Sunday, August 14, 2005

Having Our Cake and Eating It Too?

The man behind the awesome art blog Gallery Hopper, Todd Walker, made such a compelling comment on the "The MSM's Disrespect for Art" thread, I want to give it its own post:
It's fascinating how pieces such as this expose the twisted psychology of the art world - both collectively and individually. Our self-contradictory desire to be widely understood and accepted simultaneously clashes against a desire to be differentiated individuals with tastes and understanding superior to the hoi polloi in the flyover states.

This is in no way a defense of the Stossel piece. The media engage this same strategy when encountering subcultures that are ill understood by the general public. I recently saw a similar take on the Internet by Dateline which played up the link between spam, spyware and porn in a very sensational way.

In this particular case, it seems what Stossel has unwittingly done is highlighted just how essential context has become to understanding of a piece of art as a stand-alone object - if such a thing really exists. Everyone here, and the artists interviewed, would require a good bit of background on the artist in question, the method of creation, etc. in order to make an informed judgment of a work's value. Rightly so, I think. So to separate the "test" works from any outside connections is to set the viewer up for failure right from the start, whether they are a novice or a professional.

What this does highlight, however, is how Americans, at least, are trained to evaluate art. We look, we gauge our emotional or intellectual reaction ("what does that mean?" "Do I like it?" "could I do that?") and we make the grade good/bad or art/not art. Museum presentation where pieces are presented with almost no explanation as to the works' history, process, historical context, etc., are probably mostly to blame for this.

Further, it's the art world itself which is mostly to blame for this. For much of the 20th C., art has turned inward on itself, failing to comment on the larger world and carrying on a mostly self-infatuated conversation. Is it no wonder that the "Wal-Mart crowd" finds art to be of little consequence and judges value primarily on craftsmanship (which the art world long ago abandoned, much to its detriment)?

So, the Stossel "story", for all its faults, should generate a bit of self-examination. Edward, glad to read that you (and some other bloggers) think a broader public education on art is critical, but others are nearly gleeful about this thing as it plays up their own intellectual superiority.
Thanks for the prompt Todd.... Here's some self-examination in the form of rambling thoughts on this:

Although I have a few minor quibbles with pieces of this*, overall I think it's a very astute description of the art world's central paradox. How do you push beyond the obvious and yet get recognized and (more difficultly) accepted for it? The art world wants acceptance, but clearly on its own terms. Cater to the folks you want recognition from and you're a "sell out." It's a rather sado-masochistic relationship when all is said and done.

But I don't think the playing field is at all even here. I think this paradox is hightened in the US where much less pride is taken in our nation's art than in other places. (It may be our relative youth and more meager treasury. It may be the coincidence of our coming of age as a nation during one of art's most radical/polarizing evolutions. It may be simply that art appreciation requires the sort of reflection that requires one to slow down a bit, and like all youngsters, the US is too full of energy and too busy running around to focus like that. A bit of Ritalin might help, but I suspect the reason more mature nations value their cultural legacies more than we do is that ours has never been ravaged or threatened with extinction the way many of theirs have through wars and conquests.) Artists in the US have to overcome a cultural ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to their industry in general. In other words, unlike, say, Europe where the general public will give an artist lots of leeway because 1) they're more patient, 2) they're actually rooting for their artists to achieve something important, and 3) they value their fine arts more, American audiences are not as open to believe it's worth the wait.

I've used this anecdote before, but it works well here too. A collector who took home a Barnett Newman on faith (trusting his dealer) reportedly looked at it each morning while eating breakfast for years before, more than a decade later, it finally struck him what Newman was doing. Few Americans are anywhere close to that patient about art. If it doesn't clobber them over the head, they reject it.

And hence the problem. Artists are supposed to be on the bleeding edge, way out ahead of the general public. But if the public will only support work they get right away, that leaves most artists with the choice between doing the work they know will give them recognition now or making work that might not be understood until they're long gone. The collector who bought the Newman is the key here. Faith in the artist is crucial.

I could go on, but...I'm more interested in your opinions here...

*Todd wrote: Our self-contradictory desire to be widely understood and accepted simultaneously clashes against a desire to be differentiated individuals with tastes and understanding superior to the hoi polloi in the flyover states.

I think there are two distinct groups being dicussed as if one here. It's the players---the creative types (artists, curators, etc.)---who wish to be widely understood, and the true-blue fans---the die-hard spectators (gallerists, collectors, critics, art historians, etc.)---who desire to be "differentiated individuals with tastes and understanding."

