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Beauty is better than a big idea

Post #1412 • November 2, 2009, 7:44 AM • 52 Comments

Via Ken Kewley, an obituary for Albert York.

In a 1995 New Yorker magazine profile of Mr. York, Calvin Tomkins said he was perhaps “the most highly admired unknown artist in America.” He described a shy man who avoided anyone connected to the art world, who worked slowly and who was perpetually dissatisfied with his work, prone to scraping down his wood panels and starting over.

Via Artsjournal, Jonathan Jones hits one out of the park.

Real art doesn't have a message, doesn't necessarily say anything. It is an arrangement of shapes, a pattern of words. If you want an antidote to this idea of art, watch Bob Dylan manically arranging and rearranging words on a shop sign he and the band spotted one day. That is art.




November 2, 2009, 8:28 AM

The problem is not the presence or absence of a message. Either way is acceptable and either way can work, but the real, key issue is that, message or not, the piece must work on a purely visual level if it is to succeed as visual art. It's beyond me why something so obvious should even have to be verbalized, let alone defended.



November 2, 2009, 8:48 AM

Jonathan Jones hits one out of the park.

It's a small park, so it doesn't take much. Still, I'd prefer if he was a little more careful when he uses words like 'content'. At least his heart is in the right place.



November 2, 2009, 9:23 AM

The gist of what Jones is saying should really be like saying ice is cold. The fact that his statement attracts any sort of notice is already a sign of significant dysfunction (and I'm not referring to Franklin or Artblog).



November 2, 2009, 9:26 AM

A man who "avoided anyone connected to the art world ...and who was perpetually dissatisfied." Sounds curiously familiar. At any rate, I sympathize.



November 2, 2009, 9:50 AM

Yes, Jones' comment seems rather obvious, except he's not completely clear about the idea of a message. His way of putting it is too close to Whistler's art-for-art's-sake notion. Of course real art has a message, but it can't be worded. That causes consternation in our literalist world.

York's not knowing when a painting is finished: that rings true for me anyway. There is never any last brush stroke. It's more like abandonment than finish. And the result has to seem inevitable, as though the painting made itself.

The act of painting: a caterpillar on the end of a twig, blindly waving around in search of the next twig. I think Ryder put it something like that.



November 2, 2009, 10:18 AM

One thing I have enjoyed about Jack's pots is that so many of them don't look 'made.' They seem as much acts of nature as anything. This has me thinking that the makers understand that the true master serves the material rather than controls it. Or, perhaps, controls it by serving it. One thing is true: the material is the boss. Seems like York understood that on some level.



November 2, 2009, 11:20 AM

No message:




November 2, 2009, 12:39 PM

I'd never heard of York, but the one image in the obituary piece is very intriguing. It's sort of like a cross between Corot and Rothko. I would certainly be interested in seeing more work by him. Thanks, Franklin, for bringing this forward.



November 2, 2009, 12:40 PM

Quite a departure from what you've been showing us, Jack. Not an especially convincing piece, rather kiche-y. I hope that was your point.

If there were no message and it was merely an arrangement, we'd be engaged by every square inch of everything. The proof there is a message is that we have to be prepared in order to get it. That's part of what I understand as taste. Beauty, itself an idea, is a message.

Another way of putting what I mean is that the message is whatever engages us. The message can be multi-leveled, and is likely to change with a person's development.



November 2, 2009, 12:46 PM

Jack, have a look at the York article on The Siennese Shredder. His work puts me in mind of two other Alberts, Albert P. Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock.



November 2, 2009, 1:13 PM

There's definitely an element of Corot, and also Winslow Homer (especially in the Wheelbarrow). Clearly someone who should have gotten considerably more notice, although, given his personality, he might not have been able to handle it.



November 2, 2009, 1:15 PM

Very New England.



November 2, 2009, 1:46 PM

Another landscape:




November 2, 2009, 7:13 PM

Tim, literalist that I am, I have a problem with art sending us a message. Messages say something, have meaning, even when not verbal. A message communicates. The effect of art consists of what it doea, not what it communicates.



November 2, 2009, 7:22 PM

I like the Albert York paintings a lot, notwithstanding that I can't really see how the paint went on on the computer screen, and am chagrined I didn't know about him. Interesting stuff. I look forward to see more.



November 2, 2009, 7:26 PM

Whatever art does has to be received. Isn't that communicative? Perhaps semantics. Do you have a better word than 'message?'



November 2, 2009, 7:32 PM




November 2, 2009, 7:45 PM

Whether we're talking "effect" or "communicate," are we agreed that there has to be a receiver as well as a sender? Or do we feel that a tree makes a noise when it falls in the forest, even if there's nobody around to hear it?



