Thursday, June 18, 2009



What makes art great? Is it the color? The brushstroke? The imaginativeness? The originality? Does effort help? Is there some checklist to follow? Can you learn how to create great art? Or are great artists merely “chosen,” as if by fate? Why does a van Gogh sell for more than some unknown artist from the same era with a comparable style? Why are Basquiat’s dribblings worth more than an unknown artist from the same era who generated similar dribblings? In other words, what makes “great art” so special?

There is no way to objectively answer these questions. In fact, they are profoundly troubling. I am sure that art historians and university professors can lecture me on the myriad reasons why a Picasso is “better” and “worth more” than “lesser known” artists’ works from the same period. But I reject all attempts to objectively qualify art. Art has nothing to do with objectivity. And artists achieve fame because someone discovers them, not because they have “objective talent.” “Great art” did not become “great” because of some magical gift in the artist. Rather, it became “great art” because influential people liked it at the time and vigorously promoted it. Ironically, these influential people have never been artists, nor have they lived artists’ lives. Mostly, they have been bourgeois liberals with enough spare money to buy paintings, then yap about them to their bourgeois friends at wine-drenched gallery openings.

Art appeals to taste. Everyone has different tastes. While many people share tastes, no one can rightfully assert that their taste is better than another person’s. One person likes Limburger cheese. Another does not. One person likes pop art. Another hates it and doesn’t even consider it “art” at all. There is no way to objectively measure “artistic value,” because “artistic value” is a taste question; it is in the eye of the beholder—or perhaps, we should say, the tongue of the taster. Art represents an individual’s expression through imagery. Some will call it beautiful. Others will call it ugly. If enough people call it beautiful, they might make it famous. But maybe they won’t. The viewer is not bound to do anything. Viewing art is subjective; and the viewer is the ultimate judge. There is no objective standard: People either like your art or they don’t.

Art goes nowhere without viewers and their reactions. Once art appeals to a certain person’s taste, he might become enthusiastic about it. If he is a bum, it won’t matter. A bum doesn’t have influential friends or money to buy paintings. But if he is a lawyer, doctor or philanthropist, the possibilities grow. Well-heeled bourgeois know other well-heeled bourgeois. They talk to one another. They spend money together. They go to art auctions. If a rich dentist sees a painting he considers “fantastic,” he might tell his securities broker friend about it. The friend may agree, then tell his father, a retired banker with disposable income. In this way, art becomes “popular” among people in a position to make it “famous.” Once art achieves some popularity, promoters get involved. They spread the word even more, leading undifferentiated viewers to look at the art. “Wow,” think these new viewers. “If this painting is so popular, it must be good.” More and more people buy prints. The prints become famous.

Popularity, then, is a prerequisite for “greatness.” What begins as the fickle taste judgment of an individual bourgeois becomes the kernel for “great art.” Artists themselves have no power over reactions to their work. They simply live at a particular moment in time, express their feelings in visual form, then present their works. They cannot control whether they become popular. If Jean-Michel Basquiat had lived during van Gogh’s time, his works may not have generated as much buzz as they did in New York in the 1980s. And if Picasso were born in 1981, his works may not have generated as much buzz in Paris as they did because he was born in 1881. Artists become popular because they are born into particular times and places. Certain tastes exist at those times and in those places. Their work appeals to those tastes. When enough “influential people” become enthusiastic about their work, artists become famous. And once artists are famous, people start using the word “great” to describe them. Enough people like them. Enough people find their work beautiful. Yet they did not intend these results. The artist just went about his business. Fate blessed him with admirers who happened to find his work beautiful. He had no power to influence whether people would like him. They just did.

Some great artists got lucky during their lifetimes. Others did not. No matter whether they achieved fame before or after death, they never orchestrated it. In fact, most artists start off poor, wretched and despised. Artists do not “fit in” because they do not find “traditional work.” In western society, that is a sure way to attract scorn, both from society at large and from one’s own family. Picasso lived in an unheated Parisian flat when he was 20. Van Gogh bumbled aimlessly around Holland and Belgium, earning virtually nothing. Basquiat illegally spray-painted New York City subway trains; he was a “vagrant.” These were not “successful men.” They were outcasts, men who did not belong. They did not find “traditional employment” because they had larger things on their minds. They did not follow the “traditional life program.” According to bourgeois mythology, they should have come to ruin. Yet in each case, they became wildly famous. Why? Because some well-placed people liked their art, bought it, promoted it and made it popular. Gertrude Stein patronized and promoted the young Picasso. Andy Warhol patronized and promoted the young Basquiat. And numerous local bourgeois patronized and promoted van Gogh, although his fame did not mature until after he died.

