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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Art that Critics Love to Hate

An exhibition opening--can you spot the art critics in the crowd?
Say what you will about art critics, for the professional artist, it's very much a love/hate relationship. That is, artists can't get along with them but likewise can't get far without them. When they praise our work, we love them. When they criticize, we don't. It might surprise some artists to realize that much the same feelings persist on the other side of the keyboard. Without artists there would no need for critics. Yet there is so much art ranging from mediocre to bad in galleries and museums today, there is much for them to hate. The bad art is easy. If it's bad; they say so, often in no uncertain terms. The same goes without saying as to good art; if it's good, they say so, sometimes lavishly. It might also surprise artists that critics do not like to pan an artist and his work. Critics are naturally prone to support and promote the arts. Most art critics, especially local ones, are usually quite kind to the artists they review. It's the vast majority of art in the middle that causes art critics to lose sleep. It's here they're torn between the "good, the bad, and the ugly," simply because this middle ground is a vast witch's brew of all three. Here they must earn their pay, separating which is which, and doing so in a manner suggesting some degree of wisdom combined with an entertaining manner of doing so that won't send the reader flipping to the sports page (or ESPN).
Despite the conservative content of his work, Kinkade took a
very Postmodern approach to all other aspects of is career.
There are two factors involved--the art and the art critics. The art of Thomas Kinkade is easy for critics to hate. It's syrupy sweet and sentimental, portraying a pretty, unrealistic national landscape bespeaking the conservative, WASP view of life, liberty, and American patriotism. It's unabashedly aimed at the most lucrative elements in the art world. Until the artist's death in 2012 at the age of fifty-four, Kinkade astoundingly successful at "cashing in." In many ways, he replaced Norman Rockwell as art critics' favorite punching bag. If for nothing else, we can thank him for that. Art journalism has always reflected a liberal, bias, and reflexively gone after any artist not in line with avant-garde thinking. Insofar as art critics were concerned, Kinkade had two strikes against him--his work, and his very Postmodern approach to marketing his work so successfully. Critics tend to hate Postmodernism with almost the same vehemence as sentimentality.
One critic summed it up this way:
"Kinkade's bucolic landscapes represent the cotton candy, the Harlequin Romance, of the art world and, if we're honest, terrify the average art critic to tears. Why? Because Kinkade sold more art than almost anyone. People love the stuff. These hugely popular artists represent the chasm between what art critics do and what most people seem to want."

Neiman took a shortcut to fame in the 1950s when his
paintings began to appearin Playboy magazine.
Art critics never forgave him for that.
Highly successful artists pose a threat to the basic livelihood of art critics. Such artist have succeeded despite the best efforts of critics to "keep them in their place." LeRoy Neiman is a good example. Neiman also died in 2012 at the age of ninety-one. His obituary noted that he was one of the most popular artists in the United States. But it also noted that art critics did not hold him in very high regard. The writer went on to add that Neiman's popularity rivaled American favorites like Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses and Andrew Wyeth, but he never managed to win any critical acclaim during his long life. It would seem to me that simply being lumped in with such iconic greats might be deemed a good deal of "critical acclaim."
When an artist can buy and sell his critics several times
over, he tends not to take them too seriously.
Art critics need to be needed. They must have the respect of the art world and their readers or they have nothing. They need to be feared--in a position of power, able to "make or break" an artist's career. When an artist such as Kinkade or Neiman attain great success in selling their work without their approval, art critics feel threatened. And when they do, they bite back, with scathing reviews, hating both the art and the artists, but especially the artists. Although Neiman generated hundreds of works, including paintings, drawings, watercolors, limited edition serigraph prints and coffee-table books which earned him tens of millions of dollars,” the critics were not impressed. He exhibited constantly and his work was included in the collections of dozens of museums around the world yet critical respect eluded him. Mainstream art critics ignored his work completely or dismissed it with contempt as garish and superficial magazine illustrations with high art pretensions. Mr. Neiman claimed not to care.
Jack Vittriano--criticizing the critics.
If Neiman cared little as to what the critics said about him, the Scottish painter, Jack Vittriano, not only cares, but fights back. Vittriano is, in many ways much like Thomas Kinkade, though their works are diametrically opposite in terms of content. Kinkade painted American Christian sentimentality. Vittriano's work has been labelled as 'dim erotica'. Yet it sells for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Moreover, Vittriano has taken to criticizing the art critics and the art establishment in general for snubbing his work. Critics of the Scottish artist have branded his work as "brainless." Vittriano often paints women in stockings, heels and suspenders. He confesses, "There are days when I think, 'What is it the critics don't like about me?'." In answer to his own question, Vittriano claims, "To be honest...I just don't think they see sex as a serious subject. If I was painting drug abuse or inner-city violence they'd consider that to be art. They think what I paint is just titillation. It's not titillation; it's what couples do on a Saturday night."
Critics very often love his work but hate the artist.
The public loves Koons. His work is the very essence of Postmodern art. It is fun, bright, shiny, accessible, sexy; and the skills he employs (he literally employs hundreds of other artists and craftspeople to produce his works) is miraculous in its exactness. In 2013, Koons’ Balloon Dog sold for an astounding $58.4 million - the most ever paid for a single work by a living artist. That upsets art critics. There’s something about Koons popularity and the huge sums of money which his art sells for that seems to stir up within their hard hearts feelings of jealousy and anger which seep into their attitudes and reviews.
Jerry Saltz called the Koons' art:
"...huge, shiny baubles for billionaires...the readymade crossed with greed, money, creepy beauty and the ugliness of our culture. Haters will hate [it], but a retrospective will allow anyone with an open mind to grasp why Koons is such a complicated, bizarre, thrilling, alien, annoying artist."
Roberta Smith wrote:
"[His works] unavoidably reek of Gilded Age excess, art star hubris and the ever-widening inequality gap that threatens this country...a stunning allée of bizarre Pharaonic splendor. Play-Doh is a new, almost certain masterpiece. There are surprises around every corner. Despite some ups and downs."
Seldom do critics struggled so much with their ambivalence as in discussing Koons. He might be making "huge, shiny baubles for billionaires," or his work may "reek of Gilded Age excess," but that's far from any reasonable charges that he is cynically making art only for the money. Koons is a fanatical perfectionist. He pushes the technology and quality, sometimes spending more on his sculptures than he gets for them. Several times he has flirted with bankruptcy. That's not someone in it just for the money. I might also add, if popularity, financial success and/or being an ass were to exclude artists from the history books, we would be bereft of many of the greatest – Caravaggio, Wagner, Pound, and Picasso, to name a few.

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