Monday, February 27, 2006

Re-Framing the Supposed Elitist Response to Popular Commercial Art

My Seattle round-up is coming soon, but today I wanted to get out something that's been preoccupying my mind since The New York Times published its article on Scotland's number #1 selling contemporary artist:

[Jack] Vettriano is far and away Scotland's most successful contemporary painter. "The Singing Butler," his 1992 painting of an elegant couple dancing on a stormy beach, sold for nearly £750,000 (about $1.3 million at today's exchange rate) two years ago, the highest price ever paid for a Scottish painting at auction. The image has become ubiquitous on mugs, mouse pads, prints, posters and dish towels, outselling reproductions of masterworks like van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Monet's "Water Lilies."

Another painting, "Dance Me to the End of Love," is to come up for auction in Edinburgh on March 4. The estimated sale price is $300,000 to $500,000.

But critics tend either to ignore Mr. Vettriano or to swat him lazily away with the backs of their cultured hands. Among their objections are that "he can't paint; he just colors in" (Sandy Moffat, former head of painting at the Glasgow School of Art); that his work is "inoffensive enough" but "repetitive, limited and soulless" (Duncan Macmillan, art critic at The Scotsman); and that he is "a media creation" whose " 'popularity' rests on cheap commercial reproductions of his paintings" (Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art).
Sounds much like the critique of America's #1 selling contemporary artist, doesn't it? More than the "professional" critique, the popular defense of the work sounds like what we often hear this side of the pond as well:
[Vettriano's] much-cultivated status as the unappreciated outsider — "I don't get invited to their shindigs," he said of the Edinburgh art establishment — may irritate him, but it has also been a boon. Members of the public read the sneering commentary, Mr. Hewlett said, and think, "How dare this pompous prat lecture us about art?"

Admiring the sexy Vettrianos inside the Portland Gallery, Ms. Davison and her friend Sue Whittaker, 54, said they did not appreciate being told what was good and what wasn't.

"People might think, 'If I like these, I might not be very intelligent,' " Ms. Whittaker said.

Ms. Davison added, "But we know we are."
And so it goes, ad infinitum it seems, this resentment against the "pompous prats" who dare have an opinion that differs from that of somone's adoring public. Earlier in the article Ms. Davison noted:
"I find it exciting," said Ms. Davison, 57, admiring the paintings in the newly opened Vettriano Room at the Portland Gallery in Piccadilly. She was particularly taken with one that examines the smoldering erotic tension between a man in evening dress and a woman wearing a black slip, garter belt and red stilettos.

"It tells you a story," Ms. Davison said, "and you wonder what's going to happen next."
What's behind such resentment feels somewhat like a battle in the class war that dominates so much of American culture (and is certainly a big part of Great Britain's culture), but I think that's oversimplifying it somewhat, so I want to offer another read on the resentment. I don't know Ms. Whittaker or Ms. Davison from Eve, but to avoid an annoying round of pronoun dancing, let me use them as an example here.

It looks at first as if they are making a leap from disagreeing with a critique to assuming that said critic is suggesting they are not very intelligent (with suggestions of an inferiorty complex coming along for the ride). And I suppose they are making that leap, but what's actually happening outside their personal take on it involves two separate ideas they're conflating into an imagined insult.

What it boils down to is that IMO they are confusing how Vettriano's work sincerely makes them feel with "art appreciation" (in the sense of where that involves deciding whether art is good or bad). Now I don't doubt the sincerity of how this work makes them feel, but many things in their lives may make Ms. Whittaker or Davison feel as excited or warm as Vettirano's paintings do. Perhaps the laughter of a child, a brilliant sunset, the smell of musk, or whatever. None of these things are in and of themselves "art" though. The underlying assumption they're making is that because they like it, it must be good enough for the gallery/museum system that is designed to promote work into the history books. In other words, what they're asserting, ironically, is that their opinion is more important than that of the crticis who don't like the work. Second, no matter how much they truly "love" the work, that is irrelevant when considering whether it's good or bad art. There are criteria beyond emotional response that go into judgements about that.

