I read an extremely funny book yesterday: Bad Ass Art. It was written and self-published a couple years ago by Gary Lee Cordray, as his thesis project for a degree in art at Ohio University. It lays out essentially how to become a Bad Ass Artist, a process that begins by rolling dice in order to determine all the elements you need for your work to add up to a score of either +6, +12, +18, or +24, in the Bad Ass Art-Making system. Or if you already have an idea for a work of art, you can calculate how all the work’s elements add up, and then modify your notion so that you get a score which is a multiple of 6 points. (You don’t need to understand this. I don’t. I don’t think Lee wants you to.) There are four levels you can attain, the lowest being Badass Art. Next up, Fine Art. Then, Badass Fine Art, and finally, at the highest level, High Art. A few examples of how to score your work by identifying Bad Ass elements: Big Watery Eyes, +1; Jars, Bottles or Urns, +1; Glowing, as if Magical or Divine, +1; Bar codes, pills, or price tags, +1; Realistic-looking or lifelike, +1; Part of a coherent series or body of work, +1; Big sharp teeth/fangs, +1; Reflections, +1; Add wings, +1, and so on. The list of elements runs to 80 elements in four categories: Dark, Weird, Sexy, and Artistic. To be Bad Ass, a work needs to draw elements from at least three categories. There is no justification for any of the scoring rules, of course, but as you thumb through it, the prose lulls you into nodding and adding up numbers from your own work, thinking, huh, OK, that canvas I finished last week, hm, three, four points, no, five. No! Only five! OMG. Fail!
The opening of the book has it’s most rewarding voice:
“Welcome to Bad Ass Art; a mode of art making that has set many artists free from thinking too hard and taking themselves too seriously. Making art can be tricky . . . the artist’s equivalent to writer’s block has led many to madness, thus fulfilling the age-old stereotype. Before continuing, ask yourself if you would like any of the following:
- For people to think you are a genius.
- To come across like you are above trying to be cool
- To get back at the institution for controlling your notions of what successful art should be
- To say something political
- For people to be offended by your art and possibly like it
- To criticize consumer culture
- To criticize the separation between high and low culture in art
- For people in the academic world to think you are “cutting edge”
- To make a mighty piece of art that speaks a subtle message
(This is only a partial list from the book.)
What You Will Need
To start your work, all you will need is the following:
- The book Bad Ass Art, which gives the guidelines of art-making that are quick and easy
- Copy of a plan sheet
- Some art supplies [I love how this is thrown in almost as an aside. “Some.”]
- A desire to make Bad Ass art
Additionally some artistic ability can be of assistance but is not completely necessary. Money, connections and some educational background can make it easier to raise the point value of your work.
I’ve been urging Lee to make the entire book available on-line somehow, but at this point, I think those passages will be enough to give you a taste of the book’s levity and, possibly, accuracy. The whole thing exists in some zone between mockery and serious observation of elements that actually have emerged in Western art—his range of examples of past art work is impressively recondite. It’s just that these individual elements in great art of the past almost never actually add up to scores which are a multiple of six. No big watery eyes in Vermeer alas. So the system is a joke, even thought the categories are interestingly exhaustive. When I wrote to him on Facebook after my visit to Louisville, he wrote back:
I think [the book] was my way of coming to terms with the institution of art and the people who try so hard to subvert it with their work and attitude toward it. Ultimately it’s my own confession of angst toward angsty art kids and the community they seek to impress with subversion attempts. The elite have cast a favorable eye upon the non-elite creating a new brand of high art. The next generation of artists name-drop the underground type in an effort to be unique. Even though there are efforts to post-modernize art through an inclusive approach to pop culture and the age of industry/technology, modernist ideas of exclusivity still permeate the high-art and hipster better-than-that low art/art activist scene. I can’t find my place among either, and I really don’t feel an urge to win either’s grace.
I’m a redneck who is disgusted by the accepted conservative ideas of back-woods motherfuckers.
I’m an artist who sees only BS in the art community.
I’m educated enough to know that I don’t know shit.
So I’m not really making fun of anything or anyone unless I’m included on the other end of the finger-pointing.
I wrote the book with the hopes that whoever read it would be able to laugh at me, themselves and the institution and its haters.
