Art Essay: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed PART IV: Exhibition Places (conclusion)

July 10, 2014

This Essay first appeared in ART TIMES Spring 2014

Although some claim that more people in America visit art museums than they do sports events, the simple fact is that art—its making, its creators, its enjoyment—is an unexplored territory for a great part of our population. On the face of it, this can be a puzzling phenomenon to most art lovers, yet the reasons for it are manifold and complex. This article was an attempt to explore those reasons and, as much as possible, to de-mystify a subject that, perhaps more than most human experiences, is the least mystifying of all. Art—its making, its purposes, its import—are as much a part of mankind’s evolution on this earth as are breathing, eating and multiplying. If that first, pre-literate human who sketched a picture of an animal on a cave wall could accomplish such a thing, then surely any present-day human can come to terms with its making—from the drawing of the simplest stick figure by a child to the very latest “work of art” made today. What that caveman was doing and why he was doing it, differs from today’s artmakers only in the degree of technology and intellectual complexity available to them both. The act of making an image is the same—and belongs as much to us as it does to our ancestors, as much to the child as to the adult, as much to the artist as to the non-artist, as much to the ardent artlover as to that person as yet uninitiated in its delights.

Well…if you’ve gotten this far then you’ve already taken the hardest step you’re going to have to make. As with most things in life—whether it’s mountain-climbing, skiing, sailing, gardening, or what have you—the desire to do a thing is always the first hurdle you have to leap. If you want to do something, well, believe it, you’re already more than half-way there. That mini-step was reading this article; that you got this far means you have a sincere desire to know more. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this article, you will not be willing to say, “I am not interested in—or like—or understand—art.” Get ready for one of the easiest ways to enrich your life!

Like artists, and artwriters, places to exhibit artwork also come in many varieties. Art can be viewed at art museums, galleries, art associations, art schools and studios; it can also be found hanging in restaurants, banks, art fairs, at church socials, hospitals or even at flea markets and garage sales. At most of these places, you will find that it is for sale. Of course, you can find it in people’s homes—but more often than not it is part of a private “collection” and not for sale.

I put collection in quotes in the last line, since, in the artworld, the term most often means a body of work collected by an organization, royal family, person or persons who have since made it available to the public, either in a public or privately owned museum. Thus, the “Havermeyer Collection” may be found as part of the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the “Clark Collection” in the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and so forth. Usually—but not always—these official collections center on a particular artist, medium, period, country or “school” such as, respectively for example, the Picasso Collection, The Vassar College print collection, works of the Italian Renaissance, the Rockefeller African Art collection, or the Impressionists. Conversely, a private home “collection” usually reflects the owners taste(s) and may contain a mixture of all of the above. In any event, whatever the place and whether for sale or not, all of this art is meant to be seen. And either by special invitation or regular visiting hours, you will find that, if you wish, you are welcome to come and look.

Because art museums often seem to be the most intimidating to many, we’ll begin with them. In the scheme of things, and at least as far as this mini-history of image-making goes, museums are relative newcomers. It was not until early in the 18th century in Europe that the first public art museum was built. Previous to that time, only the very wealthy—royal families and the like—collected art and it was hung in their palaces, castles and royal halls for their private enjoyment. If you also were part of that “in” crowd—a local aristocrat or visiting royalty, for instance—you might get to see these collections, but for the large mass of peasantry, such artwork did not even exist—other than what they might see in a church. Most, however—as noted before—saw such art—paintings, stained glass windows, statues—not as “art” but as “messages” from God. In fact, even the church building itself—also now seen as “architectural art”—was viewed in religious rather than “aesthetic” terms. Further, the craftsmen who made these artifacts were themselves not considered as “artists” —most of their names are lost to history—hence, there was no such concept as their making “art”. As with artwriting, the idea of recognizing such “craftsmen” as “artists”, did not fully occur until the Renaissance. For centuries—and even up until the Middle Ages—“artists” were classed along with masons, carpenters, and butchers—the ancient Greeks called them banausos—“artisans”.

The average peon—if he even had a wall to hang it on—might display some of his own handiwork, an example of what we would now call “folk” art. (Incidentally, there are now folk art collections, folk art museums and even folk art galleries where such items are on view and/or sale. Merchants have thought of everything.) Other than that, unless you were an artist yourself or worked at some art guild or master’s workshop, you didn’t have the time, inclination or money to pursue such things as art or its viewing.

At any rate, revolutions, upheavals, and the like were making the average person aware of the things he’d been missing, among them the storehouses of treasures that the nobility had amassed. It would not take long for public museums to pop up all over Europe—and elsewhere. What had previously been the King’s “collection” became the “nation’s” collection, and everyone could now visit and see and enjoy what was once the private purview of the powerful and wealthy. Today, there are museums spread throughout the world, each displaying their treasures for the public. Remember: art IS NO LONGER meant to be a special plaything of the elite, the wealthy, the intellegentsia or the snob. it was and always will be for you. Today, you might still not have the inclination (hopefully, that will change after you get through this book), but time or money is no longer a valid excuse to keep art out of your life.

Museums can be repositories of a wide variety of art, both ancient and modern, or restrict themselves exclusively to one type, or school, or period, or country, or whatever—as noted above when we discussed collections. The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, features the work of Dali, while the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, confines itself to showing the work only of American artists.

