Thursday, August 31, 2006


Recently, a column in Editor & Publisher magazine proclaimed that the comic strip For Better or Worse (above) is "the best comic in the 111-year history of the modern newspaper strip." Labeling the creator an "artistic genius," the column argued that For Better or Worse surpasses strips such as Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts and Terry and the Pirates.

In the LA Times, art dealer Karen de la Carriere asserted that Kinkade, the painter of unmitigated twaddle, "is a modern day Leonardo da Vinci or Monet. There is no one in our generation who can paint like that."

Not to be outdone, the NY Times Magazine pronounced Art Spiegelman the “Michelangelo" of the comic world.

For many years, I thought the only polite response when critics publicly embarrassed themselves was to look the other way, just as you would for someone whose bodily functions got the best of them during a momentary lull at a party.

But when you have a blog like this, you get a lot of traffic from people who insist that everyone is entitled to their own standards, and that taste in art is no different from taste in ice cream. Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, it's all equally valid. Those people may wish to stop reading now.

There are plenty of reasons for an art critic to be humble. Art means different things to different people. For some it is purely decorative. For others it has religious significance. It can be a form of therapy, a parlour trick, or (in perhaps its highest and best use) a seduction technique. Taste in art changes, so an artist beloved by one generation might fall from grace in the next. Furthermore, wonderful art pops up in unexpected places-- from children, from the mentally ill, from primitive civilizations. In view of all this, who is to say what’s good and bad? If people get genuine pleasure from mediocre art, one has to think twice before telling them they are wrong to do so.

This may explain a recent survey of 230 art critics by Columbia University, which found that passing judgment on art was at the bottom of their list of priorities, while "providing an accurate descriptive account" was at the top. This unwillingness to evaluate quality caused James Elkins, chair of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago, to conclude that art criticism is in a "worldwide crisis" because "contemporary art criticism is entranced by the possibility of avoiding judgment."

In a major essay in the New York Times, Barry Gewen analyzed six art books that survey the state of "fine" art today. Although the books were written from a wide variety of perspectives, they all reached the same grim conclusion: "surveying the trends in modern art leaves one with the sense that we have arrived at the end of something, a state of bewilderment at best, of bankruptcy at worst."

It's a sad ending for a trend that began with such excitement and promise. Nearly 50 years ago, Robert Motherwell wrote:
The emergence of abstract art is a sign that there are still men of feeling in the world .... Nothing as drastic as abstract art could have come into existence save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience -- intense, immediate direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.
But Clement Greenberg, one of the earliest supporters of abstract art, added an important qualification:
The nonrepresentational or abstract, if it is to have aesthetic validity, cannot be arbitrary and accidental, but must stem from obedience to some worthy constraint.
The absence of a worthy constraint-- of standards-- opened the door to artists such as Bob Flanagan, whose art involved nailing his penis to a wooden plank, or Keith Broadwee whose art involved squirting paint from his anus.

One reason I like illustration and comic art is that it is not as susceptible to narcissism and decadence. As Howard Munce once remarked, "the difference between art and illustration is that there are no amateur illustrators." An honest commercial marketplace may not be the ideal source for purpose and value in art, but it will certainly do until a better one comes along.

In the end, I agree with William Blake:
When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do.
Many of the artists discussed on this blog are gifted artists who held themselves to exacting standards. They paid a high price to develop their art in ways other than nailing their penises to a plank. It is to honor their accomplishment that I stand firm on this spot in cyberspace and insist, "standards are not an illusion."



Anonymous said...

well-said!!and i personally think that the sketchbooks of artists or illustrator can let us gleam a little into their standards or lack of it.
.btw, your blog had been very informative and enriching.will u feature charles livingston soon? the great wildlife animal illustrator?

