Saturday, June 25, 2011


Artistic confidence is a valuable asset when it is warranted, but a terrible liability when not.

Unfortunately, the nature of confidence is that it blinds us to whether it is warranted or not.

Picasso's huge ego was an asset when it gave him the courage to break with stale traditions.  On the other hand, Julien Schnabel's ego did him no favors when it led him to claim, "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this fucking life." Confidence can be the Jekyll or Hyde of art.

Artist Markus Lüpertz certainly had the confidence to stand up to his critics. When he erected his latest public artwork -- a creepy, 60 foot sculpture of Hercules with one arm, a big nose, blue hair and a stunted body-- the New York Times reported:
in the past his work has been, to put it kindly, misunderstood. One piece was smeared with paint and covered in feathers. Another was beaten with a hammer. Another was removed altogether after protesters demanded it be taken down. “It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Lüpertz....“The general opinion of my art is that it is rejected. I attribute this to a lack of intelligence among the people.”

 Some of Lupertz's confidence comes from avoiding nay-sayers:
I only work with students who admire me and think I am great.  If I am not the one that takes their breath away, I don’t feel like working with them, because this would be a waste of time. It’s not about their individualism, it’s about my individualism. It’s not about their genius, it’s about my genius.
Lupertz shows us that confidence can transform bad art into immense, unavoidable bad art.

At Stone Mountain, Georgia, sculptors Augustus Lukeman and Walter Hancock defaced an entire mountain with a sculpture the size of three football fields.

The sculpture, which depicts heroes of the Confederate Army, was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  As a work of art, it exemplifies the struggle between a pathetic lack of talent and disgusting racism.  Most artists might look for a more inconspicuous location for such a struggle-- perhaps hidden in the back pages of a personal sketchbook.  But if you have unquestioning confidence, you try to assert your position bigger and bolder and more permanently than anyone else's. 

The jackhammer and dynamite are apparently favored tools of the overly confident.  Consider this awful sculpture of chief Crazy Horse, currently on its way to becoming the largest sculpture in the world:

The sponsors of this statue hired sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948 to begin reshaping a mountain into a figure larger than Mount Rushmore.  The head of Crazy Horse alone is 87 feet tall.  The scale model pictured here in front of the despoiled mountain is so bad, an artist with any  judgment would have returned to the drawing board.   But confidence never heard the Turkish proverb, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back."

Confidence has served many artists well, giving them the strength necessary to undertake difficult projects and make bold decisions.  Illustrator and art teacher Sterling Hundley reports,
I've had students in the past ask me the question: "Do you think that I am good enough?"
My answer: "If anyone could say anything in that moment that would keep you from pursuing your dreams, then you should find something else to do with your life."
This is surely true.  On the other hand, when writer Flannery O'Connor was asked whether college writing programs were discouraging young writers, she responded "Not enough."  This is surely true too.

Distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful confidence is one of the greatest challenges facing any artist.  When is it Jekyll and when is it Hyde?  If there is a formula, I lack the confidence to articulate it here.


vanderleun said...

Don't know the answer, but the first step is realizing that Stone Mountain, regardless of your stick in a thumb and pull out a plumb and say what a good boy am I evaluation of the groups behind it, is not at all bad. It just makes you "feel" good to say so. Noted. You are now officially no racist and in no way supportive of slavery. Now, go educate yourself more deeply about the confederacy. Your colonized mind is showing.

chris bennett said...

One of the distinguishing features of greatness is humility. The more we know the more we realise we don’t know. Hubris is one of the most unbearable forms of ignorance as very well demonstrated by the quotes David has supplied in his post.

The ego is incapable of creating anything. The creative soul knows this. The wise make according to their creative strength and are never fool enough to make bigger than it should be. Gwen John new this and her brother did not. Beethoven can produce a gale that takes our breath away whereas others, striving for the same effect, produce nothing but a big fart.

David Apatoff said...

Vanderleun-- I would be happy to discuss the artistic merit of Stone Mountain or the values of the confederacy, although they seem to be two different discussions.

With respect to artistic merit, I don't like the way the image is sculpted into a lopsided, squashed oval shape that shows no awareness of or sensitivity to the mountain's surrounding shapes and colors. I don't like the composition of the figures off center within that oval, or the vertically compressed heads and figures. I am also unimpressed by the simplistic arrangement of the figures-- the kind that Stalin or Mao might use as propaganda for impressionable peasants. In my view, if a sculptor wants to etch fine and smooth subjects (such as hair or cloth) into a rocky cliff face, they'd better have the imagination of a Gutzon Borglum or their medium will war with their subject. If you think I am missing some strengths in the art, I am genuinely interested in hearing about them.

As for the confederacy, if you think I have been unfair or misstated anything, I hope you will raise that too. You can assume that I have done a reasonable amount of reading on the subject, spent time in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, and visited the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. But my colonized mind is always hungry for more perspectives.