For many folks that's a hard sell, I know. They really don't see why an emotional response is not enough in and of itself. If you can stand one more science parallel, I'll offer the story of a beloved doctor to illustrate why it's not. Imagine this doctor has served a community who trust him for years, even performed a "miracle" or two that's won him local fame and the hearts of his patients. In fact, he's a hero and they love him. Clearly he's an adequate health care provider. But when a team from the national health agency check in to review his practices for treating a series of illnesses (as they do every doctor in the region), what they discover is that this doctor's standard treatment for, say, diabetes, is actually putting his patients at a serious disadvantage. There are much better treatments that he's either unaware of or simply not using.

Now the doctor's patients consider him a hero, so it's not likely they'll take kindly to hearing the national agency team's assessment that he's a "bad" doctor, but the truth of the matter is he hasn't kept up with that latest advances and by perpetuating the treatments that have proven less effective, he's not worthy of the agency team's highest rating. It's certainly no reflection on the doctor's patients that they adore him even though the agency doesn't give him a good review, though. He's earned their adoration, just not the superior rating.

Of course, folks will argue that there are more objective measures for rating doctors than there are for rating artists, but it's fair to expect for both that not perpetuating inferior practices/ideas is a good benchmark (and we're right back at the pompous prat charges, I know, I know). Bottom line though is that it's not enough to love a person or work of art to make it "good." There are other criteria that come into it. If Ms. Whittaker or Davison wish to argue that Vettriano is good, they should discuss his work in those terms.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! So does a work have to be cutting edge or in some other way pushing the envelope of art history in order to be "good"?

2/28/2006 02:35:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

The doctor analogy was perfect! Welcome home.

2/28/2006 06:46:00 AM  
Blogger Shane said...

I disagree that the doctor analogy was perfect. Sure, it was perfect to give your argument an emotional appeal (a trick lawyers use), but it attempts to equate art with science and unless you're r. buckminster fuller, the art creation process is something very differently than a scientific discovery. On the side of understanding and implementing a set of principles, art is a lot messier than science too. There is no objective set of rules or checklist against which to check a work of art like there is in science. Sure you could say that 'newness' or 'provocation' or whatever could be some category against which to judge art, but I think you'd be disappointingly surprised to see how little this category actually does -there could be some better examples, but I'm reminded of one of your artists of the week from a couple of weeks ago. I think it's all a bunch of hobsnobbery, of which I'm a part of, and which you simply have to admit to. No one needs to convince the world that what they look at is trash and that they could be looking at something more interesting. Hell, if they like their romance novels, who's to say if they even get past page 1 of Ulysses. Fine, you take Fabio I'll take Joyce. Of course, I'd like to see some sort of categories, but right now -and for the past year- I just can't find any.

2/28/2006 08:36:00 AM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...

The institution is just as likely to dismiss the local doctors remarkably effective treatment because it falls beyond the universe of accepted medical practice.

I am intrigued by your suggestion of “other criteria.” Will you elaborate?

2/28/2006 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Nancy Baker, aka Rebel Belle said...

Ed, so we know which side of the culture wars you're on! Kitsch versus the avant-garde, high versus low art, purveyors of good taste, purveyors of bad taste.

Many theorists have written many words about this kind of thing, Adorno called it the "Culture Industry", where art like Vettriano is created and formed by market needs, it's purpose is to solace the lower classes and distract them from their alienation from higher power structures. Kitsch makers seek to create "beauty" instead of truth. Truth is something that the educated and rich feel comfortable in pursuing. This is fascinating stuff, the appeal of the maudlin and sentimental by Thomas Kinkaid, Vettriano, Andrew Wyeth, Currier and Ives, et al is leakage to the lower classes from the upper classes. One theorist called Kitsch "the absolute denial of shit". Isn't that what it is? Let's look at the pretty sailboats on the horizon, we don't have to think about the fact that we don't have health insurance, or that I just sent my son to Iraq, etc. This is the stuff that most folks are allowed, even encouraged to embrace.

