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Free-floating molecules in the vast vacuum of art

Post #1271 • January 7, 2009, 10:10 AM • 42 Comments

Via David Thompson, Theodore Dalrymple addresses the origins of "terrible shallowness" in art:

No such question can be answered definitively; but I would like to draw attention to two errors that have contributed to the triumph of shallowness. The first is the overestimation of originality as an artistic virtue in itself; and the second is the false analogy that is often drawn between art and science in point of progress.

The reasoning that follows this assertion, made halfway in, is impeccable. The points of data leading up to it, however, look a little thin. At the very least, they contradict mine. Dalrymple claims to have "talked to quite a number of art students" and on this basis observes, "Rarely do they receive any formal training in (say) drawing or painting." I spent the last year teaching at a college with a classical painting curriculum in which Giorgione might have felt at home. Before then I taught drawing and painting, with traditional and modern permutations thereof, for six years in a university-level art program with a more generalist approach. Maybe things are different in England - I find that hard to believe - but in my experience, students destined for all kinds of art-making typically receive at least a handful of foundational drawing and painting classes in their first year. Whether these classes are taught sympathetically or competently in every instance is worth asking. But even a far-out program like the one at CalArts describes itself as "begin[ning] with a series of foundation courses in which students investigate various media, art-historical traditions and theoretical positions." The site doesn't feature course listings, but one would reasonably assume that "various media" includes paint, for which it claims to offer instruction in the preceding paragraph, and that such instruction does not consist of how to smear it upon one's person or something like that.

Rather, I think a couple of different problems are at work. Firstly, the generalist approach to a four-year curriculum in art doesn't provide a great background for figurative artists. It's not a disaster either, presuming goodwill on the part of the teachers and students with sufficient native abilities, but unlike an exclusively figurative program such as that of my erstwhile employer, the odds of a fully-formed realist artist coming out the other end are worse than even. Figuration isn't the point here, but competency. Mastery of any medium is equally difficult, but achieving basic competence varies widely depending on medium and style. Basic competence in figurative art requires a few years of pounding skills. Basic competence in abstraction probably requires one. Basic competence in photography can be gathered in a few weeks. The early results of photography are much more satisfying than the early results of oil painting. Discouragement follows suit proportionately, and it takes a particularly driven kind of student to fight through it. In 2006 I took a silkscreen class at MassArt, and noted the overarching degree to which the students relied on photography to get an image together. And these were not necessarily photography students.

Secondly, if you look at what work by living artists receives the highest levels of critical attention, you find a preponderance of photo, video, and installation, and a cross-media preponderance of conceptual approaches and concerns about identity. This does not, by any means, represent the totality of work being made right now, which is so diverse and copious as to justify literally anything as a signficant movement at the moment. Neither does it represent the best work being made, which as a group is style-agnostic. It represents the predilections of a critical class that, like middlebrows have always done, reads art because it can't quite see it, but unlike middlebrows of the past, grew up in a time when humanity's visual record mainly comprised photography and video.

It would be easy and often apt to accuse the students of ignorance or torpor, but one could alternately credit them with a rational economic decision. They see that they can get satisfying results more easily from photo-based media than drawing-based ones, and they see that beyond a certain foundational level, skill-building and critical/curatorial appreciation correlate not at all. They also see that this critical class values beauty only to the extent that it lies on a conceptual framework as an optional coating of aesthetic lacquer. If you desire the attentions of this critical class, you will act accordingly. That means putting high premiums on novelty, justifications, and piquant ideas (which need only the most superficial examinations - the merest hintings qualify as an "addressing" of them), and letting the highest reaches of beauty go.




January 7, 2009, 11:40 AM

Uh, Yes, but what's to be done, if so many people (and I'm talking about purported art people, not the general public) persist in irrational, delusional ideation and act accordingly? It's as if vast multitudes have agreed to be art-foolish, not to say severely retarded. And furthermore, they seem to feel perfectly content and, you know, validated in their approach. It's like people who eat dirt because they genuinely want to (there actually is such a disorder, by the way). And when you add the pragmatic/expediency angle, well...



January 7, 2009, 11:44 AM

The Darymple article is definitely worth reading. It is clear, common-sensical, and, best of all, directs the root cause of bad art to failings of character. The statement that "...Western art no longer had any spiritual, let alone religious, content; indeed, it had become afraid of the beautiful, from which it shied away as a horse from a hurdle too high for it" is very nicely put.