Chris Bennett-- Robert Hughes, whose work I respect very much, would certainly agree with your point. He wrote, "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to the less talented as a consolation prize." Still, there were many great artists who were quite arrogant. Whistler, Courbet, Durer and lots of others were apparently, shall we say, quite proud of themselves and their work.

j. w. bjerk said...

Commemorating the great generals of your region, does not require "disgusting racism". As a northerner, i still recognize that the US Civil war was about a number of complex issues, slavery was just one of them. There were a lot of reasons besides slavery (which the vast majority of Southerner didn't own) that motivated people to fight on the side of what was after all their homeland. Simplistic "black hat, white hat" movie morality doesn't do the civil war justice.

I bother to point this out, because you are one of the minority people on the internet who seems to actually think things through.

David Apatoff said...

j.w. bjerk-- One of the things I like best about blogging is that it tests my sloppy assumptions and broadens my perspectives.

I never would have anticipated that the Confederacy would be the issue to catch people's attention here, but unpredictability is the fun of this process.

If you follow the link in my post to Stone Mountain, you will read that it was the site of the rebirth of the Klan in 1915, complete with burning crosses and hooded robes. It had a long, close association with the Klan in part because the owner granted the Klan a permanent easement to conduct their ceremonies there. We may wish to say that the meaning of these ceremonies is now ambiguous because we no longer remember who the "Knights of Mary Phagan" were, but the intended message to African Americans was vivid and unambiguous, which is why Martin Luther King mentioned Stone Mountain in his "I have a dream" speech.

Recently our country observed the 150th anniversary of the south's secession from the union, and a lot of people suggested, as you have, that there were multiple reasons for secession besides slavery-- tariffs, taxes, states rights, independence, protection from invasion, etc. But during this exchange, I was most impressed by the scholars who went back to the original source documents: South Carolina's "Ordinance of Seccession," the "Declaration of Immediate Causes," the written explanations offered at the time by Mississippi and Georgia, or the voluminous transcripts from Virginia's General Assembly debates regarding secession, which the University of Richmond has conveniently put on line. Quite frankly, I was astonished at how infrequently "states rights" or "tariffs" were ever mentioned, and how slavery seemed to be at the heart of every explanation offered for secession. If you'd like to review some of that material, there are some handy links in this op ed by an historian in the NYT:

Stone Mountain is a grand, imposing site which was used for important rituals since prehistoric time. It was referenced in the earliest journals of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and used by George Washington. In the 20th century, a group came along and scarred that majestic site with a truly mediocre work of art. They picked that wall of granite for the purpose of making a permanent statement. If they had made their artistic statement on canvas or paper, they might burn it or retouch it or put it away in a closet. But they were so "confident" (the theme of this post) of their timeless message that they wanted it permanent, immutable and out in the open for the world to see. I don't think they should now be allowed to blur what their "unmistakeable" message was. It was what it was.

kev ferrara said...

What if the KKK had sponsored a truly beautiful work? Arno Breker did this.

My feeling about the topic is that many artists are striving to have their expressions writ large. But there must be sensible civic engagement to make sure that the artists who make crap work aren't allowed to desecrate the landscape or mar a building or three.

I mean, who is the idiot who paid for that Lupertz travesty? Or who voted for him on the board of public works? How did those people get on the board?

Aside from the problem of arts boards, which are festering political backwaters in their own right...

The issue, as I see it, really goes back to the cowing of faculties of sophisticated judgment on a grand scale. It is so thoroughly uncool and backward looking to be tasteful that I don't think the idea enters into it for most "tastemakers".

So the current crop of connected sophisticates, excused by postmodern rationales, become apologists for whatever is cool in the hopes of being cool themselves (Jerry Salz, say). And they earn their bona fides by being the first ones to protest when bourgeouse taste sticks its hokey pokey foot into the fray and asks for such low brow qualities as "the beautiful" to be part of the conversation.

Nobody can be faulted for wanting to be a success. And since not everybody has the capacity to provide something worthwhile, only the market can tell any particular actor to go into another line of work (by rejecting their wares). Part of the problem is surely these politicized arts councils who short circuit the market and foist upon the public the imbecilic fruits of their dogma.

j. w. bjerk said...

Ok, Mr. Apatoff, i see you have done some homework, and aren't just making sweeping assumptions. My previous post sounds a little condensing (especially appearing after your first comment, which i didn't get to read before hitting "post) --which was not my intention.

I agree (for what it's worth) that as a work of art, it's not exceptional.

But i'm still not clear how you get to the point of condemning the whole thing as "disgustingly racist".

Is there some hidden meaning in the sculpture i'm missing?

I'm not going to go all wishy-washy and say that any art can legitimately mean anything to anybody-- but art (like famous dead people) tend to get invested with different meanings by different people. That site and those generals may mean one thing to the Klan, but is that meaning actually in the art?

Or do you not think that art can positively portray (or attempts to positively portray) any part of the Confederacy without being strongly racist? Robert E. Lee, for instance, considered slavery "evil" so at least for him the Civil war was about something else.