Because museums tend to house a nation’s priceless treasures and serve as showplaces for both native and foreign visitors, the buildings that serve as their “homes” tend to be large, showy and intimidating. Places such as the Louvre in Paris, France, for instance, were, in fact, once palaces. For the average person, therefore, there can often be a doubt as to whether just anyone can “drop in” to these imposing buildings. The answer, of course, is “Yes”—they are, after all, public buildings. But, still…

If you were raised like me, you were not brought up to visit museums on either a regular or even sporadic basis. I, for example, did not set foot inside an art museum until I was well into my thirties. For whatever reason, and I tend to think it’s because my family’s roots were the peasantry of Europe, “art” just wasn’t for us. We were practical, down-to-earth people, concerned with making a living and getting along. Sure, we had pictures on the walls—usually cut out from magazines or calendars—and maybe even some of our own “folk art,” but this was merely for decoration. To go and “study” a picture—to make a specific trip to a museum just to “look”—well, that just didn’t happen in my family. Like courthouses and hospitals—other imposing buildings—museums were just one more place to avoid if you could help it.

For a time there, public education used to add trips to museums as a regular practice—and a great many people had the process of looking at art and artifacts de-mystified. Back in my day, such outings were unheard of; today, a great many schools have stopped the practice due to cut-backs in aid. This is truly a great misfortune since the cycle of ignorance is once more put into motion. Those treasures are there for our enjoyment, but if you don’t know of their availability they might just as well be back in the hands of kings and tsars and caesars.

If you were raised like me, then you’ll just have to do the de-mystifying yourself. The first step is to understand that they are public, that is places for you and me to visit. And, like any public place, there are days and hours for visitation. Any local paper can advise you and if they don’t list the times, a telephone book will give the telephone number and, in most cases, even the specific number to call for the times. These days, by looking up and checking out which museums offer information online, you can even take a “virtual” tour of a museum in the comfort of your own home — this eliminates the intimidation factor and it’s an easy way to see what’s in store for you when you finally go for an actual visit.

Once you’ve established when and where you going, the next thing to determine is whether or not there is a fee involved. Again, there are variations. Some museums are free; some ask for a donation; some have a set fee. These things are determined by the method in which the museum is funded and, for now, need not concern us here. You can save this for later when you’ve become an expert museum-goer and are considering a place on the board of directors. For now, we’ll just stick with how much, if anything, it is going to cost you to get in. Usually these things are posted somewhere near the door and, if you’ve done your homework, you have already found out by looking it up or calling ahead. Remember: asking questions is just fine and the reason why most museums have “Information” desks situated near the front door.

I have made the assumption that the museum or museums you have chosen to visit are close to you and that you have not decided to make some extended trip for your first time out. Eventually, however, you will tend to become more selective. You will soon discover that not all museums are equal. As noted above, they house different collections and you will soon tend to become selective. Most likely you will first visit those museums that show things you are interested in. That might even be electric trains, fire engines or dolls. But, since art is the topic here, we are trying to get you to visit art museums. So, you might want to begin with folk art or American Indian art or even a craft museum. (A look at any one of a great many museum guides will show you just how wide a range there are out there.) Whichever you choose, be prepared to spend the good part of a day.

And, remember, you’ve come to look. No one has to tell you how to do that. One of the things I find most annoying when I drop into a museum is to see people standing in front of pictures with earphones stuck on their head. You don’t look through your ears—you look through youreyes. And unless you’re well on your way in art appreciation and are doing some kind of research paper or something, don’t let anyone tell you what to see; just look and see what the picture tells you. If the artist wanted you to hear what he had to say, he would have written a poem or a novel or an essay. He wanted you to see—so just look and tune out any commentary that might be going on around you.

This admonition is no personal whim of mine—I don’t have anything against earphones or recorders or anything like that. But I remember hearing something that will clearly illustrate my concern. Someone once said, “I can teach you how to make gold—the ingredients are inexpensive and the recipe simple. Just fill an ordinary pot with water and stir with a wooden spoon. You must only do one thing while stirring: do not think of ‘hippopotamus’! In a very short time, you will have gold in your pot.”

That’s it. Now just go and try to do it. All the while you are thinking “I will not think of ‘hippopotamus” you are, of course, thinking of it. So, you can never make gold out of water. The point is, that the power of suggestion is so strong and so insidious that we are mostly unaware of its influence. If, for example, while you are standing and looking at a painting by Corot, someone says in your ear, “Notice the spot of red that the artist adds to his painting. So often does he do this, that the stroke of red has become one of his famous hallmarks. etc., etc. etc.” (I did hear this on the earphones at one museum). Well, from now on, you’ll never be able not to see that red blob of paint. How much more exciting might it have been if you had discovered that recurring swab of red and read about it later? That discovery, by the way, is precisely why so many people have learned the excitement and pleasure of looking at art. Believe me, there are still things to be discovered! By now, so many are looking for that red spot that they are overlooking other things that the artist has put there. Seek and ye shall find! (Listen and you’ll only find what someone else has already found!)

After museums, perhaps “posh” art galleries can also be intimidating to the newcomer on the artscene. Ought you avoid them? Absolutely not! Not only are they also “public” places, but they are also in the business of promoting and selling art—and this may be the very reason why, to some, they are intimidating. Many such galleries, in fact, cannot be simply entered by walking in off the street but have a “buzzer” or “bell” that one must press in order to be admitted. True, but still, that does not mean that you cannot step up, press the button, and walk in— even if you do not intend to purchase a work of art. That little “announcement” of you standing at the door is simply to alert those inside—who are responsible for items that can be worth thousands of dollars apiece— that you are coming in. They may not be overjoyed that you are just “window shopping”—after all, being “posh”, they are often located in prime locations and have exorbitant rents to meet—but, usually, you will find them courteous, friendly and—since this is what you’re there for—very informative about the art and the artists they represent. So, overcome your timidity and take this excellent opportunity to further expand your knowledge—and enjoyment—of art.

