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June 03, 2007

Roger Kimball Gives Art a Big Yawn

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There he goes again, that Roger Kimball -- criticizing contemporary art.

This time it's in the June issue of The New Criterion, the magazine he and Hilton Kramer edit. The link to the article is here (thanks to Scott Johnson at PowerlineBlog for providing the initial link).

Read The Whole Thing if you can: it's not awfully long. His "hook" is an art show at Bard College, a little ways up the river from New York City. He calls attention to some of the nasty things that are being passed off as "art" these days, but notes that the Dada / Surrealism gangs were doing pretty much the same things to shock people 80 or 90 years ago.

Much of Kimball's article covers old ground, but he makes some nice points. Here are two quotes.

No, the thing to appreciate about "Wrestle," [the art show at Bard College] about the Hessel Museum and the collection of Marieluise Hessel, and about the visual arts at Bard generally is not how innovative, challenging, or unusual they are, but how pedestrian and, sad to say, conventional they are. True, there is a lot of ickiness on view at the Hessel Museum. But it is entirely predictable ickiness. It's outrage by-the-yard, avant-garde in bulk, smugness for the masses. And this brings me to what I believe is the real significance of institutions like the art museum at Bard, the Hessel collection that fills it, and the surrounding atmosphere of pseudo-avant-garde self-satisfaction. The "arts" at Bard are notable not because they are unusual but because they are so grindingly ordinary. Leon Botstein described Marieluise Hessel as a "risk giver."

. . .

Ms. Hessel once enthusiastically recalled her introduction to contemporary art as a young woman in Munich: "It was like entering a cult group." That cult has long since become the new Salon where the canons of accepted taste are enforced with a rigidity that would have made Bouguereau jealous. The only difference is that instead of a pedantic mastery of perspective and modeling we have a pedantic mastery of all the accepted attitudes about race, class, sex, and politics. Since skill is no longer necessary to practice art successfully, the only things left are 1) appropriate subject matter (paradoxically, the more inappropriate the better) and 2) the right politics.

From the way Kimball described it, the show at Bard took the Shock The Audience approach. I agree with Kimball that it's very difficult to shock the art world or even much of the general public nowadays: that well is pretty dry. However I will, out of pure kindliness, offer a modest tip for artists with reasonably strong, but slightly fading reputations to juice up their audacity quotient and get a lot of free media ink and pixels.

Do the following: (1) mount a large canvas -- say four feet tall and six feet wide -- and paint it white; (2) get a bucket of black paint and a large paintbrush; (3) in your best imitation Franz Kline brushstroke manner using that black paint, write the following two words in large letters on the white canvas:

Kill [insert vile, racist epithet of your choice here]!!

This should deliver a huge amount of shock-power and do amazing things for your career, provided that (4) you sign your name to it and (5) get it displayed in public.



posted by Donald at June 3, 2007


Bob and I used to joke about the Minimalists. (Any movement taken to an extreme is ridiculous.) This was when whatzit was painting black-on-black and white-on-white. (The critics said you had to see the actual painting...)

We agreed that the thing for a Minimalist gallery to do was just drive the nails where the pictures would hang. Then we thought, "No, it would be more minimal to just exhibit the nail holes." Then we thought maybe just the pencil marks where the nail holes would go.

Finally it became obvious that the thing to do with Minimalist art was to stay home and give it an occasional fleeting thought. Hard for an artist to build a reputation that way, though.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 4, 2007 12:03 PM

I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Mr. Kimball on the state of the art world today.

On one part, I definitely agree with his points on how overtly politicized and vulgar the modern art world has become lately and how artists today think this is somehow daring and subversive, which it isn't, even when we have a Republican sitting in the Oval Office. But this might also be tied into what faculties have been teaching in the liberal arts where race, class, and gender are the holy trinity of academics. Perhaps a change of perspective is in order.

Now, where I disagree with Kimball is more a disagreement with the overall goal of the The New Criterion and other organizations and people who are reviving the practice of academic art once prevalent in the late 19th century. Especially with "pedantic mastery of perspective and modeling", which sounds in my mind like a mindless adherence to supposed notions of classical beauty. This sort of philosophy produces beautiful works, but it also creates works with a suppressed individualism and a sense that leaves the viewer thinking they all look the same.

This is my opinion of the Pre-Raphaelite School, which I hate to look at (just as much as I hate to look at Abstract Expressionism after Pollack) because the artists paint really nice, but very soulless paintings. Bouguereau can at least grab your attention, so can Sargent.