November 2, 2009, 7:49 PM

Art as effect only is too existentialist for me. Effect leads to meaning. But I don't have a better word for what transpires besides my 'message' or your 'effect.' Rummy thing, art.



November 2, 2009, 8:02 PM

Piri, here's my 'thinking out loud': A work of art can exist without an audience. But it can't be effective without an audience.



November 2, 2009, 8:07 PM

So, can something exist without existing effectively?



November 2, 2009, 9:56 PM

Tim, I'll buy that.



November 2, 2009, 9:57 PM

I mean, maybe not for the world in general, but in this particular case.



November 2, 2009, 10:08 PM

So, Piri, then, something can exist effectively without its effect being noticed? I think so.



November 2, 2009, 11:49 PM

Sorry, I got called away.

For something to be art, to exist as art, it needs to have an effect on a person and presumably also have a human maker, altough I suppose that can be argued.

A thing is defined by what we do with it. it is better to keep away from verbal analogies when describing art because it leads too readily to what art is "about". Art is not "about", art "is". When art is "about" it is no longer art; it then becomes a message.

The distinction between "message" and "effect" is not a trivial one. Message implies verbal comprehension, "meaning"; effect implies some sort of consequence from an interaction. If you taunt a bully the effect may be a sore jaw, while the message may be "don't mess with bullies".



November 3, 2009, 12:31 AM

So, art has to do with effect and message.



November 3, 2009, 2:07 AM

Good art should be like life. Ambiguous, sending different audiences, different messages and meanings, but also meaningless to some.



November 3, 2009, 6:44 AM

Art, like any other identifiable thing, "has to do" with whatever you choose to do with it. As art, however, it has nothing to do with message sending.

Good art, like life, can be very variable, but what comes across is very singular in every case and amounts to a kind of "life essence". That's unfortunately vague but I don't know how to say it better



November 3, 2009, 8:22 AM

Hard to get more specific than 'life essence', I'm afraid. I've called it 'perfume', but that might be a little colorful for some. I like it though.



November 3, 2009, 9:14 AM

Not too colourful, but maybe too fragrant...



November 3, 2009, 10:54 AM

Off-topic, but this is bugging me: Has there been any plausible explanation anywhere for Terence Riley's sudden resignation as the Miami Art Museum's director, which was announced out of the blue as "effective immediately"?



November 3, 2009, 11:22 AM

Got milk?

Hagi tokkuri



November 3, 2009, 12:57 PM

Re Comics Roundup

Look! Stained glass comics!


Tim C

November 4, 2009, 3:11 AM

Good art is like life. Ambiguous. You can put your different meanings and messages on it, or even call it meaningless.



November 4, 2009, 10:42 AM

Opie said: "Art, like any other identifiable thing, "has to do" with whatever you choose to do with it."

I love this statement because it pins down the vulnerability of art so precisely, that from one point of view, art is just a certain set of objects in a world full of objects, and nothing more. All I can add is that people have a remarkable propensity to push objects which happen to be art into odd and freakish places, while they leave the rest of the stuff in their lives more or less intact.

Art, as art, is so divorced from purpose that it is defenseless when twisted around by the "meaningful" schtick. It can be made to "mean" utterly anything, no matter how crazy, and few complain, because normally add-on meaning is tied to fitness for a purpose, as in the "power" of a Dodge Viper or the "status" of a black Visa card. On the other hand, if you attempt to use a grapefruit as the ball in a softball game, it abjectly fails, for all to see and to laugh at. But art is so damned neutral with respect to life as lived that it remains complacent with all the funny stuff that is done to it and offers no clue when something goes wrong.

So I welcome Jonathan Jones's comments and thank Franklin for making them easily accessible. If what Jones is saying seems obvious to many here, it should be equally obvious that he is swimming against the mainstream, a very strong, well entrenched group that is going in the wrong direction. Every voice that objects to wrong-headedness helps.



November 4, 2009, 11:18 AM

Tim, good art, as art, is utterly unambiguous. It is only good art. If you want to do other things with it it is no longer good art is it something else according to what you do with it. A thing is what we do with it. All status is fluid.

Saying that good art is ambiguous simply feeds into the great myth of relativeness. It's nothing but drowsy quicksand.

Thanks, John. I wish the art world could understand these things. Even a little bit would help. Otherwise one is just shouting in the wilderness.



November 4, 2009, 11:40 AM

Opie, I assume the first two lines of your comment are in reply to Tim C.

John, by 'purpose,' you mean practical purpose, right?

And, after all is said and done, I think you're right to identify art-as-art as a sort of Fool on the Hill.



November 4, 2009, 12:57 PM

Yes, Tim C. I didn't notice the distinction.

I don't know the term "Fool on the Hill". What does it mean?



