Saturday, October 2, 2010

You Have a Right to Art

I don't mean you have a right to own art. That's between you, your accountant, and Larry Gagosian.

What I mean is you have a right to the legitimacy of your experience of art. Rights cannot be given, they can only be taken away. Anybody who tries to take away the validity of the feelings and insights you had in confrontation with a piece of art is trying to violate your right to art.

I've been thinking about this, because I associate with a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between good art and bad art; and I think a lot about it myself.

Let's consider two of the dimensions of art:

1. Art is struggling toward a maximum of quality. There are certain properties we can think of as characterizing art. We may not agree about their relevance or importance, but let me throw out a few of these properties, so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about. The incorporeal properties are things like theme, emotion, concept, philosophical insight. The corporeal properties are along the lines of color, value, composition, brushwork, and so forth.

2. Art is a forum of the spirit. Because of the intense human need to form symbolic representations of all kinds of experiences, art is important to the balance of the psyche. Art represents not just the forms of possible experience, but their meaning.

To use the ordinary cliché in cases like this, consider how much more than just a physical event is represented in the Lascaux cave paintings.

Art attends on that aspect of experiential processing which has to do with our conceptions of the spiritual aspect of ourselves, our fellows, and the world. When we come face-to-face with art, it may trigger what you could call an artistic experience, a breaking down of what we were and a replacement of it with something larger. During this experience, we undergo shattering, on a big or a little scale. It is a variant of that experience of death and rebirth which characterizes religious revelation.

It is clear that dimension 2 is not related to maximal quality as it relates to dimension 1. Maximal quality enters into the question, generally, like this: optimal corporeal qualities help to increase the probability of an artistic experience. Incorporeal qualities help to increase the probability of something constructive and positive being imparted to the viewer in the event of an artistic experience.

But neither optimization is necessary. An artistic experience can happen without the presence of either one. Consider the stories of two very good friends of mine. One of them, C, wandered into the Prado in Madrid, and found himself in front of Velazquez's Las Meninas:

Two days later he extricated himself. I've been to the Prado, and I've seen Las Meninas. I would walk into Thunderdome itself and argue that this is one of the best paintings ever painted. Leaving aside color, composition, and brushwork - this painting is terrifying. That famous aspect of the missing about it is palpable in person. It is like a ringing in your ears. There is a shuffling of cloth in the room depicted in the painting, and the piercing looks of the occupants. They are waiting expectantly - for you. They lay hold of you, and soon you find that it is you who are in that room, not them. You are in that room, and you will never leave it. This room holds in it compassion and sympathy, but cruelty and evil as well. Las Meninas is an entire universe, a mesmerizing universe you fall into and cannot escape. Your sense of possession of yourself dissolves in confrontation with this painting. Velazquez humbles you and remakes you.

On the other hand, I think of Auguste Renoir as possibly one of the bullshittiest douches ever to become a famous painter:

Just look at this fucking lazy, talentless dreck.

His insipidly vague brushwork, bland pastel colors, radically de-individualized faces, and incessant flogging of the same three or four passive nude female poses make him seem to me not even an artist, but basically a hack pornographer. I had the good fortune in Philadelphia not long ago to run into the one decent thing this overrated pandering schmuck ever accomplished:

Be that as it may, my other dear friend, R, is not an art guy. He doesn't get it and he's not much interested in it. One time I dragged him into an art museum and I lost track of him. Some 45 minutes later, I found him, to my horror, in front of a Renoir, lost in artistic experience. He explained to me that he was in love with this woman in the painting, he was awestruck and overpowered.

I was probably not too charitable with him, because I was making the same mistake that I, and my art friends, make all the time: confusing dimension 2 - the artistic experience - with dimension 1 - maximal quality. This is an error we are prone to make because we are all actively engaged in making art and trying to make it good. We tend to forget that good ain't the real question. The artistic experience is. Good is the servant of the experience.

All kinds of factions will try to delegitimize having the artistic experience in the context of art they don't like. Consider three major bogeymen of three major factions:

Norman, called Rockwell

Bougeureau, the sentimentalist


It kills me to admit it, but I cannot argue against your right to have your world blown away by that fricking balloon dog. I can't even argue against your right to have a transcendent experience when you look at paintings by a certain crotchety northern European painter of persons wandering around/sitting morosely/dropping dead in bleak twilit landscapes. There was a good deal of back-and-forth about whether he's a great painter, in the comments to a certain post I wrote that still gets googled twice a day. Let me explain the parameters of this kind of argument.

