Art has always been, to me, what truly separated us from animals. The fact that we can take time out from concentrating on our very survival and create something beautiful to communicate a concept or tell a story to people who do not speak the same language, that in itself is remarkable, and it saddens me that this has been perverted.
Allow me to quote Pablo Picasso, one of the most successful living artists of all time:
“From the moment that art ceases to be food that feeds the best minds, the artist can use his talents to perform all the tricks of the intellectual charlatan. Most people can today no longer expect to receive consolation and exaltation from art. The ‘refined,’ the rich, the professional ‘do-nothings,’ the distillers of quintessence desire only the peculiar, the sensational, the eccentric, the scandalous in today's art. I myself, since the advent of Cubism, have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied these critics with all the ridiculous ideas that have passed through my mind. The less they understood them, the more they admired me. Through amusing myself with all these absurd farces, I became celebrated, and very rapidly. For a painter, celebrity means sales and consequent affluence. Today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone, I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist at all, not in the grand old meaning of the word: Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya were great painters. I am only a public clown—a mountebank. I have understood my time and have exploited the imbecility, the vanity, the greed of my contemporaries.
It is a bitter confession, this confession of mine, more painful than it may seem. But at least and at last it does have the merit of being honest.”
I was privileged to attend what is touted as "the most prestigious contemporary art fair in the Western Hemisphere" according to Jan Sjostrom of the Palm Beach Daily News. I doubt there is any word in any language strong enough to express the disappointment I felt when I saw the drivel that qualified for display. There was a very large blank white canvas called (of all things) "Untitled" that proudly took up far more wall space than it should have. Not too far away were two others—a diptych, no less—that were almost identical to it save the very small black specks meant to represent people out in a snowy wasteland. I think we all did a “Black Bears in the Black Forest at Midnight” picture with crayons when we were kids. I did a “Snow White in the Nude” once, and used very little color, and thought I was clever, but I was five.
Further on, two desk lamps were clamped to a small shelf and turned on, facing the wall, making what looked like boobies of light.
And I can't leave out the three boxes of Cheerios on another shelf. Three boxes. "Boxen" as I prefer to call them. Of Cheerios. Not even Honey Nut or Apple Cinnamon or Yogurt Burst. Just plain ol' Cheerios. If anyone can claim that a box of Cheerios is art, it should be the guy that designed the appearance of the box, not someone who just went out and bought three of them and glued them to a shelf. The same applies to the famous Andy Warhol Campbell Soup can that was also hanging. Where is the credit assigned to the mastermind who planned the label of that can?
I saw an even worse plagiarism later on. Someone painted a blatant copy of Vermeer's "Girl With A Pearl Earring" and made only one tiny alteration: he gave her a lazy eye, making it a grotesque parody, bereft of any artistic merit.
Now, I know...I know...who am I to judge? Who out there has the right to decide what is art and what is not?
I'll say this now and stand by it. If a work can be replicated by vandalism, it isn't art. If somebody else did it first and you copied it, it isn't art. It is theft. If it's a blank canvas, it's an affront to everyone who makes even the smallest effort at painting, and believe me, there was no small amount of tiny effort shown prominently. Squiggles. Not even coordinated squiggles. And certainly no evidence of skill or creativity. Most of this garbage is acceptable only when the artists' parents affix it with magnets to refrigerators.
It's about time somebody said it. This is the Emperor's New Clothes and nothing more, and it is insulting to everyone who views it, because it is basically giving them the Finger. Saying "you are all dupes who will accept our contempt of you and love us for it."
Maybe my art isn't art. Maybe it is merely craft. But I can promise you that every effort of mine is to present the world with something as close as I can come to art, and I can sleep at night. How the gallery reps at Art Basel can is a mystery to me, though.
Abstract artists, free-verse poets, weirdo musicians who play discordant notes, all of them were the kids who got trophies for participating, and are now grown up, thinking that all they have to do is throw paint at something, or dash off a couple of words that don’t rhyme but “ache with significance” or leave a piano out in the rain for a year and then play it and get the same praise as someone who studies theory and puts in the effort and makes something truly beautiful. And the next schmuck who says that beauty is in the eye if the beholder can ho to Gell. That just encourages under-achievement.
