Friday, May 30, 2008

A Lack of Faith or Just a Lag in Understanding?

My poor chemistry teacher. She patiently tried to explain the concept to my satisfaction, but eventually gave up and said that, because of the way I was asking the question, it was clear I wouldn't understand the concept until later in the course, when some other things were clarified. For the time being, however, I'd just have to accept what she told me and move on.

Unfortunately for me, such a leap of faith was impossible for my teenage mind, and I don't think I actually learned another thing for the rest of that year in chemistry. This penchant caused me problems in German as well, where the teacher would suggest I keep reading, rather than look up each word I didn't understand, and cull the meaning from context. I looked up each word instead. If I didn't get it, my mind shut down. No faith for you, chemistry concept. Keine Glaube fuer dich, Chemievorstellung (the brutality of that translation explains why my teacher was right to steer me away from my attempts at word-by-word comprehension, btw). But to bullheaded Ed, if the meaning wasn't clear, if I couldn't grasp and tuck away the idea to then build upon it with more complex concepts, my brain would sit down, legs crossed on the floor, with a big pout, and not budge. I'm happy to say I've matured a bit since then (perhaps), but still very much understand the impulse.

This notion came back to me when traipsing through one of my favorite sections of ArtNews: their Retrospective segment, where they group quotes from 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago, generally verifying that the more things change, the more they say the same. From their June issue came this gem:
75 Years Ago
M. Matisse’s most engaging statement was undoubtedly his pat reply to the World Telegram’s inquiry as to the aesthetic perceptions of rich old lady patrons:

"When a painting is finished, it’s like a new born child, and the artist himself must have time for understanding. How then, do you expect an amateur to understand that which the artist does not yet comprehend?"
—“Matisse Speaks,” June 3, 1933
We've already been all over how unlike giving birth creating a painting is, but I think perhaps Henri's second idea here provides insight into what I see as evidence that not only does the general public not give itself enough credit with regards to how much they "get" (or don't "get") contemporary art, but that artists should care more about what other artists think about their work than the public if they're attempting to break new ground or push beyond what they think they know.

But there are two ideas in there, so I'll tease them out. First is the observation that the general public, which is frequently cited as not really getting (i.e., liking) much of contemporary art, might be getting a bum rap on that. Consider the widespread public reaction to Impressionism when it first hit the salons. Critics and amateurs alike were aghast. Today, however, an Impressionism exhibition is almost a guaranteed blockbuster for any museum. Likewise with pure abstraction, which perhaps only a few decades ago was still widely being labeled as fraudulent, but increasingly I hear as cited as casual art lovers' favorite genre of painting. In other words, the public does seem, eventually, to catch up with the artists. Matisse's assessment, then, isn't a condemnation of the amateur, but merely an honest observation that comprehension can take time and if you're not up to your hips in an investigation or practice, it can take you even longer.

The other idea, my not being an artist, represents perhaps a bit of talking through my hat, but I can only imagine how much courage it takes to keep working on a new concept/approach to one's art when there's only head-scratching (or worse) in response by the general public. When I talk with student artists about the importance of building a support network if they want to enter into the art world's gallery system, I nearly always see a bit of resistance to the idea that the most important subgroup within that network should be other artists. "Aren't they my competition for getting into a gallery?" Only if you're making essentially the same work, would be my honest reply, but instead of saying that I focus on how even the best art dealers and curators out there won't be as good a sounding board as fellow artists oftentimes. Letting a dealer or curator, who might have agendas far different from why an artist is investigating unchartered terrain, impact whether he or she continues down that path seem an unavoidable reality of the art world, but without at least comparing such advice with that of artist friends first, I can't help but think the artist is denying him/herself potentially the best evaluation.

OK, so I see I'm rambling. Thank God I don't have an editor on this thing. Otherwise, I might have to go back and make more sense of some of that...but coffee calls.

Happy Weekend all.

Labels: art appreciation


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...I can only imagine how much courage it takes to keep working on a new concept/approach to one's art when there's only head-scratching (or worse) in response by the general public."

What is harder is when you (the artist) aren't sure - when the concept/approach is so new you are just feeling your way through.

5/30/2008 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What is harder is when you (the artist) aren't sure - when the concept/approach is so new you are just feeling your way through.

