Defending the First Artist In

Here’s something I don’t get. Why do people lose their minds over art they don’t personally like or understand? I’m talking, write-letters-angry. Call-your-congressman-angry. Bring-a-crowbar-to-the-exhibit-and-destroy-offending-art-angry?!

Why not just, I don’t know, leave? 

I can’t speak for all curators, but many of us  are trying to put shows together that have a reason for being, that do something more than lull people to sleep. We want people to see something new, to consider the world in a fresh way. And, whenever possible, we want people to feel something. 

Maybe that’s the real question. 

Why do people get so angry when art makes them feel an emotion?

This is nothing new, people getting their undies in a bunch over art, but in this day and age when zealots can arm themselves and destroy works of art (or attack people making that work) because it offends them, it seems like it’s time to talk about…

How to talk about art. 

In 2010, the Loveland Museum of Art enraged people by displaying a work by artist Enrique Chagoya, "The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals", a 12-panel lithograph that some felt denigrated their religion. Kathleen Folden drove from Kalispell, Montana, entered the museum with a crowbar, smashed the display case, and damaged the work.

Years ago, while wandering through Dia Beacon, in New York, with a dear friend, we were confronted by Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis). We were silent for a while until my friend leaned over and whispered, “That’s art?” 

Robert Smithson, Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), 1969
Robert Smithson, Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), 1969, DIA Center, NY

I’m going to admit a few things here. First, I didn’t connect the sprawling broken glass sculpture to the Robert Smithson of the Spiral Jetty fame, which is also owned and maintained by Dia. 

This lack of knowledge brings me to my second admonition: Fear

Fear of saying something stupid. Fear of sounding pretentious. Fear of not having the facts or correct terminology or even a good reason for defending something.

That day, standing in front of Smithson’s work with my kind and sophisticated friend who really didn’t get it, we had a great conversation about a pile of glass. (I know, a lot of you are dubious, but stay with me on this.)

I, like many of you, do not hold a degree in art history. My understanding is from years of research, conversations with curators and artists, and more than a few boozy evenings with arty friends discussing, arguing, complaining, and defending art.

And so, after 30 years and more than my share of tequila, I present to you a not-art-history-major’s best tips for understanding and enjoying art, whether you like it or not.

One: Understand Where Art Comes From

I don’t make art for the same reason most people don’t make art: I have nothing original to say in paint or print or clay or any other medium. It’s not my calling.

What I know for a fact after years of working with amazing artists is that it’s really hard to be original.

It’s so hard to be original that, when confronted with something stunningly original, we the viewers owe it to the world to stop and pay attention, whether it’s our cup of tea or not. 

I’ll go one step further. Putting yourself in front of art, especially when it elicits an emotional reaction, is vital on a personal and societal level. Artists with truly original visions are the ones who speak the truth when others look away. 

A lot of times, art (and theatre and music and film, poetry and writing) that makes us feel agitated is also making us see the world differently; it makes us reconsider our beliefs and values. 

And those brave souls who created some of the most challenging works of art are people I call the “First Ones In.” These men and women made works of art born out of, as Mary Oliver called it, “the wild, silky part of ourselves.” The First Ones In did this work knowing the thing they were making would be criticized. In fact, they did it in spite of this awareness. 

Two: Maybe your kid could do that BUT he didn't

Yes, there’s some crazy stuff out there that’s called “art.” I’m not part of the inner sanctum of museum curators and gallery directors who push forth sharks in glass cylinders or bananas duct-taped to walls, but I do pay attention when I feel uncomfortable, curious, or agitated by a work of art. Something important is happening here and I need to figure out what that is.

Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian, sold at Miami Art Basal for $120,000
Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian, sold at Miami Art Basal for $120,000

NOTE: The banana thing, in my mind, is derivative of Macel Duchamp’s piece, “Fountain.” Duchamp submitted a urinal to be displayed as a sculpture in the first Society of Independent Artists exhibition held in New York, in 1915. Though he was one of the founders of the Society, “Fountain” was rejected from the exhibit, which caused quite an uproar in the artist community because, principally, the Society was formed to create a place where all art could be exhibited and not censored. According to writing on the Tate Modern website, “Fountain” has been seen as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “readymade” art: an originally manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art.  

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, signed "R. Mutt". The original was lost but the replica (1964) resides in the Tate Modern and is on display, marking a turning point in art where the artist states what is art history where the artist asks and answers: What is art?

Here’s some text about “Fountain” that appeared in a 1917 article called “The Richard Mutt Case,” that was published in the Blind Man and accompanied by a photograph of the original work taken by Alfred Stieglitz:

Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

In a nutshell...

You would have one hell of a brilliant kid if he or she created work like Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, or Frida Khalo without prior knowledge of these artists’ existence. But your kid didn’t. The kids who made those ground breaking works only existed for a brief, beautiful time; when their lives ended, that work was complete. Everyone who’s made similar work since then is inspired by or simply copying.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, so much of what we see in the art world was done by artists who, as Wayne Theibaud put it, stand on the shoulders of giants. In other words, most artists have been trained by someone and have been influenced by many, many others who came before. 

In this light, you can consider “Fountain” as the springboard for all kinds of compelling and annoying art like much of what Andy Warhol did by making work that became a running commentary on consumerism.

Bottom line: not all art has aesthetics as its main or only purpose in the world; sometimes it’s a protest, a nudge or a shove into modernity. It is there to make us see our world and the issues we face in a new way.

Three: Make room for the intensity of ambition

In his 2013 critique of an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, Peter Schjeldahl wrote about the Wassily Kandinsky painting, “Impression III (Concert)”:

Impression III (Concert) Wassily Kandinsky, 1911
Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III (Concert), oil, 30x40 inches

There is something forced, a hysteria of will, about the work, as there is about the drive of Italian Futurists to represent motion, which stumbles on the fact that paintings hold dead still. But the intensity of ambition of the Futurists and Kandinsky batters misgivings.” 