P.S. the link in your last comment was cut off: you meant this:

Anonymous said...

I see Stone Mountain artistically as a simple and rather naive nod to traditional monumentality more than a statement of high art. It's worlds apart from Picasso, Schnabel, and Lüpertz who meant their work to exude hipster swagger.

Jesse Hamm said...

I suspect fans of Crazy Horse and Stone Mountain judge their art by the Ty Webb method.

Ty Webb: Oh, I don't keep score.
Judge Smails: Then how do you measure yourself with other golfers?
Ty Webb: By height.

As for calibrating one's own confidence, I think the artist's fans offer him the best mirror. Are they windbags, or fine thinkers in their own right?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- if the KKK had sponsored truly beautiful work, I would applaud it, just as I would applaud beautiful work from the Nazis or Genghis Khan. I have rhapsodized about the beauty of torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition. So I am not among those who view moral worthiness as an aesthetic criterion (absent some special connection).

I agree that many (perhaps all?) artists want to have their "expressions writ large," but some manage to do it by putting large amounts of excellence in small packages (such as intimate sketches, Persian miniatures or Faberge eggs) while others attempt it by dynamiting mountains. In my view, if you're going to make it impossible for innocent bystanders to move your art, replace it, or even avert their eyes, you have a special obligation to be thoughtful and self-aware.

j.w. bjerk-- I'm going to send your comment to my high school teachers; they'd be amused to hear that Mr. Apatoff finally did some homework.

When I said that I found the Stone Mountain sculpture "disgustingly racist," it wasn't because it contains images of Lee, Jackson and Davis. There are thousands of such pictures that are perfectly fine with me. My objection is that Stone Mountain was designed and created to glorify the defeated values of the old south.

The owner of the mountain, Mr. Venable, was the Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan and wrote a long, disgusting book("Choose Your Side") praising Hitler and rambling about the inferiority of Jews ("a kind of cattle"). He defended James Earl Ray for the assassination of Martin Luther King, saying Ray "done the world a favor by killing that nigger."

The Klan was not reactivated at Stone Mountain to promote the valor of Robert E. Lee. They were celebrating the lynching of Leo Frank-- a disgusting chapter in American history. The Klan played a major role in fundraising for the sculpture at Stone Mountain, Klan members heavily influenced the artistic choices in the sculpture, and the Klan held their annual conventions at Stone Mountain for 50 years. During that period, they celebrated "white supremacy."

These people were looking for "the biggest rock in the world" to send a bold, permanent message of hope to vanquished southerners and of warning to uppity negroes, Jews and Catholics. I find it disgusting that, after taking such a strong, unequivocal stand, people play coy games about their original intention.

Etc, etc-- I think that's a fair assessment.

Tom said...

Shouldn't Crazy Horse's pelvis be above the horse's backbone instead of being buried in the horse's body?

scruffy said...

i knew these comments were going to get good. Y'all did not disappoint. :) Fine work as always Mr. Apatoff.

kev ferrara said...

David, are you discounting the responsibility of the public to prevent ambitious artists from vandalizing the public square?

If so, should we allow Banksy free access to the White House to make one of his statements? And just hope that he makes something beautiful?

Karl said...

I think middle class, middle brow observers are too quick to jump in with their own opinions of other people's morals and work. And usually their own opinion is just reflective of the current so called trendy 'enlightened' opinion, ie worthless.
I like Lupertz's confidence, I like the way he says fuck off to anyone who doesnt like his work.He's busy doing it, you're opinion doesn't matter.Good. Most artists are lacking in self confidence,Lupertz sets a good example.
So what if some people want to celebrate the Confederacy,really, what business is it of yours?

The 'commentator' is the curse of the modern age.

Jesse Hamm said...

...said a commentator.

Karl said...

Said an artist.
Important distinction.

chris bennett said...


Kelly said...

To Karl...two issues I find fault with in your argument:

First, the exposure of the fine line between self-expression and propaganda is hardly current and/or trendy.
No matter what century or country, there often have been people who are quick to point out the logical flaws in the propaganda that promotes a fascist agenda.

Second, free speech is allowed here, but so is dissent. One can say "fuck off" all one wants, but one shouldn't think one gets to do so without letting others express their opinion as well.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- I like that Ty Webb quote. He has certainly discovered a way to eliminate a lot of ambiguity.

Tom-- well, you might think so....

Scruffy-- welcome to the Coliseum!

Kev Ferrara-- I recognize that the public (or more particularly, public arts councils) are complicit in some of this inanity. Sometimes, as in the case of Lupertz, a vengeful public engages in self-help. I can't say I approve of that for a general solution. On other occasions, as in the case of Stone Mountain, an accepting public embraces trash that makes you yearn for some kind of arts council to make them stretch just a little bit.