One museum I visited often, the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, has an extensive collection of Renaissance and Baroque works as well as 20th century art at the expensive of mostly anything painted between 1750 and 1900. The one thing I noticed about the Renaissance and Baroque artists is that, even though figures, portraits, and landscapes were the dominant genres, they weren't so slavishly devoted to realism and detail to the point of rendering their subjects into still life. They also possess a sort of stylistic signature that distinguished each other from each other, so it makes looking at art from that period more interesting than the academics of the 19th century.

About that 20th century collection, luckily, the majority of the stuff isn't political or vulgar, but of the "my 5-year-old can do that" kind. However, unlike the art world, I usually take that stuff in with a bit of whimsy and fun that also makes the experience more enjoyable. And there is a sense of craft in some of those works as well, such as the meticulously painted black and white optical work that makes you want to stare at it for a long time.

However, I don't think a good solution will happen in the near future, because it looks like both sides are bent on dominating one or the other instead of seeking to create a new language of art from what has come in the past. One seeks to discard pre-Modernist art as obsolete and the other seeks to discard Modernist art as a aberration.

Posted by: Andrew Yen on June 4, 2007 2:22 PM

There's still a lot artists can do to shock people. Anything to do with small children enjoying adult activities (sex, drug use, self-mutilation) for example. Expect this sort of thing in a year or two.

Though the next really big thing is most likely to be representational art that documents ordinary life. Simply because it's so unlike anything now being done. The novelty alone should drive it.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 4, 2007 3:34 PM

Oh, goody, another art thread worth commenting on!

As a regular "defender of modernism" here, I agree wholeheartedly with most of the Kimball piece. In one of the first art threads I commented on I tried to make the case that there is a difference between modernism and post-modernism. Here on 2blowhards the Duchampians are lumped in with the Picassoists, as another way of expressing it. As I read Kimball, his displeasure is with the heirs of Duchamp, as, for the most part, is mine. Nearly all of the abstract painters I know would also agree with Kimball about the current state of affairs in the art world.

Prairie Mary - As someone who has spent intimate time with paintings by both Robert Ryman and Ad Reinhardt (Ryman of endless variations of white paintings, Reinhardt best known for his black monochromes) you DO have to see the real paintings to appreciate them ... or not. The Reinhardt paintings seen "in the flesh" usually reveal themselves as simple cruciforms created by exceedingly subtle brushwork that alters how we perceive the exact same color. One difficulty with them is they are virtually impossible for conservators to recreate when they are damaged ... a sign to me that the artist needed a great deal of technical skill to execute the work. Ryman is exploring a combination of technical and aesthetic issues within his severe, self-imposed, limitations; the use of different supporting materials, how the pieces attach to the wall, framing, subtle changes in the exact "white" or "whites" being used, texture, and so on. In both cases, they are notoriously difficult (I'd say impossible) to capture photographically and reproduce.

As for minimalism (a style with extreme limits) I remember leading art tour groups through an exhibition of minimalist works. In the last gallery there was a low plywood platform painted flat black that the museum used to cover tiles on the floor in front of a walled over fireplace. In every tour someone would ask about the platform. When I told them what it was (i.e. utilitarian, not art, object) I also would note that no one ever asked about it in the context of other exhibitions. If one goal of art is to make us see the world a little differently, then perhaps, at least in some small way, the art in the show had succeeded in accomplishing that.

I'm a strong proponent of abstract paintings, you know, the "my five year old can do that" stuff. My stock response to variations on that comment was always to suggest that they (or their kid) should give it a try. One time I did get someone who came back to say that they HAD tried and quickly created a muddy looking mess. In short, it is far more difficult to paint a credible abstract painting than people think. It is worth noting that one of the preeminent critics who writes eloquently and often very favorably about abstract art and artists is Karen Wilkin who also writes regularly for The New Criterion.

Posted by: Chris White on June 4, 2007 4:06 PM

Want to really shock the art world? How about an exhibit of Neo-Romanticism, without irony or condescension. Have smelling salts ready for the gallery patrons and be prepared for The Revenge of the Poseurs.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 4, 2007 4:39 PM

Donald, unless I'm completely misreading your suggestion of the way to jumpstart a career in art: two words painted in black on a white canvas, first word Kill, second word a vile racist epithet; how would Kill Niggers!! accomplish that goal? I'd say it would rather mark the end of said career. Now if it were Kill Whitey!!...

