We had a conversation in Power Boothe‘s theory class about whether or not art has value. Someone asked, does a blank canvas have value? The art students though that it did not. It’s just wood, they said, scraps of cloth. Everyone agreed that there was work put in to cut the wood and weave the cloth and construct the canvas—it costs money to buy a prepared canvas—but it had no functional value, no use value, and so was worthless. (Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defines use value versus cult value in passing, as does Adolph Loos’s tyrannical essay, Ornament and Crime.) I disagreed. The blank canvas has incredible value in its potential—to be art. What’s more, the blank canvas is the hope of art, a gesture towards the power and transcendence of human creativity. It’s the emotional bell weather of our society. Here is the potential for beauty, for greatness, it says, for novelty, for personal expression—despite all odds. Despite the crushing weight of the world and our own doubts, here is the chance to escape, into art. What could be more valuable?
I had breakfast with photographer and Yale architecture student Susan Surface today. I saw her presentation at Architecture for Humanity’s PechaKucha fundraiser for Japan in New Haven a few weeks back. Susan is an amateur (professional?) bull rider as well as a full time grad student. She’s been transforming the pain of being bucked off a bull into an art project. After a rodeo event, Susan documents her bruises in delicately posed self-portraits that are colorful and alluring yet alarming (I like alarming). I was enthralled by her photos, both these self-portraits and the images she’s taken of the bull-riding community, not to mention by the guts this woman has! How many young women do you know that ride bulls? (And she probably weighs about 100 pounds.) Having successfully guessed her email address, I decided to ask her if any of her portraits were for sale, and now I’m about to collect two of her photographs. It’s pretty neat-o.
I’ve long been a fan of Yayoi Kusama. She’s an important Japanese artist whose work resonates with the specific compulsions of modern women worldwide. Her dots series, installations covered in dots—on walls, on people, on trees, on things—are mesmerizing. Using this simple technique, Kusama creates these eerie immersive environments. For me, they represent certain obsessions: obsessions with the body and its perception, its shapes and holes and uses; an obsession with control. The images above of flower petals on the ground from the early weeks of May reminded me of her.
Kusama did much of her seminal work in New York, but returned to Tokyo in 1973 and has been living in a mental institution almost ever since. Paranoid schizophrenic, I believe. Many of her works are inspired by her hallucinations. There’s a great picture of her Self-Obliteration by Dots, a still of a performance from 1968, in BOMB Magazine’s interview. Another iconic set of works is the accumulation series, wherein Kusama glued protuberances to cover entire objects and whole surfaces. She posed with one of these pieces, Accumulation No.2, once perhaps a couch, and MoMA has the photo. It was printed on the Kusama Retrospective poster back in 1998, “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.” I put it up in my father’s former studio for inspiration. I thought of her more as a baby doll back then, looking so coquettish. Now she uses that same silhouette as a brand on her website.