Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Spreading Wall Fodder

 We need to hold back the surging tide of wall fodder.

What is wall fodder? It is art that is safe, bland, perhaps nicely done, but neither challenging nor exciting. Stuff you might hang on your wall if you wanted to be sure not to offend anyone — and match the couch, of course. I first heard the term used by Willie Ray Parish, a sculptor in El Paso, Texas. His wife, Becky Hendrick (a fine painter and art critic), informed me that he got it from her and that she got it from an LA Weekly article by Peter Plagens. I wrote an essay about it titled The Case Against Wall Fodder that is posted on my website and reprinted in my book As If Art Matters</.

"Reversal of Fortune" by Ric Hall is not wall fodder.
Many of the pastels in The Northwest Pastel Society Invitational, which I recently reviewed for the Weekly Volcano, were wall fodder. They were skillfully done and most were attractive, but they were the visual equivalent of cotton candy or bubblegum music. When artists do this kind of work and galleries show it, they promote mediocrity. So why do they do it? Do they believe that a sweet little landscape that is essentially no different than millions of other sweet little landscapes is as artistically worthy as, for instance, a Picasso or a Rembrandt? Probably not, but it is likely that the gallery owners, like their customers, enjoy the sweet little landscapes. They’re comfortable with them. Furthermore, they surely know that such art will sell more readily than, say, an abstract painting by a little-known regional painter. Back to the pastel show, I noticed a lot of red dots indicating paintings that were sold. I also noticed that the listed prices were two-to four-times those of paintings of comparable size by artists of considerable regional repute seen in other area galleries. So maybe it’s a matter of making money. God knows, if they can’t make money we all suffer a lack of art.

I’ve talked to artists who separate art made with the hope of selling from art made for their personal satisfaction. I remember talking to a gallery owner who had works by some pretty gutsy contemporary artists, including the great Richard Diebenkorn, in his personal collection but showed much safer wall fodder in his gallery, knowing the stuff he collected would not sell. So I understand and sympathize, but still, catering to commercial concerns in art aides in the proliferation of bubblegum art. It becomes a never-ending circle: artists and galleries gear their art to the buying public, and young people who want to be artists see this stuff and think it’s what they should be doing.

When I was a child, I spake as a child ..but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I suspect that my development as an artist in some ways mirrored the development of Western art through history, as did the development of many of my contemporaries. As a small child I fell in love with painting and drawing and tried to make pictures like the ones I had seen in books. Through childhood, high school and college I worked at perfecting my ability to make a picture of a house or a man or a tree look like a house or a man or a tree. I never perfected it to the degree of a Vermeer or even a Phillip Pearlstein or Chuck Close, but I got pretty good at it. And I noticed artists such as van Gogh and Matisse and Picasso who didn’t try to make an image of a man look so much like a man, but changed and distorted images to answer other kinds of realities; and I studied what they did in an attempt to understand it, and making a house look like a house was no longer good enough for me. I was compelled to make art that did more than imitate nature; I was compelled to find my own voice. I imagine that every artist goes through something like that, but those who make wall fodder are satisfied with imitating nature (and by-the-way, abstract art can also be wall fodder). If art is to be something more than a hobby, then — with apologies to Henri Matisse who said he wanted his art to be something like a comfortable chair — I declare that artists must strive for something beyond making nice pictures. That so many of them don’t is something I attribute, at least in part, to the screwed-up nature of the art market.

Regional galleries cater to mediocrity. They pretty much have to if they’re going to stay in business. Risky, experimental and challenging art does not sell outside of major art centers. And trendy big-city galleries are sometimes just as bad, or they artificially inflate the value of their artists, making it almost impossible for artists, dealers and collectors to know what is good and what’s not. Ah ha! Maybe that’s where critics come in. Are you kidding? Have you read most of what passes for criticism these days? The reviews seem to be PR for the galleries that advertise in the magazines.

Even works by truly great artists are artificially inflated as collectors try to outdo each other by owning the most expensive baubles. The New York Times recently reported that one of Jackson Pollock’s classic drip paintings — “No. 19, 1948” — sold for a record $58.3 million, and it was reported on the CBS morning show that a Barnett Newman painting sold for more than $43 million. Charlie Rose and Gayle King made snide comments about the Newman, which showed just how stupid and arrogant they are. Despite Rose and King’s stupidity, these are great paintings, but the prices are absurd. No art should be worth that kind of money.

The problem with paintings selling for such inflated prices — other than the absolute absurdity of it — is that it takes the Pollocks and Newmans out of the museums and into private collections where only a few outlandishly rich people can see them. Already the public is limited in what they can see. There’s only so much in museums and many people can never afford to go to Italy to see Michelangelo’s “David” or to France to see the “Mona Lisa.” The only art the public in most places gets to see is what shows up in local galleries and reproductions in books where they can’t see the scale or surface quality or true colors. So the circle of mediocrity keeps spinning.

No comments: