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Archives for October, 2006

Critique Me!

Posted by Jon Conkey

I thought taking Karl up on posting a picture would be a good thing; I am firmly strapped down and ready. I thank you in advance for your honest and truthful opinion, please do not hold back.

“Bloggers have to ‘earn’ the right to be read”

Posted by Karl Zipser

Journalist and critic Nancy Geyer made this comment on The Thinking Eye:

. . . it seems to me that too many blogs, even the best of them, are falling into the trap of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” — they become mutually self-promotional, as if the bloggers don’t have to “earn” the right to be read. When I read a blog I’m looking for a thoughtful, informative, critical discourse without the distraction of all the networking that is going on.

Here is a professional giving free advice. Is Nancy Geyer on the mark?

[There are a lot of comments but I need to bring them here –Karl]

Group Think

Posted by Rex Crockett

Karl kindly invited me to post on his blog, and within moments of receiving his invitation, I had an idea, and here I am with it. Except after writing what’s below, I went, “Well, this is more of an article than a post. I’m not really asking questions; I’m making statements. I don’t see how this really invites a return response.”

But after writing it, I couldn’t see how to turn it into something more interactive and less assertive without turning it into something it wasn’t and thus losing the whole flavor, and I don’t really want to mess with this post because it’s from the heart.

Karl had a comment regarding one of mine on The Fall of the Art World. He said, “But I do hope some more critical comments come in. We don’t want to get into some silly artist group-think here, do we?”

I agree with that; moreover, it got me thinking about that whole group-think thing.

I was reminded of a comment of Claude Monet’s regarding his development as an artist. He said that at a certain point his career, rather early actually, he found it counter productive to hang about in cafés talking endlessly over absinthe or coffee under clouds of pipe smoke with the various artists and hangers on in the Parisian art scene. He decided he needed to spend more time painting, and painting in his way at that — outside, in the fresh air, with nature as his teacher.

I’m neither an anthropologist nor a psychologist, but I do enjoy people and am endlessly fascinated by their social dynamics. As a perpetual student of said, it is fairly obvious that there is a certain liability to only talking about things, whatever the subject, with only a certain group. Groups evolve their own agreements, but those agreements may not accord with widely held perceptions. At times such cohesions may be inspired and elevating, at other times merely serve to make for inclusions and exclusions of memberships, and at other times can serve to render the group completely out of touch with reality.

You see that kind of thing in all the arts. In jazz, if you use any chords that have less than four notes, you’re “not doing jazz,” so you hear (in bad jazz) only a lot of weird chords. Musicians will make jokes about the “jazz police.” In certain art circles if you do any recognizable representations of anything, you’re being “literal.” “Kitsch” takes on a special meaning. Among certain groups of computer programmers, the hostility to ordinary computer users is palpable; e.g., non programers are called “lusers” — a variation on “nuser” for “new user.”

On and on. Group think. The deadliness of this is that it can knock you out of touch with your audience. The jazz policing ends up costing you any audience but some real creepy cats. Fear of literality and kitsch makes for paintings that are indecipherable without a book that explains them — an irony lucidly and humorously put in Tom Wolfe’s _The Painted Word_. Contempt for ordinary users makes for programs that no one can figure out how to use and documentation that is so technically nomenclatured as to be useless, and so, no work.

Now here is another irony. It so happens that I did that Monet thing. I actually traveled around the mountains of California for several years, living on the road, doing these brush and ink paintings specifically calculated to be do-able from a backpack. It was a rejuvenating and enlightening experience. It was very good for my work. I would not trade that time for anything I’ve ever done in life. It was not a lonely time. I still sold my work in lot of ways, on the street, craft fairs, various personal contacts, and so on. I met all kinds of interesting people. There is a whole nomadic culture in the Western US. The lifestyle worked. I made money. Not a lot, but I didn’t need much. Yet at a certain point, only about eight months ago, I started to yearn for the kind of patter I’d grown accustomed to at other times of my life when I had other artists
to talk with.

So on the one hand, while I see Monet’s take on things as a very wise move on the part of an intrepid explorer, I think I’ve gotten to some stage in my life where I feel a certain responsibility to other artists as well as students. I could not fulfill my social responsibility with the nomadic life. I know Monet had a hard time of it too, and he eventually settled down. To see the guest lists for his mature era parties is to see the who’s who of French culture and politics of the time. So he evidently reached the same conclusion. Certainly he managed to find a way to “keep his vision pure,” as he liked to say, and still be a social person.

With other artists, it’s possible to explore really new ideas before you take action on them. Other artists are likely to be more willing to experience edgy work. They can see through the rough edges to the inner jewel. A little (or a lot) of wackiness is tolerated or amusing. The strong passions that artists feel are well understood by others with such feelings. When I’m doing a show or speaking to an audience of collectors, buyers, or customers, I’m definitely putting on a show. I’m acting, and I’m acting more conservatively than I really am, but around other artists? Well, I remember this one group show I was in. I was looking at the other exhibitors all laughing and yucking it up, and I thought, “These are my kind of birds. They’re all crazy, and I love them.”

