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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Post #879 • October 2, 2006, 8:56 AM • 77 Comments

Two contrasting articles hit ArtsJournal this morning. In the LA Times, Suzanne Muchnic marvels at the diversity of world artistic production. "Of contemporary art today, two things, and maybe only two things, can be said for sure. First, there is more of it - made in more styles and materials, by more artists who live, work and have exhibitions in more places - than ever before. Second, it doesn't fit into neat categories or hierarchies."

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Lynn Barber became a judge for the Turner Prize and used up her love of contemporary art in one year. "There is so much bad work around, so much that is derivative, half-baked or banal, you can't believe that galleries would show it." [Update: She also says, "It always infuriates me when people claim to be art lovers just because they go to every Monet, Constable, Caravaggio exhibition and then make crappy jokes about unmade beds and pickled sharks." I cop to being one of these infuriating people. Cheers!]

We were just discussing this. Muchnic and Barber are observing the same phenomenon. I have said before that a critic of Greenberg's stature won't appear until work as good as the triumphs of abstraction appear. But a wild landscape requires guides. I see an opportunity for an enterprising critic in all this.




October 2, 2006, 9:20 AM

When an art form becomes very popular, as visual art has, and when standards, as a consequence, fall precipitously, as they has in art-making, the possiblity of a "great critic" becomes more remote, because a "great critic" is onewho sees great art and reports on it.

What we may get is a "powerful" critic, in the Siskel & Ebert mold, but even this is unlikely as long as our critics are afraid to say straight out "this is crap and that isn't". At the moment we have an anarchy supported by the guiding 1960s mythology that everything is OK and that value distinctions are a remnant of our repressive past. That's why instead of strength in criticism we have apologists with tics, like Saltz and Schjeldahl and Kimmelman.



October 2, 2006, 11:06 AM

Seems to me the notion of a "great critic" must adapt to the times. There are roughly 300 Galleries in Chelsea (NYC) alone. While most of the artwork exhibited isn’t very interesting, there is a lot of it. Further, the expansion of genres, the marbles of diversity, makes it difficult for any one person to adequately address everything. The best critics will probably be specialists and focus on a particular genera.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 11:19 AM

I wonder, is it possible to even discuss the notion of a "Great Critic" apart from the particulars of New York City, or do the two come as a matched set?



October 2, 2006, 11:24 AM

I think a critic ccould get a handle on it pretty easily, George. If you were a professional critic in NY going at it all the time you might miss the first show of someone really good but someone will tell you pretty quickly about anything interesting. It happens very fast.

Marc, when I go to your New York City link I get: FORBIDDEN - ERROR 403. Makes it tough for a critic, for sure.



October 2, 2006, 11:30 AM


What difference does it make where they are?
It happens to be that there are more galleries in NYC than anywhere else, but there are 200 in London and who know how many in other major art centers. A decent critic has to see the art and the more art they see the better. As a practical matter, most writers on art probably can't afford to travel frequently and as a result they will be based in a major art center. This doesn't preclude the possibility that a "great critic" might live in Alaska, but it is unlikely they will stay there.



October 2, 2006, 11:48 AM

Re #4 opie

Of course you’re right about finding out about something interesting by word of mouth. That wasn’t what I meant by "address", I meant "focus". Generally speaking, someone who spends a lot of time and energy thinking about installation art or video is probably going to be less focused on painting, and visa versa.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 12:06 PM

George, it looks like you asked, then answered, your own question in #5.

"A decent critic has to see the art and the more art they see the better."

So, it might stand to reason, if this is required for a "Decent Critic", then it holds all the more for a "Great Critic", right?

"As a practical matter, most writers on art probably can't afford to travel frequently and as a result they will be based in a major art center."

Ok, so this tells me that a city with more galleries, museums, etc, will naturally have MORE art writers... but, not necessarily better ones.

This doesn't preclude the possibility that a "great critic" might live in Alaska, but it is unlikely they will stay there.

