For our July issue, contributing writer Joe Pagetta spoke with renowned classically trained, 3-D and chalk artist Kurt Wenner. What follows are extended excerpts from that interview. It has been edited for clarity.
On allowing an audience to view his artistic process, and the current museum and gallery model of art:
People think that about artists (that they don’t like to let the viewer into the process), and I think a lot of artists do have this fear. But when I started the (chalk art) festivals, what I found — in my own case — was that it was terribly cathartic to do the work in public. You started to realize that all those fears you had about what the public would think while you were doing a piece were totally unfounded, and the public has no expectations at all about how the process should look. I think they are (fascinated and inspired). Once you learn that, you’re kind of freed up from all those fears.
This business, this mystique of a work showing up in the gallery all finished, it’s really a 20th century phenomenon. This whole emphasis on the arts going into these galleries — this kind of idea — I think it’s kind of a marketing idea, a way to keep the mystique of going about the process of the arts, but I don’t think it’s been very good for the culture. It’s nice to break it up and show that it doesn’t have to be that way.
On figurative art no longer being considered art in schools and by the contemporary art world:
From a purely pragmatic standpoint, my expectation would be, and I don’t think you can really get any data on this, that probably dollar for dollar, the most art sold is figurative art sold as a fine art. I think if you really look at how much art gets sold, and I’m not talking about posters and prints and Thomas Kinkade, I’m just talking about dollar amounts. I’m not making a value judgement on how good any of it is, but I think you’d find about 80% of the art market is figurative art, and that institutions are ignoring it totally I think is wrong.
On the evolution of how artists have worked, from the classical period to now:
Artists didn’t do works and have them sit around. Most of them couldn’t afford to do a work, because it was expensive. So the idea of having a bunch of works sitting around and going into the Salons, you’re talking about 1860 that this starts to become a concept even. And then salons were really a different kind of thing than art gallery shows. They were really like a competion in a way. And then that evolved into the art galleries that we know today. The idea that art is just going to sit around two years in an artist’s atelier and then everything is going to get put up in a white room, and you’re going to have wine and cheese and make comments — it’s kind of bizarre thing when you come to think about it. It seems normal to us, but historically it has nothing to do with anything. And so if you’re going to say that that is the way that art is, then you run into the problem that you’re looking back at 2,000 years of art and then you don’t know what to say about it anymore, because it wasn’t done that way, that wasn’t its purpose and wasn’t its form.
Artists were pragmatic. That’s just how they were. And I don’t disagree with that. I’m supposed to do a talk on creativity (at CREATE 2012 in Nashville in July). My feeling is that creative people need to be in the center of the culture. They shouldn’t be peripheral. Culture needs creative people. So if you are locked up in your studio, and you’re having a little show and a couple of people show up, and spend money, that’s not really interesting in society. It’s not really allowing us to change the template of how we do things and how we think about things. Add I think that is a part of the crisis that we have in creativity, because we have had the tendency to sequester the creative people and make these venues extremely specific and peripheral to our culture. I think it needs to be brought more central. There’s almost a bit of a risk at this point in not doing that.
On how his work, and his ideas about art, have been received:
When I started in the 80s, there was a bunch of people that were almost offended by the approach. Not everyone was happy about it. And you certainly couldn’t have a show or put anything in a gallery. There was no way.
But I think the times are changing, and I think they oughta change faster, but I think we’ve lost our ability. It makes it hard for times to change. It’s kind of like if you were architect and you decided you wanted to do contemporary decorative architecture, and reintroduce moldings. You’re not going to find the people to make them for you. Even if you start to change your mind and start to look back at things and say ‘wow I really like Baroque architecture, who’s gonna sculpt that stuff? I kind of think we’re justing running along the way we’re going because it’s like a huge cruise ship where it’s hard to turn it around. I think people want to turn it around a bit, or at least want the alternative. Because if Thomas Kinkade is selling pictures to two million people — they are not maybe the best pictures in the world — but it shows that that genre of picture has a market.
In a way people go on and don’t question things. And I think that’s the whole deal.. I think you should question some of these things.
On the role of geometry in art:
I studied sacred geometry and the history of geometry, and geometry is creativity embodied. It’s almost like a definition of creativity. And yet we don’t teach it that way. We teach it as analytical problem solving. Which it does a good job at, too. This massive potential that geometry has, just not to teach it at all is amazing to me. In fact, geometry was arguably never really taught properly, and couldn’t, probably. You could do it now, but now nobody even comes close to understanding it. Not conceptually.
Geometry started out as a sacred art and then, in the Renaissance, it turned into perspective and later transformed into technical drawing, and so forth. Then all of sudden in the 1980s it died completely because of CGI, so I was really the last person trained.
On creating art in some of the same ways classical artists did:
I made it kind of a point to have all those experiences at least a couple of times. I was lucky I grew up in Santa Barbara, so when I came back home, people were building these Italianate mansions. It was a bit of a cottage industry, so I was able to go and actually do what a court artists would have done, and have the same kind of deal with private patrons and big multi-million dollar homes. So I did get all those experiences. It was a good formation I think. I always felt that maybe I was more interested in everything in a theoretical way than a practical way, but I didn’t feel as if you understand it if you aren’t able to do it. And since my instincts were so far away from my time that I didn’t feel I’d come to any conclusions, I was really able to create and have the real experience of doing it.
On where it’s possible for art to go, and the connection between art and advertising:
I think it’s the beginning of a much larger thing that’s going to happen. In the advertising world, the old things aren’t working any more. Kind of like the fine arts world. Most aspects of society, the things aren’t working. Things are stuck. The formulas that people are using went on for a long time are not working anymore. The advertising industry is in this position where it needs to kind of court the public. It used to be that people would just put a big banner up saying three for the price of two in bright gaudy colors and that was great. But nobody looks at that anymore. And I get the feeling they don’t look at the ads for the fancy watches in magazines. I think it’s just saturated.
They still need to let people know about their products and services. So what’s slowly happening is that they caught on that they need to do things in a way that the public is going to participate in their campaign. And I think this is a very big change in the culture. I think we’re just at the beginning of it. When you think about it, there’s just an enormous amount of money. We produce advertising like the Renaissance produced Madonnas. That’s where we spend our money. Add so it is actually an opportunity, What if we took all that money that we put into advertising, and mad really cool art pieces out of it, that the public really liked. That would just flip the whole thing. That is where the money is. But if you flipped it and said people people have to spend this money and need to let people know about their products, what if it was fun, what if it was cool, what if it was interesting, what if it was artistic?
I did (a piece) in the airport in Singapore recently. They needed to advertise. That had a million dollar giveaway, so we made a big piece where people could pose in it. They were surrounded by all these attributes of luxury and money, and there were these portable spots where people could pose and have their photograph taken and then the photograph has a barcode where they can download it off the internet, and then they can click to share it immediately with their friends, that they were there at this thing and had a good time, and it gets sent around, and the thing goes viral, and keeps going and going and going.
I think it’s just the beginning. Think of the opportunities you have to make a really interesting or challenging art project, which gives people the message that the company needs to give them. It’s just a huge opportunity. And I think as other things don’t work, that this will become more prominent in how we do things.
To read Joe Pagetta’s full article about Kurt Wenner, click here.