Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and Crowdsourcing
I have recently had a conversation about “good bad art” and “bad good art,” by which I mean several different things in both categories.
“Good bad art” can be art that has everything wrong with it except faultless technique, or art that is unselfconsciously wrong in terms of genre or subject matter but that approaches that genre or subject matter in a way that redeems the artwork from the status of kitsch, or shades off into what I call defensible guilty pleasures—art that has such egregious problems on certain levels that its virtues do not really redeem it, but we love it anyway because it touches the parts of our personality that were formed prior to the age of four.
“Bad good art” is to be found in many galleries—art that meticulously rehearses well-worn strategies without contributing a scintilla of personal passion or imagination to the process, or art that imitates current passions and fashions in ways that work well enough, but really do no more than play with ideas and visual themes for which other artists metaphorically and occasionally literally are sweating blood. And there are many other kinds of bad good art, not based on passionless reproduction but nevertheless falling short in some way or another, difficult to define except on a case by case basis—one case in point being pompously meaningless or unnecessarily opaque conceptualism proclaiming its superiority. (What one person perceives as pomposity is another person’s deep seriousness, as any working critic learns very early when she or he praises something as being deeply serious.) Middlebrow art being inflated to conceptual greatness by insertion into a framework of ideas that can barely support it would be another commonplace type of bad good art—but anyone who claims that this is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes had better be prepared to back up their claim with acutely reasoned assessments.
The problem is, as I have implied above, is that people have perfectly valid reasons for liking every one of these things, even the ones they think they ought not to like. We are all shaped by our personal experience before the age of four, and we are all shaped by the social context in which we live and move and have our being. When we are overwhelmed with excitement by something that may on reflection turn out to be not all that great, what drives our excitement is usually a combination of personal factors.
Plenty of people dislike “good good art”—in fact, there are subgenres of it that do nothing for me, and I have to labor very hard to muster the enthusiasm to discuss just why this art is as good as it is on every level. Even more people (or at least it seems that way to the cognoscenti) like “bad bad art.”
Lowbrow is distinguished by the wish to find the good bad art out there in genres awash in bad bad-artmaking, and to show rather than say why it is good. Just as with every other genre traditional or transgressive, there is good lowbrow and bad lowbrow, and the genre itself has fallen out of fashion, I think, because its point has been made, just as nobody wanted to use the term postmodern any more once it was recognized that what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity was a different social and aesthetic environment from the sets of assumptions and economic conditions under which modernism flourished and in which what we called modernity took on its distinguishing shape.
But I digress.
The point I actually wanted to get to is that art criticism ought to be devoted to contextualizing and whatever degree of objective evaluating can be done—and I am not sure how we assign relative proportions of success to people whose art fails because they meant to do that, people whose art succeeds because (not “even though”) they have no idea why their artmaking is successful, and so on. There are semi-objective standards of comparison that seem to obtain across many cultures and subcultures, but they are modified in each cultural context, and comparison is a difficult business. There is even good kitsch and bad kitsch, although there the points of comparison are so challenging that it takes something like Tyler Stallings’ fabled exhibition tracing the birth of black velvet painting to make us contemplate why there ought to be, and is, an art history book about black velvet painting.
Art reviewing or art journalism is something else again. It sits somewhere between critical analysis and consumer guide, usually with the extreme discomfort that comes from being positioned between opposing categories.
Most artists and galleries would like to have their two-thousand-word analysis, preferably with the good stuff parked up front like in an old-style newspaper story, not like academic articles where the argument is made step by step and what journalists would call the lede is buried at the very end, where we discover at last the fundamental insight that all this analysis has been preparing us to realize. (This is why academic journals frequently insist on the inclusion of a hundred-word précis, introducing the conclusions to which the article eventually comes.)
The real artworld desire, though, is for a vehicle for marketing, whether it is called that or not. How many shows do we wish we had seen (whether we are art buyers or only art viewers), had we only known that they were there, and how to get to them in a time that suits our crowded schedules? But that we wish we had known existed, first and foremost.
