Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The MSM's Disrespect for Art

I cringe every time I see an MSM outlet tackle the public's perception of contemporary art. Personally, I feel the research and experimentation many artists put into their work is parallel to the effort made by scientists, and no reporter would suggest his five-year-old could have discovered cold fusion* (or whatever), yet they're comfortable standing there smugly dismissing masterpieces.

We watched one such effort on 20-20 the other night. The ridiculously moustached John Stossel (uh, still not over your Village People fixation?), in a segment mockingly titled "You Call That Art?," set up a scenario with the logical and clinical integrity of a grade-school mold-growing experiment and offered the results via a report riddled with the lamest attempts at demonstrating he's not totally ignorant about art, including this gem: "I learned that Pollock's creative genius came from his tortured soul." Really? You sure it wasn't the hooch?

Here's what he did:

On ABCNews.com, we showed four reproductions of art works that are considered masterpieces of modern art along with six pieces that will never make it into any museum. We asked viewers to decide which work was art and which was not.

I assumed the famous art would get the most votes if only because art lovers would recognize them, but they didn't. Most got far fewer votes than the winner.

The one that received the most votes as a "real" artwork was a piece of framed fabric "20/20" bought at a thrift store for $5.

We also conducted the test with New Yorkers at Manhattan Mall. We asked people to tell us which artworks they'd expect to see in a museum. We included copies of the famous paintings, plus some other items.


Four of the art works in our test were done by 4-year-olds, and when we showed their artwork on the Web, and showed it to people at the mall, the kids' work ranked ahead of most of the masters.

I assumed real artists wouldn't fall for the trick, so we invited some to take our test. Most of them also put at least some of the kids' work up there with the masters.

One artist, Victor Acevedo, described one of the children's pieces as "a competent execution of abstract expressionism which was first made famous by de Kooning and Jackson Pollock and others. So it's emulating that style and it's a school of art."

When I told him the work was done by a 4-year-old he said, "That's amazing. Give that kid a show."

Actually, it was a collaboration. Maybe they should give Hannah and Haley, the two 4-year-old girls who painted it, a show of their own. More than 1,800 people said their work was great art.
He then goes on to conclude that his viewership is being bamboozled because "your hard-earned tax dollars [are going] to museums that exhibit these kinds of things."

But let's back up just a minute and examine the disingenuous path to these conclusions: Here's the online version of the "test." The image shown below is the exact quality and size the participants were shown online when asked to determine whether this was "art" or "not art."

Now perhaps Stossel's eyesight is far superior to mine, but I generally refrain from judging artwork based on a thumbnail. Of course he can argue that the "not art" images were the same size, but that then reduces his online experiment to whether or not one recognizes the piece, not whether it looks like "art" to the viewer...you have to be able to see something to tell what it looks like.

More importantly, as Stossel explained, this is not an image of the actual Twombly, but rather an image of a reproduction. He doesn't explain if that means a poster of the original or they had someone recreate a copy**, but either way, we're already a few generations away from (and possibly nowhere even close to) an image of the original. Why Stossel would think there's nothing disingenuous about that suggests he's unaware of a whole range of formal and experiential aspects of what makes art good or bad, meaning if you ask someone to tell you whether something is art you should probably show them some actual art to judge by.

But perhaps he only meant to test whether his viewers recognized the composition as one worthy of the label "art" or not. Even here, though, he's not presenting the works by non-4-year-olds in a light whereby composition can be judged, suggesting he's dismissing (or unaware of) the transcendental aspect generally found in only in a great work's subtlties. For example, here's a decent online image of that Twombly (Untitled, 1970, Oil, house paint, and crayon on canvas, 11'4" x 13'3", Menil Collection, Houston). The washout of the color, not to mention the significant loss of detail in Stossel's version, affects the viewer's ability to see the composition, making his test ludicrous in even this generous view of it.