This seems to imply that there is little chance the Great Critic will have enough to feed on in Alaska, and therefore needs to find artistic sustanance in a city like, say, New York, right?

Let's say our hypothetical Great Alaskan Critic decides to stay in Juno. Does this mean that in order for his greatness to hold, it is dependent on a surrounding community (even if it is occuring in a small pocket of obscurity) of Great Artists making Great Art?

Would anyone outside of Alaska recognize this new Great Critic as such?


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 12:10 PM

Lynn Barber: It always infuriates me when people claim to be art lovers just because they go to every Monet, Constable, Caravaggio exhibition and then make crappy jokes about unmade beds and pickled sharks."

Boo fucking hoo.



October 2, 2006, 12:10 PM

Art, like sports, has become much more about money/business than about the thing itself. It's essentially a glorified commercial product, albeit tricked out with all sorts of pretensions and supposed meaning or "relevance." Most of it is a crock, but as long as there are enough people able and willing to finance the racket, it will keep rolling along.

There's certainly no shortage of suckers, let alone opportunists and cynical operators who can spout BS in industrial quantities, all day and every day, and even make it sound tolerably plausible (at least to a susceptible audience). It's gone way beyond dealers wanting to make as much money as possible; nearly everybody in the official system is part of the problem. There are always exceptions, but that makes little practical difference. It's a pretty sorry situation, and I don't see it changing anytime soon, certainly not of its own volition.



October 2, 2006, 12:21 PM

Well, Marc, I guess it would make Juno happy.

Of did you mean Juneau?



October 2, 2006, 12:22 PM

Re#7 Marc

Would anyone outside of Alaska recognize this new Great Critic as such?

I used the word "decent" for a reason. I meant it as "good" but not necessarily great.
I critic without an audience will not have much influence as a critic. I suspect there are people who might qualify as "great critics", in the sense they have a good eye and they can talk about what they see BUT they don't write about it anywhere so they don't count.

Further, I think the term "great critic" infers that the critic is ambitious. As such, I doubt they would stay in a backwater town for long.



October 2, 2006, 12:32 PM

Re#7 Marc

Ok, so this tells me that a city with more galleries, museums, etc, will naturally have MORE art writers... but, not necessarily better ones.

You skirted the issue with this remark, the salient point was that in one of the major art centers there is flat out more art to be seen and ithe work for the most part is current, not already filtered and sent out to the boondocks. I don't think one can become a great critic looking at jpegs.



October 2, 2006, 12:41 PM

Marc (#8), give Barber a break. She has to make some such statement to avoid being written off as hopelessly out-of-it. She got into enough trouble praising somebody for being a good colorist. Besides, Emin's her friend, and maybe she's also chummy with Hirst, and loyalty to one's friends is most commendable (it may have little or nothing to do with merit, but let's be charitable). You know me: nothing if not charitable.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 12:47 PM

Thanks Opie... I was getting it confused with the Juno Award, which is Canada's version of the Grammies. (Hey... also, as an aside, Ken Moffett came by the studio the other day, and mentioned that you had pointed him in our direction... so, thanks).

George writes of our Great Alaskan Critic: "As such, I doubt they would stay in a backwater town for long." But, if s/he's surrounded by a hypothetical avant-garde, making exciting work, why would s/he leave? "Ambitions" of "Influence"?

In reality, I think great art is being made in a de-centralized art world that spans the globe... as such, the Great Critic might be de-centralized too... S/he doesn't need to write for The NYT to have influence... s/he can publish a book, or even a blog, from anywhere in the world.


Ugh... after reading all of that Guardian piece, it has solidified my opinion that we will never find a Great Critic emerging from the ranks of Journalism.

A philosopher with an eye, or an artist with a sharp pen, seem more promising.



October 2, 2006, 12:53 PM

Boo fucking hoo.

Forgot to mention that. See update.