Interview with Arthur Whitman


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Arthur Whitman is an artist and critic writing for on-line and “real” newspapers. He was offered the opportunity to write professionally because of the high quality of the reviews he published on his blog, The Thinking Eye. I interviewed him recently via email. You can ask him questions here on Art & Perception.

Karl Zipser: What inspired you to start writing a blog?

Arthur Whitman: At least two things inspired me. First of all, my move in September 2005 from Boston to Ithaca. I felt isolated, both from the local artists community and from the larger artworld. To some extent I still do, but The Thinking Eye has helped me considerably on both fronts. The other thing was my interest in writing: for its own sake, as a way of understanding art better, and as a way of establishing a reputation as a writer.

Karl: How did the blog help establish your reputation as a writer?

Arthur: I’ve always been told that I write well, so I wanted to apply that skill somehow. Having studied studio art and art history in school, and being the kind of person who devours exhibits and art books, art writing seemed a natural choice. I lack the kind of “pedigree” that would easily get me a standard academic or journalistic job doing this. So one reason (although hardly the only one) that I started The Thinking Eye is show people what I could do. The Ithaca Times (the “alternative” weekly newspaper where I live”) agreed to let me do reviews for them without seeing a resume, so apparently my strategy works. I’ve only done two pieces for them so far, but hope to be writing for them more regularly in the coming months. Big Red and Shiny, a Boston online magazine has also printed one of my pieces. Another one will be coming in October.

Karl: Are you comfortable with being called an “art critic”?

Arthur: I’m increasingly comfortable being called an art critic, although I don’t consider all (or even most) of what I do on my blog criticism.

Karl: You art criticism writing can sometimes be harsh, no?

Arthur: While I do try to be as open-minded and thoughtful as possible (and I believe I’m pretty good at this), some of the art that I’ve written about just strikes me as wrongheaded on one or more levels. I feel my job as a critic is to be honest about this. People should be encouraged to make value judgments about artwork. Inevitably, other people’s judgments are going to be at least slightly different from my own.

Karl: Has your work as a critic changed you attitude about receiving criticism yourself?

Arthur: As for my own artwork, I’m confident that for all its flaws, what I do is complex and intelligent. So I think I would have a hard time taking a critic seriously if they dismissed it wholesale. Of course, that is probably the case for most artists.

Karl: You have studied many exhibitions. What in your opinion is the biggest mistake that an artist, gallery, or museum can make when installing a contemporary show?

Arthur: It depends on the interests and intentions of those involved: the artist, obviously, but also the curators and the audience. You could say that a failure to negotiate among these interests is the biggest mistake.

Karl: Are we living in a great moment in art history?

Arthur: My guess is that although we’re not in one of the greatest periods–such as the Renaissance or the early twentieth century–we’re hardly in the Dark Ages either. But I think we’ll have to wait a few generations to have really a clear idea about this. Today, everything from neo-classical and realistic painting to the most “far-out” conceptual art is being made and has its fans and partisans. I think the sheer diversity of work being made and discussed in the contemporary scene makes it difficult to get a consensus about the health of the artworld.

Karl: Do you see geographical location of art movements as an important factor in art today, as it was in the past?

Arthur: I think its considerably less important than in the past. With the existence and prevalence of the Internet, cheap high-quality reproductions, art magazines, plane travel, huge museums and so forth, we live in a much smaller world than we did even 50 years ago. That said, I do think that visual art generally has a local character. For example, there are lot of artists that you see commonly in European museums that are very difficult to find here in the United States. There are a lot of artists that you can see in New York City that are unlikely to show up here in Ithaca, which is only a six hour drive away (and vice versa). I think that in an era of globalized popular culture, that this local character is worth preserving.

Karl: Do you think the internet harms the development of local art culture?

Arthur: I don’t think of the Internet as having a devastating effect on local art, although I’m sure its possible. When I said that I valued local cultures, I didn’t mean that cities or towns or regions should isolate themselves from the rest of the world. On the contrary, I believe that artists and other serious art fans should travel as widely as possible to see art. The Internet is simply another way of spreading information and opinions about art from all over. I have difficulty seeing that as anything other than positive. Living in a small town, one of my own goals as a writer has been to challenge the provincialism and poverty of influence that I believe prevents many local artists from reaching their potential.

Local art cultures (and local cultures in general) are important because they provide an alternative to the world of mass media, mass culture, and mass production. These systems tend to level out the differences between different places. People around the world can (and do) watch the same movies and TV shows, wear the same clothes, even read the same books. With art, the object is usually either one of a kind or exists as a limited number of copies (as with printmaking, art photography and some kinds of sculpture). So, despite efforts to send these objects around the world, art tends to “stick” to specific areas.

Balancing the local quality of art with the “global village” of the Internet is a challenge, but I am optimistic that good things will come of it.

Karl: Thanks for your time, Arthur. Would you take questions from readers?

Arthur: Yes.

(un)still-life of the imagination

Drawing still-life from her imagination has given a new dynamism to Hanneke’s work. Look at the rhythm of the forms she creates here. This looks like it would be awfully complex to paint (and where is she going to find a skull?).