But what made these men so special? Surely there must have been other tramps with artistic ability who simply did not have the good fortune to run into Gertrude Stein or Andy Warhol. If artists become famous because their work appeals to “influential tastes,” then blind luck plays a role in their success. After all, it is a matter of pure chance whether an “influential person” encounters a future “great artist.” Perhaps there have been other Picassos throughout history, but no wealthy barons saw their paintings in time. This is a disheartening thought. Yet I cannot escape it because “great art” depends on discovery. If some “influential person” does not discover an artist, no one will ever know about his genius. He will just die; no one will remember him. In fact, no one ever learned about him in the first place. In this sense, merit and genius have less to do with “great art” than good fortune. Picasso, Basquiat and van Gogh had sufficient merit to appeal to influential people’s tastes. But they also were lucky enough to have been discovered by the right people. Bums did not discover them. Bankers, lawyers, aristocrats, princes and wealthy dentists did. That is why we hail them as “geniuses” today. And that is why their paintings cost millions each.

“Great artists” owe their fame to their handlers. Fame, notoriety and popularity do not depend on intrinsic merit. They depend on others’ judgments. A person is not famous because he is intrinsically “the most talented” or “the smartest.” He is famous because enough people know about him. It is about numbers. If enough people know about you, you are famous. If they know about you because you supposedly create “great art,” then you are a “famous artist.” That does not mean that you are “intrinsically talented.” It simply means that your work appeals to many people’s tastes. To achieve fame, it is all about knowing the right people. Picasso, Basquiat and van Gogh luckily encountered people who had the power to effectively spread the word about them. Their work happened to please the right people’s tastes, and these people, in turn, told their friends about the art. Like wildfire, their popularity took off. Did their talent have anything to do with it? Perhaps. But talent alone did not lead to fame. Influential people did, along with their influential social networks. Put simply, “artistic talent” (if such a thing exists in the abstract) without discovery is like gold buried beneath the ocean floor—it is worthless. Only a determined miner can realize its potential. And the miner is the handler, not the artist. Without a handler and a promoter, the artist—talented or not—lies buried.

For all these reasons, I am deeply suspicious about assertions that certain art is “great.” When I look at art, I engage in an individual inquiry. I let art affect my own tastes. My tastes are my own; no one else controls them. I don’t care what art critics or professors say. If it pleases my tastes, I like it. If it doesn’t, I don’t. In many cases, I like art that has been labeled “great.” But I don’t like it because someone else told me it was great. I like it because my own tastes happen to match the majority’s. In essence, I remember that art is about subjective taste, not objective merit. And I remember that most art in famous museums or at Sotheby’s is only there because some wealthy promoter happened to really like it a long time ago.

All these things should deeply bother an artist. If I were an artist, I know they would bother me. After all, artists express themselves, no matter what people expect from them. They live dangerous, risky, unconventional lives. Yet no matter how powerful or meaningful their expression, they have no control over their popularity. They must surrender their fate to the subjective tastes of bourgeois art collectors and patrons, who all lead lives categorically different from the artist’s rebellious existence. Artists do not decide whether a millionaire banker likes their brushstrokes or paint splashes. The banker likes what he likes; it is not for the artist to say. The banker may hate the painting and walk out. Or he may fall in love with it, tell his colleagues about it, make the artist rich and attract an art museum’s attention.

What did the artist have to do with these reactions? Nothing. His “artistic ability” merely provided an opportunity for an “influential person” to react. But the power to react resides in the “influential person.” And fame does not result without a precise chain of lucky events that begins with discovery. Merit does not trigger this chain of lucky events. Merit merely provides an opportunity to appeal to an influential person’s tastes. That is only the first step toward fame—and possible “greatness.”

For better or worse, “greatness” in any endeavor depends on fame. No man is great if no one knows about him. Fame, in turn, depends on many lucky events, including the identity of the person who makes the initial discovery. “Great art” is great because the right people liked it at the right time. It is “great” because enough people who liked it were enthusiastic enough to promote it to others. Did the artist influence these reactions? No. He just painted what he saw in his mind. He expressed himself. He did not “make himself great.” Others did that for him. And they only did it because he appealed to their tastes, not because he had some magical talent that entitled him to greatness. In this light, “artistic ability” is at best overrated and at worst irrelevant. Put simply, “artistic greatness” derives from historical accident and dominant taste judgment, not self-revealing abstractions.

If Picasso had not encountered Gertrude Stein, he would have struggled on, alone and unknown. And if van Gogh’s paintings did not appeal to some wealthy patrons in Amsterdam, no one would ever have known about him, either. Their talents would simply have evaporated into the vastness of time and human experience, like so many others we never discovered. In sum, when it comes to “artistic greatness,” promotion and luck beat natural talent any day.

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