Help Desk: Odds & Ends

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

2012 is almost gone, and over the course of this year I received some questions that didn’t seem quite right for the column—either because they only required a short answer and/or because they ask for a prescriptive pronouncement on the State of the Contemporary Arts (which I don’t like to do, though I am delighted to tell you how to handle your jealous peers). I still believe that art should be a place of freedom, and who am I to say what you, Joe Artist of Gresham, Oregon, should make? I just want you to be happy and satisfied. But every week when I go into my little google spreadsheet to select the next issue’s query I see these questions, and it pains me that they’ve gone unanswered. This is my opportunity to reply before the year is over so that we can have a fresh start in 2013. Here goes:

Often I see “art” that is honestly nothing more than 3 squiggles on a red background, yet I have a professor that swears it’s ingenious and I should draw just like that person to be a successful artist. So my question is this: how do I explore and grow within my own art style while I’m still within a structured group setting, when my professor is enforcing a completely different style?

Three ideas: 1.) it seems unlikely that your professor really wants you to copy the ingenious squiggler—maybe he or she is just urging you to appreciate something you’re not accustomed to; 2.) if you’re still in school then you’re too young to have developed a style, so stop worrying about all that for now; 3.) figure out why those three squiggles are considered ingenious. When you answer this question for yourself, you’ll be farther along your path to being an artist than if you spent four years on a “style.” Style is nothing but surface unless there is a deep understanding behind it. You’re in school to cultivate your knowledge, so the next time you’re told some work is brilliant and you think it’s not, ask for the reasons behind your professor’s opinion. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to know exactly why you disagree.

Joav BarEl, Models in Red and Green (“Up Set”), 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 1/2 inches

What I am really concerned with is whether or not art made of perishable or non-lasting mediums can really be considered art – especially when the artist has made no clear attempt to alter the medium in question.

So, by this logic, performance wouldn’t be considered art because nothing is more fragile than a singular moment with an audience. Yet, performance is considered art, and so is work made from paper, or jello, or projected light.

Is there a place for explicitly “lude” art in the public venue? What are the chances that works such as Andres Serrano’s “Self Portrait Shit” or “Bull Shit” will ever be acclimated into the so-called canon of widely recognized contemporary art? (In speaking of a contemporary canon, here, I’m referring not to famous artists, per se, but to images that are widely circulated and instantly recognizable to a public that is relatively unfamiliar with the art world — take, for example, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is widely known as “that upside down urinal”).

Some things we need to straighten out right away: first, it’s spelled L-E-W-D. Also, I only received a C+ in my Introduction to Probability class, so I can’t tell you what the chances are. But I wonder about your concern for “a public that is relatively unfamiliar with the art world.” Why should you give a darn? There is no requirement that great art appeal to, or even be recognized by, a wide audience. The tone of your question makes me think that you don’t care for this type of work. That’s okay, you’re entitled to your opinion. Just say you don’t like it instead of projecting your personal feelings onto the straw man of some dubious non-arts-educated public.

Joav BarEl, Yin Yang I, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 40 1/8 x 31 7/8 inches

Can one be a painter and be considered a contemporary artist? If so, what questions should I be dealing with?

Yes, you can be a painter and a contemporary artist at the same time. In fact, a contemporary artist can make a claim for any medium (see jello, above), as long as there’s a conceptual basis or reason for the work to be constructed from that substance. And the question you should be dealing with is, “How will I pay the rent?”

How would you distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate street art? As a graffiti lover, I can appreciate many forms of street art, but also understand when some feel it is offensive. When do you think street art crosses the line?

If I tried to come up with an account of how to distinguish between “appropriate and inappropriate street art,” I’d end up making something that looks a lot like one of those fashion magazine Do/Don’t lists, or a cooler-than-thou index of things that are deemed In or Out. Instead, I’ll just give you my general opinion: I think street art is good (let’s let go of the word “appropriate,” because lots of good art is wonderfully inappropriate) when it’s bold, subversive, witty, hopeful, sarcastic, inventive, committed, clever, punk, and empowering. The ubiquitous, illegible paint-markered tag on the side of a dumpster is just a boring pseudo-rebellion. I do wish more street art lived up to its claim of real resistance.