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I hate this kind of “art”

<rant>

At the New York times, an arti­cle on a show exhibit­ing mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms.”

These are posters depict­ing sub­jects such as bird poop­ing “democ­racy” onto the earth and an obese per­son with the cap­tion “this is abuse of the free­dom from want.”

I hate this kind of pseudo-ironic, self-absorbed, visual blovi­a­tion. Because the aca­d­e­mic art estab­lish­ment is just about entirely left­ist, this kind of art almost always presents ideas of the polit­i­cal left. I’m very very inde­pen­dent polit­i­cally, but I hate this kind of stuff regard­less of whether I am in agree­ment with (or indif­fer­ent to) the ideas being expressed.1

Elliott Earls’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Nor­man Rockwell’s “Four Free­doms” prac­ti­cally screams. A lit­tle girl seems to be cry­ing, her eye bruised, with an Amer­i­can flag in the back­ground and two words fram­ing her fig­ure: “Lib­erty Weeps.” The color scheme is red, white and blue, but patri­otic pride has been sup­planted by sadness.

How tire­some.

My reac­tion to any­thing like this is one of vis­ceral con­tempt. Art like this likes to pre­tend that it is “dan­ger­ous.” Yet none of the “artists” par­tic­i­pat­ing have any fear of hav­ing the gov­ern­ment take any inter­est in this work. They aren’t going to be car­ried away in the night and never seen again, as an artist express­ing “inap­pro­pri­ate” ideas might have been in Soviet Union, Nazi Ger­many, or nowa­days in a place like North Korea. (This is par­tic­u­larly well illus­trated by the pic­ture by Chip Kidd, depict­ing a burnt U.S. flag and the cap­tion, “Free­dom of Speech”—made with the full under­stand­ing that no one will ever con­sider cen­sor­ing it.) No one who might affect their careers is going to refuse to hire them, because any­one who might hire a polit­i­cal artist is going to at least pre­tend to like this kind of crap. Instead of hav­ing their careers destroyed by bravely “speak­ing truth to power,” these mediocre hacks get writ­ten up in the New York Times. They are express­ing entirely main­stream ideas, bet­ter expressed in other ways. This work adds noth­ing to dis­course on free­dom in mod­ern soci­ety. Yet these artists, and the writer of the arti­cle, indi­cate sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment that the show doesn’t gar­ner much atten­tion. Peo­ple just walk by and ignore it. They are demon­strat­ing not a dis­like of art, but a dis­in­ter­est in vapid garbage. Good for them.

I would hate any pic­ture that depicts George Bush look­ing into a mir­ror and see­ing Adolph Hitler. I would hate any pic­ture that depicts Barak Obama as a hand pup­pet of Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad. It doesn’t mat­ter what the pol­i­tics are. Such pic­tures are banal, idi­otic rub­bish. They require no thought or cre­ativ­ity. If you seen one, you can think of all pos­si­ble vari­a­tions on the theme in about five min­utes. They are polit­i­cal cartoons—bad polit­i­cal car­toons. They are not art.2 They are not even interesting.

</rant>

Do you agree? Dis­agree? Are there kinds of polit­i­cal art that are good? If so, what dis­tin­guishes good from bad? Feel free to comment.

Note: there’s not going to be any dis­cus­sion of pol­i­tics here; just the bad­ness (or not, if you want to dis­agree with me) of this clumsy approach to polit­i­cal art. Any explic­itly polit­i­cal com­ments will be deleted. If you want to dis­cuss pol­i­tics, you won’t have any trou­ble find­ing places on the web for that.


1 I might respect an artist slightly more if he or she were demon­strat­ing a lit­tle bit of chutz­pah by mak­ing non-leftist art and pre­sent­ing it to the left­ist art estab­lish­ment. But not much.

2 I don’t mean to imply that a car­toon or illus­tra­tion can­not be art. It is only to say that this spe­cific kind of car­toon, by and large, is nowhere near to being art.

