Friday, January 9, 2015

I blame my alarm clock



"Pop Departures" show at the Seattle Art Museum last night. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldbenburg, et al. I was surprised by how rough the Lichtensteins are in real life. I was surprised by how repellent I continue to find the banal objects of Jeff Koons. I was not surprised by how few of the pieces moved me at all. I've yet to encounter a convincing argument that art criticism is actually art. I am open to such an argument, should it exist, but I have not yet met it.

Also, whoever writes the absolutely rubbishy informational placards for these shows should be sacked. A taxicab is not "a representation of an iconic urban item;" it is the iconic urban item itself. Take off your "trying to look smart" hat, whoever you are, and attempt clarity next time. I am cranky. I have been short of sleep all week. I blame my alarm clock.

22 comments:

  1. If writing is an art then art criticism is an art; if writing is not an art then art criticism cannot be art. But I'm not sure who is arguing this, or why it should be important. If art criticism is not art then Ruskin was not an artist, but what kind of critique is that? I don't mean that as a rhetorical stinger. I'm genuinely asking. What is the content of your criticism? What does "not art" mean? What is it about Ruskin's writing (here representing the category "not art") that separates it from the work of Jeff Koons (which will represent the category "art"). What would Ruskin have to do to obtain the category of Koons?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Believe me, I know that that's a good question. Maybe my actual issue is that I don't see why Koons' work should be categorized as "art." What is it about a hotdog that makes it different from a sonnet? If they are both "art," what use is the category "art?" Perhaps that's the very question pop-art asks.

      I don't think "writing is an art" is a useful or true statement. What do we mean by "writing?" Is the sign along the sidewalk two blocks from my office that says "rough surface" something we call "writing?" How is that sign different from Warhol's Monroe posters, or from St Mark's cathedral? I don't know. But I don't think the "rough surface" sign is art, even though it is clearly "writing." But I might find it in a pop-art show, yes? In which case I would have to make an argument for it not being "art" if I didn't want it in the show. It seems to me, I guess, that pop-art attempts to elevate every object to the status of "art," which empties the term "art" of all meaning. Well done, pop-art. Mission accomplished, right? But to what end?

      Perhaps my objection to Koons is primarily aesthetic, and therefore indefensible and impossible to refute: he makes ugly things. The writing of Ruskin is a beautiful thing. Ruskin moves me; Koons does not. That is my argument, and the simple fact that Koons does not move me pushes his works out of the category of "art." Yes, I'll stick with that.

      Delete
    2. That's what I was trying to find out -- when you, Scott G.F. Bailey, say that a thing is "art," are you thinking of a definition, which can be considered and argued by a second party, or a personal and mutable impression, which can't?

      "Perhaps that's the very question pop-art asks..." -- one of the questions, I think, but so does everyone else: the Dadists asked it, the Impressionists asked it, the Minimalists have asked it; everybody asks it.* There it is in Tintoretto's St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, the vertical processional figures on the bottom (decades in the past, that style, by the time the painting was made) and the contemporary Michelangelo angel at the top, twisted in perspective like a laundry sheet above their folded napkins. "What is art?" or "What can be art?" is one of the prime questions of art, and that's why I'd always say that Pop Art is art, has to be art, because it exists in the same continuum as other art; it acts against the work of the most famously serious artists of its time, the Ab-Exers, their insistence on the supremacy of the singular and the inimitable, and the mark.

      So, mark, mark, the lone wolf, the primitive man, and then, boom (or not quite boom because the tendency had been lurking around for a while, eg, Picasso and Braque sticking newspaper on their canvases but for the convenient purposes of this post, nay, of this sentence, never mind the post, I'll write boom), here's Warhol, and oh, he says: I'm a Factory, I'm an airhead, I'm going to make reproduction my thing; see, I can screenprint a movie star or an electric chair, same method -- same method -- this horrible dead body over a pole, screenprinted too -- so where is seriousness? Where is it? A mark says Lichtenstein, well, I can make a mark -- here it is -- a Ben-Day dot. But I'll paint it. Now what is a mark?

