Thursday, February 25, 2010

But is it art?

A few years ago a couple of friends invited me to a Wellington Art Society meeting to hear a lecture given by Gary Schwan, who was the art writer for the Palm Beach Post. Basically, he talked about his belief that most contemporary art was “crap.” Though it’s been a number of years since I heard him speak, I am fairly certain that my quote is correct, since his words made a huge impression.

At the time, I had just closed my psychotherapy practice and was beginning my new career as an artist. I hadn’t even started writing professionally. So being fairly ignorant about art world lingo, when he said “contemporary” I thought he was using the word literally, meaning present-day. And since the room was filled with current artists, I was shocked he was that forthright. As he talked, I did realize that he was referring to the most modern, cutting edge, avant-garde art about which I didn’t have strong feelings, and in part I agreed with him.

Recently, I have felt inundated by contemporary art exhibits, and like Gary Schwan my hackles have risen. First there was a “cutting edge” show at the Armory Art Center followed by Contempo at the Lighthouse Center for the Arts. The Gavlak gallery of Palm Beach had an opening, artpalmbeach at the Palm Beach Convention Center was a contemporary show, and then the Artists of Palm Beach County organized a tour of Whitespace, the Mordes Collection in West Palm Beach. By the time of the Whitespace tour, I was almost totally turned off and even angry about what was being put out there as art. The final straw was the Norton Museum exhibit Here Comes the Sun: Andy Warhol and the art after 1960 from the Norton Collection.

Seeing a circle of rocks being called art was just too much for me, and some of the Norton paintings made my blood pressure rise. I felt the need to verbalize my reactions to colleagues and found that a number of them agreed with me. One said that contemporary art is “novelty and interesting design, some of it very good, but not art.” Another said, “The old masters are rolling over in their graves. You know the saying ‘the emperor has no clothes,’ someone needs to say something. You should write about it.” I was pleased to hear their criticisms. It always feels good to know that you’re not alone, but what do I believe?

Over a year ago I wrote an Art Musings Blog for BestofArtists titled What is Art? in which I talked about my experience in college producing innovative sculptures for a professor who seemed only to appreciate Pop and Op art. To get an A, I gave him work I knew he would enjoy, but to this day I regret that I never learned traditional carving, casting, or modeling. Still when I wrote the article last year I came to the conclusion that my highly creative and amusing pieces were art, because art (which is defined as “the creation of beautiful or thought provoking works”) is subjective. I thought some of the pieces were beautiful, and they were definitely thought provoking.

My problem with a lot of what is currently called art is that it may be thought provoking and it may evoke emotions, but it’s rarely beautiful and a lot of it doesn’t require much skill. It's as if aesthetics are discounted. That’s not to say that all cutting edge art is ugly and unskilled. I recently admired Federico Uribe’s art installation in the new West Palm Beach Waterfront pavilion. He manages to use disposable objects like plastic utensils to create colorful, engaging, and meaningful pieces. Not all of contemporary art is crap, but an awful lot of it is. When I see works that require little skill or talent being lauded, while beautiful but traditional pieces are being overlooked, it makes me mad.

My photos: at top right a portion of Federico Uribe's art exhibit and on the left a view of Whitespace.