In Washington DC, we see a particularly active collection of overlapping councils screening public sculptures and monuments. The original proposal for the Vietnam Veterans memorial was highly unorthodox but gorgeous, stately and profound. Of course it was bitterly opposed by committees that believed a memorial must have white marble pillars and a classical Greek appearance. After several long delays, the memorial was finally built over the objections of these groups and quickly became one of the most beloved monuments in Washington. At last! A rare alignment of excellent taste and popular appeal.

Once the relevant committees saw that everyone, including Vietnam veterans, embraced the memorial, they dropped their opposition and became so enthusiastic they wanted to "help" it a little. ("If we just put a great big American flag next to it... and then we added a large statue of heroic looking soldiers, one from each race, please. And whoops, now we need another statue to represent the women who helped in the war, too...." ) Soon, a monument that started out stately and solemn in its simplicity was decorated like a Christmas tree with all kinds of distracting baubles and ornaments to satisfy politicians with no taste. It was a shame to watch.

Karl said...

Kelly, what I'm saying is we've been through all that art by committee stuff, we now need atists to grow a pair, and just get on with it.Fuck you, I'm the artist and this is what I have to say.
I dont care what 'liberal opinion' thinks about Triumph of the Will,Breker's sculpture or even Hohlwein's posters, they're great art that doesn't get the recognition due, owing to all these cluckers and scribblers.

I'm bored with 'dissent', it's the fear of crticism which makes so much public art totally anodyne.

David Apatoff said...

Karl wrote, "I like Lupertz's confidence, I like the way he says fuck off to anyone who doesnt like his work.He's busy doing it, you're opinion doesn't matter.Good. Most artists are lacking in self confidence,Lupertz sets a good example."

I don't understand why you think that confidence by itself-- unattached to some other virtue, such as talent or wisdom-- is a good thing. Confidence without some form of adult supervision is what transforms plain ignorance into aggressive ignorance. It transforms our positions into intolerant positions.

I agree with you that "art by committee" has real problems, but if we're talking about art that uses public tax dollars and takes up public space, I'm not sure what the alternative is. If we lived in an era where a tasteful aristocrat such as Lorenzo de' Medici was commissioning public works from Michelangelo or Raphael that would be one thing, but we are not. We are living in an era where-- rather than too much dissent by "cluckers and scribblers"-- we have critics who fawn over a performance artist who nails his penis to a board, or another who expels paint from his rectum. In such an uncritical culture, I would say it is not the artist who needs to "grow a pair," it is the viewer.

You ask: "So what if some people want to celebrate the Confederacy,really, what business is it of yours?"

This is not a political blog, but many of the people here place great importance on their ability to recognize symbolism in art. They like to look beyond the surface, to understand an artist's true intention. They believe their appreciation of art can be enhanced by its background. I think we would be pretty poor excuses for human beings if we applied this standard to art in a museum, but failed to apply it to reality.

In my view, if people want to "celebrate the Confederacy" at Stone Mountain, they should be prepared to apply at least as much scrutiny as they'd apply to a painting. They should not be duped by some convenient explanation about a harmless remembrance of genteel southern charm. Too many people suffered and died over this, back when we were a serious people.

What business is it of mine? Last year, the Texas Board of Education tried to rewrite the public school history books to treat Jefferson Davis on a par with Lincoln, to assert that the founding fathers did not really intend to separate church and state, to remove Thomas Jefferson from the list of "great Americans" and to upgrade Joseph McCarthy. These poor, misinformed (but confident) students will one day grow up to vote for my political leaders. So let me turn your question around: Why don't you think this is your business?

Tom said...

Hi David 
How about the world War 2 monument in Washington DC it is just tacked onto the end of the reflecting pool and abutted to a road on its opposite side and interrupts the long line that runs east to west between the Capital, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln memorial.  The pillars in the WW2 monument that represent the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific ocean have been put on the north south coordinates.  I guess you could say parts of the war where fought in the "north Atlantic" and the "south Pacific" but the Atlantic is truly to the east and the Pacific is truly to the west following the great east and west line of the mall and the movement of the sun.  The solemnity and grace of the reflecting pool is totality upset by the WW2 pillars and water fountains, it's hyperactivity. Ego/confidence doesn't seem to recognize the other. 
If we are not that good at making monuments maybe we should at least "do no harm."

Anonymous said...

Speaking of tasteless war memorials....

Anonymous said...

What business is it of mine? Last year, the Texas Board of Education tried to rewrite the public school history books to treat Jefferson Davis on a par with Lincoln, to assert that the founding fathers did not really intend to separate church and state, to remove Thomas Jefferson from the list of "great Americans" and to upgrade Joseph McCarthy. These poor, misinformed (but confident) students will one day grow up to vote for my political leaders. So let me turn your question around: Why don't you think this is your business?

So we should confidently affirm this utopia?

Karl said...