By far, the least off-putting of venues where the perplexed can make initial forays into the artworld without fear of being “exposed” as a “newby” would be to drop into an art fair (a common summer event in most communities), a street exhibition (such as, for example, the annual Washington Square Outside Art Exhibit), or an announced artist reception at some gallery or arts organization where, in all probability you’ll meet a few “newbys” just like yourself.

So, go out and get your feet wet—look, ask questions, walk away if you don’t like it but, above all, ENJOY what you like!

Afterthoughts

• Art Is One Of Life’s Few, Pure, No-Strings-Attached Gifts To Us—

• We Ought Not Abuse Or Ignore It.

• Art Can Be Silly, Frivolous, Annoying, But Also Interesting, Exciting, Even Spiritual.

• Art Can Depress Us Or Anger Us.

• Art Can Heighten Our Sensibilities.

• Art Can Civilize Us.

• Art Can Be Used As A Release, As Therapy, As A Political Forum, Or At Its Best, As A Source Of Enlightenment And Enrichment.

• Whatever Art Is Or Does, Make It Your Own!

 

This is Part 4 in a series of 4 parts:
Image Making

Artists

Art Writing

Exhibition Places

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Looking at Art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed Part I- Image-making

July 10, 2014

This essay first appeared in ART TIMES Spring 2014

Although some claim that more people in America visit art museums than they do sports events, the simple fact is that art—its making, its creators, its enjoyment—is an unexplored territory for a great part of our population. On the face of it, this can be a puzzling phenomenon to most art lovers, yet the reasons for it are manifold and complex. This article was an attempt to explore those reasons and, as much as possible, to de-mystify a subject that, perhaps more than most human experiences, is the least mystifying of all. Art—its making, its purposes, its import—are as much a part of mankind’s evolution on this earth as are breathing, eating and multiplying. If that first, pre-literate human who sketched a picture of an animal on a cave wall could accomplish such a thing, then surely any present-day human can come to terms with its making—from the drawing of the simplest stick figure by a child to the very latest “work of art” made today. What that caveman was doing and why he was doing it, differs from today’s artmakers only in the degree of technology and intellectual complexity available to them both. The act of making an image is the same—and belongs as much to us as it does to our ancestors, as much to the child as to the adult, as much to the artist as to the non-artist, as much to the ardent artlover as to that person as yet uninitiated in its delights.

Well…if you’ve gotten this far then you’ve already taken the hardest step you’re going to have to make. As with most things in life—whether it’s mountain-climbing, skiing, sailing, gardening, or what have you—the desire to do a thing is always the first hurdle you have to leap. If you want to do something, well, believe it, you’re already more than half-way there. That mini-step was reading this article; that you got this far means you have a sincere desire to know more. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this article, you will not be willing to say, “I am not interested in—or like—or understand—art.” Get ready for one of the easiest ways to enrich your life!

Like artists, and artwriters, places to exhibit artwork also come in many varieties. Art can be viewed at art museums, galleries, art associations, art schools and studios; it can also be found hanging in restaurants, banks, art fairs, at church socials, hospitals or even at flea markets and garage sales. At most of these places, you will find that it is for sale. Of course, you can find it in people’s homes—but more often than not it is part of a private “collection” and not for sale.

I put collection in quotes in the last line, since, in the artworld, the term most often means a body of work collected by an organization, royal family, person or persons who have since made it available to the public, either in a public or privately owned museum. Thus, the “Havermeyer Collection” may be found as part of the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the “Clark Collection” in the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and so forth. Usually—but not always—these official collections center on a particular artist, medium, period, country or “school” such as, respectively for example, the Picasso Collection, The Vassar College print collection, works of the Italian Renaissance, the Rockefeller African Art collection, or the Impressionists. Conversely, a private home “collection” usually reflects the owners taste(s) and may contain a mixture of all of the above. In any event, whatever the place and whether for sale or not, all of this art is meant to be seen. And either by special invitation or regular visiting hours, you will find that, if you wish, you are welcome to come and look.

Because art museums often seem to be the most intimidating to many, we’ll begin with them. In the scheme of things, and at least as far as this mini-history of image-making goes, museums are relative newcomers. It was not until early in the 18th century in Europe that the first public art museum was built. Previous to that time, only the very wealthy—royal families and the like—collected art and it was hung in their palaces, castles and royal halls for their private enjoyment. If you also were part of that “in” crowd—a local aristocrat or visiting royalty, for instance—you might get to see these collections, but for the large mass of peasantry, such artwork did not even exist—other than what they might see in a church. Most, however—as noted before—saw such art—paintings, stained glass windows, statues—not as “art” but as “messages” from God. In fact, even the church building itself—also now seen as “architectural art”—was viewed in religious rather than “aesthetic” terms. Further, the craftsmen who made these artifacts were themselves not considered as “artists” —most of their names are lost to history—hence, there was no such concept as their making “art”. As with artwriting, the idea of recognizing such “craftsmen” as “artists”, did not fully occur until the Renaissance. For centuries—and even up until the Middle Ages—“artists” were classed along with masons, carpenters, and butchers—the ancient Greeks called them banausos—“artisans”.

