday people might pay a lot of money for cartoons, the golden rule may come in handy.

      Food for thought smh.

      1. Christina Rees

        I know plenty of artists, curators, and critics who think any illustrative art is second-rate and “not art.” They don’t hold back.

        1. You would.

          lol jk i no i no i do 2 but blaming abstract capitalist frankenstein gophers for a decline in appreciation of well rendered hands amongst abstract capitalist frankenstein gophers is pretty lame tbh

      2. Hi smh!

        I imagine that your question might have been directed towards me or people like me when you asked “Why are draftsman so down on abstraction, formalism, etc.” and I am happy to provide my particular viewpoint on the matter but must stipulate that I don’t speak for Michael Bise or anyone else only myself, as I see things at this moment.
        As usual, Christina Rees is completely right in pointing out that there are people within the art world who think little of drawing.

        I would also point out something in what you wrote. When you were saying that the “art market darlings” don’t rail against drawing, you called drawings “cartoons” and “illustrations”. It’s ok that you did and I don’t think that we necessarily shouldn’t. I mention it only to say that perhaps it reveals something to us about the social conventions inherent in our language.

        The primary use of the word “illustrate” is to; “furnish (a book, magazine, etc.) with drawings, pictures, or other artwork intended for explanation, elucidation, or adornment.” The primary definition of “cartoon” is “a sketch or drawing, usually humorous, as in a newspaper or periodical, symbolizing, satirizing, or caricaturing some action, subject, or person of popular interest.”

        These are not generally considered to be fine art, but are usually thought of as commercial art forms. Some people would therefore automatically discount illustration and cartooning as being a lower form of art. Within the art world, words like commercial art, illustration, cartoons, etc. can have a negative connotation.

        I personally find the distinction to be largely arbitrary and I think highly of the illustrations of Picasso and people like Aubrey Beardsley and I love many different kinds of comics and cartoons.

        I think that all of these conventions have been challenged and largely defeated. Andy Warhol was a well-known illustrator before he was ever a well-known artist and Lichtenstein did his part to bring comic book panels into the museums but the art world is a funny thing and some people seem only willing to embrace something at all reminiscent of figuration if it has already been vetted by the art world.

        This brings me back to your question. I personally feel like the art world has been completely inundated by mediocre art and I am not excluding drawing or any other type of artmaking from the mix. From what I understand there was a big art boom in our recent history and colleges started to pop out millions of artists who seemed to lack skills that were once considered to be foundational for an artist, including the most basic tool of art-making; namely drawing.

        These people have filled the galleries with tons and tons of conceptual artwork and abstract paintings. I don’t know if you spend a lot of time visiting the galleries but in my opinion it gets quite boring and repetitive after a while. Most of these people are obviously copying from each other or from greater artists and if you pay attention you will begin to think that there is hardly an original thought that goes into the work.

        This doesn’t make it “bad” work either. The work may be beautiful and the world needs more beauty and people need to decorate their homes. Nor is it to say that there aren’t gems out there. There are gems. There are good abstract painters and good conceptual artists and all kinds of wonderful works being made and there are bad artists that sometimes produce a clever work. It seems like a bell curve to me and sometimes it feels like the vast, vast majority of it seems to be “blah” conceptual minimalism or abstract decoration hiding under a quote from Jung, Nietzsche or Bukowski.

        Now as a draftsman, perhaps you pour your entire life into your work. You draw until the callous on your middle finger is a rock. You spend hours late into the night drinking coffee and thinking over the concepts behind your drawings.

        You walk into a gallery, drawings tucked under your arm . The gallery has large derivative color field paintings in the main room and banana peels stapled to the wall in the back room. You try to read the artist statements while you wait for the gallerist to notice you but they are almost completely indecipherable to you despite your degrees in art and advanced proficiency in reading comprehension.

