I’ve now written a heap of art criticism, and most of it fairly cutting, though that may more reflect our times than my temperament. I try to come to conclusions using reason, doing research, and coming at a problem from different angles. But I also try to remain open minded. Last night I watched a documentary singing the praises of Andy Warhol, who I despise enough that I usually insist on calling him by his real name, Andrew Warhola. Often my opinions put me out on a limb, and at odds with the dominant trends in contemporary art. What if I am wrong?
I have a saying about this – “As soon as you admit you’re wrong, you aren’t wrong anymore.” This applies to opinions, not guilt about having just committed a murder. In order to achieve a larger understanding, one needs to acknowledge one’s errors in thinking, and get on board the vehicle of better thought. When this happens it designates a clear step forward. But that is not everyone’s attitude, and there is a competing camp of thought, which is, “I have been right all along”.
The “I was always right” angle works with faith, authority, and allegiances. It’s good for things like fundamentalism, nationalism, classicism, racism, revisionist history, and cult thought. Here the importance is not on what is right, or on the quest for greater knowledge and understanding, but on WHO is right. It’s not about uncovering the truth, but enforcing it. Instead of being humble before reality, it asserts dominance over it, and over people. Instead of honest research, it offers biased propaganda. We all know about this in the realm of politics, but it also applies to art and art criticism, which is sometimes written with more than a little politics in mind, of the “we are better than everyone else” variety. I’ve become very suspicious of a linear, Western history of art that places American artists at the forefront of an artistic progress, that may itself be apocryphal.
Logically, if you feel a compulsion to be right, and to always have been right, you are more likely to be flat out wrong. You are less likely to test your beliefs, or be open to looking at contradictory ideas or findings. Sure, most of us fall in the middle somewhere, and muddle along with half-baked conclusions, and vague, unresolved notions we nevertheless live by. The best example of this is the near religious faith we Americans have in capitalism, and infinite expansionism, even as the excesses of capitalism have toppled the economy, left most of us with a fate of no-retirement, and expansionism has brought about overpopulation and over-pollution of our environment. It’s killing us, but to question it is sacrilege.
The thinking that puts more importance on who is right than on what is right is dangerous. We want to scoot to the other side. So, rather than priding ourselves on being right, we might also take pride in times we discovered we were wrong, and instead of vindictively insisting we were right anyway, evolved.
When I first was introduced to PhotoShop, while studying art as an undergrad at UCLA, I was upset. We didn’t have the software, my photography teacher just told us about how it could manipulate images. I didn’t like it. I think it just opened far too many possibilities, and at a time when I’d already spent years developing more traditional skills. Fast forward to 2014, and I do virtually all my work in Photoshop. I like to remember that at first I hated it.
Similarly, I like to remember the first time I listened to King Crimson and Gentle Giant. I bought two used records, and put them both on the turntable when I went to bed. I particularly liked to listen to music in the dark, with headphones. This was a nightly ritual. I was in High School at the time, and had entered my progressive rock phase. The Crimson album, for you aficionados out there, was Islands, which is a weird one. The Gentle Giant album was a compilation. Both records sounded so horrible to me it was like eating an unfamiliar meat, with an unsavory gravy, at a lukewarm temperature. It was aurally repugnant. Disgusting. I couldn’t even tell when the turntable switched albums because they were indistinguishably abysmal, two different piles of shit with the same smell.
The following morning, just to remind myself how ghastly the music was, I put one of the records on the turntable again. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. Now, even today, some 30 years later, I still listen to those same songs and marvel at them.
If you need to listen to tracks:
Gentle Giant (starts with breaking glass, brings in the keyboards, and the xylophone!) – The Runaway
King Crimson (with see-saw viola opening, then flute, bells, piano and weird vocals)– Formentera Lady
It’s a bit like the joke you laugh at more because you didn’t get it at first. But also because it was a very good joke and you had to reach to get it.