Posted by: ricpic on June 4, 2007 6:21 PM

ricpic -- I only said the such as tactic would likely create a lot of notoriety and enhance shock-power.

As for the career, I said that it should "do amazing things" -- but I purposely didn't say that those "things" would necessarily be positive.

After all, my "modest tip" was intended to be Swiftian ... maybe I should have typed in a smiley at the conclusion.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 4, 2007 6:49 PM

Blah, blah, blah. Its a bunch of poorly painted, pseudo-intellectual junk. Why focus on the differences between shock art and the abstract stuff when they have so much in common (they both suck)? Why the false polarity?

You know it must be bad when the critics can't even stand to look at it anymore! Its their bread and butter. That's like getting tired of oxygen. It must be the fact that it is student work. A mere 3 or 4 years ago, the same students were drawing naked chicks and cars in their schoolbooks, so the new fads they're taught in "art" school still seem pretty unnatural. Just give it some time to sink in, for chrissakes! It takes a while to beat the humanity out of people. Look at the pros. You won't see anything remotely human in their work. Practice makes perfect, Kimball, just give it a little time. Geez, there's nothing like the impatience of a jaded palate!

All modernism is minimalism--it keeps stripping away elements from tradition until there is nothing left to strip away. Its a big machine invented to suck the life out of everything it touches until it is all subsumed for the bloated erection of the Genius, the endless ego of the artist. The subject doesn't exist, or if it does, it is simply allowed to do so for the enlargement of the Genius. Now wonder our humble critic feels left out.

Take heart Roger. At least you can warm yourself with the knowledge that you helped build the monster Genius that has cast you out in the cold. Its funny that you thought it was all about ideas and communication when its really about the buying and selling of the brand Genius to the highest bidder. Its just another instance of people profiting on your confusion. And now you look around and see what?--only knockoffs, ghosts, pale imitators hoping to get in on the action? Businessmen with a brush?

You thought it was Art, but it was just the Art of the Deal. Don't be so upset about it all when you shaped it with your own two hands.

Posted by: BTM on June 4, 2007 7:09 PM

Donald Pittenger writes the following:
"I agree with Kimball that it's very difficult to shock the art world or even much of the general public nowadays: that well is pretty dry."

I think the key word here is the ambiguous "much", as there remain large sections of the general public who are still easily, if not shocked, made censorial toward what isn't remotely shocking to "the art world". I was intending to cite merely a couple of instances we've had in Michigan recently. One concerns Saginaw Valley State University's production of the play "Angels in America". Prompted partly by the AFA of Michigan, 43 members of the State House signed a letter of protest, and at least one made threats regarding the funding of SVSU.

Not long after this, there was a big stink made last week in what's supposed to be an "artsy" town, Saugatuck, regarding a sculpture of a nude little boy writing on a wall "Who is responsible here?". The artist, Patrick McKearnan, says that he originally had environmental themes in mind. The Saugatuck City Council voted 4-3 to give the exhibiting group of "Art Round Town" two weeks to remove the sculpture from its prominent location next to city hall. I have not seen the sculpture, but I gather that there's nothing the art world would find remarkably perverse about it.

Of course then I found this site that documents all sorts of cases of censorship, including the contemporary:

I understand that censorship doesn't equate to shock, it might sometimes even be closer to what some have suggested as being the affected shock or pseudo-offense taken regarding the Don Imus/Rutgers women's basketball incident (though perhaps politically reversed). Nor does the taking of offense equate to shock. Also, I think the setting for the artworks plays as much role as does the work itself (if there is such a thing as a work in-itself) in generating public outcry. However, I offer that there is still enough here to render debatable the idea that the general public is no longer very shockable. "Community standards" may still cling to some meaning even in this day of the worldwide web.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 5, 2007 10:11 AM

Michael Motta, I am curious, what is your opinion regarding censorship and whether certain art might be deemed "shocking" or not? In the right location even the most innocuous classical nude painting can "shock" particular individuals. That said, shock for its own sake has become an easy fallback position for some career-minded artists and, as Kimball points out, this has been going on for so long that (hopefully) it is beginning to wear out its effectiveness in the art world. On the other hand, there is a lot of excellent art that challenges rather than conforming to public taste and sensibilties.

