Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Not to Write Art Reviews in 2010 (Never Mind that I Claim the Contrary Herein)

For every art review in which I have taken pleasure or have enjoyed writing, there is probably one I either regret painfully, or suffered miserably to write, or both. There is seldom enough time to do it right, either in terms of thought or back-story research, and finding short cuts becomes essential, in spite of what my old Austrian professor said in a doctoral seminar about stopping and learning a whole new academic discipline if that is what it takes to do it right. (Deadlines won't allow it, and one can't always beg off on grounds of lack of information.) On the other hand, the late Gregor Sebba also said things like "Always look for something that does not fit when you begin to approach a topic. That is often the key to understanding the whole work of art because that is the problem the artist could not quite resolve." I forgot this recently when omitting mention of something that had annoyed me as an anomaly; it was indeed the key to the whole exhibition.

There is seldom enough time to do it right no matter how much leisure time we carve out to devote to the project, and the digital age has even more factors militating against a considered judgment than the print era ever did. The need for speed has made snap judgers out of us all, as many a person who hit "send" has reflected a moment or two later.

Blogs at least allow for a slight and mutilated piece of reflection that does not pretend to definitive status (only to the status of, say, the Oracle at Delphi).

I wrote the fragment below a number of days ago, then circulated it to see if it warranted expansion, but have decided, in the absence of sufficient feedback on the subject, that it began as a blog post and should remain one in exactly the form in which it was originally written. It contains an obscure private joke that I wager no one will read closely enough to ask me about. Here 'tis:

Crying over Neil Gaiman’s Cat: or, How to Write Art Reviews in 2010

Jerry Cullum

I once managed to upset a gallery owner who had long begged for a “critical review” by pondering why one of her best artists made so many charming paintings of children playing on the seashore when an edgily unhappy-looking female nude, hung way in the back of the gallery, showed there were more things going on in her head than that.

A few days ago, I was led by a blog post to look at Neil Gaiman’s story of one of his cats that got trapped in the depths of a newly installed bathroom, which had to be torn apart to rescue the cat. We learned from the back story that the cat is blind, has been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, and has an irresistibly odd cry that does not resemble a meow.

Put that way, the story almost makes us giggle from discomfort at the emotional buttons it pushes. Set forth as Gaiman recounted it, it was almost impossible not to burst into tears, even for those who have always enjoyed the joke that the internet was invented to transmit pictures of cats.

The two stories are related. I wrote in the review that life is hard, and people have the right to buy pictures that make them feel better when they get home, whether those pictures be children playing by the seashore, baskets of kittens, fields of wildflowers, sexually arousing figure studies, or snarky pictures of blood dripping from skulls and daggers, or patterns of exact geometry or atmospheric swirls of contrasting or complementary colors. The problem was how people went about evaluating the aesthetic qualities of what made them feel happier, and whether the art writer could modify what made art audiences feel happier by writing about what made this a good or bad example of art.

We cry, if we do, over Gaiman’s cat because we identify with primary processes: the desires that date from before we had words to talk about them; desires such as a love of softness and warmth, of certain kinds of food, of being accepted unconditionally and held close or left alone as we found preferable, of communicating our needs just as we chose and having the needs met in general. Those needs and desires, and our rages at the world’s failure to meet them, get carried on into our adult lives, as we all know. Today, people seem to derive great pleasure in reverting to toddlerhood in dozens of different ways, usually while being self-congratulatory at the quality of their grown-up responses.

So how do we disentangle our primary processes, the stuff we got in toddlerhood, from the pleasures and methods of making judgments that we acquire later on: the things that happen to us as we get polite social behavior beaten into us, and as we begin to figure out how to create our own distinct versions of what our society or our peer group would prefer that we do instead of what we would really like to be doing?

I have suggested that there are good and bad ways of making almost any type of art. (I am sure there is some type I can’t conceive of that is so pre-infantile, so unreflectively “not even wrong” that it is inevitably, intrinsically bad. There definitely is, at the opposite extreme, a species of conceptual art that makes failure or badness impossible, because to imagine anything at all that obeys its rules is to make a successful and ipso facto profoundly illuminating piece of art. Potato.)

Given the different types of people that we are and the different types of experiences that made us who we are, from skateboarders to sedentary readers, Orthodox monks to hedge fund managers to gang members to poets and devotees of Salvador Dali, it may be almost impossible to make the same people enjoy diametrically opposed types of art.

The most we can hope for is that we can explain why a given example of a type of art is a good or bad example of its kind, and explain who it is intended to address, and whether this mode of address comes with inbuilt difficulties. (It is possible to take a photograph of a kitten that does not evoke the “awwwww” response, for example, but there are major psychological hurdles to be overcome, just as it is difficult but not at all impossible to make a work of graffiti art or its precursor genres of psychedelia that does not simply evoke the “oh, wow” response.)

There is much more to be said on this topic, but that’s as far as I can push this before showing up for my day job.

No comments: