April 18, 2017

"It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. 'Pains me' because nothing in my life..."

"... has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for tens of hours at a stretch for a decade in my 20s and 30s, doing it every day and always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making. Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words, all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty — is gone. I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month...."

So begins "My Life As a Failed Artist" by the art critic Jerry Saltz.

I like the part when he looks at his old work — it's a long series illustrating Dante's "Divine Comedy" —  decides it's "fabulous!," then gets his wife, who's also an art critic, and she looks at the stuff for a long time, and says it's "okay." He's all: “Okay?! What do you mean ‘okay’? I think they’re beautiful. Aren’t they great?”
She turned back to the drawings, looked a little longer, and finally said, “They’re generic. And impersonal. No one would know what these are about. And what’s with the triangles? Are they supposed to be women?” I shot back, “No! They’re Hell!”
There must be at least 10 cleverer ways to answer the question "what’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?" without losing the idea that the triangles were Hell. Why aren't we getting better repartee from Saltz? He's an art critic, he's being self-deprecating, and he quotes Oscar Wilde repeatedly:
Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.”...

[Wilde] wrote that art that’s too obvious, that we “know too quickly,” that is “too intelligible,” fails. “The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious.”...

Wilde also wrote that “the vague is always repellent.”...
 
Wilde [wrote] “All bad poetry... springs from genuine feeling … It is with the best intentions that the worst work is done.” ... [H]e also wrote, “Criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does.”

35 comments:

Michael K said...

I cannot understand "contemporary art."

The fact that my daughter, who is very bright and talented, likes it is the only plus I see.

She is currently in New York with this guy whose art I don;t understand but which sells for millions.

This is another guy whose art she likes.

Why ?

Lewis Wetzel said...

People who are untalented tend to be drawn (hah!) to non-representational art. They are drawn to non-representational art because they aren't very good at drawing human figures. They can't get the hands right.

Henry said...

Many years ago the art critic Peter Schjeldahl gave a lecture at my school. In the Q&A one of the students -- not one of the fine art students -- asked him if he had become an art critic because he wasn't good enough to be an artist. Schjeldahl paused and said, "I am an artist. I am a poet. It is not, perhaps, a prominent art form these days."

I've always carried that thought with me. There is art, and there is the ego trip of being an artist. They aren't the same thing. I'm not sure how one even becomes a failed artist, except as an injury to the ego.

I am an even better failed artist than Salz, I submit, because I gave up on the type of art I studied (painting) and have never missed it.

Henry said...

People who are untalented tend to be drawn (hah!) to non-representational art.

In my experience the opposite is the case. People who are untalented tend to paint pasty portraits and clunky landscapes.

buwaya said...

He has a certain lack of craft. But then I'm old fashioned.

Also, Dante is a very very personal, very biological sort of fellow, all those characters chat, present themselves as people with voices and faces, and bleed and burn or freeze, and very graphic in architectural description also. Abstract geometry without people or a sense of place misses the point. Gustave Dore got it right.

And speaking of speaking of art - what was the old saying - critics talk about art, artists talk about paint.

veni vidi vici said...

I feel that way playing some of my old demo tapes from years ago. I get somewhat lost in the moment and reconnect with how great it all sounded to me when I was writing and recording those songs...

Then, I play a tape for someone and within seconds I'm painfully aware (at least this art critic is on point with his adjectives) of how mundane is the summation of my talents.

*sigh*

J2 said...

I don't understand why his response is disappointing to you. What are some of the cleverer ways to express his response.
Does everything need to be judged as "repartee"?

Give him a break, he admits he's a failure.

AReasonableMan said...

Within some ethnic groups there can be considerable social pressure to be, or at least appear to be, 'cultured'. Unfortunately, the distribution of artistic talent within the human population appears to be close to random, creating considerable angst for many individuals within those groups where being 'cultured' is most prized.

Nonapod said...

Weirdly I sort of like some of his pieces, although they don't conjure up Dante's Inferno in the slightest.

mockturtle said...

Looking at his work, I can see why.

tim in vermont said...

I don't know or care who the other guy is, but that Oscar Wilde could slay it, couldn't he?

tim in vermont said...

Good one ARM! Seriously.

Henry said...

As far as failure and success goes in the arts, I tend toward big acceptance. It is the Frank Turner definition of punk rock:

'Cause there's no such thing as rockstars
There's just people who play music
And some of them are just like us
And some of them are dicks
So, quick turn off your stereo
Pick up that pen and paper
Yeah, you can do much better
Than some skinny half-arsed English country singer

'Cause we write love songs in C and we do politics in G
We sing songs about our friends in E minor
So tear down the stars now and take up your guitars
And come on folks and try this at home.


Sean Gleeson said...

"There must be at least 10 cleverer ways to answer the question 'What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?' without losing the idea that the triangles were Hell."

I was hoping for an example or two from Althouse, because honestly I'm coming up mostly dry.

Q: What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?
A: No, those are just triangles. I like triangles.

Q: What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?
A: Jeez, beats me. I crapped this thing out, like, 50 years ago, you know.

Q: What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?
A: Close! They are the special place in Hell for Madeleine Albright.

Q: What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?
A: No, but maybe we should explore why you assume triangles represent women. Was your mother triangular?

See? Mostly dry.

Earnest Prole said...

Hell is an unempathetic wife.

Henry said...