I'm sure.

I'm thinking more about Matisse's question and the interaction between two players though: the learner and the instructor, so to speak. With the artist (here the instructor), the point at which I'm interested is the point at which the process you describe has given way to where feedback is sought from the learner (the viewer).

Have I tortured that analogy enough?

5/30/2008 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I'm slightly confused but

every Picasso needs a Braque, one other artist is enough.

5/30/2008 09:28:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

The idea of a public catching up with an avant-garde years after the controversy has settled down is a notion that is better suited to a time when art history still had a semblance of linearity. One has to ask if there are still cutting edge artists in our pluralistic times. The 'been there done that' attitude towards allegedly avant-garde art springs up much more quickly nowadays.

5/30/2008 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Artist friends are invaluable... if they really get your work, or have been around long enough to see your development over time, even more so.

What I find interesting about the Matisse quote is that I, also, learn a great deal from my work when it is just finished. The routine used to be that I would hang it in my bedroom to see it when I woke up in the morning, lived with it for months before hanging it in a show or giving it up. I think it is the best way (for me) to make art. The irony is that, these days, if you are successful, the work goes out the door to the next art fair or show, and that important process of learning from your own work, and building on it in the next piece, is short circuited.

5/30/2008 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I totally agree about the necessity of having artist friends look at your work; also non-artist friends who are culturally literate.

I have been deeply shocked by the fact that many dealers and curators I have met and conversed with seemed unable to grasp the principles on which a painting is created, except in the most superficial terms. It is as if their curatorial agendas completely override any actual perception of an object--its formal qualities, its technical construction, its conceptual underpinnings or its relationship to the history of painting. I know that those qualities are there to be perceived, because other painters get them immediately, and non-artists with a broad-ranging interest in culture get them eventually, usually two to three years after I've produced them.

But for some reason, every time I show my work to a dealer or a curator, I have to walk them through the whole schpiel like a two-year-old. It's as if their minds are dwelling in some meta-meta-meta landscape with no tether in the physical world at all.

5/30/2008 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I find untutored people often as not get stuff, though they may be disconcertingly pointed where critics may hem and haw like donkeys pulling an ever growing history along a muddy skid row.

But the untutored people might pepper their steaks with a bbq of "ums" and "i don't know buts" as they come upon the ideas that are spoon fed to the elite.

Which is you?

I heard a lady at a lecture broach the subject of subject with a timid list of possible IT conversations, only to be poo poo'd by the cool artists - the only subject, they said, was themselves.

But not in so many words.

Actually they said the true subject of the artist was the artist.

But not in so many words.

Actually they said you idiot, stop reading books, we do, but we artists don't use them and certainly don't talk about them because then you would stop buying what we are selling, which we don't know ourselves or we would stop making it and buying it out of boredom. Maybe, even, that we are speaking unintelligible esperanto because the coals die down and all that is left is ash.

But not in so many words.

5/30/2008 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Far from a 'new born child', I think a finished painting is a fairly 'well baked' piece of work that allows itself to additional interpretations (friends and foes alike) as time goes on. Calling it a 'new born child' smacks a bit of disguise... Just my opinion…

5/30/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Ciseau said...

It's scary to think of art students asking why they should befriend artists because they are competitors. Frankly...What sort of great art should I expect from them? Sillies... Maybe some of them are good wood carvers, BUT.

My problem is that I'm nearly uncapable in making friends, but I'd love to talk with artists. I wouldn't be here otherwise. But I could only suffer tough-skin artists who could distance themselves enough from their work to take a little criticism. I know I would: "My art is shit? Why? Ah,ok... Hmmm.. maybe I should think about this the next time" (other times, you're pretty sure that the result is what you want, if you're skilled).

Too much congratulations can be detrimentful to art, and I understand good artists to be embarassed by them.

Concerning knowing what your art does:

Sometimes I pretty much know what I want, but question wrether I'm using the right method. Than I fall back into thinking something similar to what Matisse have said: maybe I know too much what I want. Maybe I should opt into making things that I understand less. This has been a major issue for me.

