Red Pen, Green Ink: Softening the editorial punch

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I’m sitting in a coffee shop rereading this manuscript and wondering if I’ll really be able to be kind.  I keep reminding myself that this is a man’s memoirs (even if he’s trying to bill it as something else) and you can’t go around punching people in the gut, even if you’re being paid for it.  Especially people you’ve never met before.  I’m weighing my options, my need to do my job with the desire to avoid offending this man so completely that I don’t actually get paid.  I don’t have to start with my first question.  I can ease into it.  I can just hide that first page of notes, I think.

He is tall, and stocky, with the build of an athlete.  Wrestling or hockey. Something that requires his broad shoulders and thick arms.  We haven’t met yet, but I watch him take out his cell phone from my seat, and I see how he moves.  He walks in jerks.  Rather than lifting his foot from the knee, he bounces on his toes and uses a hip to force the foot into position.  When he sits down, I try to look unassumingly sweet, and also professional.  I smile like maybe this is a first date — not overly flirtatious, but open and hopeful that we’ll have something to talk about.  This is not a lie, but it is also a rose-tint, the green ink in my red pen.  He looks nervous and I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t take criticism well.  I think about my questions again.

He starts talking about what he wants out of all this, which is still unclear.  This is his first real piece of writing.  He wants to finish it, but he hates what he has so far.  He wants dates and deadlines and asks me for my help.

“I read the pages you sent me,” I say, an entrée into my questions and comments, to the red pen.  He’s shocked.  Are editors not expected to read anymore?

He tells me he can’t get through it himself and admits that these pages are ghost-written.  Suddenly, all the weight is lifted.

My smile is genuine, but I don’t think he knows what it means.


 

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Confessions of the Red Pen: Why editing makes you a bad person

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This is a photo of me as a child, looking critical. People will try to conflate criticism with disdain, but I must criticize that idea. This child doesn’t look angry. Nor does she look like she is getting pleasure from someone else’s pain. But she does look like she’s got some ideas of her own. The red pen is a vehicle for criticism. It’s what I’m paid to do. I am not paid to tell clients their writing is horrible, because that’s not criticism. I am instead paid to provide feedback toward improvement. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes, apparently, I turn into a troll.

Recently, I’ve had two experiences with forums on which there are no trolls. This is a shock, of course. Both forums are on the internet and, as we all know, that’s where trolls live. Strangely, though, the two forums have hit me in very different ways and I’ve learned that even I can become a troll.

 

Sure, trolls are bad.

In the off chance that a real troll reads this and finds my precious havens, I will obscure them through the mask of fiction! The first group, I found while deep into a search for sufferers of the same hair-loss malady from which I suffer.* I wasn’t looking for a forum, per se, but stumbled upon it and began reading the posts and responses of fellow sufferers. On the right hand side of the posting board was a nice little list of relevant abbreviations (such as HL for hair loss) as well as the rules for the forum. The forum’s leader had simply written, “Please be respectful and compassionate. Remember that judgmental messages can easily hurt sufferers who have become sensitive and vulnerable as a result of the difficulties they face.”

The second troll-less group is a closed group on Facebook where, for a couple of weeks, each member posts photographs of their cats on a daily basis.** There, the line is, “It’s all about focusing on your own cat and encouraging others. In this way, we create a safe, supportive and fun space for everyone.”

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Cherry Tree Review

Live at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Live at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Cherry Tree headlined at the Rock and Roll Hotel last night. It started off clean, the band was ready, well-fed, well-practiced. The crowd was into it. The trio have been slugging it out for the last six months or so, grabbing at shows, perfecting their game. They’re well received, too, have an old-school rock sound that understands itself, fits into a timeline of rock, but is anything but boring. The trio are talented in that way that would make you angry if you weren’t so into it.

Personally, I like it when people are good at things. I hate it a little bit, too, but there’s a reason I have watched the progress of Audrey Kawasaki‘s career for going on eight years now. There’s a reason I can rattle off a list of a dozen tattoo artists in half a dozen countries that are defining the medium. Sure, I think good art is awesome, but I am attracted to talent.

So, Cherry Tree is talented. That’s the point. And last night brought it all to the fore. they start the set hot, they’re engaged and so are we. The sound is good, so much better live, because it surrounds you. And then something went wrong. The guitar stopped. For a moment, bassist/singer Evan Warner and drummer Ahmad Asi kept the song going, but when it became clear that this wasn’t an easy fix, wasn’t just a pulled cord or an on/off switch, they did something great. They did something that makes you want to go to live shows. They just jammed. They made shit up and it sounded good. They gave guitarist Kevin Conlon a chance to get back online and gave us, their dear fans, a chance to hear them for real, unpracticed, unpolished, but prepared. In short, they showed their talent.

