August 6, 2011

"Why, then, is [John] Marin so underappreciated by the art-world elite?"

Asks Terry Teachout:
The standard explanation is that even though he marched to the edge of abstraction, it seems never to have occurred to him to turn his back on the visible world. "The sea that I paint may not be the sea," he wrote, "but it is a sea — not an abstraction." After the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s, his deep-rooted belief in representation came to be seen as old-fashioned, even quaint.

But there may be a deeper reason. Americans have long had an equivocal relationship with their own art.... To this day there is a noticeable reluctance on the part of native-born art lovers to admit that a quintessentially American composer like Aaron Copland might actually be great, or that a stage actor need not have an English accent to perform the plays of Shakespeare or Stoppard. Could it be that the reputation of Mr. Marin, whose subject matter is as American as his briskly improvisational brushwork, suffers from our nagging sense of cultural inferiority?
I think Marin was originally overrated, and he's just not that good. Check out some images if you don't know the work.


Bob Ellison said...

I've been looking for the quote somewhere that goes something like "after the invention of photography, all art is humbuggery."

Fen said...

Of those you linked to, I really like the one with a man rowing, all purple, with a reflection cast on the wake.

The rest? Meh. Guess I'm not wired for art. Most of what I see leaves me wondering "this is the pinnacle of their craft? Really?"

YoungHegelian said...

Who does Teachout hang out with that would have trouble with admitting Americans into the pantheon of great artists (and I mean artists in the broadest sense of a creator in any of the arts)?

In 1811, maybe. But, in 2011, that's just booya!

SteveR said...

My daughters did stuff that good, when they were about six.

edutcher said...

Sorry, it looks like standard modern stuff.

eddie willers said...

Better than Pollock....worse than just about everybody else that has ever picked up a brush.

Mitch H. said...

The ideology isn't offensive, but the technique is... insulting. American consumers of art - not the poor damned corporate tools who get pressured into buying crap, but the people who might look at art for the enjoyment of it rather than the status-symbology of Looking At Art - don't react well to insult. Artists who displays without having learned technique, or who refuses to offer technique they've learned but are forgoing to appear "authentic" are not going to last, except possibly as the overpriced wall-hangings of high-tone office space.

Synova said...


Maybe so, but while failing to completely abandon representation for abstract expressionism might explain a lack of popularity at the time, it doesn't explain why people looking at his stuff now are unimpressed. Fashions change.

Skill may be admired in the context of what artists were doing, sort of like technical advances in a movie with a weak plot can distract from the weak plot.

So he's got briskly improvisational brushwork.


"Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within" was a technical wonder. Didn't make it an even passable movie.

A few of the pieces didn't look horrible, but few seemed composed to draw the eye over the canvas or convey any sort of emotion. Maybe they looked different to him. Maybe when he looked at them he added something between his eyeballs and his brain that made them meaningful. Presumably they were created deliberately.

urpower said...

All critics live to heroically prop up the unsung talent, the one who wasn't good enough but can seem so with enough words; it is an alter ego of themselves, a reflection of their own failure to be a creator. It is good to dwell on possibility, though. That which never was. I was just reading about Robert Phelps, the (gay) writer of the 1958 Heroes & Orators, and his friend, writer James Salter says of this book: "You had not yet found the stream bed that runs from within to the page. You were admiring things that you do not truly admire, that merely possess the power to disturb you. And you were only beginning to understand how to focus the enormous forces, the knowledge, and the anti-knowledge, within you." Is that not true for us all.

urpower said...

@Bob Ellison- recall Wilde, "All art is quite useless." Contiued by Borges: "There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless." And Auden: "poetry makes nothing happen..."

Jonah H. said...

In 1897 Bouguereau was likewise listed by his peers as THE painter of the 19th C.

Now he has been reduced to stock images for greeting cards.

Marin doesn't even rate that much attention.

More to the point, Belting and Danto, art, as a universal expression of a shared communal aesthetic, is dead.

Go to any museum. The modern sections are all empty. So are the African and Oceania sections. They are empty for the same reason. They have no universality. They have to be explained in their context and in their times.

Nearly all of the art of the last 60 years can only be understood in terms of ethnography, the particular material culture output of a particular culture at a particular time.

timmaguire42 said...

Interesting, but not special. I agree with YoungHegelian--Americans can't be accepted as great artists? In whose world?

geokstr said...

I think this monologue from "L.A. Story", performed and written by Steve Martin, says it all:

Harris K. Telemacher: I like the relationships. I mean, each character has his own story. The puppy is a bit too much, but you have to over look things like that in these kinds of paintings. The way he's *holding* her... it's almost... filthy. I mean, he's about to kiss her and she's pulling away. The way the leg's sort of smashed up against her... Phew... Look how he's painted the blouse sort of translucent. You can just make out her breasts underneath and it's sort of touching him about here. It's really ... pretty torrid, don't you think? Then of course you have the onlookers peeking at them from behind the doorway like they're all shocked. They wish. Yeah, I must admit, when I see a painting like this, I get emotionally... erect.
(We see that he and his companions are looking at a huge abstract expressionism painting of a red rectangle).

Has anyone ever done a study of who creates and who likes this sort of "art" by political ideology? It might explain a lot if leftism is sort of like this - if they actually think the real world looks like this and can fill in an essentially blank finger painting with their fantasies. Sort of like, you know, how they look at Obama so adoringly.

Leftism definitely is a mental disorder.

Michael said...

I'd like to see them in person, so to speak. They look like New Yorker covers in little Google images, but they might impress more at full size.

eddie willers said...

"They have no universality. They have to be explained in their context and in their times."

Excellent observation.

May I add:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

RichardS said...

Same is true of our intellectuals. We tend to assume that great philosopher and writers are not Americans. We seldom imagine that we can match Shakespeare, Milton, Machiavelli, Plato, etc.