The average peon—if he even had a wall to hang it on—might display some of his own handiwork, an example of what we would now call “folk” art. (Incidentally, there are now folk art collections, folk art museums and even folk art galleries where such items are on view and/or sale. Merchants have thought of everything.) Other than that, unless you were an artist yourself or worked at some art guild or master’s workshop, you didn’t have the time, inclination or money to pursue such things as art or its viewing.

At any rate, revolutions, upheavals, and the like were making the average person aware of the things he’d been missing, among them the storehouses of treasures that the nobility had amassed. It would not take long for public museums to pop up all over Europe—and elsewhere. What had previously been the King’s “collection” became the “nation’s” collection, and everyone could now visit and see and enjoy what was once the private purview of the powerful and wealthy. Today, there are museums spread throughout the world, each displaying their treasures for the public. Remember: art IS NO LONGER meant to be a special plaything of the elite, the wealthy, the intellegentsia or the snob. it was and always will be for you. Today, you might still not have the inclination (hopefully, that will change after you get through this book), but time or money is no longer a valid excuse to keep art out of your life.

Museums can be repositories of a wide variety of art, both ancient and modern, or restrict themselves exclusively to one type, or school, or period, or country, or whatever—as noted above when we discussed collections. The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, features the work of Dali, while the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, confines itself to showing the work only of American artists.

Because museums tend to house a nation’s priceless treasures and serve as showplaces for both native and foreign visitors, the buildings that serve as their “homes” tend to be large, showy and intimidating. Places such as the Louvre in Paris, France, for instance, were, in fact, once palaces. For the average person, therefore, there can often be a doubt as to whether just anyone can “drop in” to these imposing buildings. The answer, of course, is “Yes”—they are, after all, public buildings. But, still…

If you were raised like me, you were not brought up to visit museums on either a regular or even sporadic basis. I, for example, did not set foot inside an art museum until I was well into my thirties. For whatever reason, and I tend to think it’s because my family’s roots were the peasantry of Europe, “art” just wasn’t for us. We were practical, down-to-earth people, concerned with making a living and getting along. Sure, we had pictures on the walls—usually cut out from magazines or calendars—and maybe even some of our own “folk art,” but this was merely for decoration. To go and “study” a picture—to make a specific trip to a museum just to “look”—well, that just didn’t happen in my family. Like courthouses and hospitals—other imposing buildings—museums were just one more place to avoid if you could help it.

For a time there, public education used to add trips to museums as a regular practice—and a great many people had the process of looking at art and artifacts de-mystified. Back in my day, such outings were unheard of; today, a great many schools have stopped the practice due to cut-backs in aid. This is truly a great misfortune since the cycle of ignorance is once more put into motion. Those treasures are there for our enjoyment, but if you don’t know of their availability they might just as well be back in the hands of kings and tsars and caesars.

If you were raised like me, then you’ll just have to do the de-mystifying yourself. The first step is to understand that they are public, that is places for you and me to visit. And, like any public place, there are days and hours for visitation. Any local paper can advise you and if they don’t list the times, a telephone book will give the telephone number and, in most cases, even the specific number to call for the times. These days, by looking up and checking out which museums offer information online, you can even take a “virtual” tour of a museum in the comfort of your own home — this eliminates the intimidation factor and it’s an easy way to see what’s in store for you when you finally go for an actual visit.

Once you’ve established when and where you going, the next thing to determine is whether or not there is a fee involved. Again, there are variations. Some museums are free; some ask for a donation; some have a set fee. These things are determined by the method in which the museum is funded and, for now, need not concern us here. You can save this for later when you’ve become an expert museum-goer and are considering a place on the board of directors. For now, we’ll just stick with how much, if anything, it is going to cost you to get in. Usually these things are posted somewhere near the door and, if you’ve done your homework, you have already found out by looking it up or calling ahead. Remember: asking questions is just fine and the reason why most museums have “Information” desks situated near the front door.

I have made the assumption that the museum or museums you have chosen to visit are close to you and that you have not decided to make some extended trip for your first time out. Eventually, however, you will tend to become more selective. You will soon discover that not all museums are equal. As noted above, they house different collections and you will soon tend to become selective. Most likely you will first visit those museums that show things you are interested in. That might even be electric trains, fire engines or dolls. But, since art is the topic here, we are trying to get you to visit art museums. So, you might want to begin with folk art or American Indian art or even a craft museum. (A look at any one of a great many museum guides will show you just how wide a range there are out there.) Whichever you choose, be prepared to spend the good part of a day.

And, remember, you’ve come to look. No one has to tell you how to do that. One of the things I find most annoying when I drop into a museum is to see people standing in front of pictures with earphones stuck on their head. You don’t look through your ears—you look through youreyes. And unless you’re well on your way in art appreciation and are doing some kind of research paper or something, don’t let anyone tell you what to see; just look and see what the picture tells you. If the artist wanted you to hear what he had to say, he would have written a poem or a novel or an essay. He wanted you to see—so just look and tune out any commentary that might be going on around you.

This admonition is no personal whim of mine—I don’t have anything against earphones or recorders or anything like that. But I remember hearing something that will clearly illustrate my concern. Someone once said, “I can teach you how to make gold—the ingredients are inexpensive and the recipe simple. Just fill an ordinary pot with water and stir with a wooden spoon. You must only do one thing while stirring: do not think of ‘hippopotamus’! In a very short time, you will have gold in your pot.”

