Saturday, November 9, 2013

Contemporary Contemptible Art

A student sent me this and asked for a response.  Here it be!

I get caught between sympathy for the impatient and frustrated author—a person who is part of the elite culturati who knows full well the rap that justifies Tracey Emin et al—and my own open mindedness and desire to understand contemporary art on its own terms.

On the one hand, its so easy to claim "The Emperor isNaked!!!" (But since when is nudity so awful?  OK, maybe that's not really the point of the parable.  Or…maybe it IS!) I get it, contemporary art can seem disingenuous, ironic and nude-nudge-wink-wink stabs at what we hold to be dear.  Sometimes it feels like outright violent stabbing at what we hold dear, actually! It can seem a harbinger of doom owing to its (de-)evolution from skilled mimesis and earnest attempts at profundity to what seem like gratuitous toss offs made to appeal to those intent on throwing away money owing to economic hubris and a sick need for flashy swagger. The artists are having a laugh at our expense!  They are getting rich by fooling the gullible into seeing value where there is none!  
Contemporary art can seem downright misguided and just plain AWFUL, if not outright evil.  I think what people hate the most is not only the awfulness, but the galling suggestion we take it seriously ("Sometimes I wish I possessed the requisite attention span to absorb endless amounts of totally pointless bullshit.")  and the fact that some people are paying $$$ for their artwork (and not ours!)

ON THE OTHER HAND, and maybe I have been persuaded by my own open-mindedness a la "Strawberry Jam Syndrome”, perhaps there is some value to this type of work.
Certainly we cannot endorse cultural stasis or nostalgia for the "good old days" when artists did things "right" or "better".  Who are we to judge?  Tracey Emin has, perhaps, gone to great effort to put forth her work.  I think we like to assume she got her stellar career handed to her with no effort and I can't really say, because I don't know. But I do know that plenty of artists who proffer what I consider to be the most cockamamie, meaningless, unappealing crap have done so via enormous sacrifice, and……….wait for it……….they have done so for the exact same reasons I believe that MY work is what humankind is desperate to receive.
For these reasons, I found the author of the article's standard that one should "explain this exhibition to an alien or a medieval time traveler." to be a bit stringent.

I regard my own opinions and tastes as having a higher priority than others, as do most people, I assume. It is only natural to be suspicious, if not fearful, of the unrecognizable. I am guessing this serves an important purpose in that I can recognize potential danger and flee for my life. But, alas, we are no longer hunter-gatherers and there is some sort of mass-accumulation of human wisdom. Suspicion and rejection of artwork not to my taste can close my mind to artistic avenues worth considering. All this should be obvious to anyone who has ever been lectured on the immorality of prejudice (interesting side note: I originally spelled that as “prejucide”!) 
Similarly, there have been times I felt changing my mind was a corruption of my purity of vision and my sterling principles.  I worried that if I allowed myself to love an artist some people see no value in I was becoming a brainwashed art-zombie. Surely a stronger mind would stick to their guns. But I have come to see it the other way around. I am reminded that the flexible buildings are the ones that survive earthquakes. 

When it comes to opinions and judgments about art, I think its wise to question authority.  But one can never, ever forget that the most important authority to question is one's own!  If learning to love something, despite the fact that it might be “bad” or “tacky”, is even a remote possibility, then surely that merely adds to the Gross National Income of happiness.  How can that be bad??

Finally, I think its a ever so slightly biased to assume those who DO enjoy Tracey Emin's work to be doing so out of a lemming-like fear that they will be rejected from the In-Crowd or that they have been indoctrinated by some evil art conspiracy.  As with the seemingly insidious adoration for artists like Thomas Kinkade, one human's genuine appreciation and experience of authentic emotional connection with a work of art is another's human's poison.  Vive le difference!
So the point is, no one ever died of an open mind in the arts!  One of the highest ideals of humankind is to love what's loathsome and to embrace the unknown. If it turns out the emperor seems naked?  Seen another way, he is nude.