November 4, 2009, 1:05 PM

Fool on the Hill is from a tune by the Beatles, back in the 1960s. It describes the Bhudda, smiling, inscrutable, unaffected, watching the world turn around.



November 4, 2009, 4:39 PM

Thanks. This means I learned something today.



November 4, 2009, 5:23 PM

Yes Tim, Fool on the Hill fits. Especially since art seems detached, lately, from caring even about its own extinction. Just as there was a time no art existed in the universe, so why can't there be a return to that situation?

I suppose there are "purposes" that are not practical, but "practical purpose" is fine with me for this discussion.


Chris Rywalt

November 4, 2009, 10:22 PM

I thought the Fool on the Hill was the Prime Minister at the time. No, wait, that was the Nowhere Man.

Who was the Walrus again?



November 5, 2009, 11:18 AM

"But art is so damned neutral with respect to life as lived that it remains complacent with all the funny stuff that is done to it and offers no clue when something goes wrong."

My 'Salute The Rough Guys' t-shirt sums it up thusly:

Art is Too Easily Hijacked by Fools and Monsters.

Chris, I believe it was Jamie Hyneman...



November 5, 2009, 1:09 PM

John, art will not become extinct as long as it is expensive.

Good art may become extinct - that's an open question.



November 5, 2009, 4:30 PM

Right opie. In fact not so good art will not go extinct, no matter what it costs, until humans are extinct. But the really good stuff seems threatened, rather severely so.



November 5, 2009, 4:55 PM

John and Opie, I don't understand your idea. I can't say as I've ever known the making of good art to depend on whether anybody ever gets it or appreciates or values it. Am I missing your meaning?



November 5, 2009, 9:05 PM

Tim, really good art is not made in the vacuum of the "solitary genius" as far as I can tell. It takes a buzz, a scene, some external fertility, for the most supremely talented to get there. And sometimes, if the buzz is right on enough, those with not quite supreme talent can get there or damn close, as opie likes to say about the Fauves. Or as I have said, you have to belong to the right cave. Lascaux served its best artists well, most other more or less contemporaneous caves did not get there but who knows, their artists may have been just as talented.

The structure that supports high art today, or what is thought to be high art, has become a mile wide and an inch deep. But an inch wide and a mile deep - the opposite of what dominates today - is what it takes to stoke the fires that inspire the great stuff. And, it seems, it takes more than just one person doing it to keep the depth intact. Yet, it is also clear that the legions of "great artists" spread everywhere across the expansive mud flats of pluralism hurt the cause even more than the solo act trying to go it alone, the I-make-art-just-to-suit-myself-would-be-genius.

So, to get specific, the narrow but deep track occupied by a few immensely talented artists that is supported not so much by money but by truly superior production, that is what is threatened with extinction, and the superior art that comes along with such a set of circumstances. I suppose there must be some sort of recognition of the superiority tossed in somewhere, the form that can take is varied, but when all the water that is available to water the flowers is stinky and stagnant from its trip across the mud flats, the flowers just don't do as well.

AS Sartre put it (more or less), absolute freedom sucks. It is by necessity shallow because it can't value any one thing over another without giving up its absoluteness. Yet that is the optimistic view of what we are stuck with. The pessimistic view is to return to 19th century academicism which, as Lynn Munson once said to me, isn't even a player. Compared to the fruits of pluralism, it is certainly deeper, but deeper than one inch isn't necessarily deep enough.

I know this is vague. But it is the best I can do with your tough question.



November 5, 2009, 10:38 PM

John, a thoughtful, clarifying and bleak statement. As you've probably noticed, I don't have as much taste as others on here for the everything-is-screwed outlook. I think it's because I've not ever been around as much of it as I've found on this blog. I guess it's an acquired taste, but as curious as I am about how it flourishes on here, I haven't seen the point of it yet.

My sense is that the nourishing petri dish that you describe comes and goes over the centuries. I think that what happens when the nonsense that is the consequence of anything-goes-absolute-freedom reigns is that people start looking for the end of the last threadline that made any sense, and pick it up and proceed from there to start putting something together that starts to answer that threadline with their own voice, but in the context or language of the threadline, thus affording the threadline its next chapter.


that guy

November 6, 2009, 9:16 AM

Tim your "I don't have as much taste as others on artblog for the everything-is-screwed outlook" intrigues me. First off, I don't think its correct to cast all artblog commentators in this light.

I see this a little differently. Artblog happens to attract people with sophisticated or refined taste if you prefer. Within that group there are various ranges of refinement. Mine being within the crude or developmental stages, Opie's and John's closer to that art nirvana stage. I would argue that what these commentators do have in common is a love for art and a profession that has been pissed on quite flagrantly for more than half a century.