This is an argument about taste. Taste, the way I think of it, is an issue of identifying and backing up arguments with regard to dimension 1 - maximal quality. To some extent, these arguments can be said to have a basis in objective truth. To some extent, they're necessarily subjective. The point of developing good taste is to surround oneself with worthwhile things, and to assure the greatest utility of artistic experiences when they happen. People who care deeply about art argue a lot about taste, and one reason they argue is so that when they show their non-art friends some art, the chances of those non-art friends having a really transformative artistic experience are increased.

But answering to good taste does not confer validity. Here's a picture that changed my life:

Da Vinci, Head of an Angel

To me, this is not only an image of beauty. It is also beautiful in itself, and more, it teaches us how to see beauty.

Here's a group of pictures that don't really do anything for me:

Rothko chapel

But when they enter that room, a lot of people have the exact experience that Rothko seems to have intended - they find themselves broken and made better. If you'd asked me two years ago if I'd ever be sitting around defending Rothko, I'd have said no. But I've been thinking over what happens to us when we look at art, and here I find myself.

Why make such a fuss about the legitimacy of any and all artistic experiences? Maybe it's not such a big deal. But I see a lot of bullying by all sides in the art world. The focus of this bullying is on the legitimacy of the opposing side's experience of the art they like.

Now I'm not here to defend people saying that something is better, and I'm not here to defend people feeling self-righteous about one painting or another. I will go at you tooth and claw on those topics if I disagree with you. But if you find yourself in front of a piece, and suddenly you are crying like a child because the thing that was weighing you down has fallen off from you, and you are suddenly remade fresh and new - then I will defend you, because you have partaken of the only real thing art, which is so useless and so expensive in so many ways, has to offer in the end. So I just wanted to make it clear that, as far as I'm concerned, you have a right to those feelings, and you have a right to ignore everyone who is telling you that you shouldn't have those feelings in confrontation with this particular thing.

Except in one case.

There are only five people in the history of art who had an authentic emotional and spiritual reaction to Jackson Pollock's work. Their names were Manny, Elmer, Flo, Davis, and Jack, and they lived in the East Village until June, 1962, when Frank Castle, AKA "The Punisher," hunted them down and killed them.

Frank Castle, AKA "The Punisher"

Since then, anyone coming up to you and claiming they have had their lives changed by Jackson Pollock is a poser and a low-down dirty liar.


  1. I agree with you. The experience of art is nothing if not subjective. Standards of quality are useful for schools, or for artists' own aspirations, but every school of art has its examples of things that meet all the standards but are a big yawn. The best use for standards of quality in art is often to inspire someone to try to make something that defies the prevailing standards but connects anyway.

    I actually like Jackson Pollock, but I see him more as a dancer than an image maker. But I guess all of us who care about art have our own lists of famous artists we personally think are just utter bullshit.

  2. Fred - I'm glad it strikes a chord with you. One of the things I dislike about art instruction is this insistence on right and wrong. A very good formula for doing things the way they are done at that art school; and a major reason I have been avoiding art classes for 19 years.

    I was just kidding about Pollock, I think there are perfectly good reasons to be a fan of his, although obviously none of them appeal to me personally. It should have occurred to me that with your sense of the scribbled line - even more in your photographs than your drawings - that you'd have a lot to talk about with him. Obviously that's worthwhile to you, and I would never denigrate it.

  3. Daniel, I'm surprised there haven't been more comments to this. Doesn't everyone want to say what famous artists you would have to be an idiot to admire? I'll start: Tracy Emin!

  4. I wanted to comment because while I was an "art major" in "college," I didn't learn much and never developed a taste for a particular artist or even genre of art.

    But I get anxious here when I start talking about what I like or dislike in art and artists. But let me throw this out there. I like Winslow Homer. I like his seascapes quite a bit. No idea where that falls on the quality spectrum, but they certainly have the capacity to move me on a spiritual level.

    Incessant Flogging: Band name.