October 2, 2006, 12:55 PM

Re #14, Marc

It's wishfull thinking, too many hypotheticals.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 12:55 PM

George: I don't think one can become a great critic looking at jpegs.

No, but apparently, you can be a Turner Prize Judge...

Barber: Only when we met to draw up the shortlist did I realise that none of the judges had seen all the shows, and that my fears about having to fly to Sao Paolo were groundless. One of the judges said you could often see the shows better online. Why didn't I think of that?


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 12:56 PM

It's not a wish, it's a bloody thought experiment... try it!



October 2, 2006, 1:02 PM

Re #18 Marc,

it's a bloody thought experiment

Yes, anything is possible but like winning the Lottery, it's not really plausible. Could happen, but chances are it won't. Get real.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 1:12 PM

Yes sir right away sir getting real sir.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 1:21 PM

Opie, the link that didn't work for you (it works for me) was to a picture of a New Yorker cover, posted today on The Intrepid Art Collector blog ( refering to New Yorkers' "local view that people elsewhere secretly long to be New Yorkers too."


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 2:25 PM

Muchnic: "When I was a student, it was Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who were clearly the most important artists," said Thomas Lawson, a painter and dean of the School of Art at CalArts. "Them and Andy Warhol. Everybody agreed that they were the ones.

Ah, charming... I wish I was Everybody... it would be so... agreeable.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 2:30 PM

Muchnic: The notion that an artist must live in a particular place to be successful is also a thing of the past"

So, what does this tell us about the notion of a critic living somewhere particular to be successful? Anything?



October 2, 2006, 2:36 PM

Prediction about the role of the JPEG:

The "hegemonic style" of our time that will eventually come to rest in the museums of the future will be what is now called "formalism". There will be no equivalent to NYC of the 40s, or Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Late formalism will not have any "great critic" associated with it, not even Greenberg who knew and supported many "formallist" artists, but did not write about them. The principle way the style's participants kept in touch with what the others were doing will be the JPEG.

I can imagine a clinker or two as well. Such as, not much space in museums will be devoted to formalism. But the great diversity everyone takes as gospel right now won't have any rooms at all. Well, maybe in a basement or two.



October 2, 2006, 2:38 PM


An artist can ship their work anywhere in the world for a show and the internet has reduced the distance between people (artist - gallerist - collector) in a non-physical sense. In order for a critic to see those shows, they either have to live there or ship themselves there.

I don't think it says anything about where the critic must be located. They need to be where the shows are, not necessarily the artists (though being able to talk to the artist is helpful for deeper exploration of the work... still, there's the phone and email)


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 3:01 PM

I'd go along with that, J.T., just as I'd go along with Opie's simple, initial definition of a Great Critic as "one who sees great art and reports on it."

I'd point out, for the sake of further argument, that the Great Critic need not even concern themselves with the art of the exact present. It'd be nice if they did, of course, but if there was someone with a sharp eye and a sharp pen, who could see and write convincingly on the bulk of art, but refused to write about any work made in, say, the last 15 years, they would still qualify as a great critic, just as long as they see great art, and report on it.


Marc Country

October 2, 2006, 3:06 PM

Someone could trapse around the 300-odd galleries in Chelsea, or like Barber suggests, the 200-odd galleries in London, and still not see much of anything great, or even very good, for that matter... Such activity would do nothing to nurture a budding Great Critic. Looking at bad art isn't good for anything.



October 2, 2006, 3:30 PM

Much as I like to read great criticism, I don't think it is necesary for great art to be made. Vice versa, I agree, is not true.



October 2, 2006, 3:47 PM

Regarding Muchnic’s comment "The notion that an artist must live in a particular place to be successful is also a thing of the past" is only partially true. It sounds nice but if we are talking about "success" in career terms I think it ignores a number of very real factors which contribute to a successful career. From a career standpoint, once an artist can establish themselves within the art world, then I agree that it doesn’t really matter where they live.

