painting by I.Czekalska
by Cheryl Cruz
A friend and I were walking through SF’s MOMA one day. As animation students, neither of us knew much about modern art. Being there was another excuse to goof off and flirt. And I was beginning to see him as soul mate material until we came across this gigantic canvas covered in gray paint and repetitive white lines which made me feel strangely restless and annoyed—annoyed that my friend had paid good money for me to see this—annoyed that I was devoting so many hours to drawing the human form and all the other things a student of animation had to know.
The lines, I remembered from art history, were first marked with a ruler, then painted over causing tiny variations within each line and from one line to the next. It’s meant to challenge the viewer’s expectations about hand made versus machine made art, the professor had explained. But knowing these how’s and why’s did not help me to like the painting. I could appreciate the cleverness behind the piece—all those monotonous hours spent drawing in all those lines! Whew! What industriousness. Ha, ha. But I could not like the piece itself, and I told my friend this expecting him to agree with me.
When he didn’t—and he didn’t in a way that implied I should like it if only I had more sense—I was so stung I was momentarily unable to respond. When I did, it was to hide my true feelings with girlish laughter as I wondered if my gaffe was then and there tarnishing his opinion of me. Now I have to laugh at my willingness to concede defeat so quickly, my painful lack of self assurance blinding me to what may be hiding underneath all that niceness. How stupid I was—and not because of what I’d said about that ugly painting.
Fast forward several years. I’ve been invited by a New York gallery to participate in an upcoming show. Nervous but excited, I plan new paintings and try to familiarize myself with the art scene there. One article I find predicts a tide of gallery closures and trickling art sales. Still, some galleries will still stay open and some art will still be sold, I think. What a naysayer this guy is. He should read the Secret. Then again he does write for the New York Times. And he does say some good will come from all this. I read on.
The good that will come of all this, he says in summary, is that some artists will be pushed to experiment, and those who are overpriced and undertalented will have to lower their selling price, especially those Chinese photo realists. I close the window in disgust. This is the good that will come of all this? Not only is this jerk perpetuating the myth that the artist must suffer for the sake of great art but he’s dismissing an entire group of artists without even bothering to explain why. It’s the worst kind of criticism, pointless and just plain mean.
It also reminds me of what the art historian Kirk Varnedoe said a few years back, that there are no American artists of any real relevance at the moment. This despite the great number of us currently creating art of every variety to varying degrees of success. And while I work on my painting—a painting based on photo reference—I find myself wondering, why am I painting this? Shouldn’t I be playing with lyrical unreality or expressive fingerpainting? What makes one artwork great, another mediocre? I read more articles and look at more art. I swing from wildly thinking, wow, I’m an undiscovered genius, to wanting to burn my entire body of work so I’ll be forced to experiment until I stumble upon the next major movement in visual expression. Several times as I try to pinpoint why my painting isn’t working, I think, God, I so understand why Van Gogh went nuts.
I would never apologize for my choices in music or books. If people disagree with me I don’t question my own taste. So why, in the insane world of art, is there a sense that there’s a right opinion and a wrong one, an educated opinion and one that doesn’t matter? A sense that we art plebes have lost the way? Even a sense that liking a work of art is no way to judge good art?—Really? Why? If liking a work of art has no relevance then what, for God’s sake, does?
Maybe the difficulty comes from the difference between liking a work of art and appreciating it. Take Duchamp’s urinal. The first time I saw it I wanted to back away. It was too close to eye level, a piece of crap, a gesture devoid of any artistic merit. But once I learned how it is almost unanimously considered, by art critics, to be the greatest work of art of the twentieth century, I felt obligated to reconsider my opinion. Yes, on second thought, this urinal symbolizes the messiness of the human condition, its foolishness and snobbery, as well as its human ingenuity and any number of things which will occur to me the longer I contemplate this object d’art. Sexism, maybe. Would it have had the same effect if it had been a washing machine, a stove or a toilet with the seat down? But, like that monotonous painting I mentioned earlier, knowing I should appreciate a work of art cannot make me actually like it because, come on, it’s just a urinal.
The artists I’d drawn to, artists such as Sargent, Klimt, Modigliani, Rockwell and many others, are not all well regarded by the critics. But I would live in a house full of their works if I could. I like the colors they use, the way they apply their paint, the stories they tell. I like looking at the world through their eyes. It makes me feel connected, expanded, happy, even when what they depict is disturbing. I don’t feel that when I look at Duchamp’s urinal. I feel quite the opposite in fact and, whether it’s true or not, I can’t help thinking that Duchamp had a very cynical outlook on life. Not that the artists on my favorite list were all happy, optimistic people. But through their artwork, at least, they strove towards hope and understanding.
I can see where critics are coming from. They’re thinking of the big picture, the long view. Are we hopefuls as worthy as our predecessors? Who else, they tell us, but they can decide these things? But these gatekeepers (most, anyway) are, by age and social circumstances, far removed from the points of view of today’s emerging artists. Most are also male but that may matter less than the fact that these are, by and large, older, often very cynical people evaluating the work of younger novitiates. And their self righteous contempt and broad dismissiveness gives me the chills. I want to ask them, Why don’t you show us, then, what good art of my generation should look like by making some yourself? Go on, I dare you. I triple dog dare you.
Art critics do have their uses. One did get me to write this essay. But the elitism they breed has the effect of making too many of us believe the creating and understanding of art is the domain of a specially anointed few when, in reality, it’s the very mirror of humanity. All humanity. It is our collective voice which expresses itself however it wants no matter what any one of us says about it. Thank God.