Fall of the Art World


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Looking back at this piece (first posted 4 May) I can laugh at the melodramatic style. But I confess that I am still under its spell. Fall of the Art world continues to influence my world view, how I look at things like the Painting a Day movement. Which is to say, I could use some serious criticism of this piece. Tear it down, if you can.

Fall of the Art World
The art world as we know it is the product of the historical era between the invention of photography and the development of the internet.

Photography took away the artist’s monopoly on creating images of reality. Art survived this challenge because, as Cennino Cennini wrote several hundred years ago, art is about more than merely depicting that which exists.

But the challenge of photography led to a crisis: it became difficult to answer the question, “What is art?” In this context, control of public exhibition space became key. The answer to the question “What is art?” became by default, “That which is in museums and galleries.”

In this context, art is created not in the studio, but in the gallery or museum itself. Art is created not with the paintbrush, but with the wire that attaches the work to the museum or gallery wall. The curator and dealer become the creators of art; the artist’s productions are merely their raw materials.

The internet changes the equation; it allows for the juxtaposition of all art, removed from the bounds of physical space. The museum or gallery art-object, stripped of its mystic surroundings and exposed in the harsh light of the computer monitor, must compete on the basis of its own merit with every other artwork.

By diminishing the importance of the physical exhibition space, the internet strikes at the core of the dealer’s and curator’s power. The answer to the question, “What is art?” will no longer be “That which is in museums and galleries”, but, “That which looks good on the internet.”

This will be the end of the art world as we know it. Decision-making about art will be widely distributed. The art world, as a closed and controlled system, will cease to exist. The creative power unleashed in the new era might astonish us.

_____

P.S. Thanks to Candy, David, Kris, Lisa and Tracy for valuable comments on the previous post. I will take your views into consideration when I do the rewrite.

How is an Art Patron different from a Gallery Consumer?


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

The difference is evident in the artworks (e.g. paintings) that they buy.

An art patron:

  • causes an artwork to be made that would not otherwise exist
  • has a direct influence on the content of the artwork (and thus on the creative process itself)

In contrast, a gallery consumer:

  • selects a ready-made artwork
  • has little or no impact on the creative process

Anyone with money can buy a ready-made artwork. But to be an art patron requires more than that. Besides money, an art patron must have

  • a good idea of what the artwork should be about
  • discernment to select the best artist for the job
  • patience and persistence to deal with problems, delays, and drama that accompany any serious artistic project

Being an art patron is difficult. It is something of a lost art in itself.

The gallery myth

Art is sold in galleries along with a myth:

Art should be created for the sake of art.

This phrase is inherently meaningless. A painting is an inanimate object. The person who buys it does the appreciating.

The gallery myth runs counter to the interests of both the artist and the buyer. This is evident when one considers the economics of making art.

When an artist works for a patron, the goal is to please a real person, and get paid for it. This is a well-defined goal. It gives the artist a focus for creativity, and the assurance that creativity will be rewarded.

When and artist creates works to sell in a gallery, the goal is to please an imaginary person, a stranger who might buy a picture. How does one please an imaginary person? This goal is not well-defined. Creative energy gets wasted in guesswork. The artist, through uncertainty, makes many pictures — hoping some of them will sell.

Galleries incline the artist to a mass-production approach. Mass production is fine for blue-jeans. It is inefficient for artwork made by an individual, where the goal is to be creative and produce something unique and of high quality.

I believe that the gallery myth is a good part why painting has fallen into such a sorry state: the link between the artist and buyer is broken by the gallery. This alters the economic relationship and puts the artist into an awkward mode of production.

And of course, the buyer, in the role of gallery consumer, must settle for something not made specifically him or her.

Escaping economics?

Is it impossible for an artist to create what he or she really wants to create? Must painting be done either for a real patron, or for an imaginary customer?

Of course there is an alternative: an artist can paint for himself — if he can afford the time to do so. He is then his own patron. He does not paint “for the sake of art”, but for his own sake. Perhaps this is the best way to make great art.

And yet, there are some problems with an artist being his own patron. The artist gains creative freedom, but at a price. A regular patron can provide meaningful constraints in the form of:

  • specifications for subject matter
  • deadlines
  • payment

These three constraints are lost when an artist acts as his own patron. The purpose and content of the work can continually change or evolve. The painting may never be finished. The artist cannot meaningfully pay himself for his work. He spends his time, he gets a picture in the end if he is lucky. But there is no money involved.

If the artist has the money to be able to afford to paint for pleasure, he also can afford to spend his money for easier forms of pleasure — like vacations. Thus, a rich artist will have a lot of distractions from the hard task of painting — and good painting is very, very difficult. A poor artist, on the other hand, will starve if he spends too much time acting as his own patron.

If the goal of making an artwork is to produce something that will satisfy a buyer, then the artist/patron relationship, unhindered by the gallery, can be the best way to fulfill this goal. Being an art patron is not easy, of course. But who said art should be easy? Whereas the gallery consumer makes a selection, the art patron is involved in expression. Here is the ultimate difference; the artwork will reflect this.

(I would like to get critical feed-back on this piece)
first posted 28 March 2006

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