An Interview with Art Bum Creator Lawrence Swan

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I first met Lawrence Swan (art website) at Sharon Butler’s January salon at Pocket Utopia in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He came across as intelligent and reserved. I slowly discovered his art and particularly connected with his new Art Bum comic series portraying an artist who scrapped by with his eye on the art prize, what ever that is today. I asked for Lawrence’s permission to publish his strip on this blog on a weekly basis and he’s been very kind for allowing me to do so.

In order to illuminate the ideas that swirl around Art Bum, I’ve asked the artist to respond to some questions.

The following interview was conducted via email.

I know Art Bum is part of the larger New Clean Wars project you’ve created but I don’t quite understand how it fits, can you explain it to me?

I am a painter, but I do other things as well. I write, and I draw, and I write/draw, and I do spoken word (live and recorded), and I do videos. I got my first computer in 2002 and it seemed to make it possible to integrate all of my interests. At least, I could do them all on the same device. newcLeanwarS is an anagram of Lawrence Swan and is a name meant to cover all of the things I do. Art Bum crept into my notebooks years ago, but suddenly took over in January.

I have always had trouble coming up with the brief description of my work that artist’s are supposed to have when they present and promote themselves. As you know, at art openings conversations only last a couple of minutes and then you move on to someone else. You have to hold someone’s attention as they look around for someone more interesting to talk to. When I tried to tell people what I do I see their eyes glaze over. They are confused and then bored. Now I discover that when I say I do an online comic strip called Art Bum I actually hold interest for that crucial 90 seconds, and maybe they even look it up when they go home.

Art Bum is a mask, a persona, behind which I can speak, and maybe act. He is and he isn’t me. Someone said he is my counsellor. But I also try to console him.

I understand that newcLeanwarS is an anagram of your name (btw, do you insist on the capitalization of the L & S) but there is obviously a political message in the phrase. Can you tell me about that?

I don’t insist on the capitalization. I agree there is a political dimension to the name, but the message is hard to pinpoint. I’m not saying, “Bring back the old dirty wars.” I did activate newcleanwars (capitalization unnecessary) during The Perpetual War on Bush’s Terror, when dirty things were outsourced to other countries or private contractors, or otherwise kept out of sight. Much modern warfare is fought by remote control, so one’s hands and conscience (or consciousness) can remain clean of messy consequences, or that appears to be the aim. We do not torture, we are a peace-loving people — Ka-Boom! “New Clean Wars” is overdetermined. It also refers to the spiritual warfare that is my existential struggle, if you can dig what I’m saying.

Is art a spiritual journey for you?

Art Bum is a Dharma Bum. Is life a spiritual journey? Or is it all just matter in motion, governed by chance? Or something else?

I think of life as a journey. Of course, my father was a Baptist minister and I was brought up to believe life is a pilgrimage. When I am making art, or looking at art, I am thinking about how meaning is produced. An art work can generate infinite meanings. The “Art World” organizes meaning in its discourses, it is a meaning system. I think it is a meaning system that is falling apart, but I could be wrong. Our meaning systems are entangled in our economy the way our lives are entangled in our need to make a living. Where is your treasure? Our market economy had not taken into account global ecological issues that are also economic issues in a bigger sense, and questions of value (spiritual questions) in a bigger sense. Right now our economy is in crisis. Is capitalism falling apart, or evolving?

Beats me. I’m just an unemployed bookseller who draws pictures in memo books. Am I bloviating?

So what is your yard stick to determine value in art? How do you quantify it?

Not a yardstick, I have a tape measure made of six standard stoppages. Maybe I’ll leave the quantifying to investment quants.

I don’t know what the standard is, and I don’t know that it is necessary to know, unless one is doing philosophy. I suggest an analogy with linguists who look for rules that describe (but do not prescribe) how we use our native languages. The rules are unconscious, and even if we become conscious of them they don’t improve ordinary communication.

I tend to especially enjoy artists who seem to make up their rules as they go along (Picasso and Duchamp are exemplars). Last month I saw that Alfredo Jaar show, which I had already heard much about, and I found it powerful, provocative, and very troubling. Then I went next door and saw the Leon Kosloff show and was knocked out. Maybe Kosloff’s virtuosity provided relief from Jaar because his work was so unrelated, although it was disturbing in its own way. I liked both shows very much and couldn’t say which is better (so much for the quant).

I think the word “work” might be a clue. Work itself is valuable and enjoyable, unless we are being exploited. It takes work to make art and to look at another artist’s work, but the work is enjoyable. Eros is involved, and we would all like to know the rules for pleasing that god. But the relationship between Eros and Psyche is complex, at least in the West (or in Brooklyn). Children work hard when they play and athletes and cultural workers work hard when they play. I like the games you improvise, and make up the rules as you go along.

Do you think Art Bum will ever leave New York? Why does he stay?

I can’t make it anywhere else, but I might be able to make it here. By “make it,” I mean that there are people who are interested in what I do, and I’m interested in what they do, and so there is an audience, maybe a market.

I like New York a lot and don’t want to leave. I like New Yorkers. I like walking in the city and looking around and drawing/writing in parks and cafes. I’m at home here, an alien elsewhere. I’ve been a New York patriot since 9/11, when this city seemed to be one of the sanest, and maybe safest, places in the country. Are you crazy? Leave New York? New York hearts me.

Maybe I can get another, more secure and congenial, day job that will permit me enough leisure time and energy to paint, draw Art Bum, and wage my new clean wars.

You answered that as yourself, I’m more curious about Art Bum‘s answer.

Well. That diva wants to be ready for his spotlight, so he’s getting his hair styled. He’ll have an answer this afternoon.

[I received my answer later that afternoon via email…posted below]

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