Quote of the Day

Tom Smith sees art plain:

And now for some deep thoughts about Art. I think the heart of the problem is not that artists take themselves too seriously, but that everybody else takes them too seriously. People forget that art is fundamentally interior decoration. And occasionally outdoor decoration. The job of art is to produce stuff that rich people want to buy and put on their walls or in their gardens because it is nice to look at, or use, if you are talking about, for example, pots. Rich people here includes rich institutions, such as the Catholic Church. That is, contrary to what Ms. Something or Other of Yale says, art is a commodity. Well, maybe not a commodity. In justice, I suppose frequently it qualifies as a unique good for purposes of commercial law. But just a good. This notion that markets make bad art, is just the opposite of true. Institutions supporting art for non-market reasons produces bad art — political art, ideological art, art about issues, and so on. Dreadful stuff. Art produced for markets produces stuff you can imagine wanting to buy if you had the money.
I think a good rule of thumb is that if a piece of art has to be explained to you before you can see why anybody would bother to make it or look at it, you are wasting your time looking at it. One useful thing about repellent performance art, such as videos of abortions, is that it disabuses people of their earnest middle class sentiment that art will somehow improve or elevate them, if only by opening their minds. It can do that, but it has to start with something else, and it has to have something to improve you and elevate you with, which is not going to be art itself. I suspect that governments giving money to artists has done a lot to promote bad art. Finally, there is a lot of shockingly dreadful Marxist theory of art stuff out there, which I advise you to avoid.

A tangentially related post is here.

15 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. My favorite artist is roundly denounced by those interested in serious art as being nothing more than a populist scribbler unworthy of attention.

    It is Norman Rockwell, who perfectly captured moments in American life and culture.

    Why do I enjoy his work so much? Because you never have to explain the pictures he produced, and it always gets an emotional response.

    Heck, isn’t that the very definition of art?


  2. Tatyana,

    Them’s fighten words!

    Beside cartoons can be great art. Benjamin Franklins “Join or Die” cartoon is credited with being a major factor in creating a collective American identity. Thomas Nast’s cartoons brought down Tamnany and established the iconography of the Democrat donkey and Republican elephant.

    The true measure of art is is effect not its form.

  3. Oh sure, cartoons are kind of art. But art encompasses more than just cartoons, and its definition is wider than “representation of reality that generates emotional response”.

  4. I recently visited an exhibition of modern art. Many of the exhibits were quite nice and I am glad that I was able to see them. But most of the artists’ explanations of their work were complete bullshit, silly posturing about what the art “represents” or what this or that feature of the art “symbolizes.” When I read this kind of stuff (not that I do read much of it, because it’s so often an annoying waste of time — not exactly what Tom Smith said but related) I usually conclude that the artist’s argument must be weak if he needs visual aids to make it. It doesn’t help that artists as a group seem to be almost as unskilled in critical thought as are actors. But, and I think that Smith is entirely right about this, it’s not the artists’ fault. They are merely responding to incentives from their patrons and customers, too many of whom take seriously “artists’ statements” and other nonsense.

  5. Art intersects economics in Wm.D.Grampp,”Pricing the Priceless”.The book was written in 1989 but is still relevant today. This is a great analysis of the art world by a Chicago PhD (1944).This is fun to read, the writing is sharp and witty, and the analysis is rigorous,but isn’t that what one expects from a Chicago man? I am not disinterested here, as I love Art and Eco.Readily available used on Amazon.

    State subsidy of Art is probably why Europe produces nothing much anygood now.A lot of the theatre and opera is shit.

  6. Shannon,
    here’s a parallel example to Rockwell: Soviet art of approx. same period. Did it reflect reality – you bet it did. Does artist posess excellent technical skill – yes he does. Is it emotional – absolutely; albeit the emotions it triggers might be radically different from those intended by artist. Was it effective – oh yes: I wouldn’t be suprised if the painter received Stalin Award and a “dacha” for it (or equivalent).
    When I look at Rockwell or Kinkade or any Socialist-Realist, I feel approximately same thing: technically skillful exploitator of one [commercially successful] technique manipulating primitive emotions of the masses. The fact that many millions like it speaks rather against it, in my eyes.