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29 Responses

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  1. Andrea Kobayashi says

    -“They are express­ing entirely main­stream ideas, bet­ter expressed in other ways. This work adds noth­ing to dis­course on free­dom in mod­ern soci­ety. Yet these artists, and the writer of the arti­cle, indi­cate sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment that the show doesn’t gar­ner much attention.”

    There is a mis­take in the think­ing of many con­tem­po­rary ‘con­cep­tual’ artists that being an artist gives you some improved, height­ened under­stand­ing of all areas of life. It often hap­pens that art that crosses bound­aries into other fields ends up being nei­ther good art, nor in this case insight­ful polit­i­cal com­men­tary; it becomes weaker rather than stronger for tak­ing on an area that the artist shows lim­ited under­stand­ing of.

    -“the aca­d­e­mic art estab­lish­ment is just about entirely leftist,”

    Left­ists who worry about the morgage!!! ;-)

  2. Buy Fantasy Art says

    Art is art, i reckon its up to the per­son who likes it..

  3. David says

    @Buy Fan­tasy Art -

    Vapid, inbred art may be art, but it’s still bad. It brings us all down. No one likes this stuff for its value as art, but because it safely fits their preconceptions.

  4. Greg says

    I won’t com­ment on this rant against polit­i­cal art when it is based on an arti­cle where the ‘art’ shown is incred­i­bly bad in so many ways. If you wanted to peruse polit­i­cal art that is actu­ally good and indeed ille­gal to the gov­ern­ment in ques­tion, there is much bril­liant and insight­ful polit­i­cal com­men­tary around in the world of graf­fiti and the artists who do it. Blek Le Rat and Banksy being the best of the bunch. http://​www​.banksy​.co​.uk/​i​n​d​o​o​r​s​/​m​e​d​i​a​.​h​tml.

    Any thoughts?

  5. David says

    @Greg -

    Greg,

    The exam­ples on the site you link to are cer­tainly a bet­ter exam­ple of the genre. Except for those that are actu­ally funny, how­ever, I don’t per­son­ally get much out of them.

    Since the site is a “.uk” URL, I am won­der­ing what you mean by ille­gal. Cer­tainly free speech laws are dif­fer­ent in the United King­dom, but I didn’t see any­thing that seems likely to get any­one arrested.

  6. Greg says

    @David — If you click on the ‘out­doors’ tab, all the Graf­fiti there is ille­gal. Tech­ni­cally Banksy is a ser­ial van­dal­ist. Although to be hon­est if he was caught he would more likely be given an award than a prison sentence.

  7. Greg says

    Just as a side note, on the notion of the threat of reper­cus­sions to polit­i­cal art. It is worth not­ing Theo Van Gogh, who was mur­dered after cre­at­ing a 10 minute movie, crit­i­cis­ing Islam’s treat­ment of women.

    http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​e​o​_​v​a​n​_​G​o​g​h​_​(​f​i​l​m​_​d​i​r​e​c​tor)

  8. JillBoBill says

    I haven’t been read­ing your blog very long (I read it when I’m at work), but I clicked the link and read the arti­cle, then came back and read your post. Do you know what I found? A guilty plea­sure in lik­ing and even agree­ing with some of the art­work men­tioned. I didn’t get to see it, mind, but the just read­ing the descriptions…

    It doesn’t occur to us plain, bor­ing Amer­i­cans that this sort of stuff is rehashed, regur­gi­tated, bor­ing, pre­dictable garbage (isn’t every­thing in our cul­ture just this? Sit­coms, pop music, shop­ping malls full of the same stores over and over again?). In fact, it wasn’t until I came back and read your com­ments on it that I nod­ded and said ‘he’s right, you know’.

    The author of the arti­cle says some­thing about Amer­i­cans being com­pla­cent — and isn’t that just what’s hap­pen­ing? This sort of ‘Amer­ica is screw­ing up’ art is so com­mon place, so mar­ketable and easy to digest — it’s com­pla­cency that has peo­ple lov­ing this stuff. It’s just ironic that he describes this art as being a shout in the face of com­pla­cency, when that’s what really lends us to lik­ing it so much.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. David says

    @Greg -

    Theo Van Gogh is an inter­est­ing excep­tion to the gen­eral rule regard­ing dan­ger­ous art. He didn’t trans­gress against the West­ern right, but against extrem­ist Islam. That group includes peo­ple who are quite will­ing to respond to per­ceived slights with violence.