I think a good thing for lazy artists is to share large loft studios. As long as they continue working while they talk. Or if you have an assistant and you need to be there for the rendez-vous. Anything that is going to make you work. So I would extend the artist's relationship to working hours, not just late-night chit-chats. Young artists need a lot more motivation because we live in a place where so little has signification anymore. It is atrocious to the ego. I used to be anti-ego, but now I see too much depressed people. People need to love to estimate themselves badly.


Cedric Casper

5/30/2008 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

people need to LEARN to estimate...
but I guess "love" made sense


5/30/2008 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

but I can only imagine how much courage it takes to keep working on a new concept/approach to one's art when there's only head-scratching (or worse) in response by the general public.

I have to start to disagree with you at this point and point out that artists such as Matisse were met with the most fierce opposition from their contemporary colleagues who were professionally invested in the production of painting, so their opposition was the most visceral. The difference in the controversy of that time is unlike previous controversies which were based on a paintings subject, which the public could be offended by, this was a civil war among painters for its own institutional values. Even today there are hangers on from the old guard, making the same arguments.

It's a lot easier to enlighten the public, than your peers.

sit down, legs crossed on the floor, with a big pout

you may have come up with a new phrase that needs an acronym..;)


something like that, it could be useful 'round here.

5/30/2008 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Does Richard Serra have artist friends? He sounds to me like the ultimate self-confident artist in interviews to the point where I really wonder if he ever discuss his art with other artists (or if he needs it, that might all just be projections from my side).

Maybe some artists really don't need opinions.

Cedric C

5/30/2008 04:33:00 PM  
Anonymous ruthk said...

I think I will hold onto my pessimism about the general public “getting” art. Do they like Impressionism? Yes, because they think it’s pretty and moody and soft and dream-like. They do not have a clue about how deliberately radical it was, in technique and subject matter. Do they like abstract art? Yes, because they are comfortable with its decorative qualities. And these are the positive responses. Cries of fraud still abound, as in an editorial I read recently in which the journalist described non-realistic representation as a “mistake” – i.e. incompetent craftsmanship – being proffered as art to a willfully foolish public.

And that’s today, not 75 years ago.

5/30/2008 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Pardon my cynicism but:

Picasso didn't need friends, he needed Braque.

People need friends, artists need sales.

There are a limited number of original ideas out there. Usually its the balls, the work ethic, the connections to get the work to market first, anything but originality, that make for success.

If people don't "get" your work, maybe it's bad. Yes, the artist can't always know this is the case. And art takes time, especially for the one who makes it. But Diaghilev said "astonish me" and your work needs to astonish someone if it's going to have a life beyond your bedroom wall.

5/30/2008 09:38:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

I knew I would regret that as soon as I hit publish. My next stop on the web was Carol Diehl's Art Vent where I read her beautiful post on John Weber. Artist's do need friends.

5/30/2008 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger the reader said...

"Letting a dealer or curator, who might have agendas far different from why an artist is investigating unchartered terrain, impact whether he or she continues down that path seem an unavoidable reality of the art world, but without at least comparing such advice with that of artist friends first, I can't help but think the artist is denying him/herself potentially the best evaluation."

I think this idea also hints at the value of artists writing about other artists work, (as more in-depth form of evaluation that can have a much wider readership). Ed's quote also suggests artists have something unique to contribute to the discussion of artworks generally.

This may seem obvious but I think it's worth mentioning because its one way to encourage artists to use the knowledge generated by their practice in speaking and writing about other-people's work, rather than slipping uncritically into critic/curator/historian mode.

As an artist/writer I've got strong personal investment in these ideas, which is also why I appreciate the fact that the above quote comes from a gallerist/dealer.

5/30/2008 10:03:00 PM  
Anonymous powerful curator said...

artists need friends. you don't show if you don't know (someone).

5/31/2008 01:53:00 AM  
Blogger gnute said...

I dunno about originality anymore. Scientists work together on stuff, I think artists can, too.

5/31/2008 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron Wexler said...

Great post! ...and tough but true questions.
Definitely agree with the support network and weighing of the directional (strategy?) advise from
curators/gallerists against instinctual direction of the artist.

As far as collectors, patrons, writers and the general public "getting it"... for me as long as the work is treated with respect and thoughtful inquiry, I'm okay with that. At this point I'm not horribly concerned with someone wrongfully trying to figure me or my work out. It's all part of the process when an artist is creating not only a product (in the broadest sense of the word) but a contemplative aesthetic object, then putting it out to the public and a marketplace.

