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A Democracy of Mediocrity

April 9, 2018

I have been writing about art professionally for fifty years and for forty-five years for Vie des Arts. The profession has changed over this time and I am not sure for the better. Technology, mostly the internet, has made everyone a critic. Certainly score one for democracy, but it has made my job more difficult and made the substantiality of art magazines, like Vie des Arts, equally difficult. If you are reading this essay from a copy of the magazine that you bought or subscripted to, then, perhaps, I am preaching to the choir.

The big problem is, of course, that everyone with access to a computer, iPad, or even a smart phone, and the internet can publish what they think is art criticism without the filter of editing. The fact that much of art criticism that is published online is rubbish is beside point that everybody thinks that they are entitled to an opinion, and indeed they are, and, in many peoples mind, all opinions are equal. We are left with a democracy of mediocrity. What needs to be emphasized is that what matters in art criticism is art. That fact is increasingly lost in the fog of ersatz political science that passes for much art criticism these days and I am using the term science rather loosely.

Too often I am engulfed in self-righteous articles that demand art works be removed from exhibitions or museums, and sometimes destroyed, because of the real or imagined actions of an artist and urged to boycott them entirely. Unfortunately rants of this kind are not limited to online, but appear in print as well. I would like to think that this problem was solved by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who insisted that art exist well beyond the artist who created it. His argument is well put by James Joyce in the last third of his 1914 book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yes, Chuck Close may well be a dirty old man firmly encased for years in his wheelchair who may have once said something smutty many years ago to someone about their breasts, but his paintings are still pretty good or, at least, I like them—they stand on their own remote from their maker. Using the standards of today’s new art puritans our art galleries and museums’s walls would be stripped bare of almost everything worth looking at. I could supply a very long list of dead white guys, but I’ll give you just a few: Caravaggio, Cellini, Courbet, Dali, Degas, Delacroix, and Duchamp. Rotters all and I am only to D. The secret, of course, you have the know, or think you know, the life style of the artist in order to disapprove both of it and his art. Otherwise, you run the danger of enjoying the art based solely on what you see.

Lets meditate on enjoying what you see. I maintain that there are rules that make a painting a work of art regardless of it being realistic or abstract or its subject matter or even the intention of the artist. Now these are rules that I am not making up and, yes, artists have broken rules and made good art, but exceptions prove the rules and the artists who break them know the rules well. Some rules are absolute: some colours advance, yellow, and some, purple, recede; the way we ‘read’ a picture—left to right and the diagonals from bottom left to top right. Composition is composition and has a lot to do visual perception. Using these rules to make a good picture is the job of the artist. Artists lets the pictures go from their imagination, we receive the image and when the result is good it is art.

My judgement whether a painting is a work of art is usually made within a fraction of a second and then I take it from there. That is when I look at everything else and the everything else is what is important. Of course, subject and the intent of the artist are important. An artist I admire, Stephen Scott, told me recently that painting is all about intent. I am, on the other hand, just happy that he lays the paint down well. If I don’t think that a painting is art, I ignore it regardless of the artist’s intention. He or she can be heartfelt about their subject, war is bad, racism is bad or any number of bad things. It’s just what they are doing is not art and I am an art critic and I would rather write about art. If that makes me a formalist so be it.

A last point. We live in an age of what is called curatorial activism and I do curate as well. Message to curators, young and old, it is about the art and not you. I do read quite a bit breathless prose on line about curation. It is the fault of French post modern and structuralist literary thinkers who wanted to reduce literature to text that led to art critics and curators thinking that they could reduce art works to objects to prove their half-baked ideas. The result was un-viewable exhibitions and art texts that were equally un-readable.

Perhaps the problem of art criticism in this day and age is that there is just too much art. We think that we can absorb art through reproduction on the web and understand it. The simple truth is that we cannot. We need to stand in front of an art work and let it sink in. The old chestnut that a picture is worth ten thousands words is true and let me, a cranky old art critic, leave you, gentle reader, with the cliché that a thing of beauty IS a joy forever.

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, 3 March 2018.
This article was originally published in Vie des Arts number 250, Spring 2018, pg. 83.

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