It cannot be that much different in the stained glass world. I'm sure you have your Grunewald's and your chotchkie makers as well. Now put yourself in a world where pretty much only the chotchkie makers were getting paid for what they do. This is a simplification of course but I think its illustrative of the current trajectory of visual art.

Stained glass artists are in a functional profession in that what they create serves a practical purpose. True, their craft might be threatened by cost cutting architects, improvements in mass production and so on, but there will be a need at some point in the future for someone trained in the craft to install, repair and make stained glass windows.I think John is saying that visual art doesn't have this luxury and is therefore withering on the vine.



November 6, 2009, 1:54 PM

That guy, I've thought a lot about what you're saying. I didn't mean to imply that everyone on here participates to the same degree in a certain subject. I probably should've written 'some others'. I appreciate and understand what John wrote in #47, and that many on here are invested in the idea of a system that will support what they're trying to do. But I also understand that systems, organic or synthetic, are corruptible and end up corrupt. So, relience on them means being prepared for that eventuality. And my sense is whatever truth or good a system supported before the system came undone doesn't go away. It just finds another place.

The art world that we bemoan (Notice I wrote 'we') on here exists now to the extent that it's acknowledged and funded, funding being part of the acknowledgement. Dwelling on how awful it is, with all the case-making for wrongdoing, hanging labels on its inhabitants, etc., it seems, just gives that world attention that it partly needs to continue existing, and is likely passed off by most as sour grapes. If the attention the art world gets on here actually accomplishes anything like attracting people for constructive interaction, then hooray. As for my participation in the subject on this and other blogs, I can see that my reaction to the appearence of another episode of what for me is a tired, done-to-death theme is probably disruptive, and so, since I don't really have or see anything to add to the topic that hasn't been added many times before, I should probably abstain.

There is a regional aspect to this, maybe. In the cities in the Northeast and some cities on the West Coast, I encounter an outlook on life in general that is not a little pessimistic, resigned to 'It's All Over, the fix is in, all we can hope to do is keep everything bandaided together as best we can til it all caves in on itself' (I know I'm generalizing here.) The negativity of it is such that it makes me want to get out of those places. I'm not really criticizing that outlook. It's more like a condition that one has to get used to, and I just never have. I find that outlook reflected in a lot of the art-related blogs, and somewhat in Artblog, and in publications in general in those places. By comparison, people in the Southwest, even in a downturn, have a sense of their good fortune, and there is always a sense of possiblilty. That is a stark regional difference which, I believe, has affected my ability to understand those cities.

About the stained glass world: It is essentially all commercialized and entrepreneurial. I've never participated in it because it's not about anything I'm doing, except that it supplies some of the materials involved. I really don't sympathize with 'Look at what the big bad world did to me,' and that's about all you get with most stained glass people. I do have a family background in the craft, but that realm of Eastern European artisanry is long gone, and the inhabitants of it who took what they did for granted as a job of work, not having any idea of what would be gone when they were gone, did NOT encourage me. For me the stained glass medium is incidental to artistry, and it became a front burner activity in my workrooms by a fluke in 1998, having nothing at all to do with my family background, but because, without any credentials or portfolio, I got lucky and prevailed in a competition for a large commission. Stained glass is not the only medium I deal in, but I can make money there without selling out, and I'm pragmatic regarding the getting of money. But my experience is that your world where only chotchkie makers get paid is the same for all the arts in the USA. I never expect or need for my clients to distinguish me from a chochkie maker. Institutions which pay for my efforts are as corruptible as anything in the big bad art world. I guess I've been fortunate in avoiding that aspect.

Except in the most isolated instances in the USA, there isn't much in the way of apprenticeship in order to keep the craft alive, and nothing of any consequence that addresses artistry. Things are a little different in the area of restoration, but that has mostly to do with custodial issues, not artistry. There are skilled laborers associated with that, but the artistry part is in the same state as it is in the 'art world,' which is why I can understand and appreciate what people on here are saying about that. But I never think about any of that. I just want to do it, so I get in and figure out how to do it and then I do it. I've never thought about needing support. It's always been about just going out and finding situations to which I can bring the things I know how to do. Though in, for instance, the North and Northeast, it's more about unions and collectivism (another regional distinction), down here, it's pretty much all about individual initiative, especially in any artistic field except on the institutional level. I like it, probably as much as anything because that's what I'm used to. Thanks for indulging my ramble.


Chris Rywalt

November 6, 2009, 2:39 PM

Out of all the ways I've seen the word "tchotchke" spelled -- and there's no right way, so don't feel I'm attempting a correction -- "chochkie" is by far the most entertaining. It looks like "hoochie", which is one of my favorite words.



November 6, 2009, 3:51 PM

'Hoochie's' fine. Howbout 'hootchke'?



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