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Monday, January 19, 2009

Andrew Wyeth vs. the critics

Andrew Wyeth, the well known painter, died on Friday, January 16th, at age 91. Wyeth's most famous painting may have been "Christina's World," shown below at left. His most famous series were the "Helga Pictures," depicting his neighbor Mrs. Testorf, shown below to the right.

His obituary in Saturday's NY Times was titled, "Andrew Wyeth, Realist and Lightning Rod, Dies." The article described him as "one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive linchpin in a colorful family dynasty of artists, and a painter whose precise, realist views of a harsh rural life became emblems of national culture and incited endless debates about the nature of modern art....Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Mr. Wyeth came to represent middle class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject."

Another article, in the Times Arts section, was headlined, "For Wyeth, Both Praise And Doubt." This article went on in the same vein.

If you've ever tried to draw a realistic depiction of a face, you know how hard it is to get right. Capturing a facial expression is far more difficult. Wyeth was able to capture an expression, establish a mood, even allow us to gaze into somebody's soul. His skill was the result of a long, hard apprenticeship. Under his father's tutelage, Wyeth became an expert draftsman very early on, and even did illustrations under his father's name while still in his teens.

But such talent is often disdained by the arbiters of artistic taste today. They prefer artists who make statements.

The interesting question is, how did we ever get to a place where the above paintings are considered controversial, yet the ones below are not? (On the left is one of Jackson Pollock's finest works, and on the right, one of Andy Warhol's.)

When I was younger and more deferential, I just assumed I wasn't sophisticated enough to "get" modern art. I've since met charlatans of every stripe, in many professions. I'm also old and crotchety now. So I'm more outspoken about calling modern art what it is: junk. There's simply nothing there to get. It is, at best, a glorified Rorschach test.

My suspicion is that artists like Wyeth make the critics insecure, because they know they could never do what he does. So they scoff at him. Modern art, on the other hand, may leave people wondering, but it leaves no one insecure. So it puts critics in a more generous frame of mind. It even allows them to be the ones to be creative by interpreting a piece of "art" as they see fit.

Imagine if the entire world were run by people with the modern art esthetic:

Hollywood would produce movies that consisted of nothing but two hours of static on the screen, the kind we used to get in the old days of black and white TVs and UHF/VHF reception. ("You don't get it? You know, true art sometimes requires you to do a little work too. You can't just sit back and be passive all the time.")

Detroit would try to sell us cars after they had been crushed in a head on collision, rather than before. ("We have to get beyond that old way of seeing cars as just transportation. That point A to point B mentality is just so bourgeois.")

The literary world would create sentences like these: "Search go years thorough conclusion vastness begun after so cave grand bicycle. American they clock difficulty essential no serious. Susan other another prescriptive field children recessive." ("Can't you move beyond that limiting, linear way of thinking?")

I take that last paragraph back. The sentences would be more like this: "Wfposiatuwev pmgdsflkj sriu klesr v spioerucvwmc[,.d erimg." ("This is avant garde genius, the absolute cutting edge of prose. What an overarching statement about how poorly we communicate with each other.")

The fashion industry would design clothes such that even the emperor himself would not actually be wearing any....Wait a sec. Sorry, that point has already been made elsewhere. And now that I think of it, the fashion industry is a bit like modern art, at least in terms of what you see in the fashion shows.

The best test of art might be to leave it on a suburban (middle class) lawn, and see what the homeowner did with it. In most cases, people would probably just deposit it in their garbage can. Where it belongs. On the other hand, the garbage can itself might just as well be considered modern art. Just ask Andy.

There was actually a case recently, I can't remember the details, where a janitor came across such an exhibit at a museum recently and simply swept it up and put it in the trash. True story.

Rest in peace Andrew Wyeth.


Anonymous said...

Another true story -- A couple years ago there was a piece on a popular news magazine show. A painting created by a group of pre-schoolers was displayed with pieces of modern art created by accomplished artists. An "expert" panel was brought in to determine which paintings were "real" and which were fake. The pre-schoolers' creation was labeled as authentic and praised for its originality, color and well-planned placement of shapes, while one of the "artists" paintings was labeled as amateur for opposite reasons. So much for the expert opinion. Buy what you like.

John Craig said...

Great story, thank you.