Big Art by Robert Stanley


What This Is

This is merely an essay. It is an essay in the sense of the originator of essays, Montaigne, meaning "to try." He also honestly wrote. “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself," accepting that our human imperfections drive us all. Considering the universality of human imperfection, this essay then is not a polemic, but a try at a more philosophical exploration, covering:
• Big Art—How It Is Seen
• Why Big Art Is The Way It Is
• Can Anything Be Done

Big Art—How It Is Seen

"Big Art" is a shortcut name for that part of the art world that includes high-end auctions, museums, curators, critics, and the gallerists and artists who are part of that level. The words of the following critics and curators set the stage.


Thodos Interview with Kuspit
Diane Thodos: "I believe, as you do, that postmodernism represents an inextricable cultural crisis: a collapse that cannot repair or heal itself. I wouldn't want to be an artist if I had to be, ideologically speaking, a postmodern artist."

Donald Kuspit: "There is no direction. They don't know what art is. We're in a nihilistic endgame. I was reading a review about Bruce Nauman, a piece in Newsweek by Peter Plagens. It begins by saying that he's perhaps the most influential American artist since Warhol, and I thought now what does this mean? Everyday he was trying to redefine the art "ex-nihilo" – out of nothing – and my thought is even God started with something. But also that means that he does not know what art is. He believes you have to redefine it, reconceptualize it. So what is it? Does it exist? It is annihilative: perpetual redefinition, unstable, etc." [italics mine]

Derek Guthrie—trapped in ghetto
Kathryn Born who made great efforts to publish in Chicago and was responsible for the publishing of the anthology "The Essential New Art Examiner” said to me a few years ago. “Artists are in a ghetto." If this means trapped I agree. The gatekeepers have won. They hold the stage and control the entrance and exit. [italics mine] ~ Derek Guthrie Facebook 2/14/2014

The two reviews below were not selected to prove a point, but were the first ones I looked at in each venue. Most all of the rest (an exception, a ray of light will be quoted later) were skittish in the same way about mentioning any objective criteria of Form (color, shape, line, space, value, technique composition).

Art Review, Feb. 2014
Made mostly of oil and enamel on dead-stock, pre-fabricated surfaces – but often including spills of wine, drops of wax, or smudges of eyeshadow in their compositions – the paintings in Whitney Claflin's Crows are the most ethereal kind, with lines swooping and pooling into erratic tufts, and hazy shades of colour forming round blobs, as if they'd been applied when the artist was a tad tipsy – in a good way. They're most redolent of someone like Albert Oehlen, but the marks are so unfettered they could be made by anyone, which is their charm. [italics mine]

Art in America Review, Feb. 2014
If you liked Sots Art from Russia (with irony) and Political Pop from China, you’ll feel right at home with these paintings and watercolors, nearly all bright self-portrait parodies of the most propagandistic strain of Socialist Realism. The twist here is that Cheon, a Korean-American artist, has adopted the North Korean persona of Kim Il Soon-farmer, mother, scholar, soldier, artist and distant relative of the nation’s Beloved Leader. Downstairs is a spreading pile of Choco Pie treats, a highly prized form of contraband in the People’s Democratic Republic and a symbol, due to their South Korean origin, of
potential reunification. [No mention of anything particular to visual art except "bright"]

Such subjective privileging of certain themes while ignoring the visual (sometimes denigrated as "retinal") is not just recent, but has been going on for a generation.

Rinder—2002 Whitney Biennial
"At the beginning of the Biennial research process, I gave myself and the other curators —ChrissieIles, Christiane Paul, and Debra Singer—a single directive: Whenever you find a work that intrigues you, but which seems to lie beyond the pale of the contemporary art world as it is normally defined, stop to ask why. What are the assumptions that underlie the divisions and boundaries that we have come to take for granted and which stipulate that this, but not that, is suitable for museum display? What qualities are implicit in terms like “craft,” “outsider art,” or “popular culture”? How hard do we have to look to find vestiges of sexism, classism, and racism in the ways that the creativity of Americans is categorized, marketed, and shown? What is to be lost and what gained by loosening these definitions and embracing a broader spectrum of practices? The 2002 Biennial does not provide answers to these questions, and it opens the door only hesitantly to the possible richness of a truly expanded view of artistic practice. But it is a step in that direction."