In trying to initiate a career, I think it matters more where one is located than she is implying. The art business is built on personal relationships and as an artist it does seem to matter who you come into contact with for these are the people who can help you. If no one knows you exist, then it’s unlikely much will happen.

I think artists who live in the smaller art centers do have a chance of having their work seen by curators, critics, collectors and other artists from the major art centers, but this often will only occur if someone in the local art world puts you on their A-list of people to visit. The visitor doesn’t have time (or maybe the inclination) to research every place they visit. Frequently they are coming with a particular purpose in mind and end up visiting some of the local artists when they have extra time. This isn’t speculation, it’s from experience.

In terms of just making the art, I don’t think it matters where you live. It might but it doesn’t have to.



October 2, 2006, 3:58 PM

Marc #22 "Ah, charming... I wish I was Everybody... it would be so... agreeable."




October 2, 2006, 4:10 PM

Re #27

Someone could traipse around the 300-odd galleries in Chelsea, or like Barber suggests, the 200-odd galleries in London, and still not see much of anything great, or even very good, for that matter...
That’s a condescending remark. Most of the best contemporary art is exhibited in one of the major art centers at one time or another. While it’s true that a lot of work exhibited isn’t very interesting, it is because a lot of work made isn’t very interesting. At any time there is a better chance of seeing a great gallery show in a city where there are more galleries.

Such activity would do nothing to nurture a budding Great Critic. Looking at bad art isn't good for anything.

Seeing the difference between good art and bad art matters. If our budding critic is only looking at local art what are his chances of seeing something really good compared to seeing 200 (5-10%) shows a year in a major art center?

Technology needs to improve enough to make viewing this Bronzino jpeg satisfactory.



October 2, 2006, 4:22 PM

As an aside here. Regarding the value of looking at less than good art.

A couple of days ago I came across a auction house website, I think it was in Belgium (I got iit off the artnet list) The upcoming auction had a wide range of work including a number of items from the late 19th - early 20th century. I was clicking my way through a number of so-so paintings in the impressionist style, dismissing them with a click as I went along. Then at one point I became interested in why I didn’t care for them and went back to see if I could determine what it was that didn’t quite work. I found the process instructive.



October 2, 2006, 4:26 PM

Re#24 Oak,

The "hegemonic style" of our time that will eventually come to rest in the museums of the future will be what is now called "formalism".

I am not sure what you mean by formalism here, please expand.



October 2, 2006, 4:42 PM

George, because I keep an image bank for my students I go through all the auctions at Sothebys & Christies & the ones that are posted in artnet and download anything I think is any good (and a few baddies for instructionsl purposes), mostly 20th C but also some 19th C too.

I have about 6000 images now including lots of obscure stuff from well known artists and very obscure stuff from obscure artists.

The process is more than instructive; it amounts to a kind of intense reflection and self-evaluation. It also really sharpens your eye and shakes up all received ideas about art in the last 200 years. I recommend it to everyone.



October 2, 2006, 6:03 PM

Re# 34. opie

That's about how many I have now (5900). I wrote a viewer which will open the files and display them centered and scaled to fit the screen. I don't download too much contemporary stuff but I do look at the auction results to see what's happening. (Looks like they’re dumping the Japanese cartoon artists and prices are soft)

The reason I mentioned the less than good paintings was because I had just done what I described. I think if one is writing criticism one should be able to say something more than "that sucks" The process of understanding why a painting doesn't work can be very valuable.

If I make a "miracle painting", one that was relativly effortless and really works, it often will stump me because I don’t exactly know how I did it. It’s usually followed by a number of paintings which I have to really fight with to resolve but in the process I learn something about what happened in the one which just worked right off the bat.

I noticed when I was looking at the "less than good" impressionist paintings, I came to certain conclusions about what bothered me. If I think about it, it tells me something about what I expect from a painting. Another artist and I might disagree on what we would do differently but, as a painter, it is valuable for me to take note of something which I expect from a painting.



