Sunday, June 17, 2007

Art and the Q-Word

The May issue of Art in America has an excellent "Group Crit" in which various art school professors and other academics and artists offer thoughts on the state of the Art School. The essay by Laurie Fendrich, a fine arts professor at Hofstra University, stands out. Here's an excerpt:
"The notorious Q-word (for those of you born since 1980, I mean quality) has been banned from official art discourse since about 1975. Even so, it hovers backstage during every critique. Good students and reasonable teachers still know the good stuff when they see it, although they'll only say so with a faux blue-collar spin: "Hey, that works." So while some art teachers fret over the need for more exotic computer programs, others lobby for more critical theory in the curriculum, and still others argue for more drawing, everyone ignores the real need: to resuscitate a way of talking about art that recognizes the value of art as a thing in itself, a thing that is impractical and politically useless.
While I agree that an irrespressible "artistic personality" alone is not a qualifier for a great artist, and that the celebration of self-expression has gotten way out of hand to where everything is permissible, and hence, good, there is something amazing about the classic outsider artist: an individual so moved to express him or herself that the desire for fame based upon that expression rarely occurs to them.

I'm not saying that it's always great art. But in the case of a man like Alexander Lobanov, who, like Martin Ramirez, spent much of his life in an institution, the fruits of obsessive expression and artistic discipline developed without any formal training is beautiful and weird.

When we think about an artist like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst today, it would behoove us to consider the artistic personality involved, the current cult of celebrity (was it ever not current?), the market -- in which investors and status-seeking new collectors overheat the price structures, and above all, whether this crap will stand up to an honest academic critique on the one hand and an earnest public "everyman" critique on the other.

Fendrich's yearning for higher quality art in artists and more attention to quality in professors and critics reminds me of a quote I just read from H.L. Mencken, as recalled by Alistair Cooke:
"The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology."



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