Saturday, August 27, 2005

Art Fraud

With the emergence of various forms of modern art, like abstract expressionism, people started getting confused. It used to be easy to judge the quality of a painting -- it either captured the essence of the thing being painted (such as a portrait, a landscape, or a bowl of fruit) or it didn't. But with the advent of non-representational art, it wasn't so simple anymore. Even today, if you take two people to a museum and show them a painting, you shouldn't be too surprised if one of them loves it and the other one hates it. That's an extreme case, of course -- most people will just look at it and try to process it somehow, or maybe they'll just look at it for a couple of seconds and walk away.

Art is complicated, because artists are complicated, so it's no wonder so many people are still confused about modern art today. You'd expect art critics -- people who write about art for a living -- to see what's going on a little more clearly, but I don't think they do. The last few decades have probably given birth to more than a few frauds -- people who pretend to be artists and who somehow manage to get the art establishment to believe them.

Before I go any further, let me explain something. I'm not the kind of guy who looks at a Jackson Pollack or a Jasper Johns and thinks he could do a better job. I've loved modern art ever since I was first introduced to it. I appreciate its richness and variety, but I also think there's a lot of garbage masquerading as art, and either nobody seems to notice or nobody seems to care.

My friend and I accidentally went to a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit a little while ago. By "accidentally," I don't mean that we accidentally got into the car, drove downtown, parked in the underground garage, and walked the short distance to the museum -- what I mean is, I misread the museum calendar, so when we got there, we were expecting to see a different exhibit.

Basquiat is one of two glaring cases of art fraud, as far as I'm concerned. His portraits are glorified scribbles, and the social commentary in some of his other paintings is at the level of an under-achieving high school student. To me, his art is self-indulgent and childish, but I apparently don't hold a very popular view of him, since I've rarely seen the museum as crowded as it was on that particular day. And I'm sorry he's dead, but if he were still alive, he'd only dilute the importance of modern art even further. I don't think his contribution to the art world merits even half the attention it's been given over the years.

I'm not going to tell you the name of the other artist, but I'll give you a hint: The first letters of his first and last name are alphabetically sequential, and they appear somewhere in the middle of the alphabet. That's actually several hints, so this should be easy for you. But if you're stuck, I'll give you another hint: His entire approach to art seems to be, whatever dopey idea pops into your head, write it down, and then when you sober up the next day, call some fabrication plant to have them manufacture it for you. Do you know who it is yet, or do you need one more hint? Okay, I'll just tell you. It's Jeff Koons. Yep, that's right. I don't even think the stuff he produces should be called art. It doesn't show a lot of imagination, and it isn't interesting to look at. The best you can say about it is that it's sometimes clever, and I don't even think that's much of a compliment when you're talking about art.

To be fair to both of these guys, maybe they both fell victim to the same sort of confusion I was mentioning earlier. Maybe they can't tell if their own creations are good or bad. If so, you can't really blame them, since visual art is probably unique in that there are no real criteria to judge it by. The same is true for certain kinds of music, of course -- when Stravinsky's works were introduced, his music confused and annoyed a lot of people. But the difference between music and art is that with music, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground: You don't listen to Stockhausen's Momente or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and sit there scratching your head, trying to decide whether or not you like it -- you either like it or you don't, and you know immediately.

The other problem with visual art is that, in the art world, a work of art is often judged more by how much some collector is willing to pay for it than by anything else. I think this is what turned Basquiat, Koons, and others into well-respected artists. Collectors, who often know a lot more about collecting than they do about art, decided that their works might be good investments. Get enough collectors thinking the same way and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I said before that there are no real criteria to judge the merit in a work of art, but that's actually an understatement. There isn't even any way to decide what's art and what isn't. To illustrate my point (and to show that I'm not unduly picking on the guy), there's one work of Jeff Koons that I actually liked. It was a half-filled aquarium with three basketballs floating on the water. Not a bad piece, especially compared to all the other crap he's produced, but is it art? Who can tell?

Just so you don't get the wrong idea, I like the fact that art is constantly expanding its boundaries. I just don't always like the result.

Art changes a lot over time -- as it should -- so you'd probably think that the definition of art changes a lot as well. To verify this, I looked up the term art in several different dictionaries, all published by Merriam-Webster over the last 50 years or so: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Second edition (1953); Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983); and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (1995). Then, just for fun, I looked it up in a French-English dictionary and a Japanese-English dictionary.

I expected the definition of art to have expanded over the past half-century, but the Second edition actually had a broader definition than the Tenth. This is counter-intuitive, because much of what we call art these days would have probably been labeled quite differently in years past. I have no explanation for the apparent narrowing of the dictionary definition, but since I'm supposed to be talking about art and not about language, I’m not going to worry about it here. However, before I leave the subject completely, I want you to know that the French word is the same as ours, except the t is silent, and the Japanese have two words for art: geijutsu and bijutsu, just in case you’re interested. I don’t really understand the difference between the two Japanese words, but like I said a few seconds ago, I’m talking about art, not about language.

Just one last observation, though: I noticed that the Tenth edition was actually a page or two shorter than the ninth. As you probably know, human languages are constantly evolving -- new words are added every day and old words are removed. But are we really getting rid of old words faster than we’re making up new ones? I can think of plenty of words that weren’t around in 1983, but I can’t think of any words we had then that we don’t have now. Or it could be that maybe the number of words is growing, but a lot of words like art are shrinking in their meaning. I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I think it’s pretty interesting.

Anyway, I'm getting off topic, so just to reiterate my original point: The work of Basquiat and Koons has added nothing to the world of art.

And what else have we learned today? We learned that the distinction between art and everything else is pretty arbitrary. So how do we decide what’s art and what isn’t? It’s a difficult question, so my answer is: we don’t. I mean, what’s the big deal anyway? People like Shakespeare and Kierkegaard warned about the dangers in labeling things, and I pretty much agree with them. Merriam-Webster notwithstanding, maybe the definition of art has become too broad to be useful. When anything can be art, the term loses its meaning. I think we should just stop using the word and hope that it eventually gets removed from all the dictionaries. We’ve already seen that there is ample precedent for this. So let’s just get rid of the word art completely, or the words geijutsu and bijutsu if we’re speaking in Japanese.