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Fall 1998, Volume 1, Number 2, page 3


The "Art" of Celebrity

As every artist is painfully aware, the number of galleries and not-for-profit venues for displaying the work of living artists is definitely finite. Clamoring to be shown on those limited number of walls every year are thousands, upon thousands of artists. As in every field today, the lion's share of time, money, space, and attention is dominated by a relative handful of people at the top of the pyramid. That only makes another growing development in the art world that much harder to stomach.

For several years now, celebrity "artists" have been commandeering more and more precious wall space, leaving even less for all those other artists. By the term "celebrity" artist, what is implied is not an artist who has become a celebrity, but rather, a celebrity whose career has bottomed out and who is now repackaging himself as an "artist". Too many of the galleries and the media are falling for this B. S. It seems like every has-been actor, MTV performer, comedian, or sports figure is now, suddenly, "an Artist!" The day may not be too far off when we are informed of the artistic genius of Madonna, or Michael Jordan, or EVEN O. J. Simpson. Yuck!!

The likes of Tony Curtis and Martin Mull, to name but a few, denigrate the entire art world every time their work is publicly shown. (Two weeks after the above was written, Snead, in her Sunday Sun-Times column, relayed the news that Marlon Brando, at age 74, had just announced to the world that he had decided to become an artist and was going to begin to study oil painting! I can hardly wait). --Justin Sunward

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.--D.H. LAWRENCE

Tough Talk - Why Am I So Negative?
Offhand, I can think of four, maybe five reasons:

1. It's not that I hate art or artists. As perverse as that may seem, an attack is a form of respect. I assume the artist is strong and mature enough to have his work tested, to see what happens to it after it leaves the safety of the studio, even if it is not what he intended. In a serious discussion, sometimes you have to say things that people would rather not hear. When you go to a doctor, do you want to hear only good news, or, if it is necessary, do you want to be told to adjust your lifestyle, submit to surgery, or get your affairs in order? Of course, you should get a second opinion. That's why we run multiple, conflicting reviews and responses. Or read something else.

2. Negative reviews are often based in optimism. If an artist is called on a small flaw, it often means that the rest of the work was relatively faultless. Alternatively, a laudatory review can be like praising a college athlete for being able to make a "C." A review that faults an artist for not exercising the potential of his medium, circumstance, or vision is really an expression of faith in the bigger picture.

3. Positive reviews just aren't much fun to write, and except for the artist, not much fun to read. If a piece works, it works. How many ways can you rephrase that? On the other hand, you know exactly when something fails. If you have an ingrown nail, or your spleen aches, you have the starting point for an investigation.

4. There is an unspoken, informal agreement among many of us who write for national and international venues to be nice to the home team. Since there are so few opportunities to discuss Chicago art in Art Forum, Art in America, etc., we shouldn't air dirty laundry in public. It is still healthy to air the laundry, though, and the newsletter gives us a chance to do it in the backyard, among family.

5. The newsletter's purpose, as I understand it, is to stimulate, to incite. Praise and happy-talk rarely do that. For my part, if it takes being a little rude to wake folks up from art-mag stupor, I'm willing to do it. --Michael Bulka

It's only words...unless they're true.--DAVID MAMET

The Critic's Challenge

Most critics-and I suspect most artists-would agree that the majority of the art on view at any one moment in Chicago is not very good. Some of it is really awful, unbelievably trite or utterly incompetent, insulting to the intelligence of the viewer.

My feeling is that this is not news. Is it surprising that John Q. Unknown-Artist's impressionist pastels of the lakefront at the Galerie du Shopping Mall are banal twelfth-generation rip-offs? Is it enlightening to learn that a young "conceptualist" from the School of the Art Institute has shown some barely-competent, half-baked meditations on "The Brady Bunch" at a student-run gallery?

Writing should be honest, and I agree with Michael Bulka that a critic should be willing to write in strongly negative terms if that seems called for by the art under consideration. And I would hope that our newsletter will be a place where we feel free to "diagnose" truly "ill" art, to continue his metaphor. Where I disagree is on emphasis.

My reasons for writing about art begin with those profoundly ecstatic and transformative experiences I've gotten from the very greatest works. I often see at least a hint of these experiences, a glimmer of the spark, in more minor works that can nonetheless be pleasurable to look at and genuinely thought-provoking as well. Since such works usually offer me much more than the art that I dislike, I prefer to concentrate my attention on them.

My strongest disagreement stems from Michael's "Positive reviews just aren't much fun to write...and... not much fun to read." Is it the goal of a critic primarily to write something that's "fun to read?" I try to write articles that are enjoyable, or at least interesting, to read, but I see my first goal as one of being true to the art, not being an entertainer. Penning amusing barbs is easy-too easy. Such activity displays the writer's verbal wit, while often failing to touch at all on the aesthetic experiences that are art's raison d'Ítre. The true critic's challenge, in my view, is to try to understand the uniqueness of, and ethos inherent in, good art, and then to try to use writing to help the viewer see it and, by implication, the world in a new way.--Fred Camper

Ideas won't keep; something must be done about them.--ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD

It is a barren kind of criticism which tells you what a thing is not.--R.W. GRISWOLD