Here's Rauschenberg's Inferno.

William Blake's.

Gustave Doré's

Michael Mazur's.

Salz's work is amateurish in that it is at once elaborate (a triptych!) and timid. But that doesn't mean he couldn't have gotten braver.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Henry said...

It is the Frank Turner definition of punk rock...

I love Frank Turner's music. He appears to be getting more political in his upcoming music, and I suspect I will disagree with a good bit of that. But he is far more thoughtful than most musicians who grace us with their political opinions, so there is that.

Fernandinande said...

I think I know why he "failed".

Saltz writes
"(String of Puppies is riveting, too, even though it got Koons in trouble for supposedly stealing the image from a postcard. He lost the case, even though his work has no resemblance to the so-called stolen one. Absurd.)"

"No resemblance" = a very obvious close copy, so I think Saltz must be severely vision-impaired.

William Chadwick said...

Jack Lemmon once said, "To be an actor, you have to be the kind of person who, when told that you're chances of even having a decent life--let alone be a success--is something like 50,000 to 1, responds, "Okay, I'll do that!" I imagine with other types of artists (writers, painters, etc. the odds must be even higher. So when can one say the artist has failed? When he or she doesn't make a living at his or her art? If so the vast majority of artists, whatever their talent level, would qualify as "failures." No disgrace in that.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist.

I followed the link, and looked at your work.

Yes, you are.

Sebastian said...

"Why aren't we getting better repartee from Saltz?" Spoken like a former art student who is now invested in self-expression through writing, unlike the failed-artist art critic too wrapped up in his failure to think of substituting repartee for an attempt at honesty or mere human connection.

"He's an art critic, he's being self-deprecating." But he is still very invested in his art and in the idea of being an artist. Towards some things we cannot be cruelly neutral.

Robert Cook said...

"People who are untalented tend to be drawn (hah!) to non-representational art. They are drawn to non-representational art because they aren't very good at drawing human figures. They can't get the hands right."

What do you mean by "untalented?" There is much representational art--made by people who can draw with great skill--that is terrible. There is much nonrepresentational art that is wonderful. (Don't assume all nonrepresentational artists cannot draw. Some can't, others can.)

Robert Cook said...

"Hell is an unempathetic wife."

I think you mean "Hell is an honest wife."

Robert Cook said...

It is brave of Saltz to write so candidly of his youthful ambition to be an artist, and of his failure, and more so to be so frank about his ego, then and now, his own infatuation with his work--work which he presents to us to appraise, an invitation for us to scorn it.

SDaly said...

Q: What’s with the triangles — Are they supposed to be women?
A: Those aren't triangles, they're icicles. And yes, they are supposed to be women.

Kevin said...

Hell is not the triangles. Hell is his wife the art critic not understanding what the hell the triangles are supposed to represent.

How the hell does your artistic ego recover from that?

He has two choices: find a better-respected critic who immediately gets the symbolism, or burn the art in the fireplace and never speak of it again.

rightguy2 said...

Dr. Kennedy- this short book helped me understand modern art and art criticism :

https://www.amazon.com/Painted-Word-Tom-Wolfe/dp/0312427581


From the book : "The painter, (Tom) Wolfe writes, "had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this fall's avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century.... At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching."

urbane legend said...

Lewis Wetzel said...
They can't get the hands right.
So they could have been left off?

Valentine Smith said...

Pssst. The future is in fractals.

Henry said...

@ignorance/bliss - I regret I didn't see one of the stops on the Billy Bragg - Frank Turner tour. It's amazing Frank held out as long as he did.

David said...

“Criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does.”

Cultivation isn't talent. You can cultivate talent, but you can't create it by cultivation.

lucy white said...

Those who can, do. Those who can't, write soporific political commentary on Facebook for brown-nosing sycophants. God knows what they see in him. Jerry spends so much time moral signaling, with his head wrapped in corrupt Hillary's diaper, it's no wonder his views are so infantile. btw, sounds like Jerry cribbed that line from Robert Hughes. He can't even do art commentary.

wildswan said...

Possible Theory: If the reality behind the sophistication of Dante's art were re-presented through primitive motifs, Navaho triangles and so on, what would that look like? I can imagine that the triangles and diagonals by their different colors in relation to each other and to the canto in Dante became a language to this painter. But it was very hidden and still is hidden to others. And I can believe that reading Dante for ten years and slowly evolving a secret paint-language for the reaction to each canto would be an intense human experience, one this painter was determined not to share and did not share. Notice he does not mention Dante at all except as his subject. Never mentions him as his companion, his Virgil on his artistic trip. So I think this was a secret journey which is still secret for secret reasons but which he wrote about .. why? In that sense he really was a failed artist but quite human.

Interesting that there is a story about Hillary's failed campaign further on in the blog - another huge disastrous journey, this time by a failed politician, but one that might have ended by dragging me into its disaster since she would have been President of my country. So she doesn't seem human in her failure but rather a huge, hooting train whose tracks I was tied to but escaped at the last minute.

eLocke said...

"Criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does."

I think Wilde is referring to the critical capacity of the artist to criticize his OWN work, in the process of creating good art.

I am not sure the author is reading this line the same way.

Robert Cook said...

"I think Wilde is referring to the critical capacity of the artist to criticize his OWN work, in the process of creating good art.

"I am not sure the author is reading this line the same way."


My impression is that he is reading the line this way.