What’s “good enough” art for the Asian Cultural Center?

The last missive about the potential, and pitfalls of the “soon-to-be-completed” Asian Cultural Center had a line that got me thinking it should be expanded to a full-blown tract about what counts as “good enough” in the art world.

In acting and poetry (the two other toughest fields in which to gain a living) it is true that those who judge talent will have to allow you to win the audition or get published by Simon and Schuster or the New Yorker before you’ve officially arrived. The number of actors with equity cards (I had mine from 1978 to 1979, then got tired of paying $3000 per year to be in a union when my acting abilities were making me say $2500 per year in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is a great place for “summer stock” but not exactly Broadway) who never hit it big is probably 95%.

In poetry one could rack up dozens of small-press publications, self-published books, quarterly review inclusions, still, if you’ve not appeared in the “right” place, at least Poetry magazine, and if you’ve not scored a major publishing house for your latest volume of work, you won’t be hired as a creative writing professor, and, just like acting, it has a lot to do with WHO YOU KNOW.

Neither of them can shine the “shoes of difficulty” that art presents. For one, there are even more artists per gallery than there are writers or actors per publications and productions. For two, you can be a major commercial success, even with wildly abstract art, but it doesn’t matter until five, not one but five more vital shoes drop in your favor: 1) it doesn’t matter if you’ve sold 400 paintings, it matters WHO you sell them to. 2) you must be written up by five of your regional critics and one time in a national publication like Art in America before any major gallery will do anything but trash your slides and CV immediately upon receiving it: sight unseen. 3) You have to be willing to kowtow to what is trendy at the moment rather than sticking to your guns if you ever want to move up from regionally “known” to internationally known, which brings us to 4) you must secure exhibits on all five of the major continents. 5) and this can be the hardest of them all, you have to play the “art circuit game” and cuddle up to museum curators, famous collectors, rich people, and do so in earnest without the faintest whiff of “what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here,” no matter what the host or hostess demands of you.

Who could forget the $2000 a month stipend Ms. Peggy Guggenheim gave to Pollack (one wonders if she secured him the Look Magazine article too!) for which all he had to do was cheat on his beloved Lee Krasner, and, God forbid, with Guggenheim herself. And, of course fork over every painting he didn’t sell within a month of its completion.

A close friend of mine who is a very very good poet was about to be published in the New Yorker, and was summoned into the office of Robert Penn Warren, the poetry editor at the time. He never did get published though, basically because he wasn’t gay.

This plays a part in the New York Art gallery scene too, as the number of gallery owners (male and female) who are gay exceeds those who are straight by, what, a four to one ratio? This is not to say that a straight Picasso wouldn’t be shown by a gallery whose owner was gay, but the key word here is PICASSO.

So in the art world being “good enough’ has nothing, zero, zilch to do with what kind of art you do, your impeccable craftsmanship, your eye on art history, your uniqueness, your ability to actually cause thought with your “conceptual art” piece, or to expand installations past the norm, which in my mind is “installing ones attic, or Pollack’s studio in a museum.” I don’t care what comes next after “art movies” and “conceptual art” as long as gets here in a hurry. Most of the drivel flying under these banners is the dregs of art schools sewers.

So what makes art “good enough?” and why isn’t there a more fair system in Korea? First off, you’re gonna have to be super-well known, like the deceased Lee Kang Ha to get a show at the Asian Cultural Center. Second, though living in Gwangju, you’re gonna have to be Asian, preferably Korean. There is room for a third method: develop a wonderful interactive art moment for children, and help them discover the inner workings of their psyche in ways their parents won’t be upset about. This third way would also include well-mapped out group shows, by established groups like Solar Eclipse. This third option points out a major tragedy though: most Gwangju artists and famous art-school professor artists are traditionalists, either western or eastern. By now abstract painting is a traditionalist genre. This group is truly going to have to cuddle up in order to get a shot on the walls of the ACC.

That’s because the ACC can just as easily secure exhibits of traditional paintings made “back in the day” artists whenever the “day” in question was, so why should it exhibit a latter-day copier of an old style?

Moving away from academia (I wish the commercial galleries showed more artist that were NOT professors) most Gwangju artists that I’ve seen are also working in strict accordance to philosophies and even geometric norms that were set up ages ago. So does that make them “not good enough!?” Around New York artists like this would be put down as being “strictly commercial” but the problem is, these days in Gwangju, no one is BUYING art, hence using “commercial” as a put-down misses the point.