    I have seen left­ist artists sat­i­rize how women are treated in the United States. I would be inter­ested to see a left­ist artist brave enough to sat­i­rize how women are treated in the Mus­lim world.

  10. David says

    @JillBoBill -

    It seems inter­est­ing to see how Amer­i­cans love to crit­i­cize their own cul­ture. For exam­ple, many Amer­i­cans make a fetish of mak­ing fun of how une­d­u­cated we are in com­par­i­son to Euro­peans. Then I saw a video clip from a French game show. In it, nei­ther the play­ers, nor the vast major­ity of the audi­ence, were aware that the moon orbits the Earth. The same thing might hap­pen any­where, yet Amer­i­cans are nar­cis­sis­tic enough to believe that they have a monop­oly on ignorance.

  11. Judy Stines says

    Agree with you com­pletely! It always feels like child­ish, give-me-attention, gotta-shock-to-be-noticed, fool­ish­ness to me — and I don’t have inter­est or time for any of it. I want to spend time either enjoy­ing or think­ing about art that is beau­ti­ful, sad, expres­sive, happy, joy­ful, mourn­ful, etc. I want to see some­thing of the artist (and I don’t mean bit­ter, country-hating, self-absorption!) that is worth shar­ing with oth­ers. What was this artist think­ing about, and how was it expressed with brush­strokes, palette knife, chisel, metal, paper, or other medium? Is there some­thing that moved this artist to share some­thing with me? Is it worth my time to view or money to pur­chase? Mostly what I find offen­sive is not the con­tent but that much of it is just bad art, poorly exe­cuted, and receiv­ing atten­tion that its ama­teur skill level doesn’t warrant!

  12. Gerald says

    I also think it is in bizarre to sug­gest that some­one should have to live under a dic­ta­tor­ship to express mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal points of view espe­cially when it comes to crit­i­ciz­ing the government.

    Does an artist only gain cred­i­bil­ity or authen­tic­ity to make polit­i­cal art by hav­ing to suf­fer extreme forms of vio­lence in your eyes?

  13. Destry says

    The web­site tvtropes​.org has a great word for this kind of art — Anvi­li­cious — the mes­sage is so obvi­ous and unsub­tle that they might as well scrib­ble it on anvil and drop it on your head. (Hold on — I think I’ve just fig­ured out my next art opening.)

  14. David says

    @Gerald -

    Ger­ald,

    My ref­er­ence is to the impli­ca­tion by some “trans­gres­sive” artists that they are doing some­thing dar­ing by mak­ing this kind of art. That’s demon­stra­bly not the case in the United States. If every­one you know except your sister’s father in law agrees with your “dan­ger­ous” pol­i­tics, then express­ing those pol­i­tics is not dar­ing. If you know that the “fas­cist” gov­ern­ment you are crit­i­ciz­ing doesn’t care about your entirely ordi­nary Marxist/Green/anti-Globalization ideas, then your art is not dan­ger­ous and it’s not inter­est­ing. If any­one who might ever hire you either agrees with those pol­i­tics or doesn’t care about them, you are not tak­ing any risks by dis­play­ing it. You have every right to do so, and I have every right to crit­i­cize it.

    I made no sug­ges­tion that liv­ing under a dic­ta­tor­ship was a require­ment to make good polit­i­cal art, merely that doing so here and now does not require brav­ery. Good polit­i­cal art, how­ever, is very dif­fi­cult and very rare. Bad polit­i­cal art is all over the place.

    Per­son­ally, I am a big pro­po­nent of artists not hav­ing to suf­fer for their art, here or any­where. That doesn’t mean I sup­port hacks who cre­ate vapid, irri­tat­ing crap.

  15. David says

    @Destry -

    Destry,

    Anvil­li­cious” is a great word.