The real issue here, IMO, is that Stossel started with an unfair preconception. This segment was produced to air within an episode titled "The Raw Deal." How could he have been sure he could conclude that the public's being had by the art world, unless he contrived some means to "expose" some degree of conspiracy? All his work for this segment would have been for nothing if his results hadn't pointed toward a "raw deal." Yes, I realize, I'm virtually accusing him of unethical journalistic practices. But I'm giving him an out. Perhaps he's just too uneducated to realize why his experiment was fatally flawed. But if that's the case, then he had no business offering up this segment in the first place.

*Bad example, I know...not being a scientist (or anything close) I'll take suggestions for a better one.
**It was never clear to me, but in the actual segment I concluded that they had to have had copies made. Otherwise the folks in the mall would have been comparing posters to actual paintings (and anyone who didn't conclude from that that the canvases were the "not art" probably shouldn't be roaming the streets). Unless they also showed posters of the "not art," but that's never clarified.


Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

I saw this and was going to post on it as well. It was ridiculous. And how the "artists" on the show failed to recognize the work of a kid. It was obvious! I'd love to see the "artist's" work...

I'm so sick of the "my 5 year old could do that" response. Thanks for writing about it.

8/09/2005 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

ABC could have just as easily produced a positive segment about an artist who somehow met with their ignorant approval -- maybe the "Precious Moments" guy, or Thomas Kinkade 'Painter of Light(tm).' Their chose to 'go Geraldo' because, unfortunately, they know their audience; they created it. They and the other mainstream media outlets have shaped their audience's media appetites to be easily gratified, and it doesn't come much easier than the slack-jawed knuckle-dragging piece you described.

But really, this kind of cultivated ignorance has contributed so much to American culture: the Bush administration, Iraq-mire, colorful magnetic ribbons from China, an epidemic of obesity -- the list goes on and on.

Bill Gusky

8/09/2005 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

The thumbnails were ridiculous. At those dimensions any image would look like decent abstract art. The Mona Lisa would be indistinguishable from a postage stamp. Twombly's inclusion was another stupidity. The artworld is hardly of one mind on his work. All Stossel has done is flatter his prejudices.

I've visited the Menil's Twombly gallery at least a half-dozen times in the few years I've lived here. The first time I wasn't familiar with 20th-c art, and was insulted. But it stayed in my mind, gnawed at my brains, and gave me real problems. Then I saw photos of his Lepanto paintings when they were displayed at Gagosian a few years ago, and something clicked. Now Twombly is a favorite. Lepanto is on display here at MFAH (in a hanging I think is unflattering, unfortunately), and I've seen it a few times already.

Also, those Twombly works, as you pointed out, are over eleven feet by thirteen. They're huge. They overwhelm. It would certainly be the same for the de Kooning and Kelly works. I'd like to see Stossel take those same people to MoMA to see this stuff in person, or to see Stossel ask a couple of kids to can fill a canvas like Twombly, de Kooning or Kelly could.

He adds further insult by ignoring the point about Pollock that his works were created intentionally. Wasn't that the point of the original Namuth films, to put to bed the whole "my kid" theory?

Finally, I also suspect Stossel flat-out lied. Most kids don't create abstract art, they create mommy and daddy and house and woofie. I'll bet Stossel told them "go put some random sploches on a piece of paper," without getting too specific, but also without giving them full license.

8/09/2005 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

The ridiculously moustached John Stossel (uh, still not over your Village People fixation?)
:-) :->. All his pieces are framed the exact same way, his schtick.

unfortunately, they know their audience; they created it.

Exactly right. So why bother? Is it really possible or worth the effort to sway the Wal-mart mind?

8/09/2005 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And how the "artists" on the show failed to recognize the work of a kid. It was obvious! I'd love to see the "artist's" work...

I'd be lying if I said that didn't occur to me as well...I was hoping I'd recognize the artists at least.

They and the other mainstream media outlets have shaped their audience's media appetites to be easily gratified

This idea is worthy of a post on its own, IMO. As the dialog in contemporary art deals with increasingly complicated ideas, how does the art world expect the non-art-world to keep up? Catering to the easily gratified desires doesn't make sense, but I'm not sure what does.

