My mother is a painter and was an art teacher; she is also alarmingly frank. She is incapable of saying “How nice!” about a work of art that she thinks is bad. The first time she was at my mother-in-law’s house, my MIL grabbed her and said, “I want to know what you think of this print we bought!” and my then-fiance and I each made an audible gasp of horror. (Miraculously, my mother liked the piece.) When we were children, if my siblings or I drew a picture, we never expected my mother to say “Honey, that’s beautiful!” and hang it on the fridge; instead, we got a critique. This is not to say she never liked the things we drew. She let us know when she approved of something as well as when she didn’t, and why—though she still wouldn’t put anything on the fridge; she finds that practice abhorrent. (My husband recently put one of HB’s finger paintings up on our fridge, and I flinched. I let it stay—for now.)
So I was taught from a young age to look at things in a visually critical way, to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t, and to try and articulate why I felt the way I did. In other words, I was schooled in the development of taste. This is not to say that my mother ever insisted that there is one absolute standard for good art; I was always aware that there were pieces that a lot of people liked that she didn’t, and vice versa. (The argument over what should be anointed as Great Art and go into museums is beyond the scope of this entry.)
Why do I detest this painting? Yes, it has some good qualities. It is fairly proficient technically; aside from the hands, the figures are well rendered. The sole of the woman’s left foot is particularly nicely done. Yet when I rounded the corner on our cruise and was confronted with this piece, I recoiled (and sent my husband back to take pictures of it). Why? There are a number of reasons I can articulate, though many I probably cannot.
- The coloring is monotonous and not pleasing.
- The overall composition is ungainly. The eye is not led around the figures but rather gets an impression of a triangular clump of body parts. The phrase “beast with two backs” comes to mind.
- The positioning of the figures is awkward; it seems forced. It is obvious that this was not done from live models, as it would not be possible for the models to maintain that pose for much longer than it would take to make a snapshot, and indeed it looks as if this was drawn from a photo rather than life. There are reasons to draw something rather than photograph it; for one thing, the artist gets an opportunity to walk around the models and get a real sense of where things are in space and how gravity acts, and to use this to inform the piece in a way that a photo cannot. I could imagine a painting of two nudes in an awkward position that I would appreciate—if it was obvious that the painting was meant to display the awkwardness of human coupling.
- There is a coyness to the hiding of all the naughty bits that is irritating—reminiscent of the opening scene in Austin Powers, which is funny but not beautiful.
- But the thing that really gets me about this piece, I think, is the obvious idealization of the figures. What is the purpose of this piece? If it’s to display the beauty of the human form, I’d like to see a real human form. If it’s to titillate, it should be sexier. This piece is like soft-core porn: offensive to some, yet not getting anyone off—the worst of both worlds.
The bigger question is, is it okay to mock a work of art? I say, of course it is. Someone went to the trouble to create it for public display and someone else went to the trouble of selecting it and hanging it in the hopes that yet another person would buy it. This means that it is being offered up for judgment. That’s the point.
And is it okay to criticize another’s taste? Well, yes, sometimes. If my mother had disliked the piece my mother-in-law showed her, I don’t think she should have said, “Ew, that sucks,” as that would be criticizing my MIL’s taste to no purpose and therefore impolite. But if my MIL had asked my mother’s artistic opinion on a piece my MIL was thinking of buying, then telling her she didn’t like it would be honest and right.
It doesn’t seem any different from, say, music. I’m sure you know and love people who enjoy music you can’t stand, and you’re willing to tell them that, yet you do not love them any less for it. I, for instance, cannot abide jazz, though it does not make me respect someone less for enjoying it. Some people are embarrassed by their own taste in music, which I don’t get. If you like something, you like it. Same with art. Embrace your own taste.
So, if you happen to enjoy this piece of art, I don’t think you should be ashamed of that fact. But I also think you should know that if you go on this cruise and buy it, there are a significant number of people who will recoil when they see it on the wall of your boudoir.