In theater rather than the visual arts, Angel in America is one of those examples of great art that challenges. Tony Kushner's play has gay characters, deals with AIDS and conservative Republican hypocrisy in the form of the closeted gay lawyer Roy Cohn who worked with Joseph McCarthy. Here (from Wikipedia) is a list of the awards it received:

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
_ 1990 Fund for New American Plays/Kennedy Centre Award
_ 1991 Bay Area Drama Critics Award for Best Play
_ 1991 National Arts Club's Joseph Kesselring Award
_ 1992 London Evening Standard Award for Best New Play
_ 1992 London Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
_ 1993 Drama Desk award for Best Play
_ 1993 New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play
_ 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
_ 1993 Tony award for Best Play

Angels in America: Perestroika
_ 1992 Fund for New American Plays/Kennedy Centre Award
_ 1992 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play
_ 1994 Tony Award for Best Play
_ 1994 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play

The play merited inclusion as the very last item in Harold Bloom's controversial list of what he considered to be the most important works of literature, The Western Canon (1994).

It is easy to see where certain legislators would jump on the opportunity to decry Angels in America. Back when he was in the Senate, you always knew when Jesse Helms was fundraising because he would very loudly attack some art institution somewhere for using a nickel's worth of NEA funds for an exhibition including something "shocking."

Posted by: Chris White on June 5, 2007 12:21 PM

Angels in A. is complete and utter hysterical crap, no matter how many leftie establishment awards it received.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 5, 2007 3:41 PM

If its public space and public money in the mix, then the public has the right to have some say about what is shown there. No taxation without representation. I would hardly call that censorship. Nobody prevented the work from being created, tried to punish the creator, or prohibited its display on private property. Its funny that these actions would be described as censorship, as if these guys are entitled to the public's money and space. Damn the plebs!

Also, modern awards ceremonies are as much about politics and industry promotion as they are about merit, probably more so. They don't mean much, except to prop up the status quo, which in the art world means the decadents.

Posted by: BTM on June 5, 2007 4:44 PM

I have to agree with Tatyana. Reading Angels in America, it comes across as one long, hysterical political tirade. Watching Angels in America, it comes across as one long, hysterical political tirade. My reaction? Yawn.

Posted by: Cineris on June 5, 2007 9:50 PM

Chris White,
I was basically acknowledging that shock, offensiveness, and censorship-worthiness (for lack of a better term) are three different categories, but there is some overlap involved.

Shock understood physiologically and psychologically is an extreme reaction to sudden change. Physiological shock involves the body sort of "going to sleep" in a protective mode, a conservational mode, if I recall correctly. Psychological shock can result in the mind numbing or compartmentalizing in order to protect itself; I think of the dissociative disorders and also post-traumatic stress disorder.

My take is that what we call "shocking" in common speech is usually something far less radical than clinical shock. For how often do we find that a person reporting to have been shocked by x, y, or z actually went into shock either physiologically or psychologically or both? Not nearly as often as the term is employed. I am reminded of older film and cartoons in which a common gag was having a person faint when confronted by something surprising or inappropriate. I keep thinking of the Three Stooges entering high class surroundings and causing haughty socialites to faint. It seems like that occurred more than once. But how many can say that they've actually witnessed such a thing as fainting due to social impropriety (that doesn't extend to antisocial/criminal acts)? How many citizens uptight about an artwork faint before it? Many seem to have quite the reverse response and become energized with zeal.

So it seems that when we speak of shocking art or "a shocking development" we don't mean it to such extremes that it takes over our bodies entirely. Do we intend something more along the lines of electrical shock perhaps? I think this would be getting closer, although I'm not sure that people enjoy being electrically shocked quite as much we may enjoy being shocked at for instance a twist in a mystery thriller. Yes the term masochism does suggest itself here as I gather that some do enjoy being mildly electrically shocked, and many more seem to take great delight in reveling in their having been shocked by some immoral misdeed.

And this is what I think a lot of contemporary American attempts at censorship or quasi-censorship are based upon - that a viewer is consumed with titillation - either denial of his/her own, or by the possiblity of its occuring in others. Thus the object of alleged revulsion becomes narrowly fetishized. A drama may be seen not as a drama but rather as a moment of nudity. A complex sculpture may be seen entirely as a penis. A dialogue may be heard not as such but rather as entirely consisting in that portion of it in which a character utters an expletive or "off-color" word. After all, this seems to be how the movie ratings system operates. The work taken as a whole scarcely counts, but rather it is atomized and scanned for "hits" of nudity, profanity, violence, and so on.
I'll let this fun page speak for itself:
In response to BTM, I would offer that one the reasons why we encourage activities such as free speech, academic freedom, and the public funding of education and the arts, is that it constitutes an admission by each that his/her views are inadequate to the whole. Therefore it is wise counsel to support the expression of even such arts and education as may not immediately fit into one's (or the many's for that matter) current perspective.