David, what you want is a safe, homogenized non-offensive art product. You want artists to toe the line, keep their heads down and turn out some kind of neutered characterless feel good 'public art'.And this is freedom?
This is all a process of stifling debate, completely counter to the idea of democracy.
It's saying 'we informed people know what is correct and we will decide what you are allowed to think' in politics and in art.

MORAN said...

To etc. etc, what is the connection here? Apatoff says school books shouldn't be changed to lie about historical facts. Are you saying that you disagree? What does gay rights have to do with that? Are you saying that gays are lying about history?

Anonymous said...

Frankly you seem quite unsophisticated regarding historiography, so much so I am dismayed at the prospect of engaging you on that matter.

chris bennett said...

Karl-- “David, what you want is a safe, homogenized non-offensive art product. You want artists to toe the line, keep their heads down and turn out some kind of neutered characterless feel good 'public art'.And this is freedom?”

And you want the opposite. That’s why you assume what David wants. You are interpreting his statements in order to provide dubious ammunition to your own, private propaganda agenda.
Which is little different to the one you imagine you are attacking.

kev ferrara said...

Karl, I think David's criteria for public art is that it be excellent, reflecting the best of what humanity has to offer.

David has already indicated that "old fashioned good taste" (pillars and pediments) for its own sake without a healthy dose of quality wouldn't cut it. So obviously he isn't some stick in the mud who wants a Disney-fied Ancient Greece on the Potomac.

The question you don't seem to want to address, Karl, is whether that Luperz blue beard sculpture is worth the public space, the public money, or the public interest?

It looks to me like stupid piece of crap that insults the people who ultimately paid for it.

Defending all stupid pieces of crap on 1st amendment grounds is fine. But that doesn't improve anybody's quality of life. In a sense it just allows vandalism to be defined as art, providing it a defense.

MORAN said...

I am unsophisticated about historiography but you are unsophisticated about logic. Maybe we can help each other. Why does a criticism of flasifying history mean we "confidently affirm this utopia" of gay rights?

Karl said...

Chris,as I said earlier most artists are lacking self-confidence about their work.As an artist I too am given to doubting my work and generally take a large pinch of salt when my work is complimented.Its easier to assume the worst.
It's from this standpoint that I respect Lupertz's indefatigable attitude. I find it refreshing.

Kev.So who decides what is 'good' art? You? me? David? I'd be quite happy to have a Breker statue in my town square, but you and I both know it could never happen, and it wouldn't be due to any lack of quality in the work.It comes down to politics.
Do you really get angry about this statue? Is it that important to you? Hey, if it made you think then it's done something.At least you didnt ignore it, unlike a lot of characterless 'worthy' public art.

Daniel Cruit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Cruit said...

Karl- You seem to be suggesting that David would be supportive of 'characterless public art'; I highly doubt he is. I certainly am not. Not only am I unsupportive of Lupertz' piece, I am unsupportive of the kind of work you seem to think that we enjoy. Any "worthy" public art that has is characterless and has very little quality or thought behind it is not "worthy" at all.

kev ferrara said...


The Lupertz does bother me. It does not make me think about anything other than its obvious low quality and how such crap work is a kind of public nihilism that is corrosive to the visual arts.

I've never seen the sculpture before David's post, but it means something to me because it falls into a troubling context... it worries me that every time the public has to endure stupid crappy art in their face the public falls away that much more from art.

This is a pattern with pomo work. Again and again we get stupid crappy work. Childish slapdash junk. Taboos. Insults. And the rest of it.

The ongoing effect is that pomo pushes people further and further away from something they want and need... the spiritual nourishment of the beautiful and the true, the care of craftsmanship, the transmission of aesthetic emotion through objects, the decorative symbolization of experience, etc.

Stupid crap writ large reinforces the public's cynicism about the culture. Adults don't have time for it... they very quickly fall away from art when they see how juvenile it is. And the further away the mainstream of the culture falls from visual art, the less visual art will be able to perform its function, and the less artists there will be, and the less good art there will be, and so on. And we are left with a wasteland... a detroit of the arts. With dim echoes of past industry fading with time.

Our cultural insiders are a pathetic, craven lot. You, I, and david are the only hope. Asserting our judgement and taste is a necessary thing. 5 decades of middle fingers is quite enough.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I agree, it is a sprawling mess of a monument. I suppose I'm glad that the remaining living veterans had a chance to see it, but I'm sorry future generations will have to live with it.

etc, etc and MORAN-- Like MORAN, I'm afraid I just don't get the connection with "this utopia."

Karl-- you seem to be addressing only one half of the dichotomy I described at the beginning of the post. I suggested that confidence could be either good or bad, Jekyll or Hyde. You have only addressed the good side. Are you suggesting that you don't see any downside to confidence at all?

Kev Ferrara-- "stupid piece of crap" just about sums up my reaction to Lupertz's statue as well.

Anonymous said...

