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RP Repost — Why the Critic(al) Popularity of Modern Art

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For some time, I’ve been a member of the art discussion forum, Rational Painting — which is devoted to the education and advancement of traditional painting and art education, with its primary focus on the Munsell system of color theory.  When not discussing color theory, postings and conversations address a host of other topics related to art, with the moderators meritoriously demanding contributions rich in additive content — rather simple expressions of opinion.

Recently, a high school art teacher (Shawn) noted:

When my students would ask me ( I teach high school art) how artists or art movements make it into the history books, I would tell them one way is that a bunch of artists get together to share ideas, maybe their work shares some recognizable features, they start to work in studios in a particular area and pretty soon it becomes seen as a movement and critics take notice. All of these factors are currently taking place in a sort of grassroots movement known under the umbrella term “Classical Realism”. I could give a tour of areas of brooklyn and queens in NY where you can find enclaves of artists with just that kind of energy taking place, yet the periodicals are completely ignoring it.

And I responded:

Interesting question – in the first post.

There are, in fact, two questions in it.  The first is “why is realism not more highly regarded?,” and the second is “why is there a current preference among critics for non-realism?”  I’m sure we can deconstruct both even further, but, as a thought exercise, lets look at these in their pure form.

Why is realism not more highly regarded?

One would imagine that realism would catch a break, given the training and precision required.  The problem is that realism, alone, is the foundation of artistic training under the traditional system.  It is the equivalent of K-12 and college at the undergraduate level – the base level of training through which every traditionally trained artist matriculates.  The work produced by students at all of the major ateliers is impressive – even to the point that they are taught the components of beauty (composition, lighting, color harmonies, etc.).  With such high standards common, there is scant basis for assessing the exceptional, in which the exceptional is defined by increasingly small and, to the untrained eye, imperceptible differences in performance.  And this gets at two weaknesses in art criticism.

First, performance skill is not a requirement for critics – whether the critic is professional or pedestrian.  The fine differences in achievement that distinguish the exceptional from the competent graduate may fly under the radar for both types of critic and fail to earn appropriate recognition.

Second, in a Woebegone world, where every traditionally trained graduate is above average, the differences are not only imperceptible, they can easily glut the market and become common place – especially, in markets large enough to support art critics (New York, Los Angeles, London, etc.).  The critic, however, relies on a meritocracy to sell snob-appeal, and, where no evident meritocracy exists (i.e., an obvious basis of differentiation from one piece of work to the next), one must be created.  Otherwise, the critic is unemployed.  Yes, the King (as critic) has no clothes and is poorly endowed, but this recognition is more along the lines of George Carlin’s Willie Water, the sportscaster who proclaims, “I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and, if I don’t see ‘em, I make ‘em up.”

For both reasons, you hear art critics argue that traditional realism is bland, lacks originality, “has been done before,” etc.  Well, not only has it been done before, it is done currently, and, because there is little designed-obsolescence in traditional painting (the damned things last 800 years), the market for new and resold traditional paintings confronts few shortages in the major markets housing critics.

During normal times, wheat, as a commodity, is poorly valued, even though a great baker can do wonderful things with it.  With the drought in Russia, and this weeks decision by the Russian government to ban exports of wheat (to meet the needs of domestic consumption), the price of this common commodity has gone through the roof.  Such is the power of supply and demand on price.

Why is there a current preference among reviewers for non-realism?

Among academics, Newtonian physics applies … especially the law “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  Transfer this to professors, and you have “For every professor, there is an equal and opposite professor.”  The reason is that Nobel Prizes are not awarded to those who break no new ground or generate no new discoveries.  New discoveries, however, do not arrive often or easily, and the bulk of research published in peer-reviewed journals does nothing more than confirm or marginally advance earlier research.  Confirmatory studies are insufficient to propel an academic into the pantheon of respectability and high regard.  Publish or perish, however, is the route to tenure (job security), so publish they must.

More impressive and more highly regarded are studies that debunk some portion of another’s thesis, and Nobel’s go to those who, both, debunk and blaze new trails of thought and prove the correctness of their thinking.  This certainly holds for the sciences, but what about the liberal arts, where proofs based on the pure logic of mathematics are not available?

In the liberal arts, it is better to break new ground than not, even if the newly broken ground is devoid of nutrients.  While we may have differing views about the nutritional value of the following examples, Hemmingway’s sparse style of writing and Pat Conroy’s passion and fluency in describing the most base of human motives represented departures from the established norms when first published.  The value and utility of the Pet Rock, also comes to mind as the paradigm departure, where the new idea was more important than the nutritional value.

Now translate this to the art critic.  Living and working in a major metropolitan area and writing for an educated audience, the critic seeks the new in order to feed the needs and interests of this rarified reader – a reader who will not be impressed or intellectually satisfied with status quo art, no matter how competently produced.

This only partly explains the allure of modern art – which, for much (perhaps, all) of its 50+ years, was new and different but might not have been intellectually interesting in itself.  That is why the psychobabble explaining an incongruous piece of modern art soon became as important as the work itself.  Defecate into a dog-food bowl and call it modern art (a la a Duchamp’s ready-mades) and, no matter how modern the deposit or attractive the bowl, it falls short of “art,” even to the modern viewer.  It isn’t “art” until the artist, curator, or critic writes that it is a “commentary on the quality of information and education fed to an obliging public through the school system and news media.”

Now, it is easy to deride this reliance on commentary until comparing it to the Renaissance art from which academic realism originates.  The subjects depicted during the Renaissance largely focused on scripture (because the church was the most prominent and prolific paymaster).  Subjects were not limited to the old and new testaments, however, but extended to metaphors from antiquity, Dante’s Inferno, and subjects depicting the persistent themes of the human condition – fear, love, hunger, etc.  Because the populous of that time were largely illiterate, no written explanation of a work’s “intent” accompanied the piece, but, quite often, nearly every aspect of a piece possessed meaning – where the choice of plants populating the back ground and foreground were understood to have meaning.  Depict the manger scene with the hemlock plant growing in the background, and you have a commentary on the fragility and impermanence of life that foretells the crucifixion.