The first abstract artists painted to give the finger to someone else. Everybody else who copies them does it just for the ability to say they are artists. Ditto with e. e. cummings. He was a revolutionary poet, back when being a poet used to mean something. But since so many people have followed in his footsteps, poetry has become diluted to the point that it’s largely ignored. A man who dresses up as a woman shouldn’t get the right to be called She, just because he would rather be a woman. A hack and a poseur doesn’t get to be called an artist or a poet or a musician just because he or she wants to feel included. You wouldn’t eat in a restaurant where some pompous and self-righteous chef charges you five hundred dollars for a pine cone in poo sauce, now would you? Oh, wait. Yeah, in some places, people do. But the majority of the people wouldn’t. They say that it’s haute cuisine and they really don’t understand it, and leave it alone. That’s what they say about this alleged “art.” It gets some people’s attention, but not too many.
A fellow named Lance, who owns one of the biggest art licensing companies in the US, says he went to the Tate Museum with his wife to see the new “important” art exhibition of Blah-dee-blah, and gave it some credit for being Whatever, but couldn’t help but notice that they were alone in the room. They went all through the museum seeing no one else until they got to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit. That room was packed.
Ditto that time I went to Rome and took a tour of the Vatican Museums. The guide said that if we spent one minute in front of every piece of art there, we would be there for over thirteen years, and after the tour, I believed him. We spent a few minutes in most of the rooms, and he had a lot to say about many of the pieces, but when we came to the Modern Art exhibit, he led us swiftly through each room—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—until we came up to the tail end of another tour and had to wait. I appreciated the time we didn’t waste looking at the things we passed, most of which was nonsensical, but what really impressed me was that not one of our group (and it was a large group) said ‘Hey, hold on! We’re missing all the good stuff! Stop a minute and explain this green…thing.’ Not once. In fact, the only comment I heard was the gentleman behind me when he made his family laugh by saying ‘Ah, over here on the right is a fine example of 1970s wallpaper.’
Nobody was interested. But everyone marveled at the realistic art in the rest of the museums.
Now, there are some people that say realistic art was made irrelevant by the advent of the camera. If you want a picture that looks exactly like a photograph, why not just take a photograph instead of go to all the trouble of painting a realistic painting? The answer to that is on the faces of everybody who sees a photorealistic painting. I’ve seen people passing by an art gallery, glance in and see a photo that had been printed on canvas, and stop in their tracks. They came in and said Omigod look at the incredible detail on this painting! Omigod, look at all that detail! Who painted this?
And when they were told it was a photograph, they stormed out of the place in disgust. That’s why realistic art has not been made obsolete by a camera, and never will be. The fact that someone with talent sat down and put forth great effort and discipline to create something beautiful, that is what impresses people. Someone who doesn’t take art seriously but wants to be called an artist is just mocking all true artists and all people that know what they’re talking about.
Take the phrase “state of the art.” What does it mean? It has been defined as “The highest level of development” and if something is advertized as a state-of-the-art toaster, we would expect it to make the best toast we have ever had. We would expect that toaster’s performance to transcend mere functionality and produce the true toast equivalent of Art. But if we were to apply the apparent “new” definition of art, then we could not complain when we bought the state-of-the-art toaster and found a banana inside the box instead. Hey, it’s just someone else’s interpretation of a toaster, and who are you to judge?
As a rebuttal, I offer this, the Oblique Manifesto:
The art of today reminds me of the stereotypical American college student, who takes money from his parents with one hand while flipping them off with the other, and here's why. Sir Isaac Newton wrote that if he had seen further than others, it was because he’d stood on the shoulders of Giants. Since that time, we as a species have climbed exponentially higher, to heights undreamed of, and now pat ourselves on the back while we stagnate. We have arrived at this pinnacle of human achievement not by our own works, but by those of our forefathers, yet the methods of those who got us here are disdained as outdated and obsolete.