20 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

There was a piece on the Today Show this morning, interviewing a woman responsible for art sales at Costco. Here is a link to a Picasso crayon drawing selling for 129,999.99. I wonder if there is a bar code on the back? Do you put it in your shopping cart along with the 300 roll pack of toilet paper? I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Art should be (most) everywhere.
http://www.costco.com/Browse/Productgroup.aspx?prodid=11048740&whse=&topnav=&cat=&s=1.

8/14/2005 01:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I often amazed by the hostility people hold towards Contemporary Art. I could understand indifference. Viewing art, for people who don't have the background knowledge, must seem like stepping into the middle of a tedious conversation full of technical jargon. But the main reaction often seems anger instead of boredom.

Perhaps it’s a belief that art belongs to everyone and that, somehow, it has been hijacked by a cultural elite. It’s interesting to compare how people react to art versus music. Both Jazz and Classical music are acquired tastes—it takes a commitment to really understand and appreciate what the music is about. Yet people don’t generally get hot under the collar about Jazz music. Maybe if the art world started treating craft-focused art as "different" as opposed to "not really art" or "ignorant," then people would be a bit more open to contemporary art.

Anti-intellectualism is also a probable source of anti-artism. I think people approach art warily, with a belief that someone (the artist, the gallery, etc.) is simply playing a game of valuing obscurity. Edward mentioned that Americans seem to take less interest/pride in their art than people do in other places… I’d add that the U.S. seems more anti-intellectual than other places as well. Years ago, I briefly lived in Italy and was repeatedly amazed that being a computer programmer wasn’t a dating liability (“You’re a programmer? Wow, you must be smart. That’s so sexy!”).

8/14/2005 02:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Regarding the Costco Picasso, I noticed this at the bottom of the page:

Costco.com products can be returned to any of our more than 400 Costco warehouses worldwide.

It would be fun to buy it, hold it for a week or two, then return it to the local Costco.

8/14/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think people approach art warily, with a belief that someone (the artist, the gallery, etc.) is simply playing a game of valuing obscurity.

This drives me nuts.

What would we gain by doing this? And how many other people would have to be complicit?

Perhaps it’s a belief that art belongs to everyone and that, somehow, it has been hijacked by a cultural elite.

I think there is something to this. One thing I'm always conscious of when considering new art is does it succeed at being accessible on some basic level, any basic level, as visual art? Is it compelling only to those steeped in the dialog? Or would any local get it on some level.

I think that's important.

I like my art rich, but I think the best art is accessibile on many levels.

8/14/2005 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The movement towards anti-intellectualism is rampant across the country. But I truly believe that art can be a player in the battle to combat the scourge of mediocrity. I remember my grade school art teacher bringing reproductions to class of work by artists like Matisse and Picasso. This was in a rural town in Iowa. At each class she would share her excitement for concepts like Cubism, color theory, and abstraction and we as a class would be caught up in her enthusiasm. She taught us to embrace the surprises offered by works we wouldn't have the knowledge to understand. It revealed the pleasure of hunt, and demystified the unknown. I believe this woman had a profound effect on my choice to make art. And on my ability to confront without hostility that which I don't understand. So.. I guess I believe in the power of example.

I also believe in the validity of those obscure self-reflexive conversations which are conducted by those who may be considered the cultural elite. I love obscurity - it can be wonderfully poetic. And highly stimulating I suppose if one is able to get on the train and catch up to the car of frenetic discourse.

I personally prefer to think that my work can connect with a viewer without a guidebook, but I am not opposed to those whose viewership's taste is more rarified.

In terms of MSM, though, they aren't going to spend the air time giving tutorials on contemporary art when they can knock it down and rile people must faster and more dramatically by flaming the "art world," especially since it plays to issues of class resentment.

But yes, accessibility on many levels shows strength. And Edward, I would like to add that I recently moved from NYC to one of the flyover states and I am thrilled to have come across your blog. Your thoughtfulness is most satisfying and a welcome retreat from the cynicism so often floating around art world talk.

8/14/2005 07:12:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Just chiming in with Edward and Anonymous re: accessibility -- this is very encouraging to hear from an art dealer -- for me the work has to resonate without the guidebook, and hopefully is all the more compelling to those with the guidebook. I like the way you put it, Anonymous, "accessibility on many levels shows strength." That speaks volumes to me as an art maker.

Bill Gusky

8/14/2005 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous DaveC said...

I went to the Milwaukee Art Museum this weekend, and the architecture of the museum itself is about as interesting as the stuff inside. They dont have a huge collection, but aside from a way-cool mirror box (how did they do that?), and a magical suitcase on the floor, I much preferred the 19th century paintings. Now, I'm not one of that "Walmart crowd". I have more refined, Target store, kinds of tastes.

