Art as a Contest of Superlatives

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38 Responses

  1. NewDealer says:

    A good piece.

    I would say that there are a lot of people including very intelligent people who rebel against modern art and find it shocking even though the Amory Show happened 101 years ago. I knew a lot of people who basically rejected any art that happened after the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists at latest. They dislike the non-representative nature of stuff like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. Interestingly or not, many of these people were huge science fiction and fantasy fans. I find it interesting that someone can love Space Opera and stuff about dragons but dislike abstract expressionism for being too unreal.

    As for art criticism, I think the purposes are this

    1. To help a person determine whether to see a particular exhibit, movie, buy a CD, book, watch a TV show, etc.

    2. Help give exposure to what does not have easy access or money for an all out PR campaign like a indie rock band on a small label, a new artist, a small theatre company, an art house film, etc. Hollywood blockbusters need to be reviewed but I bet most people knew they would see it or not before the reviews came out. I think this form of art criticism has largely suffered because of the Internet. There is not much of a market for local newspapers anymore (the shutting of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News come to mind.) And less space for this kind of stuff. My problem with internet criticism is that it tends to focus much more on what is easily accessible like megaplex releases or things on Itunes. That local theatre company is not getting reviewed.Report

    • Glyph in reply to NewDealer says:

      Our local alt-weekly used to have a seriously awesome film critic. They let him go long ago, they could just pick up one of the bigger syndicated ones. I miss that guy.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Glyph says:

        For all its faults, the NY Times still does amazing and spectacular arts coverage and not only of the NY scene but regional theatres and museums around the country. They just ran an article about how SFMoma is trying to stay relevant and in the public conscious even though the museum is shut down until 2016 because of a major construction addition to house a lot of new pieces.

        They will send their theatre critics to review plays at regional theatres and London.

        But they are the exception rather than the norm and most people are doing what your alt-weekly is doing.

        Sites like SFist try Flavor Wire try and pick up the slack but they tend to be narrow cast and staffed by earnest graduates of small liberal arts colleges. This is great for people like me but not so great for indie acts and they tend to stick to movies and indie music and don’t cover theatre and dance or non indie rock/pop.Report

      • Kim in reply to Glyph says:

        our local alt-weekly seems to do tons of criticism and reviews.
        I have my doubts as to how many of them aren’t paid ads, but…Report

    • Kim in reply to NewDealer says:
      Most of the scifi/fantasy folks I knew were really cool with art. This may have had something to do with my alma mater — most of them took Building Virtual Worlds (otherwise known as The Class that Ate My Life).Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      You see a similar reaction against modern architecture than you do against modern art. Most people aren’t fans of architecture more modern than Art Deco or Art Nouveau. Even more prefer the Beau-Arts style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than that. The minimalist styles that spread after World War II are not popular. To be fair, people have to deal with modern architecture more than they do abstract art.Report

    • LWA in reply to NewDealer says:

      “a lot of people including very intelligent people who rebel against modern art ”

      Thank you, I guess.

      I actually do enjoy plenty of modern art, but just don’t enjoy much abstract or conceptual.

      Which is not surprising, since by its nature, abstract is binary- it doesn’t re-present something beautiful, it doesn’t symbolize somethine else, it isn’t a metaphor or allegory for a shared idea.
      Literally, a Pollack painting is just paint on canvas. So you either like it or you don’t.
      If you like it, no one can tell you you are wrong, and if you don’t, no one’s verbiage about how wonderful it is will cause you to have some epiphany. Unless you fall for the Emperor’s new clothes routine. Which is a lot more common than most people think.

      So this idea that has been percolating in my mind a while needs a test run.

      Art operates by triggering the senses which filter through the mind which interpret the impression against all the cultural and personal baggage we all carry. This is a pretty standard notion, which shouldn’t be in much dispute.

      So isn’t it reasonable to say that there is an aspect of art that is reliant on biology, which hasn’t changed in 10,000 years?
      Which is to say, isn’t it reasonable to say that there is some aspect of art that is not created by the will of the artist, but unlocked, pre-existing and merely discovered?
      Louis Sullivan in his treatise on architectural ornament talks of “unlocking the power of the geometry” where he beings with a simple square and elaborates it into a maginficently complex form of ornamentation.
      Maurice Merleau-Ponty covers similar ground in his essay “Cezanne’s Doubt” where he says thar Cezanne was painting images that were already in the subconscious of the viewer.
      Sculptors talk about seeing the final form within the blank piece of marble.

