Iowa Art Crisis 2: The Creative Rehabilitation Program

Continued from yesterday’s story: Central Iowa’s arts community continues to roil in the aftermath of the Bad Art Reviews Blog’s (ed. since shut down) violent disregard for the State’s Code of Niceness. In an effort to preemptively ward off an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among the region’s creative caste, the newly-empowered Iowa Ministry of Artistic Compliance has established The Creative Rehabilitation Program to nurse wounded artists back to health. The program mirrors a “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” model, with struggling, disenfranchised artists receiving hands-on mentoring from wealthy arts patrons, all of them hand-selected by Governor Brandstad from among his wide circle of friendly GOP arts enthusiasts. Let’s drop in on a session as Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bode P. Chatsworth — a well-known collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia — meets with two artists fished from the wreckage of their heretofore peaceful cultural pond:

whitemanartElliot Gruver, Graduate Student in the Arts: I don’t want to get too heavy on you, Mr. Chatsworth, but I’ve never been more confused in my life.

Bode P. Chatsworth, COO, Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company: What’s on your mind, kid? Go ahead and spill it. You know that we love to be entertained by others’ misery here. That’s what this whole “Big Rich Art Brothers” thing is all about, yes?

Elliot Gruver: Well, I guess you sort of put your finger right on the heart of my problem, Mr. Chatsworth. My issue is that I’m just a little put off by the whole notion of what makes for “good art.” It often seems that “good art” means exactly what you just said: comfortable people getting off on other people’s misery. That makes me think that in order to make “good art” for the people who have the time to appreciate and afford it, then I have to take a vow of misery and angst. But, you know, Mom and Dad are paying a pretty penny for me to be in a Master of Fine Arts program, and I really just don’t have much to be sad about. So is my art worthless? And do I need to find things to be unhappy about if I want it to have value?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Nonsense, kid! You’re just showing your youthful naiveté when you say things like that. Look, back before I became a successful insurance executive and collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia, I was a wannabe artist too, and like you, I thought that my misery made for better art. But when I look at my stuff from back then, it’s generally not better or worse than anything else, it’s just more miserable. Misery doesn’t equal quality. It’s just that when people are miserable, perhaps they invest more value and import in their art than they do when they’re not. The art symbolizes their struggle, and maybe they fight harder for their art because of that. But that’s an issue of promotion, not of quality. And, frankly, sometimes the stuff people do that isn’t based on struggle can be far more profound and less obvious than the more angst-ridden stuff tends to be.

Elliot Gruver: But does angst-ridden art always have to be obvious? Can’t art be angst-ridden and subtle at the same time?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Well, what the hell would be the point of “angst-ridden and subtle”? Sure, you can be angst-ridden in your life, and subtle about it in your work, but who would be able to tell the difference? Would you have to code it into your titles: “Still Life with Fruit and Yarn (Composed While Suffering an Existential Crisis in a Sioux City Squat)” or “Sunrise Over Dubuque (Where Some Immigrant Somalian Babies Suffer from Worms)”? If you believe that suffering leads to angst, which then leads to “great art,” then you can’t make “great art” without such suffering, and you should just move out to a nice cardboard box now and have your folks send your tuition checks directly to me. But that’s a false model. You really don’t have to choose between art and happiness. Comfort level is not tied to how profound someone’s work can be.

Charlotte Mondamin, Working Artist: Oh, I can’t take it any more! Listen to you two go on about angst and art! What a pair of pretentious poseurs you are! And you’re missing the big picture completely. Listen: angst is an emotion that’s exclusive to the privileged class. When you are hungry, homeless, sick or poor, you don’t have time or energy to feel sorry for yourself because you don’t feel like the world understands or appreciates you. So buck up and quit wallowing. Go spend a night in a dumpster without a coat and see how bad your petty boo-hoos feel tomorrow.

Elliot Gruver: Don’t dismiss my feelings just because I’m a child of privilege! I didn’t choose to be born in comfort!

Bode P. Chatsworth: C’mon, Charlotte, you’re not really going to trot out that stale old canard, are you? I mean, sure, we should all be doing cartwheels because we’re not in a labor camp in North Korea waiting for a rat to jump out of the hole in the ground where we shit so we can kill it and eat it, even though we’ll be beaten by the guards for doing so. I’m convinced! Life is suddenly beautiful to me! Thanks for the wisdom!

Charlotte Mondamin: It is not a stale argument, you creep. Life’s what you make of it. If you’ve got a house, a family who loves you, and money for food, then you’re doing better than 90% of the human beings living in the world right now, including me. If you choose to be a spoiled crybaby because nobody understands your art, Elliot, then that’s your problem, not society’s, not your parents’, not anybody else’s. It’s just wrong to try to find things in life to be unhappy about just so that you can make “better” art that allows well-off boobs to feel even better about themselves because they embrace your false suffering. What do your type have to be unhappy about anyway?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Please, Charlotte. That’s just dumb. People with all of those things can be unhappy if their jobs are not fulfilling, their personal lives are in disarray, or their financial futures are uncertain. Having stuff doesn’t make you happy. If it did, celebrity gossip columns would be far more boring than they already are. Do you really think there’s some sort of happiness line, where if you make over a certain amount per year, you’re not allowed to be sad?

Charlotte Mondamin: Look, the more you make, the more you can do whatever you want with fewer and fewer consequences. I’d certainly rather be sad and rich than sad and poor, because sad and poor means that you also have the pressure of basic survival while being unhappy. So, yes, once you have your basic survival needs met, you really shouldn’t be whining about being sad. Your sadness becomes meaningless. You can buy something to make it better. Or you can use your ample spare time to make some art, in which you subtly embrace the fantasy angst that eats at your comfortable, benumbed brains.

Bode P. Chatsworth: Gah, you bore me! Enough! I don’t need all of this misdirected anger and needless confrontation from the likes of you! I’d much prefer to spend time with comfortable people in search of a little angst to fire their creative furnaces. C’mon, Elliot, let’s head over to the corporate canteen and see what they’ve got stashed away there behind the bar, crack a bottle of somethin’ somethin’, smoke a couple of cigars and figure out how best to balance your emotional and artistic aspirations. The keys to the Jaguar are on the end-table there. You can go warm it up for Old Uncle Chatsworth, since it’s a nippy night out tonight. And be careful not to step on any hobos. There’s a good kid. You got a future.

CONTINUES IN PART THREE

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