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Loser?  (Double torqued ellipse from Richard Serra's the Matter of Time)

Loser?
(Double torqued ellipse from Richard Serra’s the Matter of Time)

The key reason to engage with art of any form is to determine who is best.

Are Rimbaud and Baudelaire better than Byron and Longfellow? Clearly not. Rimbaud and Baudelaire had the great disadvantage of writing in French. Clearly not God’s language. The language of poetry is English.

And are Byron and Longfellow better than Shakespeare. Clearly not. Shakespeare is the ur-text of English poetry and everything that comes before or after him can only hope to be second best.

The primary reason for reading Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Byron, Longfellow, and Shakespeare? Not to engage with the ideas they present. Not to marvel at the voices, wordplay, or what Stephen Fry refers to as the sound-sex of it. No, the primary reason for reading these authors, the highest calling of artistic criticism, remains list creation. Listicles of art works, art forms, and individual artists.

Observe: Michelangelo’s Pietà is better than Richard Serra’s the Matter of Time, architecture is better than sculpture, and, as we saw earlier, English being better than French helps us come to conclude Shakespeare is better than Rimbaud.

Who is number one? That’s the question that should preoccupy us when engaging with a work of art. “Il pleure dans mon coeur” Sorry Verlaine. Not number one. “I wandered lonely as a cloud” Sorry Wordworth. Not number one. Imagine a giant tournament bracket pitting each artist against every other artist. How else to determine a poet laureate but a knock down, drag out fight?

The individual contests most probably resemble epic rap battle of history episodes. The task of the art critic: keeping score. A fantastically large ledger of who surpasses whom.

And thus this artistic analysis of poetry can be carried over to music. Thus through a series of deductions which need not detain us here, classical music is found to be the best form of music. The Great American Songbook, unimportant. Jazz, similarly unimportant. And poplar music? Well, turning to the Shakespeare I call popular music,

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.

Popular music holds the title of lowest of the low. On the whole failing to innovate, failing to criticize, failing to engage with the society in which it exists. Armed with the authoritative tournament bracket, the music critic can discard among others, the efforts of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Popular music holds onto the label art only by the tips of its fingernails.

And thus we have the primary task of artistic criticism. Creating enumerated lists of who is best, second best, third best, and so on. Old Masters in. Abstract expressionists out – after all my three-year old could do that. An ordered taxonomy of the arts from which to instruct the ignorant. To answer definitively, whose art precisely is the best art? And further, far from art criticism as a tool to explore the variegated world of human expression, far from art criticism as jumping off point to craft one’s own journey through the multifarious multifaceted genius of humankind, it is better to think of art criticism as a weapon. As a cudgel. Art criticism as a blunt instrument to insult, to chastise, and to lay low all those unexposed to the dogma, the perpetual Truth about art.

[The foregoing prompted, in part, by a discussion over at Ordinary Times. In case it is somehow unclear, I think it’s perfectly ok to do listicle making for fun. But if you wander into Charles Murray territory (e.g. Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950), then this contest of superlatives is tailor made for you.]

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Must art be beautiful?

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent (1885-86)

Where there is no beauty, there is no art.” or “beautiful or not beautiful is not important“? Two contrasting visions of art, each overlooking a feature in the other.

“Where there is no beauty, there is no art,” misses a whole field of expression that isn’t about beauty. The statement narrows the artistic space as to leave out a great deal of what matters in conceptual art and abstract expressionism. To focus on the question “Is it beautiful?” ignores a whole series of additional questions that Abramović highlgihts: Is it distrubing, does it make a prediction about the future, does it pose questions? Focusing so closely on beauty leaves no room for all these other dimensions of art.

