Friday, March 09, 2007

Embrace Your Taste (and I Reserve the Right to Disagree)

In my last post, I singled out one of the paintings displayed on our cruise for ridicule, and this engendered some questions as to why, essentially, I was being mean about that particular work.

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.
Of course this is all subjective. Most simply, I find gazing at this picture viscerally unpleasant. Other people must not, or it wouldn’t be hanging there (though I am willing to bet that a lot of people wouldn’t like it).

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.


Anonymous said...

Not sure what it's worth but I agree with you. I think the artist might have a future doing covers of romance novels... said...

I wonder why that painting is so abhorrent (and it IS... blech!) and vaguely cut-rate, whereas other works which also induce discomfort in the viewer (Egon Schiele, for instance) aren't. Perhaps because that's not the effect this painter was TRYING to achieve? Context, maybe? Schiele was awesome, but I can't say I'd be inclined to check out his stuff while meandering around in shorts, eating frozen yogurt and plotting to do devious things to the buffet's ice swans.

Anonymous said...

Someone once made fun of me for liking Sex and the City. I believe the exact phrase used was "How can you watch that schlock?" I felt bad about that for far longer than I'd like to admit. I am proud to announce that I'm now mature and can say "Suck it" to such people. At least in my head.

Rob said...

Nicely articulated. Can’t really argue with most of your criticisms of the painting. However, I *can* think of a few hundred so-called Master Works – for which many people would pay many thousands of dollars – that wouldn’t make it over the bar you’ve set for this piece.

FWIW, I think maybe part of the reason instinctively I resist when someone criticizes art like the pic in question is that I'm reacting against a particular form of art snobbery.
I'm not trying to say that all art is created equal -- on the contrary, I'm among the first to the barricades when it comes to making fun of particular pieces of “art”.
But what I’m on about is the patronizing condescension of some self-appointed arbiters of taste* who will present the most god-awful crap to the public, and then scorn them for hicks when it’s judged it as cheap iconoclasm or meaningless self-indulgent shite.

IOW: in my opinion, half the time the emperor has no clothes; so when I’m told that some actual, real clothes – clothes that a certain number of people probably really like -- aren’t up to snuff, I’m inclined to get testy and argue the point.

If you’re that hard on this particular painting – which took a certain amt of skill – I hope you’re also there with your frown when an “installation” consisting of raw meat, cigarette butts, and dog s*** is trotted out, and we’re all supposed to ooh and ahh or be condemned as philistines.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Not that I’m bitter. (As my mom says, “If it bothered me, I’d be talking about it…”)

*I don’t mean you. Or your mom.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the analysis--it's not something I'm able to do. I think aesthetic judgment is interesting in part because first reactions count so much and, in a certain way, you don't necessarily have to justify your reaction. If you can't articulate what it is you respond to, you might be less persuasive. But you still might be right. It's not like political judgment where you say 'just because' and that means you are just guessing. Beauty and ugliness are things we see. (Unfortunately, a lot of people do that with political choices also--but it invalidates your political choice to have no reason at all, I think.)

It's probably better not to say only 'just because' with sensory judgment but I think when back it up with words you are really reconstructing what is more like a visceral reaction--what you saw.

I'm finding that the older I get the more art affects me. I don't know why that is. I always used to wonder about the people who stood in front of a painting for hours but now that I'm older, I can do that. I'm also starting to respond differently to abstract art--like I see more in it now than I did. I'm still inarticulate and pretty ignorant about art, though.

Anonymous said...

That picture looks like something that belongs on the cover of a really bad romantic novel.h

Anonymous said...

I find that painting repulsive... but at least it induces a reaction. That is better (IMO) the a piece that goes completely unnoticed.

Larki said...

This was an incredibly satisfying entry. I knew I didn't like the painting; now I know WHY. Thank you! I love being able to deconstruct what I dislike about something (or, conversely, what I like about it). So satisfying.

Anonymous said...

I think you are taking this painting a little more seriously than it deserves. It looks to me like a more or less mass-produced, and in this cases especially smarmy, commercial piece. I doubt that actual artistic expression had anything to do with it. (Reputable galleries, for example, don't usually put price tags ON TOP OF the art.) It exists mainly to earn money for the producer (and all the middleman) and to help create what the cruise line apparently thinks is a "sophisticated" (i.e., pretend erotic) romantic decor which will enhance the custgomer's cruise experience. I agree with just about everything you say about art in general, by the way, and about this piece in particular. Your analysis of the piece comes up empty because there is nothing there. You probably spent more time thinking about this image than its creator did. On another note, I am glad you posted HB's painting on the fridge in spite of your aesthetic qualms. I used to run a college art gallery. When my youngest niece was 5, she gave me a crayon drawing she had made and titled "Mona Lisa." She asked me if I would hang it in my "museum." I told her I couldn't hang it in the exhibition space but I would frame it up and hang it in my office. That made her very happy. And me, too.

Sam said...

The last line of your post was perfection.

Anonymous said...

It looks as though it should be airbrushed on the side of a 1970's van. I thinkpeople are reluctant to criticize art because they have the misguided notion that all art is good, and/or it might hurt the artist's feelings!!

Rosemary Riveter said...

You'd probably love the "sculpture" my MIL gave us as a wedding gift. Of course, by love, I mean have plenty fun dissecting just what is so wrong with it. We recieved two sculptures as wedding gifts, both on a theme of a modern interpretation of a stylised heart, one is extremely plain, made of soapstone and vageuly reminiscent of a basic celtic knot, the other is silver-sprayed plastic, displaying the stylized forms of a man and woman swooping together to form a heart shape. The upper point of the heart (where it dips down) is their heads, only they don't have a head each, their heads meet top to top and meld together into a cyborg-like uni-noggin with a line down the middle where eyes should be. The symbolism is frankly disturbing.

Guess which sculpture is hidden on a bottom shelf in a back corner?

Anonymous said...

just went on a cruise and do you know that the artist has a whole series of these paintings? Or at least I am guessing that it's the same artist, because the 2 paintings I saw were markedly similar. (different positions) I just had to laugh. I know I'm posting on an old entry, but I just had to tell you.