Painter X said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. People forget that the word "art" actually meant something at one time. You can still see the meaning in glimpses here and there, as when it is used as an adverb--"that speech was artfully done", for example. See, art implies mastery--mastery of technique, mastery of composition, mastery of storytelling, mastery of characterization. In the headlong rush to pump up the new to ethereal levels, all the ideas of mastery were thrown out the window.

I have a theory that so-called modern art is wholly an advertising phenomenon. It arose in the industrial era not out of some necessity, but because modern advertising techniques were developed at that time as well. Also, the gallery system arose at the end of the nineteeth century as the main vehicle of selling artwork. The problem for the gallery owner was to get stars in their galleries to move paintings. The gallery owners realized that modern advertising techniques could be used in the art world as well. So you see all the hallmarks of modern advertising in the modern art and gallery world. The emphasis on the new, the appeal to authority (critics), and so on and so on.

Of course modern art is spent. Art isn't really about innovation. Its about communication. Its about our common humanity. Not an obsessive concern with our problems, neuroticism, and politics. And art requires mastery. I find it in spades in the work of the greatest fine artists and illustrators. At least that's my $0.02.

leifpeng said...

A great post, David - one I will refer to from hereon in as "The Apatoff Manifesto". ;-)

My mom, not an artist but a passionate patron of the arts, spent many years docenting at our very fine public art gallery. Her tastes run more to Hundertwasser and Karel Appel than Noel Sickles or Alex Toth.

When she began docenting, the gallery director gave a lecture where he was asked, "How does one know when a piece of art is good?"

His description, as recounted to me by my mom more than twenty years ago, has always stuck with me:

Imagine you are walking down the street and something in the window of a store catches your eye. You are in a hurry but feel compelled to take a second look, so you approach the window.

What you see there is intriguing enough to make you want to take the time to go into the store and pick up the item, in spite of your hectic schedule.

Once you have examined the item up close, you know feel your initial impression was correct, that this is a good thing - good enough that you want to own it, that you'd pay good money to be able to return to it again and again.

You turn it over and discover that the price is very high.

*If you you are entirely put off by the price, you may decide that this was not such a great thing after all. You begin to admit to its flaws to justify why it is not worth your money.

*If it is simply 'good', you may decide to return at a later date to purchase it.

*If it is great, you realize that you will pay any price to posess it. That you need to have it in your life at any cost.

The point being that great art moves us in ways that are deeply personal and defy a clinical checklist of "quality" or "standards".

Tie this to a society devoid of the teaching of esthetics and you've got a real mess!

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I agree. I love drawings in general and sketchbooks in particular because they reveal so much about the DNA of the artist. And I have a lonnnng list of artists (like Livingston) that I would love to blab about. I really appreciate the feedback I get from you guys.

Painter X,your description of the marketing of modern art reminds me of a story about Robert Fawcett. He started out to be a fine artist and had a successful one man show at a gallery in Manhattan but he was so repulsed by the process he witnessed that he quit to become an illustrator, saying that he would rather earn a living by honest commercial work. The funny thing is, I love a lot of modern and post-modern art, including conceptual and abstract artists. I agree with you that much of modern art is advertising and public relations, but buried in all that froth I think there have been some wonderful talents. The problem is that fine art seems to have lost its moorings.

David Apatoff said...

Leif, I was wondering how you came to love this field so much. I didn't realize your mother was such a passionate patron of the arts. Now you've become an "electric docent" on a global scale. I hope she is proud of you!

Maybe we should begin a collection of stories about how a person is supposed to tell that a work of art rings the bell. I'm sure we'd get an odd collection of litmus tests. Kind of like the way you are supposed to tell that a person is "the one."

leifpeng said...

Ha! Thanks for that, David - "electric docent" - I like that handle. ;-)

If I can wear that nametag I have to dub you the "#1 electric art professor" because I learn so much more from your posts than I did at art college.