Im starting to wonder if 'permission to be right' and appropriate confidence rather then sheer arrogance can only be granted by the majority of public opinion. We have a large 60ft imposing sculpture of a white horse being erected locally (in a renowned poor area) using valuable local taxes to pay for it and the artist (a successful Turner prize entrant) couldnt even be bothered to research our area and get the design right (the white horse is the Invicta horse and should be rearing proudly on its hindlegs- the artist has just scultped a white horse, standing on all fours that a child may find in a farm set) and now we are stuck with a meaningless, expensive, ugly eye sore which the council refuse to back down on and change- because of the reputation of the artist. Yet even the artist themselves has admitted they got the design wrong and there was a miscommunication! It makes my blood boil. With confidence comes ignorance and thats when problems occur. Confidence on its own is just irritating.

Jesse Hamm said...

Karl: "...I respect Lupertz's indefatigable attitude. I find it refreshing."

Countless taggers have the same indefatigable confidence. I find it tiring.

Points raised here remind me of this situation a few years back, in which an artist was paid $40,000 to create a mural, accidentally misspelled several of the featured names (Einstein, Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo...), and then pouted when called on it. "'The people that are into humanities, and are into Blake's concept of enlightenment, they are not looking at the words."

kev ferrara said...


That's another classic case.

My first thought was, she's a primitivist... She prides herself on an obvious lack of sophistication.

Forget spelling... What I want to know is in what world is a primitivist the appropriate choice to create a tribute to the most sophisticated and talented minds produced by mankind? Its like hiring monkeys to throw bones at the Obelisk.

Jesse Hamm said...

Yeah, at first I thought maybe she misspelled the names on purpose... but then she admitted the oversight, and revealed that she just didn't know how the names were spelled and didn't care!

Plus, Livermore is rural/suburban; not the sort of town that would favor works of artsy disdain that might fly in SF or NY. And it certainly isn't a town that can afford to throw away tens of thousands of bucks. Whoever chose her to do the mural made a terrible mistake.

Karl said...

David. In truth I see no downside to confidence.If the commissioners didnt like the what Lupertz was proposing they could have pulled the plug at an early stage and paid him off.If they didnt like his style they shouldnt have commissioned him in the first place.The fault is theirs, not his.

Kev.You fail to engage with the Breker issue.Could you live with that in your town.It's (arguably) great art and not "stupid crap" ,but would you have a problem with it? Most of the public would have no clue about its history, but I'm guessing the commentators would make a big deal about it.And even if it were a new piece they'd probably rail about it being 'elitist' or something like that.

The truth is its easier to commission bland inofffensive crap so no critic can kick up any kind of a fuss that might endanger someone's job.

I'm so weary of seeing posters etc designed by children ( usually competition winners) for exactly the same reason.

kev ferrara said...

Karl, I thought I made things clear when I brought up Breker in the first place.

Let's see if this clarifies my position: I take tremendous pride in the fact that we put a man on the moon.

Mellie said...

"we now need atists to grow a pair"

Women too?

David Apatoff said...

Daniel Cruit-- Thanks.

Lisanne-- Thank you for sharing the story of the white horse sculpture. Imagine if they had sculpted it from a mountain, like Chief Crazy Horse, so that a later council could never fix the mistake. When public art is good, I think it can inspire even a low income neighborhood. The impact on daily attitude can be worth the tax revenues (just as poor communities used to pool their money so that their local church could be a thing of beauty that belonged to everyone). But when public art is bad, it can be particularly grating on poor people struggling to survive.

Jesse Hamm-- thanks for sharing another great example. I love it when the artist complains that people who believe in correct spelling are denigrating her work. Does anyone here know what Blake's theory of enlightenment says about spelling mistakes?

David Apatoff said...

Karl wrote: "At least you didn't ignore it."

I've never understood this as a compliment about art. If people can't ignore art because it is particularly violent or lewd or insulting, because it blocks traffic or causes accidents, if it has sharp, jagged parts that fall on bystanders without warning-- is that a good thing? If we made it out of diamonds and put it in a neighborhood where poor people were cold and hungry, you can bet the public would think a lot about it, but what they thought would not be pretty. Under those circumstances even you might prefer something with a little less "character."

Mellie wrote: "Women too?"

Mellie, I kinda wondered about the same thing. Of course, he might have meant "grow a pair" of ovaries...

Karl said...

Mellie and David.Never heard the phrase 'ballsy women'?
What cloistered lives 'commentators' live.

Anonymous said...

Karl, ever hear of humor?

What a cloistered life you must lead.

knoxblox said...


Yes, it is easier to commission stupid crap. That much we can agree on.
Just Google "Douglas Avenue Sculptures" and you'll see what passes for high art by committee in the town I grew up in.
If you ask me, the Gerber statues look like the kind of misshapen, slightly off world you might find after George Orr's final dream in the Ursula K. leGuin novel "The Lathe of Heaven" (which, by the way, I think could provide you with some quality insight about confidence and determinism).

