Recently it occurred to me that in the official "art world" the discussion of what makes art good or bad is, let's say... flexible. A critical theory classroom tends to be filled with students apparently in frightfully uncomfortable chairs, wrestling with the options in front of them. Do I finally shout out what I've been holding off on admitting, which is that I truly believe that some art is just plain crap or do I continue to hold off, hoping to uncover some deep meaning that explains why this painting looks like it was made by an elephant? Either way, the air is filled with confusion, hesitancy, and resentment and is made even worse when that one student who seems to always get it spits out something apparently brilliant in response to an artist defecating on a stage, leaving the rest of us resigned to either nod our heads in the hope others believe we understand now, or invite yet another frustrating hour of discussion by admitting that we don't, only to increase frustration by the time we finally give up.
For myself, I keep finding that a lot of art I would have labeled as "bad art" upon first viewing it is followed by at least an appreciation of the motives of the artist upon learning their intentions in making it. But what about real bad art? If you ask a person who is not an artist or a collector of art what they think bad art is they're likely to not hesitate to tell you exactly what they think. Having asked this question quite a lot in the past few years, I have found these answers to be the most common:
Louise Reilly Sacco, the Executive Director of the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) celebrates "an artist's right to fail," which is an almost entirely different discussion. The kind of art displayed in this museum is art that has been made with the best of intentions, but in one way or another failed.
In an interview she gave CBS Sunday morning news (1) Sacco states, "Bad art is first of all, art that is sincere and original and something went wrong in a way that's interesting... Like pornography, it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it." She goes on to explain that sometimes artists deliberately try to make bad art but that it is obvious when they do and that work does not get into the museum's collection. Apparently, bad art is as difficult to fake as good art.
In a discussion with Foad Afshar, an Art Education professor at NH Institute of Art, I was reminded of my own snobbishness toward bad art, something I have worked to abolish. The name, Thomas Kincaid and the images it evokes tend to have an effect on many people attempting to understand bad vs. good art. For me, it typically accompanies a rolling of the eyes and gestures of inducing vomiting. However, as Afshar explained, whether you are a fan or not, Kincaid's work is loved by many people who bought his paintings and put them in their homes, many of which may not have contained artwork previously. That deserves some amount of respect.
My own platform of bringing art into the lives of creativity starved non-artists is officially and ashamedly not as sturdy as I thought.
For my next exploration: De-skilled art and the intentions of artists who work this way.
I just watched, "What Makes Art Valuable?" a documentary put out by the BBC. It describes the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold and in the process discusses the elements that can raise the price for which a given piece is sold at auction. The monetary value of each piece is determined only by the price one is willing to pay, which can be increased or decreased based on many components, all relative to each interested buyer. At these prices paid for the top ten most expensive paintings in the world, materials and quality have very little if anything to do with it.
I was fairly disheartened to discover that for the most part, motives for paying outrageous sums of money to add a particular work to a buyer's collection typically had little to do with love for the artwork, itself. Most of those top ten paintings were purchased to serve as status symbols or financial investments. The key elements to an increase in value appears to be regarding the provenance of a given work.
In the case of a popular painting called "White Center" by Rothko, the auction price reached 72 million dollars in 2007, more than 3 times the record price of any other Rothko painting sold before it. The reason for the increase in auction value? It was owned by the Rockefeller family. In fact, this painting is widely known as "The Rockefeller Rothko." Now, not only does the purchaser get credit in the title, but first billing over the artist.
The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the prices are pushed as high as they are with the aim of keeping the game exclusive to the ridiculously wealthy. I further suspect that any object could be chosen for this game as long as there is only one of each object in existence and the sophistication level were respectfully high enough to be considered a classy investment. Otherwise, I am now convinced that if Beanie Babies were made singularly without ever being copied, we would occasionally hear reports on the Today Show of “Puffapotomus Perry” being sold at auction for a record breaking 45 million dollars.
What is worse is the fact that so many of these paintings immediately disappear from the public eye. Many collectors whisk the work away to be locked up in some vault. I simply cannot fathom the kind of greed it takes to purchase a painting made by an artist whose intentions are to communicate with the world and hide it away, possibly never to be seen again by anyone other than the buyer and a few other similarly wealthy and elite friends.
The highest amount paid for a painting was over one hundred and six million dollars. The piece was made by Picasso and titled, “Nude with Green Leaves and Bust.” This is the kind of money that could buy enough homes to house approximately one to four million homeless families in America.
Is one painting actually worth that much, just because someone is willing to pay that much, despite their motives for wanting it? I am offended by this as an artist as well as a human being. This is the kind of greed that sends makes artists like Banksy destroy their own work rather than allow it to be sold to some greedy collector with purely money on the mind.