Shows like “Inventing Abstraction” illustrate the very best and most important thing art–especially art we don’t understand–can do for us: it let’s us peer into the world of other cultures, times, and lives. We can read history and memorize dates, but isn’t the history of mankind made more alive with color, shape, and texture as attested to by those who possess an “intensity of ambition that batters misgivings?”

In other words, artists are searching for meaning and new forms of expression. Their work doesn’t hinge on whether you like it or not. Your job is to simply let them do their job.

Four: pause

When art makes you react, even negatively, that’s exactly when you need to stop and pay attention. Then start asking questions.

I dropped in an Agnes Marin painting here to talk about taking a breath before dismissing something or getting angry. 

White paintings seem to really piss people off. Below is a video that talks about white paintings and adds some very funny clips of people getting all verklempt. 

Suffice it to say, white paintings were not created to piss you off; you really didn’t figure into the creation of them. So, take a breath and consider what the painting is doing inside of you.

Agnes Martin, White Stone, 1964, oil and graphite on line, 72 x 72 inches
Agnes Martin, White Stone, 1964, oil and graphite on line, 72 x 72 inches

Some highlights of this video that I love…

“With a white painting, you have to do a lot more work,” said Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, NYC. “But it can be a lot more rewarding.”

“White paintings are a fabulous kind of Rorschach test because they offer viewers an ambiguous canvas upon which they can project their own interpretation, emotions, beliefs, and stories onto,” said Dean Peterson, producer of this video.

“It very easy to be dismissive of things we’re not immediately attracted to, so if you have a negative gut reaction of defensiveness or fear or anxiety or rejection, try to move past that to see what’s available afterwards,” explained Sherman and added, 

It doesn’t have to change your mind but sometimes moving through the reaction is when you learn the most about the work but also about yourself.”

All this to say that when challenged by conceptual art, ask questions. You don’t have to like it or want to live with it. In fact, whether you like it or not is completely irrelevant when it comes to experiencing art. Consider these experiences as an opportunity to do a little self-reflection.

Five: If you can't say something nice...

I think disparaging art or anything or anyone you don’t understand is a kind of intolerance that leads us down a slippery slope toward censorship, hate speech and violence. Sorry if that sounds hyperbolic, but you don’t have to look too far into our past to see the ways people have caused tremendous destruction simply over an unwillingness to accept that others have differing opinions or ways of looking at the world. 

And really, life is short. Why not let yourself feel your emotions as a way to understand not only art but our collective history?

If you can’t do that, please remember the words of Thumper’s mom–go ahead, say it with me: 

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

11 thoughts on “Defending the First Artist In

  1. Great post, Rose.
    I think the overall point of seeing challenging art as an opportunity for personal introspection is, by many viewers, overshadowed by an engrained tendency to fall back on the comfortable and easy measure of value; money. A banana duct taped to the wall is not, by any practical measure, worth $120K. Yet someone in a system which continues to baffle me assigned that monetary value to the banana. In some ways, the gallery and museum establishment does art a disservice by creating its own, mysterious economy that remains detached from the larger supply/demand monetary system we live and work in on a daily basis. Perhaps challenging art thrives in a foggy realm of mystery inherent with inhabiting the cutting edge. Were we to understand and agree on it, the cutting edge work would fall into the emotionally comfortable space of ‘mainstream’.
    I guess there has to be a ‘cutting edge’ that forces us to question our perceptions. The trick for me to actively participate in an attempt at comprehension is in avoiding the price tags on challenging works.

    • Excellent point, Matt. I hadn’t thought of that but you are exactly right. I’ve read a lot about how certain artists have been discovered and lauded and how their dealers have propelled them and their prices through the roof. The art world is terribly opaque, which I believe scares people off. So there’s art and then there’s the art of BS. Good luck telling one from the other. In the end, I think Ned is right: quality is key and should be the standard. The market and auctions, well they’re every bit as fickle as the stock market. So, do good work and invest in the art that inspires you (not puts you to sleep).

    • Thanks, Chuck! I so appreciate your thoughts and thank you for reading. It’s tough in the “western” genre to push boundaries too far, isn’t it? But I sure hope you keep up the good work.

  2. Hi Rose..great to connect with you…great commentary..a good reminder for all of us..I have always tried to be open minded of all things Art…not always easy and that doesn’t always mean that I like what I am seeing or feeling about something, but at least I am trying. I certainly am drawn to a particular type of Art and am inspired by that and try to imbue some of it in my own work..Have found that small changes seem to work best as for me..big changes take time and patience..the latter I am not famous for. Anyways we are really all different and it really shows in all the different work out there.
    After painting, drawing and teaching for over 60 years..I think that quality is upper most of whatever I may be looking at…and that naturally comes over time for both Artist and viewer. Keep up the great work…All my best, Ned Mueller

    • Thanks, Ned. It’s funny about art, isn’t it, that for most everything out there, we judge it based on quality–which I totally agree with. Then there’s the work that defies all boundaries and norms. Those pieces can only be judged from the inside out, I think. Inside the artist and inside the viewer. I do like art that catches me off balance but feel ire when looking at badly made, say, still life paintings. In fact, badly painted representational art can leave me in a foul mood for hours! But we are lucky to have art, hey, and lucky to be able to talk about it? Keep on keeping on, my friend.

  3. Very interesting post. I think point “Five” is especially important and relevant to the time we now live in. Although I am aware intolerance exists throughout history, sadly. Wow! Sorry to get so morose! Maybe we can start with art and carry it into our daily lives.

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