8/15/2005 01:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

ethan said: I think people approach art warily, with a belief that someone (the artist, the gallery, etc.) is simply playing a game of valuing obscurity.

edward_ replied: What would we gain by doing this? And how many other people would have to be complicit?

Many sports, hobbies and "sub cultures" revel in creating a culture which "outsiders" don't "understand." The gain is purely psychological. Wealth is in some ways the ultimate insider game. When a person pays millions for a shark in a tank, I don't seem why it would be unreasonable for a person to conclude "it's just an insider's game."

Which brings up a secondary question, which is that "regular" art is for "regular" folks, while "cutting edge" or "museum" art is for the rich.

A related story: A few days ago, a Sag Harbor gallery quickly sold their 18 close-up paintings of Alan Greenspan by a young artist [Wash Post]. The paintings are not what I'd call museum-quality.

To come back to the original topic, am I wrong to say I find it hard to imagine a contemporary artist painting portraits of Alan Greenspan without malice or irony? Is there a reason one cannot, in a "contemporary art" setting, paint subjects the "mainstream" would snap up?

8/15/2005 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

("I don't seem" above should have read "I don't see." Sorry.)

8/15/2005 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I wonder Henry,

Many sports, hobbies and "sub cultures" revel in creating a culture which "outsiders" don't "understand." The gain is purely psychological.

I know they revel in the fact that they're an "insider" but do they consciously cultivate a barrier? In the art world, there are those of us who spend our lives trying to spread the joy of the "insider" worldview. We'll sometimes lose patience with those we can't seem to reach, but we're certainly all about trying.

To come back to the original topic, am I wrong to say I find it hard to imagine a contemporary artist painting portraits of Alan Greenspan without malice or irony?

This is a great topic, IMO. I'm working up to a post on irony and whether or not it's even any longer something the artist has any control over (i.e., have the viewers been trained to look for irony and find it regardless of the artist's intent). Soon, I hope, I'll get around to that.

8/15/2005 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous henry said...

Personally I think people do "consciously cultivate a barrier." I think segregation is part of human nature. But you're closer to the art world than I, so maybe you can give me some room for hope on this account.

How do you break through the "insider" wall? I find it difficult to get friends to visit museums or galleries, much less get them excited about the work.

When looking at recent work, I try to tell people the artist "knows what they're doing," but chooses to express themselves in a non-traditional way. It's almost embarrassing to do this, but it often works.

In Boston I showed my dad an early Picasso portrait -- an "unfinished" painting with the underdrawing still prominent -- where the lines were so lovely, and the image so accessible, I could say Picasso "knew what he was doing" by concentrating on his amazing ability to nail a picture by getting just the right line. I also told him how Cezanne "purposely" did non-mimetic things, to force the viewer to respond to the painting rather than the objects it portrayed. He quickly went back to traditional pictures, but at least he didn't begrudge them their spots on the wall, as he's done in the past.

Most people simply aren't accustomed to seeing the world aesthetically. I don't fault anyone for this, but I wouldn't mind being able to take a friend to a museum every so often and not have their eyes glaze over, or tell me what a "kid" could do.

Maybe it's inevitable, everyone needs to start with the old masters and work forward, but even then, if you don't know what you're looking at (color usage, figure placement, figure relationships, chiaroscuro, symbolism), it's not clear you'll get anything from contemporary work either.

8/15/2005 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How do you break through the "insider" wall?

How you break through yourself sounds like exactly how you're doing it Henry. Finding friends who are also interested will help though.

How you get others to do so often depends on 1) whether they ever would (some folks are not as "visual" as others) and 2) what the social rewards for making the investment are (the personal rewards are another matter and totally beyond anyone else's control, IMO).

I get into trouble with this analogy because it has a few too many loose ends for some folks, but to me it's useful to think of art appreciation as parallel to sports appreciation.

You can watch a baseball game, for example, knowing next to nothing about the rules and absolutely nothing about the players' averages or where they were traded from or what have you and still enjoy it on some level, but you may not.

The same is true for art. Your friends you drag to the museums who gravitate toward the representational works are no different from the neophite baseball spectator who complains that there's not enough action other than the pitcher and there's nothing to focus on but the score. He doesn't have an overarching context in which to appreciate the subtlties or enough information to understand why this particular game is crucial for their playoff chances or whatever.

By investing time in those subtlties, though, the baseball spectator will learn to enjoy every aspect of heading out to the ball game, even if his team loses.

Art's the same. If you invest the time to understand the details (an artist's influences [a ball player's minor league history, perhaps], the sublime passage in an abstract piece [the acrobatic triple play], where an artist has exhibited [a player's stats]), you'll find the vocabulary to discuss art/baseball with others in a way that will give you that social reward: folks will seek out your company for outings and/or your opinion on what's happening in the galleries/ballparks.

