Friday, January 20, 2012

Hanging (on) the Ineffable: Is "Text" the Difference Between 'Fine Art" and "Stuff"?

André Malraux invented le musée imaginaire, where works could be seen “without walls,” pulled away from their art-historical categories and their countries (and, I am assuming, the world of money).  It is now possible to create that musée imaginaire in our thoughts and … online … and the musée we create keeps us alive.

But artists and their audiences still need to see art, really see it, the brushstrokes and nail holes and scrapings and chisel marks, to stand close to the canvas, to walk across the room, to see the scale of the work and see what the artist saw as the work was progressing.  

We began a visit through the quiet rooms of a series of art galleries in San Francisco. About five galleries into the day, happy, we stepped into a small space and saw a solo show with drawings, paintings, and tapestries.  I had some questions, as I found the art rather uneven and its reach overly ambitious: the drawings tended towards kitsch (many, however, were sold!), the monumental paintings were perfectly cold and accomplished, but the tapestries –-carefully done and brimming with color-- were gorgeous. (I did not write down the price at the time, but on another gallery’s website, a tapestry by this same artist, a wide brush on a variegated field, is selling for $9,800). The assistant drifted away, and the owner materialized.  The tapestries were contracted out to Belgian weavers, he said; the artist made preparatory drawings in some detail, and he began to elaborate.  My husband moved, as he often does, to clarify who we were; an artist, a poet, and not people who are buying.  The owner said “yes, but artists must support other artists.” We said that we were looking for inspiration; coming to galleries is a kind of support, something we can do, particularly where the prices given are in thousands of dollars.  “I have heat bills, light bills, just like you,” the owner said, bristling.

But his door had been open; the ability to look at art was -- without engraved invitation -- still on offer.  My husband said “We don’t have this kind of money … so we don’t buy art … we hang her stuff.”  That hung in the air for just a minute. And then, not really having listened, not really seeing us anymore, still apparently arguing for a sale, the owner said “this,” waving his arm at the pieces on the wall, “this is fine art … your work” he said, looking at me for the first time, “is just … stuff.” 

Now, maybe he was just using my husband’s term -- “her stuff”  -- and hadn’t just thrown out an insult.  (He hasn’t seen my “stuff,” after all, so how could he judge it?). Or, maybe, he meant it.  There it was, and couldn’t be un-said: my “stuff” vs. “fine art.” I can guess that he is enmeshed in a musée imaginaire of his own, not a nice musée, either, but a museum for the initiates only, a place where text and the explanation trump the actual art.  What he claimed for his art would “brand” it as “fine,” worthy of investment. Perhaps he would have been happier if he could display four bare walls -- and could claim that only a special coterie could see the brilliance of the works on show, a kind of gallery version of the emperor’s new clothes, “hanging,” as my husband said, “the ineffable.”

Is there such a thing as “fine art”?  The definitions run from the most inclusive (all the arts, such as dance and architecture), to a simple mention of the visual arts, to, most precisely, a painting that is “pure of discipline.”  Importantly, “fine art” generates money; if we look up the largest amounts of money paid for paintings, we can collect a list of artists, (in varying order, depending on the most recent auction): Jackson Pollock, Gustav Klimt, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh (and even, in one list, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” once she is adjusted for inflation).  

We can try a discussion of contemporary “fine art,” then, to escape historical certainties: how can we distinguish, in the art of our own times, the “fine art” from the “stuff”?

A critical work, Picture Theory, by W.J.T. Mitchell, on image vs. text in the visual arts, claimed that “the text is an intrusion on the image …. the wall labels in museums take more of the spectator’s time than the image” (209). I think it may be that text is the problem.  We hear text from the gallery owners, pronouncing work as “collectible,” “unique” or (really, once): “world class.”  We read dozens of artist’s statements, that day in the galleries, and many, many résumés.  We hear “experts” like the gallery owner pronounce work “collectible” in (spoken) text. The more generous the text, it seemed, the higher the prices, the “finer” the art.  