Lawrence R. Rinder,, Introduction

Two things pop out from the quotations above: there is no objective agreement of what art is, and money has a preemptive role, whatever it is. A soft tyranny exists. The art taste makers “know the code,” and befuddle those who would like standards on which real dialog could flourish. So too with some codependent followers among artists themselves. The Big Art controllers cause discord, because the rules change without solid bases. Hence those sidelong glances at each other, high priests of art making sure they still know “the code" of artspeak. If someone gets to out of line with the current beliefs, they are risking exclusion and irrelevance, something most people fear. The code particularly pernicious because it parades under the guise of “good,” and brands those it doesn’t agree with as “decadent,” claiming “they just don’t get it.” With objective discussion impossible, there is loosed on the art world a tyranny of standard-less whim.

Can Anything Be Done
A little. Given the nature of things, something can be done, but strong and deep currents drive the culture.

If there is a hole in the fence, we do not blame the dog for taking off. As Emerson wrote, "Nature who made the mason, made the house." (Essays: Second Series [1844], Nature)

A culture is like a mighty river, the currents driving a single person are impossible to counteract entirely. First, and most intransigent are our strong human drives, often themselves in roiling turmoil with each other: pride, humility, greed, covetousness, mercy, purity, anger, patience, self- indulgence, self-control, envy, love, laziness, courage. Then, there are the style trends, such as modernism, diversity, pace, identity, and other such. Finally there are fads, like fashion, TV series, etc. So, changing the way art is going is not easy, even if what one wants to change it to is good. The somethings we might do to change art are small in comparison to the big currents we paddle in.

Given the situation, what can we do to at least nudge things in the right direction? For those who believe that art today lacks the objective standards to construct a basis for real discussion and evaluation, and that the currents of money and superficial entertainment, have captured our boat to the weakening of other good factors, how do we get the boat aimed in the right direction?

We need help to go forward to establish a critical art space . .then we can keep the dialogue expanding… participate and discuss what can be dome in terms of criticism, discussion…This problem will need much thinking, and focus, that will take much work,..This writer senses as many other do we have lost Art criticism…to Balloon Dog creator Jeff Koons who believes the market is the critic.
~ Derek Guthrie Facebook 2/16/2014

The help Guthrie writes of would include two things. First, it is good to realize that those on the other side are not corrupt somehow, but captured by some of the currents mentioned above and trapped in a way by the current of tribalism. Second, by speaking the truth, of the need for objectivity, clear speaking, and high standards of art-making (Truth and Beauty, also understood as Content and Form) eventually the culture will move into these currents.

What can be done, then, is to work at a cultural change, continually, in whatever way we can. Women's suffrage, civil rights, the dangers of smoking—all of these were achieved after much "discussion." By pointing out the flaws of near-whimsy that postmodernism and focus on status and money have inflicted, while offering a higher quality, more democratic, and deeper dialog among all aspects of the art world, our little boat might be swung out of the constricting currents of today.

Focusing on Form linked to Content already occurs on occasion in Big Art. Here is a review that ran in the same issue of Art in America as the fluff piece about artist Mina Cheon's Korean Pop Irony.