That’s it. Now just go and try to do it. All the while you are thinking “I will not think of ‘hippopotamus” you are, of course, thinking of it. So, you can never make gold out of water. The point is, that the power of suggestion is so strong and so insidious that we are mostly unaware of its influence. If, for example, while you are standing and looking at a painting by Corot, someone says in your ear, “Notice the spot of red that the artist adds to his painting. So often does he do this, that the stroke of red has become one of his famous hallmarks. etc., etc. etc.” (I did hear this on the earphones at one museum). Well, from now on, you’ll never be able not to see that red blob of paint. How much more exciting might it have been if you had discovered that recurring swab of red and read about it later? That discovery, by the way, is precisely why so many people have learned the excitement and pleasure of looking at art. Believe me, there are still things to be discovered! By now, so many are looking for that red spot that they are overlooking other things that the artist has put there. Seek and ye shall find! (Listen and you’ll only find what someone else has already found!)

After museums, perhaps “posh” art galleries can also be intimidating to the newcomer on the artscene. Ought you avoid them? Absolutely not! Not only are they also “public” places, but they are also in the business of promoting and selling art—and this may be the very reason why, to some, they are intimidating. Many such galleries, in fact, cannot be simply entered by walking in off the street but have a “buzzer” or “bell” that one must press in order to be admitted. True, but still, that does not mean that you cannot step up, press the button, and walk in— even if you do not intend to purchase a work of art. That little “announcement” of you standing at the door is simply to alert those inside—who are responsible for items that can be worth thousands of dollars apiece— that you are coming in. They may not be overjoyed that you are just “window shopping”—after all, being “posh”, they are often located in prime locations and have exorbitant rents to meet—but, usually, you will find them courteous, friendly and—since this is what you’re there for—very informative about the art and the artists they represent. So, overcome your timidity and take this excellent opportunity to further expand your knowledge—and enjoyment—of art.

By far, the least off-putting of venues where the perplexed can make initial forays into the artworld without fear of being “exposed” as a “newby” would be to drop into an art fair (a common summer event in most communities), a street exhibition (such as, for example, the annual Washington Square Outside Art Exhibit), or an announced artist reception at some gallery or arts organization where, in all probability you’ll meet a few “newbys” just like yourself.

So, go out and get your feet wet—look, ask questions, walk away if you don’t like it but, above all, ENJOY what you like!

Afterthoughts

• Art Is One Of Life’s Few, Pure, No-Strings-Attached Gifts To Us—

• We Ought Not Abuse Or Ignore It.

• Art Can Be Silly, Frivolous, Annoying, But Also Interesting, Exciting, Even Spiritual.

• Art Can Depress Us Or Anger Us.

• Art Can Heighten Our Sensibilities.

• Art Can Civilize Us.

• Art Can Be Used As A Release, As Therapy, As A Political Forum, Or At Its Best, As A Source Of Enlightenment And Enrichment.

• Whatever Art Is Or Does, Make It Your Own!

 

This is Part 1 in a series of 4 parts:
Image Making
Artists
Art Writing
Exhibition Places


Art Essay: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed PART III: Artwriting

July 10, 2014

This essay first appeared in the ART TIMES Winter 2013

ARTWRITING—AND THIS too, comes in a variety of forms—seems straightforward enough. It is writing about art. As simple as this may seem, however, it is probably the writing about art that more than anything else has caused the ever-widening gulf that exists between art and the average person. If intended at first to clarify, it progressively made the waters muddier as artwriters tried to upstage the artists.

As an artwriter, this is not an easy thing for me to say—yet the evidence is strong that it is writing about art rather than art itself that turns away—and keeps away—the public which not only deserves to know art but for whom its creation ultimately lies.

An anecdote: I was at an exhibition of the work of Guiseppe Boldini, one of my favorite 19th-Century Italian impressionists, when I overheard a lady nearby say to her friend, “I know I’m not supposed to but, you know, I love his work!” Now where do you suppose she got the idea that she was not supposed to like what she was evidently enjoying? You got it—she had obviously read somewhere that 19th -Century representional art was just so “not today” and felt guilty that she was showing her “old-fashioned” taste. Boldini, don’t-y see, is totally passé.

Let me tell you another story: I was once sitting with the painter Will Barnett and, as it so often does between artist and artwriter, the topic of art criticism came up. I asked Will—a man of wide experience and not a little wisdom—to what he attributed the growing importance and power of the art critic today. “Simple,” he said. “One word is worth a thousand pictures!”

This reversal of the old “One picture, one word, etc.” took me by surprise and I asked him to elaborate. Will had spent some fifty years as an instructor at the Art Students League in Manhattan, and his tenure there spanned the years both before and after World War II. The G.I. Bill, he explained, and the financial aid given to veterans, opened the possibilities of a college education to a great many people who might otherwise never have gone on to “higher” education. “What happened,” Will explained, “was that we turned out a higher proportion of readers in our population. However, becoming more literate as a nation, did not necessarily mean that there was a proportionate upgrading in the ability to read art. Unfortunately—at least for the artist—a great many people simply assumed that if they could read about art, then it meant that this was the same as understanding art. So, people just read the critics—and let them tell them what they were looking at.”

And, it’s even more reprehensible when critics presume to tell you what you ought to like or dislike.

How did this all come about?

Let’s take a brief overview of history. As we learned earlier, the making of images has been around since pre-historical times. We can’t exactly tell when it began — as noted in the Chapter on Image Making (Part 1, Summer 2013 Issue), our best guess is about 35,000 years ago — but we do know that it pre-dated speech for a very long time. Nor can we tell exactly when speech was invented, but we do know that mankind had been perfecting the spoken language for a very long time before artwriting was invented. As far as we can tell, the first writing about art appeared in the West during the Renaissance with a man call Cennino Cennini. This is not the place to go into detail here, but Cennini’s book seemed to have opened a Pandora’s box of wannabe art “experts” that is still spilling over today.

