Friday, March 03, 2006

No manners, but what a critic!

From the BBC:

An abstract painting worth an estimated $1.5m (£850,000) is in need of repair after a 12-year-old boy stuck a piece of chewing gum on the canvas.

The gum left a small stain in a corner of The Bay, a 1963 painting by American artist Helen Frankenthaler.

The boy, who visited the Detroit Institute of Arts with a school group, has now been suspended by teachers.

Curators at the museum said they were researching how to remove the stain, but expected no permanent damage.

Frankenthaler is regarded as one of the most influential second generation US abstract expressionist painters.

Becky Hart, assistant curator of contemporary art at the museum, said she had tried to explain to the boy how the museum helped preserve works of art.

"I knew that probably wouldn't make any sense to him, so I asked him what kind of music he liked," Ms Hart told the Detroit Free Press.

"He said he liked rap, so I said: 'Well, you know what rock and roll is,' and he did.

"So I said: 'Can you imagine if somebody had messed up the beat in rock and roll so you didn't have any rhythm in rap.' And he looked at me, and he got it immediately."

In that case, well done to him, because I certainly didn't.


Blogger Duck said...

With Modern Art, there is no equivalent to the "beat" that you can point to that gives the painting form. Had the artist decided to plant a wad of gum on the corner, the curators would consider it a masterpiece. Its greatness is undecipherable to mere humans, whereas with music an ordinary human is able to tell whether a song holds to form or doesn't.

How long are we expected to worship these artifacts given to us from on high, the high of the artist's egos? Why can't we declare this emperor naked and dispense with him already? Is there anyone who still values such art, besides curators and speculative collectors?

March 03, 2006 5:46 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I interpret the 'beat' point to refer to the importance of the painting as a stepping stone in the development of US abstract art - just as the rock 'n' roll rhythm is important in the history of rap.

I have an ambivalent view of abstract painting and conceptual art.

I do like being in art galleries – I like the vast white walls, and the silence apart from echoing footsteps, and the curators who have to sit still for hours, and the bookshops. I even stick a few quid every year to Bristol’s modern art gallery, the Arnolfini.

Then again, I have a fairly acute bullshit detector and a high cringe factor when it comes to pretension, which means that I find most modern art impossible to take seriously

Then again again, I don’t dismiss it all out of hand: there is good and bad conceptual art, and unfortunately most of it these days is bad.

If you dismiss all modern art as fraudulent, then it follows that all modern artists and all those who claim to enjoy it are, at bottom, frauds. I don’t believe that’s the case. An old girlfriend is a highly talented professional painter who was in her student days President at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. She liked all sorts of stuff that left me cold, but I know she wasn’t pretending, she just had an aesthetic sense that I lacked. On music, our roles were reversed – she couldn’t really tell Bowie from Beethoven.

There is also the argument that today’s shocking conceptual boundary-pushing is tomorrow’s mainstream art. That’s obviously true with, for example, impressionist painting.

But conceptual art boundary-pushing was taken to its logical conclusion nearly a century ago with Duchamp’s urinal, so most of what has come since is pretty empty. Interestingly, there’s a strong trend at the moment in British art back towards painting.

March 03, 2006 6:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I don't necessarily dismiss it all as fraudulent, but as the art establishment has perpetrated so many frauds on the public, it is hard to get excited about a trip to the gallery.

Painting and sculpture are different from the other arts in that the work is hard to reproduce for mass consumption. Music can be played many times, and can be recorded and distributed, as can writing or film. So a market can be created through which the average joe is able to consume the kind of art that intrigues him. But painting and sculpture are one offs. You have to come to view it, and there are gatekeepers to this viewing, the curators and arts establishment crowd, that use their role as facilitators to push their ideal of art. The art itself, and the consumer of the art, is made a hostage to the institutional imperatives of the arts establishment. It becomes, as my father would say, a racket.

Now it need not necessarily be an intentional fraud, and I'm sure that many curators are perfectly well meaning and idealistic about the power of art to improve the lives of the average joe. But there are also personal motives at play, and the curators want to be seen as advancing the state of the art, which involves taking art on these weird, overintellectualized tangents. And so novelty and inscrutability become the markers of advancement.

That is my theory. Or maybe they are all frauds after all (except your friend, of course)!

March 03, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Yes, I think it's true that increasing inscrutability and pretension is the way of it, but I think that fashion and vanity are the causes, rather than conspiracy.

On the other hand, the majority of art galleries in Britain - even the giant Tate Modern, which has the UK's biggest collection of contemporary art - are free to enter, so it's hard to pin it all down as a 'racket'.

March 03, 2006 9:04 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

"Painting and sculpture are different from the other arts in that the work is hard to reproduce for mass consumption."

I would think it's possible to buy cheap art prints of major works and have them framed and hung.

Don't think many people actually do though.

March 03, 2006 9:36 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

M Ali

Yes, there is always the reproduction market for paintings, but I doubt that many of the reproductions sold are of the modernist variety. And there are a few artists that avoid the establishment and establish their own retail presence - such as Thomas Kincaide or Les Kouba. Of course the arts crowd wouldn't touch such populist art with a ten foot brush.

