16 August 2004

Arte Bagge

Peter Bagge (of independent comics fame) has the most irrational screed against the fine arts, art museums, modern art, and experimentation I've ever seen. Ever. He's like a caricature of ignorance: angry at the apparent arrogance of people who create something he doesn't understand. As if any expression more difficult than a representational landscape is flawed over-intellectualizing. I need to walk through this line by line (begin angry rant now):

His diatribe is presented as a four-page comic beginning with a walk through Seattle's Henry Art Gallery. Their about page says they have, along with 19th and 20th century paintings, a burgeoning collection of cutting-edge works in new media. These cutting-edge works are what he criticizes, as if they're the only works available and he's been cheated of variety. The mere existence of experimental works apparently proves that the "art world" is hoodwinking us.

  • Page 1
  • He begins by trying to make the stupidity of the art he saw as a basic fact all viewers agree on. Three actual overheard quotes are presented showing people aghast at the spectacle at the Henry. They're anecdotally humorous, but about as convincing as the opening night of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D--or the theatrical release of Office Space. It's a weak argument at best, proving more that first impressions can be wrong.

    He then slams on Tricia Brown, saying her performance art typified the eye-roll-inducing self-indulgence that has dominated the fine art world since the 1960s... But then on page three, praises Mapplethorpe's photography as excellent and commercially successful. The mind boggles first at his own internally inconsistent, selective criticism (one person typifies the whole of the decaying art world, but this guy who was one of the most popular fine artists of the past decade, and part of that art world, is not part of that decay ... somehow) and then at his reverse-racist style economic qualifier (commercially successful, as if good art couldn't live under the radar and speak to a smaller segment of the population and still survive). While hack writers for LifetimeTelevisionForWomen are churning away stories where only a starving artist is really an artist, Bagge turns that stupidity around and suggests that commercially successful artists have more credibility.

    It's too easy to make experimentation look bad. Think of a movie you like that took chances. Or a book or a CD. Is there any defense against the pseudo-argument of "oh, the scenes are presented in reverse order, how artsy," or "a 20-minute song based on an Ayn Rand story, how arrogant." Yeah, it's not what we expect. Yeah, it might fall flat. But just watch Armageddon or listen to a Hilary Duff CD. Experimentation is arrogant, and the commonplace is slothful. It's easy to sound clever as you're criticizing with nothing to back it up. And I say that as a fervent critic.

  • Page 2
  • 95% of what they're hyping is pure crap, yet if your dare to say as much out loud you'll be looked upon as a clueless Philistine.

    Always the classic argument: "I'm afraid that the quality of my opinion and my debating skills are too poor to allow me to defeat what I know is wrong. Therefore, I'll blame others for not listening to what I have to say." Grow a spine and say something more substantive than "they act arrogant, so they must be arrogant."

    Regarding gallery notes: What purpose do they serve? Do they think we're all retarded? I don't even need to comment on that.

    To [the fine art world], an artist who can skillfully paint representational images isn't really a "painter" at all, but a mere "illustrator."

    He says this as an art critic gives a bad review of a Robert Williams painting. Robert Williams' art is considerably less than representational and, though skillful, he does not paint what most people would call representational works. He has a garish, comic book/graffiti style popular in the 80s. In art galleries in the 80s. The next panel shows an interior designer (?) mocking Norman Rockwell. Defending Norman Rockwell for his originality is like defending Will Smith for his originality. They both spin gold, but they're not exactly breaking new ground in the arts.

  • Page 3
  • Here's a good one.

    They [the "fine art establishment"] see themselves as waging a war against cultural obsession, and in a sense they're right, if you overlook the fact that their own values are just as orthodox as their critics!

    This smacks of the argument that science is the same as religion because people believe in it strongly. Let's look at it this way: gays want to marry, some religions don't want them to marry, so therefore gays are as dogmatic as those religions because they want to marry. Huh? Gays aren't being "rigid in their beliefs" because they want to marry. They're being human. The arts, similarly, aren't being rigid in their beliefs--it's simply people trying to express themselves uniquely and artistically. Tune out if you don't like it.

    Ah, but the public taxes issue. I too am uncomfortable with that--only in a different way. But, as I said before, the NEA has a strong vetting process. If citizens can't accept that, if they must micromanage what sand is used in their sidewalk concrete, what pound paper is used to print memos in their tax assessor's office, what tire grade is used on their police cars--because, as Peter Bagge says, for the mere prices of a cup of coffee (etc.)--if every penny counts, there are bigger fish to etc. than the cup-of-coffee-cost of the fine arts.

    And if I've foamed at the mouth too much, let me end page three with Mr. Bagge's rant against that noxious experimentalist, William Shakespeare:

    And now there are all these heavily funded Shakespeare companies currently plaguing the nation. Heaven forbid a single community should live without the Bard's hokey, unintelligible 400-yr-old comedies!
  • Page 4
  • He spends a little time mocking the failed artist--those who have become poor by sticking by their dream, even though it's not commercial. Wow, a daring, incisive opinion. And then ends by saying (and I-am-not-making-this-up):

    Unique and imaginative works of art are everywhere. For example, have you noticed how many beautiful new cars are out on the streets these days? We're in a golden age of auto design!

    Now, his article was sub-titled "Mr. Grumpy Goes to an Art Museum and Comes Out Belaboring the Obvious!" Either (1) I've missed his double-irony and mistook his criticism for mock-criticism, or (2) he's tried to diffuse his own curmudgeonliness by po-mo-ing his whole opinion. So, either I'm easily baited (on this subject, yes) or he has the worst quality of what David Foster Wallace says is the worst quality post-modern irony.

    It did feel good to vent though.

[ posted by sstrader on 16 August 2004 at 9:29:48 PM in Art ]