Saturday, April 9, 2011

Art and Sham Art - It's Important to Know the Difference

When Kathleen and I explore the Texas Hill Country, we usually go in search of the unique, the beautiful, and the excellent.

On one recent excursion, we visited the Laguna Gloria extension of the Austin Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The indoor-outdoor venue was built in 1916 by Clara Driscoll, a remarkable woman who once fought to raise funds to preserve the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. The 12-acre property is situated on a hill a few hundred feet from Lake Austin. I enjoyed walking through the gardens and viewing the outdoor sculptures.

Alas IV (1993) Betty Gold
Until I came across this "sculpture," that is. It's title: "Alas IV."

Alas, indeed. It caused me to cringe and imagine this dialog between an artist and a welder:

"Look, you've got a nice variety of scrap metal here. What I'd like you to do is just pick up pieces at random and weld them together to make whatever shape comes to mind. Ideally, the sheets will come together at all sorts of odd angles. The finished piece has to be real stable, because I'm going to mount it outdoors. Can you do it?"


"Good. Can you have it done by next Monday?"

"If not sooner. But it's going to cost you $300."

"Not a problem. Go ahead, then, and when you get it about three feet tall, stop and call me."

Now, I'm sure nothing like this actually happened. The problem is, it could have happened and the result would have been at least as impressive as this meaningless stack of junk. It doesn't pass the "a-kid-could-have-done-it" test. Or the "it-could-have-been-knocked-off-in-a-couple-hours" test. Or the "I-could-have-found-this-in-a-dumpster" test.

Not everything that a human being can do automatically qualifies as art. You have to draw the line somewhere. Yes of course you can put it in a museum; but if it doesn't communicate anything meaningful and there's no visible evidence of achievement, I insist that it's not art.

I once saw a petrified turd pinned to the bottom of a cigar box in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. I don't care what the art critics say, it's not art.

For a long time, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City displayed a set of seven large, pale canvases. The only shape on the canvases was a single horizontal line. The canvases had subtle differences, but for all practical purposes they looked almost alike. The group of paintings was entitled, "Seven Stations of the Crucifixion." With all due respect to the New York City poobahs, this is not art.

The Austin Museum of Art downtown has some impressive works by young artists. But it also has some ordinary furniture displayed in one corner. It's not there for the comfort of the visitors. No, some "performance artists" regularly come in for a couple hours, hang out with the furniture and pretend that they are in an incompatible relationship. I'm sorry. I don't care if university professors do ramble on about it, this doesn't make it art.

What is it, then? I heard one silver-haired lady loudly refer to it with a two-syllable word that begins with "b" and ends with "t." Yes, but to be polite, I'll call it sham art - artless concoctions displayed as if they were real art. Sham art per se doesn't surprise me or bother me. You see it for sale cheap in arts and craft shows all the time. What's bothersome is that many museum curators don't seem to know the difference.

Actually, it's more than bothersome. It pisses me off. Because there's a lot of real art out there. And if we are to treasure it and teach our kids about it, we have to know the difference. And stop displaying sham art in museums.

You want to see some real art? Go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Frick Collection in New York City, and look for some of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

Or go to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin. Catch their collection of renaissance and baroque art, or their James Michener collection of contemporary art.

Or check out this this outdoor sculpture and others by Charles Umlauf at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum in Austin.

War Mother (1939) Charles Umlauf
Well, the folks at the Austin Museum of Art told us they're going to have to close their doors permanently in a few months. Maybe they should have been more discriminating about what they put in front of the public....

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Buildingo Personal Strength . (2011 photos by Kathleen Scott, used with permission)


Sarcastic Bastard said...

A friend of mine once worked at The Frick. It's definitely a winner.

This won't be popular, but I think Picasso's cubism paintings are junk. I despise them heartily.

Anonymous said...

Art is in the eye of the beholder. I have a degree in art, and I don't expect everyone to enjoy or understand the same things I do. There are things I can appreciate in a gallery that I wouldn't want in my home.

Some "art" exists just to make people question what art is -- and to provoke a negative reaction. Based on this post, I'd say "mission accomplished!"

Denny Coates said...

I agree that if any given person likes what's being portrayed as art, then it's art for that person.

This means that pieces executed hastily, without care or skill, even by small children, can be considered art. In short, anything can be considered art.

But not to me, and not to someone who understands the challenges of subject, theme, composition, media, technique, creativity and so forth.

This liberal perspective is exactly what I posted about. It allows junk to be set side-by-side real masterpieces in an undiscriminating manner. Doing this doesn't serve art.

You can say that a video file of your cat is "art" if you want. But that's unfair to finely crafted cinema. In truth, it's just a video file of your cat, recorded without much thought or skill by an amateur. No good purpose is served by proclaiming to the public at large that it's "art."

Majigurl said...

This made me laugh. We also have lots of "art" around the city just like this! I have to drive by, what looks like, half a honey melon made from dull looking plastic every day into work. It is horrendous and a brain throbbing eye sore. At least in the winter it was too dark to see it but now I get the full affect!