October 2, 2006, 8:38 PM

In the Muchnic article, John Baldessari (whose stuff at MOCA I found distinctly underwhelming, not to say utterly without interest) says:

"It's money that brings us together."

What a concept. Actually, it's more like, "It's money, period."



October 2, 2006, 9:25 PM

There are more Politics in Art then ther are in Politics.



October 2, 2006, 9:27 PM




October 2, 2006, 9:31 PM

Than there Ughrrrr...



October 2, 2006, 9:59 PM

In #33 George asks me to say more about "formalism". I'm happy to oblige.

"Formalism" = Olitski & company. I don't see how the future can devote much space to anything else.



October 2, 2006, 10:47 PM

Re #24 & 40 Oak

Surely you jest.

There's not the slightest chance that will ever happen.



October 2, 2006, 10:52 PM

Franklin says "a wild landscape requires guides."

I say, this wild landscape requires heavy-duty weeding, pruning, mowing--whatever it takes to get the damn thing to stop being such an eyesore.

Of course, it will only get even more manure, I mean fertilizer.



October 2, 2006, 11:24 PM

Thank you, George. You just help confirm (#41), as if it needed confirming, my long-held opinion that what Oak just said is absolutely right.

Give it time. You'll see.



October 2, 2006, 11:53 PM

I've had the pleasant experience of sorting through dozens of Olitskis, Poons', Nolands, Haynes', Christies, Kellers, Peacock's, Walsh's and so forth and so on during the past couple weeks of collections move at the Edmonton Art Gallery, now the Art Gallery of Alberta. It's been really quite the treat with dozens of excellent pieces to every so-so one.

My fellow staff, for the most part, speak pretty negatively about "so many blobbie" paintings. They have no idea what they're seeing.

Due to curatorial and administrative priorities having nothing to do with great art (despite the goldmine of art in the vault), the future of the EAG/AGA is not certain. Grandiose plans to re-store the collection and rebuild the building (fairly certainly a Gehry knockoff) are, from my perspective, on the very brink of sinking the whole ship for good. And on the prairies, no less.



October 3, 2006, 12:00 AM

...dozens of excellent pieces to every so-so one.

Not that our gallery (what you 'Mericans like to call a museum) doesn't have its full share of artwork-boners by other not so memorable artists.


Marc Country

October 3, 2006, 1:00 AM

Franklin says "a wild landscape requires guides."

Jack says, this wild landscape requires heavy-duty weeding, pruning, mowing--whatever it takes to get the damn thing to stop being such an eyesore.

Whatever it takes? Well, there's always Agent Orange...



October 3, 2006, 1:28 AM

as well as Agents Purple, Pink, Blue, White, and Green.

All good colours for abstract painting discussions.



October 3, 2006, 9:39 AM

Re formalism etc


Marc Country

October 3, 2006, 10:11 AM

I clikced your link, George, but the word "Formalism" doesn't appear anywhere on that page.



October 3, 2006, 10:13 AM

Re #49

Nor will it take over the museums


Marc Country

October 3, 2006, 10:21 AM

Whatever you say, Kreskin.

Ken Moffett on "Formalism":

Clem’s ideas have gotten most of the attention, but it was his “eye” that was what was really great about him, at least for me. He was called a “formalist” but he never was comfortable with this term, and rightly so, since it implies a secondary stress on “content” which, in fact, is identical with form in any useful “formalist” model. Indeed, form should be thought of as existing solely for the sake of content. Clem’s kind of criticism might be called aesthetic criticism or connoisseurship, comparative evaluation of originals as to their visible form/content, their focused energy. Of course formalist rhetoric has only practical value and is only one way to approach art. It can be misleading but it also can be very useful. It is the best way to point to the visible artwork itself. As such it has been the parlance of the studio from time immemorial and is not an invention of the modern period, as is often maintained. The chief danger of formalist rhetoric is taking the natural tendencies of the medium and the concept of unity as paramount, while it is life enhancing energy, what Chinese aesthetics calls “chi”, that matters most.