Sometimes, we get bland, stupid crap because that's what local "overconfident" conservatives would like to shove down our throats. It falls in line with their politics.
Sometimes, we get shocking, vulgar art because some "overconfident" artists go to extremes to prove a point about free speech.

Total order rule is not a good thing at all. However, extreme anarchy isn't either. There should be a healthy balance between the two. And no, that is not complacency by a longshot.

My final thought on unbridled confidence? Here's what I think, with emphasis...

In no way does a self-realizing adult deserve to be surprised when they get kicked out of the house for purposefully shitting on the carpet.

Karl said...

Anonymous. Was that Humor? Humor is usually meant to be funny rather than banal.

Knox.Thanks for at least engaging with the argument.I agree with a lot you say but my central point remains, an artist should have confidence and believe in his work.If commissioners choose the wrong man for a job its not the fault of the artist, he just does what he does.And I don't think its right to attack him.

Richard said...

Yeah, that art really sucks.

I agree and think it's rather interesting what you said about confidence... but, I can't help but feel like this post should've just been about good art.

Good art is what I come here for!

Oh well, next week!

kev ferrara said...

Karl, a bad artist of great ambition does nobody (but himself) any good. If art provides something, some service, then it must be more than self-serving. Confidence in an inferior product is a form of insanity.

Karl said...

So Kev how do you know if you are a bad artist? Very few artists self-identify as a 'bad artist'.You may be one, I may be one, clearly some people DON'T think Lupertz is bad else why employ him-probably at great expense.Did Lupertz set out to create an 'inferior product'.It's just someone elses value judgement.And not a 'fact'.

chris bennett said...

Karl—“So Kev how do you know if you are a bad artist?”

Can I have a go Karl?
Although Kev will probably do a better job.

Answer: If you’re sane.
Because the mandarins of our culture view quality in art as a relativistic matter of taste the whole issue has become a game.
This was never the case up until approximately a century ago.

When a society becomes sick its cultural compass twirls around helplessly and the lost will follow the madman as easily as they do the sane.

Anonymous said...

I am unsophisticated about historiography

Well MORAN....

kev ferrara said...

Well said Chris...

Karl, you are an example of the compass that Chris refers to. You are spinning and spinning without a true north because you will not admit the idea of quality. Or the possibility of a relatively objective judgment based on an understanding of artistic quality. Or a hierarchy of talent and expertise that easily demonstrates that all men are not equal.

In other words pomo relativism has wiped your mind clean of the very idea of learned judgement... which is the very foundation of taste and self-improvement.

Reasonable people may disagree about the finer points of excellence in the arts, it is true. But having no criteria of excellence puts you wholly outside the conversation. If you can't (or won't) distinguish between a Rodin and a stupid piece of crap, then who would bother consulting your judgement on anything artistic?

I do hope you are consistent in your relativism, though. I expect you drive a car that is liable to explode any minute, eat food that is teeming with maggots, get your news from a sloshed astrologer, and avidly collect posters designed by children.

Karl said...

Chris and Kev. Hmm, so how exactly do Grandma Moses or LS Lowry, Henri Rousseau or Alfred Wallis fit into that explanation?
Were they bad artists.Did they produce "stupid crap"?
When you start using madness to evaluate artwork you're getting awfully close to the Nazi definition of 'degenerate art' so mind how you go.

Kev,actually its you who's struggling to find a definition of good art.All you've done so far is say what you hate.
BTW does Frazetta fall into the canon of great art? He doesnt usually crop up in art history books.You'd be surprised how many people would call that stuff 'stupid crap'.

David Apatoff said...

Karl wrote: "the artist, he just does what he does. And I don't think its right to attack him."

I rather thought of it as self defense.

kev ferrara said...


All the artists you mentioned need to be discussed individually on their respective merits, according to the aesthetic goals of each, whether those goals were reached or were worthwhile to pursue in the first instance.

Even if I find Rouseau stiff, or Kandinsky to be interesting only as decoration, or Kirschner a bad cartoonist... I wouldn't begrudge somebody from liking their works or finding them historically significant.

I would begrudge somebody who asserts the quality of each based purely on cultural auto-suggestion, however.

Lupertz' sculpture.... that's a different story...

What is your opinion of the Lupertz as a work of art?

(You keep dodging the question.)

chris bennett said...

Karl -- “When you start using madness to evaluate artwork you're getting awfully close to the Nazi definition of 'degenerate art' so mind how you go.”

The Nazi’s are a perfect example of the kind of thing you have stated you admire: Confidence in the extreme, the ‘fuck you’ attitude, not able to be ignored and not the least bit anodyne.

It was only the sane attitude of the need to understand fundamentals of human rights, dignity, empathy and compassion that put these confident madmen back in their box.

If we die by war we live by our culture. And it is as important to recognise and understand the fundamental principles of quality as it is the fundamental principles of basic human rights.

chris bennett said...

Karl – “or Alfred Wallis fit into that explanation?”
Kev didn’t mention Alfred Wallis so I’ll answer that one.