  7. There are at least three difference between Rockwell and socialist realism: (1) Rockwell was not putting a false face on a murderous system, he was offering a semtimentalized version of a real society that was basically decent, (2) Rockwell was understood to be providing an imaginative, nicer-than-real depiction of American life, where socialist realims purported to be an accurate picture, which was a cynical lie and everyone knew it, (3) Rockwell was a commercial artist who was one person in a cacaphony of artistic styles, both commercial and otherwise, with no government sanction mandating that anyone paint like him, or even look at his paintings.

    The comparison is baseless, misleading, and is a slander on Rockwell.

  8. Tatyana,

    I can the technical resemblance and I am sure that Rockwell could have technically executed it. However, Rockewell’s scenes create a resonance in me. He tells a story I recognize. The Soviet scene means nothing to me. I mean, what exactly is going on there?

    Soviet art wasn’t always invested in realism. For about 5 years after the revolution Soviets fostered a lot art avant guard for the times. Indeed, that art was used as selling tool for communist innovation.

    The fact that many millions like it speaks rather against it, in my eyes.

    The popularity of an art work means nothing. Great art is great art regardless of the scale of its audience. In the past when few people had any education. elitism in art might have meant something. Now most “elite” art is simply nonsense which people who aspire to elitism claim to worth in. Its the emperor’s new clothes.

    Great mass art is very difficult to actually do. There is so much money in it that many people try it but few can pull it off. If you look at Rockwell’s competitors in the magazine market he dominated you can see a lot of hack stuff. Likewise, you can see a lot work as technically competent as Rockwell’s but clearly lacking the soul.

    I think that Rockwells mass market target audience makes the work more impressive, not less.

  9. I’m pretty much a know what I like person but have always felt insecure. First, what people like can be Hallmark cards; that’s an area I know more about and while I can tear up over a card as fast as the next person and like what they do, such accessibility is less likely to wear well with time. Secondly, I don’t know enough about it – about technique, about history, to put art in as broad a context as a thoughtful commentator should. And, third, I’m not unaware that I’m a hick.

    Okay, that aside: what about Andrew Wyeth? And what about Hopper? Most of us have fairly strong responses to them. A friend with a grad degree in art history was saying just before the Yale mess (and I kept thinking of it as I was reading about that absurdity) that she thought Wyeth’s stock was going to go up and some of the bigger movements go down. (Finally, much stock that communism had artificially inflated has been losing its air.)

    When she said that I remembered that in one of our few times out of the provinces in the last couple of decades we’d wandered into a Wyeth exhibit. My husband and I had left, stunned and quiet. He was especially moved. A few weeks later, I’d read in the kind of magazines usually in our house at that time a discussion that compared a Wyeth work with that of naked aroused men. As I remember, Wyeth’s lack of imagination was the point. (That was a while ago; maybe I’m being unfair.) This is fine as someone’s opinion but I suspect over time it alienated some of the public from “art.” I don’t know if this was common at other times in other places (I suspect it was occasionally but not as pervasively), but one of the worst things about a lot of twentieth century thinking was how much it alienated us from ourselves, from our own immediate responses, from authenticity. (And, well, you might say, some of this just reveals what an insecure person you are, Ginny – but, then, am I that unusual?)

  10. If great, or high, art is not intended to produce an emotion (other than frustration at the opacity of the artwork – I’ll leave aside a sense of disgust as the intended product of the art, which certainly seems to be what some artists like to go for) in the experiencer of the art, but instead is evocative only to the artist who must (condescendingly) explain it to the hoi polloi, how is it different from my teenage scribblings? From my son’s sketches? From anybody’s essentially masturbatory “creation” of something for his own pleasure (fine), with his own intent in mind (fine), and with no particular effort expended to demonstrate that intent to anyone else (huh?)? If there’s no interaction between the work and the experiencer of it, where’s the value in the art?

    In other words… if the fact that millions are touched by some work of art is not to its credit, who does have to be moved by the art in order to make it worthwhile? Just the artist? The artist and his buddies? A tiny community of other artists, who can congratulate themselves on how deep they are and sneer at how simpleminded everybody else is? (I give them the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they’re actually moved and not just play-acting to fit in to their community.)

  11. “If you look at Rockwell’s competitors in the magazine market he dominated you can see a lot of hack stuff. Likewise, you can see a lot work as technically competent as Rockwell’s but clearly lacking the soul.”

    A perfect illustration of that can be found here, in the Saturday Evening Post Image Gallery.

