Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation.

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation. 

 

I have a further follow-up to your previous questions regarding comparing artists from different eras. 

I think there’s a basic problem in comparing artists, either in their own era or with respect to artists in other eras. Certainly, it’s interesting to try to detect “influences” (e.g., Japanese prints on some of Van Goghs later paintings). But ultimately, as you well know, what’s key in a work (to my mind) is the ‘sensibility’ (for lack of a better word) of the artist — to his materials and to himself (his soul, if you will). It’s that kind of ‘expression’ that subtly appeals to many of us, even if unconsciously.  That sensibility may involve her/his reactions to events of their time, their era — political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. But, even if a detailed analysis by a critic or art historian can seem to “tie” aspects of the artist’s work to public events or other artists past or present or things happening in the artist’s life, an exercise that seems peculiarly satisfying to other critics, art historians, and even the public, the final reckoning is the viewer’s/receptor’s “reaction” to the work. When you stand in front of the work, it’s just you and it. And each viewer brings her or his own ‘baggage’ — life experience, viewpoints, mood, preferences.  

That’s why, as I stated earlier in our exchange, I have a healthy suspicion of the whole idea of “judgment” in relation to art-viewing and discussion. Yes, I think one can speak intelligently and even non-judgmentally about one artist’s use of a medium vs. another’s. In an online discussion of “The Renaissance of Etching” (a Met exhibition and catalog last year), recently held in connection with the International Print Dealers Association ‘fair’ here in New York, it was interesting to hear several of the 3 member panel note that Durer’s few etchings reflected someone not comfortable with the medium but, rather, who must have preferred engraving (hence, he made only a few etchings). This is a probably historical fact, and interesting in itself, but should not necessarily ‘cloud’ our view of his etchings. What is our personal reaction to these etched images? Can we look at them and ‘appreciate’ them without drawing on our knowledge of how spectacular his engravings are? (Probably not….but we can still appreciate his effort at employing a new technique … and maybe enjoy the images themselves without any comparison with his other works … or with other artists’ etchings.)

As I stated earlier: it seems to me this idea of judging artists and eras began with Vasari here in the West and has not always been helpful in our attempt to understand what really happened in various eras of Western history in the visual arts. (If that’s what we want to understand.) We’ll always have a view skewed by what earlier critics and historians have determined was good or bad and by the ‘canon’ that they have implicitly created. This may leave we who are readers and observers without a real understanding of what earlier societies ‘valued’ in the visual arts and who they thought were good and not so good. A totally comprehensive overview of any era’s visual output is probably not practical, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get a ‘broader’ view of all that humanity has accomplished — to the extent we have the time away from our own work!  

Adam:

Artists and writers are a cross-section of society … with diverse political affiliations, social and moral values, and financial connections. While I affirm that all artists and writers have a right to their own views, I do wonder whether critics, art historians, museums etc. might have an obligation to present the artist in a context which gives insight into the connections between who they are are personalities and the art that they produce. But what are the boundaries of accountability — for art and literary historians, of critics and teachers, of publishers … and of artists? This includes the many instances of artists, writers and musicians who supported their sponsors in order to gain renommé, political and financial gain, and artistic opportunity. Is there a difference between that and museum benefactors who are known for politics and investments that are no longer politically correct? 

I have pointed out Gertrude Stein’s (and other famous authors’) fascist leanings previously. What do you think of the survival of her art collection purely due to her support of Petain? Is it excusable? How do we separate our valuations of famous writers and artists from their “madness” and opportunism as persons and personalities? Does genius supersede all judgment? 

I have personally reacted to known artists and writers who have expressed themselves to the media and in their art and literature in ways that I considered to be derogatory to women, to persons with physical handicaps, etc.; and I have also defended artists’ and writers’ right to self-expression, but only as far as I feel that s/he makes an attempt to present the case and give context to their xenophobia and/or other discriminatory perspectives … rather than merely make bombastic presentations in order to shock and provoke. This is a sensitive issue and has perhaps always been so. 

Ricardo:

All good questions. In the contemporary scene: what should we make of art museums and others being renamed because the benefactor was tied to Big Pharma ‘pushing’ of opioids, especially oxycontin? Or of the Princeton School of Public Affairs being renamed from the Woodrow Wilson School to a more innocuous generic name after Wilson’s terrible racism was (re)exposed? And what can we say about artists? Should we disavow Caravaggio’s works and importance because he was a murderer? (Many artists were at that time, including Cellini … self-admitting in his autobiography). I think the works have to stand on their own … including Wagner’s. But with sharp-eyed observers pointing out aspects (if any) that may deliberately expose their (now) abhorrent views.