I happen to believe that we need Kitsch, when used by artists, it pokes fun at the avant-garde bureacrats.

2/28/2006 09:22:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

I have made the comparrison of art to medicine in my art classes in explaining to my students why it is important to stay informed about the "higher" art world. But it is equally important to draw inspiration from other avenues of culture.
I have a friend who is my age (early 30s) who is into the latest, most current and avant- garde types of music, he has tatoos and piercings- all in all he is bohemian. The funny thing is that his paintings are these kitchy little flowers. No irony here, these are beautiful to him and he disregards any of that contemporary "art magazine" stuff as crap.
Now this description of him may sound like he is interesting and quirky with is tastes. I would agree if this wasnt so normal. What I mean is that I see this all the time in my students and in other young peeps around this town. It is just that, when it comes to visual arts, many folks rely on the tastes of their parents or what surrounds them. (my friend works in frame shop that sells contemporary impressionist paintings by old ladies).
My friend and I would argue about art, he says that I like the art that I do because it makes me feel smart. Perhaps he doesnt like it because it makes him feel stupid.

2/28/2006 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous noname said...

Perhaps it's time for us high culture types to have a fit of pique at people like Whittaker and Davison. We spend the greater part of our lives thinking about art, refining our ideas, knowing the field, really caring and doing the best we can, even if some of us make mistakes and vapid art.

I like the medical analogy, but it misses something. We respond to art, initially, at least, in much the same way as our English ladies do. We like it or we don't. It touches us or it doesn't. I don't think any of us needs an Art Review Board to tell us what art is moving the field in a forward direction. It seems interesting or not. Only after it meets this first test, do we go on and get all egg-heady about it, which offends people like the English ladies. Still, we are far more knowledgable about art than the ladies, not because we are smarter, but because we put a lot of effort into it and they don't.
Their kind of comments are insulting, really, and rely on the class difference as a shield against simple ingnorance.

I would use the medical analogy, but with a little different spin. How can you expect to understand cells, disease,molecules, and anatomy without trying to do so. Can you just appreciate molecular biology by looking at a scientific paper as if it were a flower, saying, Oh, how lovely! No, you probably need a degree in science or a patient friend who has one to explain it. I think that if Davison and Whittaker were forced to get degrees in art history, they would simply stop liking Vittriano.

2/28/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Diorio said...

It is a thin line ....

"And so it goes, ad infinitum it seems, this resentment against the "pompous prats" who dare have an opinion that differs from that of somone's adoring public."


And so it goes, ad infinitum it seems, this resentment against "somone's adoring public" who dare have an opinion that differs from that of the "pompous prats".

Reminds me of Squidward's line in the SpongeBob movie - "You can't fool me. I listen to NPR."

There is no evidence that any of the Vettriano fans (those who buy his paintings) are not fans of contemporary art. They might not be fan of this artist's critics but I don't see much more than that in the article.

2/28/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

Its a thin line, but what a line!

Okay, our local aternative press rag has a column "News of the Wierd" every week with funny stories about dumb people getting arrested or with strange fetishes or whatnot. Every now and then there is a short description that usually starts with the headline "Great Art" and continues to describe some crazy artist doing crazy things. Recently, one of these related the story of a female artist who did seven performances where she cut herself and talked to a dead hare, etc.. I recognized this as Marina Abramovic's "Seven Easy Pieces". Later that month I saw the latest issue of Art in America also describing the same work, but with a totally serious , reverential tone.
So, I find it funny that the same thing reported in two different contexts gets a different treatment. The guy who ONLY read that "News of the Wierd" blub goes away thinking the woman is nuts, a goofball, a sham, whatever. ANd the guy ONLY reading the AiA article has the opposite view (of course I am generalizing)
But isnt this true of anything in politics or culture, what we hear on NPR gets a different treatment on FOX news, no?