“[B]eautiful or not beautiful is not important,” admittedly just a snippet from the larger Abramović quote, but I still think she puts it too strongly here. Beautiful or not beautiful can be important. Yes, there is the potential for becoming so consumed by beauty to the point where one is blind to all else – so a focus on the painting fitting the carpet in the living room devoid of any thought about meanings troubles me. But beauty is not a dimension without a substance of its own as well. Craftsmanship, skill, and technical mastery all deserve thought too. While it is a mistake to focus on them unmoved by all else, it is also a mistake to set them outside consideration altogether.

Altogether I favor a “both/and” proposition here rather than the “either/or” proposition offered by polar aesthetics that either center the artistic universe on beauty or dismiss beauty as undeserving of attention. I’ll conclude by saying up until two years ago I had a sense a great deal of contemporary art was artists, curators, critics, and collectors talking amongst themselves in a language that leaves everyone else, including me, out. The jargon of the art world can be intimidating, it can be a barrier, it can be just too much work when you’re in the mood to relax and maybe look at something pretty. And I’d say being told so-and-so is a Very Important Artist, or Art History Has Decided X, is a lot less convincing than going to the Whitney, or MoMA, or the Tate Modern and particular works evoking (or provoking) feelings and emotions themselves.

For me the gap was bridged on a visit to the Tate Modern, Room 7 to be specific. I have to credit the curators because it was the combination of these three artworks that made me see each of the three artists in a different light. The artists, Monet, Rothko, and Pollock. I was aware of them before, but they did not mean the same thing to me before Room 7. The works are Monet’s Water Lillies (after 1916), Rothko’s Untitled (1952), and Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A (1948). To say the photos don’t do the works justice is an understatement.

It is one thing to be told about Monet’s link to abstract expressionism and another to see it for yourself. Being there, it was like discovering Rothko. As for Pollock, I’d repeatedly just skipped him at the Met Museum in New York. Of course I’d been told by Very Serious People what to think about him, but I didn’t really think it for myself. After Room 7 I understood more of the whys and wherefores of a kind of rupture with realism that I didn’t really appreciate before. A rupture and yet a bridge explaining how an aesthetic can comfortably contain both John Singer Sargent and Jackson Pollock. A link I feel I’d be poorer without – especially because, for me, it was through that linkage that the conceptual works follow. In a comment at the LoOG I wrote, “I suppose this is how religious people feel when they tell atheists they’re missing something by not having faith.” and having written several hundred more words on the topic I still have that feeling.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Jackson Pollock (1950)

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This piece Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, I made this piece in front of very large audience. And the piece Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful is really about this image of art, that it should be beautiful. The idea of the, you know, that painting should fit the color of the carpet in the living room, which I think was so wrong. Because in my point of view the art have to be disturbing, art have to have a prediction of the future, art have to ask questions, and art have to be so many things, but beautiful or not beautiful is not important, have to be true.
– Marina Abramović (via MoMA)

Four NSFW videos via Sociological Images, Art Thoughtz: Performance Art, How to Make an Art, How To Be a Successful Artist, and How To Be A Successful Black Artist.







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Lil Buck dancing and Yo-Yo Ma playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Swan from the Carnival of the Animals (via Opera Chic)

the Met Opera's Swarovski crystal, Sputnik chandeliers

Yo-Yo Ma could easily stay in the Swarovski encrusted world of classical music, floating from venue to venue on the praise of the already awed classical music world. Instead, he makes efforts to go beyond the regular symphony-going world to work with artists like Bobby McFerrin and Lil Buck. Nothing against the melanin challenged, septuagenarian concert-goers to be found in the jewel box auditoriums of the world. But if classical music is to prevent itself from being shut away as an art form that used to be relevant, it will require new audiences, new listeners, younger people who find it connects with them and their life experiences. Thanks are due those artists like Ma, McFerrin, and Lil Buck who make those connections.

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Self-Portrait, Glenn Ligon (1996)

Interested in art, race, or the subaltern? Then, if at all possible, you have to visit the Glenn Ligon retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (March 10 – June 5)*. Ligon intelligently engages the fraught territory of the African-American experience. No mean feat in a nation of cowards on race, to use Attorney General Eric Holder’s words.