Of course I’m not saying that I’m going to decide later on that I love Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Wool, and Duchamp. I think I’ve already given them a good chance, and if I liked some of the most experimental and unpopular music rock had to offer when I was in my teens, I’m probably not just too dim to get Warhol now. This does bring up a question for myself – why do I like so much experimental and unpopular music, but dislike the visual equivalents? The answer is that they are NOT equivalents. When I was still 18 and entered community college, I loved the experimental vocal music of Meredith Monk and John Cage’s music for prepared piano, which I encountered through college radio.
Cage is the accepted musical equivalent of Duchamp, who I find about as exciting as a TV Dinner from the 70’s. The difference is that while Cage did some crazy and stupid experiments, it was part of a larger project of making interesting, intricate, and sophisticated music. Duchamp mostly stuck to the pranks, and that’s the sum of his repertoire.
If and when I turn out to be wrong about some or a lot of my conclusions, that will be a welcome discovery, presuming it leads to some greater understanding. The objective is deeper understanding, and that is the reward. There can be a pang when one discovers one was wrong, especially if one stuck one’s neck out on a topic in public. But then, when it happens to someone else, and that person says something like, “Oh, shit, I was wrong. I fucked up” I feel admiration for that person.
So, if I’m wrong, it’s good, as long as I continue to discover. You might question why have an opinion at all. “Don’t think too much.” “Just accept it.” But, in science, we progress by making and testing hypotheses, and based on the results making and testing new ones. If you don’t think or establish an opinion, there’s nothing to test.
In the last several months I’ve been engaged in constructing arguments about art (while also making it, of course). This also gives me ideas of where to take my own art. It’s a way to align one’s art practice with theory, and integrate it in a social and even political context. And it also helps one to cut through the bullshit, resist the pull of conformity to popular opinion, and recognize when grandiose claims made for someone like Warhol are just hype.
~ Ends (but there’s a brief tangent on Warhola beneath the line)
Here are some overarching, even messianic claims about Warhol, from the BBC special:
- Andy completely redefined the role of the artist.
- He genuinely changed art forever.
- He took really banal objects… and made it question the very nature of art.
- He took art out of the gallery and into the world around us.
- He told us who we are and what we would become, and showed us that art can illuminate these things.
- He was pointing the finger at all of us.
Wow! Holy shit on a shingle! And I found all his work trite. The only thing missing is any art that is really intrinsically any good. How can an artist be so influential, in a positive way (the plague can have a lasting effect on a society), without really ever making anything that good? The more a critic talks about how important an artist is, how influential, or how their work is iconic (McDonald’s double arches are iconic), the more they are trying to make up for the fact that the work itself is thin.
Most people I know, over a certain age, like the Beatles. Even if they hate some songs, there are usually a handful that they love. Nobody I know says they like the Beatles because they are important or influential. They like them because they like the music. Of course the Beatles ARE influential and arguably important, but it’s because their music was that good. I’d bet most people couldn’t give a shit if their favorite music is “important” or not. They listen to it because they like it. But with Warhol the fawning art critic, Alastair Sooke, was trying to make Warhol’s art great by asserting its exterior significance. You can make anything great if you can claim it changed art forever, whether it did or not, for good or not.
McDonald’s hamburgers could be said to have changed people’s diets, how we think about eating, and even our waistlines. That doesn’t actually make McDonald’s food the best cuisine of the 20th century. I’ll judge the hamburger by how it tastes, and by my own standards, thanks.
When I listened to the King Crimson and Gentle Giant albums for the second time, and I came to like them, it had nothing to do with any claims about the significance of the bands in question. It was because I started to understand the intrinsic complexity and beauty of their music.
Warhol was a commercial artist who managed to exhibit commercial illustration as fine art. The soup cans aren’t bad, and I enjoy reading all the labels on them. But did he really use his art to change the world, or just bring fashion and celebrity into the fine art realm, where it could be easily assimilated? I suspect many people like Warhol because it’s so easy to like his work, as long as you don’t expect much from it other than what you would from a commercial illustration, or from fashion in general. I like Warhol like I like candy, which is not really. I just don’t want it served up for dinner.