The reason you see really beautiful graffiti despite the time constraints, despite the lack of good lighting, is preparation. These artists (the good ones) make a plan, they practice, and when it’s finally time to get it all on the wall, it can happen without much error. Musicians handle live shows the same way, but it’s at the times when things go horribly wrong that you can see the real skill of an artist. When the constraints are changed, when the rules fly out the window. When the guitar blows out. Then what do you do?

You don’t make a set list planning for one of the three instruments on stage to fail. But life happens. And if you handle it right, not only is your audience completely with you, waiting for your guitarist to get back on board and fall all over the stage while executing flawless riffs, but you get to give them a taste of what talent actually looks like.

What I talk about when I talk about talking about art

Self Portrait on iPadWhen I was in high school, I spent a lot of time at the Di Rosa Art and Nature Preserve in Napa, California. At the time, Rene di Rosa was still an eccentric and brilliant buyer, living on the Perserve’s property in a small space above the gatehouse. I would lead tours, but not in that way that you see in major art museums with old ladies gathering groups of tourists to a particular painting and talking about the historical significance of one of the most famous artists in the world. Di Rosa hated art critics and the dictatorial quality of the art world and of normal museums.

Here’s what I would tell the tourist groups. Rene Di Rosa started with the idea that he would write the next Great American Novel, and when that didn’t work out, he went back to school for something practical. He went to UC Davis to study viticulture, but while he was there, he couldn’t stay away from the art department. Di Rosa ended up being one of the first growers to bring wine back to the Carneros region in Northern California. This is not a wine blog, so I’m not going to go crazy with this right now, but seriously, everyone thought he was insane to try to put grapes back into a region that had suffered in the past, and yet. Look at that region now. It’s nothing but grapes. Not the point. The point is that di Rosa made a ton of money and what he did with it was buy art.

He filled his house with art and his cellar with art and he filled the garden with huge installations. He put so much art into the house that the ceilings were covered in massive paintings, the beds had sculptures on them, there was barely room to stand, let alone to sit, so he moved out and lived above the open garage (also filled with art installations, not cars) and he let people wander through his house to look at the art. He built two new structures on the property in order to house his art. There is a massive wooden door that opens into the side of the hill under his house and into a dripping, wet corridor that leads to a room of televisions set on their sides on which you can watch an entire day’s light (condensed into twelve minutes) streaming through the individual panes of one of the windows in the Chartre Cathedral. When I say there is art everywhere, I mean that there is Art, everywhere. 

But the most interesting thing about the Di Rosa is that there are no wordy plaques on the walls. In fact, the walls next to the art won’t even tell you who the artist is. If you must know, there is a number, and a pedestal in each building where the numbers of the pieces can be matched to its details. Even so, however, the details go no farther than artist, title, date, medium. There is no snazzy background info, no critique or explanation. This is such a departure from every other museum or gallery space that it’s something we say on all of the tours. Don’t be alarmed. And in the same way that the plaques fail to direct every viewer to an opinion about the art, so did we.

This is a thing I enjoy. Maybe I enjoyed it before spending most of my weekends at this strange art haven in the middle of a vineyard, but maybe it’s just something I always thought. Art should speak for itself. Isn’t that the point? It’s visual art. It’s not an essay or a poem. If it needs words, you’re more than entitled, as the artist, to put them there. If you didn’t, then you have to let it go and let it speak for itself. You can’t loom over your piece, explaining it, forever.

One of the best things about being a docent (we were called docents, not guides) was the fact that we would go on studio trips and hear talks from the artists. Di Rosa had favorites, good friends from whom he would purchase multiple pieces, so we would take a tour of the grounds with, say, David Best, and hear him talk about all of his crazy art cars on display, or hear the story of how William T. Wiley sold Rene a painting and then decided it was unfinished, snuck into the gallery space, and painted more while it hung on the wall. But it’s not like we led the tours through the spaces telling these stories. We didn’t. Sometimes, if someone seemed particularly interested in a piece, I’d walk over and say, “You know…” You know, this is a plaster cast made of the artist’s lover who died of AIDS. His ashes are inside the piece here… You know, David Best claims that this particular figurine stuck to this particular car was placed there by a cop that pulled him over… You know, this parrot is singing the Internationale — the communist anthem. 