      They're reverberant, the Popists, and that's how I understand them, my perception of beauty is not part of this.

      I proceed to an advertisement. A solo show of mine will be running at a Las Vegas gallery for the next month and a half, so if anyone's going to be in town and extremely bored during that time then let me know and I'll send you the details. Finding the place will distract you for at least thirty minutes and the show itself will divert you for another ten, and it's free, so there's value for money right there.

      * (If art as art criticism is not art then Manet's Olympia is not art.)

      Delete
    3. Don't you think there's more going on in Olympia than a comment on French mores? There is a world of technique and imaginative vision in the Manet that I just do not see in the works of Warhol and Koons. But the question of "art" and the meaning of that word. I have yet to see, I admit, a definition that wasn't either so broad as to be essentially a big swath of open air containing no substance, or else it was so narrow and personal that it was nothing but a personal and mutable impression. My own definition of art is ever-changing and idiosyncratic and I guess that's okay, and my definition does enfold my perception of "beauty," which is also constantly evolving and has long admitted objects that most folks would find ugly. So I don't know. The Pop art stuff doesn't move me, it doesn't speak to me at all, and if something doesn't speak to me and I can't figure out what language it's speaking in order to start the conversation myself, I don't know what to do with the stuff and it's all just inert (it and me vis-a-vis it, that is). So I walk through these galleries and I shrug, because there's no vibration in the air to catch me up and I look at the Warhols and they are dead and I look at the Koons and they are also dead. What Pop Art may have said to/about the Abstract Expressionists is somehow, for me, not inherent in the works themselves. Which is why I can admit to Pop art as a performance art, but I don't see the artifacts as art objects per se. It doesn't move me. I can't see it as art. I can see Olympia as art without knowing that Paris was appalled by the depiction of a whore.

      I like Rauschenberg and Katz and I'm okay with Lichtenstein. I don't know what that means to this conversation, if anything. I am attempting to establish my non-Philistine non-stickinthemud cred, I guess. I won't claim to have an open mind, but maybe some of the doors are still not locked.

      But hey, good luck with the show. I attended art school in the early 80s and realized that my relationship with visual art was never going to be particularly intimate; I was never going to get my hands dirty with any real ideas. This also, I'm sure, has something to do with my ideas about art, but I can't say what.

      I would be interested in your show and it's too bad I won't be in Las Vegas during the next month and a half.

      Delete
    4. There's more; there's always more. To say that a piece of art is art criticism is not the same as saying that it is only art criticism. But Olympia is absolutely criticising the art of its period. Not the feelings of the public towards whores (this is not the kind of "comment" I'm thinking of) but art: art itself, as it was understood, the figures in art, the conventions of art, the way that paint was applied to canvases by other artists, all of this was being subjected to a hostile critique. The matter and function of oil painting was being questioned; "How should an artist be?" was being asked. Mark-making itself, as an activity, was being subjected to review. He was sizing it up.

      (One thing missing from all of the comments on this page, is the fact that artists address themselves to other artists, and not only to the public.)

      What Pop Art may have said to Abstract Expressionism -- and for the Abstract Expressionists themselves there was no "may;" they felt it, "You're a killer of art!" says De Kooning to Warhol at a party, leaving the wig with his hand stuck out -- is not inherent in the works any more than what Manet said to the French public is inherent in the work, or the symbolism of little dogs or candles is inherent in any work, or the holiness of those endless bleeding men drooping off their roods is inherent in the work; they don't become inherent until you have a frame of reference that permits them to inhere. The language is there. To get that vibration you'll have to learn more; if you don't want it -- and it's not as if it's a requirement for a merry life; see how many millions of dewy or husky souls in this fallen world manage to carry on to the age of ninety or more without quivering over a flat banana -- then don't learn. No crime in that. Voila.

      Thank you for your good wishes re. the show. I'll eat an extra carrot stick for you at the opening.

      Delete
    5. "artists address themselves to other artists, and not only to the public"

      As a writer, I address myself neither to other writers (at least living writers) nor to the public, whoever they are. So maybe this entire dialogue, between art and art and public and artists, is something to which I am deaf. I don't know.