It is refreshing to see someone else insist that originality is overrated. I have for years told my students that tood art looks new because the artist has recombined something old to make something better. Efforts at "difference" somehow always look the same.

As a species we know that human excellence only comes about within a system of narrow rules and limitations. You don't become an athlete without a game, and you don't become a home run champion without Little League.

The deliberate rejection of learning and discipline in art is faddish and may be transitory. I hope it is. The alternative is the death of visual art. If anything can be art then art is not much of anything



January 7, 2009, 1:42 PM

Dalrymple's article is indeed excellent, which means, of course, that it will be ignored or dismissed as "not getting it" or not being in tune with "the culture."

The task is not so much to criticise as to understand: that is to say, to understand how and why this terrible shallowness has triumphed so completely almost everywhere in the west.




January 7, 2009, 1:49 PM

That's why I wish some objective social psychologist would write a book about the art business. This would come from the outside and it would get more attention.

As it is no one from the outside takes the art world seriously. Nor should they, except as a specimen of aberrant behavior.



January 7, 2009, 2:50 PM

In Miami, great art center that it is, we have major collectors publicly making statements along the lines of "We want/seek/buy work that disturbs or makes us uncomfortable." This immediately calls to mind the well-known and essentially diametrically opposed statement by Matisse. Of course, what with progress and everything, what Matisse thought about art is obviously obsolete and can safely be discarded.

This could be funny if it wasn't so pathetic.



January 7, 2009, 3:27 PM

By the way, Franklin, after going to David Thompson's blog via your link, I was struck by the contrast between his site's design/format and your new one. As I said before, I'm liking yours better all the time.



January 7, 2009, 3:47 PM

Jack the "disturbing" criteria has been a standard cliche among collectors for the last 50 years. They also "only buy what they love". They are also full of...well, never mind. It's their money.



January 7, 2009, 5:40 PM

I'm glad to hear that it's growing on you, Jack. I hoped it would.



January 7, 2009, 5:52 PM

That's why I wish some objective social psychologist would write a book about the art business.

Opie, you might have a look at Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton.



January 7, 2009, 6:52 PM

Thanks for the tip, Franklin. It might be interesting but it is evidently just another "expose" of the high rollers by someone in their midst, to be read by suburban housewife book clubs so they can "know about" what goes on in the art business. That's what sells.

I mean a real methodical, scientific examination that takes the whole thing apart. That, of course, probably would not sell a copy, and that's why it has not been written.

Maybe a doctoral dissertation?



January 7, 2009, 6:56 PM

I know, Opie, but it's become not just a cliche but a ludicrous "badge of honor," ostensible proof of being so advanced and "fearless" that they no longer want or care about mere pleasure or beauty. Too simple and antiquated, you see. They're better than that. They're, you know, really serious. They're...well, as I said, they're pitiful.



January 7, 2009, 7:37 PM

Thanks, Franklin.

A couple of observations:

As a recently retired art teacher I found that many programs devoted a year or more to "foundations". In the mind of many students, it repeated what they did in high school. 1), Some of them wanted something deeper than that, though they did not want to abandon the visual - they just wanted to get one with it. 2), Others bought into abandoning the visual as the hip thing to do and began concocting ways to join the herd as soon as they got those pesky requirements out of the way. 3), Still others, as you observed, wanted to say whatever they had to say using some sort of camera as a shortcut to making a readable image.

Group 2 would, of course, cause me the greatest concern because they did not understand that in today's art world, everyone may be equal, but some are more equal than others. That is, there is only so much room for those who, as Rosenberg observed in the 70s, had become "too big for art". To make things expensive, they have to be put across as rare. So doing exactly as the mainstream seems to reward, does not mean very many who do it will actually be rewarded. Thus, Group 2 gave up their talent in exchange for basically nothing.

Of those who elected to stick with the visual, the "abstractionists" were not any better off aesthetically at graduation time than the "realists". If a school filtered for students with extreme drawing talent, as I suppose your most recent institution did, and restricted its program to just things directly connected to that, the graduates might have a technical advantage, but not an aesthetic one.

One of Clement Greenberg's best observations about 20th century art was that it was taking longer and longer for artists to find themselves. The apprentice period easily stretches into their 40s and 50s. He also noted that, once they made it major, a 10 year run was often the longest it would last, then they fell off. I can't cite any writing to this effect, perhaps someone else can. It was one of his favorite topics in conversation.

