When Great Art is Not Good

I am not an expert on art but I am an expert on gullibility, and art appreciation (and certainly art economics) can in part be understood as an example of mass gullibility at work. Take the case of an “anti-art” work titled “merda d’artista” created in 1961 by Italian artist Piero Manzoni who filled 90 tin cans with what he claimed was his own excrement, sealed them up and labeled them in four languages. One of them, “artist’s shit” is in the permanent collection of Britain’s Tate Modern gallery. The museum’s catalogue describes it as a commentary on the evolution of art from infants who play with their feces, but a friend of Manzoni (the artist died in 1963 at age 29) claimed that the cans (which he says are actually filled with plaster) were the artist’s joke on consumerism and the stupidity of the art market. If so, Manzoni must be laughing in Heaven as they have appreciated considerably in value, with one of the cans recently selling at auction for over $200,000.

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Interestingly, despite art being a major topic of philosophers going back to Plato and Aristotle, there is no agreement regarding the definition of art, let alone what makes it great. At least four art theories have been espoused, with one of them—“formalism”—emphasizing the role of artist skill in crafting a piece. That is why most amateur art, such as by children, is usually of poor quality.

Almost all definitions of decent art emphasize two things: (a) that it requires considerable effort and judgment (a found object that is not altered may be attractive but is not art), and (b) people knowledgeable about art consider it as such. The first (effort) would rule out as good art the squiggles that Picasso (certainly great in his more serious pieces) churned out in a few minutes for a documentary in the 1950s, while the second (consensus) brings us smack dab into “Emperor’s New Clothes” territory. An example of both occurred when the father of a friend proudly told me in 1962 that he had acquired one of these squiggle cartoons (which Picasso claimed he had destroyed) for “only” a few thousand dollars.

The fact that my friend’s father considered the squiggle valuable reflected not its quality as art but the fact that it was a “Picasso” and a rare one at that. An even more extreme example of that involved famed sculptor Carl Andre (notorious for being acquitted of the murder of his wife who fell from their 34th story apartment balcony). A few years after the acquittal the owner of a small Denver gallery invited me to come by before the opening of a show featuring two new works by Andre.

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When I came into the gallery, the owner yelled at me when I was about to accidentally step on one of the works. The work, priced at $25,000, consisted of five or six 12-inch-square cheap quality floor tiles (which could be purchased at a tile remainder store for a dollar each) laid out in a straight line. The other work, equally priced, consisted of identical tiles, but this time laid out in an L-shape. The gallerist seemed quite proud for having attracted the New York-based Andre (known for low stone-wall type sculptures) to an opening, but it took considerable willpower to not tell her that the artist was taking her for a rube too dumb to know that the works, which I doubt took more than ten seconds each, were a joke at her expense.

At the risk of seeming to have old fashioned taste (in fact, my house is filled with semi-abstract pieces) I think that much of what passes for great modern art is crap, considered great only because one or more taste-makers gave it their seal of approval. That description applies to much art characterized as Abstract Expressionism (AE), an extreme non-figurative school that flourished in New York in the 1950s and 1960s but no longer is much produced. Initially, such art attracted little attention, but it became en vogue when the influential art critic Clement Greenberg talked up the importance of the drip paintings by Jackson Pollack, whose pieces today sell for as much as $200 million each.

While much modern art is beautiful (one definition of art) or intellectually evocative (another definition, which covers Manzoni and other forms of Conceptualism such as Dada), one cannot say that either adjective applies to the paintings of Clifford Styll, whose importance is mainly historical, in that he was the first of the New York School painters to eschew any semblance of realism.

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For 20 years until his death Styll no longer allowed his work to be sold (reflecting his anger at the commercial art world) but then mass gullibility caused the city of Denver to be the only major city to accept an invitation from Styll’s estate to build a museum dedicated solely to his work. As Styll’s estate had failed to create an endowment, they were able to solve that problem by convincing a court to allow it to sell off three paintings, which netted in excess of $100 million. Unlike Pollock, there is nothing beautiful in Styll’s “color field” paintings (which look like cowhides from Hell) and the only feeling they inspire (a defining aspect of AE art) is dread.

I realize that I keep talking about money, but that helps me to emphasize that the only definition of great art in the current climate is the amount of money that rich people, encouraged by interest-conflicted art advisers, are willing to spend. Unlike other forms of financial gullibility (such as Bitcoins) which usually cause a dupe to lose their shirt, there are few popular artists so bad as to prevent an art dupe from making out like a bandit. But allowing others to define what we should enjoy and value is a psychological phenomenon that applies to far more than modern art.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan

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