      That banana cover for the Velvets' album is great, though. So I must think about that. I cannot see in any of this a way that Koons is engaging with what I think of as art. He seems to be engaging with mass culture in the pose of an artist, which is not the same thing. I also feel somehow that art must do more than comment upon art, and I don't see that Koons is doing that. Warhol neither, even if I love the VU cover. I am well out of my element talking about the visual arts. I confess that this afternoon, thinking about how much I'd have to learn to understand the conversation I'm now in, it seems daunting. Impossible, even.

      Delete
    6. You've already said that your idea of art is mutable and personal, so if Koons doesn't seem to be engaging with it then it's reasonable to say that he definitely isn't, because you're the one making that determination. If you understand him as a performance artist rather than an object-manufacturer, and if you believe that performance artists are not artist-artists, then there he is. Ruskin had his dislikes too.

      Delete
    7. The problem is that I don't like it coming down to that. "I like what I like because I like it" seems so small-minded of me. I'd like to defend my tastes with scholastic arguments rather than my unknowable irrational aesthetics that come from God-knows where. I am a Modern Rational Man, you know.

      Delete
    8. Well you could rationalise it like --

      1. I believe that art should move people. It should be emotion-oriented and human-oriented.

      2. Pop Art is not emotion-oriented. (There's historical material that will support that point of view (Warhol: "I think everybody should be a machine [...] The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine;" Robert Indiana: "There is a harshness and matter-of-factness to Pop"), though you can find material for the other side as well.)

      3. Pop Art is fundamentally wrongheaded, therefore I'll spend my time looking at other kinds of art instead.

      I did eat that carrot stick.

      Delete
    9. Excellent! It's just like I was actually there.

      Regards #1: I don't know about emotion-oriented. I'm okay being moved in a purely intellectual or aesthetic manner. A lot of ancient artifacts are almost frighteningly alien, yet they're fascinating. Though I'm sure my fascination is not the fascination had by the folks who made the artifacts. The historicization of artworks is tricky business, not really possible except in theory. But I like da Vinci for the technique, for example. I don't necessarily feel anything human in his work. What a draughtsman, I whisper to myself. What vitality of line, etc. What fantastic and foolish machines, etc.

      I will ask myself how Pop Art differs from the notebooks of da Vinci. I will not find an answer, yet somehow my opinions won't change: that's my prediction.

      Delete
  2. I thought you just meant that Koons did art criticism, not art. Maybe so, although he is not paid a critic's wage. I don't think the Pop artists and their cronies were trying to elevate every object to the status of art. If so, they failed dismally. If they had succeeded, a Warhol painting would cost no more than a poster of a Warhol painting. Or vice versa. They were successful at elevating their own works to the status of art, enormously $ucce$$ful.

    My objection to Koons is that he does not make anything at all, but rather hires talented craftsmen to make ugly things for him when they could be using their time and skills to make beautiful things. Although I once saw a Persian cat made of marble that had Koons's name on it, even though he had never touched it and possibly never even saw it, that was not ugly, although it was still a waste of good marble.

    I often find that Warhols or Koons or whatnots on move me to, for example, laughter, or anger, or a sense of dismay about the future of civilization. Mostly laughter with Warhol; mostly dismay with Koons.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I believe you were *not* surprised by how repellent you continue to find the banal objects of Jeff Koons, and my interpretation of what you said last night about "art criticism is not art" was the same as Amateur Reader's above: "visual art that is meant to be art criticism is not art." Possibly I was wrong. I'm pretty damned sure that you'd allow that writing about art can be art itself. If the purpose of art is to move the viewer emotionally, or make the viewer think, then surely the Warhols and Koons are successful. But I'm not smart enough to comment here so please don't take me up on any of this, there's a luv. (While I am here, however, I'll thank (Tom) for getting you to bring Tomcat Murr into the house, though; that was one of my favorite books of 2014.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just wanted to post the photo, because I like it, and then it seemed necessary to say something about it, and I found myself unable to say something nice, or even neutral.

