The Whole Live Animal Dispatch #1

Imagine I am holding a small earthenware jar full of leaven. The leaven is a small bit of bubbly, sour smelling goo. The smell is the odor of life, because this little unassuming mass of yeast and flour is alive. It is culture. If I don’t feed it, it will die. If I take care of it, I can use it to make bread and feed me and you and our friends. Better yet, I can give you some and each starter will grow its own distinct qualities despite their shared birth. It is no accident that fermentation and culture share common words. Culture–language, music, art belief etc.– is a living thing and must be fed. In our current hyper-capitalized and overly monetized world art has become the equivalent of Costco white bread. It looks like a good loaf, but it has no life. Art has become an anemic thing, bloodless and wan. I am hungry for sustenance.

I am an artist, a writer and a teacher- a practitioner of contemporary art. Albeit an unknown, regional practitioner– a scrubby farm leaguer who has no cause to muddy the parlor rugs of contemporary art’s inner sanctums. In the coming months I will be writing dispatches collectively entitled The Whole Live Animal addressing a growing dissatisfaction with current art institutions. But the dissatisfaction is that of a dedicated low-born priest. A supporter who believes that art could and should do better. I can see something is unhealthy in contemporary art, and it is not the pallor of the fashionable. These dispatches arise from the backwater frontlines of an artist’s life. The above-mentioned practice. They are an act of love and hope more than it is a sour polemic against current conditions.

The title, The Whole Live Animal, is adapted from a chapter in John Dewey’s book Art as Experience. In this chapter Dewey lays out the necessity for a piece of art to live in a total environment. I don’t believe that there is a gap between “real life” and “art”. I do believe that art is experience that is formalized through a material. It is not the experience itself but it contextualizes experience. This formalizing adds shape and punctuation to a lived life. So in that sense, when art functions within a full ecology it is in fact life. It is the thing that connects to the field of ideas– the whole field– from the most transcendent to the dumb and petty. The latter of course can serve the transcendent and the former could be the latter. As a working artist for the past seventeen years, I’ve come to understand how the bloated market and celebrity system of contemporary art mirrors our food system. Just as we now eat food-like things we consume art-like things that give no sustenance. I want sustenance.

Art consumes me– I read about it, look at it, make it and teach it. When I look at my students, burdened with much more debt than I ever had and ask them why they’re in art school they look at me blankly. No one cops to wanting to be in the Whitney Biennial or an art star. (False modesty? Coyness?) There are no proclamations. In classes we critique, teach professional practices and look at art. Portland, Oregon like most places outside major art centers (i.e. New York and L.A., perhaps lucky pockets in the Midwest) owns only minor artworks to see and occasional strokes of fortune. We look at digital slides culled from the internet. These dispatches are for my students. And my colleagues. And for me. Because I am hungry.

Some of the topics I will tackle in the coming months include the art world and the market, regionalism, art schools, the direct experience of art. I can make a case for the whole live animal- an art that is plugged into a field of ideas as old as ideas themselves. The purpose of these dispatches is to create a new way of thinking about, consuming and making art. If the living culture is the catalyst for the rising of the bread and the source of its flavor, the oven is the new institution. I am not speaking of an industrial oven but something more provisional. A clay thing heated with a wood fire. Anyone can build one and we can all gather round its mouth and create the other kind of culture, the one that befits a human life lived to its fullest.