Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Art: Process or Result?

We can learn an interesting lesson about how today’s art critics think, by looking at two articles by the same reviewer in last Friday’s New York Times fine arts sections.

Look at these two paintings, and ask yourself which one is better art?  The first is Lady Lillith by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1866-1873), which is an oil painting.

The second is Russian Empire from the series Empire Descending a Staircase by Joe Zucker (2012), which the artist made by removing the paper from a piece of drywall to expose the gypsum, slicing the gypsum into 1/4 inch squares, and then painting each square individually.

There is no question in the mind of Times art critic Roberta Smith that Russian Empire is a far better work of art.

Rosetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites in the exhibit she reviewed were creating escapist art that Smith says is the ancestor of today’s kitch.  “The badness at its core is completely familiar.  … Looking at these paintings, you can see it all coming.  … the visual platitudes of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney; the hallucinatory brightness of psychedelic posters, the sugary scenes of Thomas Kincaid, and the heavy-handed medievalism of countless movies and television shows….”

By contrast, the paintings of Zucker’s Empire series, she says, evoke “flat-band weaving, mini-mosaics, and, from a distance, lush, dappled velvet” (but this obviously does not remind her of the common genre of kitchy paintings done on velvet). Their columns, some broken or falling, represent the crumbling of empires, emphasized by the slightly crumbling gypsum of their surfaces.  She concludes, “… these works gain strength as you look at them, their beauty and their pessimism running neck in neck.”

To anyone who is not indoctrinated in modern art, the most striking difference between the two paintings is that Rosetti’s involves skill and craftsmanship, while Zucker’s is nothing more than a clever idea.

Rosetti is skilled enough, for example, to make the oil paint represent the different ways in which light strikes Lilith’s skin and gown, and represent the face of the model Alexa Wilding.

Zucker shows no skill at all.  He has a clever idea: paint on sliced wallboard, so the crumbling of the gypsum represents the crumbling of the empires, which is no better than a pun in visual form.  There is even feebler attempt at cleverness in the title of the series, “Empire Descending a Staircase,” referring to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.”

One look at Zucker’s painting shows that this clever technique produces a clumsy result: the columns are stiff and awkward, particularly their bases and capitals.  This clumsiness is a result of the technique itself: to paint individual quarter-inch squares of crumbly material, you do not need much skill, and you cannot create a finished product that has much subtlety.

Common sense tells us that, if a technique produces an awkward result, we should use some better technique instead.  Our modernist art critics miss this obvious point because they are more interested in the process of creating the work of art than in the finished product. If you want the critics to swoon, use some unconventional process to produce a work of art, regardless of the result it produces. It is no wonder that we get results of such low quality.

Of course, Roberta Smith is right to criticize Pre-Raphaelite art as escapist.  The Pre-Raphaelites had the skills of artists, but they used these skills to create a fantasy world that helped viewers escape from reality, making them second-rate artists.

But Smith should save most of the vituperation she directs at the Pre-Raphaelites for Zucker and the other modernists she regularly adulates in her reviews.  They are far, far below the level of second-rate artists.

They are not artists at all.  They are only clevers.

See Smith's reviews of the Pre-Raphaelites and of Zucker.