Oct 15

Art: The Good, Bad and Ugly

In Brief — A look at art in its varied forms: paintings, photography, sculpture, architecture, serigraphy, furniture whatever. What is art? What are its limits?

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The Eye of the Beholder —

Andy Warhol. Leonardo da Vinci. Pablo Picasso. Robert Rauschenberg. Shoji Hamada. Antoni Gaudi, Frida Kahlo. These are but a miniscule listing of the many people throughout the world recognized for their art.

Where there are artists, there are critics, tastemakers. Opinions on what is good or bad art are almost as numerous as there are people. Professional critics and average people see art in their own ways and for their own reasons. Here are the views of a few of the better-known critics.

Cartoonist Al Capp on abstract art: ”A product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”

Journalist Ambrose Bierce defines painting as ”The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic.”

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy says, ”To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can’t eat it.”

The romantic poet William Wordsworth says cynically, ”Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them.”

In my snarkier moments, I’ve been known to agree with them.

Addressing my narrow views, my artist wife says that bad art is still art. She’s less opinionated than I, but she has moderated my views and expanded my knowledge. Indeed, in keeping with my great aunt’s view that travel is an education, I’ve learned a bit about art in my walks through many of the world’s museums. They’ve opened my eyes to what has been judged to be great art… but I’m still opinionated.

A good example of my opinionation is Jean-Michel Basquiat. A protégé of Andy Warhol, best known for his depiction of Marilyn Monroe and a can of Campbell’s soup, Basquiat’s sloppy painting of a skull raised my blood pressuret into the red zone. Art can sometimes arouse passions and experimentation, but the annointment of Basquiat’s drivel is too big a bite for me to swallow. Basquiat is an example of the questionable power of tastemakers. Is he an indication of a good artist? I think not.

Another example is Robert Rauschenberg’s urinal. My blood boils every time I’ve seen that urinal being honored in a museum. I accept the fact that even the most mundane object in daily life can be artistic, but this object is beyond the pale for me. Am I to look with awe at the receptacle of my urine that’s being funnelled into a sewer? I think not.

Art has sometimes surprised me at the most unexpected moments. Until I saw Salvadore Dali’s paintings in the St. Petersburg, Florida museum, I considered him just a bizarre painter. Suddenly, I found myself struck dumb by Dali’s monumental painting of Jesus on the cross. Pure genius. He may have been a shameless self-promoter, but he was a talent par excellence.

Another such occasion came along in Guernica, Spain. Confronted by a life-sized copy of ”Guernica,” Pablo Picassos’s famous abstract painting considered to be the most powerful anti-war depiction in history, I was stunned by the raw emotion captured by Picasso. So strongly did the artist feel that he refused to allow the painting in Spain until the country became a democracy. Now that Franco is gone, the original is hanging in Madrid.

Until I visited the Amsterdam Museum, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings had been only pictures in a book. Seen as they were painted, van Gogh’s oils came alive with their true colors and textures. It was a startling and educational experience. The moral to this story is that one can’t really judge the quality of an artistic work until one sees the real McCoy. Does this apply to Basquiat? Not to me!

There are genuine paint artists not included in these few remarks. I’m an admirer of Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keefe, Johannes Vermeer, Odd Nerdrum, Anders Zorn, Gustav Klimt, Carl Larsson, Egon Schiele and others too numerous to mention. You can see I prefer realism.

However, as can be seen, art covers a variety of areas. Architecture leaps readily to mind as do ceramics, photography and sculpture. Unfortunately, this blog piece is too short to permit me to express my tastes. That leads me to conclude that a Part 2 should be considered. So stick with me and share your preferences both to this part and whether a Part 2 is in order. Taste is in the eye of the beholder. You are a beholder.

The Weekly Sampler—

As a reminder, go to the Archives on the right side of the page and click on the month and year of that week’s featured Sampler. If you wish, go to the January 15, 2017, blog (“A Simple Reading Assignment”) for more thorough instructions.

If you want to read the entire piece, simply click on the box titled “Continue Reading.” When you want to read the next piece, simply swipe your cursor across the one you have been reading and you will find the next one. Do this every time you want to read the next piece.

Don’t miss the Comments and my replies. Even though the Sampler pieces are from the past, feel free to comment…or not.

Go to the Archives on the right side. Click on November 2016.

