Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Emporer's New Painting: Clarification of previous post

My last post about the seven year old winning a prestigious art contest probably felt like it came out of left field to most of you, but it is something that I've been thinking about for the past several months. What has happened in the world of literature is similar to what has happened in the world of art.

Up until the 20th century, anyone could look at a painting, fresco, sculpture, etc. and tell whether what they were looking at was done by a master artist or a student. Monet, Surat, Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Reynolds, etc. are master artists. No one has to tell you that, all you have to do is look at what they did and tell it was art.

Then we got into the 20th century and artists slapped their names on urinals and called it art. Or they laid out huge canvases, swung paint cans around slinging paint onto the canvas, and called it art. And now we have to have art connoisseurs, gallery owners, and art museum curators to tell us which contemporary artists are great and which are not. With the added bonus that you're an idiot if you can't tell how great these contemporary artists are. And if you like the work of Thomas Kincade or Christian Reise Lassen, then you're an ignorant slob with no taste or style.

I'm sorry. If I look at a painting and it looks like a drunk monkey was handed a paint brush, then it isn't great art. While Leilah Poulain's painting of a penguin is really good for a six year old, it belongs on her mom's refrigerator not hanging in a prestigious art gallery. This is a wake up call to the leaders of the art world: I hope they answer it.

As for how this relates to the literary world, a similar thing has happened in literature. Prior to the 20th century, you could tell whether you were reading a good story or poem.

Now we have fiction with no plot, no theme, no characters, no point... Existential, stream of consciousness brain barf that we're told is brilliant. If you can't tell how brilliant it is, then you're an ignorant, illiterate slob with no style or taste.

"And how dare the bookstores put my great literary masterpiece on the same shelf as bestselling novels written by talentless hacks."

Yeah. Right. I can't wait for the literati to get its wake-up call.


  1. I keep reading posts like this about art and poetry and they always make me sad.

    My experience with art (and poetry, but that's stoneaxe's post, not yours) appears to be radically different. I love to go to galleries and museums, and while I really appreciate a good classical painting (Rembrandt and the Dutch Baroque guys are some of my favorites) and detailed surrealism (hello, Dali!), there's also a whole lot of modern art I really dig.

    I guess I've never had anybody tell me that it wasn't legitimate to like what I did, or not like what I didn't in terms of art. I could always say "I love this because x, y, z" or "I don't care for this one so much because..." and so on, and no one, that I can recall, has ever called me an idiot for it, or even seemed to think less of me. I've even had folk go "You know, I never noticed that, but I totally see what you're saying."

    By contrast, I've totally had the experience multiple times of trying to talk to a random someone about art, books, or poetry (I think totally innocuous questions, too, such as "do you have a favorite painting/poem?") Only to have people immediately give some variation of "No, because I'm just too stupid/uncultured/ignorant for that sort of thing!" That's not me being a jackass, people are constantly saying this, about themselves, to me, in, I guess, some sort of preemptive defense. Smart-ass people too. My mother, who is a college educated business woman and very well read in fiction, immediately says this if you bring up poetry. (I also occasionally get some variation on "oh, thank god, I thought I was the only one. It's been so long since I've gotten to talk about this")

    I mean, what went on? Who told you your opinion wasn't valid and why did you listen to them? To me, it feels very much like people seem to lash out at wide swaths of art, both written and visual, because they attribute it all to some malicious elite who exists for the sole purposes of being wrong and making everyone else feel stupid. That's never been my experience, either with art or with fiction, and I've known some modern instillation artists (who, incidentally, I think are just as nervous and insecure as the people worried they might get judged for interpreting the art wrongly- they feel like they have this great idea that speaks to something larger or something personal, and they really really want to move and impress you in a way that no one ever has before, you know? To share that sublime moment when both the artist and the audience _get it_. Or at least that's been my experience.)

    I think real innovation, real experimentation, requires some false starts, and there's a lot of modern art that's fall on its face bad. But there's some of it out there that's gorgeous too (also, again, poetry, performance art, experimental literature). Please don't write it all off.

  2. It's not the art or the book or the poetry that I object to, it's the snotty attitude towards what appeals to most people.

    I like Thomas Kincade's paintings. This is what is said about them (from Wiki): "Others have written that his paintings are merely kitsch, without substance, and have described them as chocolate box art." I read that and it makes me feel like an idiot because his art appeals to me.

    Most of my favorite authors are NY Times bestselling authors. What appeals to me, appeals to the majority of readers. Kurt Vonnegut is the one who got his knickers in a twist because his literary masterpieces were on the same shelf as bestsellers. And I've read on more than one occassion someone saying that they won't read anything that is on the bestseller list. And yes, it is said in such a way that I feel like an idiot because I do enjoy reading bestsellers.

    As for poetry, the criteria that I used to select the poetry for Emerald Tales was that I understood it and it fit the theme of the issue. And I had more than one person say to me, "I don't normally enjoy (modern) poetry, but I liked all the poetry in Emerald Tales."

    If what appeals to you doesn't appeal to the majority, then you're not going to encounter situations where you're made to feel like an idiot.

    The snotty attitude towards art, books, and poetry that appeals to the masses is causing you a problem as well. You can't find anyone to talk to, because we have been made to feel stupid for enjoying "bestselling, kitschy, chocolate box art." We don't see it as kitschy. We buy prints of it to put on our walls.

    It takes a lot of guts in today's artistic environment to say I like the art of Thomas Kincade or the novels by Nora Roberts. I know that there is someone out there reading this who is looking down on me because of it. And while I won't buy into their crap, it does make me hesitant to have a conversation about art and literature.