Author Archive

Alas, good gentle souls who still read CAFA, my humble apologies for not posting in many, many months. Please be assured it is through no fault of yours. It is merely the result of my own changing life circumstances.

To report on said circumstances and the reasons why CAFA languishes, here’s what I’ve been up to over the past year or so:

  • After a six-month layoff from meaningful daytime employment, I have found work enough to sustain myself for the time-being, and it’s completely outside the art world (phew!); though, of course, adjusting to new employment, new expectations, a new work environment and culture, etc. means less time for things like blogging about artistic failure.
  • Baby CAFA — a.k.a., the light of my life — now 17-months of age, continues to grow and develop and slowly gain some independence for herself; yet, it will be some years until she can be expected to blog alongside me instead of her current habit of inserting madcap and unreadable keystrokes and spaces anytime she comes near a keyboard I happen to be working on. Again, not a great support for free and unfettered blogging.
  • That does not mean I’ve given up blogging (nor art) altogether — since October I have written regularly for the venerable Utne Reader at their online Arts portal.

[Please note: You can, in fact, keep tabs on what writing I still manage to do by checking out the one area of this blog that remains active: The Writer’s Archive for Michael Fallon.]

[Also note: If you want less-fettered access to me than you get from the Artistic Failure blog, you can always Facebook-friend me at my other, somewhat inactive identity, ArtHappyHour.]

[And final note: If you have ideas for art stories, want to take (respectful) issue with something I’ve written, have questions, or need to reach out, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’d love to know what you’re thinking!]

[Viva la Failure!]

It’s sort of a article of faith among many in this country that what drives America, what keeps it strong, and what should be defended at all costs is the country’s corporate-business sector. And not just defended, but pampered, and given huge bailouts and vast tax credits/breaks in times of economic downturn (even when said corporations have turned huge profits).

Why corporations shouldn’t be expected to pull up their socks like everyone else during a time of retrenchment and is beyond me. If ordinary Americans are downsizing, tightening the belt, and making do the best they can as they wait out the downturn, why shouldn’t corporations (and their greedy stockholders) do the same? After all, we’re all in this together, right? If corporations aim to make as much money as they can off the backs of ordinary Americans, exploiting loopholes, taking tax breaks, and otherwise squashing ordinary people’s hope for economic opportunity, well, more power to them. But then, after all, who will be left to be customers for these corporations?

The problem with our national obeisance to corporate business interests above all else is thrown into sharp relief when you consider that most of our continuing economic malaise — and, in particular, our continued high unemployment — has been caused by this very same corporate greed. To put it another way, most of the blame for the hiccups during the sputtering 2010 economic recovery can be attributed to the business sector. Witness: According to a recent Chronicle of Philosophy article, a new analysis of government data made by the Center for Civil Society at Johns Hopkins University shows that between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009 for-profit businesses shed jobs by an average rate of 3.3 percent a year. The continued problem of high unemployment is being caused by corporations that are simply unwilling to hire workers.

Ironically, while the very corporations that so many Americans seek to protect and coddle are at the root cause of our economic problems here and now, a more heroically productive segment of the economy is one that most Americans feel less love for. That is, despite all that our beloved corporate America, with all its blind and relentless greed, is doing to hold down the rest of the country, there is, according to the John Hopkins study, an alternative model to the corporate one. There is, in fact, quite a heroic model of economic activity; one that, despite national antipathy, is striving constantly to find a way toward national recovery. It is an economic model that has been creating jobs during the same period studied (4.6 percent job growth per year v. the corporate decline of 3.3 percent), and it is an economic model that has investing money in buildings and infrastructure and keeping more than its share of people engaged and entertained. That this economic engine has performed its economic miracle even in the midst of widespread and jealous antipathy from ordinary Americans (who tend to look at these heroes with the skepticism they should probably steer toward corporations) is even more heroic and admirable when you consider that this engine performed these miracles without touching hardly a red cent of the economic stimulus money so sloppily tossed at so many other greedy sectors of our economy.

I’m talking, of course, about the arts. It was in the arts that jobs grew, despite all the endless national pressure to cut art funding and leave the artists high-and-dry, by 4.6 percent between 2007 and 2009. It was the artists and the arts people who fought harder than any corporation has to save jobs and ensure a swift economic recovery for all in this country — and all while doing his or her best to keep us enlightened, entertained, and distracted from our various woes and burdens.

