Obviousness, Elitism, and Taste

As an art junkie, one thing I find extremely interesting is the “is it art” question. I’m especially* interested in those artists which the art world proclaims to not be artists.

*perversely perhaps.

Roughly sketching the territory here. Anne Geddes and Thomas Kinkade are solidly in the not-art side of this camp. William Wegman appears to be the boundary line. Andy Goldsworthy is legit. Barely.

The “good vs. important vs. popular” question really is at the heart of this. Popular is the easy metric. What makes something good or important is much harder to define. I covered some of this territory in my posts on ruin porn and kitsch and on art photography. In short, the good or important metrics involve whether the works move beyond the obvious and actually take a position which adds to the our understanding of what is depicted.

This is why Richard Prince is art and the advertisements he appropriates are not.

But even within the “popular only” group it’s worth taking a look every once in a while to see if what we’ve dismissed as kitsch may have other merits. It’s worth looking at Kinkade*—or similarly, the appeal of Celine Dion—since his popularity itself can be seen as an artistic statement about what people find appealing. Anything which can stir extremely loyal reactions or extremely negative reactions shouldn’t be dismissed offhand as crap. It may still not be good or important, but it needs to be looked at with some seriousness.

*Note. That link made me rethink why I like Todd Hido. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what that rethink means though.

An the flip side of this coin, I’m also interested in good or important artists or artworks which have become kitsch as a result of being too popular. The art world has a deep suspicion of things which are too popular and the backlash against popular things is its own weird phenomenon.

When I’m feeling generous, I chalk it up to a backlash against the obvious. Anyone who bothers to become an expert in something does so out of the intellectual curiosity to know more than just the obvious. So it becomes easy to think of people who don’t move past the obvious as being intellectually lazy—forgetting that there was once a point when all we knew was the obvious and that someone who only knows that may just be getting interested in the subject.

Also, it’s sad to give up on those things which initially attracted us just because they’re obvious and we want to distinguish ourselves as being experts. It’s perfectly fine to like Ansel Adams, Romeo and Juliet, Gustav Klimt, or La Boheme. They’re all fantastic and it’s important and expected to know them.

At the same time, there is a huge trap whenever an artist becomes too popular—namely, that a super-popular artist’s work often loses any deeper meaning and instead becomes a product of the artist brand.

When a museum mounts a huge blockbuster show? Look out. These shows are often specimen-based and have given up on truly editing the work in favor of being completionist. Now, this can be done correctly by using the extra material to illuminate the good stuff. But all too often the artist brand is used lazily to suggest that because the artist is good, the artwork must also be good.

This is not the case. It can’t be the case. And this laziness is what contributes to great artists being called overrated. Just because a great artist made something does not mean that piece is inherently great. Yes, it may be valuable, but that is a value phenomenon, not an art-quality issue.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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