    I don't know what Koons and Warhol and the other pop-art folks are/were up to. Whatever it is, it leaves me cold and feeling somehow insulted. I feel like I am the butt of a joke when I stand before these pieces. I find nothing in the work itself to hold my attention, to make me curious, or to explain why I'm standing there. I wanted to see the Warhols, because often my perception of art changes when I see it in real life (I remember encountering a Titian that was 10' long and 6' tall at an Impressionists' showing that forever changed the way I think of Titian's paintings, and when I saw Picasso's work up close my ideas about Picasso expanded), and so I thought it would be interesting to stand in front of the actual prints and see what happened. Nothing happened, though. It was like we were walking through empty rooms, a guy in the background talking about the art-historical significance of the blank walls.

    Some criticism, I will grant, is art. But the critical aspects of, say, Ruskin, are not what makes his writing art. It is something else, wholly literary and wholly about Ruskin, not about his subject matter. I have read a great deal of criticism that is not art. Harold Bloom claimed that literary criticism is either art or it is nothing. There is no reason to believe that claim. I have my theories on why Bloom makes it, and none of them are kind to Bloom. Have I mentioned the cranky? Will I not shut up?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Was the contemporary India exhibit still there? I thought that was much more intriguing than the Pop stuff (although I am rather fond of Warhol, though mostly of his early pre-Pop drawings and also because he owned dachshunds).

    If the same person who wrote your placards also wrote the ones for the American Masters exhibit (ended last month), I would not be at all surprised. They were non-informative, to put it politely.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The India exhibit is still there. It's a tiny exhibit, much smaller than I'd hoped. On our way out we stumbled into the medieval Islamic art room, and it was delightful. They've put Mann und Maus into storage, which makes me sad. I love that mouse.

      You know that Chekhov had dachshunds, don't you? In Melikhovo (south of Moscow) there's a statue of two of his hounds, Iodine and Bromide.

      Delete
    2. There was also a very small but nice Japanese textile et al exhibit in December. I did not know about Chekhov's wiener dogs! Great names.

      Delete
  6. By any chance, did you enjoy the Oldenburg pieces in the show? I've found him to have a genuine sense of playfulness that can make a show like that feel much warmer and more human.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. His sketches/watercolors of gigantic unbuilt sculptures in European cities were truly charming. There's an Oldenburg in the Seattle Sculpture Park (a huge typewriter eraser with brush) that pleases me. I don't like his soft sculptures so much; they don't seem to interact with the space so much. The VW Beetle is interesting that someone actually made the thing, but I agree his works aren't cold the way a lot of Pop art is. I really really liked his sketches. Just beautiful stuff.

      Delete
  7. I find a lot of that "smart hat" stuff here in Utah arts especially. I'm not sure why, but it makes me cringe every time I go to a museum or art display.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Perhaps art is a bit like literature. For literature, we should wait at least a hundred years, and then -- whatever remains that people are still reading -- we will know what has lasting value.

    As for Chekhov and dachshunds, because I have been fanatic owner of three dachshunds, I guess I must now -- by nature -- become a fanatic reader of Chekhov. I cannot get enthused about the same connection with Warhol. In fact, almost all pop art leaves me cold. I am too old fashioned and too fond of art from hundreds of years ago: ah, the Renaissance!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been thinking about Pop art for a while since the show, and I think that I might consider the creation and display of the piece by the artist to be a performance, and that is the art: the performance of acting like a creative person. The actual artifact--the chrome balloon animal or the pornographic self portrait or the can of soup--is a mere prop used in the performance, like Yorick's skull or Henry V's box of tennis balls. They are not the art. Warhol in a wig in the act of printing a bazillion images of Marilyn Monroe is a performance artist at work; the Monroe prints are set dressing. That's my take on Pop art for now. Which elevates it in my opinion, actually, because theater is fun.

      I have never owned a dachshund and I confess myself a fan of larger dogs, but I have met some charming dachshunds. It must've been amusing to see Chekhov, who was a tall man, leading his little hounds around the boardwalks of Yalta.

      Delete