In his new body of work, titled “From a Late Western Impaerium” (2013), Lari Pittman presents a kind of State of the Union address, articulated in his fantastical style of graphic symbols and meticulously rendered hyper-decoration. Alluding to the U.S. empire’s proclivity for psychic and physical violence, Pittman’s paintings—made of Cel- Vinyl and spray enamel and often consisting of multiple framed panels—strike a tone that is elegiac and quirkily lyrical. Over the eight panels of New National Anthem and Lamentation Duet with Birds (After Puccini), Pittman has scrawled his poetic complaint of disappointment and betrayal, appropriating the earnest, heart-wrenching lyrics of the Tosca aria “Vissi d’arte.” Despite the paintings’ high theatricality, allusions to applied arts (embroidery, carpet design) signal their homespun quality (he works with no studio assistants). His finely crafted compositions and deeply saturated palette hook us in to slow contemplative viewing. [italics mine] ~ Michael Duncan

Continuing the fight is hardly hopeless. By pointing out the alternatives, change is speeded up, as Renaissance art history reveals.

The shape this hope takes is commitment to Content (deep Truth) and to Form (Beauty, Esthetics). For too long such concerns have been branded as “elitist.” Quite the opposite is true. Form actually is democratic. It does not oppress, it frees. It is transparent, not opaque. With Form, artists, critics, and public have a basis for fair discussion. Currently, they live under a subjugation of an establishment that cannot adequately explain why certain art is more valuable than other art.

If art is to have as much impact as it had at the beginning of the 20th century, artists should dismiss the standard-less tyrants on their side of the barricade. They would feel better. And the public would have more common ground with art. From TV and major newspapers coverage we know what the people think is important. It isn’t visual art. Movies and music get huge amounts of coverage. Even theater and books get way more coverage than art. Might it be that the skimpy TV minutes and meager art reporting are the fault of the tyrannically opaque art world itself?

Enough already of the code-knowing conceit that dominates trendsetting art shows and periodicals. That attitude reveals a lack of principle. Instead, artists should attempt a community of objective and democratic principles.

Most of Big Art today, overemphasizing its own interpretations, can merely state opinions and/or deride those who disagree. Ironically, while condemning objectivity as oppressive, such people have become followers of an oppressive dogma themselves, a belief in subjectivism and jargon. Today there is no palpable basis for deciding what's art. Two jurors, local curators, of a 2002 art exhibition in the Chicago area said, "As we looked through the slides, a shared sensibility emerged. I don't have a way to describe it." Isn't that mystical, faith-based? Doesn't it empower curators and critics to be something like high priests themselves? It is important to have (to TRY to have) standards upon which we can have discussions, not proclamations. With standards there is freedom; otherwise, there is religiosity. Developed over centuries, there were standards for art, often fought over and forced to be modified, but there nonetheless, for all to have something concrete to work with. It was accepted that good art had to have the following qualities: an unusual or deep idea (Content), done with exceptional Form (line/edge, shape, value, texture, color, technique, and, especially, composition).

Is it wishful thinking that speaking the truth will change things? After all, the things that need changing are rooted in cognitive flaws, deep beliefs and currents that, like faith, are not easily changed. In his book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer asks that same question after he has covered the neurological research revealing most of our decisions to be instinctual; we often use our rational mind only to justify snap decisions. He answers the question of possible change by writing that by simply pointing out where thoughts or actions do not make sense to rational thinking they might begin to be reframed in the clouded mind. Lehrer's research is based on Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a deeply researched book. By continually reiterating what makes more sense, the poor thinking that exists in art today will be weakened. It would be nice if we could wave a wand and change things immediately, but that will not happen. The lack of a wand is probably a good thing, because no one has all the truth anyway, and human nature takes its time to get things right. All the missteps of history, however, have not stopped our progress from the cave to today.

Progress in art dialog comes with persistence, while not giving in to the temptation to smear others. (See Donald Kuspit's The Dialectic of Decadence.) It comes by absolutely and resolutely insisting on centering art on Content and Form.

Robert Stanley has been exhibiting art since 1973. His works evoke a disjointed world, yet connections between objects suggest calm mystery in the chaos of life. Robert has been written about in the Koehnline Museum of Art's Artwalk at Oakton, 2001 International Digital Art Awards, L'Association Musee D'Art Contemporai' Une Brève et Ample Énonciation, Chicago Tribune, and The New Art Examiner.