At first, it seemed innocent enough: a savvy traveler would become an advisor to some emperor or king, telling him which artists in which provinces were “hot” and recommending them for the royal palace. Today, in addition to those artists who have been image-making since time immemorial, we have artwriters, curators, art merchants, collectors, restorers, connoisseurs, historians, aestheticians—the list goes on as we grow ever more inventive. If we can’t all be artists, well, we can at least learn how to be middlemen—and, so we do ad nauseam. Heck, even artists tried their hand at using their quills rather than their brushes from time to time (probably when commissions were slow coming in)—but, generally, the better ones stuck to their trade.

Once critics began to recognize their growing power as interpreters of art, they simply took off. A whole new branch of “expertise” grew up, with “artwriting” becoming a skill in itself—complete with its own jargon, cast of “stars,” and specialized magazines. Eventually, these “specialists” wrote mainly to impress each other, leaving those who depended upon them for guidance, information or explanation out in the cold. And, like I said, once they got tired telling each other how they ought to see a work or art, they began telling you.

A comment by one of these “specialists,” in fact, was a major spur for my writing this article. Quoted in the New York Times, this “specialist”—whom we shall leave unnamed—said that art criticism today could be separated into two kinds: “searching but impenetrable” and “readable but stupid.” Now how inviting is that to the newcomer to the artworld? If you can read it, it’s stupid, but if it’s searching—i.e. seriously looking at the art, well then it’s impossible to understand. Now isn’t that helpful!?! To paraphrase one critic that I do respect — Walter Pater — he maintained, “What … art has to do in the service of culture … [is] satisfy the spirit.” Nuff said!

Meanwhile, back at the studio, artists continue to make pictures much in the same manner that their stone-age predecessors did on cave walls—except now, they have better materials to work with. Just imagine how one of today’s “impenetrable” but “searching” artwriters might have fared if he had prattled on with one of his explications to some bystander back then! (That is, if they’d invented speech yet).

Let’s set the stage: Ogg, an eminent art critic, and a viewer, Moog, stand before a cave painting of a buffalo.

“Hmmmm…” says Moog.

“But look!, says Ogg. “Note how the artist nuanced his lines from sure to uncertain and melded it into the ambience of both his mood at the moment and of the curvature of the cave wall…nothing less than pure genius!”

“Hmmmm…” says Moog, thinking to himself ‘impenetrable’ and ‘stupid’.

“Philistine!” mutters the critic as he stalks away.

“Still looks like a badly drawn buffalo to me,” says Moog scratching his head.

If Moog were alive today, he might turn to you and say, “What’s the big deal? We got eyes. Let’s use ‘em! If we don’t like what we see—let’s go to the next cave!”

All in all, this wouldn’t be terrible advice. If you prefer pictures that look like something you are familiar with, no one—not even the “specialist”—can tell you that you ought to like something else. No more, for instance, than someone can convince you that you ought to enjoy turnips if, in fact, you can’t stand turnips. Sure, you may grow to tolerate different kinds of art—and even turnips—but you can do so only at your own pace and only if you are so inclined to do so. There exists no law—at least not as of this writing— that dictates taste. Never was and, to my mind, never will be. You have every right to walk into an art show, shrug your shoulders, and walk out— or, like the lady at the Boldini exhibit, enjoy it — regardless of what the “specialists” say! Remember—writing about art is one thing. Looking at art is another. And, most important, making words and making images are two different artforms. And, genereally speaking, one picture is worth a thousand words. Being able to comprehend the one does not necessarily mean that you can the other.

Now that that‘s all clear, we will turn to art venues in our next and last installment.

Meanwhile, trust the instincts of Moog—who passed them along to you with the rest of your genes—and use your own eyes.

This is Part 3 in a series of 4 parts:
Image Making
Artists
Art Writing
Exhibition Places


Art Review: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed Part II: Artists

July 10, 2014

This essay first appeared in ART TIMES Fall 2013

OK…SO MUCH  for images — now let’s look at the image-makers. Artists come in all sizes, shapes and varieties. There are Sunday afternoon artists, full-time artists, talkative artists, silent artists, happy artists, morose artists, light-hearted artists and humorless ones. There are those who take themselves seriously, and there are those who take only their art seriously. In short, artists pretty much come from the same tribe of cavepeople that we do—and, if for no other reason than this—art is varied, different, so we ought not expect artist Tom, Dick or Harry to turn out the same stuff. Consequently—and, I might add, inevitably—you might love Tom’s art, feel so-so about Dick’s art, and not be wild about Harry’s.

Artists also have a variety of reasons for making art. There are artists who make things to please others; there are those who make things to please only themselves. There are commercial artists who work mainly for money and there are artists who do not. Many artists have consciously chosen their professions while others haven’t, having become artists in spite of the wishes of others—of their parents, or their mates, or, at times, of even themselves. Some are compulsive artists, people who are born to make art, who become ill if they cease to make art. There are some who create with an eye on the marketplace while others keep their eyes trained inwardly, constantly searching for their own unique vision. There are even some “artists”—highly successful people (at least in making money)—that do not even hold a brush or wield a chisel but, instead, have a workforce of helpers that “make” the art that they sell as “original” art products of their own, content in having had an “idea” or “concept” and letting lesser mortals do the heavy work. This is not the place to discuss the ethics of such practices and I will only mention that such “artists” of today point out to the ateliers of a Rembrandt, Rubens or a Velázquez who also used apprentices in their time.