These asides, though, were always only that. Asides. The pieces, according to Rene, should speak for themselves. If they fail to do that, then they fail.

Rene told me once that being an artist is tantamount to prostitution, but I think he was sensationalizing a little. He’s right that if you’re really being true to the art, you are putting yourself into it and then, in selling it, you are selling a piece of who you are. But in a way, art will always be more like parenthood to me, in that it is far more important (to me) that people understand that they cannot actually control this thing that’s come from them. You put yourself into it, but when it is done, it is not you any longer, and it is not even yours.

This is why I love street art and tattoos. These art pieces don’t come with artists’ statements or plaques. If it fails to have meaning, or feeling, or beauty, then it fails, and you don’t get to try to make it better by explaining into the piece what isn’t already there. In a very real way, when you’re done with the piece, you are letting it go. For street art, once you’ve finished, you have no guarantee that someone else won’t come along and spray over it. The only attempt you can make is to do a good enough job that other artists are impressed, don’t want to screw it up. Same for tattoos. You don’t have control over what goes around it, how it interacts with the elements of life and nature. Once it’s finished, it (and certainly its interpretation or reception) do not belong to you any longer.

Brooklyn in the Springtime

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People ask me all the time how I could have moved from the west coast, how I could leave sunny California for DC of all places. First of all, those people mostly live in suburbs and don’t actually go to DC. Second of all, look how close I am to New York. But most importantly, Spring. Some people don’t like seasons. Some people want to wear flipflops all year round, like I did for most of high school. Some people enjoy going through their lives without really having to make any accommodations for nature or the weather. But I like Spring. Sunny and 72 doesn’t really have the same effect when you get it all the time.  Continue reading

Tagging and Soap Boxes

Pear and Nepal on the red line.

Pear and Nepal on the red line.

There is street art in DC. If I’ve said otherwise it was hyperbole and based only in frustration. There is street art, it’s just that I don’t like it. Contemporary art in DC is left to the professionals.

Last night I took the red line down to the Hirshhorn so I could hear Jeff Koons joyfully proclaim the virtues of an entire theory of art that makes me want to shoot someone. Again, hyperbole. My aesthetic appreciation falls short of putting unused vacuums in a display case and calling it art. Maybe that’s just me.

My favorite part of the east side of the red line is the part between Union Station and Takoma. Every time I take the metro when it’s light out, I’ll watch the graffiti scroll by the windows and do that judgmental thing I do surrounding art. I’ll pause and put a caveat in here, in case anyone knows anyone: I have tremendous respect for graffiti artists, even when I don’t like their style. One of the things that Koons said last night that I will actually agree with is the idea that art is a dialogue. It’s a conversation that the artist has with her society, that the piece has with its viewer. It’s a hundred different conversations and statements and questions and it forces some kind of feeling, and that’s the point. So, here’s the thing. Most of what Jeff Koons does inspires in me no more than the feeling of boredom that the word “banality” expresses. Koons talks about banality a lot in this joyful way (he seems a very joyful man, actually, aspirationally so, even). But banality does not inspire me. Banality is boring. I am inspired by talent and perseverance and moving outside one’s comfort zones to be vulnerable and courageous.

Don’t worry, I’m coming down off that soap box, now. What I’m really trying to say is that I like things that I couldn’t do. My travel companion was right when she said that she understood at some point that just because you could have done something doesn’t mean you did do that thing. Duchamp with that stupid urinal really did make a breakthrough with art. Sure, everyone had access to a urinal and could have written a name across it and called it art, but no one had before. That was an original thing, and that makes it important. But, and here’s my point, I don’t have to like it. And neither do you, she says, pointing to those out there so fearful of making judgements on art, lest someone ask them to produce something better or to explain why. You don’t have to know why. Are you a foodie? Do you prefer delicious foie gras to canned liver? Good, me too! And you don’t have to say why, it is simply so, it is simply preference.

Soap box. Yes. Getting down.

So I’m riding the red line to the Hirshhorn and looking at what passes for street art in this place and here’s what I notice. A dozen or so people have made a habit of tagging the underpasses and concrete embankments on the east side of town. This is impressive because there is a lot of space to cover between Takoma and Union Station, but what is not impressive is the art. Soma. Beks. Sera. Nepal. Kuthe. Pear. Cedar. Voyer. These names simply repeat themselves up and down the line, scrawled in large bubble letters or block letters, shaded or no. But that’s kind of all.