Re: painter x's thoughts on the relationship between the fine arts industry and advertising. I could go on and on but don't mean to hijack your forum, but one interesting tidbit from a few years back I remember reading in the paper:

That Charles Satchi (co-owner of one of the biggest ad agency empires in the world) had become the barometer of who was hot and who was not in the contemporary fine arts world, based on which young up-and-coming artists he was adding to his abundant collection. Young painters were going from cold-water hovels to penthouse apartments over night, because Satchi's eye had turned in their direction. Where Satchi took notice, the entire fine arts establishment would follow, and when he dropped an artist, that artist was ruined.

I don't follow the fine arts industy but it all seems so terribly cynical and insincere.

Kudos to Fawcett for for realizing this all those years ago, because it would seem that its the same as it ever was!

theory_of_me said...

Art is egotistical self-indulgence. Every generation gets the art that it deserves.

Anonymous said...

The comments by painter X are interesting and as David Apatoff notes, certainly true. But there were times when advertising was influenced, if not driven, by modern art. After slogging through a lot of advertising periodicals (Printers Ink, The Poster) published in the 1920s I learned that a number of art directors were beginning to include elements of modern art in advertising illustration. In part this was done as a pretense of elevating commercial illustration to what was sometimes called ‘art-art’ but others felt that commercial illustration was in a rut and could benefit from a new perspective. During this time many commercial artists and art directors were distracted if not preoccupied with the second-class status of illustration art and stung by a growing backlash against advertising driven by progressive groups (mainly against billboard art). So organizations such as the Outdoor Advertising Association came up with all sorts of schemes to convince the public as well as themselves that they were making high art rather than the so-called ‘subway art.’ To me this makes David Apatoff’s story about Fawcett taking on the honest profession of illustration all the more impressive.

lotusgreen said...

"There is no one in our generation who can paint like that."

thank god

something i'm finding incredibly interesting: "brushes with history: writing on art from 'the nation' 1865-2001"

(i hope i didn't hear about it from you because that would be really embarassing)

fascinating watching this argument bounce back and forth through the decades. henry james writing about the ruskin/whistler trial, frank lloyd wright on the empire state building....

David Malan said...

Amen! to your article.
Unfortunately I have to agree with theory_of_me that the joke of modern art today is just a reflection on our cultures self-centered nature. Modern art is created purely for the self and no one else. Today its even worse that that with self-hating artists just trying to make the most shocking statement and then thinking of a meaning to attach to it. Whereas, illustration created for the viewer to please and entertain others.
Great blog, very interesting. I have posted my list of past and present great artists on my blog, if you are interested. I can't believe I forgot Leyendecker though.

Anonymous said...

David, you manage to say in just a few sentences more than an avaerage art critic says in a large book. Besides, you know what you're talking about.

As to Dave's statement - "Modern art is created purely for the self and no one else.", I'd add that unfortunately it is not created only for the self, otherwise all those battalions of psychopatic lunatics and their sick, tasteless patrons would not feel the urge to show off.

Anonymous said...

While I don't disagree at all with your point, I have to ask: Who cares what some unnamed columnist at "Editor & Publisher", a writer for the NYT Magazine, and an LA art dealer (!!!) think? Anybody who forms their opinions based on reading such quotes isn't worth worrying about.

Having said that, I bet William Blake would have loved Kinkade, for Kinkade too could "see the universe in a grain of sand." The jury is out on Blake's feelings about "For Better Or For Worse" though. . . but I suspect he'd be concerned that Liz is making a mistake by moving back home, for she's surely to end up falling once again for her first love, Anthony. And who thinks that moustachioed miscreant is a better catch than Paul, her staunch Mountie lover? Not I!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks for all the responses! I think you are fleshing out some important points here. (Of course, it's always a risk to tell theory_of_me that you agree with him, because it just gives him an incentive to stretch for an even darker place).

Jack, I don't know how you got a chance to slog through magazines of the 1920s but for me that's like a vacation in the country. I love that old stuff.

Dave, I checked out your list of favorite artists and as you might imagine, we have a lot of overlap (some disagreements). I really liked your work and will be commenting directly on your blog.

