Saturday, July 18, 2020

What They Say/What They Think They Mean/What They Really Mean

Here is a post for art students or aspiring artists of any stripe if there are any left after the pandemic. Its about what gets said in critique or about why Art with a capital A can seem so rarefied and/or snotty..

What they may say:
Your artwork is too much like illustration
Your artwork is too decorative
Your artwork is craft, not art
Your artwork is too kitsch
Your artwork is too "stylized"

What they think they mean:
Your artwork is too much like illustration:  it is too obvious a narrative, the image is less important than the story, it is too easy to understand by “reading” it,  it is too easy to sell for $, and/ or too easy to use to sell something.
Your artwork is too decorative: it is too pretty or too entertaining, or too trivial, at the expense of meaning—which is usually understood as something like a philosophy—in other words, things that decorate or are pretty are not deep enough to be art.
Your artwork is craft, not art: it is too technical, too skill-based (at the expense of meaning—which evidently is so fragile it can only exist as a purity unto its own solitary self.)
Your artwork is too kitsch: it is too easily confused with cheap consumer goods, too  appealing to one’s “baser” emotions, too insulting to one's intellect, possibly too “ethnic” but I doubt anyone would say that out loud.
Your artwork is too "stylized": You have branded yourself with a consistent visual vocabulary.  Like those who design products for Kmart and Walmart--stop it!

What they really mean (a.k.a. what I have come to understand they mean):
Your work doesn't look enough like what a certain group of people (Eurocentric white hetero males) with certain interests and tastes call Art. Art is narrowly defined as exclusively as possible to protect certain people’s market share, prestige and mystique. And maybe to protect their ego. In short, to protect their status. Please remember exclusive automatically implies exclusion—its right there in the word. The idea of art as something other than illustration, decoration, craft, design, kitsch etc is very recent. And when I say “other than” those things, which are very art-like things, I intended to denote a hierarchical position with Art at the tippy top.  It is really not possible to say art is "the same" as craft or design or whatever, in this conception. That’s the entire point of the invention of the word to distinguish it from them.

We (yes, even artists and aspiring artists) tend to accept that art is "the stuff in museums" (or something like that)  without taking into account how it got to be chosen. "Fine Art" as a thing was invented recently (circa 1500 in Europe) and you, as an aspiring artist should know that. It comes with a set of "rules" and assumptions and there are consequences to playing the game, consequences to playing it your way, to refusing to play it and also to ignorance. If you call yourself an artist, you will have to exist in relationship to this social construction of what art is.

Do I sound peeved?  I'm really not.  I am trying to be completely factual and educational. I am trying to prepare you for life.  This is reality. Is it currently falling apart with pressure from Black Lives Matter, MeToo and other attempts at social justice? We shall see.  Perhaps.  But I still see the criteria in critiques (like “excellence”) being unquestioningly tossed about and what that signals to me is that it’s still a certain group who are controlling the very definition of art in a way that serves their interests.  Perhaps not yours. Sometimes this happens knowingly by actual Eurocentric males who stand to gain the most, but I have ALSO seen it by women, BIPOC, LGBTQ persons in unconscious ways. It is HARD to avoid (or resist or recreate) the mythos of what Art is. But it is a myth from which we will derive everything else: the modes of distribution, the marketplace, the institutions and, most importantly to the aspiring artist, who and what merits their good graces. Unless it is replaced with some other myth. But for the time being please don’t go into this unawares.

It can be really, really specific, too! Certain things have come to be known as more art-like than others.  There used to be an old art school graffiti—I heard it attributed to Tyler, RISD and a number of other schools: “First make it big and if that doesn’t work, make it red.  Or something like that.  So large scale, “expressionistic” brushstrokes, sloppiness; these have become signals that Art is taking place here!  I mean, I find myself wondering about how UTTERLY RANDOM it is that we fetishize brushstrokes in paintings.  Or size.  And any number of other art-like gestures that are more signifier and less anything else at all.  Ok, now I am a little peeved!

I’ve seen a lot of friends and students write themselves out of art because of these distinctions and that’s a pity.

My main thought here is: ask yourself: why is "too obvious a narrative" a bad thing? I am not saying it is or isn't.  Just YOU should decide for yourself.  Then proceed accordingly. Why is kitsch a bad word when some of it is so wonderful?  Why do we think entertainment or decoration is stupid? Are the necessarily so? Why are material and technique considered as separate from concept and message? Again, you should decide for yourself and then proceed accordingly.
Ask yourself are brushstrokes really an important way reveal to your inner soul?  I suppose some may say yes, but some may have found other ways.
And sometimes a cigar is a big honking phallic symbol.


Starry Gordon said...

I was once invited to the atelier (also home) of a pretty well-known animator with whom I have a casual acquaintance. 'This isn't art critic time,' she said, 'I just want you to look at a certain section of my work and tell me if you understand it -- if it makes sense.' (Her work was pretty abstract but representational.) So I looked at it and said it made sense. She had me explain it and I did. 'Thank you,' she said. 'If you can understand it, most people will.' 'That's not much of a compliment,' I said. 'Yes it is,' she said.

Actually, I _was_ complimented, because the experience was sort of like sitting on the bench at the organ with J.S. Bach when he's working out a fugue, and he turns to you and says, 'What do you think? B or B-flat?'

Unknown said...

Wow, Starry Gordon--that is such a great story!  Thank you for sharing it!--Judith

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Moira (Half Full Glass) said...

I've just found your blog, I'm enjoying it a lot.

The 'what do they really mean' thing - I've been chewing on that for at least 10 years. I think the thing is this - when you've hung around art galleries and stared at fine work both ancient and modern for long enough, you start to develop a sense of what 'works' and what doesn't. But it's not easy to find words to explain to someone else.

Paula Rego's work is Good: narrative, but complex, many-layered and dark. Malevich's work is Good: simple, but heavy with meaning and infused with the spirit of his time. Much UK Victorian painting is Not Good (as Fine Art) because it's pretty and decorative but devoid of meaning - like eating a sugar cube instead of a sweet cinnamon pastry. It looks lovely on a tin of biscuits, but you wouldn't want it on your wall.

I think those criticisms are more about finding a way to say 'this isn't very good' in a way that might be of help to a student.
Personally I've given up wondering whether my work is 'Good', I'm happy to enjoy making it.