It's a bit like that show called "Who Wants To Be a Millionare?" (or whatever the title was) when a person uses a lifeline. The opinions and views of others are sought in an act of admitted inadequacy. Not only that, the use of lifelines is treasured and limited - ideally the contestant would have unlimited lifelines.

In public life, our limits aren't so narrowly prescribed as in the TV show (so far). So in the case of public funding of the arts and education, we admit our shortcomings in advance and provide means by which we intend that together we may educate each other. Not unlike a Twelve Step group now that I've written it that way. The old show "Northern Exposure" seemed to have this as a theme - folks enter from various walks of life and learn from each other, not without conflict however. Even the Walton's did this a lot with whatever the technique might be called whereby an outsider visits Walton's Mountain and by the end of the show has left, usually having made some kind of impression upon John Boy. Perspectives are shared even though they may compete.

In the Socratic paradox, ignorance is the unwillingness to admit to it and wisdom is the admission of ignorance.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 5, 2007 10:18 PM

I am curious as to what production(s) of Angels in America Tatyana & Ceneris might have seen. I'm also curious whether it was the politics, the playwriting or both they found objectionable. While I was admittedly favorably disposed by virtue of my wife's involvement as sound designer for the production, I saw both parts of Angels in America done by a local professional acting company a few years ago and found it very compelling and thought provoking theater.

BTM and I have been over this ground before, but the underlying message still seems to be that the many people in the public who DO enjoy/appreciate modernism should not count as part of "The Public" while those that dislike modernism are the only public whose opinion should matter. Or that there should be unanimity (obviously an impossibility) before tax monies should be spent on the arts. I suspect that there are NO tax-supported programs of ANY kind that have universal support. Furthermore, as someone who has sent letters to my congressional delegation urging that they support the NEA, I can say that there IS a constituency for supporting the arts.

As to whether art is being censored or not, if university theater departments are threatened with funding cuts due to controversial plays being produced, that may not be censorship in the absolute sense, but isn't it a matter of degree rather than kind?

The curious aspect of these threads for me is always the same; I do not expect everyone to have the same aesthetic as I do, but I don't have problems with art I don't like getting support or finding an audience. The tone among many who comment here seems prone to not only dismissing but also wanting to CRUSH art and artists whose aesthetic is different.

Posted by: Chris White on June 5, 2007 10:45 PM

"the underlying message still seems to be that the many people in the public who DO enjoy/appreciate modernism should not count as part of "The Public" while those that dislike modernism are the only public whose opinion should matter. Or that there should be unanimity (obviously an impossibility) before tax monies should be spent on the arts."

Another false dichotomy. Dude, they got outvoted! Democracy at work. If its all so popular, why do they need the taxpayer to fund them?

I have several issues with modernists. We have already dealt with the quality issue. Another issue I have is how, everywhere you turn, these people are in the public's pocketbook. It's crazy. They are all over the public's money but they don't want to listen to the public when they vote not to see the modernist stuff. The public's only good for milking and feeling superior to. Crazy! Three cheers for those who took back their public space! Hooray!

You should get hear these groups of slightly talented people whine and moan that the public just doesn't like or understand good work! The real truth is that these people's work is not nearly as good as they think it is. Money's not going to stop somebody who is motivated from doing the work, and if it really is good, it will be recognized. Let the market work, let the public have its say. Too bad if it ain't what you want to hear.

Posted by: BTM on June 6, 2007 12:06 AM

I too disliked Angels In America. I watched part of one episode on HBO and tuned away when the guy sought out a hustler in cenral park to sodomize him. Yucch! I watched an entire episode which prominently featured Al Pacino. Pacino's street energy and his portrayal of Roy Cohn's bitter cynicism and self-loathing was the only reason I watched that episode all the way through. And, yes, AIA was shot through with very simplistic conservatives=homophobes equation.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 6, 2007 2:18 AM

Michael Motta - Thanks for the clarifications. It would appear that you and I have many similar views on the topic. I like your take on "shock".