October 3, 2006, 10:47 AM

Excellent, Marc. I hadn't read that one. Where is it from?


Marc Country

October 3, 2006, 11:00 AM

It's an excerpt from his essay on Clement Greenberg, on the artletter 2.0 page...



October 3, 2006, 11:46 AM

I can't really go for Moffett's "life enhancing energy" thiing (#51). Lots of things enhance life besides art. That statement is one of many many that attempt to pin down art and like all the others, it fails. Perhaps all Moffett is getting at is that you can't pin down art with words, but you can experience it with your eyes, which is all that counts anyway, and if one must use words, they will be unbearably vague.

As far as "Nor will it (Olitiski & company) take over the museums" I literally agree with that. Art takes over the museums, but it is never the exclusive realm of this or that group of works. I stick by my guns, however, when I say the Olitski crowd is the only candidate from the past 30 years for serious space in future museums. Of course, individuals from here and there may be included too, but if there is to be a group, as the impressionists, cubists, AE, etc. form groups, it has to be the Oliltski crowd. The alternative is to not have much at all from the past several decades.



October 3, 2006, 12:24 PM

"Life enhancing energy" is as good as any set of words, Oak. There just isn't any way to say it.



October 4, 2006, 1:23 AM

"Chi" just doesn't express it. In English.

Someone coin a word that describes the good aesthetic response we're agreeing happens when an artwork works powerfully on a person by way of the eyes. "I like it" is something different. "That's good" isn't very specific. Or maybe we gotta appropriate some average word already in average use, the way surfer culture has done with words like 'cool' or 'awesome'. Like 'gasp'.

Or, to prevent it from being so contrived, we can keep speaking "studio parlance" and talk all around the periphery of the aesthetic experience - just continue using critical formal dialogue as it's been handed down generation to generation and let it continue to evolve however it will. But then a guy's gotta have someone to talk with who can understand the vernacular and these sorts seem fewer and farther between all the time.

Lucky to have a handful of dudes who understand one another around here.



October 4, 2006, 2:11 AM

#56 You seem to confuse the description of "thing" an art work has with the description of ones response to it. Good pieces have an energy. They are charged. If it's got "it" then the specifics of that particular piece will determine how it's described."I like it" and :It;s good" are the best initial responses I can think of.



October 4, 2006, 8:16 AM

Words come about to denote shared experiences of different types: a thing ("stone") or a feeling ("happy") and to facilitate language itself ("also") and so forth. Language is our shared "interface" with reality. It is an eminently practical structure, meant to be useful above all, and adapts to circumstance, so that there are lots of words for "camel" in Arabic and lots of words for "snow" in Inuit. Some languages have interesting bubbles or clusters of word types, like the mostly derogatory descriptions of nuances of character in Yiddish. Professional specializations, such as sciences, develop their own terminology.

For some reason we simply have not evolved a useful language for our engagement with art. I can't say why exactly, but it may have something to do with its pure experientiality. When I was a kid painter I realized that my friends and I, who shared common attitudes, preferences and ambitions, would stand in front of a painting and communicate through a lot of pointing and semi-articulate muttering. I am convinced that the experience of others who are really "into" art are experiencing exactly the same thing I am experiencing but I certainly cannot prove it and I don't have the language to communicate about it.

Perhaps this will change in time, but the way our culture is dealing with art linguistically at this time in our cultural evolution it looks like it will be a long time indeed.



October 4, 2006, 8:29 AM

Opie mentions: " ... the way our culture is dealing with art linguistically at this time in our cultural evolution"

I would say that our culture has equated the interpretation of art with the experience of art. Interpretations, even implausible ones, fare quite well when put into words. The grunts, groans, and excited pointing of studio engagements do not.



October 4, 2006, 10:07 AM

I too like the idea that an artwork might have an essence, Noah. As an idea.



October 4, 2006, 11:15 AM

Oak, I gues you mean that we tend to substitute interpretation for experience.

