Rant: Why Are My Views Anathema to the Art World?

“I must confess that the other mods and I find ourselves strongly disagreeing with you in almost all cases…” ~ Head Moderator of the Art-History subreddit.

I received the above message some months ago after the Art History subreddit censored an article of mine I shared which was critical of Banksy’s stunt in which one of his prints, selling for a cool million, self-destructed at Sotheby’s. I’ll touch on that briefly, but the most important thing here is the statement that the mods, together, strongly disagree with me in almost all cases regarding art and art history. Now, why might that be?

What they think, to judge by some of the arguments the head moderator made, is that I have a comparatively inferior understanding of art history, and have wrong-headed (because unethical or immoral) conclusions. I guess they see me as a sort of basement, wannabe Alex Jones of the art and art history world. I assume they think I don’t know my art history and am just shooting from the hip, from an alt-right perspective.

How did I come to have such an abysmal and offensive understanding of art and art history? Part of it must be my lack of advanced education on the topic. If you look at my undergrad transcript from UCLA, below, you’ll notice I did only get a B+ in my 19th Century European Art course.

Yeah, that was a rather rigorous one, and I was more dedicated to my art-making classes. But, it was a serious class at UCLA, and my professor didn’t think my views at the time were egregious.

I did better in my more contemporary art history course:

Whew, I aced the Art & Artists – History and Theory class, even made the Dean’s Honors list that term. You might also notice a smattering of Literature classes, and all my art classes. The lowest grade I got in any course was a B+.

In grad school you just got a 4.0 and no grade in every class, so that’s not really worth sharing. Suffice it that I graduated and took a slew of art theory classes and passed them all. Also had the obligatory year of art history in community college, starting with the cave paintings at Lascaux, moving up through Gilgamesh and the pyramids… all the way to Jackson Pollock and Jenny Holzer. Also aced it.

The point of all the educational blather is that I am not unfamiliar with the model of art history the mods at the Art History subreddit subscribe to. I learned all that, and proved I mastered it, in higher education.

So, how am I so ignorant now?

I think I might have got this line of argument from “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tencencies:

What are you trying to say, I’m crazy?!
When I went to Your schools
I went to Your churches
I went to Your institutional learning facilities!
So how can you say I’m crazy?!

I’m not. I’ve gone beyond the college level of art and art history, and beyond the paradigm of 25 years ago, where these people are still stuck. I’ve evolved, they haven’t. They are still believers, I’m not. My arguments are more reasonable, and more ethical, not less so. As evidence I’ll give you some arguments this head moderator leveled against my Banksy article.

You seem to be more focused on a personal, emotional attack than anything intelligently conducive to discussion.

This is a mere assertion, and thus can be countered with another contrary assertion. The article was a dispassionate analysis. Merely characterizing it with a stock criticism is disingenuous.

But you seem too caught up with charging Banksy with… being too successful?

His success within the blue-chip art world is entirely relevant when he presents himself as an outsider fighting up against an institution, in which his gallery is selling 750 “limited edition” prints of the same image for $50,000 each. That’s over $37,000,000 for one original stencil. His success for selling prints for millions of dollars in the gallery system questions his protest against his art being sold in the gallery system for millions of dollars. That’s not an emotional argument, but rather quite simple logic.

Aside from smart-Alec gripes about the subject’s gesture and anatomy (shall I remind you that Ingres butchered his anatomy far more?), the whole argument boils down to a complaint that Banksy makes too much money.

I did mention that Banksy’s Balloon Girl has rather botched anatomy if you look closely. Look at her ear, below:

[If you want to deflate Banksy’s art, just imagine that his politics were conservative. Say, the same exact style and placement of his art in the public, but instead of a little girl with a balloon, it was a woman with an aborted baby floating away on a string. All of a sudden the art would be panned as utter shit. If the value of art is wholly dependent on the correct political stance, that’s a problem, and an enormous one. The best art succeeds in spite, or irrespective of political allegiance.]

Sure, Banksy’s girl’s anatomy is simplified because it’s a stencil, but her ear looks deformed if you bother to ponder it for a few seconds, and it’s also too high, small, and far back on the head.  Now let’s compare this to Ingres’ far worse butcheries of anatomy:

If you look carefully at Jupiter and Thetis, above, the woman’s ear is also too small, high up, and far back. The pinky of her left hand is oddly long and thin. The difference is that these are deliberate, highly elaborate, stylistic changes executed by a technical virtuoso (and her ear doesn’t look like an abomination on closer inspection). The idea that Banksy can better render anatomy than Ingres is a joke.

In your mind, does someone paying a million dollars for a work symbolize the acceptance of the work by the “establishment?

If the work is being auctioned at Southeby’s, the artist is tied for the most famous living artist, and the artist sells hundreds of other works in the gallery system for tens of thousands each, yes.