Valentino, I can tell from your reaction ("...psychopatic lunatics and their sick, tasteless patrons...") that you have strong feelings about this topic! Don't hold back!

David R, I think your position is completely unreasonable. Those "staunch mountie lover" types always look good from a distance, but who do you think is likely to be more understanding when Liz finally reveals her heroin habit? That fancy red uniform won't look nearly so good from the inside of a jail cell. I think Liz may be wise to opt for the known quantity here.

David Apatoff said...

Lotusgreen, your comment reminds me of the famous dispute between Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Frost said that writing poetry in free verse without any rules was like playing tennis without a net. Sandburg replied that you could play a more interesting game without a net, to which Frost responded, "yes, but it's not tennis."

There is an important and legitimate debate here but to the best of my knowledge, neither Frost nor Sandburg drove a nail through his penis.

Anonymous said...

Point taken, though some speculate her particular poison is crystal meth.

Anonymous said...

Oh, btw, David, did you get my mail w/attachment that I sent you last tuesday?

theory_of_me said...

Yes, I'm always bemused when people say they agree with me.

As we all know, one needs to grope in a "darker place" before hitting the light switch. But I think most people would rather stay in the dark.

Anonymous said...

There are several Daves here...
My question (in previous post) was directed to D. Appatoff.

E Colquhoun said...

Amen! It seems that the visual arts are about the only art form that allows little or no standards. You wouldn't see the same thing in music, theatre or dance?

Well said!

Anonymous said...

David Apatoff,

Your comments about poetry hit the mark on the head. Poetry without rhyme or meter isn't poetry; it is just verse. It's too bad. I actually like poetry, but verse pretty much leaves me cold.

Also, most of you folks posting here sound like you know a bit about art - I just know what I like and most abstract art is just crap. Many artists complain they can't get funding and disdain commercialism, but the great masters all had their clients who kept them fed and monied and in turn the artists produced works that people enjoyed and that uplifted their lives. It seems most current artists just want to trash us individually and culturally. Please allow me to give them a literal finger! Thank you.

Sorry for my rambling - I really enjoyed the comments of the posters and this site.

BTW, I think a lot of the pulp fictuion illustrators are great artists. Maybe exagerated, but fun. It's okay for art to be fun, right?

Anonymous said...

Again, you're wildly over-estimating the importance of artists you don't like in the 'fine art' world. Both of those artists are VERY minor.

What's good will be remembered. Time will sort out the crap. And the field of art may be wide open, but it's not too different from the current field of illustration. That is, I doubt a 'crisis' in either field.

I would possibly agree that there is a seismic shift in the art world's direction, but I have no idea where it's going, and only a hint that the shift is real and not wishful thinking.

Lastly, drawing has had a massive resurgance in the last twenty years. A good chunk of the most famous artists are accomplished draftsmen.

Jesse Hamm said...

Bravo, Apatoff! Glad to see someone taking on the sacred cows of the art & comics world. Keep up the great work; I'm relishing these archived posts, but I'll run out soon...

theory_of_me said...

Painter X: "I have a theory that so-called modern art is wholly an advertising phenomenon."

Okay, let's pretend that the Sistine Chapel is not an "advertising phenomenon" for nonsensical Christian values.

Painter X: "Art isn't really about innovation. Its about communication. Its about our common humanity. Not an obsessive concern with our problems"

Hilarious! So to be "human" is to ignore our very real problems and pretend everything is hunky-dory?

Leif: "How does one know when a piece of art is good?"

When you like it for whatever reason. That's about as far as it goes.

David Apatoff: "he would rather earn a living by honest commercial work."

"Honest commercial" is an oxymoron. :)

Valentino Radman: "unfortunately it is not created only for the self, otherwise all those battalions of psychopatic lunatics and their sick, tasteless patrons would not feel the urge to show off."

Ultimately, they are all in it for themselves, just like you. It is insincere to pretend otherwise.