I always think of the rail gateway to Trenton, NJ.
If you take the R7 train from Philly to Trenton, crossing the river you can see on one of the bridges in huge billboard letters reads: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES.
If you're an artist, you hope the world takes.

5/31/2008 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

Huh! I always thought having artist friends and thrashing through ideas with them was THE POINT of being an artist, and if one happened to sell stuff too, so much the better.

6/01/2008 08:06:00 AM  
Anonymous billy conklin said...

It will change the way you view the world…

by Cesar Marzetti,

excerpted from his lecture "The Truly First and Only Art Movement of the 21st Century, Even..."

Late in the last century, the loss of blahblahblah spawned the rise of an anti-blahblahblah. Even for cultural theorists, discussions concerning blahblahblah were often carried out in a critical blahblahblah that failed to engage with the work of art, much less any notions of blahblahblah. To see the art object by itself as embodying and conveying blahblahblah quickly became an outdated blahblahblah within the contemporary art world.

People started to make art at university in response to whatever blahblahblah they read. This blahblahblah became instrumental in creating the art: it served the art and the art served the blahblahblah. The practical body of work suffered accordingly. Any changes in the blahblahblah surrounding contemporary art are now intimately linked to art’s overall blahblahblah and specifically to its 'blahblahblahism'.

But now, a distinctly 21st Century blahblahblahism re-allows the idea that focusing on the total blahblahblah has the potential to open radically different ways of thinking about blahblahblah, blahblahblah and blahblahblah. If we allow the old 'blahblahblah' to enter a more reflective phase, we can expect the appearance of this new blahblahblahism. At a moment that is often termed 'post-blahblahblah', this is a direct index to which there is a renewed willingness among critics and philosophers to consider the ways in which cultural blahblahblah often overlooked key aspects of its reliance on philosophical blahblahblah.

However, with the birth of a new blahblahblahism, there is a will to return to a consideration of the artwork’s blahblahblah itself. Heralding this nascent blahblahblah suddenly becomes a priority for all of art practice to develop an even greater blahblahblah, without being constricted by measurable blahblahblahs but reclaiming such now-mythologized blahblahblahs as 'blahblahblah', 'blahblahblah' and 'blahblahblah': special qualities requiring no further blahblahblah from any externally imposing blahblahblahism.

6/01/2008 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger concrete phone said...

What makes one organism react differently from another, or a whole other bunch of organisms? What makes certain organisms behave a certain way within a time frame, and then cease to exist, almost? Why is it that we have these huge energetic massive head on body over-full-flowing pushes both into sub. and other terrain to then settle, like dust, as if, the dust did not rise, the cap was not flipped off the lid--the containers that exploded into dazzling chips of blue, violet, and alizarin that seemed to reach out like one big kaleidoscopic net, didn't come down to reach us here?
Like everything, things, come down when they are ready, when there is sign of groundwork.

6/01/2008 09:01:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

'Scientists work together on stuff, I think artists can, too'.

Actually scientists are just as bitter rivals in discovering stuff as artists. Work on 'collaborative' projects is usually fraught with distrust, deliberate omissions and misleading statements, as often as frank and open combination of resources.

This relayed to me from researchers in genetics.

After all there's a lot at stake! You're talking about people's careers - lives - in the balance - not to mention the eternal gratitude of mankind.

I agree with CC - from my observations a lot of artists - especially male artists - are just no good at making friends or being friends. They're classical 'task-oriented' types who crave the ivory tower and the certain control of set materials. And frankly, that's what the job takes most of the time. Just a hell of a lot of hours at the coal face.

Female artists, seem to me, much more inclined to network and workshop - much better at it. They're classical 'role-oriented' types. The typical male artist waits patiently in any meeting, decides "OK - I'll solve that!/Find that!/Make that!" and then stalks off to the ivory tower. The typical female artist asks "Who has made any progress with this issue? and lets do coffee in the meantime".

This is not to say there aren't exceptions to each sex, and many combinations.

Both approaches work, up to a point. You use what you can.

6/03/2008 02:33:00 AM  

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