So next time you see an artist, be sure to shake his or her hand for working harder than most to keep the American dream alive.

Artists, the new economic champions of a future American recovery.

 

The New York Times today reports on the goings-on at Governors Island, a 172-acre cultural refuge just 800 yards off the shore of a larger island of somewhat more cultural renown, Manhattan. The article describes how, over the past four years, as the Manhattan boom reached a peak and then turned quickly to bust, artists have begun a daytime habitation of the non-residential island. (Governors Island is described a quirky amalgam of empty Victorians, a high school, forts, parade grounds, ball fields, an artificial beach, and an “encircling promenade.”) It describes the happenings today as “ingrown and wildly experimental,” akin to an Art Wonderland.

 

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Governors Island was originally, before the 20th century, a military base. It has been managed through the years by the State of New York, the U.S. Army, and the Coast Guard, until it was finally was shuttered by the federal government in 1997. Thanks to the efforts of Leslie Koch, who runs the Trust for Governors Island, the island now is replete with such ongoing cultural whimsies at “artsy miniature golf, avant-garde theater and whimsical sculpture.” Its participants include “trapeze artists, bicyclists, conceptual artists, D.J.’s, musicians, dancers and dramatists,” and its attractions range from “a free miniature-golf course designed by an arts group, where fanciful stations allow players to take metaphorical potshots at a national missile defense shield or putt a ball in support of carbon-neutral footprints” to “outdoor dance performances in one of the island’s forts, a mock archaeological dig meant to play with ideas of the island’s past, an African film festival, outdoor Shakespeare,” an Art Fair, “and Civil War re-enactments.” So far, this season the island has attracted 250,000 curious gawkers, a sharp uptick from only a year ago.

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As you and I know, artists are like this. They’re opportunistic like bacteria (the good kind, you know, that helps you digest food and so on). When the economy, or political factors, or the standards of society blocks to them and many of the rest of us from doing what we most want to do, artists are among the only ones of us who will not rest until they find a place to rest. In the gutted sections of a gutted city, in the blown-out industrial areas of a postmodern city, even on an abandoned island — you can bet that artists will be among the first to begin looking for creative and sustainable ways to rebuild, reconfigure, restore, and recover.

Course, I don’t have to remind you what usually happens next; once the artists have brought a place back to life, once the culture of the formerly dead and dilapidated and all-but-destroyed parts of our society is restored, then come the moneyed interests, the developers, the scammer, skimmers, and other scabs who would never do the hard, dirty work and who capitalize on those who do. The article notes a “master plan” that outlines  “development zones,” phases of construction, and so on. And Ms. Koch herself makes no bones about using artists as a launching point for creating an “island culture,” even as her $12.5 million budget includes no money to pay artists or for programming. She talks, without apparent irony, about the island’s “brand” being “summer vacation with irony.”

Still, as this is the new feel-good CAFA, we’ll not be our usual cynical selves and just try to enjoy the whimsical, populist, free-ranging and free-spirited Art Wonderland that currently inhabits Governors Island. Then, when island development inevitably takes off, and the artists are shuffled off in the usual unceremonious fashion, we’ll go find the next Art Wonderland that artists create.

(Photos are courtesy the Figment Project)

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve posted anything on The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America. You may be wondering a few things. First, why have I been away so long, especially after chronicling with singular obsession the ongoing failure of art in this country for nearly two long years. Also, more importantly, why am I suddenly back and posting again now after such a long hiatus? What gives?

Well, in answer to the first question: It’s complicated. I stepped away from CAFA in the summer of 2009 for several reasons. The biggest was simple burn-out. I had simply grown tired of covering, week after week, month after month, the ongoing failure of our citizens to support the arts and what that failure was engendering for the country and its future. I was depressed and cynical and growing full of repressed anger and resentment of humankind — something that is not part of my usual nature. Also, I should add, at the time — in August, 2009 — my wife and I were planning the biggest creative step our lives: We were expecting our first child, and I did not intend to step into that experience with a pocketful of bad feelings. So for my own well-being, and for the well-being of my daughter-to-be, I stepped back and stopped following the madness that is the struggle to make and support art in America. I turned my back on it, and I don’t regret that.

As to the second question — Why revive CAFA now? — well, that’s simple. Because, for the first time in a few years — indeed, for the first time since I started this thing — I feel hopeful again. About art, about my life, about our prospects for the future. I am full of hope.