  16. Tim says

    I pretty much agree with your post David. I’ve never been attracted to “polit­i­cal” art because the real world, and con­se­quently, real pol­i­tics is com­pli­cated. I’ve never found polit­i­cal work very con­vinc­ing. Banksy is quite funny but I dont’ think it would influ­ence me politically.I think some artists like to delude them­selves that their work has a degree of dan­ger­ous­ness about it because it chal­lenges the estab­lish­ment. For exam­ple, the lib­eral élite will defend such works as “Piss Christ” or the Jerry Springer Opera sug­gest­ing that it is brave and “pushes the enve­lope”. But of course it isn’t and it doesn’t , and they know damn well nobody is going to attack them for their art. In fact , as you point out, the con­trary hap­pens and they are rewarded by that estab­lish­ment . Of course if they were to be truly brave they might do some­thing sim­i­lar such as a lam­poon of the more con­tro­ver­sial aspects of the Koran…but then they might really fear for their lives..like Salmon Rushdie or Theo Van Gogh. If I were to live in a total­i­tar­ian soci­ety I might find polit­i­cal art as use­ful device, but I don’t feel that I do. I have to say that I really like those com­mu­nist posters that Rus­sia and China pro­duced, usu­ally exhort­ing the work­ers to pro­duce more steel or wheat etc, …although I think I might have a very dif­fer­ent atti­tude to them if I’d had to live in those societies!

  17. hehehehe says

    Almost all art nowa­days is garbage anyways :(

    Just came from watch­ing some Frank Mason & is just as insult­ing as that polit­i­cal art. Really cheap & bad copy of the old masters.

  18. dennis says

    I think it all boils down to the fact that there are too many crayons out there. One should need a license to use them.

  19. David says

    @dennis -

    Den­nis,

    That whole free­dom thing is a bad idea. Peo­ple use that free­dom to do things that good peo­ple like us don’t approve of, and that just isn’t right. It’ll be much nicer when we’re in charge and only artists with the right ideas will be allowed to express them­selves. All the oth­ers can spend their time in nice, com­fort­able work camps until they real­ize how truly wrong they are.

  20. dennis says

    I could not agree more. And there is plenty of work need­ing doing too. Hope­fully these camps will get right to the task of melt­ing down the per­ni­cious 64 crayon sets. Peo­ple like us know 8 is enough and just who deserves to use them.

  21. Jeanette says

    I was sur­prised by how the NYT arti­cle treated that exhibit. Those were obvi­ously not very thought­ful or par­tic­u­larly com­pelling pieces in any sense.

    But how dis­cour­ag­ing! This says more to me about our cur­rent land­scape than it does about art’s inabil­ity to make mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal state­ments. I think in some ways this type of expres­sion results as a response to a stul­ti­fy­ing cli­mate. How does really rev­o­lu­tion­ary art con­tend in an envi­ron­ment in which a team of ad execs will imme­di­ately scoop it up out of con­text and use it to sell sneak­ers or soft drinks? The easy answer is to make it so shock­ing it can’t be appro­pri­ated. I find it truly unfor­tu­nate that art is not now func­tion­ing as the incen­di­ary wake up call that is so des­per­ately needed. I think about the work of Diego Rivera, or pieces like Guer­nica or the Third of May, art that was able to rile and inspire, but am pressed to find com­pa­ra­ble con­tem­po­rary works. I actu­ally do think Banksy is an excep­tion. His work is clever, well exe­cuted, and thought-provoking, espe­cially the pieces on the Israel/Palestine secu­rity barrier.

    Judy Stines noted that she wanted to see some­thing of the artist worth shar­ing. I’m not sure there is any­thing more inspir­ing or mov­ing than expres­sions of indi­vid­u­als tran­scend­ing polit­i­cal or social bar­ri­ers. That’s the kind of polit­i­cal art that I’d like to see more of.