    One of the things that jumps out at anyone going through these magazine covers, each designed to appeal to the maximum amount of people in order to drive sales, is that the artists experimented with each other styles. For example, J.C. Leyendecker’s “Henry V and his French Bride” with Norman Rockwell’s “Christmas”.

    Both have their subjects in medieval dress, in both pictures the humans are looking away from the observer, and both depict body shapes that are decidedly elongated almost to the point of caricature. But Rockwell managed to imbue the young man in his painting with a personality that is decidedly lacking in Leyendecker’s by having his subject stand in a more natural pose. A simple thing, but it makes all the difference.

    This isn’t to say that Leyendecker, a gifted artist in his own right, wasn’t canny enough to give the public what they wanted from time to time. His “Living Mannequin” is so adept at conveying the intended emotions that it is almost Rockwellian. (If you would excuse the term.)

    But Leyendecker usually confined himself to what anyone would instantly recognize as mere cartoons , while Rockwell usually tried to paint what could be defined as a snapshot of what might-have-been, a scene or vignette that you wouldn’t have been surprised to see with your naked eye as you passed on by.

    Rockewell was human, of course, and he occasionally missed the mark for which he was aiming. But as you browse through the collection of cover paintings and compare his work to his contemporaries, you will notice that their pictures are often badly dated while Rockwell’s still seem completely accessible. The reason why is that the other artists were concerned with exploring the tropes that dominated popular culture during their time, while Rockwell was more interested in showing credible reactions and emotions.

    Sure, the situations to which his subjects were reacting were not only idealized, but they also idolized the American experience. But they were certainly not so far removed from our own existence that we cannot imagine ourselves standing inside that painting, with the same expression on our own faces. That was where Rockwell’s genius came to the fore and is why he is celebrated while his contemporaries are largely forgotten, even though they possessed talent equal to, or even greater than, his own.


  12. Jon:
    the scene depicts a ceremony of formal acceptance into Komsomol, or national Youth Communist organization. About Komsomol: here. Note the year – 1949 – and the bust of Dear Leader in the corner. About the false facade, etc: it came to be known as false only in about 5 yrs time; in 1950 Stalin was the Sun and Glory and the only Hope the Humanity had – in nation’s opinion. And those were the most sincere feelings of 70% of the country. Don’t believe me – google “stalin funeral people grief”. The nation cried, some committed suicides.

    OK, I realize it’s difficult for citizens of a free country to understand life in SU in 1952. It’ll take a lot more time to describe it (to persuade you that it was as real and as righteous and as natural to them to be communists as for you – Republican/conservative/libertarian/etc) than I have at the moment.
    So let’s look at another painting of same genre. A very recognizable situation, self-explanatory. But with add’l overtones that need to be noted: the time is 1952; the boy and his siblings’ father probably died at War, his mother has made many talks and recieved many assurances from the boy about his grades, she’s out of ideas on how to keep him out of street influence, etc etc.

    Shannon, you’re right that great mass art is difficult to do. Because to be liked by many people it should appeal to common emotions, similar in everyone regardless of level of intellect, familiarity with artistic technique and art ideas of the moment. The gallery I linked to lists only outstanding artists, and the work presented is called “masterpieces” for a reason. I believe they are masterpieces; there are many mor you can look at.
    Labelling “Soviet” the art of the 5 years after the October Revolution is a misnomer. Those were the artists who very soon afterwards were called anti-proletarian, enemies of the People, etc and were mostly kicked out of the country – or they had to adapt. Many perished. Some of them are world-class, still.

    Lex: sue me.

  13. Oh, I see a paragraph was accidentally erased from my post above.

    about elitism in art; it’s inevitable. The appeal to common emotion can make the work popular, but that emotion will be the lowest common denominator, and there always be a danger ofor an artist of becaming a sacharine tear-jerker. [not sure I’m expressing myself addequately; hope you’ll understand]. Rockwell, as well as Kinkade, as well as Social-Realists are a primal example of that.
    After emoting together on some basic level, we all are departing in our own private towers; a majority will stay at that basic level. That’s why the rap music is more popular than opera.

    What contemporary art galleries and critics are peddling, is not elitist art: it’s commerce; it’s elitist art for snobs. And that is another extreme deserving contempt you (and the author of the quotes in this post) are feeling against.

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