The good, the bad, and the ugly

I’ve discovered at the SAM that there are a lot of artworks that just don’t hold up to repeated viewings: they simply lack the right mix of depth and complexity and composition. It’s a subtle combination, and without it, it’s hard to find the visual key to unlock the image. It’s just a mess, splotches of color on paper. One of my other professors once suggested that, when considering paper topics, I should always try to work on “great art” because I could be sure that it would be well composed, and I would have better luck finding something interesting to say about it. Not that there was anything wrong with provincial art, per se, but that greater complexity would lend itself to a richer paper. (And, as he cannily pointed out, if I came up with something super brilliant, I could publish my article and lots of people would notice and cite it.) I’m not sure I entirely agree with him — there are important things to be said about provincial art and even about bad art (look at the reams of ink devoted to some of the one-liners produced by recent contemporary artists), but I see his point.

The first time I really got my head around this idea was shortly after I left school — I was in Boston and visited the Isabella Gardiner Museum. It’s tremendously uneven, as nothing has been moved since Gardiner assembled the collection and placed the paintings on the walls of her faux-Venetian villa a hundred years ago; her taste was decent but occasionally questionable. A wealthy collector certainly, she was no Morgan or Getty, who had already bought up most of the truly spectacular things by that point, and besides, she was a woman. Until then, all of the museums I’d been to had exquisitely curated collections; this was the first time I’d seen mediocre art on display, and I finally understood the difference between the great stuff I’d seen at the AGO and the Met and the Victoria & Albert, and what I was seeing there. Of the hundreds and hundreds of objects on display, she had, like, a dozen brilliant pieces, and you could tell instantly how amazing they were compared to everything else. (Made me wonder what it must be like to work in a second-tier auction house and have to appraise and sell such high-end but second-rate dreck.) I remember that Irina was with me that day, and we spent quite a while standing in front of a couple of framed manuscript-type miniature paintings, one of excellent quality, and one which was really bland (off color, poor composition), while I tried to explain to her how weird the collection was. I think she understood intellectually, but I don’t think it registered visually. It was an epiphany for me, anyway.

Some three months prior, during one of my last classes in school, an art history prof had put me onto the Pearl manuscript for a paper. I was casting about for a topic, and wanted very much to work on “gardens,” but for the life of me didn’t have a manuscript or even a clear thesis in mind. Bless him, the prof stepped in and offered this topic, knowing that my medieval documentary skills might serve me where my other classmates might founder. The Pearl manuscript contains Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and, most famously, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of which have been studied extensively. In the world of manuscript studies, however, the location of a text and any accompanying images, in situ, can also tell you a tremendous amount, and this professor pointed out to me that little had been done in this area. This was the Problem for my paper. What about these images??

As I quickly discovered, the quality of the images were awful. They weren’t even the standard French biblical/saint dumb statue-like smiling figures that could have come from anywhere in Europe in the 13th or 14th Centuries. No. They were narrative, clearly depicting parts of the texts in the manuscript, but they were ugly, the colors were bad, and even worse, the slides I found were faded. I couldn’t tell if the slides were smudgy or if that’s just how they’d been painted.

Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight

Cotton Nero A.x, f. 90v ~ Gawain decapitating the Green Knight (British Library)

As you can see, this is hardly high quality art, even by medieval standards. Ok, ok, so yes, this particular page does look like it’s been abused. And the artist does make quite a bit of effort with that green horse’s bridle! But that table? And the entire lack of background at all? So, this is what I worked on for my paper. The prof had spent the entire course sowing the seeds of critical dissent in our young brains: use all the tools at your disposal to poke and prod and probe and ask what makes this Art?? More importantly, he taught me to ask a question that so often seems to get left at the wayside: is it any good? Art is created for myriad reasons, and sometimes the aesthetic delivery is only the icing on the cake (to wit: many eyesores of contemporary architecture). Art history is not merely another variation in critical thinking (as the humanities are so casually dismissed); no, great art history is a codification of the critic’s eye.