2/28/2006 12:49:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I think if Vettriano wants to be taken seriously by the art world, he should just exhibit the coffee mugs and dish towels that his paintings are reproduced on. He's on the right track, in that the worse it is the better it is, but he just needs to take it to the next level.

2/28/2006 02:23:00 PM  
Anonymous oriane said...

the medical analogy is limited. i think a better one would be to language. art is a language. anyone who has eyes has a basic knowledge of how to see, but it's not very developed if they aren't interested in, haven't studied or don't have a sensitivity to art. one can listen to someone speaking a foreign language and probably recognize a few words, maybe even get a sense of what they're talking about through context, hand gestures, eye contact, etc., but how could the listener expect to really understand if s/he hasn't studied the language in question?

most people who don't know anything about art think it's about illustration. it's why people like norman rockwell were so popular. vettriano looks to be a decent, although bland and uninteresting, illustrator.

2/28/2006 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, Mr. Winkleman, I'll be! ;)

I'm surprised by what you write here, not because I completely disagree with you, but because the dynamic is so much more nuanced than your art-as-objective-science slant suggests. (I know you're well aware of this fact and I assume you're so strident, in part, because you want to see the range of reactions elicited before you chew on the idea some more.)

Anyway, the principal problem with your assessment of the situation so far is the narrow scope. Where does so-called "primitive" work fit in to the equation? Or Art Brut? Graffiti? Any and all work produced at the fringe of the Western canon is given short thrift by both camps, the aesthetes and philistines alike. It wasn't that long ago that Darger was lampooned by almost everyone.

Furthermore, what of the modernist time line issue? Sure, if Soutine or Munch were painting today, both would be taken seriously by Art World critics - and with good reason! - but what if Remington, Cassatt or Homer were of our time? Their brush strokes are superior to Vettriano's - I'm assuming as much, perhaps wrongly - but would their subject matter not find them lumped into the same camp as today's "hacks" and "damned illustrators"?

For my part, I'm all too eager to line up with your side when considering the work of Kinkade or Vettriano, but not because they are objectively "bad" artists; I just find them really f'ing boring (and, in the case of Kinkade, almost offensive). All the same, I remain a proponent of the "I don't know art, but I know what I like" attitude. I mean, I am very opinionated about music and my tastes run the gamut from classical to underground hip-hop. I don't know that much about the history or the "science" of music-making, though. Should I feel any less strongly about my tastes, because I disagree with the critics all the time?

2/28/2006 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous wunsok said...

BUt I think it is easier to develop refined music tastes than visual. What I mean is the learning curve is shorter /faster - it is easy to discern hackneyed guitar rifs over innovative pastiche of sound. We know good pop tunes over bad ones.

Not so easy with the wider range and less ubiquity of art, cha know?

I deal with these issues as a teacher and I still think I fall short in transferring the knowledge of "knowing hackneyed schlock when ya see it". I try but it is hard when the classes I teach are so (rightly) focused on how to draw, see, design, ect. I bring art mags and contemp art books to class and I hope they get it that way.

2/28/2006 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

February 28, 2006

Palmyra - The former owners of Charlottesville's Thomas Kinkade art gallery have won $860,000 from the "Painter of Light's" company, having successfully argued that the Christian-themed firm committed fraud against its dealers.

. . .

In its 2-1 ruling Thursday, a California arbitration panel found that company officials created "a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust" with the couple.


What more needs to be said?

2/28/2006 06:33:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

It seems nowadays like everyone wants the rewards of expertise, but no one wants the work it takes to develop it.

True expertise seems to be valued now only where it affirms the previously held opinion. Otherwise it's resented.

See the creationism vs. evolution debate, the Iraq invasion, and the careers of George Tenant and Colin Powell for other examples.

Having said that, for me a comparison like this of kitsch vs. art is a lot like comparing Catholicism with Protestantism. They both began from the same root, but branched apart a long time ago.

