Unsafe Art discussion with Jim Cotter, Metalsmith, Sculptor from Vail, Colorado
US: The main question I want to answer in these interviews is why is art important to the average person.
Cotter: It's pretty obvious why its important. Without creativity, you don't go anywhere. You'd be exactly where you are.
U: You or the society?
C: Society and you; it's probably more for the artists because that's the way we think and how we do things. It's not necessarily that we think we're doing it to make a major impact on society.
Think of how few artists have ever changed anything, how few artists have been that big of an importance in what we consider society. Basically there's a couple that have changed it and then everyone else has emulated. Wayne Thibeaux -- I think that's who -- said we're all visual bandits. We all steal. I've always said it's authentic simulation. Its authentic, but it's all assimilated from what we've seen, but we might make one little change to throw in a curve ball that makes people go │oh wow.▓
Who thinks that other than maybe other artists or people in academics? The general public probably doesn't know about it until they're given a book or a magazine or a paper saying that this is what's new.
Look back to Jackson Pollack. He went from totally against everything, to doing his thing and then he never got out of it. It never went any further. It's still as important today as it ever was. They said │monkey's could do it▓ and they're still trying to do it today: they give elephants a brush and then sell it to help support the zoo.
To me, it's a sad thing that's happening to artists. Who are the first people they go to when they want something donated? All of a sudden they are starting to devalue you as a human. You've either got too much of it so you're willing to give it away, or it's not valuable enough that you're going to say no. It's a tax deduction, they say.
When's the last time a surgeon gave a heart transplant, or an attorney gave a free divorce?
U: Are you saying doctors and lawyer's time is more valued by society today?
C: You just ask me what is the importance of art. I think it's far more important work that an attorney's, who's making $ 200-500 an hour, who is having the law given to him, who is only reinterpreting the law that's already been written by a bunch of other people, then challenging it, and then making a settlement. I think art is far more valuable than a doctor. The first thing he says to you is │What's wrong?▓ Well, I just paid you $200 an hour to tell me what's wrong.
U: People feel they need the services of a doctor or a lawyer.
C: They should feel they need the services of an artist because it's what changes the culture. You wouldn't be sitting here with a high tech kind of micro phone if it wasn't for an artist or creative people who come up with this stuff. It's not just a painting or a sculpture, or a shirt.
Think about the power of music. Music has been the most influential art form – to change things – that's we'll ever know in our period of time. It changed society, the way art is done, the way we think about things.
Think about a painting or a sculpture. It doesn't change society. That's one of the problems; it can, but it doesn't in most cases. It's just another variation. And music is just another variation, but somehow they're able to manipulate it into a different little sound and all of a sudden it becomes something. Look at what rock în roll has done, folk music and hiphop. They change the way people dress – look at people wearing b'ling, or whatever we call it.
If you're not wearing a five-carat diamond, you're not doing well; if you're not driving the right kind of car, you're not doing well. It's all about instant living right now -- live for the moment -- not for the future and definitely don't live in the past. The people that have money want to live in the past because it's safe. You show me somebody that lives in the past, and they'll never live in the future. You look at someone creative and lives in the future.
U: Music can move people from thinking in the past to thinking in the future?
C: Art makes people think, create. Creativity has spawn creative minds, and creative minds have spawned creative art and idea. It makes the computers that push the boundaries. Some guy figured │it▓ all out, all of sudden he passes it on to somebody, and they pass it on to somebody and you got guys taking that program and just making it bigger and bigger and going in all directions and now there are 52 versions of it. That's creativity, isn't it?
U: So just listening to music would help a computer designer?
C: Not necessarily. They might use something electronic, and all these guys say │wow they really changed the rhythm and the beat and they did it with just this▓. Now let's put two of them together and it changed even further. Four go together with a different guy and see what happens. That's creatively thinking about what were doing.
U: The first person that does something takes it this far down the road, and then the next, further?
C: Take sculpture, we know how to make something out of wax and cast it in bronze, but what if we have something and we say this would be much cooler out of plaster and then if I put steel in it and let the steel rust, and then those great colors come out that are going to happen when the steel rusts through the plaster and you get all these great stains and all of a sudden you've got a whole different look of the materials, even though it won't have the same intrinsic value because it's not bronze but aesthetically, and creatively it's far more interesting than just making a bronze.
U: Much more interesting to look at?
C: Definitely. The artist either thought about it, or it's a happy accident. I still think most art is authentic simulation. You might have this thing in the pure form and nobody will ever see it as clearly as you do. If we could take it out of your mind that would be great, but we'll never be able to do that because the way you see color and I see color is totally different even though we both talking about red.
If you take those things (you see in your mind) and start to create them, you try to make them as close to how you visualize it as you can, and that's what is amazing. That's when you become a craftsman -- a technician, craftsman or an artist.
C: It's either like being a heroin addict or not. You're either hooked or you're not.
U: On making art?
C: Yeah. It's something you think about all the time. It's not like you think about it every three months or every Sunday. It's this constant. It's what you think about, even if you go to AA.
U: Are there times you feel like your not communicating, what you're doing isn't worthwhile?
C: It hasn't occurred to me, and I just keep making things, whether they're ever going to sell or not. I make enough that do. I'm like any artist, I've got the biggest collection of my own work.
U: What have you made that's just purely for the making of it?
C: Everything I make. I'm lucky; the ideas are still there and I'm still making them whether they're good, bad or indifferent. I'll always sell some of them. Then people come back and they want one of those, and I'm not thinking like that anymore. It's almost impossible to go back. I've had to retire them. Or, I can still think like that, and I've got a couple ideas that I never quite finished. I don't know what stuff is more important that other stuff, but making stuff is the most important thing to me.