Ahab, you & Noah will have to explain "artwork having an essence as idea".



October 4, 2006, 12:13 PM

Well opie, I don's substitute interpretation for experience, but many do, especially writers.



October 4, 2006, 12:50 PM

A truly successful work of art, one with real lasting merit, has a character or nature which varies in its details but not in its essence. It is essentially a repository of a life energy, imparted to it by its creator, which remains alive indefinitely, and can thus continue to engage and communicate with the living despite its creator's physical death and the materially inert nature of the object. Great art is always alive; it is the perpetuation of creative energy contained in a technically inanimate object.

This reminds me for some reason of my experience with Piranesi's prints dedicated to Roman antiquity, with which he was obsessed all his life and to which he was exquisitely sensitive. The various ruins depicted are typically accompanied by living human figures, but the transitory and generic humans are minor details, almost like insects, next to the overwhelming presence and power of the great created structures--which are never mere buildings, but the living survivors of a former age. The stone and marble, the very rubble, still breathes and speaks.



October 4, 2006, 12:52 PM

Re#58 et. al.

I grappled earlier with the question of describing the aesthetic experience in words. Psychological states are sometimes difficult to describe.

For instance "fear" is described as "a feeling of anxiety or agitation caused by…(something)" "Anxiety" as "the state of being uneasy, apprehensive or worried about what may happen…" "Apprehension" as "an anxious feeling or foreboding…" "Agitation" as an "emotional disturbance or excitement" We know what "fear" is, at least we can agree on a general definition of what we mean by the word as it relates to our own personal psychological experiences.

The "aesthetic experience" might be more difficult to describe because it is less common and because it may encompass a number of psychological feelings simultaneously. It may also just be a subtler psychological response which is easily displaced by conscious thoughts.

Over the years I have used the word "presence" to describe an artwork which had a positive affect on me. I hadn’t actually thought of the term in the sense of the aesthetic experience but maybe that is what I was describing. When someone asked what I meant by "presence" I would say "it’s like being in a crowded room and a particular person stands out from the crowd"

When I say a painting has presence I mean that it declares its existence as a painting in the world of objects. It is different than just being an object made of canvas and paint. For lack of a better term, a painting has an "image" as the result of how the paint was applied to the surface. (The exact kind of "image" is not particularly important.)

The "image" is what makes a painting a painting as opposed to just being a "painted object" (another class of things) I would suggest that for a painting to have presence, the image (as the appearance of what’s painted) must be convincingly coincident with the "picture" (where the picture refers to what is depicted)

I realize this may sound like circular reasoning, but maybe not. For example, if we use an abstract painting as an example. We can describe it as an "abstract painting" because it meets certain criteria we might establish for an abstract painting. When we say "it is an abstract painting" we are saying it "looks like" an abstract painting (as we define AP) This is a conceptual consideration, a classification of conditions or qualities.

A painting which fits into our category of an "abstract painting" only accounts for its appearance. If our example painting has what I describe as "presence" it must also "be" an abstract painting in an ontological sense.

It is clear that a painting with a depictive image is not what is depicted. By the same token, our hypothetical abstract painting cannot be "what is depicted, a picture of an abstract painting" and still have a convincing presence, because by analogy this is tantamount to saying "the painting IS a pipe", which it is not.

To say a painting has "presence" means it is a statement of itself, not something else. So, if it lacks presence, I would suggest we are left with a feeling that what we are viewing is alluding to something outside itself for completion and that the experience is not being completed within the painting itself.

What I am calling "presence" should equate to "goodness" or any of the other adjectives used here to describe a painting that works.



October 4, 2006, 1:28 PM

I think I'm happier sticking to a satisfied grunt or two when I see some thing I like. In responding to Ahab, my point was Moffetts use of "chi' is used to described something that we sense in a painting that we can't necessarily talk about in formal terms .It's as good a descriptor as any of that "thing ' that good work has.Just about any word I pick could be a little off but when everything comes together the piece has "it". Ahab's 2nd paragraph dealt with our limited verbal response -beyond "it's good". "I like it" That's good enough for me.It reminds me a little too much of being asked "How was that for you" and "good" or"great" seem just about cover it.