There are those who believe that there are artists who are charlatans, fakers who create “stuff” that they simply call “art,” and who try to foist it off on unsuspecting buyers—but, I’ve never met any. This doesn’t mean that the artworld is free of crooks or tricksters—but these tend more often to be the middlemen who either buy, sell or promote art and not the artists themselves. There is, for instance, a modern phenomenon commonly touted as “starving artist” shows that periodically crop up in hotel conference rooms around the country where “original” oil paintings are sold, ready-framed, for under $100. The sad fact is, that the “artists” who are turning out these “original” oils are indeed “starving” artists, third-world drudges who toil over never-ending rolls of canvas that pass before them as they put in their part of the picture—some painting in the clouds, others the birds, still others the houses, and so on, depending on the subject matter that is called for. A final worker will sign the work, usually a single name such as “Davis,” or “Williams,” or “Anderson.” The frames, ready to assemble, come from some other third-world country, put together in much the same manner—and usually for the same slave-labor wages. Both the frames and the rolls of “original” paintings—usually uncut, still on the roll—are sent to some agent in the U.S. who then hires some other drudges to cut the rolls into single canvases and place them inside the frames. Viola! An $89.50 “original oil” painting, signed by the “painter” and ready to hang over the sofa or on restaurant and hotel walls..

The only artists who might be called out-in-out cheats are the forgers, those people who paint pictures in the style of some master—usually some dead, high-priced master—and who attempt to pass them off as genuine articles. But again, I have never met any, and they, also, most often work through a middleman who is actually selling the work. A little thought will tell you that, if  these guys can make a passable forgery, they must be good artists in their own right. True. Except, they must have a little larceny in their hearts to go along with such schemes, whether they are doing it for the money or the excitement. On the up side, a forgery—good or bad—need not concern you. Even if it was hanging in a museum (where it was — or still isassumed to be “the real thing”), you need only like it or not. Usually, the ones who get “taken” by forgers are dealers or collectors—people who are more or less in it for the money and prestige and they have to take their risks as would anyone else in the marketplace. People who love art for its own sake, on the other hand, can enjoy a good fake without much harm to either their pocketbook or self-esteem.

The point is, artists ought to be seen as non-threatening individuals, people who are generally like you and me, struggling to get along in the world. By and large they are non-violent people and, when violence does enter the picture, it is usually directed against themselves. A famous example, of course, is Vincent van Gogh who not only cut off his own ear in a fit of rage, but, some claim, eventually took his own life by purposefully shooting himself. This, however, is an extreme example and the most passion you can usually expect from an artist is an occasionally wild brushstroke or liberal splash of red or yellow or blue across a canvas. So, again, artists are pretty much like us.

There is a difference, though, and one we should not lose track of. Whereas most of us are making or doing things that people need (or think they need)—you know, supply and demand, the formula that makes the world go around—artists are usually out there making things that nobody asked for. They are not making belt buckles, or bullets, or beads—stuff that people use. Artists are making things that they hope someone will “need” and “use.” Now I mentioned above that there were commercial artists and this means that they do produce on demand, creating products that someone else is paying them to make. These include not only those artists who are in the art departments of corporations or on the staff of magazines but some artists who work only on commission, say for example, professional portrait painters. For the moment, we’ll put these “employed” artists aside. Not that they aren’t bona fide “artists;” only that they are more like you and me since they fall into the conventional patterns of supply and demand economics.

Art, on the other hand, can liberate us from the supply and demand straitjacket of everyday living, and artists, those who do not attempt to fit their work into the prevailing pattern, can be liberators. There are artists, then, who break the mold which usually form the bulk of the tribe, so to speak, artists who march to a drum we all cannot or will not hear. These are those compulsive artists I mentioned above, people who are driven to create at all costs, people who flout convention—sometimes even common sense—to create their art, people whose souls die if they are prevented from creating. Because most of us do follow convention and do what we deem are the necessities of life, such artists can be a little off-putting, even a little intimidating. Who are they to let their wives (or husbands) work to support them, to let their children go hungry while they putter about in their studios? Well…they’re artists. Sometimes they are called “serious” artists, or “fine” artists. During the Renaissance, it was believed that artists—serious artists—were “inspired” in the literal sense of that word, i.e., “breathed into” by none other than the Divinity. Some today still feel that artists—serious artists—are special and that they have indeed some important things to “tell” us, to “communicate” to us, “things” that come from outside the “normal” experiences of everyday life. Whether or not you’ve ever been so moved by a painting, a concerto or a piece of sculpture, there are few who can stand in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome without feeling that we have come a long way from the cave—and what man is capable of creating outside his usual world. Whatever these artists are called or how they are thought of, they are doing their “jobs” and simply because that job doesn’t fit most job descriptions we are familiar with, they are “jobs” nonetheless. In all likelihood, those “other” cavepeople looked askance at the wall scribblers, wondering why they didn’t go out and forage for roots or cook meat or spear animals or fight other tribes.

Over the years, in the course of my writing about artists and their work, I’ve visited them in their studios, chatted with them at their exhibitions—even visited museums with them to view the work of others—and, in doing so, have come to count many of them as friends. Of course, during our time together, I’ve talked to them about art, both their own and about art in general.

