Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Greatness Takes a Village : Open Thread

Note: I wish I had the clarity of mind to do this subject justice today, but my sinuses are off the charts and the totally ineffective remedies I took to, well, remedy that situation are morphing in my brain into a cloud of ... enough me out here...tear this one apart.

I was thinking a bit more last night about the sense I got from some of the comments on the "Opening up the Sophistication Speakeasy" thread that some folks are less convinced than I that everyone (and I do mean everyone) should play a role in the dialog surrounding contemporary art and that it behooves those involved actively already to be more inclusive rather than exclusive, regardless of what one may view as the motivations of the "strivers."

Why that seems important to me was a question I let rattle around in my head a while until my mind landed upon the old adage that in "the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Settling for the limited wisdom or ruling capacity of the one-eyed king, rather than seeking a cure to the nation's blindness, strikes me as an apt parallel to settling for a semi-literate population when it comes to the arts. If you could cure the nation's blindness, you might find that not only can you do much better than the one-eyed king for leader, but even the one-eyed king would then be challenged to do better by the example of those around him reaching their increased potential.

I had forgotten about this train of thought until this morning, when reading Jerry Saltz's lovely review of MoMA's current Van Gogh exhibition "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night," it struck me that all of us lose something incredibly important, because its potential is so incredibly fleeting, by settling for a semi-arts-literate society. From Jerry's review:

Set aside the show’s muddled logic, the cheesy Andrew Lloyd Webber title and the pretend rationale that this is anything more than an excuse to bring in crowds. The Night Café and The Starry Night still emit such pathos, density and intensity that they send shivers down the spine. Whether Van Gogh thought in color or felt with his intellect, the radical color, dynamic distortion, heart, soul and part-by-part structure in these paintings make him a bridge to a new vision and the vision itself.

"Colors of the Night" clicks, despite all its flaws, because it is compact. Comprising only 23 paintings, nine drawings and a few letters and books, it reminds us that small surveys can deliver more punch than windbag blockbusters. In the first of its four sections, "Early Landscapes," we see flat-footed work by the self-taught late bloomer, revealing that Van Gogh, like Pollock, was one of the least naturally talented artists ever, that he virtually willed himself to greatness. From there, we see his progression through work painted while Van Gogh lived with his parents and versions of Millet’s The Sower. Finally, in "Poetry of the Night," Van Gogh begins soaring, as he finds his own style. [emphasis mine]

So my thinking here goes something like this: Say there had been no Millet or his painting The Sower. Moreover, say there had been no Gauguin or other apt contemporary judges of van Gogh's work in his day. Certainly those things in and of themselves would not have prevented van Gogh from willing himself to greatness, but if he had simply floored all the other artists and indeed the entire world with the work he had done while living with his parents, what would have propelled him further? His own assessments, perhaps, sure. But I think there's a cumulative social element to talented people reaching further, pushing themselves, and actually reaching greatness.

Consider why artists from all over Northern Europe flocked to Italy during the Renaissance. It wasn't enough for Dürer, for example, to wow the Burgermeisters of backwater Bavaria (forgive the geographical illiteracy...I'm a slave to alliteration). Not when he knew his work could be measured against the best work being produced in Venice by some. The culture in late 15th Century Venice, the dedication to greater discernment that flourished there, influences opinions about quality to this very day. Golden Eras will ebb and flow, of course, but when the money's there (and until recently it was here), a great deal is lost to all of mankind if the people spending that money don't know enough to demand better art. I think it takes a concerted collective effort to create an atmosphere in which those gifted enough to achieve greatness are pushed to do so.

OK, so I can see some problems with this line of thought for java. Consider this an open thread on whether the sophistication within any given society increases or is irrelevant to whether an artist in the society will reach further in his/her quest.

Labels: art appreciation, art criticism


Blogger Donna Dodson said...

are you talking about artists who have their fingers on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist and that makes it great art- where cultural influence is a passive element - i think the era of clement greenberg was unusual compared to now where the critics were kings & the cultural tastemakers of great influence over artistic aesthetics- how does the public influence art if there is no forum for dialogue or is that a circular argument- art appeals only to those in the art world not to the general population... thanks for a great topic- lots of food for thought in this one ed...

10/22/2008 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger david kramer said...

Ed- Great topic to muse about.
On a personal level, I was born in NYC and lived here forever. Sometimes I regret that I never got to "arrive" in this town. Never got swept up in the cultural swell and got dragged here.
But for all, I think there can be a cultural groundswell in has happened in England where Damian Hirst is a household name. We live in a country that once elected a president becasue we'd rather have a beer with him, and not the guy who gives us long answers to our questions.

10/22/2008 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Ed, you're lost in the woods on this one.

The Chanel Pavillion is a great example of marketing. It is a freestanding trade show booth, designed to fit into cargo containers. It is about the art of consumption and the consumption of art.

I cannot attribute motives to collectors I don't know, suffice to say, whatever the Chanel Pavilion brings to their dialogue it appears to direct the conversation in the wrong direction.

