Late in the evening on May 17, 1966, around the time of the release of his seminal double album Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan was finishing up a set before an infamously antagonistic crowd at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The year before, Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and ever since, he had been touring the world playing loud rock music not-so-much-for-as-at auditoriums filled with jilted folk music fans. Toward the end of the Free Trade Hall show (recorded and later released as The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert), Dylan had an iconic confrontation with a heckler, which can be plainly heard on the record.
Just after Dylan and what would become The Band finished up Ballad of a Thin Man, a voice from the audience cries out, “Judas!” which is then echoed by a smattering of applause. There’s a pause, and then Dylan, who had only acknowledged the crowd once or twice before in the set and who must have found the whole situation a bit bewildering, comes back with a dramatic, “I don’t believe you.” Another pause, then Dylan growls “You’re a liar!” before counting off and breaking into the last song of the set: a loud rendition of Like a Rolling Stone, which in 1966, was probably the greatest song any in attendance had ever had the opportunity to claim they hated.
I don’t know what it says about me or my ability to empathize, but there are not many moments that more perfectly encapsulate the feeling I get all too often when reading art criticism. It’s not simply an issue where I don’t agree with what is being written—it’s that I genuinely don’t believe there’s much sincerity behind the words.
Case in point: Blake Gopnik’s recent homage to the self-proclaimed Painter of LightTM, Thomas Kinkade (hereafter, “the POL”), who died suddenly earlier in the month.
Kinkade’s garish pictures of bubbling brooks, flowering arbors, and quaint village life get at an important chunk of the American psyche that most museum art doesn’t. He captures, with chilling accuracy, a strangely American combination of blinkered nostalgia, blind complacency, and a ferocious resistance to change. And then he packages and sells that vision within a no-holds-barred consumerist culture that you wouldn’t think compatible with pictures of commerce-free townships twinkling by snowlight. There’s not a single Pop artist–not even Warhol–who got at this truly popular side of our culture, and its contradictions, the way Kinkade did.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Gopnik, I don’t believe you.
Nor, apparently, does he expect us to, or else he wouldn’t have begun the very next paragraph attempting to assure us that he means every word. He goes on to describe the POL, a godsend to the sect of art lovers who can’t get enough of the sound or look of the word kitsch, as an artist who “channeled a certain American vision and found the perfect way to convey it.”
In all, he spends nearly 700 words trying to convince readers that the POL was “a terrible artist who made important art.” Indeed, according to Gopnik, the main impediment to the POL being viewed as a maker of “high art” is the simple matter of where his paintings hang. Says Gopnik, all we have to do is remove the pictures from the context of QVC and of mall galleries and place them on the walls inside the white box, and voila!
easy marks serious
people will begin to think serious thoughts about them.
Implicit in the hypothetical Gopnik outlines is his (and his reader’s) acceptance that purportedly serious thoughts churning in the heads of supposedly serious, presumably well-informed Looky-Lous is a kind of overarching criterion that can turn literally anything into art. It’s a kind of post-structural alchemy, whose intellectual lineage stretches back to Duchamp’s Fountain. It places critical analysis of the object on a plane above the object itself and creates the illusion that the art critic is somehow something more than a glorified member of the audience whose very role in the process relies entirely on someone else making something they can react to. As though all objects are empty vessels waiting for somebody in the crowd to write some words about them, fill them with meaning, and transform them into something they could have otherwise never been: art.
For what it’s worth, Gopnik assures us, this isn’t like Fountain at all. Blake, may I call you Blake? I don’t believe you.
Nearly 100 years on, what Gopnik is peddling here is quite plainly the intellectual progeny of the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and his Dadaist compatriots. Ideas that, while once revolutionary, Duchamp himself seemed to show signs of having tired of later in life.
In 1953, a young Robert Rauschenberg handed an aging Duchamp his newly assembled Music Box:
A rough wooden box filled with nails of different caliber and intended for rattling to produce “clinks and thumps.” Invited to try it, Duchamp obediently shook the box against his ear; then, putting it down, quoted a familiar musical title: “It seems to me I’ve heard this song before.” [From Encounters with Rauschenberg: (a Lavishly Illustrated Lecture), Leo Steinberg]
It’s a familiar feeling. And you would think an inevitable one.
Despite the unmistakable charm of a urinal that’s been reappropriated for gallery exhibition, the forgotten truth of the readymade is that it was, at its heart, not much more than a wonderfully brutal brand of satire directed first at the artistic conventions of the day and later at those who would chose to use its example to establish a new convention. That’s the trouble with satire: give it time and its edge will cut both ways. And while Robert Rauschenberg and so many others were cut down trying to wield it, Duchamp’s blade has long since grown dull with over use. Today it’s not much more than an ornament adorning some rich man’s mantelpiece, which isn’t to say there aren’t scores of tin soldiers still lining up to feel its weight and make believe they are real swordsmen.
Regardless of his assurances to the contrary, what Gopnik is doing is holding the work of the POL up as a kind of 21st century readymade, a found object that new walls and new words will turn to art. Sure, it’s a lie. But it’s one he’s come accustomed to telling.
Before I go on, let me offer some assurance of my own. The origin of my objection isn’t a simple question of taste; it’s a question of honesty. I’m really not interested in whether or not Blake Gopnik and I agree about the value or virtues to be gleaned from this or that work of art. Nor do I mean to leave the implication that it’s categorically or objectively false to believe that the POL’s work has artistic merit or cultural significance. Just that, despite his cynical claims to the contrary, Blake Gopnik simply doesn’t believe those things himself—or that he didn’t right up until the moment after he decided, on a lark, to try to convince himself otherwise. And when it comes down to it, what kind of belief is that?