Each résumé posted in the galleries that day offered sections delineating “Solo” or “Group” shows. Every added line meant, the artist must have thought, added future revenue.  (I was solicited recently via e-mail by a man from a small picturesque Italian town, to apply to be shown in his gallery; it seemed my response would guarantee my being shown. The “entry” fee was 200 euro -- about $256 at today’s exchange rate. It turns out that he does indeed show the work that artists ship to him, at their own expense, and at their own risk of the art’s being stopped at customs.  In truth, his is a tiny gallery -- looking a bit like a former one-bedroom apartment -- in a tiny town, and it was unclear just what advantage this might bring his artists.  People ship work to him … probably in pursuit of that additional résumé line … of text).  Each line of an artist’s bio is proof that someone, somewhere, has chosen this art as “fine.”  Fine, finer, finest, as the text piles up.

Artists do talk about “when” to stop entering juried shows (competitions where a juror, or panel, selects the work); there is a discussion online now about this dilemma.  A juried show is better than an open show, everyone agrees, but not as fine, of course, as a solo show.  “Fine art” rears its ugly little head again here, I think. Even given their comparative lack of text-clout, I find juried shows invigorating -- I am delighted when my work (oops, “stuff”) is accepted.  What if Jasper Johns or Julie Mehretu entered a juried show?  Wouldn’t that be fabulous?  But they don’t need the text.; they have solo shows, retrospectives, which are, of course, the ultimate “text.”

An artist’s text on a résumé also includes work and schooling. We recently saw the paintings of a young man who works with a famous Bay area painter; he sets up the big guy’s canvases and paints, answers his phone, replies to letters.  This assistant’s work was selling briskly at a “fine art” price. The young man’s paintings?  “Fine.” Exact replicas of his boss’s work.  The text was winning, for the moment.

Then there is the art-school portion of the bio. Every artist in the galleries in downtown San Francisco mentioned an MFA.  I think that the classes in fine arts can teach materials, set-up, drying times, archival processes … but then, by the time one is in graduate school, one knows all of that.  I think that, most importantly, graduate school in the visual arts provides contacts, a.k.a., text: more lines for jobs, more lines for prizes.

(Two small asides about text:  First, I found a reference to an artist named Housep Pushman (1877-1966) whose work was terribly successful in his time -- consistently sold-out shows -- and his work is lovely and careful (see, below, his “Pushman Book, Number 555”):

But he is all but forgotten, now, and his work sells for a fraction of that of his contemporaries.  Did someone erase his text? Second, on text and success: I read that the Oscar committee is getting so many documentary submissions that they have decided to exclude any documentary for 2013 that has not had a review in The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times.  Now that’s some serious -- mandated -- text).

Suppose we got rid of all the text. Suppose we were presented with just the thing itself.  Would we know “fine art” when we saw it? Would we be able to construct a musée imaginaire that is no fairy tale?

This is the big question, for me.  Is “fine art” any more than endless, but very articulate, text?  Imagine two paintings on a wall. One was painted by an artist without much text, the other by an artist with considerable text. But you are not told which one is which.  Here they are:

The problem we face involves the very definition of “text” as I am using it, i.e., fame, marketability, etc. We know in advance the text that attaches to the famous painter.  The question is, however, can we say whether one is “better” without resorting to merely intuitive judgments?  The vocabulary of the subjective judgment of art is well known—“balance, beauty, maturity, energy, etc.”  But, the question here is whether we can we determine “objective” characterizations of both paintings that will allow us to say with certainty that one is better/worse than the other?  Are there facts about either painting that go to the question of their quality as art, as fine art, as “finer” art?  Or is it all really only a question of text?

The judgment whether one piece of art is superior to another is always entirely subjective.  It doesn’t change anything, either, that that subjectivity be enshrined in a culture of judgment, such as art criticism, or whatever.  If we now construct a musée imaginaire,  which of these two works would we enshrine?  Which do you think carries the weight of heavy text behind it?  Tell me what you think … and I will let you know which is which ... in a couple of days.


  1. stuff is better than fine art...means it has a place in the world! fine art always makes me think of thomas kinkade...while picasso's sculptures, julie mehretu's paintings, etc, are physical presences, STUFF

  2. I like this approach!! Yes, a place in the world is the way to go....