Marc Country

October 4, 2006, 2:00 PM

If there's enough grunting during the experience, you never have to ask, "Was it good for you?".



October 4, 2006, 2:19 PM

Marc, no sex please. We're aesthetes.



October 4, 2006, 3:46 PM

The reason we know what fear means, George, is because we can refer to the experience. "Psychological states" are just about impossible to describe without reference to experience. So is just about anything.

It is very likely that we can't take a word like "chi" and make it stand like esthetic experience just as "fear" stands for fear simply because esthetic experience is either rare or unacknowledged or both.

My perception is that there is something else at work, something that amounts to resistance. I don't think our psyches want art to be made non- mysterious, don't want it to be made "common" by direct reference. Part of the reason there is so much bitter resentment towards Greenberg is that when he wrote about art he was utterly plain-spoken and always only referred to what was there in front of our eyes. That is why he is seen, ironically, as imperions, doctrinaire, dictatorial, the "pope of the art world".

We don't want art to be plain, simple and direct. We want our art dressed up, cosmic, "important", something that comes with bells and whistles and much more. It is very difficult to talk nitty-gritty about art with non-artists. Lay people will say "Oh, but art is much more than that!". Well, maybe it is. But if you need a big gold frame to tell you you are not getting it.



October 4, 2006, 4:10 PM

The description of the Turner prize selection process is embarrassing and depressing to an extreme. The only reason, it seems, that such scandalous behavior is allowed in something this nominally important is the complete contempt the public has for art and artists and the whole miserable grab-bag of the art business.


Marc Country

October 4, 2006, 4:45 PM

Yes, although I'm grateful that Barber isn't self conscious enough to realize how badly this chilling exposé reflects on her personally, as well.



October 4, 2006, 6:02 PM

Barber is like someone who discovers she's been practicing a false religion but can't quite face it because she's invested too much in it, and/or because it would be too traumatic to her psyche. I sympathize with her predicament, and I think there's hope for her, but she'll have to face the demon, call it by its name, and ruthlessly reject it. It's not a pretty or pleasant task, and there will be a price to pay, but it's better than a life of deception and contrived, pretentious tripe.



October 4, 2006, 8:30 PM

Barber just sound like someone who was asked to go in over her head. Now who made that selection? It's curious that book awards seem to be a better bet than awards given for visual arts .



October 4, 2006, 8:58 PM

Most people can read, Noah. They are lost when it comes to art.


Marc Country

October 4, 2006, 9:09 PM

Verbal literacy is widely taught.
Visual literacy is, sadly, not.



October 5, 2006, 8:32 PM

Worth reading in light of the above. Donald Kuspit on Sean Scully



October 9, 2006, 5:14 PM

57. Noah: Well, I'll grant that my weak writing could appear to confuse the cause with the effect. Or is it your interpretation of your reading of my writing that's confused?

58. Professional specializations, such as sciences, develop their own terminology. The best studio dialogues I've been party to have been primarily critical, with an emphasis on what was wrong with a piece, or at least what could've been better. Whenever we came to a good part all we could effectively say about it was, "that part's good". If we were to develop a better dictionary of good-art terms it would be inevitable that people would make the illogical leap to thinking they'd been given a good-art formula. Methinks that's a good enough deterrent.

63. Thanks Jack, for taking on the chore of describing how an artwork can be alive. It's a mystic idea, no wonder it's hard to talk about.

It's interesting that when we're not anthropomorphizing the good work of art we're electropomorphizing it, talking about it in terms of electricity, and energy, and charge - terms with very specific scientific meanings forced to stand in as rough approximations when it comes to art.



October 14, 2006, 8:33 AM

Jack #63 is well said. Very nice.



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