Friday, October 14, 2011

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

"Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly impostors."
"There have been all sorts and manner of artists, from the uncouth Richard Wagner, who gave us sublime music and was probably one of the meanest and most despicable characters that ever lived, to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who also gave us sublime music and left behind a reputation for gentleness and charm and unselfish generosity that may have been equalled but never surpassed by the saints themselves."
Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 'The Arts'

Time magazine asked Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough why he started writing a biography of Pablo Picasso but never finished it. McCullough said it was because the famous artist turned out to be boring.

Sure; he attracted a steady flow of new lovers, and made hundreds of paintings, but he didn't actually live an interesting life, said McCullough.

Boring? There are many of his jilted 'muses' who might go even further, and disagree with the title of Jonathan Richman's song, "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole." In addition to being called exactly that, I'll bet he was also occasionally called a vain-glorious egomaniac and lots of other not-so-flattering things by many, including Gertrude Stein.
"Well, some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole,
this never happened to Pablo Picasso.
He could walk down your street
and girls could not resist his stare,
and so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole."
-Jonathan Richman
It all made me question whether it's necessary to like an artist in order to like their work, or can Bad people make Good Art?

Gallery owner Rebecca Ibel once told me that the personality of an artist is completely irrelevant for her when considering the merits of their Art. I wonder if it's that easy to separate the two. It rings a tad hollow if you agree that as an aspiring artist, it's not what you do but who you know, so you'd better hone that inner social climber. It seems blindingly obvious in the wake of Art Stardom that the cult of personality is alive and well.  Good people get leeway, but being Bad gets you media attention

In the case of Picasso, his status as a heavyweight makes any quibbles about his personality sound like the sour grapes it probably is. I'd like to think that the artists whose work I enjoy reveal something fundamental of their personal nature through their creative process, and that good artists are also on some basic level good people. I'm basically holding out hope that the universe rewards goodness with success.

 If an artist has all the personality of an anal wart, shouldn't we be able to detect that just by standing in front of their Art?

I doubt if Marie de Medici's arrival actually involved nudity

Take Rubens for example. It's self-evident that his paintings speak volumes about his personality. They convey a rich personal understanding of literature and culture. And he threw naked women into pretty much every painting. Why? Because he liked them. For better or worse, his personality was intrinsically linked to his Art to the point where it's impossible to consider his Life and Work separately. If he was a real jerk, I wonder if we'd still be enjoying his paintings to this day.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if really nice, decent people can create egotistical, bloated rubbish as their art? We might roll our eyes and mutter something about "manure" in front of a piece of art, expecting the artist to be equally as pompous as their work, but they could easily be great people making an honest attempt at it.

So then who is the asshole? Me the viewer, that's who. Mr. high-and-mighty-judgmental-pants.

Ultimately though, I find it hard to believe that there is a total disconnection between the work of an artist's hand, and their personality. Otherwise, Art is just a cold intellectual pursuit. But I know that's just naive. I'm not suggesting that Art always has to be deep or monumental and all that, but there's something about slapping useless crud on a wall and calling it a 'post-consumerist comment on capitalism' that reminds me a lot of horse turds.

Maybe the Yana Indians were on to something: maybe the gods have retreated into a volcano somewhere and are killing time  playing gambling games with magic sticks, waiting for human beings to reform themselves and become 'real people' again, people the gods might want to actually associate with. The last survivor of the Yana tribe emerged from the hills of California in 1911, having lived his 49 years alone and away from civilized society. Evidently the gods are still in hiding.

Nicola Keegan, author of the critically acclaimed Swimming, told me that we "have to stay focused on excellence." That could be just words though: 'Excellence' could mean anything, and is different for everyone. In this case, she meant that we should always be true to our passion and try to do our very best work regardless of any financial or critical consideration. I found it hard to agree in practice. It's not easy to disregard that stuff when you've got bills to pay.

Making a virtue of ignorance
Perhaps Modernism has had something to do with the success of Ugly Art. The rejection of Classical dogma as a rigid code for the creation of Art was a natural progression for sure, but it has developed to an extreme now where it's  'Originality at all Costs', and that cost is often quality. Guilds and Salons were stiflingly critical on the one hand, but on the other, they were a form of quality control that worked.

