Thursday, January 31, 2008

Art and Skill

I spent a bit of time today wandering around the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I enjoy looking at about half of the museum's collection. Some art speaks to me and resonates with my sensibilities, and I enjoy it. As with my taste in music, I'm fully aware that my enjoyment of art in no way relates to whether or not it's any damn good. Some classical art, while quite good, just doesn't speak to me. And some modern art is crap, but I still enjoy it. One day I'll have to write a huge chunk of text about my thoughts on art, but now's not the time. I just wanted to share one of my long-held opinions about art, borne out by observations of a lot of the world's finest art, both classical and modern. One of the strong dividing lines between classical art and modern art (not in academic art history terms, but in a practical way) is that modern art came about when skill and technique stopped mattering. I respect a lot of classical art, even if it doesn't speak to me; I appreciate that the artist was good at what they did, and I acknowledge the talent required to create the work. Modern art, on the other hand, is less about technique than salesmanship. It can be a work of exquisite craftsmanship, or not -- the craftsmanship is completely irrelevant to its perceived value. I've seen a lot of highly skilled artists whose work impresses me. And I've also seen a lot of work which amazes me less because it's good, and more because the artist was able to talk someone into paying for it. There's an installation at the IMA now which consists of a few pieces of yarn (cheap craft-store yarn, even!) in the shape of large Ls on the wall, and another thick piece of yarn stretching from a point on the floor to a point on the wall. Another work consists of a sheet of laminated plastic board ($65 from Meyer Plastics) painted with dichroic paint ($110/gal from Rosco Scenic). That's it -- just a 4' X 8' board painted with pretty paint. With a roller. It'd be pretty if someone painted their hallway with the nice, expensive paint. Painting sheet goods with it, though, apparently earns you a suitcase packed with cash and a place in a major art museum. This is a major work of skill, but the skill in question is self-promotion, not artistic ability. I'm appalled to say it, but we might have hit a point in the art world where the two are becoming functionally synonymous.

Funny moment at the museum: we looked at a piece of "art" -- a square piece of canvas, painted bluish, that from a very short distance is revealed to be several colors dry-brushed together -- and I started making asinine fake art-speak about it. Something like, "you see the tiny horizontal and vertical lines represent the strictures placed on individuals in a modern capitalist society...". It turns out, I was remarkably close to the actual text in the artist's statement posted next to the work. I was BS'ing; the artist was serious. Or, more likely, he was BS'ing too, but being serious about it.

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