Yesterday, Mike Barr of Adelaide, South Australia wrote, “When jurying art, contemporary and abstract work may be beyond judgment as to quality. Traditional work, on the other hand, is more easily assessed as to its skill level. How do you account for this difference, and what are the implications?”
Thanks, Mike. Great question. In 1975, Tom Wolfe wrote a perceptive little book called The Painted Word. He was trying to understand for himself what made the New York art scene so difficult to understand and how, in his opinion, bad work could so often be touted as good. He decided the critics were to blame–particularly three art-theory pundits he called “The Kings of Cultureberg” — Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg. Critics, Wolfe figured, like to talk and write about concepts, and realistic work didn’t offer much conceptual potential.
The artists of the New York art scene at the time — Warhol, de Kooning, Pollock, etc., were guilty, according to Wolfe, of bashing out substandard work that served the purpose of giving “the Bergs” something to talk and write about. With the buzz came unwarranted success, according to Tom Wolfe.
As most of us know, painters, and particularly realistic painters, tend to talk about drawing, composition, colour, technique, and the challenges of developing skills.
When looking at realistic portraits, for example, have you ever noticed that even your one-eyed Uncle Fred can spot deficiencies? That’s the trouble with realistic art — it’s too easy to do it poorly and to be seen by any Tom, Dick or Fred to be poor. As well, it’s pretty easy for artists to fool themselves into thinking their poor realistic work is actually not too bad. The work may be, after all, better than the one Uncle Fred painted.
In assessing realism, there are laws — and there are laws to be broken. Seasoned pros, through their own lifelong studenthood, tend to understand potentials, make suggestions, and sometimes tell you how to fix things. Pulling the plug and refilling the tub are also on the pros’ agenda. It’s an enigma. Art is a Great Goddess of infinite intrigue and illusion, and even a lifetime of worship may not find her fickle soul.
PS: “With an ‘advanced’ artist, it’s not now possible to make a portrait.” (Clement Greenberg, 1909-1994)
Esoterica: As well as an emotive or provocative underlying idea, effective abstract work still needs a kind of surface magic and design strength. Abstraction can be tough sledding. On the other hand, for those who do realism well, there is little need for the Bergs. The Uncle Freds are suspect as well. But the real enemy is us. “The easiest person to fool,” said Richard Feynman, “is yourself.” A clear eye and a sense of purpose are worth more than a mile-high stack of the New York Times.
Realism demands honesty
by Kent Wilkens, Tobermory, ON, Canada
With realism, you actually have to know how to paint, have to know your craft, otherwise your inabilities are quite glaring. I love abstract and psychedelic, did it when I was a kid in school, was fun, free, and the best part, was very hard for people to criticize it. Often tell people in my gallery, “I used to do abstract and psychedelic, then I learned how to paint.”Not saying they can’t be well done, but your article points out that it is just so easy to foist garbage on people and call it art.
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Why critics’ choice?
by Marie Lyon, Summerside, PEI, Canada
It seems that it’s who you know and where you live that often makes an artist great. As an artist, I have often wondered why. As our retina contains 120 million rods and 7 million cones, I conclude that none of us see the same, have the same background and experiences, so our choices must be personal. I’ve always felt that the art critics have a huge influence on who makes it and your article was right in quoting Tom Wolfe, although he’s a bit far out. BUT, what was considered bad work yesterday may be looked on as a breakthrough today. Picasso and Jackson Pollock are often referred to by lay people as unable to draw but they are ‘out to lunch’ there. Both were excellent draftsmen at the outset.
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Fabrication bewilders public
by Jim van Geet, Australia
As well as Tom Wolfe’s must-read book is another excellent book by Roger Kimball — Rape of the Masters: How political correctness sabotages Art. He cites specific critiques and analyses by art academics and critics of works by Courbet, Rothko, Sargent, Rubens, Homer, Gauguin and van Gogh. These art historians largely ignored the artist’s creative intent and fabricated their own thereby misinforming and confusing an already bewildered public. One can only guess at their motives. Nothing much has changed since Tom Wolfe’s book.
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How do they know?
by Judy Palermo, Shoreview, MN, USA
Yes indeed, the ‘problem’ with representational art is that it does have Standards. Standards that can be stretched and broken well, but they come from a reference point where any natural Joe or Jane can feel confident determining all on their own. No need to first hear approval from the Bergs or the New York art scene, who like to promote the sense that a higher sensibility is needed to judge abstract works. Regular folks scratch their heads about abstract art, and just declare ‘I guess I don’t understand, but it must be good.’ Didn’t Richard Schmid openly wonder about abstract artists — ‘How do they know when they’re getting better?’