Brit, they may be free to enter, but that just means that the government is footing the bill, and what is shown becomes a matter of political influence. So politicians become part of the equation, and their egos are thrown into the mix. I worked at a client company in St Louis in 1987, and the window of the office building faced a park with a horrendous example of "art", which was nothing more than four large rectangular slabs of steel erected in a diamond pattern. The city paid the artist a six figure commission for this, because, apparently, he was one of the more highly regarded artists. The person I worked with said that the public considered it an eyesore and a waste of taxpayers money. I had to agree. Likewise these other artistic "events" that the likes of Claes Olenburg and others are always tring to inflict on the public, like all those flags in Central Park last year, or the guy who wraps up famous buildings in plastic. It is pure ego driven hucksterism.

So if it involves taxpayer dollars, it is a racket. The point I've been trying to make is that the only honest art that we're going to get is that art that is subject to market mechanisms.

March 03, 2006 10:10 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Here is a link to the "sculpture" in St Louis.

March 03, 2006 10:26 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Here's my rule: If the 'artist' is making a 'statement,' it ain't art.

Most of it is sticking it in the eye of dumb rednecks like myself.

My wife dragged me to an exhibit by Giorgio Morandi, the world champion modern painter. (Bet you didn't know they had a championship; they do.)

He spent 40 years painting, not very carefully, the same 3 glass bottles and a metal oil cruet.

To see dozens of these paintings gathered in one room was, in a way, impressive, like those Indian sadhus with 6-foot-long fingernails.

Everyone was as respectful as if they were at Mother Theresa's funeral, but it was all a put-on. I waited till we had a couple of high society dames standing by us and told Tricia, in an overloud voice, "I bet this guy is the life of the party. Wanna see my bottles? Wanna see 'em again.'

It was one of the few times in my life I've seen someone actually doubled over with laughter. The society dame, my wife never laughs at my jokes.

March 03, 2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Shoot, Duck, at least those St. Louisans got something they can see.

The Des Moines art museum paid something in six figures for seven metal cubes that were buried in unmarked graves in the lawn.

March 03, 2006 11:46 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


What was the supposed point of burying them ?

March 04, 2006 1:11 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


If you have to ask, you just don't get it.


March 04, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Seriously, I think the point, from the artist's perspective, is to see how brazenly they can push the envelope of pointlessness. It is a point of pride amont artists, to see how far they can jack around some city council, art director or collector, and for how much money. I think that the perfect art crime would be for an artist to claim $1,000,000 for a piece of conceptual performance art that would be the act of receiving the check from the client.

March 04, 2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

We're just ringing the changes on Tom Wolfe's 'The Painted Word.'

We snicker at them for being poseurs, they snicker at us for being hicks.

My son and daughter-in-law are avant garde theatrical artists in New York City. So when we visit, we are dragged out to strange performances.

Unlike abstract painting, which requires no skill of any kind, some of these performers are technically of the highest caliber. One in particular I remember was a mime, miming an opera I'd never heard of.

Miming an opera strikes me as exactly equivalent of burying a sculpture, but her physical control was amazing.

March 04, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Does anyone else see the profile of Jesus in this painting? I think I'm having a religious epiphany.

March 04, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Yes, it could be a profile of someone wearing something on their head - but it seems more like a flowery wreath than a thorny one.

Maybe it's a Druid.

March 04, 2006 5:29 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

It's a Blue Meanie.

March 05, 2006 12:04 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

One thing we reporters need is an alternative valuation establishment, so that when a kid vandalizes a Frankenthaler, we are not forced to repeat such ridiculous statements as that the painting is worth $1.6 million.

I am thinking of setting up as a professional art valuator. When a reporter from The Detroit News seeks my advice (I'll be cheap and during the startup period when I'm seeking exposure, free), I'll say, "The Frankenthaler is worth as much as the gum wad," or, "The main value of a Frankenthaler is in the stretchers on the canvas, which can be recycled in handyman projects around the house."

March 05, 2006 11:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The Tate Modern has a mix of private and public funding, plus earned income (I don't know the percentages).

But in its first year it attracted over 5 million visitors and was the most popular museum in the world.

There's a public appetite there for modern art, even if a lot of visitors go along to gawp at the artists' audacticity, as much as to appreciate their work.

March 06, 2006 5:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There's a hell of a lot bigger appetite for bowling, but you don't see government paying for public bowling alleys.

One of my pet peeves is that there are (at least in the US) public tennis courts but not public bowling alleys.

Rednecks have to pay for their own amusements, while elites tax the rednecks to pay for theirs.

Off with their heads

March 06, 2006 3:05 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


One of my pet peeves is that there are (at least in the US) public tennis courts but not public bowling alleys.

I had never thought of that.

Regarding art: if the skill required to produce it does not exceed the skill I have available, it is not art.

That blob fest leading off this thread is well within my watercolor skill set. So whatever it is, art it isn't.