BTM - In the category of "haven't we been over this before?" (a) the market for modernist art exists and is strong enough that it has been one of your complaints; (b) plenty of arts fundng goes for art you would like or approve of, but it seems you want NO funding for art YOU don't like.

Again, please note that I AGREE with Kimball's take on the institutionalization of the new avant-garde. What I argue with is the way some posters here lump together virtually all visual art that isn't based on demonstrating the technical abilities of accurate representtion and deem it bad by definition.

Posted by: Chris White on June 6, 2007 8:01 AM

Per BTM,

I might be more attracted to direct democratic micromanagement of public arts funds if we also take up direct democratic micromanagement of the budgets of all of the agencies and departments the budgets of which dwarf that of the NEA.

I read recently where the NEA budget for a year would buy about 3 hours in Iraq.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 6, 2007 8:53 AM

"the market for modernist art exists and is strong enough that it has been one of your complaints"

I am not concerned with the market, but the quality of the work. To me, the fact that anybody makes any money selling the stuff is irrelevant, and no proof of quality. Look at the bubble.

"plenty of arts fundng goes for art you would like or approve of, but it seems you want NO funding for art YOU don't like"

Duh! Of course I don't want to fund something I don't like! It's my tax money, taken from me by force. Whay would I want to pay somebody to poke me in the eye? Why should anybody be forced to subsidize entertainment that they don't like?

Nobody is micromanaging anything. Nobody is telling anybody what they can or cannot do, they are just telling them to do it on their own dime and in a private place. Hardly controversial.

You know a lot of this funding nonsense wouldn't be much of an issue if the star system hadn't been set up in the first place. All the dullard buyers are bidding up the so-called "star's" work into the stratosphere while developing artists get hardly anything. Just think what if the many millions (over)paid for Brand X Genius Artist were to actually be spent on the up and comers. Oh well, there's too many damn people who want to be artists anyway, and few with any real talent. No wonder all the imitation. Throwing government money at them only keeps too many in the game who should otherwise be productively employed in some other field.

I blame the whole thing on the galleries and museums that set up the star system in the first place. They did it to make money and increase the value of their inventories. If real geniuses didn't exist, they tried to invent them by changing the standards from mastery to "Innovation!" to create the advertsing brand "Genius!"-- a manuever that has left us all poorer. Whole schools have been created at the university level and beyond to try to train kids to sell into this "rising star" marketplace. But the teachers make thier money teaching, not creating--they feed on their own mostly. Oh, and let's not forget the government funding this nonsense. Its all such a sham. Its an industry that has very little to do with real art at all.

I would much rather go back to the days when artists weren't artists, but craftsmen. No stars, just guys trying to make a living by creating designs and illustrating. They got paid for craftsmanship, for getting work done, not because they created some kind of public spectacle of themselves. And the work was always blended into the functions of everyday life, from decorating a public fountain where people came to get fresh water, to the curch they went to on sudays, to the furniture they put their clothes into and the lamps they turned on for reading at night. And if anybody wanted to do art for its own sake, they did it on their own time and on their own dime.

Posted by: BTM on June 6, 2007 1:10 PM

Wouldn't it be nice if we could, by fiat, return to the (mythic) Golden Age of the Past when all was Pure.

Still, I am confused. BTM, you say, on the one hand, modern art is a marketing scam, then that it wouldn't survive without government support. Then say that even if it does well in the market that doesn't equate to having "public" support. So, you don't accept the private marketplace, nor the institutional art world, nor the government peer review panels as being valid? Presumably, then, only your own opinion is valid and the rest of us need to get with the program.

I know a LOT of artists, of many different aesthetic persuasions. VERY few have ever gotten ANY grants. Those that have might be able to complete a specific project, certainly not retire to the south of France, with the amounts they get. I NEVER met an artist who is an artist only because they've gotten endless grant support.

One perhaps wonderful, perhaps disagreeable, aspect of a representative democracy is that many different opinions and priorities get taken into account. It is not a winner take all, mob rule, arrangement. If some arts funding goes to an artist who does work you like, and I don't, or vis a versa, what is the problem with that? [kudos to Michael Motta for his comments on micro-managing ALL tax supprted programs if we're going to worry about it with the NEA.]

Posted by: Chris White on June 6, 2007 4:44 PM

I think what I said is pretty clear. You're trying to confuse the issue by mixing up private money with public money, but the issue still stands that if its public money, the public should get the say and if they don't like something, they have the right to cut the "artist" off from using public money or public space.

