The Crumpet Elf and writings on art

I heard this on NPR this morning and it’s worth posting again. If you’re talented or lucky enough, you can launch your own career on public radio. Happy holidays!

I”m reading Peter Schjeldahl’s ‘Let’s See’ and agree with some of James Panero’s review in the NY Sun. ‘Mr. Schjeldahl’s ceaseless promotion of the histrionic contemporary artist John Currin, for instance, would put a publicist to shame’ or ‘Too often in the decade (the last one) covered here, Mr. Schjeldahl followed the money rather than good conscience.’ Having seen Currin’s play with gimmicks, the elongation of body parts and clever satirizing of sexual clichés just doesn’t do it for me.  El Greco distorted with something in mind other than cynicism – a passion to involve the viewer in the spiritual ecstasy he felt himself.

But some of Schjeldahl’s opening comments hit home. ‘Baudelaire called the artist a child who has acquired adult capacities and discipline. I think it’s self-evident. Artistic temperament sets in at an early age, though it may not be realized until later, if at all.

Unlearnable, the vocation of art entails idiosyncratic strategies for learning… Sincerity and belief in something are indispensable, never to be compromised; but they are perfectly consistent with sophistication and even guile.’

So much for the degree and a formal education being of service in the hands/mind of the artist. Schjeldahl himself admits to being a college dropout; ‘it saved me from teaching’. A belief in what one creates is difficult at best in a world that values commerce over craft. But it’s all the artist really has to work with and to paraphrase what Dylan said, ‘if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?’ 

I also like what he says about art standing still – ‘it doesn’t alter, we do….Most artists understand that their work’s effect should be permanently instantaneous.’

I recently had someone volunteer to return a painting over a dispute about its almost 30 year old provenance; it was initially given to one friend and then sold to him almost immediately afterwards, by said friend. He couldn’t remember how it got to him and the recipient couldn’t remember selling the piece to this guy. Adding to the surrealism of this episode, she also couldn’t remember my giving it to her, and had no memory of the work itself. It was like being in my own Sedaris story. The buyer supposed that if he returned it to me, the originator, that the ‘karma’ would get worked out.  Art simply doesn’t work that way, there is no transference of anything except the initial meaning of the piece-assuming that it’s interpreted correctly in the first place. To think otherwise is to be blinded by phoney karmic duty or some kind of wacky phenomenology that doesn’t enter into art at all.

An axiom one fellow artist has is to never sell or give work to a client who doesn’t deserve or appreciate it. It could also be said that commerce in art comes with its own set of morés, well described in Anthony Haden-Guest’s ‘True Colors’ and his remarks about how dealers create markets.

I also like what Schjeldahl says about beauty and art in relation to an exhibit described by the curator in a typical mush of a sentence that so many people mistake for actual meaning; ‘today beauty might be praised as a concept that acknowledges regular shifts in cultural perception’.

PS’s response: “Beauty is not a concept. To begin with, it is a common word, defined in the dictionary as ‘the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind’. Unless we are desperately sad or angry, we have occasion to use the word every day…Beauty harmonizes consciousness from top to bottom. It is as organically vital as digestion. 

We don’t depend on new art to provide us with beauty. Don’t blame the artists for this. Ever since art lost the patronage of clerics and aristocrats who required beauty to promote their authority, it has been stuck with the scarcely voluptuous agendas of bureaucratic and educational institutions, novelty-craving commerce, political ideologies, and, in the best instances, rawly ambitious and audacious individuals.

There is every accounting for taste, but no accounting for beauty. Beauty sails past the office in the brain where the accounts are kept- and where failed beauty accumulates. …Beauty isn’t beauty if it doesn’t inspire awe for a specific proposition about reality. Beauty makes a case for the sacredness of something- winning the case suddenly and irrationally. It is always too late to argue with beauty.”

This is like trying to explain what falling in love means. And it’s just as much of a conundrum to the deluded soul who thinks it can be either controlled or managed. 

Finally he accuses the exhibit of trying to think too much. ‘It tries to put intellectual handles on a phenomenon that suppresses intellect altogether, to the understandable dismay of theorists and scholars. Beauty isn’t articulate…or nice….Beauty presents a stone wall to the thinking mind. But to the incarnate mind- deferential to the buzzing and gurgling body- beauty is as fluid, clear and shining as an Indian- summer afternoon.’

It’s refreshing to hear an art critic denounce the circumlocation that so much writing on just about everything, including art, devolves into today. The worst is unclear and muddled, the best merely a string of dislocated and gummy adjectives. That kind of amateurism doesn’t place much truck in Hemingway.

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