Sports is easier though, because there's no one looking down their gallerina nose at you out at Shea or---good lord, what am I doing???---[nsert stadium of your team here]. The rewards for art are longer lasting though, only total fanatics remember stats on players no longer playing, there's an awesome thrill to seeing a painting you first saw in someone's studio or first gallery exhibition now hanging in a major museum.

8/15/2005 11:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I think people approach art warily, with a belief that someone (the artist, the gallery, etc.) is simply playing a game of valuing obscurity.

This drives me nuts.

What would we gain by doing this? And how many other people would have to be complicit?


I think it's more a belief of an "emperor has no clothes" phenomenon than of a conspiracy. It’s easy to have this suspicion since art is so subjective (especially art since the turn of the 20th century). And to be honest, there’s truth to the idea that people are willing to accept conventional wisdom (e.g., Picasso is a great artist) in lieu of researching the matter on their own. But that, of course, doesn’t mean Picasso wasn’t great.

A side thought: do you remember the intro to Basquiat? It says something along the lines of “Nobody wants to be the person dismissing the next Van Gogh.” I took that to be Julian Schnabel saying that perhaps we’re a little too quick to elevate particular artists to star status.

8/15/2005 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It says something along the lines of “Nobody wants to be the person dismissing the next Van Gogh.” I took that to be Julian Schnabel saying that perhaps we’re a little too quick to elevate particular artists to star status.

I remember that line, it's a good one, but it never resonated as relevant to Basquiat with me, to tell the truth, and if your interpretation is correct (Schnabel feels we elevate art stars to quickly), that's my new definition of irony.

The artists who rise too quickly do so because of our collective thirst for celebrity, not because of anything they can't control if they choose to though. Take Inka Essenhigh. She consciously chose to leave Boone and join 303 in order to reclaim control over her career (or so it looks). Now she's probably getting good advice (it's difficult to both make art and see the best career path), but her work is evolving much more so now than anyone else in Boones' stable. All of which means the idea that artists are at the mercy of the fashion-hungry aspect of the industry isn't so, IMO.

8/15/2005 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous henry said...

Edward - I think your sports analogy is apt, and in fact puts an interesting perspective on the issue.

8/15/2005 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

I'm late to these discussions, but I've been thinking about questions of audience for some time now, and have a few quick thoughts:

* Folks want to be considered intelligent, but don't want the burden of having to be critical, of having to defend their taste. Hence, the birth of the middlebrow, of PBS and NPR, of symphony tix as a marker of good taste (and of television as a marker of bad).

* The question of classical music and jazz versus modern art is a good one, and reveals an additional wrinkle: the notion of 'skilled practice,' an important one for middlebrow audiences.

* I think there's a difference between public regard for modernist and postmodernist work, in part because it ties into the skilled-practice tenet; as Danto notes, the threshold between art and not-art can no longer be identified solely by aesthetics. That's a big damn deal, isn't it? Why should we be surprised that, in the main, folks are hostile?

I'm a big believer in what Todd said--the high- (or is it middle?!) brow folks have a great deal invested in their erudition, and too little in enlarging the audience.

(A little essay of mine on this topic--"The philistinism of antiphilistinism"--may be found here.)

8/15/2005 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

great essay Bill...lots to chew on there

this line by Menand made me laugh (because it's true):

the well-educated and affluent middle class, a population that “did not need to be told who Proust and Freud and Stravinsky were, but they were glad, at the same time, not to be expected to know anything terribly specific about them.”

8/15/2005 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

I think that the patience is there e, if folks have the interest.

This was so true of me at least he didn't begrudge them their spots on the wall, as he's done in the past. wrt to a painter. The painter was Rothko, and no matter how often I visited the SFMOMA I couldn't figure out the fuss until one night I looked at the twilight sky for about the thousandth time and thought "what a beautiful color, a painting of just that color would be so beauti...ah now I get Rothko". And that may not be exactly what he was doing, and that may mean that I still don't "get" him, but I can appreciate his work a bit now.

Maybe it's not the age of the US; maybe it's the age we live in. I mena, SF was burned to the ground less than 100 years ago and look what's happened since, diseases cured, technology, heck, we went to the moon! Fine art's got a lot of attention, that's all. But I see your point too. Shoot, the US is still hacking a civilazation out of the frontier, literally in some places and metaphorically in most others.

8/15/2005 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

er, fine art's got a lot of competition, not attention...sheesh, preview is your friend.

8/15/2005 07:04:00 PM  
Anonymous James White said...

Baseball has been great sport through out my life

11/04/2010 02:49:00 AM  

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