Why is anybody who considers their work art running after grant money? Why don't they just offer the work to the public at large and see if they can sell it?

There were any number of Golden Ages of art in the past. Much better work was done with fewer people considering themselves artists and standards remained quite high. Today is an aberration. Never before has so much money been thrown at the arts and never before has the quality of the arts been as low, especially due to modernism. We would do a lot better to cut a lot of these so-called "artists" off and truly educate the buyer. What we have today is ridiculous. Artists running after the government for handouts, like really good artists need welfare! Ha!

Posted by: BTM on June 6, 2007 5:45 PM

I am confusing nothing. The issue is how "public" is being defined. The uses of public funds most directly related to this thread are state and federal "Percent for Art" programs, where public funds are used to purchase or commission art, and various grants, usually given to defray costs for study or other professional development. The former utilizes a multi-layer review committee process that includes members of the public, often there are public hearings as well. The latter is more often peer review oriented, but rarely is any art work being directly paid for by the public with these grants. So, unless you are trying to make the argument that every taxpaying American needs to personally vote on every grant or commission, I again maintain that the public IS represented in these decisions.

As for the private sector side of the equation, artists compete in the marketplace. Taken as a whole the art market offers some insight into what the current consensus may be on particular artists. Some artists may appeal to well-heeled Boston matrons, others to flashy hedge fund managers, and still others to farmers in Kansas. After that it is a question of supply and demand, what the maket will bear, and a whole host of Econ 101 catch phrases. I might think anyone buying a Thomas Kinkade is getting ripped off. You might think anyone buying a Hans Hofmann is a fool. And so what? Each market niche has its own stars and unknowns, its own politics and social scene. Where is the problem?

Making a perhaps futile attempt at returning to the original posting, I believe that there is always a small percentage of work being done, in nearly any style, that is of high quality and a lot of lesser quality. That said, I agree with Kimball that many collectors, curators and art institutions have become so caught up in the content (sex, ethnicity, politics) that they undervalue the formal attributes (composition, craft, etc.) of the works they buy or exhibit. This is not being "risky" but is driven by a conformist, pack mentality.

Posted by: Chris White on June 6, 2007 8:26 PM

Its "cultural welfare" and should be done away with if the public can't micromanage it. Micromanagement by the public is GOOD!, and it would be even better if there were lots more of it. Then maybe the government wouldn't waste so much money. Its the public's money. Only select members of the public, usually cronies of the local arts institutions stuffed to the gills with modernists, are the ones on these boards. They should spend their own money, not manage everyone else's.

Also, everytime I comment on the cultural welfare shelled out to the members of "Wack-ademia" in universities, you always ignore it, as if it doesn't exist. A lot of these wack-ademics are also the ones beating the grant drums. Cut them off. There's absolutely no public interest in funding the vast majority of so-called arts programs. The arts were a lot healthier before they were even dreamt up. Its been all downhill ever since. You yourself admitted that you hardly know an artist who gets grants. You know why? There usually off painting or working a real job. Its the academics, the masters or doctorates or MFA, many in some kind of non-profit arts institution, who are getting this stuff. If so much of the funding is being misspent on these people who don't produce anything, including art, why are they getting the money? Don't you think the system is broken?

Getting back to the original idea, there are way too many people in the arts, and the governmental funding of it in universities and other arts institutions is one of the reasons why. Too many people, to much repetition and copying. The same people calling for more funding of the arts (Kimball and you, for example) are only exacerbating the problem. I know you mean well, but its counterproductive. The real talent pool is pretty small, a whole lot smaller than the the number of painters out there. But the whole system encourages it. There's too many people trying to get their work in front of people, even if the quality doesn't merit it, and some will do just about anything to attract attention. I think its crazy. You can have the last word if you want.

Posted by: BTM on June 6, 2007 10:13 PM

Chris White,

Thank you for your kind remarks.

BTM and Chris,

I'm kind of confused as to how BTM is using the term "modernist". Is it really THAT inclusive? I'm not remotely an expert in art history and my exposure is pretty hit or miss, but it would seem to me that "modernist" could include anything from Post-Impressionism up through Minimalism and whatever is hot now (unless Postmodernism is being excluded, which somehow I doubt). This would entail most of the Twentieth Century and some spillage into its bracketing centuries!(What about Socialist Realism and Social Realism? Are they modernist or not? They seem like a departure)

No offense intended, but such a sweeping notion of all modernist art as decadent would seem to me an extension on Hitler's "Degenerate Art", which I've found was something of an exhibit of my favorite artists!