There is still a dialogue, as Koons would suggest. But the dialogue is less about art and more about presence and about law. It is a self-affirmation, and that’s awesome. But I don’t have to like it, artistically. Which, I guess, is why I end up heading downtown to listen to one of the most famous contemporary artists talk about the sexual imagery of balloon animals and the virginity of plaster as an artistic medium, rather than wandering the streets in search of something more.

Someone should be paying me for this.

In 2007, I went to London and spent a great deal of time yammering away on train rides at my travel companion about how the next big thing in the art world was going to be Graffiti. My travel companion listened compliantly as I described how I would like to curate the basement of the Tate Modern as an alleyway and invite my favorite artists (Herakut and el MAC were among my favorites at the time) to do what they would to the space. The next year, the Tate Modern took it one step further and invited a handful street artists to paint on the outside wall of the building, effectively turning every riverside eye on the newly ordained medium.

Riverside view of the Tate Modern, 2008.

Riverside view of the Tate Modern, 2008.

It was brilliant. It was an incredibly forward-thinking move for the curators of the museum and while the artists they chose were not (and are not) among my favorites in the world of graffiti/street art, I was impressed. And also a littleannoyed at being right. Clearly I wasn’t the only person with that particular good idea. No one ever is. But not everyone can be first in this game and although I could dream big about the future of art, I was in no position to cash in on it.

This might end up being a pattern for me. For weeks, I’ve been wanting to write a post about the new future of art. I know what it is. I’ve known for a while, but I don’t work in the arts, I don’t have friends who work in the arts, and (as much as my mother and my dear, close friends will want to protest it) I am not an artist. I’m not going to make the art that defines the next movement. I’m not going to curate the trend-setting gallery show. But I can put this out on the internet and hope that someone with the means will catch on just slightly faster than they were going to otherwise.

Here’s the new face of art: tattoos.

This is not a huge leap. People have been getting tattoos for a very long time and they have slowly but steadily become pretty widely acceptable. I work with a lot of people who have tattoos (and I don’t work in a tattoo shop). I’m a lot of people’s boss and I have tattoos. My boss has tattoos that are more visible than mine.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is this: art. Tagging became wide-spread long before it became an art form. Art forms evolve. And with them, evolve the artists. Painting was a thing that happened for the church and then Michelangelo came along and established himself as an artist. The same thing happened in graffiti. People started tagging before they became artists, but as they began to differentiate themselves from one another and to push their own boundaries, to form communities of talent and force one another to excel, that’s when the art was born. You may not follow the world of modern art, let alone modern street art, but this is clear:

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Meet the artists Herakut. Herakut are two street artists, tag names Hera and Akut, who work exclusively as a team at this point. These are artists. Nevermind if you like them (you do) or if you think they have talent (they do), they are artists because they have style. They have, more importantly, a style. This is where artists are born. Artists are those people whose style you can come to understand and to spot in a crowd. You know what a Monet looks like. You know it does not look like a Herakut.

Well, this is what’s happening to tattoos. Tattoos have been around for a long time, and for a long time there have been better or worse peddlers of tattoos, but the artist is emerging. You go to Amanda Wachob for An Amanda Wachob. You don’t call her for a piece of flash. Amanda Wachob is an artist. She has a distinct style that is not easily replicable. It may not appeal to everyone, but it is a piece of art on the wearer’s body.

Amanda Wachob, from her Tumblr feed.

Amanda Wachob, from her Tumblr feed.

The tattoo machine is not just for scratching anymore, just like aerosol can be used for more than tagging the sides of freight train cars. And this is where the world of fringe art is headed, onto your skin. You aren’t going to be satisfied designing your own tattoo anymore. (How could you with the likes of Amanda Wachob, Josh Payne, Niki Norberg, and Roxx running around?) Do you want realism? Abstract? High color? Surrealism? New School? You will be paying thousands of dollars for an original work of art that will literally go with you to the grave (the consequences of this to the world of art are vast and worth more than an aside in this post). While artists who claim the aerosol can as their medium of choice fill galleries with blank canvases and paint them directly on the walls before the show, artists who prefer the tattoo machine are going to end up doing something not too dissimilar. Welcome to the future of fringe art.

Graffiti is Main Stream

Sample scarf, photo via Juxtapoz.

Sample scarf, photo via Juxtapoz.

 

So Retna is doing designs for Louis Vuitton.

