Art Essay: Looking at art: A Guide for the (Understandably) Perplexed
PART III: Artwriting
By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Winter 2013
ARTWRITING—AND THIS too, comes in a variety of forms—seems straightforward enough. It is writing about art. As simple as this may seem, however, it is probably the writing about art that more than anything else has caused the ever-widening gulf that exists between art and the average person. If intended at first to clarify, it progressively made the waters muddier as artwriters tried to upstage the artists.
As an artwriter, this is not an easy thing for me to say—yet the evidence is strong that it is writing about art rather than art itself that turns away—and keeps away—the public which not only deserves to know art but for whom its creation ultimately lies.
An anecdote: I was at an exhibition of the work of Guiseppe Boldini, one of my favorite 19th-Century Italian impressionists, when I overheard a lady nearby say to her friend, “I know I’m not supposed to but, you know, I love his work!” Now where do you suppose she got the idea that she was not supposed to like what she was evidently enjoying? You got it—she had obviously read somewhere that 19th -Century representional art was just so “not today” and felt guilty that she was showing her “old-fashioned” taste. Boldini, don't-y see, is totally passé.
Let me tell you another story: I was once sitting with the painter Will Barnett and, as it so often does between artist and artwriter, the topic of art criticism came up. I asked Will—a man of wide experience and not a little wisdom—to what he attributed the growing importance and power of the art critic today. “Simple,” he said. “One word is worth a thousand pictures!”
This reversal of the old “One picture, one word, etc.” took me by surprise and I asked him to elaborate. Will had spent some fifty years as an instructor at the Art Students League in Manhattan, and his tenure there spanned the years both before and after World War II. The G.I. Bill, he explained, and the financial aid given to veterans, opened the possibilities of a college education to a great many people who might otherwise never have gone on to “higher” education. “What happened,” Will explained, “was that we turned out a higher proportion of readers in our population. However, becoming more literate as a nation, did not necessarily mean that there was a proportionate upgrading in the ability to read art. Unfortunately—at least for the artist—a great many people simply assumed that if they could read about art, then it meant that this was the same as understanding art. So, people just read the critics—and let them tell them what they were looking at.”
And, it’s even more reprehensible when critics presume to tell you what you ought to like or dislike.
How did this all come about?
Let’s take a brief overview of history. As we learned earlier, the making of images has been around since pre-historical times. We can’t exactly tell when it began — as noted in the Chapter on Image Making (Part 1, Summer 2013 Issue), our best guess is about 35,000 years ago — but we do know that it pre-dated speech for a very long time. Nor can we tell exactly when speech was invented, but we do know that mankind had been perfecting the spoken language for a very long time before artwriting was invented. As far as we can tell, the first writing about art appeared in the West during the Renaissance with a man call Cennino Cennini. This is not the place to go into detail here, but Cennini’s book seemed to have opened a Pandora’s box of wannabe art “experts” that is still spilling over today.
At first, it seemed innocent enough: a savvy traveler would become an advisor to some emperor or king, telling him which artists in which provinces were “hot” and recommending them for the royal palace. Today, in addition to those artists who have been image-making since time immemorial, we have artwriters, curators, art merchants, collectors, restorers, connoisseurs, historians, aestheticians—the list goes on as we grow ever more inventive. If we can’t all be artists, well, we can at least learn how to be middlemen—and, so we do ad nauseam. Heck, even artists tried their hand at using their quills rather than their brushes from time to time (probably when commissions were slow coming in)—but, generally, the better ones stuck to their trade.
Once critics began to recognize their growing power as interpreters of art, they simply took off. A whole new branch of “expertise” grew up, with “artwriting” becoming a skill in itself—complete with its own jargon, cast of “stars,” and specialized magazines. Eventually, these “specialists” wrote mainly to impress each other, leaving those who depended upon them for guidance, information or explanation out in the cold. And, like I said, once they got tired telling each other how they ought to see a work or art, they began telling you.
A comment by one of these “specialists,” in fact, was a major spur for my writing this article. Quoted in the New York Times, this “specialist”—whom we shall leave unnamed—said that art criticism today could be separated into two kinds: “searching but impenetrable” and “readable but stupid.” Now how inviting is that to the newcomer to the artworld? If you can read it, it’s stupid, but if it’s searching—i.e. seriously looking at the art, well then it’s impossible to understand. Now isn’t that helpful!?! To paraphrase one critic that I do respect — Walter Pater — he maintained, "What … art has to do in the service of culture … [is] satisfy the spirit." Nuff said!
Meanwhile, back at the studio, artists continue to make pictures much in the same manner that their stone-age predecessors did on cave walls—except now, they have better materials to work with. Just imagine how one of today’s “impenetrable” but “searching” artwriters might have fared if he had prattled on with one of his explications to some bystander back then! (That is, if they’d invented speech yet).
Let’s set the stage: Ogg, an eminent art critic, and a viewer, Moog, stand before a cave painting of a buffalo.
“Hmmmm…” says Moog.
“But look!, says Ogg. “Note how the artist nuanced his lines from sure to uncertain and melded it into the ambience of both his mood at the moment and of the curvature of the cave wall…nothing less than pure genius!”
“Hmmmm…” says Moog, thinking to himself ‘impenetrable’ and ‘stupid’.
“Philistine!” mutters the critic as he stalks away.
“Still looks like a badly drawn buffalo to me,” says Moog scratching his head.
If Moog were alive today, he might turn to you and say, “What’s the big deal? We got eyes. Let’s use ‘em! If we don’t like what we see—let’s go to the next cave!”
All in all, this wouldn’t be terrible advice. If you prefer pictures that look like something you are familiar with, no one—not even the “specialist”—can tell you that you ought to like something else. No more, for instance, than someone can convince you that you ought to enjoy turnips if, in fact, you can’t stand turnips. Sure, you may grow to tolerate different kinds of art—and even turnips—but you can do so only at your own pace and only if you are so inclined to do so. There exists no law—at least not as of this writing— that dictates taste. Never was and, to my mind, never will be. You have every right to walk into an art show, shrug your shoulders, and walk out— or, like the lady at the Boldini exhibit, enjoy it — regardless of what the “specialists” say! Remember—writing about art is one thing. Looking at art is another. And, most important, making words and making images are two different artforms. And, genereally speaking, one picture is worth a thousand words. Being able to comprehend the one does not necessarily mean that you can the other.
Now that that's all clear, we will turn to art venues in our next and last installment.
Meanwhile, trust the instincts of Moog—who passed them along to you with the rest of your genes—and use your own eyes.
(To be continued)