Alfred Wallis is a highly gifted artist even though he is unskilled in the usual sense of the term. I’ve seen his paintings in Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and they are marvellous. My admiration has nothing to do with their naivety or that they are to do with sailing or that they are in Kettles Yard next to magnificent Ben Nicholsons. There is quality in his work that is a salient property of all potent images. It is an inbuilt, pre-linguistic ability to speak with a fundamental grammar of plastic forms regardless of its visual accent or lack of experiential vocabulary.

This is something that is completely lacking in all the examples David posted.

Matthew Adams said...

Kev thinks that art is some kind of code that can only be truly understood by other artists after they spend years studying colour theory and practicing art, an exclusive pig latin for the paint smeared insiders.

Chris suggests that everyone can understand the pre-linguistic langauage of good art (even if it is disguised as what used to be considered bad art), or, at the very least, as long as you are sane you can tell what is good art.

I am going slowly mad trying to make heads or tails of it all.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Adams-- I think this debate only causes brain damage if you become convinced that the answer must reside with one extreme or the other (either there are no objective standards, so everyone can feel free to be as confident as they damn well please, or there are rules that dictate what is good and bad in art). Predictably, a number of folks have talked in previous posts about the false dichotomy between scylla and charybdis.

My own view (which you may conclude is just as crazy)is that keeping an open mind about art does not preclude you from concluding that some art is simply crap-- not just from your personal, subjective perspective but from the perspective of a larger community, or sometimes even of the world.

kev ferrara said...


Is it possible that a picture can be good for no reason at all?

David Apatoff said...

Kevin Ferrara-- if we are going to construct categories such as "good" and "bad," it seems to me that we must have reasons for placing art in one category or another. Otherwise, we don't really have two categories after all.

If you're asking a different question-- whether we can "like" a picture for no reason at all, I suppose that's possible (although usually it just means that someone lacks the will to think about what their reasons are).

kev ferrara said...

David, we are in exact agreement on both counts.

So it seems to me, you are in my camp: There are principles at work in art, whether we can articulate them or not, which give a work it's qualities.

The question then becomes; can we appreciate qualities as quality, even if we don't enjoy the result?

Maybe more to the point, if an artwork is meant to be an ugly eyesore, can we still say it is bad art, even though it achieved some aesthetic goal? In what sense can badness, the lack of quality, also be a quality? Doesn't quality mean that there is something of intrinsic value to a thing? And therefore the creating of ugliness for it's own sake, which we must admit is not valuable, is not an additive act?

Mellie said...

Objective aesthetic standards must exist. Without them, we have no means of explaining why the Sistine ceiling is a greater accomplishment than some kid's rushed Art homework.

But articulating what the standards are is incredibly difficult. As far as I know, no one's ever managed it.

Maybe it's because of the bewildering variety. There are so many ways of representing a thing that are utterly different but equally 'valid' as aesthetic approaches. The criteria for producing a realistic illustration à la Norman Rockwell - form, silhouette, perspective, using light and dark to create the illusion of realism - don't really apply to an abstract drawing. The set of standards will change across forms: our criteria for judging popular songs are, rightly, different to our criteria for symphonies. Much depends upon the subjective experience that affects a viewer's ability to respond to a piece. And so on.

I don't envy anyone who seeks to figure it all out.

Laurence John said...

Karl: "so how exactly do Grandma Moses or LS Lowry, Henri Rousseau or Alfred Wallis fit into that explanation?"

those artists all have an amateurish charm, which appeals to the sentimental side of us, but is distinct from well crafted art. it's the same side of us that instinctively likes children's paintings; they're charming because they're naive, innocent and unaffected, and not deliberately bad or ugly.

quality is linked to good craftsmanship. it really is that simple. it got confusing in the 20th century because much art no longer looked well crafted (and much of it wasn't), hence the oft repeated cry of "my 4 year old could do that !"... which they probably couldn't, but you get the point; "where's the skill in that ?"

a work of art should always be well crafted. that should be a given. whether one likes it or not is down to personal taste.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

greetings to my favorite writer; although not meant to be humorous I suppose, I smiled (smirked) all the way through this post

Anonymous said...

All I know is that there are a whole lot of "artists", but very little art.

Anonymous said...


Its all about Confidence Building

David Apatoff said...

StimmeDesHerzens: I am truly touched by the title, no matter how impetuous and how temporary.

Anonymous: Agreed. It takes a fair amount of confidence to call yourself an artist to begin with.

Other anonymous (spam): no, it's not.

Nancy Ewart said...

It sure seems like the poor the artist, the larger the ego. That's certainly true of Schnabel and more accurate of a lot of Picasso's works than we realize. Great post.

Jack R said...

Decades ago my parents met Ziolkowski in South Dakota during the earliest phase of his 'project'. My dad was the journalist but it was my mother who had the audacity to ask him if the mountain was half as large would he still be as interested in the project. I can't recall what she said his response was but I do remember that he was stymied for a while.