My top favorites are van Gogh, Munch, and Expressionism in general especially "The Bridge". I also like some Dali, some Picasso, some Marc, some Chagall and several more . . .

Off topic: What is the name of the font style that this site uses? I think it's as close as I have to a favorite. Knowing this might prevent me from going for the default font most times :)

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 6, 2007 11:03 PM

Well, I suppose I'll add that my impression is of AIA: Millenium Approaches. I didn't bother reading the second, nor staying for the second half when I went to go see it. I recall when reading it, thinking that it was pretty much entirely concerned with being clever and pushing a political agenda.

Watching it, it's been a few years, but I remember laughing at a few of the climactic moments. The ridiculousness of the moral universe that had been built up was just too much to bear. I didn't really find any of the characters sympathetic or well developed. All of the conservative characters were particularly obnoxious.

A lot of my dislike of this play is directly political, but I'd like to think I'm objective enough to think that it's just not a good play in a technical sense either (largely for reasons that arise as a result of pushing politics over other things). In the universe of the play, for example, being a conservative seems to mean being a closeted homosexual. Shocking reality: This is not true. I don't think I'm expecting too much for a work that obviously wants to sit as social-critique not to make all of its featured opposition spokesmen into secret members of the KKK/NAMBLA/etc. It's just immature, and bad characterization regardless. Clever lines might be enough to sustain a few paragraphs of a snarky Digg comment, but absent a really compelling story, evenhandedness, maturity, characterization, or just stunning craftsmanship, I'm not going to be able to stomach three hours of it.

Posted by: Cineris on June 7, 2007 2:22 AM

BTM- Have many museums gone overboard collecting or exhibiting the newest art, either as a means of appearing "with it" or out of fear they're going to miss the boat on art objects whose price will skyrocket out of their price range? Yes.

Have many art schools become too concerned with "nurturing creativity and imagination" at the expense of teaching a complete skill set? Yes.

Are there career-minded poseurs whose only talent lies in offering an impenetrable statement that purports to explain why the silly doodle on the toilet seat cover is "art"? Yes.

Are there dealers and collectors who, due to either venality or ignorance, sell and buy silly doodles on toilet seats? Yes.

I am not, nor have I previously, offering any kind of blanket approval for any and all art. However, I find your blanket condemnation of virtually all art that does not seek to depict nature faithfully, exclamation point, to be so narrow as to be irrelevant. Based on my own experiences and following press accounts I've seen examples of all types of art and artists, from the very traditional to the Post-modern, get grants or public commissions. That said, none of the artists I know who have gotten any grant or commission ever got more than a single modest payday, certainly none of them are living on the public teat. And as a taxpayer myself I'd rather see more public funds spent on art than ... oh, destabilizing third world countries with rich natural resources.

Michael Motta the font is Book Antiqua I believe. And here on 2blowhards "modern" is generally used as a blanket term used for almost any art that looks like it was done after the Impressionists (who are themselves sometimes lumped in with the modernists.)

Posted by: Chris White on June 7, 2007 8:03 AM

Thanks for both pieces of info Chris. I guess I had a good guess on the modern or modernist! It does seem extremely narrow to me to rule that out. It strikes me as an aesthetics born of natural law theory whereby each thing has a telos and the extent to which it deviates from its nature and is not rational is the extent to which it is perverse. Eek gad!

Give me "Degenerate Art" any day! I don't want so much order that any clown at the top can run the whole show with surgical precision.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 8, 2007 1:28 AM

So my Munch biography by Sue Prideaux arrived via interloan to my small town library. I haven't officially started into it yet but I began flipping through. I turned to a chapter called "Degenrate Art", and this is what I found concerning Hitler's exhibit:

"Beneath or beside many of the works was a red sticker bearing the words, 'paid for by the taxes of the German working people', an effective technique of populist art criticism."

I'm sorry BTM but the comparisons are too striking to ignore.

Besides, there just isn't THAT much money for arts funding going around as compared to just about any other kind of funding of which you could think. Did you know that through a FOIA request it was recently found that the US Air Force was working with scientists circa 1994 on the idea of a "gay bomb"? Yes, that's right, a bomb that wouldn't kill the enemy troops but would turn them into randy sweeties. There's some fine funding for you.

Posted by: Michael Motta on June 14, 2007 4:37 PM

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