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My son harbors the secret hope that the meltdown of the world’s financial markets will shift the mindset of this nation and the world to a much-needed consciousness of sustainability. I see that possibility too, convinced that these great swings into the dark end of the spectrum can also initiate a great swing into the light.

A similar “good derived from bad” possibility exists in the smaller scale world of the arts as well. When I found the article below in the U.K. based The Independent, I started thinking of all sorts of ways in which guerilla good works could be conducted in the visual arts. An idea worthy of contemplation.

Even in the era of Banksy, some view the work of street artists as little more than graffiti: idle daubings on walls and bus shelters that councils have to pay people to clean up. But those who stumble across works they find littered around London later this week may well be in for a surprise.

Art worth an estimated £1m is being given away by one of the world’s leading street artists, Adam Neate, in an exhibition that will see 1,000 pieces deposited across the capital and left for whoever wishes to take them.

In recent years Neate’s work has graced the fashionable Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London, yet his roots lie in creating paintings and sculptures designed for urban locations. And this Friday’s Street Art Action marks a return to that way of working – only now his pieces fetch up to £43,000 each.

The action will begin before dawn, when helpers will begin distributing the hand-painted pieces on the outskirts of the city, moving inwards towards the city centre as the day goes on. While some will be left at famous landmarks around the capital many pieces will be placed in less salubrious areas of the city – both Lambeth and Hackney will be decorated.

It comes at a time when the industry – which was booming until relatively recently – seems on the verge of grinding to a halt. New York auction houses were hit last week, with Sotheby’s failing to sell a third of works at its impressionist and modern art sale. But Neate insisted: “It is nothing to do with the state of the market – it is about putting back in what I got out at the beginning of my career.”

The artist’s aim is to reinforce the idea that street art was originally intended to be a gift, free and fun for everyone to enjoy. “It has always been a dream of mine to do a show around the whole of London, to take over the whole city in one go. I want everybody to be able to see it, but once the pieces are out there I don’t mind what happens to them,” he said.

Each piece will be autographed, so anyone who stumbles upon an original artwork on Friday, or on subsequent days, will know whether or not the piece is an Adam Neate original. The 30-year-old began leaving pieces of art on the streets of Ipswich early on in his career, but has not left any for the last four years.

The value of urban art has sky-rocketed in the past year, with high-profile artists such as Banksy being seen at prestigious galleries and regularly selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds. When the world’s first art sale dedicated to urban art was held at Bonhams auction house in February, 99 per cent of the lots sold.

While only time will tell whether urban art will have much lasting value, the street art movement currently has the support of A-list celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, who reportedly spent £200,000 on works by Banksy.

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Adam Neate wants to ‘put something back’ by leaving his paintings in public places for anyone to take home

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I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.

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