Art reviewing sites are wedded to the older model of recommending the best of the best, and more realistically, whichever parts of the best of the best can be gotten to and be written about by a limited pool of art writers. Increasing the number of art writers decreases the number of brilliant shows that go unreviewed, but does nothing to solve the problem of the greater number of shows that go unmentioned.
Art reviewing sites also are confronted with the problem of discerning what on earth “the best of the best” really means, when “best” is defined so differently in different communities. We might well be left with the problem of wishing to write about the best good bad art, for example, in some month when it is more interesting than any of the bad good art that is out there. At best, we write occasionally about why good bad art deserves attention, and why bad good art is sometimes so unremittingly bad.
But then other communities, some of them quite well informed indeed, will insist that we are writing nonsense, although they are much more likely to say that we have our heads inserted into an anatomically impossible orifice.
Subcultures create critical discussions of their own, of which the dominant culture (if it deserves to be called a culture at all these days, rather than a consensus) is usually unaware. This permits feelings of superiority that are not just an unjustified hipper-than-thou, but it means that there are all sorts of shows and events that go unpublicized outside of social media. There are an equal number of traditional shows and events that are well publicized, but never reviewed, because they will generate a traditionally minded audience without the necessity of being written about.
SCAD had (it’s been years since I looked for them, so I don’t know if the experiment was abandoned) interview-based videos surveying art shows. The problem with interview-based videos in general (which have continued) is that they are also time-based, and few people have the time to sit and listen just to find out whether this is something in which they would be interested.
Facebook friends (I have no idea what is evolving on the other social media sites) seem to be posting individual images from current exhibitions, and short videos devoid of commentary. This makes it possible to tell at a glance whether this is something in which we personally would be interested, without producing the impression that we have now found out enough about it to know that we are happy that it exists but do not feel the need to see it in person. (This latter perception is usually wrong—non-digital work usually needs to be seen directly, not via a digital reproduction—but understandable. That is, however, another subject entirely.)
I now reach my long-deferred conclusion. Just in case you are skimming this, as well you should.
Oughtn’t we to have a single go-to site that incorporates this sort of information? Yes, yes, yes, I know it would be cluttered with personal puffery in no time if it were not hedged about with crowd-enforced rules—but unspoken rules of behavior have already evolved in the friends network to which I allude. People seldom post every single work in their exhibition; they pick and choose, and discreetly provide a URL for more information. Friends and other strangers (I quote Bob Dylan with that phrase) who are enthusiastic about a show are even more credible sources, but there are many occasions when we would not know about very good work if the artist were not engaging in a species of self-publicizing that is more than braggadocio.
Some friends (not on Facebook) plan their weekends by investigating the gallery websites and looking at works by the artists having openings (not necessarily the works to be exhibited in the upcoming show). These folks already self-edit because they know what they like, and they do not expect to find anything that interests them at certain galleries—but these ipso facto uninteresting exhibition venues are different galleries for different folks (sorry to echo the wording of the late Fritz Perls’ annoying maxim).
When I suggest that these folks might be missing something and ought to be given a more comprehensive way of rapidly perusing the available options, I am told that there are link-based arts calendars for that. But bare lists of names with clickable ways to get more information require more patience than most folks have. We have nothing in between listings and, if I may allude to a literary reference I have been trying in vain to track down, more than we wanted to know about penguins.
Right now, one-sentence verbal summations combined with something like Terry Kearns’ short exhibition videos seem like an excellent way of accessing basic information that can then be followed up on. (I assume the gallery URL could be embedded in the video caption.) Terry Kearns has said that although he is fulfilling a perceived need, he doesn’t want to take it up as a profession.
We have new ways of accessing information; we ought to figure out how to use them in ways that benefit communities with a wide variety of interests, technological savvy, and attention spans.