With every advert extolling us to 'Just Do It,' and 'Express Yourself', arguments for Tradition and the slow acquisition of good old-fashioned Skill are drowned out in the noise of personal ego and a sense of entitlement, where we celebrate easy fame and a quick buck. We are sold the fable that each of us has an inner celebrity waiting to burst on stage and win American Idol. As Marilyn Monroe said; "we are all stars, and we demand our right to twinkle." Every talk show (and even now the Evening News) urges us to "call in and tell us what YOU think."

I'm sorry, have we even met?

Maybe the simple truth is that we shouldn't be listening to everything everybody has to say all the time, because some of those people are just not worth listening to. For me, it's simply a matter of knowing when to put the brush down and pack it in because it's just not working, and taking a walk through a Museum. There's nothing like looking at good Art to put things in perspective. Seeing how a Master resolved a certain passage in a painting is a great exercise. If nothing else, it certainly puts that ego in it's place.


  1. You are playing with extremely deep issues there Alan. our text is very interesting, well written. I have jsut read a great book about contemporary art ( Paris- New York aller retour by Marc Fumaroli, not sure its has been translated in english yet). I now have a better vision of all these problems but this whole thing is an uphill battle, in Europe specially. Ugly art and huge artists egos are the symptoms of our common lack of courage and impossibility to deal with the mystery of Beauty.
    Thank you for this post.

  2. There's a lot to comment on here, Alan. Setting aside ugly art (and you've chosen a perfect image to make your point), I'm dismayed when I see art that could be great but for lack of attention to the finer, finishing details. That might be a partial definition of craftsmanship. At any rate, I'm seeing less and less craftsmanship when I look at the work of younger artists.

  3. Ezra Pound was a scumbag by all accounts: An anti-Semite, a misogynist, the works. Oh yeah, and also a genius. 

    Allen Ginsberg, who was obviously not an anti-Semite, says he learned everything from Pound. 

    How does that work? How can it be that you can learn something from a scumbag?

    Artists learning from Artists is the same as Children learning from Parents. When we say "my Daddy told me to do X so I did it", then it still belongs to your Dad. But when you say "I saw my Daddy do X, I tried it and it works," then it becomes yours. 

    It's the "I tried it and it works" that makes it possible for Ginsberg to learn from Pound. It now belongs to Ginsberg. 

  4. Ah Alan, the age old question also arises, "What is art" Then what is good art? Many people probably disliked Jackson Pollock. Why didn't Van Gogh ( and many others whose art now sells for millions) not sell during his own lifetime?

    I love art and the discourse it brings.


    Art by Karena

  5. Karena,

    Of course you are totally right. I come at it from the position of frustrated layman. There are no rules, just a million different viewpoints, and that's what makes it so alive with possibilities and open for debate.

    Thank you all for your input. Like Homer (Simpson, that is) says of himself "I'm dumb but I know I'm dumb, and that almost makes me smart."

  6. ...or, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing

  7. Do bad people make good art? To be tied to such moral distinctions as good and bad is to be linked to a societal dogma that we, as individuals and artists, should, as daily practice, seek to challenge. You are making a judgement about Pablo based on presuppositions you have not questioned. Ones which you are recruiting us to believe in by your postulation.

    As a subject for the art biographers attention he might have been boring but as an example of a great seducer he is fascinating and worthy of many books. It is said he could reduce a woman to moist expectancy of his lust without words. His stare alone was enough to bed the most beautiful, exquisite, educated, bohemian and free thinking women of his time.

    We each observe the world through the filter of our experience.

    To some Rubens is a misogynistic sexist pig who sought every opportunity to perv over his personal fetish for BBW.

    Like a man through his endeavors? Is it necessary? Hmm... I never met either (Pablo or Rubens) but I'm confident I could find a space in my heart to like and moreover love them given sufficient wine and the right setting.

    We (artists) are not our work. We are but conduits of a higher power.

    Our work is shit, the excrement our relationship with the forces that inspire us leaves behind.

    To make judgements on a mans quality for better or worse from what is recorded on the page is a bit like the fossil hunter trying to define the table manners of a pterodactyl from it's droppings.

  8. Really amazing post,such a very nice post,thanks for the review.