It’s difficult to describe a thoughtful exhibition in terms that do not make it appear as work. I’ve jotted notes about unpacking the present using techniques from the past, consumption of varying performances of black masculinity, and presentations of exoticized outside Other. Add to that interterxuality, semiotics, and voila a stew of big, complex critical theory or art words. Not to disparage the curator’s explanatory notes at all, but at some point I come up against the art equivalent of the quip “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Suffice it to say that various Ligon pieces made me and my gallery-going companion smile or laugh out loud. Ligon was at times witty, at times subversive, and at times serious. Throughout questioning. Offering few pat, simple answers. Altogether, another perspective for viewing an incredibly complex subject.

In all, well worth the visit.

* Glenn Ligon: AMERICA will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in fall 2011 and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012

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How much for the Hirst? (For the Love of God, Damien Hirst, 2007)

Julian Sanchez has a post on the potential for the use of “balancing” language to obscure through homogenizing and simplifying a more textured vision of underlying rights. Balancing-speak loses nuances of privacy, he cites Dan Solove on privacy as “not a monolithic value defined by any singular essence, but a cluster concept defined instead by overlapping family resemblances.” I wonder if the same has not occurred in the use of the word equilibrium in economics, with consequences for assessing when a market failure has occurred. Outcomes of markets go under-scrutinized for normative values and under-contextualized for wider social consequences.

The discussion of art not presenting a case of market failure does not unpack these underlying assumption. In 2009 the Tate Modern had about 5 million visits, free general admission about 30,000 square meters. MoMA had about 3 million visits, admission $20 about 60,000 square meters. The values one brings to these facts, your interpretive lens, will determine whether you think: several tens of millions of UK taxpayers are being fleeced by the hoity-toity set or MoMA is missing 2 million visits (or more) thereby insufficiently serving the public. Which interpretation is more convincing? As the culture wars demonstrate, talking across a chasm in values presents difficulties; Richard Rorty’s final vocabularies comes to mind.

If markets are criticized as knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, this alternate value-informed discussion might be the inverse, knowing values but not costs. We can not make distinctions amongst alternatives if everything is priceless, and yet pricing everything homogenizes and simplifies with potentially harmful social consequences. For instance, what is the price of child labor?

So a classical economics inflected point and a critical theory inflected point, my kingdom for a synthesis. When in doubt (ab)use John Rawls. Those behind the veil of ignorance say free museums. Problem solved.

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(PostSecret, via Sociological Images)

Flipping through Vogue’s Ultimate Catwalk Report Spring/Summer 2011, as one does, three things came to mind.

First, the Devil Wears Prada offers two justifications for the fashion industry. The Anna Wintour based character offers the travels of cerulean through the industry into the assistant’s wardrobe as a marker of the sophistication that goes into design. The second justification for the eccentricities of the fashion industry is offered by the first lieutenant character. He argues the magazine has published great artistic minds, what’s more it is art that you wear. The New York Times review of Devil had gently ticked off the fairly feeble nature of these justifications. I didn’t come away from the film thinking fashion is truly deserving of the Great Art label. Looking at £500 sandals in the Catwalk Report, I remembered the feebleness of those justifications.

Second, a point Sociological Images frequently covers, the use of “nude” or “flesh-toned” as a color, to the exclusion of those with darker skin.

Third, the relative absence of people of color, despite a “Model Tribes” page where a model, Jourdan Dunn, optimistically comments that more black girls (her words) were on the catwalk. Dunn further comments, black girls were represented beyond a specific skin-tone of black, marking an improvement. If the pages of the Catwalk Report or Vogue magazine proper are anything to go by, people of color are still pretty underrepresented. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the “Model Tribes” designation either – Pouty Girls, Tough Girls, and Black Girls were among those exoticized. Racialicious describes the binary as “to be invisible or exoticized“. Not great choices.

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