      I would assert that beauty is something hardwired into our consciousness, and therefore universally accessible and eternal. Oh, its definition changes, but only slightly, across time and culture. But the outlines remain the same.

      Abstract or didactic conceptual art tend to be narrower, more reliant on ephemeral cultural cues and references, that fade quickly. And by this I don’t just mean modern things- even classic work lilke the Statue of David, if it were to have only made reference to then-current nation-state rivalry, would have been quickly forgotten. Except the artist used the eternally fascinating subject of humanity itself, and guaranteed it would outlast the political regime that commissioned it.Report

  2. Glyph says:


    Here’s the thing that IMO leads to a lot of this: the people who are willing to absorb a great deal of and think a lot and talk a lot about a given style of art (be it books, or movies, or music, or whatever) tend, in my experience, to be systematizers. Lists and rank orderings are a way to mentally map out the flood of data, impose some sort of mental order on it. Whether this tendency to systematize preceded the interest, or developed as a way to cope with the information overload that comes from pursuing the interest, I can’t say.

    The other thing is this: in many cases (not all) there isn’t much overlap between the people who have these sorts of deep obsessions with the arts, and those who have it with sports (though again, look at someone like Mike who is interested in both the trivia of baseball, and of the Beatles). But I see the rank ordering and listing and arguing over the arts as very much analogous to the same activity amongst sports fans – it’s just something fun to argue about over beers at the pub, and unlike religion or politics, it’s usually safer (less likely to lead to blows).Report

  3. Chris says:

    This is nice.

    I actually think that one of the problems we have with art is our seemingly innate sense that if there are some things that are better than other things, there must be something that is best, sort of the ontological argument of art, and I’m not sure that this doesn’t mistake what art is. That is, I’m not sure art is the sort of thing where “best” makes sense, even if it is the sort of thing where “better” makes sense.

    What’s more, just because “better” makes sense in a comparison of two particular things doesn’t, necessarily, mean that it makes sense when comparing any two things. That is, there are all sorts of properties (like transivitivy) that may not apply. So it might not make sense to say of two pieces of visual art from vastly different traditions that one is better than the other, for example, because how we evaluate art aesthetically and/or artistically is wrapped up in tradition. And it probably doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to compare traditions as a whole in this way (which is not to say that we can’t make comparisons, including, for example, and even make comparative evaluations, such as “this tradition is less advanced in its use of perspective than that one,” or something like that).

    Anyway, I’m sort of rambling because I’m trying to express some complicated things quickly, but I hope at least some of this makes sense.

    Also, have y’all seen the Rick Ross vs. Bob Ross meme?Report

    • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

      RE: ‘better’ vs. ‘best’.

      For me personally, it’s when people start edging into “best” category that my hackles raise. I’m better than I used to be, but in college especially I would get surly (I mean Sam-on-classical-music-surly) when people would talk about the Beatles as the seeming end-all be-all of pop/rock music.

      Innovative? Influential? Undeniably. Titanically.

      But you mean to tell me there have been no leaps after (or beside) them that were comparable, or even greater?

      And this led me to say some intemperate things (like “boring”) in response; words that were directed as much at the band’s uber-fans as they were at the band or its music.

      Strangely, I never had the same problem with “worst”, and employ it myself – for some reason, that superlative is almost always clear to me as clearly, obviously intended as subjective opinion, and/or comedic hyperbole (because there’s ALWAYS something worse…and we all know it).Report

      • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        I agree with you. Part of the issue, for me, is that when you start talking about the “best” at a high level of abstraction — not just the best 19th century American novelist, but the best novelist ever, or not just the best English pop band of 1964, but the best pop band ever — you run into two problems: the limit of knowledge (inevitably you will know some artists better than others, and this means that you are likely to be biased in one way or the other toward them, and to weigh them more heavily in your decision), and the fact that such abstract comparisons of (largely) non-functional artifacts of any kind will inevitably involve comparing apples to lawnmowers, making the comparisons virtually, if not entirely, meaningless.

