Monday, August 10, 2009

Myths About Art

A friend recently forwarded this in an email to me. I found it interesting, so I'm posting it here. I have responded to some of the ideas with some of my own thoughts.

'Anyone could paint that' and 7 other myths about art
by Paddy Johnson

Art enriches our lives when we allow it to do so. But reflection, judgment, and participating in the struggle to articulate what art actually communicates isn't easy for anyone, and sometimes we let that thwart our experience. That contemporary art seems to be anything an artist wants it to be can lead to a lot of confusion, most notably, the willy-nilly application of the term to anything with a creative impulse. It also tends to inspire inaccurate comments such as "art is subjective," a frequent euphemism for "don't ask me to explain it." This reticence to discuss art maintains the popular misconceptions that keep us from effectively engaging it. But it doesn't have to be this way. Here are eight common contemporary art myths that disrupt the viewing experience

1. Viewing work online or in reproduction gives an accurate account of the artwork. At some point, many of us have made the mistake of thinking that replicas capture enough information to understand art we haven't seen in person. In truth, no amount of detail replaces the gallery experience. Space, texture, and light affect how we perceive the work. Viewing the work in person is essential. It weighs the aesthetic value of the object equally with the artist's intent. Conceptual art still typically requires a nod to the visual. There might not be a lot to see in Robert Rauchenberg's Erased De Kooning Drawing, for example (a piece in which the title describes the work), but only the act of looking at it in person illuminates it. De Kooning was the most prominent painter at the time that piece was executed, so much so that his legacy intimidated other artists. The actual erasure of one of his works was meant to break that down, thereby freeing artists to pursue other paths. Seeing the remnants of the drawing in person speaks both to the foundation upon which De Kooning's legacy was built and its mutability.
Some artwork is designed to be viewed online, but most simply isn't. Thus it isn't fair to the work to look at it out of context and pass judgment on it, though all of us inevitably do so. Viewing art in person is a participatory act. This is especially true for installation art which creates an all-encompassing experience when you are immersed in viewing it.

2. This work generated so much discussion, it must be good! A lot of people talk about Lindsay Lohan, but this doesn't lead people to conclude that she is an excellent actress. The same rationale needs to be applied to art. Media starlets Damien Hirst, Banksy, and Vanessa Beecroft generate media spectacle around their personality and art designed to elicit a response. But the power of a media story is not the same as great art and shouldn't be mistaken as such.
It is always interesting what garners the most attention. Sometimes attention is drawn because people can't stop talking about something. That, in and of itself, can be the biggest strength (or the biggest weakness) of an artwork overall.

3. Anything can be art! French artist Marcel Duchamp didn't make every shovel art, just the one he labeled. In other words, while context and intentionality can earn a work the title of "art," an object that randomly evokes an artistic reference does not. If it's in a gallery, or if an artist says it's art, it is (even if you don't like it).
I love how people can become both more and less open-minded at the same time. It is good to have reputable venues in which to explore and deviate from what is and isn't accepted. But it is also good to push the envelope in regards to who is making these determinations and value judgments. So it is even better when alternative venues outside of the established institutions are springing up and other voices are being heard. Don't just rely on the historians, curators and critics to determine what is and isn't valid or worthwhile. Look around and see what people outside of the establishment are doing as well. The Internet is an amazing resource for connecting people and ideas in ways once thought unimaginable, for all that it isn't typically the best way in which to view artwork.

