one less warning


August 13th, 2012

One Less Warning

or One Less Recommendation


As of tomorrow, Robert Hughes will have been dead for a week and his career as an art critic unbeknownst to me before then. In a struggle to compromise between one's absorption of current times and one's gleaning of the past, any number of names are bound to slip past unrecognized. The most famous or celebrated figures of human history can often be hard to come by if the opportunity is not presented to you upfront. And if left to your own devices, you may have to sift through any series of connected names and faces before stumbling upon any one in particular.
A friend of mine had handed me three obituaries torn from newspapers, and upon reading of him had discovered that, as an art critic, Hughes had a strong distaste for the works of Damien Hirst. As of a week ago, I had no idea who either of these men were.
I may very well have seen the work of these men without realizing it on numerous occasions. Looking at Hirst's work, I realize that I may have seen his pieces many times, yet had never leaned in to know who the artist was. This is likely due to my reacting to it much like Robert Hughes did. As far as Hughes himself, I have a terrible habit of reading an article and not checking as to who wrote it. At this very moment, I couldn't tell you who wrote the three obituaries.
I have been left to my own devices for many years, and therefore am generally reduced to gathering information from countless directions and in limited time. Think of it is a series of clocks counting down and buzzers going off, hurrying you along to the next thing before it's too late for you to have seen everything.
I'd compare it to someone who goes into an art gallery and ponders each work, starting from the left of the door. They take their sweet precious time with each, making efforts to fully absorb and understand them one by one. Let's say that there are forty-two works of art in all, the gallery closes at 8 p.m., and this person has only made it to the twenty-seventh by closing time.
The pity of this situation is that the thirty-seventh was the best, not too far from the right of the door, and it's too late for them to see it.
When at a gallery myself, I make a series of rounds, making sure to see every thing that there is to offer before latching on to certain pieces over time. Within two hours, I have all but decided what the best one is, finding those that I had arrived with, leading them to this piece and telling them quietly and assuredly that 'This is the best one.'
I am often right, too. Even better than being right, I made a goddamn decision. I didn't qualify all works as equal, I didn't suffer a lesser work as deserving as much time or contemplation as the better one I saw five minutes ago.
A big problem with how people tend to see the arts is that, with all things coming from the same innate and inspired place, all artwork must be tolerated as inspired across the board. This is false to the point of being embarassing. It often is, in fact, because I have seen many artists being rewarded for their failed attempts as though they were achievements.

I was in a science fair in the fourth grade. At the time, I had been fascinated by how pill capsules swelled up when put into a glass of water for two hours. They got really big, and I liked that. When pushed to come up with a science project, I had settled with the age-long question "What does a pill do inside of your body?". Had I had a choice, I would have declined from the science fair altogether, yet its being manditory compelled me in ways that I had grown used to by that age.
The end result was a bullshit meandering through the scientific method, handwritten on a triptych, and in front of this triptych a bullshit swollen pill. In a glass of water.
Even then, I knew I was full of it. And the more adults that came by and congratulated me and told me how interesting the experiment was, the more I wanted to tell them that they're liars. I wanted to tell them that it was alright, they can tell me it sucked. I knew it as well as they did.
The sad thing at many art openings is that the most squallid or useless of pieces are given recognition alongside the work of capable neighbors. I was given a ribbon that said 'Honorable Mention', but I didn't deserve even that. There was nothing honorable about it, and what I had done was not worth mentioning.
There were winners, and at many science fairs and art shows, awards are given. Real ones. Not in the interest of self esteem or out of fear of leaving the losers out, but awards given to those that are qualified for them, people that had figured out how to try correctly and had therefore earned their keep.
The judges had flocked around Rusty Seabolt, a genius and therefore thoroughly disturbed child that had experimented with light passing through multiple small planes of colored plastic. He had won the science fair that year, and hats off to him. There were at least two retards pouring baking soda into little volcanos that year. How could he have possibly lost?

What makes art critique so difficult is that it is not scientific. It can have elements of science, but ultimately expression of beauty or truth is not confined to units. And by one's willingness to express these things, dependent on willingness and ability, we are not all equal on these terms. Some are good at it, some simply are not. And on a rare occasion, some are astoundingly capable.
So, where do you decide that a work of art is bad? One thing that I agree with Robert Hughes on is that the emergence of postmodern art celebrated the mundane, and with a conscious sense of irony iconized things of little worth. His criticism of Warhol, or let's just say pop art as a whole, I couldn't be more in agreement with. As a critic, your denials are the most noteworthy. You are remembered by the masses most often for what is controversial and juicy. Roger Ebert's "Your Movie Sucks" is perhaps more eyecatching than his "The Great Movies" series. Richard Gere will not give a towering enough performance in his lifetime that is not slightly shadowed by the gerbil story, therefore promising two more months of summer.
Nevertheless, what is important is the great movie, the great performance, the great artist. The importance is being able to find them, to point them out, and to know who they are. The importance is to follow them. Most of them fall apart shortly after grace. It's almost as though they're supposed to, but it's hard to be sure.
Robert Hughes should also be known for the artists that he thought well of. Goya, Bruegel, Crumb, Caravaggio, and other winners. He had recommended these men (among others), as qualified and meaningful artists.
He had recommended women as well, yet womankind has yet to have its proverbial day in the sun. I can only speak for myself on that one.
I side with him completely on the commercialisation and marketing of art, its treatment as a commodity, its usefulness as a fob for those wishing to fake profundity for a price.
And the importance of one such as Robert Hughes is to be learned and sincerely interested in the value of what is great, and to detect snake oil in even the most popular of canvasses. There has to be set a standard in which meaning is conveyed by the work itself and not hamfistedly explained away by the artist afterward. Goya cannot be juxtaposed to a virgin Mary with shit all over her.
However ethereal, there is a need for deputies. I live in a democracy whose standards are in constant flux. Be it the laws of marriage, age of consent, right to bear arms or sodomy, we've managed.
In that respect, for the art world Robert Hughes was a manager. Disagree with him if you like, but someone had to call Jeff Koons out as a fraud before things went too far. Usually, things go too far anyway, but there is at least a pleasure in knowing that they would beforehand. It's the greatest reward of prophecy.
That being said, the joy of the arts is experimentation. Part of what makes it great is that it does go too far. We're human beings, that's what we do. Yet, were he alive, I assume that we could agree that there is a terribly wrong way to go about it. And without him, there is one less person to suggest the right direction.
To recommend or disqualify is a dangerous line of work, especially when dealing with something so often flimsy and unpredictable. Nevertheless, it is important to seek out the ones that you came with, lead them to a certain work of art and tell them 'This is the best one.'.
Perhaps it isn't, but even if you're wrong, at least you were close.