Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shining Light on a Dark Subject

Drifting behind the current Nerdrum Affair in which the Painter Odd Nerdrum has been sentenced, unjustly, to two years in prison by the Norwegian State, there are underlying currents.  Here is some information which could help add light to the dark subject and to help us understand where Odd is literally coming from. 

Having myself lived in Scandinavia for over ten years I  offer my perspective to you.   I have known Odd for a dozen years now, since before the 10 year investigation into his tax affairs began, and which has led up to the current  ruling against Nerdrum by the Norwegian court.  You can read about the Nerdrum Affair in the Feb/Mar issue of AmericanArtist Magazine in the article by Allison Malafronte.  You will also find these links at the end of this blog.

 Please help spread awareness of the campaign to Free Odd Nerdrum.

In order to begin to understand why Odd is in this situation, and why and how he uses the word kitsch, it is important to understand that the way it is, or was at any rate, in America is not how it is in Norway.  Americans are imprinted with the sense of the individual, that we can be anything we desire.  This perspective is not universal.  In the Norwegian system everybody is treated "equally", in a manner of speaking, everybody is comfortable, more or less, but there is an attitude of 'don't think you are somebody.'  Don't think you can rise above the rest.  That is not acceptable.  If the class is throwing paint to make art, then you too will throw paint to make art.    

Kitsch is the word that Art refuses to accept.  Art, for our purposes here, represents the official state supported art of Norway, where Odd Nerdrum grew up, and has spent the majority of his life.  The State has not been overly supportive of figurative painters for the past century or so.  In fact they have been completely intolerant. In spite of  this Nerdrum steadily honed in on the his ambition of painting like the old masters.  Certainly a worthwhile dream but his critics attempted to discredit this clearly gifted painter by calling his work kitsch. 

Michael Gormley, Editorial Director of American Artist Magazine pointed out when introducing Nerdrum to a crowded room in New York this past June, that the word kitsch was initially slander upon a painter much like the word Queer used to be hurled at the Gay community, before they caught on to it and made it their own.  

After many decades of intensive struggle, of nothing less than a heroic effort, to make his way in the world by means of his own talent, skill and integrity, Odd eventually claimed Kitsch, accepted it, and came out about it.  He executed masterful paintings without help from the State, without stipend, grant or tax relief but rather as an autonomous individual.  A socialist cardinal sin.  

The State has maintained a stance against him for decades, perhaps from the beginning.  His work did not fit and they proclaimed it so.  They have stuck by this decision. There are people on record who admit that anything to do with Nerdrum was discouraged and the fact that the National Museum in Oslo has no major work by Nerdrum is testament to that.  There are reports of Norwegian authorities refusing to loan foreign institutions Munch paintings if that institution exhibited Nerdrum.  In another instance a major article in the New York Times was shelved with a a call from Oslo. 

Neither their secret or  public "discouraging" of Nerdrum in the media was enough and Nerdrum  persisted in creating a beautiful and meaningful oeuvre without their permission. Masterworks began entering the collections of respected Museums outside of Norway. Especially in the USA, his work began to appear in books and at large gallery shows around the country.  He was on the cover of Art News, "Prodigy or Pariah?" it read, and we became familiar with his work. 

Because of Odd's tireless dedication to his talent for Painting and through considerable effort, we have been given the opportunity, the privilege, to reap the benefits through his work.  Through numerous books, magazine ads, often paid for by Nerdrum, and talks given by him at academies in Philidelphia, New York and Boston, to name a few, Nerdrum was finally able to get out of Norway, a country of just 4 million people, and reach what we refer to in the States as the center of the art world.  There was a large retrospective of Nerdrums work which travelled Scandinavia in 2000 that exposed his work to people all across Scandinavia.  People realized that Nerdrum was a man who walked his talk, and was really good at painting.  His efforts to be seen rippled half way around the world to reach me and which would change my life by means of simple yet miraculous twists of fate.  

