Musings on Photography

But is it Art? (reprise)

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on August 16, 2008


Ok, I thought about the comments on this post, and I have some responses. I will admit that this sort of stuff makes me lean ever further away from the whole “I am an artist” self-label.

First, Anita Jesse writes

It appears that some find beauty deeply offensive to their highly refined sensibilities. In fact it is so offensive to them that they want the rest of us to cover our eyes lest we be seduced by its power to blind us. Hogwash. These are the people who would love to legislate against wasting valuable time and precious human resources on the pursuit of such a “safe” and worthless commodity. I wish they would lift the “ugly-veil” through which they view the world and humanity to see what some others of us see.

I agree. I have to admit that I find the entire “Oh, we’re not having any of this mundane ‘beauty’ nonsense here, thank you very much. This is an ART museum!” thing to be inexpressibly tiresome. I’m fairly libertarian and I believe very much that each of us has a right to address the world as we wish. And I’ll defend your right to do exactly that, even when I disagree with your view. That said, I think that if you deliberately adopt the posture that the world is ugly, reality is ugly, individual people and the vast swath of human civilization are ugly, you’re going to end up with an ugly mind and an ugly life. It’s your choice, and you’re free to make stupid choices, but I persist in thinking it’s a stupid choice. Like Anita, I’m profoundly grateful that I am living in a time and place when life is NOT just nasty, brutish, and short, and that I have the mental faculties and the disposition to look at the world around me and see beauty in things small and large. In the end I am happier, more content, and lead a more regulated life as a result.

Tyler Monson writes:

What I find most irksome about Chichuly is that he is all about self-promotion; the P.T. Barnum of art. Credit him, though, with raising the public awareness and acceptance of art glass…except now they are looking at the wrong direction!

This touches on what I suspect is really the problem here: Chihuly is an artist who is financially successful. And although it’s perfectly acceptable for artists to be nasty people (think: Jackson Pollack), sexual deviants, have poor impulse control, be violent (think Caravaggio for all of those), be financial disasters, and (in the modern era) obsessed with ugliness, there are a few things artists apparently must never do:

  • be financially successful by selling their art
  • promote their own work
  • at least in the modern era, be interested in beauty.

Chihuly is, apparently, guilty of all three. Bad artist. No museum show for you!

Here’s a hint: Art is not a contest to see who can climb to the top of the heap. Chihuly’s steadfast and savvy promotion of his work does not make it one iota better, but neither does it make it any worse. Likewise, Caravaggio’s rather unsavory personal life does not make his art better, but neither does it make it worse. Their art is just what it is – neither more nor less. Promotion can increase the monetary value of a piece, but it doesn’t budge the artistic merit at all. And, in the same way, negative reviews by the critics can lower the monetary value of a work, but have no effect on the artistic merit of the work at all. Critics and pundits are utterly powerless to transform an artistic turd into a gem, and likewise incapable of transforming a masterpiece into schlock. All they can do is sway the opinion of those who are afraid to form opinions on their own.

Dave Wright writes:

The fact that 150,000 visitors in a month makes me think of his work more as bubblegum pop music, rather than experimental art school noise. Pandering to the masses, rather than pushing the boundaries.

Exactly what CMPatti said – pretty ornamentation, nothing important or meaningful.

And yes, I absolutely agree with the Kinkade comparisons.

Hmm. I am skeptical that an art work’s popularity has strong correlation (either positive or negative) with the work’s artistic merit. Ranked against modern pop music, Mozart’s flute concertos are not particularly popular but they are nevertheless musical masterworks. Michelangelo’s Pieta has been seen by millions and millions of people but remains an incredible work of art (as well as incredibly beautiful, for that matter).

And because of this failure to see any correlation between popularity and artistic merit, I’m highly skeptical when someone says “Oh, it’s hugely popular, so it must be utter crap”. It might well be crap, but the argument presented is worthless and demeans only the person presenting the argument.

Argue the merits of the work – fine. But to argue that lots of people like it and so it *must* be lousy is just a weak, inadequate argument.

Side note: I am not at all convinced that ‘pretty ornamentation’ and ‘important or meaningful’ are mutally exclusive properties.

Finally, a like to another article of interest: Giant Inflatable Dog Poo Wreaks Havoc.

Amusing, I suppose, to make giant inflatable dog feces and claim that it’s art. Even more amusing when it blows away from the art museum and brings down power line and breaks windows. Haw, haw, haw.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the art world has not reached achieve the sort of maturity where they no longer think anything scatological is inherently funny… I have to ask what, exactly, about this inflatable huge imitation of dog scat makes it art that’s worthy of being displayed at a museum? I mean, is it the title “Complex Shit”? Is it just that it’s a puerile joke? (Image of the work here)

Because if I were forced to choose whether to apply the appellation ‘Art’ to either a Chihuly glasswork or an gigantic inflatable dog turd, I’d call the glasswork ‘Art’ and the inflatable dog turd a rather pathetic and infantile joke.

