Next Great Artist 8: Significant Form and the Reality of Television

Posted July 30th, 2010

I found a certain irony in Challenge 8. Last week I railed about the triviality of the challenges. I even weighed in on the subject on Jerry Saltz’s New York magazine blog where some of the more interesting discussions about the show take place. This week the Great Minds at BRAVO decided to go with Great Themes: Heaven and Hell, Male and Female, Chaos and Order.

Saltz, by the way, posed a question following episode 7: “Rank the remaining artists. (Abdi; Jaclyn; Mark; Miles; Nicole; Peregrine). Best to worst. 1 – 6.” I was uncertain what he was asking so I offered two lists. “Final ranking will be Miles, Nicole, Peregrine, Jaclyn, Abdi, Mark. Best to worst is IMHO Miles, Nicole, Mark, Peregrine, Abdi, Jaclyn.”

So far I am right on the final ranking: Mark made a very gracious exit as China wept for the cameras. The winners were the odd couple most individually criticized in the blogosphere as “manipulative:” Miles and Jaci.

China Chow, in cocktail attire at the crack of dawn, opined about the attraction of opposites and the dualities inherent in something or other. (She changed to sequins for the exhibition and ritual expulsion.) She handed out tubes of paint (again) to determine the couples. The challenge was to make individual works that together explored the assigned theme. Most obvious was Peregrine’s dismay that she was partnered with Mark. Miles admitted he would have liked to have been matched with Nicole but gleefully shared his expectation that Jaci could be depended on to create something “saucy.”

The works were so-so. There is no question that the Miles-Jaci production most fully met the challenge, which is not to agree that it is “a real work of art.”

The subtext of this episode seemed to be Art Speak. Mark observed that “talking about art stretches your bullshitting ability.”

Indeed it does. BRAVO followed up his comment with a montage of snippets that were pure gobbledygook from the gang Erik styled “art-school pussies.” In my experience, artists who go all highfalutin’ sound pretentious and come across as having neither skills nor ideas.

When I teach art history—especially introductory-level courses—I spend a lot of time on the critical analysis and writing skills. In class I encourage discussion that centers on differences between works. The essays students write are comparative critical analyses. What I look for is cogent and vivid description, thoughtful analysis of the artists’ choices of subject and style, a conclusion about the artists’ intentions or the meanings of the works, and some elucidation of some meaningful point of comparison. I provide a grading rubric that itemizes point allocation and demerits.

Most of all, I remind students that Art Speak is the sure route to a lousy grade. The more time I have to put into decoding “poetic” and “philosophical” gibberish, the more annoyed I will be by the time I settle on a grade. I state over and over that I don’t want jargon. I want essays written in grammatical and lucid English using words the way that Mr. Webster presents them in that nice dictionary of his. I point out that “most art writers can’t write their way out of a paper bag” (quoting myself here) and that if they think the piece is perfect for Artforum magazine they can expect me not to like it.

Yes, Jaci was one of those who went through this process. The problem is, of course, that she left MICA for the City where she worked for Jeff Koons for a couple of years. MICA claims him as an alumnus although he was a student here only for a brief period. Koons’ studio, shall we say, is not a place I would send a young artist to think deeply about art.

One of the problems with academically trained artists is that they speak in the language of the academy. Instead of describing what they did and why, they repeat the inanities they learned at their teachers’ knees. In a culture that celebrates the personal, the unique and the topical, verbal and written exegesis gets as obscure as the works themselves. Most of what comes out in artists’ statements and criticism for specialized publications is polemic, philosophical trivialities and arrant nonsense. There is a reason that some of the most articulate art critics today write for mainstream publications, from daily newspapers to general interest magazines.

Generally speaking, I think mainstream critics and art historians are better positioned than the artists themselves to provide intelligible exegesis. If the critic or art historian is a technically competent writer—and many are not—he or she can  look at the art, listen to the artist mumble, and find whatever invention, intelligence and expression is there.

For my money, the more “conceptual” the piece the more ridiculous the explanation is likely to sound in explanation. There has to be what English critic Clive Bell (1881-1964) called “significant form.” The form has to generate an aesthetic response that holds the viewer while he or she begins to ferret out meaning.

Reality television, however, just isn’t conducive to serious thought and the creation of significant form.

BLOG CATEGORIES: General, visual arts

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