Nerdrums public popularity was in opposition to this long held stance by the State against Nerdrum.  So, when, at the height of Nerdrums success, as he stepped from the Art paradigm into the one of Kitsch, declaring himself completely out of their system altogether, and possibly out of their control,  they began a tax investigation into his affairs.  This is a common tactic used by governments all through history to "clean up" so that things look the way they want them too.  Nerdrums actual trial, which began on Aug 2, 2011, which for many outside Norway was the first they had heard of it, had been building up for ten years and then came to be held just one week after the horrible killing spree of a mass murder near Oslo, whose victims were the children of the party, at the very heart of the country, the Norweigan Labor Party.  The same people who sentenced Nerdrum to two years in prison a few days later without sufficient evidence that he had done anything wrong.  Then, in another injustice, the same people appear willing to allow that mass murderer to avoid prison.  Strange, isn't it?

When I came to Norway to study with Nerdrum, the man at passport control looked me in the eyes whe he spoke, ”You are not welcome.”  It was as clear as day and yet  I squinted one eye, cocked my head to the side and said, ”Excuse me?”  He steadily continued his direct gaze into my eyes, looked down to stamp my passport, and back at me slowly and slid my passport under the glass, and reluctantly bade me, ”welcome”.  True story.  

Odd had struggled for so very long with this system he was born into that he gave up and realized they were right.  He was kitsch.  In some circles such a tactic could be attributed to Dale Carnegie, or, in others to Socrates. How to win friends and influence people? One way is to agree with them.  When somebody criticizes you, accept it for what it is, acknowledge it to your accuser and take it as an opportunity to better yourself.  Allow them that viewpoint.  Once you get people agreeing with you the argument stops.  If somebody calls you shit and then you say, "Yes, you are right, I'm shit.", what more is there to argue about?  You agree.  Now such discussions can progress and divert their energies to other things by the use of this kind of sophism.  Unfortunatley, even though they pushed Odd into the kitsch corner, the fact that he was there at all made his critics angrier than ever.

For me the real importance of Kitsch is to create a paradigm of beauty for classical oriented painters, outside of what one can call an Art paradigm, which is, essentially, in the hands of, funded by and curated by "them", the State.  They have a different agenda than classically oriented figurative painting.  I believe they will come around but in the meantime,  If the museum, with all of its parties and funding becomes a big top for  the circus, which it arguably has, then where are the dutifully talented painters to go, and how shall they pay?   Are they suppose to fight and fight their way up a ladder whose owners don't want you to be on it?  No.  Kitsch is simply another ladder.

The analogy is that the State cannot, or should not, oppress the talented and skilled individuals any more than Art can suppress Kitsch from occurring.  Both Art and Kitsch exist, naturally.  Within Kitsch there exists high and low forms and so it is with Art.
It should not be tollerated for State authorities to oppress individuals for achievements above and beyond the call of duty, but because they do seem inclined to do so, and do take to such extreme measures with such  "show trials" as this,  that the FREE ODD NERDRUM movement becomes necessary,  

It is important for painters and artists alike, everywhere, to understand that it is your liberty here that Odd is championing as well as his own.  Your right to paint what you want and the right to paint it as good as you see fit.  He is in a situation where his LIBERTY is at stake for doing just that and needs your support.  This issue of semantics around the word kitsch are secondary and one that we could be discussing long into the dawn, but, at it's core, High Kitsch is a term that represents a sublime feeling to me.  It points to something beyond words.  It represents the quiet knowledge that comes after the chatter of the mind is silenced and the eternity that we really are seeps in.  Kitsch is not a moose standing by a lake in nature at sunset.  It is YOU standing there, alone at one with the mystery. 
Perhaps you have another name for it.   

Also be sure and read "the Nerdrum Affair" by Allison Malafronte
in the Feb/Mar issue of AMERICAN ARTIST Magazine.

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