I’m just a corporate whore by day who likes to make shit-like drawings, paintings, sculpture, poetry, music, films and so on. Secretly, I would love to take over the world, but I gave up on that a long time ago. Maybe I will actually start to show some stuff. I just don’t feel like representing myself or my work. I’m afraid I’m doomed to fail as an “artist” because I’m not motivated to promote myself.
I’ll take a job over that path any day of the week.
So, to rewind a little, I drove to see Lee in Louisville a few days ago, along with Rush Whitacre, and we talked about many things—C.S. Lewis’s non-fiction work, the nightmare of right-wing Southern Christians and their world view (by contrast with C.S. Lewis on radio during WW II), Dave Chappelle’s disappearance from public life (Lee used to car pool with Chapell before he became famous), the agony of getting an art degree, Alan Watts, the distinct and identifiable sound of a six-cylinder Acura engine, why being a Corporate Art Whore, the job title Lee has coined for himself with typical self-deprecation, might be better than promoting himself as a serious artist, and the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse, with the consequent need for self-defense strategies. (He has extensive training in martial arts and a deep knowledge of other means for defending his gray matter.) In other words, it was a free-flowing discussion late into the evening.
Lee explained that his book was published to provide a framework for an exhibition he curated at the university, using his book as a guideline for grading the work, with pieces submitted by many students who volunteered to participate and were willing to laugh. At this revelation, my jaw dropped: he’d delegated all the art making to his workers. Brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny. Immediately, I coronated him as The Puppet Master, a title I’d previously bestowed on Lauren Purje. Which is to say, I am now stripping her of her crown. I told Lee what I suspected: “You will become a CEO some day.” This has already dawned on him, because he’s finding his job, working for a small entrepreneurial company in New Albany, Indiana to be both grueling and deeply rewarding. I’ve rarely seen anyone so immersed in a job that involves such extremely repetitive hourly work. He even showed us how he could operate a stamping machine while listening to dubstep on his phone and how the dance his arms and torso created, as he fed sheets of mylar into the machine, could become Zen, as he put it. He took us on a tour of the small fabricating factory not far from his apartment, and he ended up spending an hour demonstrating how a dozen pieces of equipment worked. All this time we could have been at Against the Grain, the microbrewery in Louisville we visited later, but no, he was using his phone as a flashlight to show us yet another fascinating little crater of this small, profit-making operation where he spent his days and at least this one pitch-black night. For at least an hour, we were spelunking like this, while heat lightning riddled the sky outside with filaments of electricity. (We’d seen tops of trees shorn off, as if with hedge clippers, each limb and branch just stopping at a certain height, from a recent tornado, all over the area. The neatness of the cuts was probably a public works phenomenon, but it was scarier to think the tornado could be that surgical.)
I’m in awe of Lee Cordray. It was almost as if he he saw every aspect of his job as a creative opportunity to get something right—Paying Attention and Appreciating—in a way I’m convinced no one else in that little company could achieve. Nobody else was there after hours, in that empty place, showing friends how the whole operation worked, simply because he or she was in the process of figuring it all out. He played us videos on his phone of how someone else had mastered the art of putting together one of the company’s products using two-sided tape—and he would point to especially tricky maneuvers executed with what was, to his experienced eyes, amazing skill. Paying Attention and Appreciating, over and over. Look at this. Look how this f-ing machine works. I had the sense that he was fed up with art that isn’t devoted to those two missions as the tap root of whatever else was happening in the work. Paying Attention and Appreciating. So he found a way to apply that tilt of the mind and heart in a productive setting that would help all the Spanish-speaking he needed to instruct, workers whose future and past tenses he was struggling to learn in order to better lead them—this is how it was done and this is how we want to do it from now on. He was making the world his art studio, rather than trying to fit the world into the one he’d kissed goodbye with Bad Ass Art. There was an aura of hope in all this, though it wasn’t connected much to what was going on in the art world.
Whatever his employer is paying Lee, it isn’t half as much as he’s worth. Oh yeah, the recent drawing he’d done, the one he pulled out late into the night to show us, who knows . . . no, it was after midnight by then . . . mysterious, unexpected, outstanding. He ought to enter it in a show.