  22. Koren says

    I think Judy hit the nail on the head with her comment…to me, it’s not the polit­i­cal con­tent (stri­dent, smug, obvi­ous or irri­tat­ing as it may be) of the art that offends me so much as the lack of craft. In the local art crawl events in my town I see lots of non-politically-oriented art which is every bit as unsat­is­fy­ing and clumsy. Unfor­tu­nately, I tend to asso­ciate this with both Amer­i­can cul­ture (the land of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion: fast food, high-speed inter­net, Learn to Paint Like Rem­brant in 10 days — and I’m Amer­i­can) and mod­ern art. Why mod­ern art in par­tic­u­lar? Because it seems that a cer­tain aura sur­rounds artists today — there is this feel­ing that sim­ply because a per­son believes him/herself to be an artist, he or she is a higher being with deeper depths than the aver­age Joe and a seri­ous spir­i­tual pur­pose in the world…ergo, what­ever he or she makes (sub­merg­ing a cru­ci­fix in urine, for exam­ple) is ‘art’. Maybe this has always been the case to some extent, but it seems that some­where along the line artists stopped feel­ing the need to pay their dues (i.e. to learn their craft, a labor of both love and frus­tra­tion for many.) The words ‘art’ and ‘arti­san’ became com­pletely dis­con­nected. Unfor­tu­nately, many mod­ern artists seem to learn to take them­selves very seri­ously as ‘tor­tured artists’ with lots of ‘soul’ purely on the basis of ego…in my opin­ion, that is a house con­structed on sand, since any work of visual art which really packs a punch seems to be about 90% tech­nique (effec­tive use of color and com­po­si­tion, pol­ished drafts­man­ship, knowl­edge of and expe­ri­ence with mate­ri­als, etc.) and 10% soul, and the two work effec­tively together to cre­ate the emo­tional and sen­sual impact. Where did the tech­nique go??

  23. Koren says

    Sorry, meant Rem­brandt! Ouch! Unin­ten­tion­ally funny, con­sid­er­ing the context!

  24. David Clemons says

    …Are there kinds of polit­i­cal art that are good? If so, what dis­tin­guishes good from bad?…”

    Yes, cer­tainly. Art his­tory is loaded with exam­ples of polit­i­cal art­works (almost all of them, in fact) that are quite lovely to see. Reli­gious art is polit­i­cal too, from my point of view. How­ever, most art that has bla­tant polit­i­cal con­tent soon loses much of it’s orig­i­nal impact as time passes, depend­ing on whether or not the affairs are still current.

    How do we eval­u­ate good or bad art in ANY for­mat? The art may fail if the artists did not accu­rately or clearly rep­re­sent them­selves. Even if I dis­agree with their point of view, that doesn’t make the work a fail­ure. I will eval­u­ate their work on how well it is pre­sented and if their point of view even mat­ters to me. Explain­ing David’s “Oath of the Hor­atii” doesn’t affect me, but I can still enjoy the paint­ing itself.

    Being an artist myself, I have my own stan­dards for what qual­i­fies as being well made. A pile of junk is still a pile of junk. It doesn’t become some­thing more just because it was rearranged and placed in a gallery. I also don’t sep­a­rate con­tent from tech­nique. They are equally sig­nif­i­cant. The real shame with pass­ing such mate­r­ial off as valu­able lies with those who cel­e­brate it at the expense of oth­ers who do bet­ter work.

  25. selif says

    I guess I’ve got a silly def­i­n­i­tion of art… for exam­ple take any paint­ing. Does it look like some­thing? Does it in any way actu­ally resem­ble some­thing real that can be rep­re­sented visually?

    Given that def­i­n­i­tion, a large por­tion of things I see called paint­ings only qual­ify for the term because some­body used paint as the medium. They don’t look like any­thing except per­haps the result of an explo­sion or a vio­lent fight in the studio.

  26. vanessa says

    not silly

  27. W.L. Wilson says

    Polit­i­cal art is good when it ceases to be polit­i­cal and finds itself on a raw per­sonal level. Specif­i­cally see an exhi­bi­tion by Ehren Tool. Pol­i­tics and expres­sions can be dan­ger­ous anywhere.

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