U: I go back to what the poet WH Auden said: if the work you make is self expression, then keep it to yourself.
C: Sometimes I make something and put it in my house and look at it and see if it was really that good, and if I want to keep it or not because it was maybe a change and maybe I'm not going to make it anymore. I've got these concrete wall board things that I'm setting diamonds in. and it's all about perceived value. The concrete wall board is really beautiful you can't create textures that well, its got a beautiful surface. You put diamonds in it and then you've really messed with the whole notion of materials and surface, and then you put light on it and they sparkle and everyone goes what's in there. and its all about perceived value. Once I put diamonds in it has a perceived value that that wall board would never had. the notion of what we perceive art to be.
U: Art's not the paint, but the painting?
C: That's right. You can't buy a painting because of how much paint is on it. It's not valuable just because of the materials. Some of the concrete jewelry I make I sell really fast, because they (the customers) get it, or because they think it's cute and different.
U: Is any work you're doing influencing others?
C: Once I was teaching and some lady came up to me, and she said I took your workshop and you just changed my life. Honest to God, it almost scared me. That's amazing if you can change someone else's life. She was really serious. She'd given up being a housewife and started to make these things.
U: I can see the effect you might have as a teacher, but in the making of art, have you affected people?
C: You'll have to ask the intellectuals.
U: Has anyone influenced you?
C: Everyone I've ever been around. It doesn't matter, you, the bartender. A guy can show you a tool for cutting metal at a flea market and you buy the tool and you can never make it work like he did, but the notion of it was great.
U: You have these guys in your head?
C: I look at everything. I'm like a sponge constantly taking everything in, and filtering it, and sometimes maybe it just comes out because you remember it, or it would make a really incredible way to cut some thing out.
U: Where'd you get the doll series from?
C: I was making these little masks and I looked down and I saw this piece of wood and it was like a figure.
U: You saw Jesus?
C: No, not Jesus but I did see a figurative form, and said that would be a great way to display this mask. Once I put the mask on, I thought it was a great sculpture. And then they got even more elaborate and I started to think about being a shaman and how different it is from how I see them, and started to make them from how they would see them.
U: Are you copying a shaman?
C: Like being an abstract painter, you could be influenced by Jackson Pollack and think you were really making a difference. And everyone would say │what a knock off of Jackson Pollack,▓ but you don't see it that way. You see it as your image.
Artists can't be worried about being a knockoff, otherwise there wouldn't be any of those god damned painters out there. If they were concerned about being influenced, they'd never do anything, they would never go any further.
Sometimes I hate to go to museums because I'll see something I really like and somehow it will all fall into the realm of .. you were really influenced by that Ő and I wasn't until last week.
It's how I see it, that all that's important. The only reason that art critics don't want you to be anything like │that▓ is because they want to keep the value of▓that▓ work where it is. They don't want anybody to come along and everyone say │you know he's better than Jackson Pollack.▓
U: I saw paintings today in a gallery in your town. The gallery owners are paying Russians to paint in the style of the Old Masters.
C: Why not? There's money in exploiting the art thought. People that have money, have to spend a lot of money for something that people have told them is valuable. And most don't have a god damned opinion on their own, so they hire an interior designer to do their house, an art person to come in and buy their art for them. They hire somebody to tell them what color their house should be and they don't have to worry about any of it. That's why there all the same. I've always said if you walked up to Beaver Creek dead drunk and walked into the wrong house you wouldn't know it until three days later because they're all the same. It happens in the suburbs, too. It's the McDonalds theory.
U: Is it an American thing?
C: It's a European thing now. You think they're not catching on to that? They've got McDonalds over there. You can educate people into anything. How do you educate people to be creative? You can't do it by telling them that every god damned thing they do is good. Don't tell Johnny he did something bad.
U: Are you explaining post-modernism?
C: Everything is good. All art is good. Crafts fairs – that's the place to go and buy art. What a brilliant idea. Create those things, roll into a town. They're like carnival people. When do they have time to make that stuff? Who makes it? Do they get a shipment before they go to the next town? I don't understand it, unless they know how to make it real fast or they're hiring people in third world countries and nobody notices it. It takes away seriousness, importance.
U: Do we have too much to look at?
C: No question about it. We're a society of shit; I have too much shit. I can't stand it. It's too good to throw away and not good enough to sell. What are you going to do? It's just another idea sitting on a shelf that never got done. I do it all the time.
U: Donate it to a fundraiser. You'll get exposure.
C: The only thing I like about these art colleges ... so many kids are coming out of high school being told that they have talent as an artist, and they get in there and find out it's not as easy and they think. It creates a new consumer because they've been educated about what contemporary art is. That's what makes education important
U: Is being a collector is important?
C: How many collectors are there out there in the world? Very few and everybody that comes in (to my gallery) is a collector because they want a deal on the piece. That's what makes them a collector: if they know how to ask that question.
U: What's the lowest price you'll take?
C: They say, │I buy here all the time. We've collected your stuff forever.▓ If I give you a good deal, you mean? What's the value of a piece.
U: The price people pay?
C: No one ever said, │I can't sell artwork with a $100 bill on it. That's how good it is.▓
I'm taking quarters and taking the image off of them, and then going back in and changing them. I've got a reputation, it (my quarter) ought to have value at least as much as a coin that the machine miss-stamped. Which is better the one made by the machine or the artist? So I've got this whole series of the quarters: one, I put a diamond on, left that part and erased everything else.
U: And you're selling these for 30 cents?
C: No I'm getting seven or eight hundred dollars for them.