NY Art Commentary

Express Yourself - It's Later Than You Think

Brad Holland


Express Yourself
Brad Holland 1996

Later Than Think
The Avant-Garde: Over a hundred years ago, some French bohemians decreed the purpose of art was to shock the middle classes. It may have been a great idea back then. But these days, the middle classes aren't paying attention. They're all on Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake talking about their cross dressing experiences or sex with the baby-sitter. It's the cutting-edge artists who have to watch in silence and eat their hearts out, complaining about the state of American culture, and demanding even more grant money for more cutting-edge art. In the future, this spectacle of the middle classes shocking the avant-garde will probably become the textbook definition of Postmodernism.
Red Head


The Left Brain Doesn't Know What the Right Brain is Doing": It's my guess that those cutting-edge artists who attack tradition secretly believe tradition will survive to enshrine them as the wild and crazy geniuses who destroyed it.

"Sometimes you Gotta Break the Rules": One of the things not enough people appreciate about Modern Art is that it's philosophy can be summed up as a Burger King commercial.



Behave Like Crocodile
Brad Holland 1996

Why artists behave like crocodiles.

Craftsmanship: In traditional art, craftsmen worked within certain conventions. Occasionally those conventions would be redefined by acts of genius. In modern art, everybody has to redefine art all the time. This might have made our era another Renaissance, if suddenly there had been an explosion of geniuses in the world. But since ego is more common that genius, Postmodern art is destined to be narcissistic.

Art Theory:
The typical Modern artist produces a small body of work wrapped in theory. Some even dispense with the work itself and exhibit only their theories, typed up on paper. To me, this seems a sensible economy of style. If the purpose of art is to redefine art, then words should do the trick. There's no use cluttering up the world with redundant examples.

The crowbar used by artists to pry open the Pandora's Box of self-indulgence for everybody else in society. Fifty years ago, it was the dream of every bohemian artist to be seen getting out of a limousine wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Today, it's the dream of probably half the people in the country.


The Miracle of Authenticity: The faith that if we're all authentic and express ourselves, society will benefit. A charming ideal, but it overlooks the obvious. There are a lot of authentic jerks and idiots in the world. Encouraging them to express themselves will never do anybody much good, much less society.


Emotion: Modern artists paint their feelings for the same reasons Fra Angelico painted Virgins. Retailing your emotions is the holy sacrament of psychotherapy, which is the twentieth century's version of revealed religion.

"Raw Energy": The heroic artist tried to master his craft. But for the self-expressionist, mastery is a form of denial. Self-expression is only authentic when it's raw. This means that a self-expressionist is at his peak when he's least handicapped by experience. In fact, self-expressionists who learn how to draw usually become mediocre.

Instinct: Back in the prehistoric jungle, all the animals who trusted other animals got eaten. The only ones who survived to reproduce were the ones who instinctively feared everybody and bit their heads off. This explains why so many people, like artists, who trust their instincts, behave like crocodiles.

We're all experiments
Brad Holland 1996


Brad Holland 1996
Fish Wants Air
Tatoos Improve Some People

"Poets are the Unacknowledged Legislators of the World": It is every artist's fantasy to run things. I know personally, I'd be happiest as dictator of a small island. The problem is that romantic artists are usually too disorganized to run their own lives, let alone societies. And most societies are too sensible to let them try it.

Romanticism: Romantic artists start with the belief that human imperfection is caused by imperfect societies. Unfortunately, this often leads them to believe they can improve people by smuggling improvements into society through the Trojan Horse of art.

Consciousness-Raising Art: An all purpose excuse for the artist to cast himself as a pearl before the swine of democracy. Whenever I know that an artist is trying to raise my consciousness, I have flashbacks of Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek and Jessica Lange lecturing Congress about the realities of farm life.


"The Medium is the Message": This is an overall rule of thumb for baby boomers. Boomers also tend to confuse emotions for thoughts, sentimentality for sensitivity and public relations for public policy.

Political Art: Political art expresses the cliches you agree with, unlike propaganda, which expresses the cliches you don't.

Painter/Activist: I distrust anyone with a slash in their job description. I've met too many actor/waiters and too many rock musician/electricians.

Express Yourself Think
Brad Holland 1996


Mixed-up Media: In Modernism, reality used to validate media. In Postmodernism, the media validate reality. If you don't believe this, just think how many times you've described some real event as being "just like a movie."

Deconstructionism: Many people have observed that truth is stranger than fiction. This has led some intellectuals to conclude that it's stranger than non-fiction as well.


Forever Jung:  Postmodernists believe that truth is myth, and myth, truth. This equation has its roots in pop psychology. The same people also believe that emotions are a form of reality. There used to be another name for this state of mind. It used to be called psychosis.

Life Imitates Art:
Not true. Art imitates life. Life imitates high school.

The Counter Culture: Twenty-five years ago, I was part of the hippie press. Like a lot of kids back then, I believed that everything personal was political. In one way, my generation succeeded. We married art to politics. At first this was good. It brought the compassion of art to public debate. But increasingly, as artists exploit political themes to call attention to their superior morality, I've concluded that we misjudged the long-term risks. Namely, that we might produce a community of artists with no more integrity than politicians.

Fish Head
Brad Holland 1996


Multiculturalism: I've never understood why artists, who so often condescend to the cliches of their own culture, are so eager to embrace the cliches of cultures they know nothing about.


Art & Democracy: Many of the contradictions in Postmodern art come from the fact that we're trying to be artists in a democratic society. This is because in a democracy, the ideal is compromise. In art, it isn't.

"A herd of independent minds":
A lot of artists say they'd be happy in a classless society. But artists are often the first to deceive themselves. Put them in the kind of utopia they sentimentalize, and in no time, they would be binding their feet, lengthening their necks or flattening their heads, just to be different. Artists will never be satisfied, and anyone who tries to satisfy them is a fool

Art & Technology: In the nineteenth century the camera made a realist of the man on the street. Now the computer can make anybody a desktop Cubist. Technology may or may not be destiny, but I doubt that machines will replace art any more than wheels have replaced feet. .

Reprinted Atlantic Monthly
Brad Holland 1996


Waiting for Van Gogh: In the world most of us have grown up in, popular art has inherited and exploded all the forms of art that came before it. Everything from the primitive art of tribal societies to the fine art of aristocratic ones has been thrown into the cement mixer of modern culture, along with its juxtapositions of celebrity and anonymity, poverty, and sudden wealth and the continuous swooning of the popular media over trends and fads. The truth is, we haven't really figured out yet how artists are going to thrive in modern mass societies. We're all experiments.

Express Later Think

Brad Holland All Rights Reserved

This article was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1996, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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