        Art is not a monolithic thing. I doubt artistic and aesthetic experiences and value are monolithic things. Even artistic media are not monoliths. Comparisons are inherently limited as a result, so that absolute statements will generally be problematic.Report

      • aaron david in reply to Glyph says:

        @chris What do you think of a post on 20th century novels? I have a list of 5-6 that I consider the best of what I have read, and I bet that @newdealer might want to weigh in also.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Glyph says:


        A good chunck of my adult life and most of my artistic life is post-20th century so I might have a bias about there are many 21st century novels that are among my favorites and highly influential to me.

        In no particular order: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Oh Pure and Radiant Hear, IQ84, Magnifecence, The Art of Fielding, The Innocents (Francessca Segal), The Marriage Plot, Jeff in Venice/Death in Varnsai, The People of the Book, Brookland, The Illuminaries, The Goldfinch, The End of the Jews, Last Night in Twisted River.Report

      • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

        @aaron-david That sounds awesome to me. I hope Zeno’s Conscience is on the list!Report

  4. KatherineMW says:

    Here’s my issue with modern art. Much of the modern art I’ve seen:

    1) doesn’t require skill (the “I could do that” objection);
    2) has a point that it wants to communicate, but fails to do so – it’s nigh-impossible to know what the artist intends the piece to communicate unless you read the artist’s textual description of what they’re saying; and
    3) has neither beauty nor power. When I look at the works of Monet, or Van Gogh, or the Group of Seven, or the great American landscapes of Bierstadt and Church, they possess either beauty or emotional power. When I see a painting that looks like the artist dipped his dog in a couple colours of paint and had it shake, or just a canvas painted black…there’s nothing there.

    Shouldn’t art require some measure of skill or effort? If someone created 200 pages of text by randomly bashing their keyboard and printed that out, we wouldn’t call that a novel, much less a great work of literature. So why do we do the equivalent with painting?Report

    • NewDealer in reply to KatherineMW says:

      1. No you couldn’t. What Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell, Sol LeWit, De Koening, Serra, etc are doing is very specific and if you look very closely you will see all sorts of textures and scapes and patterns.

      2. Sometimes maybe but not all the time.

      3. Again this is debatable. What is beauty? Why aren’t Serra’s sculptures beautiful? People said the samethings about Monet and Van Gogh that you are leveling against modern artists/abstract expressionists. Why does art have to be about beauty? Can’t it be a comment on disturbance and violence like Picasso’s Guerenica or Goya’s dark paintings like Saturn Devouring His Child? Or Harvey Darger?

      Wayne Thieubaud and David Hockney are modern artists and I find their work to be very beautiful and powerful. Same with Diebenkorn.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to NewDealer says:

        I said “beauty or power”. Non-beautiful works can still be emotionally powerful.

        A canvas painted black is neither.

        And I could do a Mondrian. I loved geometric shapes and colouring in squares when I was a kid.Report

    • Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:
      Try taking a look at one of the great Modern Art Exhibitions of this Century.

      How much of the art is in the “doesn’t require skill” category?Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kim says:

        Your linked site doesn’t show much of the actual art, just a couple photographs under “The Collection”.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Try clicking through the Artists. πŸ˜‰
        [I didn’t write the website.]Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kim says:

        The Bardow piece would certainly take a lot of time, but I’m not so sure about skill. I could probably do something that looked like the Benning one (and I’m terrible at art, to be clear). The Bidoun Library one is simply a selection of materials on a theme – interesting, but “art”? Librarians and academics do that kind of work every day. Lara Favaretto appears to have simply put pieces of metal on the floor, although all the artistic works on the walls surrounding her piece are very good. Wade Guyton has simply printed things from MS Word onto fabric.

        Guo Fengyi’s pieces, though, are very striking and creative and definitely show artistic skill.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I’m not certain art needs to be about skill. I think it should, definitely, be about communicating ideas — but if I can do that by splashing paint in ten seconds, Great! If it takes me years to splice together films, well, that’s good too.

        Favaretto’s pieces don’t hold up well to the photography process used:
        “Lara Favaretto’s sculptural works often intimate a threat of destructive actions. Favaretto also undermines structures associated with building and constructive energy by exaggerating and overstepping the authority and rationality of geometry. In this gallery, she has positioned steel road plates (the kind used during construction projects) on the floor, crushing delicate silk fabric visible through holes at the edges. The slabs share the formal simplicity of Minimalist artist Carl Andre’s metal floor pieces, but their more obvious practical function imbues them with a sense of transgression, or even menace (hinting at a hole in the gallery floor). Favaretto forces an awkward reckoning between the building blocks of industry, engineering, and social order and the charged energy of spectacle. ”

        Guyton’s installation is the couches as well — you should be evaluating the entire room and affect (whether or not you like it, that’s a different matter).