March 06, 2006 6:25 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


But wait - maybe YOU are an artist.

Just because you don't make a living doing it doesn't mean that you can't create art.

In another thread, Harry referenced "a million unfinished plays in a million desks all over Europe", or something similar...

Those are art; probably bad art, but not being published is no sign of putridity, and we all know that simply being recognized as art is no assurance of quality.

March 07, 2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


By that logic we should first remove public funding from the British Museum, the British Library, Natural History Museum etc, all of which attract fewer visitors than than the Tate Modern art gallery.

Bulldoze the galleries and smash the museums, replace them with bowling alleys and porn theatres? Well, yippee for American popularism. If that's your vision of the future, I'll stick with Old European elitism, thanks.

March 07, 2006 1:02 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


... if the skill required to produce it does not exceed the skill I have available, it is not art.

That skill constitutes craftsmanship, not necessarily art.

When he was fourteen, Pablo Picasso could paint like this.

But when he grew up, he sometimes preferred to paint like this.

March 07, 2006 2:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I am the essence of the anti-artist. Not in the sense that I am reflexively against artists themselves, but that all my talents, such as they are, are the very apotheosis of artistic ineptitude.

Therefore, my looking at some purported work of art and thinking "I could do that" amounts to the most damning criticism imaginable, so much so that if the "artist" in question were to become fully aware of its import, the "artist" would promptly become a brick layer.

More seriously, but less catastrophically critically, I don't think that Harry is suggesting all those museums should be bulldozed, but rather that government support of the arts is no more likely to be constructive than government support of religion or a particular industry.

In particular, it has the regressive tendency to transfer money from lower income people who far less often go to art museums so as to make the museum experience less costly to the rich who do.

March 07, 2006 4:18 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

So the five million people who go to the Tate Modern every year are all rich?

And why are public tennis courts a bad thing? Ever heard of the Williams sisters?

Presumably, tennis courts are public for the same reasons that basketball courts, soccer pitches and those chess boards in the park are public. Low maintenance, anyone can have a go.

Bowling is cheap enough, or the rednecks would all be playing tennis.

Aristocrats might traditionally prefer tennis to bowling, but they also like skiing, horseriding, yachting and Removing the Bra from the Deb, which they have to pay for. Besides which, an aristo like, say, George W Bush, wouldn't be seen dead on a public court.

March 07, 2006 5:30 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Here's an article from Orthodoxy Today covering the very same art controversy. Not very enlightening, what you'd expect from a religious rag - everything traces back to the loss of God and the transcendent, yadda yadda.

The interesting point is that art was once controlled by the government and the church to serve didactic ends. Once god left the equation, you still had an artistic priesthood who felt the need to instruct the masses through art. I think that the government sponsorship of art and the attitude that art has to have some philosophical underpinning is a holdover from that era.

Art should be about beauty, nothing else. There is representational beauty, and there is abstract beauty. Let the market be the judge. When given the choice, people will choose beauty (except adolescents, of course).

March 07, 2006 5:49 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'm confused now.

I wouldn't care if they did bulldoze the Tate Modern. Hadn't we all agreed that Frankenthaler et al were worthless crap?

However, that was not what I was asking. How about equal shares, as much to municipal bowling alleys as to municipal art museums? Or equal per capita based on use?

Or zero to both. Let each pay for his own amusements.

I have never used it, but thoughtful people consider the British Library to be the finest in the world, and people pay to belong, although bigger libraries are available 'free' -- that is, semiliterates pay for it -- not far away.

March 07, 2006 8:16 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

The odd thing is, the National Gallery (on Trafalgar Sqaure, full of the old masters and the 'beauty') is just as free as the Tate Modern (full of the 'worthless crap') but is not as popular.

Can't argue with popular demand, chaps.

March 07, 2006 8:53 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Whose the guy who saws cows in half and mounts them in acrylic, or hooks them up to machinery to make them move? He's British, I think. Do his works appear at the Tate?

March 07, 2006 9:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

This is the guy.

I take back what I said about the free market. It appears that private citizens are now willing to pay big dollars for garbage. Expensive garbage is the new status symbol.

March 07, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'm not arguing with popular demand, I just don't want to pay for somebody else's amusement.

Besides, I still say bowling is more popular and deserves more money, if anybody gets any.

My son took his mother to a strip show in Manhattan where a naked woman sword swallower swallowed a glowing neon tube.

It was imaginative, in a way, I suppose, in that I'd never seen a naked woman do that. But I'd seen all the components before, separately.

But was it art?

March 07, 2006 1:18 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Everyzink ze arteest spits...eez art. So presumably swallowing counts, too.

By a serious of connections too laborious to go into, Damien Hirst is known to the Brit dynasty, and my old Pater Familias is the proud, if bemused, owner of two original works: an abstract painting and a bizarre home-made Christmas card featuring a skeletal Santa crying "Ho Stinking Ho!"

We're hoping they'll make us a fortune one day.

March 08, 2006 1:07 AM  

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