Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Passion for Profit (and Vice-Versa) Part 2

photo borrowed from

CROSS-STITCHING has arrived at a level of popularity among women in the late ‘90s that had shops catering specially to the cross-stitching market cropping out everywhere. What were sold in these shops were patterns for the hobby, threads, needles and accessories, and of course such shops would usually offer framing services (largely outsourced beyond most people's knowledge).
    Many a provincial art-gallery visitor must have become accustomed by now to those constant walk-in wives’ whispered comments to their husbands regarding the steep price of paintings compared to cross-stitched works sold at cross-stitch shops. Yet the art gallery goer would simply either smirk or guffaw at these possibly middle-class- or nouveau-riche-class-deriving comments, comments therefore coming from positions of unworldliness, as it were. But, of course, those art gallery goers' guffaws would just be nervous guffaws from the art-loving world.
    Kitsch or not, when certain clients prefer to spend their hard-earned-overseas dollars-now-pesos on large cross-stitched Mona Lisas rather than on either medium-sized originals by a local artist or style-rich still life pieces from a prestigious gallery in Manila or Cebu (offered perhaps for the same modest price), neither tastelessness nor a threat should be read into this relatively mechanized reality.
    Instead, the symbols dangled by the cross-stitching presence ought to be culturally valuable to artists, gallery visitors and gallery owners---for symbols these are the significations of which should stop us now from either ignoring or condescendingly smiling towards that very presence. These symbols do provide, after all, a rethink on the position of gallery art in our society, and might lead artists and academic critics to reform their aesthetic braggadocio.

CROSS-STITCHING is supposedly a trendy pastime that took over the role played by the crocheting of doilies. However, its continuing presence now seems  to have added itself into the roster of commodities threatening the art commodity, regardless of whether the galleries and the not-yet-established artists want to admit it or not. By the way, it would be the more affordable struggling artist who'd be most threatened by this unacknowledged competition. So what is this trendy folk art that's threatening to take over the wall space that’s supposedly better served by (and ought to be reserved for) the allegedly more intelligent or tasteful formats of painting and frieze-sculpture?
    Here is our cue. When we talk about the service of art to present society, we seldom inquire about art’s function---beyond its claim---in reality. But let’s do it conversely, examining instead the function of the framed cross-stitched work, so to arrive at the allegedly opposite function of its "high art" space bully.
    The cross-stitched work actually provides one function it shares with painting art, and that is in entertaining the empathy a buyer or viewer feels toward the implied artistic labor or action upon a piece---cross-stitch-work viewers often talk about the difficulty of certain combinations, of certain crosses, so similar to discussions about the difficulty of superimpositions of color in an oil glaze or watercolor masterpiece or the artist's patience over a hyperrealist bottle. Perhaps not so similar, if we are to be snobbish, and here is where we should nudge ourselves to now begin to talk about our beloved art’s other function and the popular knowledge about that function.
    The decline of popular appreciation for the studio arts can be likened to the alienation the common Filipino feels toward the elements of the ballet. Painting has become so esoteric (painting has become the painted word to Tom Wolfe, to conceptual literary-manifesto illustrators, and---above all---to knowing critics) that it can now be safely borne in our minds as an upper-class (or educated class) art. And even among the upper classes, how certain are we about the value they are placing upon an artist’s celebrated work? Are the popularly-purchased art of an artist, the way GSIS President Winston Garcia defended the institution’s art acquisitions, being purchased more for the love of resale investing than for the love of the purchased art? If so, then we could say that cross-stitching has become the more real art of the real people, appreciated for their postcard and almost-decontextualized (Western or Southern American or English or European) beauty and for their implied "action" (remember action painting?). How is the common man (or woman-wife) expected to approach the distortions upon reality of Ben Cabrera’s drawing lines? Unless somebody gifted him (or her) an expensive coffeetable book published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines discoursing on the BenCabs’ academic worth, we shouldn't expect much enthusiasm from a "correct" academic approach espoused by traditional art criticism! Cross-stitched work appreciation, on the other hand, has created a sort of people’s art, a new Moravian Church against Rome's elitism. And even if this art may fail the test that would give it license to call itself art or even a sport, it has become a nasty bit of paradox in the industry of creating wall pictures. 
    And don’t tell me that most framed cross-stitched works are just decorative, implying that paintings in the prestigious galleries are mostly not. Even pieces that pretend to be in the service of some theater or poetry (on canvas) necessarily function in the age of the interior designer as mere interior design-friendly colored objects, no matter how "ugly" or "bad" an artist tries to make his paintings look (the act of framing alone already elevates any intended ugliness to the level of glamour, like placing real-punk fashion in the hands of Paul McCartney’s daughter).
    Don’t tell me, too, that the paintings in the galleries are the more serious products. I doubt that the buyer of the skull paintings of Ronald Ventura would be more interested in the artist’s mental activism than in the fact that one of the paintings’ skull echoes the buyer’s father’s dental mini-skulls collection on a narra antique cabinet inside that father's home clinic. I doubt that the buyer of a dreamy Chagallian composition in a recent Marcel Antonio is more interested in the artist’s visual song than in the way his coloration echoes the buyer’s curtain-and-sofa-and-rug combine. I say paintings have actually become the expensive tools for the charlatan "interior designers" in the painting-acquiring class---ever heard how artistas and other celebrities talk about their homes and the way their paintings fit into their personality groove? Like buying a Horowitz CD to softly background a party noise.
    I have no doubt that many artists in our country deserve more recognition than what they’re getting from the buying class. I would doubt, however, the claim that the buyers of what may be great or good Filipino art have already given their artists ample recognition. Beyond the sole fact that celebrity artists have been given the capacity to continue to paint via the mercenary support of their clientele, I also have no doubt that others in this roster do not deserve the recognition they're getting from the art world, at least as regards some of their works or periods, although it can indeed be a world mostly dictated by equally ignorant purchasers and corrupt dealers. 
    In the cross-stitching field, in contrast, cross-stitching "artworks" have had the same effect on their customers as our galleries' great or good paintings on their critics. This effect, which I may academically and snobbishly term "correct appreciation," may even be more "real" with the cross-stitches than with some sold gallery paintings, if only because the purchase of a cross-stitched work almost always have no regard for resale value or an elite market's approval.