For one group to spend any time disdaining the other, or wondering why the other group doesn't listen to it, seems to me like engaging in an antique argument. We might as well start throwing down over Martin Luther's 95 theses, as though he'd nailed them to the door this very morning and not 400 years ago.

Institutionally speaking, we're dealing with two groups that will never truly meet, except for the occasional pathetic ecumenical picnic.
Pax potatis salata.

However on the grass roots level, people do switch over all the time. Fine artists use kitsch, and kitsch artists are sometimes judged on a par with fine.

2/28/2006 07:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oy Vey...

Let me back up and make two basic clarifications.

1. The medicine analogy is not perfect (although I do appreciate Mark's appreciation of it) and most of the critique here of it has been hashed out on this blog before...which is why I prefaced its reintroduction the way I did. I'm using it simply to illustrate quickly the important difference between a) adoring someone and b)understanding why other professionals whose job it is to assess that person have problems with what it is they do. It's illogical to me to suggest that just because I feel a tug at my heart strings when looking at some artist's work that that in and of itself makes the artist superior. This is how I view the argument the English ladies were making.

I didn't mean to make any closer comparison in this context than that. I understand there are more objective measures of how a doctor does his/her job than of how an artist does. I did mention that in the post.

2. Should I feel any less strongly about my tastes, because I disagree with the critics all the time?

Arghh...I have utterly failed to make my point clear here. NO. NO. NO, a thousand times no. You should ignore the critics altogether when their opinion conflicts with your strongly felt tastes. You should just stop short of taking insult that your tastes are not reflected in the museum/gallery system.

2/28/2006 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I am intrigued by your suggestion of “other criteria.” Will you elaborate?

In no particular order of importance, I believe artwork can be judged on at least the following criteria:

Emotional provocation
Conceptual complexity/quality
Integrity (or consistency)**
Transcendentalism (which includes humor, beauty, sublimity, etc.)

*Which isn't how well it looks like something else a viewer has previously seen, mind you, but rather how well it looks exactly like the artist wanted it to.
**Which is slightly different from "craftsmanship"...suggesting more often than not a degree of patience or persistence or endurance went into making the work...a determination to get it right.

3/01/2006 07:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, I lied. Truth is the number 1 criteria.

3/01/2006 07:41:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

bloggin before coffee again...obviously humor and sublimity can also fall under emotional response. Transcendentalism is, to me, simply that viewing the work provokes a virtually spiritual response that rises above anything anyone could explain in words.

3/01/2006 07:45:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

I happened to go to a talk by Camille Paglia last night and she talked, in part, about the typical US citizen's disdain of art (she was talking about poetry, but extended her argument to all the fine arts). She thinks it's a failure of the education system, which has been drained of vitality by the dominance of the post-structuralists who scare talented scholars into other disciplines, leaving the humanities to the hacks.

Good luck with the opening! I wish I could be there and say hello!

3/01/2006 08:25:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

Being a professional in any discipline requires continuous study, knowledge and practice. When I look at a Ferrari I’m seeing a different auto than my friend Mike the mechanic. I see lines and color. He sees torque and horsepower to cubic liter ratios. If I want a larger experience I ask him what he sees. If Ms. Davison and her friend Sue Whittaker have the desire to learn more about art they need to ask. If they’re satisfied with Vettriano, so be it. But just as I wouldn’t attempt to suggest to a garage how they should tune up the Ferrari I don’t think the ladies should concern themselves about why a Vettriano isn’t in a prominent place in the Tate.

3/01/2006 08:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Why is truth the number one criterion? And what does it even mean? I was just about to comment that your list of criteria was quite good, except that truth should be taken off.

If by truth you mean intentional sincerity of expression, I don't think truth has anything to do with anything.

It's funny. I was just talking with a friend a couple of days ago who said contemporary art was losing its soul, because (among other reasons,) an artist nowadays could vomit on a canvas and call it art. My friend quickly turned to me and said as an aside, "of course, if you vomited on a canvas, that would be different. I know you, and I know you probably had a good reason for it."

