International man of mystery, artist Banksy

I am still carrying around a big chunk of Canada’s uncivilized wildness in me, and it just doesn’t sit well with culturally-induced cynicism. And art world cynicism is cynicism of a particular stripe, leaving one to search for a few gentle but targeted exorcisms to remove that nasty taste in the mouth.

The cynicism-inducing culprits are clear. The first is Work of Art, Bravo’s “reality” (so in quotes, that) show about making art. For me and my friends it was quick to become the summer’s top contender for the program we most love to hate. I know, Jerry Saltz is a judge, and we all love him. But one good guy can’t save a program so bereft of nutritional value. Please, someone say something soulful, authentic, resonant—just once! In this world, art is entertainment, novelty, a plaything.

The problem is that Work of Art is so high in the chip factor: You know it is bad, really bad for you. But like that bag of greasy, salty, preservative-laced, empty-caloried potato chips that you just can’t stop ingesting, they know how to hook you. I need to be rescued from my perverse curiosity! Even though I fast forward to the last 10 minutes of each episode so I only have to sit through the infuriating crit and the cheap trick elimination, that’s 10 minutes better spent doing something less painful, like beating my head against a cement wall.

The second oil spill of cynicism is actually an amazing piece of work and one that deserves full viewing by anyone interested in contemporary art. But you’ll need your Wellies on to wade through the art world slime factor which is in full view. The film Exit Through the Gift Shop, purportedly made by Banksy (England’s masked mystery man and street art’s reigning king) is one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in a darkened theater in a long time. It is cinematic trompe l’oeil, a complex mirrored snake of a thing that turns in on itself and constantly undermines any sense of a grounding wire. Part documentary, part punkumentary, part tongue in cheek expose on art and the art world, there’s no way to know just who and what this is really about. It is smart, engaging and very provocative.

But this is provocation at a price. For anyone who approaches artmaking with sincerity and respect for the deep mystery of it all, there’s just no room for you in the world portrayed by Work of Art or Exit Through the Gift Shop. And visual art is not the only creative field squeezing out practitioners who are committed to their work and don’t play the game of image, appearance and hype. This excerpt is from Will Blythe’s New York Times review of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, whose dystopic view of American life now and in the future sounds harsh, bleak and all too familiar:

Egan’s depiction of Jules, the celebrity journalist, embodies her sophisticated sympathy. Such types are normally easy prey for fiction writers, cheap signifiers of corruption. But Egan understands that the manufacture of image in the modern world is as routine as the assembly of Model T’s in the old industrial economy. Which is to say it’s done by regular people like you and me, not villains but folks just trying to get by.

It just may be that the most subversive path is to openly and candidly care most about the quality, integrity and intentionality of one’s work. And being actively subversive is a well tested antidote to cynicism’s paralyzing and deadening wake.

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