4. Value is completely subjective. No, it's not. There are methods of evaluating art, and just because gallerygoers respond differently doesn't mean these methods don't exist. Assessing value, however, isn't always easy.
More than anything else, frequent viewing and discussion develop a skilled eye. Experience tells a viewer what to look for. Avid gallerygoers are far more likely to distinguish a knowing nod to a cliché painting from a poorly executed work because they've seen enough of both to know the difference. Similarly difficult, distinguishing an attractive Flickr photograph from a fine-art print is likely to make the head spin for anyone who is an expert on one but not both of those. Only knowing the conventions of both gives a viewer enough knowledge to make those distinctions.
We all have our own opinions, likes and dislikes - it's part of what makes life interesting. Some people would rather see a unique approach even if it is poorly executed over a "cliche painting." I think that for an artist, it is far better to concern yourself with your own integrity and to measure your work by your own standards than to try to determine whether it is good or bad by someone else's criteria. What is the value of your art to you? Are you proud of our accomplishment? Do you think it represents you well or as you want to be seen?
As an artist, an increased exposure to art (both good and bad) is a huge boon beyond just networking. It lets you learn from others' successes and mistakes as well as your own and it offers opportunities to see and relate to art in new ways. A lot of artists make art because they can't imagine not doing so, and that passion drives them. We can all share in that together, and further foster camaraderie and understanding by seeing and absorbing as much art as we can.

5. I don't know enough about art to talk about it. Anyone can discuss art well; few of us, however, look at it long enough to be able to do so. Trust your instincts, talk about what you see – don't be afraid to be wrong. The beauty of an opinion is that you can change it as your response evolves.
A lot of people don't take the time to really study an artwork. Even some who do really look at artwork are afraid to express their opinions about it. Overcoming this takes time and exposure and the courage to start to speak your mind. But don't invalidate your own opinions before you've even voiced them - so many of us can offer so many different insights into this discourse.

6. Anyone could do that. This sentiment is typically refuted with the argument, "But you didn't." A more common version of the myth circulating art circles, "It's too easy," completes itself with "to take a compelling photograph," or "to make a good collage." In each case, the viewer is actually complaining that it's too hard to separate the good from the bad. There's no easy answer to this dilemma, except to look at enough art to develop a mature eye.
I agree that it is important to increase exposure, though that doesn't necessarily lead to better appreciation or understanding. Some people who question the integrity of an artwork because it seems too easy may just need a better sense of the context in which it was made, but others may not appreciate it because they feel insulted by what is presented as art and really want to see something totally outside of the scope of their own abilities. Essentially some viewers may never come to appreciate what they see as laziness on behalf of the artist, and they simply cannot understand why something that took so little effort is so highly valued. Just remember that more exposure can reinforce and feed into negative and biased opinions too.

7. Elitism rules the art world. Actually, this one is true, but the unspoken fallacy here is that it doesn't also rule every other field. If it's not a barrier to your participation in other pastimes, don't let it affect you here.
I think that it is part of human nature to want to set ourselves apart in order to both reinforce & perpetuate status within the heirarchy of any given system and to evoke feelings of accomplishment or purpose within that discipline. Unfortunately art is seen as less necessary than some other disciplines accused of fostering elitism (like medicine and law), so a lot of non-artists just ignore what is going on in the art world because they feel alienated by it and don't have any desire to participate. But there are lots of opportunities and people out there that work to combat elitism. As an artist, if you don't like what you perceive to be an overarching elitist attitude, then examine how your own actions play into that and work to change it.

8. Most artists are "ahead of their time." The idea that the art world understands something regular folk do not is false. Artists don't have any special vision into the future and there is no such thing as an art visionary. It does no one any good to mythologize artists. They are just human. Even Leonardo da Vinci made the basic mistake of mixing oil and water. As a result, his 15th-century mural of the Last Supper is now peeling off the back wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie.
I actually do believe that some people may be "ahead of their time" but not just in art. And not in the sense that they are visionaries or prophets that should be placed on pedestals, but more in the sense that they are willing to take chances that many of their peers wouldn't dare take. However, as I've mentioned before, I don't think it is fair to those people or to ourselves to hold them in such high esteem. We don't do ourselves any favors when we idolize others, instead we set ourselves up for disappointment when our idols fall short.

Paddy Johnson is the founder of Art Fag City, a blog providing New York art reviews, news, and event coverage. She is also an art critic for The L magazine, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.

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