So apparently "truth" is in the eye of the beholder. It can be bent very easily, especially among the "educated." Like car salesmen around the world already know, the smarter you are, the easier you are to fool. I'd strike truth from the list, whatever it is.

3/01/2006 09:23:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

PC and Paglia make a good point in that there is a relationship between art appreciation and our educational system. My wife teaches elementary art and I teach college studio classes, so we get em at both ends. There are interesting similarities.

First off, Art at both is treated as a lesser subject. My wife is forced to go to 3 different schools a week, she has no classroom (the old "art-on-a-cart" routine) and most of the other teachers treat what she does as play time and a break for them. Now I think my wife is an amazing art teacher because I know many do not do half as much as her in terms of really teaching art. I have heard of art teachers just passing out coloring books and crayons and calling that art instruction! SO many art teachers themselves are not helping matters.

AT the college level, I battle such lame attitudes about art and the class in general. Most thought my class would be an easy grade and thought they could just draw butterflies and skatebords and fun stuff. I have a hard time getting students to think beyond trite imagery or not generalize what they are trying to depict. And I think to a large degree my problems stem from the fact that these students did not have someone like my wife as a teacher in elementary school.
I think my challenge as a teacher ( and I am still failing at this- trying to figure it out) is to show students how their attitudes about art and tastes have been developed by a school system and society that dumbs everything down to the LCD and doesnt encourage out o' the box thinking.

3/01/2006 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Shane said...

OUCH, the old hookwinded intentionalist argument. That's nice and all, but what do you do with someone like David Lynch who claims to not know what he's doing when he's making a film. [There's a great anecdote about a PA or someone of the sort walking by the editing room and hearing him scream 'SO THAT'S WHAT I MEANT.'] Stronger example: cave paintings. We have no access to someone's intentions who painted a bison on the wall. Hell, for all we know, he could have tried to paint a cute little bunny rabit, and that's how we'll always remember it. Thus, you can't really rely on the intentions of the artist -and who trusts them anyway, do you have artist friends? I know mine sure lie a lot about their work and I'm prone to think that they probably don't really know why they do it, it's just something that needs to be expressed. Maybe the best thing is to consider art as something biological...hell, i dunno

3/01/2006 09:56:00 AM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...

Edward- Thank you for your elaboration.

My defense of the English ladies rests less with their ignorance and more with why they are ignorant. My guess is that if these ladies were verbally illiterate the focus of this debate would not be on how dumb they are but on what we as a society can do to nurture them to literacy.

Art is more than a professional delineation. It is a fundamental nutrient for the human spirit. Nearly all children draw before they write. Their first complex visual interpretation of their world is typically drawing. Most pursue it intuitively. Once they reach kindergarten language and math are given exponentially more value and time (as Onesock notes). Art becomes an organized recess with little to no expectations of visual literacy. Then we wonder why many adults have such puerile valuations.

My own experience as an educator is that people are starving for a better understanding of their optical experience. The older they are when they pursue this understanding the more developed their ego therefore the greater their defense to being told they are ignorant. “I’ve been seeing my whole life and you’re telling me I can’t see.”

Congratulations on your new space!

3/01/2006 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

Very interesting discussion. Could you elaborate on truth as a criterion?

3/02/2006 02:31:00 AM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

"In no particular order of importance, I believe artwork can be judged on at least the following criteria ..."

you've been focussing on what makes art "good," but i think there's a separate category of what makes art "important" which is of at least as much interest to curators and other great arbiters of taste in the art world.

good isn't enough ... no one wants to see your good painting that looks just like a good painting from 1930 that they already have. they're looking for some kind of significance, perhaps unrelated to all these measures of quality, but likely related to the work's cultural and art-historical implications. how it fits into the state of art and culture right now, and how it is likely to influence what comes next.

these criteria truly have nothing to do with how the work makes ms. whittaker feel.

3/04/2006 12:41:00 AM  

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