SO WHAT'S a serious artist to do? First, he should stop laughing at the cross-stitched-art buyer. The buyer of this sort of "art" could be one of those "real people" from the working class who sometimes walk into high-art galleries, likely armed with the knowledge that the pieces here are grossly expensive, entering these nonetheless for the sake of breathing in the actions implied in the art there as well as the drama espoused by those art. No, resale value's not going to be in his/her mind, and rugs and sofas most likely only secondarily in his/her mind. The cross-stitched "painting," therefore, in its buyer's eyes, is respected for itself and not as semiotic interactive material for what may be the pretentious artist-eye in the buyer.
    Otherwise, assuming that the buyers of serious gallery art are an "academicized" lot, that is, well-armed by art-historical readings for an art-historical valuation of their purchased art, then the cross-stitched work’s buyer can be appreciated as a product of a culture alienated from the complex significances of this European art called oil/acrylic painting, alienated from an education system that distributes such knowledge within levels of privilege and underprivilege. That’s not even saying anything yet about the economics of the art, how painting was transferred from the patronage of a royalty or a papacy to the patronage of the wealthy merchant class starting with the guilds and the Medicis, on to a patronage by a wealthy few who are making sure the art remains inaccessible to the masses both financially and intellectually. Such a reality would thus put into question the validity of a Marxist direction in, say, an Antipas Delotavo social realist commodity. Did the patrons of the Mexican Marxist painter Diego Rivera share a certain amount of Marxism with the artist’s celebrated and purchased works? Were they purchased from positions of opportunism in opposition to the existing Mexican regime of the time, or with sheer decorative intents?
    A more radical question would be this: does the bad context of a purchase of an art make the art less of an art? And so, therefore, can we say that art buying is a practice external to the art, itself an art, and that the art of layman appreciation exists on a different field or plane separate from the galleries' marketing activities and movements in auction shops? For it would seem that even the valuation of a van Gogh within academic and critical circles are drastically different from the valuation placed upon it by an auction with coverage by Bloomberg TV. So that we may safely say that the passionate affair between art and the critical art appreciation of art magazines is a necessary affair that has also yet to coexist with the one-way marriage between artworks and their investor-purchasers (who are nonetheless happy about the complexity placed on their patronized art).
    If such is the typical arrangement, then we can say that the relationship between the cross-stitched work’s buyer and the cross-stitch work is no different from the relationship between a gallery painting and an everyday-you-or-I-who-can't-afford-paintings but have the critical eye to fall in love with it. Between them and their art could be unadulterated, real love. This is not the sort of relationship that occurs between a Christian artwork and a corrupt medieval church imposing an art valuation by fear; this is the sort of relationship that occurs between that work and the parish’s God-fearing populace far removed from the strict dogmas of religiosity. So, to paraphrase, this sort of relationship's approach to all sorts of art and "art" can be the big cultural difference between the expensive painting's real appreciator (those who can't afford the painting but can sentimentally love the painting and those who can academically appreciate the painting) and that same painting's market-value appreciator (whose appreciation is likely contaminated).
    Ergo sum, our laughter towards the cross-stitched work’s buyer may have been misplaced, considering the possibility that such a buyer may both have a real appreciator's as well as a market-value appreciator's approach to that kind of art. The buyer probably values his/her purchased cross-stitched piece as art and as a precious gift item, the reason being, most likely, that he/she does not belong to the merchant class or a similar class that could use such an investment qua resale investment. So that the small cultural difference between the cross-stitched work’s buyer’s approach and ours in the art-critical niche laughing at him/her, then, is only that---cultural. It would be a cultural difference devoid of a hierarchical difference. It's not even the difference between the painting fan who loves a painting for its colors and the painting fan who loves the same painting for its meanings. The meanings a cross-stitched work buyer attaches to his/her new purchase can be as complex as that in the well-read buyer of a new and allusion-rich pseudo-narrative Marcel Antonio oeuvre.
    Therefore, to repeat, it might do us a lot of good to henceforth take a diplomatic stance and bridge that gap between the cross-stitched work’s buyer and us, the snobbish culturati, considering that the difference between him/her and us is small. We can perhaps to easily share our culture with her, hers with us, which latter culture we could "elevate" by our snobbishness to fit into our masturbatory intellections.