I am at a loss to understand your comments about Van Gogh. Certainly if his history had been different, we would have different paintings by him.

An interest in the underclass's, as exemplified by Millet, was not uncommon among artists at the end of the 19th century. Certainly his visit to Paris, the slums of Paris, affected the development of his artwork but the ideas and influences came from the avant guard.

At that time in history, art was an acceptable pastime of the landed gentry and a number of well known artists of that era, including Toulouse-Lautrec, were rutting in the slums of Paris but not in the Chanel Pavilion.

So help me here. What "dialogue" are we talking about? Is there an avant guard? Is a society which watches "Survivor" sophisticated? Is there a difference in the 'understanding' of art between the 'serious' collectors and the social climbers? Is it possible to be well educated, have an eye, and 'understand' the art AND still be just a social climber, does it matter?

10/22/2008 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you tried nasonex? it's a local acting nasal spray used daily that i found works great on allergies and sinus issues. ask your doctor.

your van gogh comments (if there wasn't millet, gaugin...) lead me to a very simplistic observation: competition. i think artist and people in general are by nature very competitive and that is a strong component for striving and achieving. one component of many but an important one for artists in my opinion.

10/22/2008 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I take Advil for sinuses, the special anti-sinus advil.

I don't believe in art bursting out of nowhere. There's always an explanation. There's always a social consciousness. If Van Gogh had stayed with his parents, he would have gotten a little of that
from talking to his parents everyday.

Art here in this discussion is actually Fine Arts which is a field that requires a certain involvment with sophistication or intellectual exploration. If you have not much ideas about what is going on with Fine Arts, you are more likely to end up doing something else, like wonderful music or nice illustrations. You can achieve greatness if you have a special imagination, maybe even indulge in making objects that would be deemed Fine Arts by those able to make this kind of cultural discernment, but there is always a source to imagination, which is the world going on around you.

Sophistication is enticing and stimulating, but when a society becomes too complex and sophisticated it looses itself in excesses. The classisists were interested by simplicity and order after the mannerism of the baroques. That's not really important anyway, but Fine Arts has always been some sort of reply.


Cedric Caspesyan

10/22/2008 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"Competition" didn't have squat to do with what made Van Gogh great. If everybody's competitive, it tables competitiveness as an issue. The greatness of Van Gogh, is the result of gifted inspiration, it transcends the mere physical. Striving or strategizing provide no solutions.

10/22/2008 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Pinax said...

Striving or strategizing provide no solutions.

Striving or strategizing provide no solutions.

Striving or strategizing provide no solutions.

10/22/2008 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Artists certainly can't make good art if the intention is to "sophisticate" many.

Sophistication is probably a judgement made by others and one that is substantiated with time. On an individual level, we can suss out the solidity of an art viewer's interest. But, can we direct sophistication on a mass level? I doubt it.

10/22/2008 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I recommend whiskey, hot water and honey or maple syrup with a bit of cayenne pepper, bee pollen and powdered elephant dung.

You are welcome.

10/22/2008 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Gaugin was competitive with Van Gogh though? I thought...
Maybe it was just a personality conflict. Like siblings.

But I get the sense that van Gogh was a greater talent, or at least there was this implicit manic energy that outpaced Gaugin's decadent muddy paletted egotism. and that Van Gogh, who also enjoyed hookers, was no stranger to debauchery, but that he actually cared about his hookers. Did he feel bad spending his brother's money on hookers?

Correct me if I'm wrong.

WHere are we going? Barnett Newman said, somewhat famously that there was no place TO go - in essence that the myth of modernism had nothing to do with MODERNIST painting.

Modernist painting that was more inspired by Buddhism, Yoga, Gnosticism and their derivatives in victorian mystery cults - not to mention the classical mystery cults of Greece and the modern drinking clubs for businessmen known as Lodges.

Which is to say that as sophisticated as a society seems to get, it still remains rather primitive, tribal and tied to the means of production or the material reality. and will remain so until man transcends his corporeal form and either becomes a digital life form or dare I say it, a god.

Marx and Engels could not have forseen Moore's law, surely?

As digital gods, we will all live selfish lives, but also, we will allow guests into our domains - and in peaceful coexistence our many worlds will combine into a synergistic utopia - one in which the world is stopped, melting in a metaphor for philosophical gold.

It used to be fashionable to visit asylums to watch the bizarre antics of the insane. In the same way, the art world creates ever more subtle (but hardly more sophisticated) demonstrations of neurotic behavior. it remains to the public at large, the audience, themselves to psychoanalyze the artist as a synecdoche for the whole, (or the tv show or the handbag) and thus cure the world of the madness, to find a way to inoculate the world through homeopathic medicine - what Simon Frazier noted as the "law of contagion."

