Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Booster Shot

My alarm goes off at 5:30 every morning. God knows why; there’s no place I need to be. Much of the time, I lie there, floating in and out of sleep, the informative sounds of NPR wafting through my semi-consciousness. Sometimes, I don’t actually get out of bed until 8 a.m.

This morning at 5:30, however, upon hearing the words “art”, “Vinson and Elkins Law Firm”, “Mayor Bill White”, "Houston" and “world class art world”, I popped out of bed, even though, as usual, my back and ass really hurt.

Listen, I love the blog format. Why? Because I’m not accountable to anyone. Fuck the factual verification department. Whatever I think I hear in some foggy haze is solid enough for me. And dammit, it’s good enough for the Whinybabyland reader.

Anyway, I’m lying there listening to Mayor Bill White say something about the Houston Arts Alliance and our “world class art world”, and I’m thinking: “Houston. World Class Art World.” Isn’t that an oxymoron?

OK, before I start bashing, I want to say that I love the Houston Arts Alliance. I once, like many, many Houston artists, received a grant from them, showed in their 125 gallery, and I’m forever in their debt. But a few years ago, don’t ask me when because time is a big fuzzy blur for me, I remember that some dickhead trotted his ass down to the state capitol and helped change the requirements for what one could constitute as fundable art here in Harris County. It became harder to get those grants. Artists applying for the grants suddenly had to spin a bunch of bullshit in their applications so that jurors would see that their art would tie in with big business. Even more than they had to before. It's called the "heads on beds" factor, meaning that if Houston artists wanted to get their paint-spattered little hands on public money, they would have to prove, basically, that their art would somehow promote tourism in our fair city. I was pretty thick, but then it was explained to me. Hotel rooms. Tourists' heads on fluffy mint-laden pillows. Heads on beds.

The whole notion makes me wanna puke, and I'm not blaming this on any non-profit organization that's trying to dole out money. The Houston Arts Alliance wants to give money to Houston artists. It's just that a bunch of asswipes who wouldn't know a Basquiat from something their dog shat out are in charge of saying who gets what.

Of course, artists who apply for the grant still get the money, but, like I said, they have to spin a bigger web of bullshit. Oh, my art deserves funding because it's good for the community! My art deserves funding because it's going to show people what a glorious city Houston really is! My art deserves funding because it's beneficial for the children!

I actually think that Houston is kinda glorious, in its own way. Driving back from the dog groomer at 7 a.m., I saw the Downtown skyline bathed in a pinkish, hazy glow--perhaps a result of early morning dew, potential oncoming tropical storms, and car exhaust. It was beautiful.

And I like living here. I can do my work without having to live in a dumpster. There are plenty of advantages to being a working artist here, and there are a lot of really great artists living here. But it chaps my ass to no end to listen--even though it was only partial listening--to some jerk politician talk about what a glorious, shining bastion of art we have. It made me think of the "Houston Proud" booster campaign that went on a few years ago. I'm Houston Proud! Say it loud!

With the exception of a few shows and a few art spaces, the Houston art world is a bit like Loehmann's. Oh, it's great quality, and at a great price, but let's face it, it's not hot off the runway. And it also irritates me when politicians talk like that because, on the whole, what they see as Houston's gleaming art world is not really Houston art at all.

Just a few years ago--and again, don't quote me or check on this as accurate--Houston actually got a budget for public art. A few times I was asked (and God, don't ask me why--I think it was that I was the only artist in town who was for certain not going to apply for this) to sit on juried and advisory panels for public art. The first time, we interviewed applicants who were pitching proposals for a Midtown space. There were about 6 finalists, some from Houston and some from around the country, and the job--and I don't think it's actually been put into motion yet--went to the Art Guys. I don't really have any problem with the Art Guys getting the gig--they put together a dynamic presentation and have a lot of public art experience.

But therein lies the rub. None of the other Houston artists had much experience in public art, and why would they? There was never a budget for it before, and, unless an artist was doing the kind of stuff that the Art Guys had been doing for the past twenty years, there was hardly a way to show that, despite their various levels of competence, they could handle a big funded job. The Catch-22 of public art.

Like I said, the Art Guys have been doing this stuff for ages. And their first projects were performative and done on a shoestring, but after several years their gigs went legit. Harrell Fletcher also started doing random public art on a shoestring. No one would give him money, so he basically made up projects on his own, installed them surreptitiously, documented the projects, and went back to the funders and said, "See? I do have experience!"

I also sat in on a panel to meet and discuss the work of an L.A. artist whose proposal had been chosen for downtown. And no, I don't remember his damned name. I'm sure he'll do a fine job. The shots I saw of the other cities he'd worked his magic on looked fab. But this guy has been at the public art game for years. Everything was slick and operated by advanced technology and led screens and blinking lights. How the fuck would a Houston artist begin to compete with such a pro? And why should the dudes with the money gamble on somebody who's been dicking around with cardboard or clay when they've got Ironman over there guaranteeing results?

Of course, there are well-funded opportunities for Houston artists. There are the airports, libraries, public works buildings. But it still grossed me out to hear the mayor, as well as a representative from a huge law firm, laud the art community here when the odds are they wouldn't know the art community here if they saw it.

Oh, my rage against the Man. My rage against the Machine. So very dated. So very tired. It's just that I don't want art that brings in tourism. I don't want art that's good for the children. And I'm getting sick of seeing art that operates on a platform of community service. Go ahead, make some fucking art. Make some good fucking art. And then, at the end of the day, if you feel like it, go out and do something selfless, something purely altruistic. But for God's sake, don't call it art.