HOWEVER, might such enhancements on artists’ and critics’ affairs with the cross-stitched work buyer endanger the necessary loveless marriage between serious artists and their market-value buyers and turn these buyers into fits of jealousy? And would art (and its artists) die (the way Poetry died) without that marriage? I doubt it. For I believe the marriage has been aware of the affair with the real appreciators, and has in fact been using this affair to put a premium on the marriage. The market-value buyer (husband) has actually been putting his wife (the artist) on sale. The pimp pimping art like cross-stitched work and supplies to fellow pimps are part and parcel of the sustenance of the gratified wives' tales that surround our cross-stitched artistic criticalities. Such is the economic reality in the art industry involving worshippers, loveless Pharisees, dilettantes and buy-and-sell merchants that is no more sacrosanct than the reality happening in the cross-stitched-work shops. And both of these scenes would be deemed respectable in the merchant-capitalist centuries.
    And so, if the cross-stitched shop business pimping cross-stitched work and supplies is no less respectable than your friendly neighborhood doughnut shop as well as your friendly neighborhood high-art gallery, then the cross-stitched work buyer is no more laughable than the respectable high-brow passionate element of the minority that subscribes to Artforum, visits the Art he can't afford at galleries, and forces himself to swoon to Art's delights in the coffeetable book in his living room. He is also no more laughable than the respectable high-end passionate element of the buying class that subscribes to Artforum issues that he barely reads, buys Art, and forces himself to swoon to Art's delights in his living room. The cross-stitched work is no more of a wife honestly pimped to an itchy cross-stitched-art consumer market than the high-art painter (who studied art theory and art history and sold taho on weekends just to finish college) who's now being contrived and peddled as genius by the economic science (and art) of art valuation. [END]

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