“Art For ____’s Sake”

Regarding the mercifully short movement known as Vacuumism, most cannot recall it without the simple but obvious phrase ‘it sucked.’ It started with a laudable, stated goal: Expand art awareness. However, the movement might really have existed only to expand everyone’s awareness of its founder, John Hammerson Coates. Coates initially made some sense. He suggested that artists should reduce esoteric imagery to accessible ideas in order to expand art appreciation. He made this point on college campuses where he attracted crowds from passing students by playfully inviting them to finger paint with him. His reaching out with colorful, sticky fingers garnered him a loyal following and eventual media attention.

Coates broadened his audience with a more populist approach and moved beyond visual forms. He began to speak on creating a movement that would distill all high concepts into simpler ideas and make the esoteric accessible to all. He claimed this would end a need for art education and “elite” thinking. This prefigured the attacks on so-called “elitism” that came later in politics. Coates himself seemed poised on a national campaign. Labeled a “mental Luddite” (and simply “mental”), he attempted to define his concepts. Today the result is called creating a “brand.” Coates said he wanted art reduced to such accessible ideas that it no longer projected themes outward, but instead pulled people in to it. Like a vacuum. Thus, Vacuumism was born. With a party of followers and a platform, Coates’ notoriety grew. The ever-smiling advocate of his own movement set out on a national speaking tour.

Coates later refined, or rather reduced his ideas further. He claimed a blank canvas had more creative potential and ability to provoke the imagination than a painted one. He said a plain block of marble showed more about pain and suffering than the Pietà ever could. Coates claimed that art, philosophy and science had limited appeal because they required, quote: “too much prefabricated learning to appreciate what they tried and teach.” Coates said, “Art is the interpretation of a cloud, but true art isn’t even the cloud re-imagined. It’s the blank sky without the cloud where you can imagine anything floating in it.” To Coates, the greatest canvas of all was the blank mind, and so the mind should always be blank to be always artistic. Actual artists at his gatherings shook their heads, and probably not to shake free their creativity. When Coates was asked of previous concepts such as natural art or techniques such as automatic writing, he said they were fine if they were naturally automatic. On stream of consciousness, Coates ranted: “The problem is imagining consciousness as a stream. It isn’t a path of water. It isn’t a path. It isn’t anything. True, pure thought is nothingness!” (By this logic, the greatest artist of all time is a rock. Preferably one sitting in a desert. Or, better yet, is it the desert itself?) Coates said true students of any medium could only advance their understanding of expression by not studying at all. He advocated a removal of technique from the creation of art. Irate artists and teachers argued for the removal of Coates from planet Earth.

Even with mounting critics, Coates continued to enjoy removing complex ideas from his followers’ minds. He also enjoyed removing their cash for ticket sales and merchandise. Yes, he really did make money by reselling blank T-shirts as the “logo” of his movement. To gain more attention to his cause and/or himself, Coates made a public display of accepting the mantle of Vacuumism’s leader. He claimed this would bring a simpler, saner existence for himself and those who followed him as speaker and artist. His past as a former think-tank employee went largely accepted by fans and media without investigation. He did work for the Maryland based Center for Revitalized American Policy, or at least some people remembered seeing him in the building. His actual role there in thinking or other work remains unknown. His espoused role as artist got better scrutiny, mostly from the art community. No one had ever seen a Coates work. No sketches, paintings, sculptures or thrown away doodles could be found and verified as a Coates. The canny Coates never confirmed nor denied any piece that looked competent as his work. He rejected the obvious crap. On the missing examples of his work, Coates countered that he had become more the philosopher, and never the king. This satisfied only the fans of nebulous phrases. (And there are surprisingly a lot of them.) Pressure mounted. Many asked: If he is an artist, he can at least draw, right? Coates, always smiling even under attack, promised a show of his work that would contain the prime examples of Vacuumism.

A hall was booked. Tickets were sold. Those events in reverse order. Blank T-shirt kiosks sat a tasteful distance from the hall’s glass doors. Transport vans were rented to move his pieces. They never left their parking lot. The vehicles remained empty, as did the display hall. The proprietor, Solam Salom, dressed in expensive evening dress, full make up and dangling, painted canvas ear objects, sheepishly addresses the opening night crowd and reporters. She informed the gathered that the hall was empty, and John Hammerson Coates was nowhere to be found. The fraud was now clear. To most. To some the “vacuum” of any material art was a show of brilliance and indeed the prime example of his philosophy. This is in some ways true. Especially when considering it as a hollow promise. Today, if a person flippantly asks a gallery owner if there are any representations of Vacuumism, he or she is usually directed to an empty storage closet. Sometimes the directions are more rudely, if not more accurately, to the restroom. Coates himself vanished into a vacuum, but with plenty of cash. He is still wanted by the IRS, FBI and a few thousand people who spent dearly for blank T-shirts that shrank. He remains a prime example himself, in the use of nation-wide con-man technique. His movement was not the result of enacting his stated philosophy, but the product of a well thought out plan of exploitation. And finger paint.

BSL