Skip to main content

Against Spectacular Art

I see a lot of art these days. I see it online, via all the blogs and websites I have bookmarked. I see it in galleries and museums in Chicago, which I visit more regularly since I started writing articles about art for publications like Time Out and Hyperallergic. I see it in the corridors and studios of the building where I have my own studio. It gets tiring sometimes, certainly, but there’s one strain of art in particular that I’m growing very tired of—spectacular art.

By that, I mean objects and two-dimensional works that make a strong visual first impression, most often because they are made from unusual combinations of materials. Examples: portraits made from winding thousands of threads around the heads of pins embedded in a panel, so that the face gradually emerges from the accumulation of the unlikely material. Thousands of post-it notes apparently suspended in mid-air in a forest (created through digitally altered photos). Trompe l’oeuil face painting. Timelapse graffiti. Insanely gigantic sculptures of horses’ heads next to a river. Anything by Yayoi Kusama.

All this stuff definitely makes you say “Wow” when you see it. The level of skill, the time consumed in the making, is all impressive. It’s possible that all the work just cited makes people feel something emotionally, too. That’s fine. What I object to is that this kind of art is increasingly becoming what people think art should be, which in turn presents the danger that this is mostly what more art will become for the near future. If it doesn’t hit you like a big explosion of fireworks straight away, if it isn’t made from unusual combinations of materials, if it doesn’t fool your eye, then it might get passed over, even considered not to be art.

But I think the best art is unspectacular, less concerned with flash, and definitely unconcerned with the instant effect. There’s a place for unusual materials (and every artist should experiment, constantly), but only if it leaves room for something as old fashioned as paint, and wood carving, and all those boring bourgeois activities. So today I am standing up for grey paintings and drawings, things that don’t suck up to you via hot colours, or subjects that are comforting and familiar:


Cy Twombly

I am standing up for slow work over fast work:

Agnes Martin

Gerhard Richter

I am standing up for things that are not “colossal”, but small and indirect, that take time to reveal their meaning to you:


Christian Boltanski

With grey works of art, there's no room to hide, and your skills stand revealed in their barest essence:


John Tomlinson

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On my 300th blog post

Crikey!

It's my 300th blog post. And I seem to remember that in my 200th blog post I said that I would start quoting from John Ruskin's "Praeterita", after which this blog was named. Well, better late then never, so quotation number 2 is below.

First, though, some thoughts on this blog and blogging in general. I started Praeterita at the end of last year after reading a book by an art-marketing guru called Alyson Stansfield that recommended it as a means for artists to publicise their work better. But from the start I thought it would be more interesting to talk in a discursive way about my wider interest in art, and artists, and the history of art. After a desultory beginning where I only posted once a week, my blogging habit has now grown to the point where I am posting sometimes twice a day, and more than 45 times per month (helped enormously by the Blogger feature that lets you save blog posts with a post-dated timestamp, so that you can put posts in the bank to …

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.


A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…