Re-Framing the Supposed Elitist Response to Popular Commercial Art
[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."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:
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).
[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?"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:
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."
"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.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 tells you a story," Ms. Davison said, "and you wonder what's going to happen next."
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.