Campbell’s tomato spray—an homage to Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Cans--was one of the works featured in Mr. Brainwash’s LA art event, which made him an overnight sensation.
The question "What is Art?" always reminds me of the "I could have made that" reaction of some to the splatters and drips of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. It's not always easy to defend art--or even distinguich good art from bad. Should we trust that something is art just because it's in a museum or gallery? Is the measure of a painting's quality, what a collector will pay for it? Is a work of art good because an art critic teels us it is?
Obviously art has many different guises and not everyone is in agreement about what is art all of the time. Who would argue that what Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not art? But what about Jackson Pollock’s large splattered canvases? Does art need to be difficult to make or pleasing to look at to count? What about Thomas Kincade’s mass-marketed paintings of bucolic, idyllic scenes? Does commercialization and appealing to a mass audience, taint the legitimacy of art? And what about street art, which is often crudely made, impermanent and irreverent—is it the real thing?
I like the fact that art has the power to take us by surprise, and cause a myriad of reactions, from serenity and wonder, to confusion and outrage. As I encountered a new book, a new television show and a new movie in June, all dealing with very different forms of art, I was reminded of how elastic the term “art” can be—and perhaps should be.
50 Paintings You Should Know
As I turned the pages in “50 Paintings You Should Know”—a new book by two Europeans, Kristina Lowis and Tamsin Pickeral—I tried to approach each work—even the tote-bag icons like the Mona Lisa or The Scream—with a fresh new eye. This book includes only art with a capital “A”—the great works which would be in any art history professor’s PowerPoint lesson. Without preface, the inventory starts in 1303 with Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescos and ends in 1962 with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. A more honest—albeit less tantalizing—book title would be, “50 of the most recognized Renaissance to Modern Paintings by male European artists”—although a few works by new-world artists, including three women (Cassatt, Kahlo and O’Keeffe) and one printmaker (Warhol), did squeeze in between the covers.
To the book’s credit, it does attempt to explain why each individual work has its place in history. For the give-me-the-gist reader, each entry starts with one or two sentences that answer the question, “Why this painting?” For example, Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is so universally recognized because “the whole drama of the Creation, and the longing for the divine, are concentrated into a small gap separating the fingers of Adam and God.”
But the breadth of this catalog is disappointing. Only a tiny portion of the world’s artwork is represented by these 50 paintings: there are no Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Australian, Middle-Eastern or African paintings here. The book presents exactly the same artists I studied in college in the 1970s. Hasn’t our awareness broadened and become more inclusive and supranational over the last 40 or so years? If this is a list of paintings we should know, shouldn’t we know more?
Work of Art
A new competition/reality show on Bravo TV (Wed. 10 p.m.) defines art as that which can be made by a handful of artists under pressure. The pressure comes not just from the fact that there are cameras in their faces 24/7, expecting them to be controversial and/or eccentric and/or titillating, but also from imposed restraints on time, materials, workspace, and assignment. It’s called “Work of Art—The Next Great Artist” and uses the successful “Project Runway” template to give a selected group of visual artists the chance to be judged as the best in the bunch. Episode one, which aired June 9, introduced the 14 competitors—mostly college-educated, award-winning young artists from a variety of media and styles. China Chow is the host, while auctioneer Simon de Pury is the seasoned mentor, appearing periodically in the studio to coach the artists. Each week a panel of three or four judges plus Chow, applauds one winner and dismisses one loser.
After the first assignment—to make a revealing portrait of a fellow competitor in 24 hours—it seemed that the painters in the group were at a disadvantage, when a silkscreen artist and a photographer came up with by-far the best work. When one of the contestants said he broke a light bulb he needed for exposing his photographs and that he was “screwed,” my head filled with fairness questions (or was this just a light bulb joke?). What materials are available to the artists in the studio? Why would there by only one light bulb? Are they really thinking on their feet, or did most of them arrive with 10 or 20 good concepts before the contest even began? Are the judges really honoring the best and weeding out the worst, or is there an over-riding entertainment-value mandate, such as keeping the controversial, back-stabbing ones over the nice, quiet ones? Who are these judges and what are their motives for being on this show?
Of course this is television and ultimately entertainment and I shouldn’t take it so seriously. Perhaps the show’s strength is in its ability to provoke questions. For example, the second show left me scratching my head when I couldn’t even tell the good work from the bad, the conceptual from the cliché. But I will keep watching, just to see if there are considerations beyond ratings—and, of course, to find out who is “the next great artist.”
Banksy’s trompe l’oeil hole in the Israeli West Bank Barrier was one of several protest murals created by the British graffiti artist.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
This remarkable new film focuses on street artists. Street art has escaped the confines of the gallery, and challenges all the conventional definitions of art. The film’s affable protagonist, Thierry Guetta, has a passion for documenting street artists, because, he says, their art is so transitory. Over a period of years, he creates a huge stockpile of footage. The artists he documents are not commissioned mural painters, or even bored teenagers, but talented bandits who deface the walls of large city buildings with their trademark brand of art. They work quickly, often with stencils and spray paint, or large panels of paper pasted up with a push-broom. There is forethought, planning, stealth and a point of view in this art.
One of the more brilliant street artists featured in the film is the mysterious Banksy, who Guetta idolizes and is eventually allowed to meet and document. Guetta becomes Banksy’s helpmate and friend, watching his back and concealing his identity on film. When Banksy proposes trading roles with Guetta—encouraging Guetta to take up street art while Banksy makes a movie from Guetta’s miles of film—“Exit” becomes a hall of mirrors.
Guetta adopts the name “Mr. Brainwash,” and hires a workshop full of graphic artists to start mass-producing his own brand of saleable pop/street art. He then stages a large-scale art event featuring his work, rakes in hoards of crowds and cash, and becomes an over-night sensation. As the line between radical street artist and commercial opportunist begin to blur, the veracity of the whole story comes into question. Is this still a straight-ahead documentary or something much more contrived and manipulated? If so, at what point did it switch over? Is Banksy breaking the rules of documentary movie-making in the same way street artists break the rules of conventional art? Is the whole point of the film to condemn the ignorance and susceptibility of the public?
It seems to me that the film’s more significant message—that you should always question what is real—helps us answer the “what is art” question—especially when it comes to a new book, a new television show or a new movie. Are these truly the most important 50 paintings you should know? Are these 14 overly-constrained artists really creating great art, or just great entertainment? Do rule-following and art have anything in common? You get to decide.
The third episode featured a commercial art challenge: to make a book cover for a classic novel, and this artist's "Dracula" was judged a little to "slick" for first place.