Adam:

Yes, we are all responsible: in our creations, our judgments, our criticisms, our thoughts, our actions, and our non-actions. Existence is an exercise in creation. My most valued compliments regarding my art and literature have been when viewers/readers have told me that my work and ideas have sparked creative thoughts, artworks, and writing in their own lives. I mean for my own work to be an existential and philosophical “dialogue” with the Viewer/Reader … a dialogue that can continue in his/her mind, and thus further, in many forms and perspectives throughout the planet. In that way, we are all inescapably artists/writers/philosophers etc. And we are all responsible. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est condamné à être libre”, a concept which resounds in his “L’Etre et le Nèant” and in his “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. In his novel “Nausea”, Sartre played upon René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) with his own discourse: “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think anymore, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”. 

 

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Is Art Always Useful?

I am quite interested in voicing my opinions, in my art and literature, and also about art and literature. One of my regular discussion partners is an art historian (Ricardo). We approach many topics and themes and enjoy our “popcorn for the brain”-banter. Here is a short extract from a recent discussion that began with attribution of style definition and concepts by museum curators, art critics, and artists … and proceeded to historical perspectives regarding valuation, commercialization, and politicization of Art throughout the ages, and especially in the present. I will — for the sake of simplicity and for practical purposes — subtitle this extract “Is Art Always Useful?”

Adam:

I would love to read an art history piece addressing the question of when an idea in artwork becomes monotonous (same repeated image, same colors, same image in fourteen color variations, etc.), and why (eg. commercialization, over-exposure of the artist or style or theme, weak ideas and images that are not deserving of repetition, etc.). Works by many artists — living and not — and in all styles and periods could be examined here, Klein, Warhol, Rothko, Pollock, Basquiat, Munch, iconography, many medieval paintings, as well as impressionistic ones. And a curated exhibition exploring this topic would be excellent: whose work survives the test of several hundred years, and whose will not? What are the expectations and needs today as opposed to previously? How do attention spans compare among audiences? And finally a study of how long people spend gazing at various artworks, and which exhibitions are done within a very short amount of time? Does cramming art spaces with too much art have a negative viewing effect? Could art museums improve upon their presentations by having simultaneous online and in-museum exhibitions, whereby curator questions are drafted online and the same concurrent museum exhibitions provide a more limited visual experience of selected works?

And regarding the question of museums’ search for relevance:

Museums are struggling for relevance, are desperate to meet the younger generation’s interest, and to compete with speculations of art galleries and Internet trends. But they now risk making themselves even more redundant than before. All major art museums have huge inventories of works that are rarely shown. Surely showing these works is more interesting than beating a dead horse by trying to capitalize on fads. Moreover, the attempts to give more relevance and significance than is deserved to certain fads and trends are tiring for audiences. How many retrospectives and themed exhibitions of the works of Mapplethorpe, Basquiat, Warhol, Rothko, Picasso, Pollock, Banksy, etc. do we need? The same is true of art galleries that show an artist collection of the same image in a series of multiple colors. Once you have seen one work there is no need to see several more of the same. This is laziness on the part of the artist, and a case of promoting “the emperor’s new clothes” on the part of the galleries. Also, many museum presentations are a far stretch in regards to their political agendas. There is so much more and better that could be done. I have seen much graffiti art — on the streets, in art galleries, in curated museum exhibitions, on the Internet, etc. Is the reputed relevance not now rather overstated?

Less is often better. And not all “art” deserves a constant promotion. Every museum must have and show its Picasso works, but not all of the acquisitions are first-rate, significant, or even well-made. Like Warhol, fame, and money led him and many other artists to become “hacks”, to repeat themselves, and to sell things they were less proud of. And newer generations strive to copy their styles and make “knock-offs” of their signature works as short-cuts to creative expression and to pay their bills. True enough, many famous artists are propelled rather unnaturally and undeservedly, while some others’ hard work goes largely unnoticed. “When you are hot you are hot, and when your period of popularity is over and the crowd is pushed on further you are no longer hot.” The Internet exacerbates this problem.

I have many questions and ideas.

 

Ricardo the Art Historian:

All very good questions and ideas.

 

Well, now we are having fun! I pride myself on all art and objects in my home being functional and utilitarian, due to limited space. The implication is that all objects are also chosen for their esthetic and artistic qualities, and the ways they can complement one another.

 

Ricardo:

I guess I didn’t mean to suggest that what we call “art” has to be utilitarian. I suppose an economist might take the position that anything someone spends money on or otherwise acts to acquire and which gives them pleasure — esthetic, intellectual, “I can afford this and you can’t”-satisfaction, etc.) is, from an economic standpoint, utilitarian….it keeps the wheels of commerce churning. And certainly, there are and should be all types of “art” — confrontational, challenging, mysterious, didactic, tendentious — as many types as there are tastes in the consumers and other “receptors”. And I’m reminded of the debate about Matisse’s declaration that he made art to “soothe” those viewing it**…..and so in the ’20s, his art seemed to become “decorative”…..both developments (his statement, his colorful, soothing paintings and, eventually, cut-outs) raising some minor storms from critics. By the way, I meant to mention a wonderful observation by the critic Clement Greenberg sometime in the early or mid-1950s to the effect that he almost regretted that the Renaissance had put so much emphasis on perspective and the idea of looking through a window onto the scene depicted…..half-musing what the development of art might have been without that kind of focus and objective.