        I suppose my point was that most of the artists aren’t doing your garden variety “black square on canvas.”

        Besides, the most highly reviewed artists were:

        Though the last is … abstract, I found it hypnotic.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kim says:

        Okay, so she put pieces of metal on top of silk on the floor, accompanied by a detailed description of the subtle, “transgressive” meaning this is supposed to have.

        Yup, that pretty well sums up my issues with modern art.

        I can arrange couches, too!Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Took a HELL of a lot of work, and a passion for good design.
        If architecture and interior design ain’t your idea of art, well, I guess that’s that.
        But I’d like to think that everyone can appreciate:
        It seems to provide a very emotional experience, no?Report

      • dhex in reply to Kim says:

        you’re both right, kinda.Report

    • Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

      What kind of effort are we talking about?
      Took a whole hell of a lot of effort to find. But it wasn’t artistic effort — it was pattern matching. Computer Code. Is it art? Is understanding some of the fundamental tricks of the HVS that allows us to see the pattern here, and leap to a construction of “oh that’s jesus” artistic?Report

    • I largely agree with a lot of criticism of modern art. I will, however, defend paintings that look “like the artist dipped his dog in a couple colours of paint and had it shake.” Jackson Pollack’s work, like many of the most widely appreciated “classic” artists, needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. There is a high degree of creativity that is readily apparent just from looking at it – as long as you look at it in person; if you just see a reproduction of it, you don’t see the depth and thought that went into it. I actually feel similarly about the Mona Lisa (which I never thought terribly interesting until I saw it in person), a lot of Van Gogh’s stuff, and quite a bit of other stuff.

      I won’t defend the “canvas painted black,” though. Nor “art” that is a mere line on a piece of paper with the words “start” and “finish” written on the far left and right of the line, respectively, and entitled “the Story of My Life” (or some such piece that I once saw prominently displayed). Rothko’s stuff in person is no more inspiring, interesting, or creative than it is in the mass-produced print hanging in my physician’s office.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I listened to an art judge give a critique on modern art, circa the 1970’s:
        “This was hard to make, very geometric, and groundbreaking at the time.
        But now it just looks like it took 10 minutes in photoshop.”Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I like Rothko. It’s the visual equivalent of Eno.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Some of Rothko’s stuff looks really interesting — some of it makes me want to ask “What The Hell was That?” (which is probably an indication that my verbal/linguistic side wants there to be some Reason He Did That).Report

      • @mark-thompson
        Funny that exactly what you said applies to Pollack, I believe applies to Rothko. Seeing it in person makes a big difference. Personally, I didn’t have any pathway into Rothko’s works until I saw late Monet Waterlillies in the same gallery as Rothko – a really intelligent bit of exhibit design on the part of Tate Modern curators. It really astonished me that it could’ve been the same artist doing both works. Something that never, ever came through in Rothko posters I’d seen.Report

      • @creon-critic While I’ll remain stubborn in my low opinion of Rothko, I’ll readily acknowledge the extraordinary value of curation and exhibit design in influencing how artworks are experienced and perceived. In many ways, it requires every bit as much thought and creativity as the works themselves (and in some cases, more).Report

      • dhex in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        “I like Rothko. It’s the visual equivalent of Eno.”

        bro daps.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        …I had to look that up.


      • NewDealer in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        How do you feel about Donald Judd or Dan Flavin or Sol LeWit?Report

      • @newdealer I can’t say that I’m familiar with any of them. I’m far from an expert on art, and it’s only in the last 8 or 9 years that I even began to appreciate it. I go to art museums as often as I can now, but as a practical matter, that works out to only about twice a year, though it was a bit more than that pre-kid.

        My comment on curation, for what it’s worth, came about because the curation at the MoMA directly changed my perspective on several artists whose stuff I had seen previously, most notably Warhol (who I previously hated), Picasso (about whom I was previously ambivalent), and Dali (who I always liked, but started to understand better). It also probably contributed to my change in opinion on Pollack, but I credit that more to having previously not seen any Pollack first hand.Report

  5. Kim says:

    comment in mod.Report

  6. Kim says:

    comment in mod, again.Report