        The gallerist approaches you and you politely ask if she can look at your work. “I’m sorry, we get twenty emails a day asking us to look at work and we often get walk-ins. There are just too many artists and we are just inundated by requests. We only review portfolios based on the recommendations of our personal friends.” “Please” you beg her, “this is my life, I’ve been training as an artist my entire life and I pour my soul into my work. I’ve gone into debt earning two degrees and I’ve exhausted everything I have on my art.” “Ok, I never do this but I will look at it” she says and you open your portfolio for her and there on the top leaf is a beautiful and incredibly deep allegorical drawing, the product of 30 years of experience that perfectly captures the feeling of the time in which you are living. “I’m sorry” she says, “We don’t show cartoons”.

        A lot of galleries do show drawings and a lot of people who draw go on to be “big names” and make a living at their art but these trends really do exist and they can be a problem and a frustration for people who draw. They can be frustrating for any artist because most of us face difficulties in trying to find an audience for our work at some point in our careers. No one wants to be locked out of the system because they aren’t friends with the right people. A person with a social anxiety disorder, Aspergers or something of the sort shouldn’t find their that these problems are such a tremendous barrier to breaking into an art world because in an ideal world the art would be judged on it’s own merit. It is when there is much more supply than demand and people have difficulty telling trash apart from treasure that something so arbitrary to the work itself becomes a determining factor in the popularity of the work.

        Really, that is why I can’t thank the writers of Glasstire enough for what they do. They work to help people understand the difference between the two (trash and treasure) and I imagine that sometimes it isn’t very popular to do that as is evident from your question.

        Rainey, you didn’t stipulate that I could ONLY submit 5 names so here are 5 more.

        1. Hrdto Typ Drunk

        2. A;lkdfjasdfapodifjaosidjfaposidfjaoisdfjaoipsfdhaoipsjdfaoisjdfaoispdfj <-This is my real name. I promise.

        3. The Art Guys

        4. Stop messaging me! I told you that my messenger is all messed up and my messages keep going to the wrong places and I’m trying to think of an alias for a Glasstire comment you chode!


        1. So much writing, it’s a shame you aren’t getting
          dividends considering this is going to get a
          lot of clicks and impressions based on the volume of replies.
          particularly since we are not speaking about Bise, or for
          that matter on his behalf here, in this, hallowed
          comment section.

          I suppose I was being a little too subtle with the ‘cartoon’
          this and ‘illustration’ that. I really do believe in my
          heart of hearts, that the coffee-addled rock fingers of
          the world are fooling themselves, probably from
          sitting too close to the lightbox, that bad
          art is somehow a new phenomena, or that anyone paying
          rent on a space with the fruit of their labor
          exclusively to manifest their world and satisfaction surrounded
          by their friends and comforts is somehow resisting moral
          compulsion to scratch a

          In the suburbs of Dallas schooled and trained
          In the studio was where I spent most of my days
          Stressed’ out maxin’ workin’ like a fool
          And all sketching some doodles outside of the school
          When a couple of painters who were up to no good
          Started making abstracts in my neighborhood
          They hung one little show and my teach got scared
          He said ‘You need to go fight these zombies in their lair’

          I whistled for a cab and when it came near
          The license plate said modern and had a Calder in the mirror
          If anything I could say that this cab was rare
          But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, off to the lair’

          I pulled up to the gallery clutching charcoals
          And I begged to the lady ‘Please look at my soul!’
          I looked over my shoulder
          And saw a Jeff Koons
          “I’m sorry” she says, “We don’t show cartoons.”

          1. Thanks for the response imo but you seem to have had some sort of computer glitch that caused your paragraph to be cut off in midsentence and to break into rap. As far as what you said about glasstire; I am really more than happy to support what they are doing.

  3. Hannah Dean

    I want a shirt! Anonymous names (some based on this article!)

    1. Dick Djoke
    2….Actually, I’m just sticking with that one.

    1. Hannah Dean

      Ah, I really want the shirt! (and see that I owe 4 more to be eligible…) so…

      2. heART
      3. eARTh
      4. Empireofonestrikesback
      5. Ann Onymous

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