** The Matisse quote: What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

 

Adam:

I must admit that the Andy Warhol and Basquiat period confounds me now that it is at a distance. I was — like you — in Manhattan during their time, and also during the time of many other now-famous artists of that era. In Manhattan and in Los Angeles it was common to see these persons, to cross their paths on the streets, at parties, at restaurants, etc. and there was a sense of respect for their personal space and experience. I never idolized them as persons or as artists, and their work was for me just one of their many expressions; and not unlike the clothing they preferred to wear, the night clubs and discos I saw them at, and so on. Everyone was “an artist” back then; and a few “made it” (i.e. made most of their income from their art). It seemed almost coincidental oftentimes, dependent upon who you knew who knew someone, being in the right place at the right moment in Time, etc. rather than one particular person’s art being greater or better than that of all others. I could not — and did not even think about trying to — compare one artist with another. Personal expression and uniqueness were paramount; and one’s artistic personality was a large part of one’s art. Graffiti was everywhere back then. I did not evaluate if it was “Art” or “Vandalism”. It was just part of the background to the constant Entertainment Show going on all around us, and which we were a part of — regardless of whether we considered ourselves as artists, or not. When Basquiat teamed up with Warhol the social protest/vandalism (reminiscent of Michael West’s “Blinding Light” painting which pre-dates Basquiat) made its way into the prestigious art galleries and art museums. While graffiti was by no means “new” or revolutionary art, the concept of taking it inside was novel. Warhol was a businessman who knew how to make lots of money, and who loved doing that. I will always wonder what Warhol and Basquiat had within them beyond the commercialized expressions of protest (Basquiat) and everyday iconography (Warhol). What would they produce today? I suspect that Warhol would have long since moved on to video/film, photography, and computer art. I suspect that perhaps Basquiat did not have so many more ideas beyond what made him famous. That is all well and good. Everything in its time. It is increasingly difficult to compare art — not only in the same few decades but also over centuries. It is perhaps akin to trying to decide who is the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all Time) in any discipline, sport, or art form. But comparing artists working within the same basic styles and within the same time periods is rather possible. Perhaps that is the foundation of comparative Art for art historians? But, back to Basquiat. After his fame, many other artists moved from the streets and walls inside of galleries and museums. And as they did so their graffiti art became more and more stylized and commercial. Graphic representations with accompanying tagging dumbed down the previous abstractions so that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet had mental and financial access to these politically-correct posters that were mass-produced. Now, the trend is again returning to selling original works at art auctions and museums. But I question whether such art is really a significant style in the greater context of art history. Graffiti in prehistoric caves, in ancient Italy and Greece … and even in dilapidated neighborhoods in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, NYC, etc. can often be much more “primal” and evocative than many of the works commanding exorbitant prices at Sotheby’s and museums. Michael West’s paintings are powerful because she speaks to herself — about her experience of her existence and environment — rather than making her art into a speakeasy. It is that introspection that makes her own “rage” a different kind of abstract protestation. Perhaps a more powerful and primal expression than that of Basquiat and those who have followed him. Her work — like the early, pre-splatter works by Jackson Pollock — has a vibrant primal quality that is, to me, closer to being an original style — even though she was greatly influenced by a few of her close artist friends’ styles. Today it is common for contemporary artists to name their styles (which is perhaps often preferable to being pigeonholed and typecast by art historians and gallery owners). We can be quite creative at putting together hyphenated known style categories in questionable combinations. Just as vague and intentionally meaningless as much gallery show bullshit written in invitations to vernissages. Or artwork titles. My question is more and more, does any clean style exist today? Is it desirable to have only one style anymore? I dunno. But I think more and more that historical social and political context is equally important (if not more so) than style classifications. Most art is situation-inspired and thereby specific to an Era, rebellions, or promotions of then-current modes of expression and themes. Perhaps that is equally interesting to talk about rather than merely style and technique? I note that modern art museums are moving increasingly in that direction in curating their exhibitions. Historical and sociopolitical context is now allowing art museums to be social learning institutions, and thus more relevant for today’s audiences.

 

Ricardo:

Yes, to all you brilliantly have written. I find some contemporary curating a little too “politically correct”-intended as they pair works from different eras or centuries in one space. Implying what? That artists respond similarly in different times (to what, tho?) as evidenced by a similar style or subject matter or use of materials? So what, I say? What’s your point, dear curator. Or maybe a curator is using artworks like a poet uses words, to express herself/himself? I don’t think they’d ever admit that, but choice, by its very nature, involves the curator’s thought, emotion, outlook, intention. On balance, I think we’re in an age of cultural confusion and drift. New means of expression, like iPad art, may yet come to dominate the “art scene”.

 

Adam:

Exactly my point. Let contemporary artists talk about their art and process, and let the public decide if it achieves its goals — if there are any beyond mere pleasure. But here art critics are equally to blame.