10/22/2008 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

As a NY art outsider (I've moved out of NYC, would describe myself as a submerging artist, still working hard, striving, i.e. a striver, but I think not a poseur) it seems that the dialogue that has ensued from Tuesday's post (re the social evolution of a certain type of collector vis a vis Ourosoff's Monte's in the Chanel pavilion, and etc)through this thread (re competition among artists, fine art vs. 'regular' art, etc) involves a lot of second-guessing of others' motivations. Why is this important? The merits of Zaha Hadid's commissioned architectural folly stand in direct proportion to the grandeur of the current women's handbag fetish. The pavilion is a self-congratulating irony of pre-market crisis marketing; silly $$$$$ handbags will always be carried with the utmost sincerity by their owners. The artworks in its exhibition are the reason for its being--they are the little necessities in the big purse. It doesn't excite my curiosity enough to see it, but it also doesn't excite my ire. What I am curious about: When is a question about art not sincere?

10/22/2008 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous How we got here (where are we) said...

Thank you, Seriously!

10/22/2008 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Tor Hershman said...

Ed, I suggest a flu shot, using LOTS of hand sanitizer (In the future) andddddd visiting my blog for moi's latest work of art entitled
"Everybody's Andy Warhol For 15 Minutes."

Stay on (get well) safari,

10/22/2008 03:39:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

I feel like I can't touch the sophistication argument without splitting a lot of the hairs George is splitting.

But I will say that I did about six months of regular acupuncture for sinus headaches about three years ago, and now they are completely gone.

10/22/2008 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...


Irrigate the sinuses with warm salt water via a neti pot, available at Whole Foods or other health food store. Inexpensive,
non drug, and--best of all--no elephant dung. Feel better.

Lay off the dung powder.)

10/22/2008 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"When the members of a community perceive an external discrimination made against them as a group, their sense of unity restores the community, leading them to embrace their common heritage for the purpose of solidarity."

or something like thathere

10/22/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Chinese allergy herbs: Pe Min Kan Wan. Sold in a green and white box for around $2.50 in most chinese herb stores in Chinatown. Take three or four pills two or three times a day. They're the best antihistimines I've ever used, with no side effects (except dandruff, if you use them for months and months at a stretch.)

10/22/2008 06:22:00 PM  
Anonymous scapone said...

One comment Ed made has me thinking: "..don't know enough to demand better art. It takes a concerted collective effort [to push the gifted to greatness]." But the other side of the equation requires speaking up (intelligently, considerately) against--there's no other way to say it--bad art. The thing is, I almost never read a bad review of an art show, in a magazine, anyway. And although I don't believe in a thumbs-up-or-down, four-out-of-five stars rating system, it seems like we live in a period of extreme uncriticality (is that a word?) where everything that's called 'art' has to be considered.

Why is this? Has the market replaced critical assessment of the work? Are we in such an oppressive zone of post-conceptualism that simply anything can be passed off as art? Are we living in the middle of an actual historical 'movement' without the benefit of history to render it visible?

Normally I would feel like a philistine for thinking this but one hears a lot of back-room art-world gossip and complaints about the merits of so-and-so's latest show or quality of who's-its gallery program, etc. Like everybody in the artworld knows that a hyped artist is crap but is afraid to let the public in on the truth.

I know there's a lot of problems with this line of thought. But I'm thinking of all the 'BFD' moments I've had with critically lauded shows lately (Eliasson at the top of that list) and thinking about Schjeldahl's review of the Murakami show (which I liked) in the New Yorker which was a refreshing kick in the pants.

He writes that his favorite part of the show was in fact the built-in Vuitton boutique:
"...retail swank is an aesthetic lingua franca today, and equations of art and commerce, pioneered by Andy Warhol and colonized by Jeff Koons, among others, are, at least, familiar."

and then:
"I don’t like Murakami’s work, but my dislike, being moody, feels out of scale with the artist’s terrific energy and ambition."

Does this relate to the conversation, of willing oneself to greatness, sophistication be damned? What do the rest of you feel about the pervasive acceptance of art that you feel, if not outright "bad", at least manipulated into admitting that is good?

10/22/2008 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

+++Artists certainly can't make +++good art if the intention is +++to "sophisticate" many.

The detractors of mannerism thought like this. I don't agree. I thinmk now is a perfect time for a new mannerism. There's been too much of post-conceptualist punchliners. We need people to come and tell us how life's more complex than a Damien Hirst.

+++Gaugin was competitive with Van +++Gogh though? I thought...

I agree. Van Gogh thought Gauguin was the coolest of cool and got obsessed in trying to come up with something newer. When you read the story it's as if Van Gogh was love-obsessed with Gauguin, yet he slept with prostitutes.

Cedric C

10/22/2008 09:21:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Da dialogue done danced to dandruff.

10/22/2008 11:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely said Jerry.

10/23/2008 05:25:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

'Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation. By dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labour, but also not abandoning one's views on the say-so of this person or that. ... I have had singularly little discourse with painters lately. I haven't been the worse for it. It isn't the language of painters so much as the language of nature that one should heed.' – Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882 (bold emphasis mine)

10/23/2008 10:54:00 PM  

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