How the Art World Works, part 2

You can read part one here, and part three here.

In part 1 of this piece I laid out some rules for understanding the complexities of the art world, focussing on museums and artists. Part 3 will deal more with commercial galleries, in another numbered list. This middle section – call it an interlude or intermission, if you will – offers some thoughts tied to writing and looking at art.


Although Charles Dickens was not an art critic, he makes a good stand-in for one. The thoughtful gaze, the pen poised for action…

A Zen parable:

A student asked his master, “Which part of the painting is most difficult?” The master answered, “That part which has no paint on it.”

This, I think, connects with a story told of Cezanne. He was asked, about a portrait he was painting, why he had left spots on the backs of the hands unpainted. Cezanne replied that to paint them prematurely might force him to repaint the entire piece. Not until he had determined the right color could those places be painted – and perhaps they would remain unpainted. As Cezanne said “A painting done is not necessarily finished, and a finished painting is not necessarily done.”

Sometimes you will see, in scholarly texts or personal accounts, mention of an artist “abandoning” an artwork. This is a mistake. A work might be set aside, perhaps permanently, to the artist’s frustration. An idea refuses to take shape and must be left as it is.

But nothing dies in art; nothing is abandoned. The ideas and the frustrations continue, to be picked up by the next work, or perhaps works several days or years ahead. Dead ends or ideas that just won’t sustain a work to the end must be taken as part of the process, grist for future milling. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What he knew is that those 10,000 ways were all necessary steps to the things that do work. An artist, if he or she is to make anything more than a hobby of art, must do the same.

Oftentimes there is an extra fascination with unfinished work. The half-applied paint, pencil lines showing through, or a body half-emerged from the stone, like Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves. It’s not enough to understand the end result of the creative process; we want to get into the stream as it is running, see the development of the idea as it grows from intellectual unreality to physical reality. Sometimes, for the artist, that is the best part. Creating is the point, not the thing created.

In a symposium in April, 2011 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Philip-Lorca diCorcia made a comment that has stuck with me. DiCorcia, for those who don’t know, is a noted photographer who as of this writing teaches at Yale University. He said, in the course of a symposium entitled “Is Photography Over,” that photography was “depressionist,” and that many notable photographs are “downers.” His comment was not picked up by his fellow symposiasts. (I may have just created a neologism.) [The symposium was a multi-day event. Here is the video of the first panel, and should you wish to go on, other videos can be accessed from there.)

What came to my mind on hearing this was Leo Tolstoy‘s famous sentence, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In a quick mental review of photographs that stuck in my mind, there’s a balance between the uppers and downers, but the more I thought, the more I think he might be right.  For every beautiful image, there seem to be many more of war and dysfunction. This isn’t a scientific survey, I admit. But for every fashion photograph or happy art photo (Ryan McGinley keeps coming to mind) there were dozens of war photos. The defining images of the past century have a balance: for every man on the Moon, there is a 9/11 shot.

Do we discount happiness? Is our fixation on sadness genuine, or a media-created shared phantasm? Tolstoy is at least partially right, but he overlooks the universality of suffering. Drama grows from conflict, which is why television in its highest and lowest forms feasts on stress and sorrow. The diversity of unhappiness – the million tones of gray – makes it useful to art, and palatable to the urge for novelty. Happiness has fewer shades, and so grows tiresome. Great art has grown from depression; the blossoming of Hollywood during the Great Depression is one example. (Is there a corollary between the blossoming of American silent cinema in the 1920s and Prohibition?) But visual art stumbled following the First World War. The Depression gave a boost to Walker Evans and Ansel Adams and many others cheery or depressive.

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“The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.” Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art #25, 1969

I’ve been writing some art criticism lately – not all of it positive. In fact, I think it divides about 50/50 or even slightly more in favor of the negative. This was not a conscious choice, but the topics came to me and I ran with them.

This got me thinking: what does an art critic do? An easy answer, one which haunts artists, is “He tells us our work is no good.” Of course this is not true, though it might be one aspect of art criticism. A critic who sets out to damn an artist out of personal animus or any reason outside the art itself is not doing the job right. A critic should begin by assuming that the artist is dead and will never see a review. Sometimes feelings might be hurt, but that should never be the point of writing.

By the same token, art criticism should not be used to boost one’s friends. Again, the work must exist in some vacuum outside human relations. An artist can be a nice person without being a good artist; an artist can be a total bastard and yet create great art. Virtue is not always rewarded, nor evil damned. It’s distressing to see the abstract idea of Justice trumped this way, but there it is.

Lastly in our list of what criticism is or is not: art criticism is not art theory. Theory, which I frequently detest, in the abstracted concepts underneath the practice of art, a subset of the most abstruse order. Theory is often laden with jargon, and relates about as much to the way people perceive or practice art as “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin” relates to a person’s belief in God. Theory is often bunk, and the good theories are often indistinguishable from the nonsense, in part because of the terrible writing involved. I’ve written too much about it already.

So what is art criticism? It is part of a larger cultural conversation about what constitutes good art. The scornful will sometimes look at a work and say “And you call that art,” or “That’s not art.” They’re wrong, of course; it might be bad art, detestable or atrocious in a hundred different ways, but it’s still art. Good art is what the critic is concerned with: how to recognize it, which involved utilizing some theory, and how to recognize its absence.
There are artists whose work I dislike intensely, yet they are successful and look to be headed for enshrinement in the official canon. I must not be so arrogant as to imagine this as a loss for myself, the culture, or society. I tender my opinions, make of them what you will. Letting go of the writing once is it done is essential, lest you end up tilting at windmills, trying to convince the world of your correctness. This is scary for the critic, as it contains the implicit suggestion that criticism is unnecessary; perhaps even a waste of time. But whatever moves the conversation along, even if only to provoke contrary opinions (though that must not be the sole purpose), is beneficial to the art world. The worst thing to do is walk by an artwork without stopping, ignoring it; a writer who feels the need to express an idea about a work he or she has seen and does not do it is walking by, removing a voice from that conversation. Popular opinion now says that famed art critic Clement Greenberg was a bully; it also acknowledges his tremendous influence on the cultural conversation, and the artists he championed (some of them) became famous, not because of his writing, but not despite it either.

My advice to artists is simple: do not read your reviews, and don’t let your friends tell them to you, however positive the reviews might be. Believing your own publicity is bad; taking to heart the opinions of critics is worse. If you must read reviews, read reviews of other artists, and think about how the dialogue (artist puts forth a motion and critics rise to endorse or rebut that motion) might apply to you. You’re not trying to make someone else’s art.

Art criticism can be just as vulnerable to jargon, to ego, to all the sins that flesh is heir to. It is, at its core, human, and therefore fallible. But so are artists, and that discussion, though sometimes carried on in monologues, is often worth the work. All art is communication of that which, in part, is inexpressible. Good art criticism is, at its heart, not about a specific artist or work, but about the ideas behind both, and an attempt to reach that inexpressible something through words instead of images.


2 thoughts on “How the Art World Works, part 2

  1. Pingback: How the Art World Works, part 3: galleries | Art Matters

  2. Pingback: How the Art World Works (repost) part one | Art Matters

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