Yes, I was there when Cloud Art came into being. I witnessed
it building like a storm. It was fifty years ago… Very few
people cared about art, but those who did saw it falling prey
to a kind of schizophrenia. (Scholars called it the “the
crisis of reproduction.” Regular people just shrugged their
shoulders.) Works of art were becoming less visual and more cerebral.
Images gave way to text placed next to pictures and photographs
that had been mechanically reproduced, lifted from other sources.
Conceptual art, when it still had a point, pointed at everything
wrong with, or even slightly off about the world, isolating images
like a camera; but now, all it was doing was pointing at itself.
So frustrated consumers turned their backs on contemporary art
and bought up copies of the Same Old Masters. Tried-and-true images
flooded the marketplace as posters, as postcards, as postage stamps.
Back in the 1920s, that troublemaker Polevoy had sown the seeds
of weeds in the Eden of art with his mechanically reproduced polufabrikaty
(roughly, “readymades”): a shoetree, a urinal, a park
bench with a pinwheel attached—all available for the consumer
in multiple copies. “On the map of art history, that entire
period has the appearance of a blue-period Picasso with a child’s
greasy fingerprints across it,” a snobbish (but dearly missed)
friend once said.
At the same time, religion was in a crisis. God was nowhere
to be found; he was probably in hiding, while spiritually starved
masses consumed his likeness. Organized religion was the vehicle,
inertia the fuel: people shunned the old houses of worship to
stay in their homes and watch electronic stand-ins for God. After
decades of unpopularity, televangelists were back with a vengeance.
Who would have thought? (I remember one of the billboards: “It’s
a NO-BRAINER. Darwin vs. Jesus. Which is better, a theory or the
TRUTH?”) Here, too, mechanical reproduction was creating
a kitsch religion. God was not dead; God was an advertising jingle.
Circumstances conspired… Some people chalk it up to the
customary cataclysms of the “fin de siecle.” I don’t
know. I think that Cloud Art coalesced out of that world, from
the cloud of static emitted by televisions. The first Cloud Artists
noticed the inadequacy of contemporary religion and saw an opportunity.
They heard the growling of spirituality’s stomach, and responded
by pointing at the sky. They were, after all, the descendents
of the Conceptual Artists. They pointed at things.
It was that troublemaker Polevoy again whose ideas served as an
inspiration for Cloud Art: late in his career, the artist took
to preaching and insisted to anyone who would listen that it was
the viewer who created the work of art—just by looking.
Artists, Polevoy said, were “mediumistic beings” who
channeled inspiration without a full awareness or control of the
creative process. The basic tenet of Cloud Art ran along these
It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time artists used
the form of clouds in their work. A certain Constable, I’m
told, painted nothing but clouds; he was trying to define nineteenth-century
man’s spiritual relationship with the surrounding landscape
in his cloud studies (I wonder what they looked like). Then there
was (closer to our time) that sculpture of a face—deep blue
skin, with white clouds drifting across it. I’m pretty sure
the artist’s name started with a “W.” Yet Cloud
Art was not about making representations of clouds. Not at all!
Many of us—I mean artists, but also people like myself—saw
representation as a type of copy, and that was a concept we found
more and more hateful with each new gallery opening, with each
new batch of Toulouse-Lautrec toilet paper arriving in stores.
Instead, Cloud Art proposed that people look at clouds as art.
And people did.
The first time the Cloud Artists directed the eyes of the populace
to the sky, it was actually in the name of religion, not art.
One spring day in Yks County, Oregon, a crowd of followers led
by local priest Matias Oblachko walked out into a wheat field.
They were staging a peaceful action to prevent the state from
spraying poison (I realize that now) onto the fragile sheaves.
One by one, they turned their eyes to the heavens, to see where
it was that Father Oblachko was pointing. They saw rain falling
from a cumulonimbus cloud into another such cloud below it. Not
a drop of rain fell to the ground. Oblachko, in his former life
a weatherman, would have known that the convective currents in
the lower cloud were strong enough to hold the tiny drops of rain.