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Emotional response is beyond judgment
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
When I started painting, I was most interested in realistic work and especially portraits and trained for a year of life drawing at the Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. I didn’t even think I liked abstract work and dismissed it entirely. Then I joined a local art society and began helping hang and design their shows and learned about myself that some abstracts really spoke to me, but I did not understand it at all. I had no clue as to how to make one. A local teacher of abstract art heard me say so at a meeting and said that if I would come to a workshop that she and another artist offered every year that I would get it. That was early in 2001 and that year my first abstract I created on my own got into the Minnesota state fair in the fall. What I have decided, at least in part, is that a successful painting holds some kind of emotional response for me that I do not always have words for and it is true whether it is realistic or abstract. That emotional response is what I think is beyond judgment!
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Thoughtless work never works
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
I agree that there are difficulties in jurying abstract works, but sometimes this depends on the erudition of the jurist. With this kind of work there is still a level of skill required from the painter, although perhaps not drawing skill. Composition, good colour sense, and technique are still required. If you look closely at the work of the New York Abstract Expressionists, as I have been lucky to do, there is no shortage of these qualities. For example, a sense of space and distance is achieved by using aerial perspective. Most of these famous artists were taught by Hans Hofmann (born in Germany, active in the USA, 1880-1966) who had developed his own theory of what he called symphonic painting. In symphonic painting he states that colour is the real building medium and that each colour plane should be carefully placed and ordered in sympathy with its neighbour. Hofmann applied three rules to Symphonic Painting. These stated:
— The entity of the picture plane had to be preserved.
— The essence of the picture is its two-dimensionality.
By this he meant that three-dimensional effects must be achieved by the process of painting, i.e. by skill and artifice.
— A painting should receive the greatest possible richness in light-emanation effect and retain the transparency of a jewel.
By this he seems to mean that the colour saturation and form of the motif should cause an oscillation effect in the eye of the observer. In simple terms, a kind of pizzazz or fizz. This can be created by optical effects based on colour theory, by careful use of pigments, or by causing a shift into and out of the apparent space created (which he would later describe as the Push-Pull effect).
I have painted a few abstracts trying to use these qualities. It’s fun, but serious, too. Random, thoughtless work almost never works, and I suspect some painters don’t realise this. The good jurist always does. As Edgar Degas once said, “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
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by Frank Gordon, Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, England
My copy of The Painted Word is rather dog-eared these days as I take it down from the shelf and skim through it over and again. It’s a great antidote to the current obnoxious brand of Artspeak which is intended to alienate and impress rather than inform – although there are signs of the tide going out on that particular genre at last. Wolfe was very unpopular at the time (probably still is) for pointing out that the stuff written about a contemporary artwork had become more important than the work itself; ‘talking the meaning into the work’ as the work itself didn’t and couldn’t carry such meaning.
Since then, of course, things have contrived to get even worse as this was all long before the current crop of ‘Conceptual’ Art in which the work has virtually disappeared to be replaced by the cult of personality and the farming out of the work to craftsmen. (I still cling to the old-fashioned view that if you can’t make it yourself, it’s probably best left un-made.) Perhaps it’s time for Wolfe to write ‘The Painted Word II.’
I see lots of lovely abstract qualities in Mike Barr’s work, by the way: use of colour, form, composition, line, etc., to transform an everyday experience into a powerful and beautiful visual statement. All this combines with a sensitivity of drawing to communicate the pleasure of simply being alive. Good work, Mike!
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Cynicism replaces critiques
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Critics, in general, have been a problem long before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. They have the power to destroy as well make the career of any up and coming artist. One problem with critics is they are usually affected by personal bias and individual tastes. But then again, who isn’t? Most critiques I’ve ever read had more to do with cynicism and little to do with critique. In many cases the review made the career of the critic paramount to the artist. When the art being produced in the thirties and forties became, how shall I say, more individually expressive and abstract, critics had to say something, regardless of whether they understood the piece or not. That being said, they intellectualized it and fabricated long theories about the meaning of the work which became more meaningful to readers than the work itself and the less the reader understood it the better. Also camps were forms and alliances crystallized with buyers and gallery owner; auctioneers, which only fortified their statements and made them more credible. The more obtuse they wrote, the more credence was attached to their words. This couldn’t be more true today than ever if you go to any show on “new” or “abstract” artwork. What is interesting to me is if you were to take away any verbiage used to describe a work, no one viewing it would have the slightest idea what the piece was about. And maybe that would be better. Form your own opinion. Remember all critics’ words are only opinions anyway.
