Sleeping with the Dragon

Erik ReeL painting
ERik ReeL, Opus 1714, Amethyst, acrylic on archival paper

Q: What do you think of Alex Israel?

ReeL: Someone has to do that.

Q: Meaning?

ReeL: Artists like Israel, Koons, to some extent Warhol play  necessary roles, though Warhol did a lot more than what we’re talking about.  A certain scale is required to offset the other side of the coin.: the Putins, Assads, Imins, and Stalins of the world.

Previous ages did not have this.

Q: Have what?  An artist who could equal the scale of their politicians?  What about a  Rembrandt or, perhaps, more appropriately, Rubens?

ReeL: No, Not the same.  There was no one in their day, none with the means to do things on a scale equal media-wise to what a totalitarian government does, and have it  ripple out for decades.  The artists have the advantage that their work ripples out for much longer, for decades longer than any dictator, and can span beyond the single countries that dictators typically rule, but in the more circumscribed sphere of art, media and image.  On another level, its more of the pen is mightier than the sword thing, and someone has to play that role on this much larger scale.

Q: so you are saying there is a matter of historical scale?

ReeL: Yes. And I am taking into account Adorno’s famous remark, which is, at bottom about a certain sense of perspective and scale.  A rose is nothing compared to a concentration camp. You can’t violate the scale of reality and lose perspective: there are scales beyond art, but also, art is not necessarily powerless. On a more internal and personal scale, you have people surviving concentration camps because of their connection to music, a memory, and many survivors end up with special connections to art.  There is humanity underneath it all.

But still, at a cultural level there is a need to deal with things in terms of the new scale of media and a global landscape that is far beyond the scale of previous epochs.  So you need a new form of Trickster, someone to play a certain set of roles, and today, there are a lot of artists more than willing to do that, or at least attempt that. But that is not the only purpose, nor even the prime purpose of art.

Perhaps the phrase “purpose of art” should be  in quotes. One could say that art has no purpose.   That it is  useless.

Q: Do you believe that?

ReeL: No. I believe it has purpose.  But it has to do with the creation of culture and how an individual locates themselves in a meaningful way within that culture, or whatever culture they find themselves in.

When there are global and totalitarian forces at work, you need someone to work at a greater scale in order to create sufficient room, meaning freedom, for everyone else.   But you also need others to work at a sufficiently intimate scale and depth as well. Otherwise you end up playing into the totalitarian forces, which ultimately have the power to co-opt everything on that scale. That is what Totalitarianism is about, trying to control, or at least co-opt everything, at that  scale.  So you need the  Koons and Israel, the artists who run entire factories and a media machine; but you are in a very dangerous place if that is all you’ve got.

Q: I don’t know. I think you may be missing something there.

ReeL: Well yes.  Tricky territory in this context to deal with this briefly.  A lot is missing.  All I am saying here  is that you need people playing at this large scale and you also need people working at an intimate scale that is finely nuanced,  You need the freedom generated by the large scale actions and you need individuals  freely doing what they feel is meaningful in an intimate manner and helping wake that up in others. This is more where my work comes in.  It is a very intimate kind of work. It speaks to subtle and intimate places in people and helps wake up something in them that is beyond everything working at the larger scales.  You need something deeper than branding.

In the end, Koons and Israel are more about branding. The Nazis were champions of branding.  So it is probably necessary to have counter-forces there, but ultimately there is always the danger of feeding only the dragon, the dragon guarding the motherlode of treasure and wealth laying beneath it.

Q: So, I suppose, the question we need to ask is: who are the dragon-slayers?

ReeL: Yes, who are the dragon-slayers. A lot of the time I’d say these artists are doing something else.  It’s never too black and white. Even in something as old as the Beowof myth the haziness of it all is acknowledged: Beowolf warned us long ago against sleeping with the dragon, or the serpent mother.  It’s not easy to avoid. In Beowolf,  she could take on an extraordinarily beautiful appearance as well as disarm any human weapon.

Q: So you feel the  Beowolf story applies to artists like Koons and Israel.

ReeL: Oh, yea.  Without a doubt.

Q:  In Beowolf, isn’t it the offspring that ravage the rest of civilization?

ReeL: Yea,. you have to watch out for those offspring.

But the real message is: Don’t sleep with the dragon to begin with.  But not so easy. These artists are often clearly not slaying the dragon, they are sleeping with the hag, and, as in Beowolf, they come back and lie, wanting us to believe they tried to slay her.  In reality we, like Beowolf, know that she is also the undeniable temptress of wealth and supreme beauty capable of any seduction,  incapable of being slain.

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