The point is, Gwangju, just like every other city and small town in Korea needs a publically/privately funded gallery space for emerging artists. When I moved from Rochester NY to Raleigh NC in 1998 I was horrified to find out the Raleigh was the only city in the state that had an emerging artist gallery. The gallery started and continues to be about 40% funded by public funds, but raises the other 60% at an annual art auction and by selling paintings, which it does at a very nice clip, thank you very much. The gallery takes a 30% commission, and gives artists a chance to bolster their resume with outside shows at libraries, law offices, etc. The best exhibit I ever had in my life was at a law office through this gallery (the Visual Art Exchange) where I sold 20 of 35 paintings that were in the show.

So my wife, Kwang Suk Park, and two of our friends from Chosun University, the art instructor Kim Do Gi, and Dental School Dean (at the time) Kang Dong Won started GAIA (The Gwangju Association of International Artists) Gallery and through a modest grant of 700,000 Won founded the GAIA (now GIC) Gallery at the Gwangju International Center.

Now Gwangju has, although rather unknown so far, an emerging artists gallery. It has, in fact, shown many established Gwangju artists as well. It also gives art majors who are here teaching English an outlet, and something to aim for beyond 8-10 hours straight teaching at Hagwans.
At the GIC Gallery you don’t have to be “good enough” you just have to ask which month is available.

It’s true that the five (or more) steps to gaining a reputation in the art world are not easy, just like poetry, being a professor helps. That’s not easy to do either. In a country where commercial gallery space can run $2000 a WEEK….yup artist actually have to PAY to have their art up, at which point, since the gallery already has your money, how hard are they working to sell your art?…shouldn’t there be more small spaces dedicated to emerging artist where the gallery takes a 30% commission on sales rather than charging artists to show?

OK, few of us will ever be “good enough” to be on the walls of the ACC, partly because its mission is to show the entirety of Asian art, not just Korean. But in case you were wondering which field is the hardest to make a living in, wonder no more: artist. Top that: Korean artist.

In my case I have fulfilled four of the five requirements to be a big-name artist. I’ve sold well over 400 paintings, one to Anthony Quinn (a noted sculptor, painter and friend of Henry Moore and art collector on top of producer and movie star) and one to Isabelle Rossilini (the actress and Lancome model) (who bought “Wondering Alice” a wild head-shot expressionist piece for her then 11-year-old daughter) so that covers enough sales and to the right people. I’ve had museum shows at the National Museums of both Serbia and Macedonia, so that marginally qualifies me as having museum gigs. And I have three countries in Asia, four countries in Europe and the US as places of exhibitions…that’s fairly international. I’ve had my share of write-ups though none in Korea. But the one thing I’ve refused to do is change my vision in order to fit into some trendy scheme that is the art du jour.

So don’t be surprised if my next show assembles 537 pieces of found art (junk) and includes a performance art sequence at the opening and closing receptions in which I paint the entire room full of found objects (junk) while in the buff, but of course my body will be painted so as to not expose the true nature of my manhood, and the colors will fly from bowls and trays large and small, and the floors, ceilings windows electric outlets and everything else will not be spared, and of course there will be things plugged into those electronic outlets, like ghetto blasting of James Taylor, or industrial fans to help move the paint around, and there will be a guest artists, Yoko Ono, and she’ll repeat her famous ladder climb in which she screws in and unscrews a light bulb for three hours straight, (how the hell is that art? But still, I wanna fit IN!) And I can scatter large rocks and number them (a la Robert Janz) and make an egg out of ice chips (a la Andy Goldsworthy) and explain to folks, as it melts that this is my tribute to entropy. Sure, entropy is what art USED to be made to RESIST, but why not give in and make art that is ABOUT entropy!

Think Kunsthalle will go for this one? I hope so! (But how to get Yoko Ono here when Japan is in such dire straits?)

One Response to “What’s “good enough” art for the Asian Cultural Center?”
  1. koreamaria says:

    Freaking love this! Your story and laser vision are one reason why the art scene in Gwangju does not suffer from inertia – you always have something rolling for us – a review, a poem, photographs, paintings, and getting people together to make art as well as enjoy art.

    Hope to see you this Saturday, April 9th at 5pm at GIC for the next Gwangju Artist Collective meeting, another feat of your initiative. Everyone is to bring in a piece of their art and we will share and discuss.

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