I would add that being able to draw can be a significant springboard, but it is no guarantee of anything other than the sheer ability to draw. Likewise, not being able to draw is not an impediment. Some think it might have helped Pollock aesthetically. It certainly helped foster the idea that "originality" is the essence of "progress" in art.



January 7, 2009, 8:35 PM

I seem to remember something to the effect that Michelangelo had "issues" with contemporary Venetian painters, like Titian, because their drawing skills were considered subpar. Obviously, it was a totally different universe.



January 7, 2009, 9:12 PM

In my limited experience, only a dozen years or so (and I'm not being facetious here), the kids who couldn't draw couldn't do abstraction either. The only exception I found was a developmentally disabled student whose abstractions kind of worked despite being extremely bizarre. It may just be that hand skills are hand skills. Note that I'm only talking about competency, not mastery. I don't think you need excellent drawing chops to paint or sculpt abstractly. But something, even just brute force, has to be there.

I agree that no one has an advantage aesthetically, unless you count the relative disadvantage of Group 2. I've been saying for a while that conceptual talent is primarily social in nature, rather than artistic. As John rightly points out, that simply can't work for all involved.



January 7, 2009, 9:47 PM

I remember a number of students who could draw competently or better, but fell apart when asked to do something "abstract". They were all young, though, and didn't really know how to leverage their drawing well either...just depended upon the basic forces in reality to carry them along and they stopped wherever reality stopped.

I don't know if "hand skills are hand skills". Mondrain could draw beautifully and skillfully. deKooning and Pollock could not. Nor, really, was Olitski that hot. These last three got there only when they put some brute force behind their drawing, or when they ignored it and did something else.

I suppose all I'm saying is if you want to be good at art you have to be good at the kind of art you do. It is all quite specific, with no universal basis that applies to all.



January 7, 2009, 9:54 PM

Yes, Group 2 sells their soul not to the devil, but to the abyss.

Just as some physicists say that once you enter a black hole you don't know you have disappeared, they go on as if they are at the top of the feeding chain. If they are lucky, their next life may be that of a well coddled dog.



January 7, 2009, 11:17 PM

John, de Kooning's drawing skills were first rate. What are you referring to?

In any event, it's not just drawing. It is a constellation of characteristics and attitudes. To invoke Clem again, another one of the things he repeated often was that Pollock was one of the most serious artists he knew. Drawing may be expendable if talent and seriousness are there.

But this has nothng to do with what is happening in schools. That is a matter of of turning a course of skill-building (and the smarts that come with it) into something that amounts to playing in a sandbox.



January 8, 2009, 12:22 AM

They were attempts at straight portraiture done very early on. Very difficult to locate, I went through pages and pages of goggle searches to find this this one. Very restrained and flaccid, before he blasted away. I would guess 30s but don't really have a date. When I taught, we had a bunch of them in our slide collection and that's how I came to know them.



January 8, 2009, 12:24 AM

Drawing, like just about anything taken singularly, is always expendable.



January 8, 2009, 12:30 AM

But this has nothng to do with what is happening in schools. That is a matter of of turning a course of skill-building (and the smarts that come with it) into something that amounts to playing in a sandbox.

Yes. True for those schools that let their Group 2s go directly into Group 2. But when the girls discover there is a short-cut to local fame by taking their clothes off, it can get interesting, even though they still wind up in the black hole.



January 8, 2009, 12:44 AM

Group 2 boys sort of get shafted on the nudity thing, but in the interest of PC equal opportunity, they sometimes get lip-serviced notoriety for taking 'em off too.

Art school, just like life, isn't fair.



January 8, 2009, 1:50 AM

It's a cruel world. Personally, I feel like drawing is a way of thinking and is it's own reward, and could be taught that way - in another universe perhaps. Chuck Close must have picked up on the Greenberg comment about an artist having a 10 year run if he or she were lucky - that's where I heard it



January 8, 2009, 2:15 AM

Interesting, John's comments about the talented figurative artists (students) running out of steam when they reach the limit of the observable - sorry for the awkward paraphrase. Abstract art is not easy. I've watched a friend develop his natural skills and talents as a figurative artist push through to abstraction and it's taken him some 50 years to really get there. Now he's having a breakthrough and it's really exciting to watch. This work starts to erase the differences between the two and shows how all art is abstract. Funny, Cecily Brown comes to mind - something about poor drawing, figurative art, blasting on through and the girls taking their clothes off. I saw her Boston MFA show and the paintings hurt my eyes - literally. All the marks, all the colors seemed wrong. Each mark canceled out or clashed with the next and the eye had nowhere to stop. It occured to me that this discomfort was probably a very successful strategy (obviously - she was having the big museum show). It was very thought provoking.