But the crowd felt that it had witnessed a miracle. It did not
take long for word to spread and—true to the times—multiply.
People began to look for further signs and wonders, and they were
not let down. Messages appeared; the Cloud Artist Collective,
knowing that the masses responded to snatches of information lifted
out of context and plastered everywhere, put up signs that quoted
from a vast array of sources. They excerpted a 1915 Mayakovsky
poem: “If you wish, I shall rage on raw meat, or, as the
sky changes its hue, if you wish, I shall grow irreproachably
tender: not a man, but a cloud in trousers!” Whitman circa
1867, too, contributed unknowingly: “Let a floating cloud
in the sky—let a wave of the sea—let growing mint,
spinach, onions, tomatoes—let these be exhibited as shows,
at a great price for admission!” The Cloud Artists even
unearthed this fragment of fourteenth-century Christian mysticism:
“With the cloud of unknowing above, between me and my God,
and the cloud of forgetting below, between me and all the creatures,
I find myself in the silentium mysticum of the work of Dionysius...
God can be loved but he cannot be thought. So less thinking and
more loving.” The ever-growing Collective handed out these
posters, aimed to promote cloud awareness, and, of course, dropped
them from the sky. (That’s where I came in.)
People embraced the concept of Cloud Art. (Cynics say they embraced
it so hard that they squeezed the life out of it. No, I wouldn’t
go that far. Some deformation was just inevitable.) Gone was the
bothersome figure of the artist, playing at God and earning too
much money for ugly art that fell apart. A cloud was ephemeral
but everlasting, constantly changing and redefining itself, like
art itself. Clouds were not the handiwork of any one human being.
They rushed over hilly terrain and channeled through valleys,
they were water vapor shaped by the heat of the sun, by the heat
of the earth, by topography—not by artists. Clouds could
not be pinned down, mass-produced, or bought. And clouds were
beautiful. Cirrus turning to alto-stratus turning to cumulo-nimbus,
wisping feathers turning to rolling pins turning to pyramids like
a waking dream—clouds were beautiful.
Cumulus clouds, the lowest-lying ones, were the closest, in a
way, to the people, who adored them for their fluffy abundance
and fanciful shapes. These clouds tended to start growing at ten
or eleven in the morning, increasing until four in the afternoon,
at which point they would begin to dissipate. They kept gallery
hours. The Cloud Artists, led by Sande Stedeljijk (I don’t
know at which point they appointed a leader—it all happened
so fast), called for a halt to all formal production of art. And
just in time, too. Painting and sculpture, those self-absorbed,
downright selfish activities, were releasing toxic fumes from
melting metal, spray fixative, wood finish, and endangering the
atmosphere—endangering the very sky! A handful of artists
persisted in plying their obsolete trade. We had to seek out their
secret studios and tear apart all that detestable paraphernalia.
(No one came to their defense, naturally.) That was the only way
to make them see reason.
Cloud Art was a truly popular phenomenon. Something about it really
appealed to those who felt alienated by the art world. I think
that even the most obtuse man on the street sensed that Cloud
Art meant liberation. It was hard for some artists to accept a
total loss of agency, but once they saw the error of their ways—as
soon as they realized how power-mad they had once been—they
came around to our way of thinking and sought other employment
for their idle hands. Clouds were art, but people could neither
create nor control them; clouds just were. Cloud Art meant the
end of responsibility, the end of blame…
Did I mention that Cloud Art also put an end to artistic greed?
(Of course artists are greedy. I’ve seen them in action.
You give them an inch and they take a mile.) No more prohibitive
ticket prices: as public art, clouds offered free contemplation
to all. Their names (devised in 1803 by Luke Howard) referred
to their appearance and were derived from Latin—as someone
once said, “a dead language that would not raise any living
international jealousies.” An international art movement
that had, for once, taken root on American soil (take that, Polevoy!).