4 comments

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    • Dave Meyers on October 15, 2017 at 20:12

    I believe I share your harsh criticism of much of the nonsense that passes as art, Don.
    Marilyn and I are very much involved in the arts at a local level. We frequent galleries, follow certain artists, and we are chronic museum visitors when we travel. Our Denver Art Museum membership card has gotten us into museums all across the country.
    I for one, find it hard to hold my tongue when I stand before many pieces of so-called art that I find demonstrates, not only a lack of talent, but also a complete absents of heart and soul. Yah… I know. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but attempts to fool me into acceptance usually fail.
    I’m sorry, but nailing a doll’s head to an orange crate and painting it with neon colors from Wal-Mart spay paint cans is NOT art. Can it be amusing, perhaps? Does it attract attention, maybe…but it’s no more art than the oil spot in my driveway that looks like a whale balancing a Coke bottle on it’s tail.
    This failure (in my eyes) to qualify as an ‘Artist’ is not limited to present day wanna’be’s. We recently went to an Impressionist Era exhibition and coincidently, sat in on a three-hour college class on the Impressionists. To me, there are a couple of very well known Impressionist painters from the late 1800’s who’s works fill text books and attract paying art-goings even though most of those people, if pressured, would agree that the paintings express little to no real talent. Paul Cézanne comes to mind as a revered Impressionist, who I find lacking in ability when compared to others from his school. My theory is that his work, with its miss-shaped forms and bad color palette, somehow was accepted in a movement that revered distortion of color and sometimes flatness of form.
    Vincent Van Gogh at first glance falls short as well. But unlike Cézanne, Van Gogh demonstrates a heart and soul that becomes apparent with a second glance. I have learned to accept and appreciate his work…. and his story moves me to reconsider his talent.
    It never ceases to amaze me when we come across an offering promoted as ART, which is nothing more than an attempt to elude the viewer. Why is a one-ton slab of steel with a 2 two inch hole drilled in it ‘art’? And why does it ask a patron to spend $37K to buy it and display it…. where?
    There is plenty of art I no not like, but I can oft times appreciate the technical aspect or the ability it took to create it. THAT…. I will not criticize too harshly. But bottle caps stapled to a manikin on roller-skates with plastic flowers protruding from its head …I will…. and I do. It’s designed to dupe and possibly open the wallet of a gullible buyer. On the other hand…Art is in the eye of the beholder…

      • Don Bay on October 16, 2017 at 06:56
        Author

      My wife, a graphic artist of no small repute here in Sweden, has said to me that even bad art is still art. You give real meaning to that by your examples of bad art…but you and I aren’t the mavens and hustlers who tell the public what is art worth collecting. The bottom line is that art is in the eye of the beholder.

      Many artists experiment, and I have no problem with experimentation. I don’t know what was in their heads, but it could be legitimate experimentation or it could be merely chasing what they believe will be the next great thing.

      Until I saw Van Gogh’s paintings in real life, his art was just reproductions in a book. The real things were powerful and showed skill beyond what is often called “art.” Until I saw Dali’s extraordinary paintings, I thought only that his art was bizarre and he was half a bubble off plumb. Until I was bowled over by the raw power of Picasso’s Guernica, I looked at his late art as commercialization and maybe experimentation.

      A study of art history and the evolution of an artist’s work will often reveal how experimentation and growth occur. The more I see, the more I understand. That said, I’m still biased. All of us are. We have opinions. We are the masses. The simple fact is that the art in our homes says more about us than about art in general.

        • Dave Meyers on October 17, 2017 at 00:54

        I too enjoyed Dali’s work up close in St. Petersburg than I ever did in books. Likewise, as I stated, Van Gogh impressed me more strongly when viewed in a gallery setting than it had in print.

        I’m also fine with ‘experimentation’ by artists….but maybe the artist should perfect his endeavors before placing them for sale in a gallery. I get it that art is in the eye of the beholder. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t make it bad……but, BAD art is easy to spot. And when I see it, I get the feeling that the artist knows it’s bad as well. OR….it may be that the artist as the beholder has a bias that he can not overlook.

        The pricing of art always astounds me as well. Talented work needs to be rewarded…..there is no doubt. But I think gallery owners that need to pay the rent often over-price…… and the higher pricing becomes a viscous cycle.

        We have a very good friend who makes a living with his superb oil painting ( scenic mostly). His talent is indisputable, yet when I asked him how he prices his work…..he stated, “by the square inch”. I thought he was joking, but he was not! He went on to say that galleries need to make X amount to pay the square foot rent…..he prices to fit that model.
        When I had pottery in a very nice local gallery, I often was at odds with the owner on how to price my pieces. I wanted to mark them very much under what she wanted. Her argument was that, “your work gets better as the price goes up….not the other way around”……..and, she did sell everything a placed in here gallery. So what do I know???

          • Don Bay on October 17, 2017 at 07:01
            Author

          You hit the target, Dave. Aside from the benefit of seeing the real art as opposed to pictures in a book, gallery owners have to pay the rent, and they set the price of the art accordingly. I never considered that a higher price might make the piece more valuable to a customer. You educated me.

          Most of the artists I know here in Sweden — and that includes me — agonize over pricing their work. I’ve been known to urge my wife to place higher prices on her art…with limited success. I’m not sure that the American model you describe would be applicable here. Some Swedish artists do price higher, but I have to ask if that limits their sales. Is selling more better than fewer at a higher price? I wonder.

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