Consider that, if the Mona Lisa was dented, it would lose much of its value. But that bares absolutely no effect on the importance and quality of the work.

The argument here is that if the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece, and would still be one if it were damaged and its monetary value were compromised, than the value in dollars placed upon a work is not synonymous with its art historical value.

This is a strawman argument. It’s asserting that my perspective on art is bankrupt because I equate the price tag on art with the quality of the art. This presumes that somewhere, anywhere, I ever argued that the more an art work sells for the better it is. In reality, I’ve argued the opposite, and in spades.

In one of my very first posts on this blog, from 2013 — Buying Barnett Newman’s Art on Faith — my subtitle was, “Today’s elite art buyers deluded into investing tens of millions on the Emperor’s new canvas.”

In another of my first articles, also from 2013 — Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” isn’t art, it’s a decorative lawn ornament — I clearly establish in the opening paragraph that there’s no relationship between selling price and intrinsic artistic merit:

“Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” just sold for $58,405,000 at Christie’s, on November the 12th. If you are fabulously wealthy and missed out, fear not, there are four more copies in four more primary colors. And If one is on a tighter budget, near identical copies could undoubtedly be made for a fraction of the cost, and yet they’d be worthless without the Koons brand-name.”

Something that sells for over fifty million is worthless.

I hope that illustrates for you that there is a difference between the economics of a work and actual, substantial merit.

I guess he showed me, boy howdy! Next he’ll teach me my ABCs.

My article was censored, and all the mods strongly disagree with me on pretty much anything and everything I write, and yet his three main points were bogus: a characterization; a bizarre elevation of Banksy’s ability to render anatomy above that of Ingres; and a strawman argument.

True, I wrote my article on Banksy’s stunt somewhat hastily, as I wanted to get it out fast, and establish my own take before everyone else. Most the initial responses were merely stating what happened, and critical opinion came later. Now that the dust has settled, a lot of other people who the esteemed gatekeepers of the Art-History subreddit probably respect have brought up some of the same issues that I did.

Similar to the strong disagreement I get from the Art History community on reddit, anything I submitted to the Art Theory reddit (note my solid A in my Art Theory class at UCLA) is voted down into oblivion.

Anyone who’s tried to debate me has used the same sort of tactics of projection, straw man arguments, and the like, as the “head moderator” above.

But, again, the main point here, that I’m struck by, is that my views and my art are hated by the art community. What is so bad about what I say and what I produce visually? Am I saying something ridiculous, and is my art just ghastly bad?

When I pan back, it seems my arguments are rather obvious and sensible. I tend to look for truth in the compromise and balance, and rather than rejecting the past and clamoring for a radical new revolution, I believe we need to build on and learn from what has worked in the past, add our own innovations and improvements. But today’s orthodoxy is the rejection of the past, the demonization of Western art history (and culture), and assuming that the more radical a stance is, the more important and relevant it is (assuming it’s radically on the left). I see radical art and ideas on par with a radical diet. Might be good for a day or two, but, ultimately, it leads to self-destruction.

Let me give an example. While I consider post-modernism to be an addendum to modernism, pointing out some of its omissions and shortcomings, contemporary art theory sees post-modernism as replacing modernism, and everything that went before. Last century was big on radical — this is the year zero — type revolutions, and while we look back in horror at what happened in the political sphere when people went too far out on a limb with radical new ideas, we praise the most ridiculous in the art world as the most important. The lunatic fringe is the norm. If you pan back and say, God forbid, that Marcel Duchamp was NOT the best artist of the last century, but a comparatively minor artist prankster, who made some witty artifacts attacking the art world, and then forsook art in order to play Chess, than you are a hopeless reactionary. In the end a urinal, exhibited as a prank, is heralded as the best artistic achievement of the last century, and that’s orthodoxy [just imagine a flushing toilet as the greatest musical achievement, or a printed ad as the highest literature]. I say it’s a minor prank of some curiosity. I must be stupid.

And that’s just my impression this morning, over a cup of coffee. If you’ve read some of my more philosophical musings, you know that I consider all opinion necessarily narrow and a projection upon boundless reality. I’m happy to be wrong, even if it’s embarrassing, because once I discover I was wrong, I am no longer wrong, and I have a broader or deeper understanding, which I seek. It’s like being trapped in a maze, with the Minotaur fast approaching, and someone showing me the way out.

But even if I were mistaken about some things, I’m not the one who censored the other person, and I’m not the one saying that a group of people, including me, unanimously agree that you are shit. I’m the guy who’s being censored, voted down into oblivion, and shit on. Perhaps it is a bit bold for me to reject that paradigm which accrues so much authority to itself, but, even though I’m not looking for radical revolution as the only solution, I’m not at all persuaded by mere authority, wherever it comes from. I’ll stick to my own viewpoint for now, until I find something better.

[Feel free to point out typos and grammar errors… I consider it free editing.]

~ Ends