A friend of mine who is a very smart guy and curious about all aspects of the world writes, "I don’t understand any of the arts. Maybe you can explain. Who gets to decide that the Mona Lisa is a great painting? Is that the same group that thinks that Picasso is a great artist? What makes Picasso’s art great? I certainly don’t get it!"
Interesting question. Creating images and representations is apparently part of our DNA. There has always been art and artists ... however, I'm not so sure that there were always art critics. (Since I wasn't there when art was born, and, as far as we know, the critics of ancient times didn't leave anything behind, I don't know this for sure.)
What I do know is that somewhere along the line, we gave away our power to appreciate art. I'm not sure if we donated it, or someone hijacked it, but gradually the score card became controlled by a small group of critics, curators and collectors (whom I'll call the C-squad).
To some extent, this made sense ... some people are more interested in art and they spend their lives gathering information about specific artists, methods and trends. They become "experts" and develop their own opinions about what is "good" and "bad" and they want to share all the information they've gathered and the opinions they've formed. That part is fine. What's not so fine is when their opinions are presented as fact. Picasso is great; Kincaide is a dud (even though millions of people love those little cottages with lights in the windows).
Over time, art became the sport of the elite and the rest of us began walking around with puzzled faces scratching our heads about what the art world called great. We lost confidence in our ability to appreciate art, to respect our own ability to know what we liked. Gradually, we left art to the "experts."
"Nothing is positive about art except that it is a word." -- de Kooning
I am in the midst of reading a biography of de Kooning, part of Jason Horejs's ongoing book club. Whether you like de Kooning's work or not, the C-squad has deemed it great and, after 300 pages of his biography, I've developed a great respect for his depth of understanding of the historic patterns of art and the personal struggle that engaged him. While I still can't say that I like most of his work,
I'm starting to understand that he wasn't trying to paint what he saw, but rather what he felt. He was always after what he called the "nothing" part of the painting, "the part that was not painted but that was there because of the things in the picture which were painted."
In that concept of "nothing," he may have captured the magic of art. Great art captures that nothing in a way that creates a chemical explosion within the viewer. We may not be able to articulate it in words, but we feel it. We know we "like" it; we feel a connection to it. However, since each of us is different, the art that creates an explosion within me, may not be the art that connects with you.
This is the point where art got hijacked. The C-squad added the world "should" to the equation and designated which art contained the nothing that people should connect with. You should respond to Picasso. You should not respond to Kincaide. I think de Kooning might respond with a blunt B.S.
I also think de Kooning would like being alive today and would approve of the new world of art making and art buying. While the C-squad is still active, it seems to be losing some of its grip on the masses. Millions of artists are quietly working away in their own studios, trying to capture their inner worlds in pigment, clay and dozens of other media. Some make work to sell, most are just following their own calling. At the same time, in art fairs, galleries and in-home exhibits, people are responding to the "nothing" that appears in paintings, sculpture, photography, quilts, glasswork and other forms ... buying what causes the chemical explosions within themselves without waiting for the official word from the C-squad.
Through the growing number of local art events and the Internet, we are gradually waking up to our own authority to know what it is we like, knowing that if we like it, if it creates that explosion of connection within us, it is great art.