  5. Daniel,

    I have to say that this is, in my humble opinion, one of your best blog posts ever. I really want to contribute some thoughtful, serious comments to the discussion, but right now I am still cracking up laughing, literally with tears in my eyes, at you calling Renoir "one of the bullshittiest douches ever to become a famous painter", an "overrated pandering schmuck", and a "hack pornographer". LOL!! Daniel, you rock!

    I have always felt the same way about Renoir and have actually been asked by people why I have featured so little of him on my blog (A mere two paintings, I think, in three years). He's godawful.

    I'll have to come back and comment again on your larger, and much more compelling, point. Great thoughts and insights, Daniel.


  6. Well, hot damn, I'm sorry I've been so slack in replying here. I was traveling and didn't have time to update the blog for a few days. Let me get back to business here:

    Fred - You know, I'm a little surprised too, especially given the number of comments some of my other posts have generated, which I thought were less interesting posts. Well, what are you going to do? I do know, courtesy of the miracle of Google Analytics, that this post has been read a lot, particularly for some reason in India and Iran, and I'm glad for that.

    India and Iran! Pretty cool, huh? I love Google Analytics.

    Ed - I just really hate art education in general, and I'm sorry you encountered such a typically unproductive time with it in college. I was telling some people the other day to go check out your woodcuts. I forget who they were, now, but I was pleased to be able to spread the good word.

    This anxiety about saying what you like is one of the things I am writing against in this post. Sure, you should feel like you need the ordinary amount of nerve involved in taking a position and defending it, but I feel like there's an extra element involved in the feeling you describe, which is a very widespread element, where people feel like they'll get mocked for any position they have by self-assigned intellectual betters eager to bust out fancy words. And my feeling is, you have a right to your opinion, and an additional right to tell anyone who's going to be a dick about it to stick it in their ass.

    For my part, I like Winslow Homer quite a bit.

    I'm glad you find good band names in my posts.

    Claudia! Hello! I am really happy you enjoyed this post! And that you thought the Renoir bit was funny. I have more Renoir jokes to deploy, but I'm going to wait a while until the concept of dumping on Renoir, fuckhead that he is, is fresh again. My mom reported the same bursting into laughter when she got to that part of the post - I am so thrilled to write some funny stuff here. I didn't know you had it in for Renoir as well, but I think this is testimony to your good taste, and it's nice to hear he's gotten short shrift on your blog, which, really, he hasn't earned a spot in.

    I wait with baited breath for your thoughts on the rest!

    All the best,


  7. As to standing mouth open, forgetting to breathe in a museum, two paintings come to mind:

    In 1989 I was in the Hermitage, in St Petersburg. I saw Rubens' 'Bacchus' from across a gallery. At that distance he looked like a young man in the prime of life, partying hearty, -but as I approached closer, the saggy body the bags under the eyes, the wrinkled brow from the throbbing hangover, became visible and more and more pronounced so, so, so, everything you said above and then some!

    Many years later I was visiting the Ohara museum, in Kurashiki, Japan. As I entered a gallery Pollock's 'Blue (Moby Dick)', on the far side of the room, seemed to throw every other work in to shadow. Definitely not a strong an experience as 'Bacchus', -but a memorable one. I guess I'm number six, his other work, eh, oh well, but this one painting, I "had an authentic emotional and spiritual reaction"

    BTW I lived in the east village in 1962, Frank missed one. :-)

    Jim in Alaska

  8. Band names are like faces. If you look hard enough, you'll find 'em.

  9. Jim - thanks so much for sharing these excellent stories. The changing impression you had of the Bacchus as your distance decreased is very interesting, and seems like exactly the kind of trick Rubens would play on you.

    And who knew that half the people reading this blog were Pollock fans? Sigh. All you people are wrong! Wrong, I tell you, wrong! You'll see!

    Seriously though, I'm glad you had that experience with his painting. Just watch your back, "The Punisher" doesn't like loose ends.

    Ed - I think you make a solid point, and I, for one, am glad to know you're doing the good work of looking.

  10. lol. I liked the post a lot. I've meant to come back sooner. Long live Pollock! Well, a few specific pieces rather ;] I will defend that position in the near future. Cheers Daniel!

  11. McG - I just noticed this! I'm glad you enjoyed the post - and happy blogging! I really enjoy your stuff.

  12. I got here by Googling "Renoir overrated hack"...enjoyed your article.

  13. Thanks, Anonymous! And I'm pleased that that search term string links to this blog.