HUH?

December 20, 2015

MANY YEARS AGO, sometime back in the mid-eighties, Ted Denyer (a Woodstock artist) and I were walking and talking, wandering in the environs of his Mount Tremper studio/home, finally coming to a small bridge where we stopped and hung over the rail to watch the light play on the rippling stream that flowed beneath us. Eventually (of course), our conversation turned to art in general, pursuing the never-ending question of just what the word ‘art’ means. How to decide if it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’? How do we assess it? Who are the ‘genuine’ artists? Who are the ‘fakers’, the ‘charlatans’, the ‘wanna-be’s’? What does it mean, at bottom, to be an artist? Who’s to judge? Why must, or ought, we judge? And if we do so, by what criterion? By who’s principles or standards? The artist’s? The viewer’s? The critic’s? Won’t the artist be ‘biased’? We rambled on for some time and, at one point, Ted commented, “When a viewer goes to a museum or gallery and is ‘stopped’ by a certain painting, he or she usually pauses for a second-look. But when they step closer and note that ‘Oh, that’s a dock with some people walking on it…and there, a little off shore, are small sailing boats’ — when this happens,” Ted continued. “the viewer has stopped looking at the painting and is now looking at the picture.” “So what ‘stopped’ them in the first place,” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he replied. Then suggested, somewhat Jungian, that “Perhaps shapes, colors? Something that attracted some inner, instinctual predilection or past memory?” Hmmmmm. Well, reader, what’s your answer? Is it something deeply buried within our memories or genes that attracts? Something that ‘hits our gut’ or moves our ‘spirit’? Is it, as the artist may suggest, the technique? The play of lights and darks, the brushstrokes, the overall ‘composition’? The price tag? Around the same time that I was rambling with Ted, I visited another Woodstocker, Karl Fortess, a cantankerous curmudgeon whom I grew to like very much (kindred souls, I guess) and who was friends with the Soyer Brothers Raphael and Moses (who once did a portrait of Karl that I own and cherish*), Jack Levine, Philip Reisman and other ‘Social Realists’, and while visiting Karl I rather off-handedly asked him how long he had been an artist. Karl exploded. “Don’t call me an artist goddam it! I’m a painter! Nowadays, anybody can call himself an ‘artist’ and go out in the woods, pee on three trees, and call it his ‘thing!’ Today canning peaches is considered an artform for chrissake. Won’t be long,” he predicted, “that we’ll see macramé on the Woodstock Artist’s Association’s gallery walls!” Oh, he’s probably been spinning in his grave for some time now, since his prediction has proven oh, so right! So, if Karl wasn’t an ‘artist’ what or who is? Hard to tell nowadays since “artists” have learned that if you can’t make the grade you simply change the rules. You concoct a ‘manifesto’ or new ‘-ism’ so that your work can compete and then get some hypster to drum it up. Must we, in the end, depend on the critic to tell us what we ‘see’, what we ‘like’, whether or not what is displayed is really ‘art’ created by a bona fide ‘artist’? I was once at an exhibition of the Italian Impressionist Giovanni Boldini at the Clark Museum in Connecticut, when I overheard one woman tell another, “I know I shouldn’t like this stuff, but I love his work!” Shouldn’t? Huh? What many ought to realize is that all ‘criticism’ or ‘judgment’ — or whatever you want to call it — is nothing more than opinion (I’ve harped on this before, too). Granted that there is opinion and then there is opinion — when we feel that sharp twinge in our chest we probably head for a doctor rather than a plumber or our gardener for an ‘opinion.’ Some opinions are simply more valid, trustworthy, more grounded in study, education and reliability. Some people do know what they are talking about. The trick is to choose the right ‘expert’ to lead you, to inform you, to give you confidence in making up your own mind. All I’m suggesting – ‘opining’ if you will — is that fame, hype, and price are not always trustworthy defining factors when it comes to judging ‘art’ and ‘artists’.

*BTW: I also have a bronze head of Raphael sculpted by Rhoda Sherbell, which I also dearly love and cherish!

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