Why? I don’t know exactly. It’s not like there are many tangible signs of success out in the arts landscape (nor, for that matter, in my current professional life). Arts organizations and nonprofits continue to suffer in Minnesota and elsewhere. Arts organizations, in clear view of the increasingly ambivalent moneyed class, continue to struggle. Groups are being kicked out — both nationally and locally — of their locations and forced to scramble for alternative digs. Meanwhile, the art market continues to be in the tank. And, of course, individual artists, who almost always exist in a state of struggle, are feeling the recession particularly acutely. Plus, there are my own circumstances: Wherein, after twelve productive years in the arts writing biz, suddenly pretty much all freelance writing gigs have all but dried up; and, to put icing on the cake, this past spring I was laid off (for the first time ever) from my day job at a local nonprofit.

Still, despite all this I’m hopeful because — as I pointed out in another venue in 2008 — the arts and artists often stand at the front gate of innovation and recovery. Indeed, as the New York Times reports today, this is exactly what’s happening in one of America’s Ground Zero locations for artistic and economic failure. In an article titled “Wringing Art Out of the Rubble in Detroit,” Melena Ryzik reports that the failed urban landscape of Detroit, dotted with abandoned buildings and decimated neighborhoods, blighted with its own “particular brand of civic and economic decay” has also drawn something unexpected: “a small but well-publicized movement of artists and other creative types trying to wring something out of the rubble.” She sites the upcoming appearances in Detroit of Maker Faire, of the brainstorming conference TEDx, of the performance artist Matthew Barney — fitting for a place that is suddenly home to a “slew of handmade salvagers” and a growing D.I.Y. culture. Among the Detroit-based projects that the article lists are: Loveland, a “micro real estate” enterprise that sells parcels of Detroit by the square inch for $1 a piece; the Heidelberg Project, which turns houses into found-object sculptures; Mitch and Gina, who buy up houses for art and gardens; and more. Go and check out the article — it’s an object-lesson in what creative thinking can accomplish.

In the end, I figure, if Detroit can lift its weary, embattled head once again, so can the arts. So can you. And so can I.

Enjoying the recession, artists?

Well, here’s a chance to tell people just how much you’re enjoying it. McKnight Foundation LINC + Helicon Collaborative are is polling experiences of individual artists within the recession. (Helicon helped design the survey, and McKnight Foundation is helping distribute it to MN artists).

Here’s hoping it’ll do some good, somehow.

If you thought the news hasn’t been bad enough for the arts over the past few years, that was before the culture brought out the salt.

Consider item one: The amendment that was supposed to dedicate a portion of a dedicated sales tax to support the arts in Minnesota gets coopted by rich organizations of an, at best, nebulous artistic nature. This includes greedy history centers, a zoo, a public television station, and a juggernaut public radio empire (all of whom, unlike true arts organizations, have armies of lobbyists at their disposal).

Then, it is announced, some of the nation’s leading artistic organizations are announcing bad news. Many of these venerable institutions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and other key components of the culture industry in New York City — lost between 30 and 50 percent on the value of their endowments in 2008. The main reason? Overly agressive investment strategies:

Endowment asset allocations [in recent years] moved away from the safety of fixed-income instruments, such as high-grade bond funds, to the volatility of domestic and foreign equities and even to “alternative investments,” such as distressed debt and venture-capital equity. This investment strategy paid luxuriantly during the good times, resulting in bloated budgets and massive expansions. Yet with only quarterly meetings, arts boards proved too slow to navigate away from the hazardous investments once the bad times began. In short, arts organizations adopted bad habits.

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

–Ernst Fischer

This NYT quotation of the day caught my eye (for obvious reasons):

“Nobody wants me to do anything, so I’m just doing what I want.”
Liz Fallon [no relation], visual artist, Portland, Me.

It’s from an article on how the recession is affecting artists called “Tight Times Loosen Artists’ Creativity.”