In Colorado Springs, an artist named Ben Gonzalez experiments with the value of his own paintings. He creates work for his own enjoyment and need for expression, but also work that is intended for selling at whatever price the work will fetch. He has been known to sell art on the street as much as art in a gallery. This means a painting that he could easily sell for $1500 in a gallery, to a stranger, he will sell to someone he meets on the street who has fallen in love with the piece for whatever is in their pocket. He has sold some of his most successful pieces for as little as $20, simply because he felt the buyer connected so deeply with the piece. While this knowledge could lead to buyers taking advantage of this philanthropic dedication to furthering art appreciation, Gonzalez doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, a favorite way to share his work is to make a beautiful painting and then lean it against a wall or garbage bin in an alley in downtown Colorado Springs and wait hours for someone to take it. Interestingly, when he began dropping work off in regular places at regular times, he began noticing the same people sneaking out from their hiding places to collect his work, running away with their treasures. Each location had a different collector and none of them appeared wealthy or even middle class. Gonzalez has found this process very fulfilling as an artist and plans further experimentation.
Recently, I spoke with a group of artist peers about the work I have been doing with lined school paper. I told them about an artist who made a stack of hand drawn, lined, 3 hole-punched school paper as a work of art. We talked about the work and patience that it took this artist to complete the piece, which was over a year. One made the suggestion of wrapping the paper in plastic and inserting a label of some kind and somehow creating a working barcode and then placing the pack of paper on a shelf at Walmart, allowing it to be purchased by anyone shopping there. We all gasped and went silent as we considered the thought of it. I was surprised to suddenly feel exhilarated by the idea, which has led me down this road of discovering all the angles of the value in the art we make and the art we buy, as well as the art we give away or let go of, possibly never to lay eyes on again.
I am curiously excited about the freeing feeling I get from purposely making art that is meant to be consumed, destroyed, or lost in some way. Having been an artist who has a very hard time giving myself permission to start a piece for fear of failing myself and consequently my family or the even the entire world, the thought of creating work with the intent of letting it out of my grasp let alone existence itself is both frightening and liberating. And, at this time in my artistic life and career, It is an exercise I am most eager to explore.
For years I have thought it was the influence of family members and teachers that kept me from making art. I would sit in front of a blank canvas, an exciting new idea in my head, a pallet full of paint in one hand, a brush in the other, and yet puzzlingly unable to make any mark of any kind. Artist's block was the diagnosis I was given by professors, coupled with permission granted to paint whatever I wanted and still, I sat there, frustratingly full of anxiety, paralyzed by fear I simply could not understand.
But I didn't have artist's block. I had ideas, but I was afraid to try them. Artist's block sure wasn't the problem, so what could possibly be holding me back. I thought maybe it was because of things that were said to me when I was a kid. Grandma's counting out the possibility of making a living as an artist made that option null. My father's reprimanding and rules about not using my school paper for drawing? Only being allowed to draw on the backs of scrap paper or old bills or eventually, the inside of brown paper grocery bags, the bottoms cut off and the paper unfolded? Maybe it had to do with the value or more likely devaluing of artistic skill building or expression. This is what I went with for about the last decade.. It was someone else, someone with great influence on my developing sense of self worth that crippled me. Yeah, that was it.
Then something interesting happened. I decided that if I were ever going to get anywhere close to being able to tell someone why I make art AND have an intelligent, passionate answer I'd better start doing the hard work of confronting my fears, whatever they turned out to be. I started thinking about what actually happens to me when I'm in that paralyzed state and realized there had been some interesting self-talk happening.
My mentor and most inspired artist friend told me to write the things I said to myself down, to make a list of the thoughts and phrases that circled in my mind as I struggled to set paint to canvas. It took only minutes and to my surprise I had quite a lengthy list. What was most surprising was how much of it was never said by anyone outside of my own mind, ever:
After looking at my list I realized, none of these phrases were ever uttered by another person. I was doing this to myself. I have been the one devaluing my need and curiosity for artistic expression and I have been doing it my entire life. Granted, part of the reason I began these attacks on myself developed into their obsessiveness only by having begun with a handful of small suggestions to steer away from the world of art, but it was me that carried them in such a powerful way throughout my life.
What I am working on, now, is exercising my own freedom to make art, perfect or imperfect, salable or unsalable, good or bad. I am making it a priority to give myself permission to make art every day. Someone else told me recently that it is scientifically proven that, as an artist, if one cares about something, at least one million people in the world care about it, as well.
I started this series of work that I feel is happening in phases, but is focused on giving myself that permission to make art and be an artist. I am currently in a sort of stage of rebellion wherein my work is more of an exercise in using the materials I was never allowed to use, which, rather ironically turns out to be the least valuable and most unsavory choices for most fine artists, but nevertheless forbidden to me as a child exploring art.
The following posts will be focused on researching the value of artistic skills, the value of art, itself, including the materials with which it is made, why people choose the path of art, why I have chosen the path of art, and what I want to say. This is only the beginning as I fully expect to learn things that will have profound affects on my studies and the work I am producing in my studio.