Friday, November 26, 2010

Rubbutal: Pointless Puppets

In a first for Two Bullets, we welcome an outside contributor, offering rebuttal to our previous post about declining ethics in art today, something we hope to see more of. If you disagree, and feel you have something worthy to offer please make yourself know in the comments and we'll try and get your thoughts up here as well.

Meet Bob. Bob thinks that "Modern art is a con, perpetuated by talentless, so-called artists". And meet Don. Don thinks that "One can regard modern art as by and large the history of the representation of perversion".

One of these gentlemen - let's call him Bob - is a semi-literate simpleton. Pathologically ill-suited to the critique of contemporary culture (or anything else for that matter), Bob spends his days posting smug, bile-fuelled comments on the message boards of right-wing tabloids. Watch amused as Bob flails against a world he doesn't understand; a frenzy of bad spelling, no punctuation and inappropriate capitalization. (Confession: in the above quote I corrected his grammar, and added the word "perpetuated" to imply gravitas.)

The other gentleman - let's call him Donald Kuspit - is Distinguished Professor of Art History and Philosophy at State University of New York (Stony Brook), and one of the most highly-esteemed art critics working today. Naturally, his words require neither linguistic nor grammatical correction.

Bob and Don aren't necessarily making the same argument, and they are certainly coming at the subject from entirely different perspectives. However, what both quotes illustrate is the ease in dismissing modern art as decadent, elitist, narcissistic and lacking moral and/or artistic value. Even a cursory online trawl throws up manifold criticism from a spectrum of sources. Diphtheria, opera, Obergruppenfuehrer Richard Heydrich - all generate bad press, yet for some strange reason modern art gets under people's skin far more frequently.

Kuspit is by no means the only art historian to have an intellectualized issue with modern art, and criticism from within (what can broadly be called) the art community has clearly defined boundaries, analysing the validity of artists, movements, and vogues within both historical and cultural frameworks. When (for example) respected critic Hilton Kramer complains that "the basis of our established culture" has been overwhelmed in our post-modern era by "a carnival of rubbish", he writes from a specific perspective. His views may be gibberish, but it's well-informed, logically-argued gibberish from a vested party with a far greater knowledge on the subject than, say, me.

Sadly, the vast majority of modern art criticism doesn't have this context. Instead, it's ill-informed, anti-intellectual and focused upon the flawed Emperor's New Clothes model: the failure to understand art on the objective level, extrapolated from a subjective failure to appreciate.

It is this failure to contextualize that makes such criticism ridiculous. Modern art itself is a meaningless concept. It doesn't exist beyond hazy, subjective definitions, and yet this very generic of beasts is challenged as if it's a cohesive entirety. When modern art is mentioned, is the reference to everything post-Cubist? Post-Pollock? Post-Damien Hirst? Is the reference restricted to the contemporary, something defined by a period of time but little else? Or is it specific strata that are being referred to? Conceptual art? Installation art? Ideas that are designed to challenge the individual on a range of levels?

No, such criticism is blanket. It may use specific, bete-noir examples, but it remains pinioned to our ill-informed, inane notions of categorization. Only a simpleton would perceive modern music, or film, or literature as a single movement worthy of generic comment.

And only a simpleton would fail to see that the key to evaluation is the application of time. Just as irrelevant, sub-standard art from the 1930's or the 1540's has been forgotten, so a plethora of current exhibits will, in future, be worthless curios. It's how a society's cultural heritage is underpinned; creativity - and the evolution of that creativity - are what makes us human, what grants perspective to our surroundings. You're not a simpleton if Exhibit A fails to float your flotilla, but you are a fucking idiot in dismissing that self-expression as in any way invalid.

This isn't to let contemporary art off the hook. As our new friend Bob will tell you (in-between ranting about immigration and picking at his belly button fluff), elements of the modern art world are cringe-worthy in their elitist, self-obsessed, vogue-led buffoonery (and my own, Marxist-slanted analysis will have to wait for another day). Yet, just as art history has the scenesters as a footnote, one day even Bob might stumble upon a sculpture, or triptych, or exhibition that triggers a resonance deep within his cranial vacuum. And who knows - maybe then even Mike might learn to put his trousers on all by himself.


  1. I wrote a local story relevant to this debate. It's about the SCA's painting department and a student's reaction:


  2. I think you need to go to the right art college to be allowed to do it and get noticed for doing what anyone else can do! :-)