I’m going to make a rule that as soon as Louis Vuitton gets involved, you’re not allowed to be a fringe movement anymore. Louis Vuitton can do whatever the hell they want, because they have all the money and people will continue to buy their monogrammed handbags for a few thousand dollars (moderate pricing starting at around $1,700 — or roughly equivalent to my nice new laptop, the purchase of which has afforded me about a month of yam dinners to look forward to) because those handbags are not handbags, they are status symbols. Once you become a status symbol, you can do whatever you want (Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music).

But Luxury moves up. Maybe this is the fundamental reason I don’t understand how trickle-down economics got started. High fashion, high art, high brow at all, all of it starts from the lowest of the low and moves up. The poor, the fringe, the outside are the ones who endeavor to make something new, and their brilliance is recognized by those with the payroll. Punk music did not start with the Ramones.

In Portland, OR, before I arrived, the Pearl district was gentrified into its swanky, art and café-filled self and by the time I left, the same thing was happening on the other side of the river in Alberta. The poorest neighborhoods attract those who cannot pay  rent, and who show up but the artists with their weird hair-dos and their “collectives” and their better-than-average cappuccinos. Once the neighborhood is a little less crime-ridden and a little more “artsy” and “cute” and “up-and-coming”, the bankroll moves in. If you’re not familiar with Portland, try the Mission District in San Francisco, or Alphabet City in New York. Funky kids (or funky, poor adults) with good taste in art and music and food are the things of gentrification, and that’s a good thing. That means you’re making room for the new new thing, the new fringe.

 

Takeshi Murakami spent years commenting on the high-brow/low-brow distinction with his artistic style. And he was already pushing the boundaries of what that meant for his own fringe art (because he was doing quite well, you see) when Louis Vuitton came in and told him his art wasn't fringe anymore.

Takeshi Murakami spent years commenting on the high-brow/low-brow distinction with his artistic style. And he was already pushing the boundaries of what that meant for his own fringe art (because he was doing quite well, you see) when Louis Vuitton came in and told him his art wasn’t fringe anymore.

Graffiti isn’t fringe anymore and while this has been true for a while, and I’ve known for a while, it’s really easy to prove the fact once Louis Vuitton arrives on the scene. They’ve partnered with other artists before, but this is the first time they’ve brought someone in whom I consider in that nerdy way to me mine. I will admit to you that I am one of those people who stopped listening to Weezer when they went mainstream and their music changed. I was less upset about Modest Mouse, and admittedly only learned about the Black Keys through their popularity, so my adolescent angst and haughty self-importance is waning a bit, but it’s important that you know whose opinion you’re reading.

So, Retna, who has been on my radar for a few years now (since Portland, since finding el MAC and getting hooked) is going to be bankrolled by Louis Vuitton. Which means that street art is officially not part of the artistic fringe anymore and we can all move on a little bit. A little bit. Because I still really love what people do with aerosol, no matter how much Louis Vuitton does, too. However, we are going to have to look at where art is going now. What the new movement is that everyone over the age of 40 is a little tense about and what, within the next couple of years, the Tate Modern is going to showcase like they found it.

I love street art, too, Montreal.

Montreal is fond of its street art. Public debate about tagging aside, Montreal is a place where you can find a mural on every street corner, and a whole neighborhood where the row of garage doors have been tricked out by aerosol.

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Seattle loves Starbucks and Boston loves Dunkin’ Donuts. And Montreal loves poutine. Wait. Poutine and street art. (Seriously, I think the only thing that dominated street art in Montreal was the advertisement for poutine. Every eatery sold poutine. Every single one.) The point is that in some cities, you stare at something and turn around and see the same thing. In the Pacific Northwest, that thing is coffee. In Rome, that thing is history. And in Montreal, the city overflows with street art.

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Turn around, there is more. Look up, there’s something on that ledge. Turn right at the alley. Look behind the cars there. Get closer, look underneath the mural you’re staring at. There is always more.

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Maybe part of what attracted me to all the street art in Montreal was the fact that Montreal is so entrenched in it. It’s what Montreal does. It’s what Montreal loves. You can’t help but get caught up in it because it’s all around you. It’s the city defining itself for you, proclaiming itself, and inviting you in.

Street Art: More thoughts from Montreal

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I have simply come to accept that I am one of those people, when it comes to art. I am one of those people who, depending on a few factors, becomes intensely attractive or intensely annoying when art joins the discussion. My travel companion does not seem to mind that our walks through the snowy streets toward food destinations are, at intervals (sometimes frequently), paused by my need to document street art. Sometimes, she’ll point something out, herself, and ask if I want a picture of that. She even listens (mood, not discernible) while I begin my soap-box treatise on the profound cultural influence that street art has on a community.

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