Though “Judas!” was the most easily recognizable outcry recorded from the audience at the Free Trade Hall in 1966, it’s actually not what prompted Dylan’s aggressively knowing response. Beneath the heckling applause, there’s a quieter voice, whose petulant rebuke is barely discernible on the recording. “I’m never listening to you again, ever!”
As the father of a five-year old, I’ve become accustomed to finding myself in a similar position. When things are not going his way, my son has the habit of threatening to take away all of the hugs he was going to give me in the future. To him, they represent his only commodity of any value to me, so withholding them is a rational attempt to gain leverage. What he doesn’t realize as he says it, is that I’m not five years old and whether or not he believes what he’s saying in the moment, I know it’s not true, and moreover, I know he doesn’t believe it either. Not really. And I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at my sweet, silly baby boy.
That’s the feeling I have when I read Blake Gopnik tell me the POL made important work—or when I hear anybody tell me they liked Damien Hirst’s dots. Did you now? That’s sweet.
But I can’t say I blame anybody for taking these kinds of silly positions because, in the end, I’m just not sure if total honesty is a reasonable expectation of the person who’s chosen to spend a good portion of their lives writing about art at this moment in time. I’ve thought about doing it myself, but each time I’ve inevitably found myself running head long into the sense I have that art is only worth writing about when it’s the art you like—and that narrows things down quite a bit. Really though, the value of negative art criticism in 2012 is all but lost on me; although, I guess that barely distinguishes it from the value I find in most positive art criticism. Still, so long as it's based on an honest reading, I would rather chuckle through a positive analysis of an object or event that I never want to see and would just assume forget, than to bare witness to some writer's self-satisfied attempt at catharsis at the expense of somebody who, afterall, is probably only making the art they think we wanted them to make. Even if I agree that it's terrible, who really cares what we think? If you want to deny the undeserving an opportunity for success, then just shut-up about them. Odds are that nobody else is writing about them either. For most of the world it is already as though the thing you hate doesn’t exist. What’s the point in speaking up to shame the self-important or pretentious? Or the untalented? Moreover, once that becomes your game, how will you ever know when to stop?
Again, this isn’t a question of taste. While opinions vary regarding the merits of this or that, the fact remains that nobody likes most of what’s out there. Nobody. It’s not that most everything is bad. It’s simply that most everything is boring and that most of what’s left after you whittle away the boring stuff is terrible. Eliminate both and you’re left with maybe 10 percent that you can even begin to rationalize writing about and only a couple percent that you would actually want to write about. Not bad work, if you can find it. But can you find it?
I’ve always assumed the answer to that question was a qualified yes. It’s not like there’s nothing good out there. It’s just a question of finding something, anything, you would like to give a bit more exposure to. The question then becomes what you do when the well runs dry, as it periodically will. If you don’t want to write negative criticism, which by anybody’s measure is the easy way out, I suspect the overriding impulse would be to reach into the abyss of creative mediocrity and pull something from nothing. Or, to put it another way, to try turning lead into gold.
The trouble with alchemy, though, is that for whatever unintended advances it brings, it's just never going to do what you want it to, and after a while, you know it. And the curse of enlightenment is knowing we can never go back to a time before we knew. Sure, we can devote hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of words to why we’re never going to hug our father again, but why would we want to when we’re old enough to know that it isn’t true, but that one day it will be? Because silence isn’t an option, I guess, and the truth is often too depressingly uninspired to speak of, so if you’re gonna lie, you might as well make it a good one.
The truth we know is that Blake Gopnik doesn’t believe the POL belongs in a real museum any more than he believes Sam Butcher does. And we’re left to assume that Gopnik doesn’t believe Butcher’s work belongs anywhere near a museum, since he fails to garner even a passing mention despite being an objectively better parallel to the POL than Norman Rockwell, the only other artist (save for the above-quoted obligatory nod to Andy Warhol), that Gopnik even attempts to compare him to.
The Rockwell analogy is lazy, of course, but his work actually hangs in museums, so it serves the greater purpose of the piece while giving Gopnik an opportunity to remind the reader that he finds Rockwell offensive (because, in a nutshell, he was an illustrator in the literal sense, which in this case seems to be more troubling to Gopnik than being one in the pejorative sense). Rockwell told convincing lies. The POL told obvious lies that revealed an ugly truth about the people who would buy his work. Don’t let that nonsense use its magic on you. Let it simmer for a moment.
Rockwell offends Gopnik because Gopnik can only look at Rockwell through the lens that already knows that “Rockwell’s America,” which, despite some rather obvious exceptions towards the end that we won’t talk about, is a damagingly wholesome, white lie. This from a man who’s telling us to put the cottages of the POL up on the walls at MOMA. But what Blake Gopnik knows is that Norman Rockwell wasn’t being paid to tell the truth. He wasn’t even being paid to make art. He was being paid to sell issues of the Saturday Evening Post, which was something the illustrator was remarkably successful at doing for the better part of four decades. And in so doing, he managed to make dozens of singularly iconic images that are easily distinguishable from one another and from the work of any other artist before or since. Whatever stigma you want attach to him for being a commercial illustrator, Norman Rockwell was still a bad ass. If you want to compare him to somebody, compare him to Frank Frazetta or N.C. Wyeth. I have issues with all three of them, but I would never insult them—nor the reader by comparing what they gave to the world and to the medium with whatever debt it can be argued that we owe to the POL. But that’s because I respect you, dear reader.
Now, go look at any picture painted by the POL. Every time, it’s the same, disposable, mass produced, vaguely religious rendered chicken fat that you’re going to get from any given Precious Moments statuette. Not only is it a greeting card, it’s the same greeting card every single time. Now, I’m not sure, but I think the Germans used to have a word for that kind of thing. It’s times like this I wish we still lived in a world where words had meaning.