Anyway, part of what makes me alternately so excited and so frustrated about contemporary art is that I feel a bit like I have x-ray vision: I understand the artists as fallible humans, not as current and future art deities, and I hear the critics too, and take it in with a certain bemusement. And I can’t wait to see more. For example, just in the last year or so, I’ve been reading up on Damien Hirst. He has a reputation (rightly earned) as being the shock jock of the British art world — cutting apart cows and putting them in vitrines, giving his works precious titles, and winking knowingly at the viewer, all while laughing in the face of the old school Establishment. He is savvy entrepeneur as much as an artist, having established himself as an agent for his friends while they were all in uni, coordinating their first group show, and selling all of their pieces. His works also push at the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in an art museum: wouldn’t corpses of cows be better suited to a natural history museum? And, he played the shock British tabloid press to his advantage, driving up the sale prices for his pieces even higher.

But, despite the varying press Hirst has gotten over the years (and he is a prolific enough artist that he ensures that it keeps coming) some of his work is GENIUS. He is fascinated by the Important Themes that scare us, on a quotidien level: love, death, money, status. By using dead animals in his art work, Hirst makes his point explicitly, graphically clear. His art resonates because the images are not just movie violence: these animals are real, they are dead, they are still, and they enact tableaus which bely a pathetic fallacy. So, we stand, we look, and we contemplate our unease with death and its paraphernalia. Hirst’s medical art is suggestive of a similar memento mori, though there he is perhaps suggesting that we are so afraid to look death in the face that we would rather anesthetize ourselves entirely.

But, Hirst has his off days, and he does shill…a lot. Have you ever seen one of his dot paintings? Or one of his spin paintings?

Chlorprotamide 1996, Damien Hirst

Chlorprotamide ~ Damien Hirst, 1996 (Portland Art Museum)

So, the entire point of this painting is that the color of each dot is totally random. That’s it. Ok, sure, yes, for one or two paintings, maybe. But Hirst has made thousands of these. Or, to be more precise, his assistants have. The same for his spin paintings. I’m sorry, but that’s just shitty art. That’s Hirst just going to the bank and cashing several thousand pound checks just because he can. Which, alright, I suppose if I had the name and the ability to fling paint randomly on a canvas, sign my name, and sell it for L3000, I just might. But it’s lame. These are paintings that have nothing to say, and will go into the dustbin of history. It depresses me even more that the good people at the Portland Art Museum are so desperate to own a Hirst that they’ll own this instead of waiting to see if they can find a donor who will help them buy something more substantial. This art is a waste of wall space. It’s kinda pretty to look at, but it is bland, mesmerizing, and totally, totally lame.

Worse, cranking out nine bajillion of these (and you can even buy them online, at places like Eyestorm.com) only damages his reputation as an artist. What is more likely to survive, anyway? Those corpses will eventually fall apart, no matter how much formaldehyde solution he puts them in. I give their lifespan a few hundred years. But paintings? We know that those can live five hundred years or much, much longer. Does Hirst really want his legacy to be countless boring dot paintings? He’s much too brilliant and interesting a man now for that.

This is why I get excited and frustrated by contemporary art. In contemporary art, the artists are still living, you can go to a museum where they are holding a retrospective and see the entire corpus of an artist’s work, while the artist is still living. If you’re very lucky, you might even have the opportunity to meet the artist. And, you can see very, very clearly when they are having off-days. No one can be brilliant all the time. I like to think that the role of a critic is to keep a decent artist on his toes, to keep him honest, and to say, “you know, that’s a nice idea, but the execution there, that was a pretty shitty piece of art you made. We think you’re capable of better.” Maybe that’s harsh, but someone, somewhere, has to stand up for the brilliant work, and to recognize when even brilliant, established artists have gotten lazy. I want great art. Is that too much to ask?

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~ by ecp on January 23, 2008.

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