As I’ve said, artists come in all varieties—as does their art—and it stands to reason that our discussions would vary and, perhaps more importantly, so would their observations, opinions, beliefs and conclusions about art—about what constitutes art, what makes them produce it, what makes good from bad art, and such. I have never found two artists who completely agreed about any of this . Sure, there was considerable overlapping in some areas, but—and this is crucial to understand—they were never carbon copies of each other. Not even when one was the student of the other. Each had a unique viewpoint when it came to art. This unique viewpoint, in fact, is precisely what makes an artist an artist. This is true even of forgers, artists who can duplicate the work of another artist, usually a past master, and usually for monetary gain. The ability for exact duplication, however, is what makes a person a forger—not what makes him an artist. In all probablity, the forger is an artist—but his work would markedly differ from the one he is copying—and surely not be quite as saleable.

A unique viewpoint—artwriters like to refer to it as an “aesthetic vision”— incidentally, is also the hallmark of artists in other fields—musicians, playwrights, choreographers, poets, novelists, filmakers, and the like. Their purpose—as it is with the visual artist—is to present that viewpoint to you in whatever medium they have chosen to be their life’s work. The musician in his music, the composer in his score, the choreographer in his dance, and so forth.

Some artists have tried to speak to me about their viewpoint, about their art. I’ve sat in their studios, watched them in the comfort of their own familiar surroundings, and listened to them. Some are very articulate; some not. As they spoke, I would let my eyes wander over their work, sometimes seeing what they were saying obvious in their work, but, oftentimes, not. Being articulate does not always mean that artists can speak clearly about their own work. They may be knowledgeable about art in general, about its history, about the technicalities of its making—and not be able to say one coherent thing about their own work.

Paul Cadmus, for example, was an extremely well-read and cultured man, able to speak confidently and intelligently on the subject of art. I spent an afternoon at his home/studio, gathering material for his profile for ART TIMES. We spoke of many things, but not once did any of his utterances ever “explain” one of his pictures, not one word conveyed the delicate line with which he outlines a human form. His words said one thing; his art quite another.

On another day, I spent an afternoon with Liza Todd Tivey, the daughter of the actress Liz Taylor, to speak about her bronze sculptures of horses. Unlike Cadmus, Tivey was extremely sparing with words, so much so, in fact, that at the end of my interview she feared that she had “wasted” my time.  (This was certainly not so since an artist’s workspace can speak volumes to the observant person).

When you stop to think about this, it’s not really very surprising. After all, if they could have used words to express what they wanted to say, they would not have resorted to making images in paint, or wood, or stone. They would have been writers, not visual artists.

And this is the next crucial thing you have to understand. As I pointed out in the last Chapter, image-making is a language in and of itself. Indeed, it has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own vocabulary. Just like you cannot translate one language into another without some distortion, you also cannot translate a picture or a statue into a word essay. And, if you ponder this truth a little longer, you’ll come to see that you cannot translate any thing into words. Poets strain their utmost to describe what they mean by love, but no one believes for one instant that the words he or she uses have any real connection to loving. Even though I am a writer, no amount of words I use nor no matter how clever I string them together can ever bring a painting (or anything else for that matter) to “life” for another. Words can only approximate, never define. A definition of love can never convey what it means to hunger for another’s presence, or embrace, or kiss.

Socrates used to have great fun bringing this truth home to his listeners. So much fun, in fact, that they finally made him drink hemlock to shut him up. Someone would begin talking about some idea—say patriotism—and he’d say, “Yes, that sounds good—but just what is patriotism anyway?” “Why you know, Socrates,” they’d answer. “Like fighting for one’s nation.” “Oh, yes,” Socrates would answer. “That’s an example of patriotism. But just what is patriotism?” “Well, respecting the flag—dying for one’s country. You know!” And Socrates would grin and say, “No…no, I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking. Just what do you mean by patriotism?” Eventually, the speaker would stop talking, the crowd would disperse, and no one would feel very smart (except maybe Socrates) after one of these exchanges. Certainly not the speaker who threw around words he couldn’t define, nor the people who stood around listening. Socrates, of course, was trying to show that abstractions like patriotism or love could never be defined and that we should simply be careful about how we use them or guide our lives by them. Naturally, they eventually killed him. Why would they accept such nonsense as that?

The fact is, however, that Socrates was correct. Not only was he right in pointing out that we can’t really pin down abstractions, but, although he didn’t push the matter, we can’t actually define any objective fact—abstract or not—except only in some kind of general way. No definition of a child will fully convey the sense of your child. Or mother. Or father. Or dog and cat, for that matter. Or home. Or car. Or room. I know what the word “home” connotes—but, unless I’m acquainted with yours, I don’t get any visual “sense” of it as you do. And even if I am acquainted with it and spend some time there, I probably don’t really know it.

Part of the problem here is a universal condition of man—our five senses are imperfect gatherers of information. Dogs have greater senses of smell, eagles have keener eyesight and most wild turkeys have exquisite hearing capacities. A table may seem solid enough to place things on, yet we know that, in actuality, it is a swarming mass of molecules. We have all looked up at the sun, but how many know that we can never see it as it is right now but only as it was eight minutes ago because that’s how long it took for its light to travel to us?

And, of course, the artist—in all his myriad manifestations—is also subject to this “universal condition” of man. Like us, he is as good or as bad as he chooses to be. You need not love him like you do Tom, be indifferent to him like you are with Dick, or be wildly negative about him as you are with Harry. All you have to do is look at his art and see if he “communicates” anything to you. If you like what is being “said”— if it feeds your ‘spirit’ — then enjoy; if not, then move on to the next picture.

All right — enough about image-makers, or “artists”. In our next (Winter) Issue, let’s turn our attention to the artwriters.

This is Part II in a series of 4 parts:
Image Making
Artists
Art Writing
Exhibition Places