Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Learning To Love Lichtenstein

My assignment? Criticize an artist! My choice? Roy Lichtenstein! My feelings when I saw a Lichtenstein painting in person? My God, look at the technical control here, the way he dominates the canvas -- I love this guy! I was wrong!

(Appropriated from art by Al Milgrom from Secret Wars II, Beyonder character copyright Marvel Comics. And for the record? This wasn't just a scan. I had to recreate the damned thing, down to the Benday dots, carving every edge of every ink mark -- this was more laborious than generating a painting from scratch. The print is two feet on the short side.)

But I always loved Chuck Close. I had a blast doing this. Why did one artist seem fraudulent to me and not the other?

Being able to look at my own work and have pleasant feelings makes it a lot easier to open up to new experiences in art. Defensiveness is a creative dead-end.

Glendon Mellow has reposted his critical piece on the subject of art, illustration, and the aura of a painting. He and I have been engaging in a conversation about art for some years, and I've found it quite useful -- my views of art have changed considerably since we've begun exchanging views. (Toward the end of Glendon's piece, he has links to the post at Laelaps where our conversation began -- scroll down to the comments -- and an earlier post of mine on the subject of art.)

The main changes in my attitudes toward art grow from my rejection of personal defensiveness. In order to feel some degree of strength or position in the world of art, it was at first important to me to say, "This thing you think is not art is, and this thing you say is art, isn't."

These days?

I would rather enjoy art than feel superior to it. And contrariwise, if I don't like something? That doesn't mean it's a fake, or inadequate. It is not art's job to live up to me, or vice-versa. I find myself responding genuinely to a much wider range of art than before.

That's because I don't feel like an outsider in this world any more. I've seen my work in a real gallery, a guerrilla gallery, and a number of kitchen walls, I've gotten praise from some very respectable sources, and more than that -- I've found that I can walk into a museum or gallery and feel comfortable, and if I talk? People listen to me with interest and respect. I've even been asked about my degree. (I learned art history the way I learned music theory -- I only know what I failed to avoid.)

Since I now feel part of that world, I no longer need to feel as though specific works or artists are somehow inferior to me, as if disregarding them lends validity to my own work. Instead, expanding the range of work that I'm willing to respond to has produced a corresponding expansion of my interior world.

Glendon's piece brought this to mind, because it was a face-to-face encounter with Roy Lichtenstein's work that initiated this sea-change. I'd always assumed that his appropriation of cartoon images was essentially a rip-0ff, that he wasn't really a painter, etc, etc.

But when I saw some of his pieces in the context of the museum, I was riveted. It wasn't just the painting, though. It was the entire context -- the gallery itself primes you for certain types of aesthetic experiences, the size of the work strongly effects impact, etc. It made me realize both that I couldn't judge art based on reproductions, and that there was something childish in my earlier reactions. That I was trying to prove something by disliking particular artists or works.

It is more than a little embarrassing to recognize that I 'hated' Jeff Koons the way I 'hated' Eric in the third grade. (With less cause -- Eric threw rocks.) To recognize that I dislike the works of Jackson Pollack out of defensiveness, on the basis of ignorance.

It's not a bad idea to dislike genuinely bad art. To assume that certain elements in the artistic canon are fraudulent, and that you maintain status by bad-mouthing them?

Terrible idea. Terrible. It doesn't matter if you're an illustrator bad-mouthing Pollack or a science fiction writer bad-mouthing James Joyce. You just look like a jealous idiot. You only appeal to those who are defensive in precisely the same way you are. I'm trying to cut it out, so I'm really noticing it in other people.

You build bridges when you act out of attraction. When you do something because you like it. Avoiding things, cutting off potential avenues of exploration? It's necessary. You can't do everything. But you will never fully express yourself if you pick and choose influences on a reactionary basis.

And that goes down the perceived hierarchy as well as up. I no longer feel comfortable dismissing a work for being a television show, for instance. When you see how serious and intelligent practitioners of everything from cute dinosaurs to cartoons to Star Trek can be, it forces you to do some re-evaluation.

To put it another way -- if I love the folk art and literature of other times and places, why shouldn't I knowingly, intelligently embrace that of my own? To try and imagine how the products of my time and culture might impress those outside of it?

Or to put it another way.

I know a good bit about criticism. I know how to take things apart.

These days I'm much more interested in appreciation. As an artist, it's a lot more useful for me to see how things get put things together.


Joe Clifford said...

I think you were right to dislike Pollack. (Sorry, but I can't think of a better example of the Emperor's New Clothes...)

Glendon Mellow said...

If you lose all of your cynicism and accompanying wit, I'll be mad at myself for helping you in any way appreciate art.

Sean Craven said...

Joe, that's exactly how I thought of Lictenstein. In my opinion, the reproductions of his work I've seen are ugly as quacking assholes, and he seemed to be much of the same cut himself.

But for all I know, when I see one of those canvases at eight by four feet, I might wind up having a different opinion. On the other hand, if you've seen any of his work live, your opinion's better than mine.

And Glendon. I'm simply shifting my approach from that of the brash young punk to that of the patronizing elder. Rather than dismiss people as frauds and angrily denounce them to the skies, I'll smilingly compliment their second-rate virtues and suggest room for technical improvement.

That should piss them off.

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