October 11, 2012
Taste in art is so personal; who can judge another person's judgment?
And yet it's hard to think of an area of human endeavor where there is more contempt for other people's preferences. Think of how people refer to "Elvis on velvet" or "dogs playing poker." I remember when "wide-eyed moppets" were all the vogue; and who doesn't feel utter contempt for the little naked winged babies that adorned walls and ceilings, suggesting "love" (or pedophilia; but we won't think of that).
Yet the art that supposedly represents the highest achievements in recent years have been, to my eye, rarely better than "pleasing" or "interesting," and usually ugly, meaningless ... contemptible.
Isn't it odd that when we look at dogs playing poker, we are all supposed to be revolted; but when we look at spatterings of paint on canvas, we are supposed to admire them extravagantly – as long as Jackson Pollock did the spattering.
It's amazing how much ink has been spent discussing artworks that clearly will not survive their brief period of vogue; it is hard to imagine art historians a century from now looking at Pollock or Warhol or Mondrian as anything more than symptoms of the decline of a civilization.
Yet each new fashion in art represents, step by step, the natural progression of shifting values. The problem is that when a community becomes completely committed to its own superiority, it becomes incapable of real perspective.
Yes, Pollock and Warhol and Mondrian all represent one version or another of the need to transcend, reject or build upon the perceived achievements of the previous generation.
But they were not the only artists working in their time. There were plenty of plein air realists; in fact, nearly every other art tradition was still alive, including iconographic, academic and little winged cupids.
The reason so many of you instantly know what I'm referring to when I invoke the names of Pollock, Warhol and Mondrian is that the Community of Superior Taste (CST) anointed them as Important Artists (IA).
The result was that in art schools all over the world, many impressionable young talents quite naturally assumed that this was what it meant to be an artist. So they tried to do Pollock, Warhol and Mondrian ... only more so.
Or they tried to anticipate the Next Big Thing (NBT) by being even more outrageous, offensive, creative, innovative ...
But underlying all these fads and vogues was an entirely unrelated value system: The desperate need for the CST to prove itself superior to regular people.
Those silly Academic artists created paintings that pleased ordinary people. Down with that! What the CST needs is art that nobody else likes. Thus, quite apart from whatever actual value the work of the IAs might have, it offers this one: By talking about them, the CST proves their superiority and exclusivity.
I do not discount the possibility that there really are people whose eyes were hungry for the work of Pollock, Warhol or Mondrian. I know for a fact that there are people who really like the Impressionists more than the Academics. There are people who love Picasso (and, if we're speaking of some of his early works, like "Mother and Child," I'm one of them).
In fact, I'm far from believing that all art has to be beautiful or pleasing or About Something (and even those ideas are hard to define). There is certainly room in the world for people whose visual needs are met by paint-spatters and tomato soup cans and disproportionate, dull-palette, incomprehensible arrangements of shapes.
Where I draw the line is "art" whose sole purpose for existence is offending other people. Especially when these "artists" never choose targets that are actually dangerous. They always attack absolutely safe targets – people whom all their friends despise, and who are powerless to fight back.
That is why, even though there is room for many kinds of art in the world, I have nothing but contempt for art whose primary purpose is to hurt, offend or exclude.
Yet that is only a small portion of the world of art – rather the way social bullies make up only a small portion of the high school population, yet attract most of the attention (and are called "popular," even though everybody hates them).
Thus we find that the same people who, in high dudgeon, defend abominably offensive art, sneer at completely inoffensive work that regular people enjoy.
Here's what we often forget. There really are standards. There are techniques of art that are powerful, when done properly, and merely sad, when the artist hasn't mastered them. The works that the CST sneers at most often take a level of skill and accomplishment that is beyond the reach of many of the IA they tout.
I have heard many people say the semi-apologetic, semi-defiant statement, "I don't know about art, but I know what I like." To these people I always say, "You know as much about art as you need to, and whatever you like, you like for reasons as good as anybody else's."
I have loved studying and learning about art. It opens doors, so that works that I didn't value become valuable – rather like learning a foreign language. And inevitably, the more you experience and learn about art, the more dissatisfied you become with poorly designed and executed specimens.
You become jaded. A naked winged pink-cheeked cherub may be singularly well-executed, but you never notice because the subject matter is boring; you've seen too many cherubs.
It's not that you have superior taste, you merely have experienced taste.
It's the way young kids can read Tarzan or Anne of Green Gables without realizing how impenetrably thick the writing is. They simply haven't read enough to realize that prose can be much, much better than this. And since young readers usually parse the language more slowly, in smaller chunks, they aren't slowed down by the clunkiness of the prose.
You don't realize quite how bumpy the road is when you are only driving five miles an hour. But once you get up to 65, bumps you didn't notice make you feel like you're driving on railroad ties.
That's how it is with art. At first, you see the subject matter and respond, not to the technique of the artist, but to your feelings about the thing depicted. But the more art you see, the more dissatisfied you become with poor technique and poor design.
It only becomes an affliction when you begin to take pride in how superior your taste is, and use your knowledge to claim "inside" status. You become like sports fans who way overidentify with "their" team or a particular player or driver, or music fans who scream over a band or a performer.
You want to give them a tiny shake and say, It's just a game. Just a race. Just a song. And even if they really are as good as you think, you didn't achieve anything by noticing and appreciating them. There's no reason for you to take pride in someone else's work.
It's great to share it with other people. If they like it, great. If they don't care, it doesn't mean you're better than them, it just means they don't care about something that you do care about. It's only a bad thing when you start feeling superior to them....continued on page 2