Wednesday, September 9, 2015

“I know what I like.” the average person's art critique?

The other day I looked into a galley show of a community painting group and I was impressed with how much talent was shown there. So many average folks with so much potential, but shackled somehow in their ability to go beyond the obvious. What was this all about? I spoke with one exhibitor and asked to see his work. I quickly realized that he was resistant to going deeper. He also painted abstracts he said, but when I mentioned that he might find Hans Hofmann, a pioneer abstract impressionist, worth looking up in the library I got the brush off. It was clear that there was a special class of artist represented here in this man, the amateur painter for whom membership in a kind of leveling group trumped personal challenge and accomplishment. As if mediocrity was the lodestar to which he had hitched his wagon.

Recently I read an article by H.W. Janson called 'The Mirror of History' which discussed the origin of “ I know nothing about art, but I know what I like.” A remark so common we laugh, but which has an interesting history behind it.
In the 18th century a revolution in ideas proposed that democracy, the rule of the common man versus hereditary privilege, was worth fighting for and that “The peoples voice is the voice of God.”That 'simple man' was the ideal man ( and the simpler the better, as Janson says). What applied to ethics and politics extended to the arts as well. So the old Renaissance idea that good art was based on both craft and theory and which presupposed that only the educated minority who could master theoretical knowledge could understand and make art was dangerously out of fashion ( as in, “off with his head.”). The simple ' I know what I like' was the new democratic ideal. And what people liked was generally a realistic and later photographically precise picture of the world.

Perhaps then, what I experienced in the local gallery was a logical development of this democratic impulse to simplify what was art and resist individualization. And in this amateur show we could see where this 'every-man is equal' could lead to. I suspect that the twin drivers of 'art for everyone and everyone is an artist' plus the commercial factor creates a lot of 'art' that is not art judging by the old Renaissance ideas of craft and theory. The problem only emerges when we get confused between old and new ideas about art.

And yet there are a lot of art historians and art critics who attempt to bring knowledge and understanding to everyone. Those library books I mentioned to the artist in the show were just across the street, and free for the reading. There really is no excuse, even in this democratic age for determined ignorance. His kind of art drags everyone down and art along with it.
Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passerby to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is the melody that he sings for you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.
The Moon and Sixpence.
S. Maugham

 I found this quote and include it to illustrate that the arts are a powerful tool for communication and that pictures, for example, can be so much more than formula driven 'oils' or 'watercolours'.  


Ernst Göran Westlund said...

Food for thought! But there is more to this. There are many ways to understanding art. Education may be one. But simply looking at art is another way. Not necessarily excluding formal education, of course. My father was a PhD in the history of fine arts. He often told me about art and traditions, and he had a keen sense of what he himself thought of as artistic. But still his judgement could be flawed. I have been looking at art all my life, all kinds of art. Certainly my own knowledge of art cannot be compared to what you get from a formal education. But sure enough I know what I like. And I have noticed that those educated can degenerate to simple snobbishness.

Bill said...

Thanks Ernie, good to hear from you! Yes, looking must surely be the ultimate act we can take whether its art or the real world, landscape or a human being, but looking with the mind in neutral, or with a simple like/dislike judgement rather than with genuine questioning is a waste of our human-ness. And that applies to "those in the know"as well. Closed minds know no bounds.

Bill said...

And by the way, I have started writing my wife Heather's Patti Stories homepage at if you would like to visit it.