7 Responses

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  1. Bryan Willman said, on August 16, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    One crux of this problem is that the word “Art” is not well enough defined to offer an operational definition. We cannot measure “Art” in any agreed way, and therefore cannot get even remote agreement on what is better, or worse. All we can do so far is to observe what people still think highly of over a long period of time. So in 150 years, Chihuly might be ranked with Mozart. Or maybe not. I don’t expect to be here to know.

    There exists a, er, “trade” around “art” that very much needs (in order to eat) to have mystique, and justification, and I suppose other things. And they use the same word, perhaps with different meanings (perhaps on purpose) to describe their, well, scam. (It’s not so different from the new car scam or the fashion scam, except that people actually need transport and clothing, and we all know the ads are ads… )

    I might define a new term, say, “IlluminationArt”, which I claim applies only to works that cause some number of people to see/think/feel/wonder differently about something than before. In short, that educates, or changes views, or draws attention. Sort of related to “comfort the afflicted”. And I *might* claim that Chihuly’s stuff isn’t super powerful at that, though in a world where people don’t see enough organic and colorful forms, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t have a good claim. And I’m no Chihuly expert.

    So, a possibly valid critical remark would be to say “It’s just very large inflated balloons that look like dog feces. You get the whole joke by reading this review. Don’t spend effort going, do something else.” or “It’s Very Pretty very Ornate glass. But you can go see “x” and learn as much about glass. Neither will help you understand the world much better, they’re just really nice. Go on a day when you want some really nice.”

    But people don’t seem to write reviews like that…

  2. Juha Haataja said, on August 17, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Your comment about the “dog turd art joke” is interesting, from the point of view “who defines art?”

    Is it (that who defines art) the public who may even be willing to pay for the art (in which case there may be envy from those less fortunate)? Is it the institutions – museums, galleries etc.? Or is it the artist community, the experts, or some other similar “enlightened” group? Or is it the artist him/herself?

    I think the biggest arguments arise when money is involved in the making of the definition.

  3. Mike said, on August 17, 2008 at 3:01 am

    You’re either a “painter”, “sculptor”,”photographer”, “writer”, “glassblower”, “gunsmith”, or whatever art it is you practice. “Artist” is simply a generic term for one who is skilled in an art. One can also be a “con artist” if one is skilled in conning the “connable”.

  4. Tyler Monson said, on August 17, 2008 at 8:46 am

    The direction you take from my statement is not one that I intended.

    How about if we set aside Chihuly and consider, say, Alec Soth? He is (I assume) financially successful, promotes his work, and is interested in beauty.

    I considered Andrew Wyeth, but he’s never really promoted his work. And Ansel Adams, but he was never really financially successful.

    But enough talk for me; I’d rather make pictures.


  5. latoga said, on August 17, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Not just beauty, but art as well, is in the eye of the beholder. The problem is that opinions are just like (insert body part of choice), everyone has one. And some people are gifted at convincing others that their opinions are facts.

    I see nothing wrong with Chihuly or Kinkade being financially successful with their art. All it means is that their art has connected with a large part of the population in some way or for some reason. Sometimes the artist can push past the point of equilibrium and their art moves past the connection point to a point of triteness. Eventually the market forces take affect to restore equilibrium (remembering all the Kinkade Galleries that closed once he extended beyond the natural limit of his popularity).

    I think the ‘art world’ gets ahead of itself by expecting art to always have a deeper meaning. In the historical context of art, many of the deeper meanings were not discovered until the cultures had advanced. The single candle in Renaissance paintings were expected by the buyers of the paintings at the time; and now they are analyzed for their deeper meaning, largely ignoring the fact that the painter was culturally obligated to place it there by religious beliefs.

    At the time of art’s creation, each artist creates what moves them. At the time of art’s acquisition, each buyer buys (or should buy) what moves them. If what moves the artists happens to be timed well with what moves the buyers you get huge financial success. History will judge the rest.

    I create what I like; I buy what I like. Everything else is just blog fodder for others.

  6. Frank Armstrong said, on August 18, 2008 at 6:08 am

    I’m going back and read Robert Adam’s book: ‘Beauty in Photography’….


  7. Seth Glassman said, on August 18, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    I think another way to express what you’re saying is that most people confuse the art with the artist. You can like the art and not the artist, or vice versa.

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