Principles of design apply
by Barry John Raybould, UK/USA/China/Italy
I do not agree with the statement that abstract work is beyond judgement as to quality. There has been much written about the various principles of design that apply to abstract art (for example: Arthur Wesley Dow, 1899, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color; Maitland E. Graves, 1951, The Art of Color and Design; Barry John Raybould, 2008, Virtual Art Academy: Notan, Visual Music & Poetry). These principles include notan, unity, harmony, repetition with variety, dominance, organizational structures, and many others. Using these principles you can quite easily, with a bit of experience of course, judge abstract art in a subjective way. I recently spent an afternoon with a student who did highly abstract work with vague references to a landscape. We systematically went through her work, working with these principles, and re-painted several of them using ArtRage on an iPad. The improvement in the paintings was substantial and it only took about 20 minutes per painting. If the principles were only subjective, it would have been impossible to improve the paintings.
Moreover, these principles do not only apply to abstract art. They apply equally well to representational art. In fact, the best representational art is precisely that which embodies these principles of abstract design. If it did not, a representational painting would be little more than a photographic record of a scene or subject. I have analysed many great master paintings over the past few years in preparation for a new series of painting courses I am writing for an upcoming new Edition 2 of the Virtual Art Academy program and for a recent series of articles analyzing master paintings that I have been writing for Plein Air Magazine. (http://www.outdoorpainter.com/) I found that all of the great master paintings embody these principles of design and notan. Although my own painting is representational, I always think about its abstract qualities when planning the composition. To me this is far more important than precise rendering. Beyond judgement? Yes, but only if the juror does not understand the principles!
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On being authentic
by Steve Koch, Gresham, OR, USA
Just read Generic vs. specific — would enjoy this sort of commentary with regards to one of your alumni from Art Center, illustrator Bob Peak and the realist master, Richard Schmid — Having just received and gazed at the coffee table book about Peak and recently read the Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid.
Like you, both are/were (Peak being deceased) at the top of their game. Both are masters, and while they do a wonderful job of creating what appears to be real, they have unlimited amounts of abstraction in their work. I agree with your premise about authenticity, but would like your comment on the combining of painting specifically and authentically while mixing it with abstraction.
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Authenticity in Art
by Kathryn E. Norman, Brant Beach, NJ, USA
I often wonder how much we reveal ourselves in our art. How willing are we to lay our inner selves on the canvas, paper, board, clay or stone with each stroke thus making ourselves vulnerable to the gaze of others? Does it matter? Is the revelation of our inner selves, or spirit, a deliberate act or does it simply seep into our work unconsciously? Are we sometimes surprised at our own choice of subject, techniques and colors and do these choices teach us something about ourselves which was previously unknown? When we realize that we have revealed ourselves, are we afraid of being judged, not only on our work, but on the very essence of our being–in other words, on our authenticity? These are some of the questions arising in the course of time as we continue to grow in our work.
It’s my personal opinion that we cannot help but reveal ourselves in our Art as we are the privileged recipients of a Gift of Expression. As far as deliberately willing to make ourselves vulnerable to the gaze of others and others’ opinions depends on how humble we are. However, whether we are deliberate in the revelation of our inner being or not, we are revealed nonetheless. In our choices of subject, techniques and color, we must be fearless, humble and willing to get to know aspects of ourselves hitherto unknown. We are journeying into a realm previously unexplored… be brave… don’t be concerned about being judged… as what has been poured forth from our spirit judges itself.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Beyond judgment…
oil painting, 30 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes David Knoecklein of Phoenixville, PA, USA who wrote, “At its best it is all the fundamentals applied, at once. On the other side of the equation is, ‘Have you ever tried to copy a Homer?’ Every great gets the poetry just right. Duplicating the poetry is distinctly difficult.”
And also John Martzouco of Montreal, QC, Canada who wrote, “We all think we’re right. We can’t all be right. Which one’s true?”
And also Phil Spaziani of Ballston Spa, NY, USA who wrote, “You should read this article for a very pointed view of Artspeak, the garbage written about contemporary art.”