Today, we lack the rich nuance of metaphor – there is simply too much to learn in the way of new knowledge (since the Renaissance) to sustain that word-of-mouth tradition.  So, artist-intent and commentary is required to take a piece beyond the obvious in its meaning and depth … something few realists do today.  In fact, many realists avoid commentary – contending that the work should stand on its own or argue that they do not want to limit the meaning a viewer can productively derive from it.  This practice, however, deprives the critic of material with which to describe and “sell” the work’s criticism when reviewed, and it requires a certain level of resourcefulness by critics lacking the artistic creativity to produce their own work.

Further, any piece that simply depicts the standard range of emotions and perspectives anchors the piece on that which has been abundantly done before.  Shakespeare borrowed plots from largely forgotten stories first written in antiquity or took them from stories published in other countries and languages (even if not from antiquity).   His works, therefore, might appear fresh or novel to his unread audience, and, while Marlow and a small number of others could compete on quality, the market was not saturated with such fluent, lush, and quotable language.

What I find most interesting about this scavenger hunt for novel ideas serving as the foundation for art (whether the idea precedes or follows creating the piece) is that it leads to Lateral Thinking – linking two or more incongruous ideas, often from unrelated fields or disciplines.  This approach to creative thought comes from Dr. Edward DeBono, MD, back in the 1940s, but it has witnessed a renaissance of its own more recently.  Certainly, the Pet Rock of the 1970s (a sarcastic and cynical critique of branding and packaging that was as much a comment on the over-scheduling that made/makes pet ownership difficult for modern professionals) was lateral in thinking, but the reference to Newtonian physics at the start of this section comports with lateral thinking, as well.  It is behind many of the non-fiction works making the New York Times best seller list today, and you’ll find it littered throughout the works of Steven Levitt, Edward Tenner, Malcolm Gladwell, and Geoff Colvin (all mentioned on this board in earlier discussions).

This practice (lateral thinking) is interesting because it notes the extent to which modern artists will go to create “meaningful” work, and it notes the largely untapped next-steps to which realists and traditional artists can go to make their work intellectually competitive for critic(al) assessment – if seeking to do so.   Consider realists who have made this shift and done so successfully.  Wyeth, Kassan, Monks, Koons, and others (to different degrees) make such a connection.

For Wyeth, the connection was often explicit (paraphrasing, “This hill represents the death of my father”), while Kassan’s backgrounds juxtapose the softness of the human condition with the textures and graffiti of a starkly dispassionate urban setting, Monks separates the water-borne nude from dry observation with a shower curtain, and Koons takes Andy Warhol to a disconnected extreme of trivial kitsch, writ large and obnoxious.  Like their work or not (and there is little that connects any two), each conveys additional meaning through contrast and lateral thinking and each has achieved a measure of market recognition, popularity, and critical attention – providing the critic with more than “This is an allegory of _______.”

In every era, there are icons of beauty – from Cleopatra to Mae West to Betty Grabble, to Fara Fawcett, to [name your favorite of our time], and each, before suffering the ravages of time, may be described as “eye candy” – recognizing that there are male equivalents, from Cary Grant through Paul Newman and Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise.  With art, there is merit to producing pieces of incomparable beauty, and many on this board achieve an extreme of that virtue that can melt knees and make a change of pants necessary, and the critic may assert that each is the artistic equivalent of “eye candy.”

But, beyond this, I suspect the critic is more easily sold on works possessing “mind candy,” because they allow the writer to fill column inches with more than a factual description of the technique employed, the subject depicted, the redundant theme chosen, etc., and they seek mind candy with which to interest increasingly modern and savvy readers.  Certainly, New York readers who purchase art pride themselves on the quality of their education (valuing it so highly that they allow their children to be interviewed for entrance into private grammar schools) and consider themselves smarter and more advanced than their counterparts in the heartland.  Los Angeles, and its art community, pride themselves on their creativity – seeking the New New Thing, in a culture influenced by Hollywood.  The elite of Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, and London rarely accord their success to pure dumb luck or, with the exception of Warren Buffett, declare their success follows from an average intellect or run-of-the-mill education.  Snob-appeal does not exist in a vacuum, where Lenny Bruce and Jerry Clower are deemed equally “important.”

And, beyond noting that these are the consumers of fine art, they are also the consumers of art criticism, to which the critic is compelled to pander if seeking professional longevity.  And this raises the question of whether, as an artist, you are prepared to pander (sell) to the critic.  Some may view it as a survival necessity in a competitive and recession-exposed profession, while others may place principle before purse (or view it as a contest between principle and purse).  The more interesting question, however, may be whether the realist, by dent of a psychology that values precision, tradition, technique, and attention-to-detail (left brain qualities) can readily connect the work to a right-brained explanation that is lateral in its construction.

Lastly, do not take this for a recommendation urging a change of style, approach, or philosophy.  There is nothing here that goes beyond seeking an answer to the original question and the two questions in my deconstruction – namely, why don’t critics value representational art more and why do critics favor “modern” art above the traditional.  Moreover, while presented as a sequence of assertions, this has been a thought exercise about which I am anything but certain.  It may be wrong in part or entirely, and it certainly possesses the detriment of opinion … as, unquestionably, will be opposing views.  But, to the extent that may explain the psychology of professional critics, it may also be worthwhile as a thought exercise, and I’d enjoy reading alternative explanations.

Written by rcrawford

August 8, 2010 at 9:39 am

Posted in Art