January 8, 2009, 2:35 AM

Funny how I've never witnessed an academic criticize a girl for taking her clothes off in the name of art. Instead words like "original", "breaking taboos", "exploring boundaries", "challenging", "making opportunities", "confronting the comfort zone", and "deepening our understanding of" gush as surely as Old Faithful.

To be fair, they don't criticize boys either. But they don't gush with the same enthusiasm.

However, let a boy document a girl taking her clothes off, then prepare to hear the phrase "male gaze" repeated ten thousand times.



January 8, 2009, 9:31 AM

Of course, John, as you know, when a female artist(e) does what you describe, the last thing on her mind is attracting, provoking or enticing the "male gaze." All she's after is to be noticed by eunuchs, asexual people (all 2 of them) and the like. Otherwise, it'd be trying to have it both ways, which couldn't possibly be the case. Only males do that.



January 8, 2009, 10:10 AM

It is at least possible that the shortening of the time before the artist "drops off" is related to the artist having had less skills to work with from the start, which would necessarily limit viable options or possibilities, which might eventually put the artist in a situation of diminishing returns or being backed into a corner.

The same applies, in principle, to artists who wish to reinvent the wheel and ignore or reject the lessons and resources to be had from tradition and prior achievement. Not a few artists do indeed get "too big" for art, in their own minds, and I'm not just talking about those who make it to the big time in material terms.



January 8, 2009, 10:11 AM

Great article thanks Franklin



January 8, 2009, 11:35 AM

I think the "drop off" phenomenon is internal, John. Picasso did a real nose dive despite his skills. Hofmann got better and better. Pollock's decline, and possibly de Kooning's and many others, was certainly influenced by alcohol.

On the other hand, many of the Fauve artists would support your contention. Most of them had skills but lacked enought talent to sustain them outside of the Fauve method, which lasted for such a short time.



January 8, 2009, 12:05 PM

Picasso certainly got "too big for art," if not too big for life. He had tons of enablers along those lines, of course, which was part of the problem, but I think his ego was the key factor. When you come to believe that no matter what you put out, you're still the greatest artist in the world, you're asking for serious trouble, and he got it.



January 8, 2009, 12:21 PM

I hope those two asexual folks get together...



January 8, 2009, 1:04 PM

They got together, MC, but nothing came of it. They still couldn't, for the life of them, figure out what all the fuss was about.


Chris Rywalt

January 8, 2009, 1:16 PM

Galenson's Painting Outside the Lines is a book from an economist's point of view, where the author tries to quantify when artists do their best works. He goes back an analyzes auction data going back quite a few years. That's how he ended up at the "conceptualist" versus "experimentalist" split -- experimenters like Cezanne take many years before they paint their most valuable works, and rarely have just one big work but rather series of works which are essentially interchangeable; while conceptualists like Picasso peak early and usually have only one really big work. Per innovation; some innovators make more than one breakthrough, as Galenson picks out Les Demoiselles and Guernica, I think, as Picasso's big ones.

There are a lot of little points to argue about with Galenson, starting from his assumptions and going through to his conclusions. I mean, Guernica a breakthrough work? I don't know about that. But his split between early successes and late bloomers is illuminating, and made me feel better about my process. And it is an example of a non-art "soft science" type examining the art world in detail.

I think the book's worth the read for the quotes -- each chapter is headed with five to ten quotes from artists and dealers, and not all ones you've heard before -- and the anecdotes about painters' careers, if nothing else.


Chris Rywalt

January 8, 2009, 1:17 PM

Oh, and Franklin: Did you get the title for today's post from my Dumas review?



January 9, 2009, 12:11 AM

Demoiselles and Guernica are showboat paintings. Neither of them is very good. Picasso painted scores of dynamite masterpieces 1907 - 1914, and they are about as "interchangable" and they can be. completely giving the lie to Galenson's contentiopn.

Don't waste your time with that kind of garbage thinking.



January 9, 2009, 12:48 AM

When Rosenberg referred to artists who got "too big for art" he was talking about artists who "expanded" what art meant, to include anything and everything, for shock value and whatever. "I am a great artist because I've gone where no other artist has gone before" sort of thing. Michele Hines, for instance, would serve as an example of an artist who has gotten too big for art - her faked 26 foot long poo as an act of social criticism and the many many variations of such antics that we see and hear about year after year. Hines "escapes" the "restrictions" of art by going outside its "boundaries" to something "bigger than art" - in this case human folly and our fascination with world records.