Since fin de siecle and the beginning of the last century, quite a few pompous "manifestos violently rejecting the past" challenged the established values and changed the face of the art world so that people of little or no talent could also be included. Since then we’ve been inflicted with mountebanks making a pretense of being artists, abetted by charlatans making a pretense of being art critics, all of them playing at a charade claiming that paint splashed on canvases without any regard for form or color or substance signifies some kind of elusive talent. Out of that comes an audience of lemmings arguing the relative merits of different types of drivel and trying to one-up each other in their praise of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Anyone capable of free thought who calls this exactly what it is, well, "merely doesn’t get it".
These manifestos for defiance of set rules in art, poetry, and literature have been steadily denouncing every guideline there is under the assumption that defiance of rules is somehow new. A generation always disdains the previous one as if the parents are ignorant and the children are plugged into something of which anyone older is clueless.
We claim that times are changing, but examining history shows the same patterns in tedious repetition. What we seem to have forgotten is that those established "rules" came out of millennia of trial and error, that all this experimenting that characterizes the past century was already tried and found wanting, that the reason we are where we are today is because our predecessors knew what they were doing. The ground was broken enough to bring us here, and all subsequent ground-breaking is merely a throwback to primitive attempts that failed and should be forgotten. And, since the novelty of being avant garde inevitably wears off, we go the way of the jaded. We degenerate and deviate for new ways to achieve the old feeling, and the quest for something fresh has strange horizons.
A common argument supporting this pursuit is Freedom of Expression, but I’ve found we are so "tolerant" of "diversity" that anyone who expresses a belief not on an "approved reading list" is instantly condemned for being "intolerant". And that makes sense how? Those who take that argument prevent speech in the name of defending it, and backslide in the name of progress. Thinking for oneself and questioning authority has been perverted into defiance for defiance’s sake. It leads to crucifixes in jars of urine which, if Sacrilege isn’t allowed to be a condemnation anymore, at least falls under Bad Taste. It leads to Howard Stern saying "penis" on the air just because he was told he shouldn’t. So now we can all say "penis" on the air. Now what? Has anything improved? What has been gained? Nothing. Just "blah blah blah penis blah blah blah." It leads to Jackson Pollock and Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. It leads to garbage that is Art because it’s garbage.
We stand now far above the shoulders of Giants, but if we do not take advantage of thatwe will never see further than the tips of our noses. True, we are desensitized on the whole, but that should not be an excuse to wallow in deepening depravity, but rather an impetus to forge ahead. If we are so sophisticated now, why can’t we prove it? What’s become of subtlety? Where is the art with deeper meaning that isn’t mental masturbation? Can we not create pictures that truly are worth a thousand words?
I submit a rebuttal to all so-called art movements and manifestos of nihilism, a return to the rules with something of ourselves included, and for the sake of posterity name it the Oblique Movement. The word "oblique" is commonly defined as "slanting", but also as something "expressed indirectly, not straight to the point." An Oblique work of art would require subtlety and visual metaphors to communicate an idea; would be open to interpretation, but not frivolous interpretation; would rely on skill and technique with form and composition; and would actually communicate something. It must be complex enough to tell a story, but not so complex that it’s difficult to view. And it must not fall into the same hands of those who quibble in semantics and claim their art is too lofty to be understood by any but the most enlightened (read: lemming-like). It must require actual thought on the part of the artist, and invoke thought on the part of the audience. What is art, all art, but a means of communication? Something must be expressed by the artist to the audience, or it is a waste of time and effort on both parts, and it must be expressed understandably rather than in the "Oh, you just don’t get it" style of poseurs. If a work of art can be interpreted many different ways (ie. “It means different things to different people”) then the artist has failed.
I am reminded of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, in which he says "Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken?"
And this in turn calls to mind something a young woman once said of a certain musician, that "He was so far ahead of his time we may never understand him." What good is that, then?
One of these two speaks to me of Art, and the other just noise.