Here’s another quote:

“This too shall pass. Artists must continue to create no matter what happens around them.”
–Diane Leon-Ferdico, painter, Elmhurst, Queens

Below is an excerpt from the first essay I ever published.
It appeared in Mt. San Antonio College’s literary journal Mosaic just a bit over twenty years ago, in April, 1989. I was 23.

from Growing up with Steve Garvey

by “Michael Sean Fallon”

…When I was a kid in 1974, there was only one thing on the minds of the kids on our block. The Dodgers were in the hunt for a World Championship. They were powered by a line-up including four very young and talented infielders: Bill Russell, Ron Cey — the Penguin — Davey Lopes, and, our favorite, Steve Garvey. Now here was a real hero, someone that kids could admire and look up to without question. Even our parents seemed to think he was mostly on the up-and-up. He was clean-cut, good-looking, had graduated from college, had married his beautiful college sweetheart; he never swore, he never spat, and he never grabbed his crotch (at least not when the camera was on him he didn’t). He spent time with the fans, was always eager to talk to them and sign autographs; he talked to the press, and they wrote that he was just too good to be true. He batted. 312 that year, hit twenty-one home runs, drove in 111 RBIs [author’s note: This was at the height of a long era of pitching dominance], and he was awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the National League.

As a nine-year-old, I was ga-ga for Garvey. Here was a man that I wanted to be just like; I used to dream of trading place with him for just one day. I could see myself sidling up to my lovely wife Cyndy in my lovely Bel Air home and saying something like, “I’d really love to stay home with you and the kids, but we have that game against the Reds, and, gosh, we have to win this one if we’re going to get to the World Series.”

That would make her happy for a moment, but then she would be sad. She would look at me with large eyes and coo: “Can’t choo just stay a wittle wonger?”

“No,” I would be my chest stoically. “I have to do it for the team. But, if you like, I’ll hit a homer for you, and I’ll bring you the game ball.”

Every day without fail as part of my nine-year-old morning ritual, I checked the box score just to see if Steve Garvey had gotten any hits (I did this even if I had already seen or heard the game the day before). It would be a moment of sweet anticipation when I first opened the newspaper, and my hands would quiver until my eyes finally fell on their destination. If he had gotten a hit, it would be a good day; more than one hit, it would be a great day. No hits and forget it — I may have just as well not gotten out of bed. But with Steve Garvey, the bad days were rare because he was a model of consistency. He played all the time and eventually set the National League record for consecutive games played, and he always worked as hard as he could. Seldom did he go longer than one or two days without a hit, seldom did he let himself crush the fragile hearts of nine-year-old children whose well-being depended on his performance in the clutch.

Of course, there was The Slump. For weeks there were no hits. It was the worst slump of Garvey’s career, he could do nothing right. Three hits in his last fifty at bats. I was devastated. My family could probably tell you the date better than I could from ho I suffered and how I made them suffer with me. I believe it was 1976, the year the dreaded Big Red Machine won its second consecutive World Series. But like all low points in a person’s career, it couldn’t last, and he lived through it (we lived through it), got back on track, and eventually Garvey batted .319 for that season. I well remember the day he came out of The Slump and went five-for-five — the best day of his career and one of the happiest days of my young life. Turns out he had promised a crippled girl that he’d get a hit for her that day. It made all the papers. And, as in the movies, he couldn’t hit just one, he had to hit five: one grand slam, one other homer, two doubles, seven RBIs.

All these memories came flooding back to me just recently upon reading one of the many articles that have been written about my boyhood hero. It was like how you might recall a painful breakup with a serious steady one day while looking at your old photo album. The times I spent with Steve and the gang were sweet, or at least they used to seem so. Lately though, they’ve come to seem a little bitter, not so purely sweet. I feel sorry for all those Reds fans too, despite how I hated them when I was younger. They deserved better than what happened to Pete Rose.

Still, Pete was “Charlie Hustle.” He was never pure as the virgin snow. He had a grittiness about him — the snot-nosed kid from the tenements who was fighting for his mother’s good name. I guess we just misunderstood the kind of “hustle” they were talking about. But Steve Garvey was Mr. Clean, and there’s really no getting around the fact that he was not at all true to his image. He once was even quoted as saying he did everything as though there were a nine-year-old boy following him around. Or words to that effect.

I suppose all good things end, nothing last forever. Fortunately, the shock of shattered boyhood dreams is lessened by time. Steve’s not played for the Dodgers for seven years now. Sometimes it seems like only yesterday when my father and I were sitting in the living room watching the boys in blue struggle through the 1974 season to reach the World Series, chanting along with the home crowd as the first baseman is announced to bat with the game on the line: “Gar-vey! Gar-vey! Gar-vey!” (This was our variation on the more well-known “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!”) We watched on TV, my dad and I, as they clinched the pennant late in the season, and we jumped around the room and screamed and gave each other five and jumped and screamed some more.

But, on the other hand, it seems like that happened eons ago.