A few weeks ago I did a talk about art criticism at no tsu oH. I haven’t written about it until now because I’ve had to mull over the difficult questions that the small, feisty happy-hour crowd posed to me.
Right off, a heavily bearded man sipping a glass of Spanish wine asked, “what’s the harm in bad art?” I told him, immediately and unthinkingly, that “bad art is cancer” and I was surprised to find that, as I said it, I really meant it. Such an extreme statement had to be clarified, and as we talked about it some, I conceded that I meant bad art collectively, not individual bad works of art, which are forgivable. But I continued to think about it on the way home and came up with a few ideas that I wasn’t mentally nimble enough to put together on the spot.
Bad art is sad. It’s wasted opportunity. If you believe (as I do) that everyone has it in them to express themselves in a genuine way, and that everyone has thoughts and feelings worth expressing, then when someone goes to the trouble of making something, and it’s trite, or half-assed, or full of arty posturing, they’re letting us all down.
There’s a more insidious effect, too. In a city where good new art isn’t as common as tree roaches, when you haven’t seen anything really good in a while you begin to forget what really good art can be. One or two bad pieces or shows don’t hurt anything, but the continuous runs of so-so same old we sometimes endure can wear down your appetite to a blunt stub. And then, subtly, you begin to disbelieve that art can ever be good; that it’s all just the self-absorbed little world it sometimes seems to be. Good art, like Tabasco on scrambled eggs, enlivens the whole world. Bad art dulls it down.
Later in the evening an innocent-looking older lady dropped this bomb: “what is art criticism for?” All I could tell her was what my criticism is for. I’m an artist who writes, not a critic or historian, and for artists there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing second-rate work praised. It undermines all our efforts. If that crap is in that gallery, or museum, or collection, then what am I doing all this for? Criticism doesn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t remove bad art, but just talking about its badness makes it all right. Conversely, artists deserve a pat on the back when they do something worthwhile and, unlike performers, don’t get immediate feedback from their audience.
Seventeen years ago, when I first arrived in Houston, it seemed to me that artists here were too chummy, that they were more dedicated to drinking beer and patting each other on the back than art. I still think so, but now I can see the other side: over the long haul, in a small community, you need friends more than you need critics.
I wish I were less critical, that I could be happy enjoying mediocre work for the good that’s in it, rather than picking at its flaws; but I still want perfection and the older I get, the less often I see it.
One Saturday, I took my kids to the beach at Galveston. As I stood knee-deep in a cloud of shredded, dead seaweed, I saw a pale shape rolling over and over in the feeble waves. I grabbed at it and pulled out a wet, but intact, ten-dollar bill. There’s always hope.