Perhaps that is not the best metaphor, but I can’t think
of any other for the moment.
Without a doubt, our manifestoes had a lot to do with the success
of Cloud Art. One of them (I have it in front of me) reads: “Look
UP into the skies! Cast DOWN snobbism! The art world is dead!
Long live Cloud Art!” And another one: “We’ve
had ENOUGH of elitist, expensive, incomprehensible art! BEAUTY
above all!” I can’t resist one more: “DEMOLISH
the stagnant museums! DESTROY the stuffy studios! Come out into
the open AIR!” They were eye-catching and catchy. I’m
proud to say I had a hand in writing more than a few.
Then came the inevitable critical attacks. Our enemies could not
cast aspersions on our Idea (because we were on to something),
so they cited statistics of people gone blind from staring too
long at sun-lit skies. I think they were exaggerating, but in
any case, cautious art lovers stopped looking directly at the
clouds; instead, they used black mirrors to study the clouds’
reflections without risk to their eyesight. There were several
unexpected consequences to that. People were now able to make
out the so-called “solar halo” and took it as further
proof of the divinity of clouds. What’s more, with portable
mirrors perpetually in hand, people shifted their focus from the
reflected clouds to their own features and became fascinated with
their own faces. I remember seeing (from my unique perspective)
throngs of people walking the streets and staring into pocket
mirrors as they re-discovered their own features, which, in the
spirit of the age, had become art. Detractors called it the New
Narcissism, but that’s not very accurate: for one thing,
Narcissus (if I’m not mistaken) wound up sad and alone,
but the mirror-gazers joined together, body and soul, in a jubilant
procession. They seemed to be walking on air. Everyone loved art,
and all looked at the changes in their faces in a new light. The
first of many offshoots of Cloud Art followed soon after: Fever
Art, Weight Art, and Age Art.
Soon (it all happened so quickly) the gaze of the Cloud Art Collective
became restless; trained by the camera eye in the age of mechanical
reproduction, it panned left and right, sweeping the landscape.
I wasn’t too surprised to see rival factions develop: Glacier
Art. Erosion Art. Traffic Art. (Was that a step in the wrong direction?
Yet it was impossible to take your eyes off those lovely, lovely
patterns…like a water ballet…) Some say the re-appearance
of technology signaled the beginning of the end for Cloud Art.
I personally overheard talk of seeding the clouds with drops of
silver iodide to alter their shapes. And there was mention of
flying airplanes to crisscross the clouds with vapor trails of
various colors. (I’m hurt at the allegations that I had
anything to do with that idea. It is true that some of my colleagues
planned it; but for some reason or other I was kept out of the
loop.) It’s hard to stop progress, as they say. A new art
movement was on the horizon. Then, of course, everything changed.
When war broke out (and who knew it would start in the birthplace
of that troublemaker Polevoy??), we were all grateful to Cloud
Art for teaching us to appreciate the singular beauty of air strikes
and explosions. Everyone expected a spectacular battle of brief
duration and little consequence—in its early stages, some
wits called it “the day’s Art Storm” (referring
to an obscure twentieth-century skirmish), but they grew silent
as the first mushroom cloud showed itself. (Where was I? Hiding
in a shelter, to my shame.) After the blasts, clouds of dust hovered
in the stratosphere, covering the sun for days. Later, black rain
came and came, but clouds were long in coming, forming only to
be burned away by the scorching air above. Finally, the clouds
appeared: plumes of fire turning to anvils, turning people’s
thoughts to Hephaestus, and Hell. As for God: God, of course,
is dead. We have killed him, and fragments of him, scraps of his
body, float over us, day and night, in the sky. The clouds are
back in the sky, but they are not beautiful, and there is no delight
in their constant shape-changing, swirling transformation: it
merely reminds us of the mutation wracking our own bodies. Cloud
Art is no more. There were once plans to save so-called “art
treasures” in lead bunkers in case of war, but those plans
were scrapped many years ago. There no longer seemed a need for