It is a variation of Dalrymple's "overestimation of originality" and "progress" observations, only Rosenberg made his almost 40 years ago, almost immediately after this stuff got started.

Anything that exists requires certain boundaries to simply exist and destroying them destroys the entity in question. Art can be boiled down to the interplay between talent and discipline and BIG ART eliminates the limits associated with both of them, taking them and art out in the process.



January 9, 2009, 8:25 AM

I knew Rosenberg wasn't talking about somebody like Picasso, John, but I am. My slant on "too big for art," however, is obviously different in this case.


Chris Rywalt

January 9, 2009, 1:50 PM

Well, OP, one of the assumptions Galenson makes is that the price attached to a work of art is proportional to its "importance". Granted that these terms are slippery, and of course the art market is rigged. Like I said, you could argue about these things all day.

Galenson also looks at references to the work in art books (I want to say art textbooks but I don't have the Galenson book in front of me to be sure). Picasso has a very short list of paintings reproduced, of which Demoiselles and Guernica are at the top. Whereas Cezanne -- Galenson likes to use Picasso and Cezanne a lot but he does explore a lot of other artists -- has no one painting reproduced frequently. Instead he has a whole series which is always referred to but with different specific reproductions within that series.

Again, Galenson does go over his assumptions and some objections to them -- reproductions might be limited by which paintings one could get the rights to -- but we could still argue about them.

It's an interesting first step. And it's interesting to see a non-art author trying to unravel things in the art world, like what makes a painting "important"? Galenson hits upon the idea of importance as a measure of later artists influenced, and he covers that, but my memory fails me here. Not sure what he discovered.

Anyway, OP, I wouldn't dismiss the book as junk; it's interesting even if all of it can't be taken seriously. And it's pretty short (there are a lot of endnotes and index entries). So if you've got some reading time, I'd put it in the list.



January 9, 2009, 3:40 PM

But what is he trying to do? from your description it seems that he was mixing up "good" and "important", which is a very serious mistake to have within the premise of an investigation.

If he is just trying to measure some kind of public acceptance that's another matter, but someone (somewhere on the web) is already doing that, ranking artists according to shows, magazine mentions, etc. I can't remember the site.


Chris Rywalt

January 9, 2009, 4:39 PM

He's trying to apply a particular economic doctrine to the art world. I forget the details because economics bore me silly. It's a relatively new type of analysis which has only recently gained full acceptance. The name escapes me. Something about applying statistical analysis and looking for patterns. His thesis is that artists break down into two main groups: Those who peak early and those who peak late. Not really complex, ultimately. But I guess he explores the question of why someone like Picasso comes along and is hailed as a genius at 20 years old when a guy like Cezanne is nearly ignored until he's really old. (I say "really old" relatively, since Cezanne died twenty years younger than some of the still-kicking commenters here.)

There's a lot of handwaving as there always is in economics and the broad theory looks either obvious or stupid depending. Just setting it down as I have here makes it seem worthless, and maybe the overall thesis kind of is. But the details are intriguing. His conclusions may be suspect, but the legwork laid out by Galenson is interesting and worthwhile, if artists and their careers are the kind of thing that interests you, as opposed to their actual art, which is only tangentially involved.

Not a great book or anything. Just interesting. If it were any longer it'd be tough to read, but before I got really tired of it, it was over.



January 9, 2009, 11:14 PM

As I said, gathering from what you have reported, he is confusing successful art with a successful career in art.
It is true to the point of clicheness that the two are only vaguerly related, especially during an artist's lifetime. if this is what he is doing then the "analysis" is worthless.



January 11, 2009, 11:36 AM

That Galenson "analysis" is obvious bunkum, for the reasons already mentioned. It's no better than astrology: it looks at the wrong indicators, and ignores the right ones. It is a magazine fluff piece lengthened to book form, and not worth the paper it's printed on. Unacceptably shallow thinking.


Chris Rywalt

January 11, 2009, 12:54 PM

Did you know that artists look at paintings differently than non-artists? Eye-tracking studies have shown that artists look at the whole painting, scanning it all the way across and up and down, while non-artists tend to focus on any eyes or faces in the painting.

I think it's safe to generalize this out: Artists also look at other people, and art careers, and economic data, differently. An economic analysis of artists misses the point, you say, and to a degree it does, but that doesn't mean it's completely worthless.



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