Most kids don't create abstract art, they create mommy and daddy and house and woofie.

At four years old, I think you're probably right. I know kids who see enough art to conclude that abtraction "is" art, but as with many other aspects of this "experiment" Stossel left out some important information.

Is it really possible or worth the effort to sway the Wal-mart mind?

I think the short answer to that is "Yes"...the long answer, unfortunately involves admitting only over more time than the average artist can wait (meaning, not within the average artist's lifetime).

great comments everyone. Thanks!

8/09/2005 01:27:00 PM  
Anonymous mdv said...

Things like this only show how poorly educated most Americans are on the subject of art. You can't blame the artists for that one.

8/09/2005 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Things like this only show how poorly educated most Americans are on the subject of art.

I suspect Stossel would counter that opinion by saying he had invited artists to judge the works as well, but they still chose the 4-year-old's pieces. Again, I don't think he came close to offering a serious test of their ability to judge, but he did try to account for what you note here.

8/09/2005 01:32:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

This, unfortunately, is the worst kind of pandering; what Mr. Stossel should be doing, of course, is assuaging (and not stoking) the lay public's anxiety anxiety about abstract art.

It's a stretch, but there is ample opportunity here to talk about the difference between children's work and mature work, between found objects and more traditional stuff. Shouldn't ABC inform their audience?

8/09/2005 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I have to admit, I was actually embarassed for Stossel that his segment merely warmed over the same old tired arguments. It's like he just arrived at this plant.

8/09/2005 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


Anybody got a video camera and some time? What about doing a video report on "Was it news or not?"

8/12/2005 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


that's brilliant...of course finding examples of actual journalism might be tougher than expected.

8/12/2005 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Why isn't the drawing that the kid did considered art as well?

8/12/2005 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think there's two ways to answer your question, patrick.

First would be that in the context of Stossels test, "art" was understood to mean recognized by the art world establishment as worthy of the label "masterpiece" (which means that enough experts had confirmed its greatness to label it such). The child's work simply hasn't been through that process.

Second would be that it wasn't that well painted.

8/12/2005 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, so that second one was sloppy, I'm sorry.

The child's piece may indeed be "art" (I haven't seen it, so I can't judge). It would be surprising to find that it was so, though, given that "art" to me means, in part, work that transcends its media through intent, not mere accident. Perhaps that child is a prodigy though. I can't say really.

8/12/2005 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

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.

8/14/2005 05:06:00 AM  
Anonymous @rt said...

ABC is wrong, 4 yr. old kids can make art.

8/14/2005 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Mikhail Simkin said...

While the validity of Stossel's test may be disputed, it is certain that he was not the first to suggest such a test.

I wrote a very similar quiz http://reverent.org/true_art_or_fake_art.html
in September 2003.

The date can be verified using web archive:

Over 20,000 people had downloaded it before ABC broadcasted their very similar quiz.

9/30/2005 08:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the key is education, the article doesn't offer any. when people become artist or fully aware of art they begin to ask questions. think outside the box. all of the accountants that make money off of the ignorance of prejudice ,insecurities, and greed can't afford that.

sure a four year can paint a picture, and they can tell a story, but I didn't see him offer up his microphone to any of them. this article really pissed me off because this is America. we don't give all the facts, we won't people to make judgements, assumptions and conclude it is fact.

we have some serious things going on in the world right now. racism, poverty, unarmed men being killed by police officers, homelessness, war, and rumours of wars. art allows us to have a moment of retreat, peace. it teaches, records history, it gives a voice to an person who doesn't have a microphone in his had. it communicates when words cannotbe translated.

give us the news, give us solutions, make the world better. let be your art, if you don't like twombly, pollack, de kooning, you don't have to buy them. the same way I don't have to listen to you. (idiot)

9/26/2013 09:43:00 AM  

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