Friday, April 10, 2009

Illustration and Resentment 2: Kerry James Marshall

David Apatoff, ever game, wrote a forthright comment in response to my last post–a characterization of the Gary Panter dust-up at David’s blog as indicative of a culture of resentment that seems to animate certain quarters of the illustration field.

My aim in this go-round is to suggest a) a standard of care, so to speak, for criticism, and b) identify bitterness as such when it shoots up out of the ground of a partisan's prose. In a day or two, I will offer a third installment, devoted to an analysis of the cultural sources of the buried conflict which has spawned certain of these resentments.

But first, some context.

The impetus for my last post, hauled from my written-but-not-posted bucket, was a February 2009 offering by David on the subject of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall is an African-American artist who first acheived prominence in the 1990s for large scale memory paintings of life in urban renewal projects in the mid-sixties. He has since gone on to produce a variety of works, most referencing black popular culture.

If you spend time in museums–especially comprehensive ones like the first- and second-tier institutions in large American cities that made their fortunes early enough to gobble up the best available European art at good rates–it is possible to develop relationships with a wide range of individual works of art. I visit specific paintings and artifacts in a variety of museums in the East and Midwest whenever I can. For example, I always visit John Singer Sargent’s Wyndham Sisters (1899; above) in the American Wing at the Metropolitan. In Cleveland, I always go to see Bellows’ Stag at Sharkey’s. In St. Louis, I visit the roomful of Max Beckmanns, the late Gustons (on the extremely rare occasions when they’re up), a set of Olmec reliefs, and a Kerry James Marshall painting that I really admire titled Watts 1963. Among others.

The Marshall painting (below) hangs in the upper galleries of the St. Louis museum, which feature modern and contemporary art. (Alas, the Marshall must spend the business hours of every day within aural range of a Bruce Nauman video. Grating.) As a question of ambition and pure visual presence, the painting overwhelms its neighbors, which have included a Brice Marden, a work I also admire (above). Marshall’s in-the-projects paintings articulate spaces both physical and cultural. The unstretched grommetted canvases, which recall sideshow signage, offer hope and reach but foretell threats, too. Space precludes a full discussion, but these are really serious works of art, open-hearted yet cunning and rueful. I gain nourishment from the Watts painting (set in Nickerson Gardens) painting every time I’m with it. I love this thing.
So that is the context in which I read David Apatoff’s opening salvo:
Artist Kerry James Marshall is a certified genius. The MacArthur Foundation confirmed it when they awarded him their $500,000 genius award. But don't take the MacArthur Foundation's word for it. His work was also awarded places of honor in the Whitney Museum biennial, Venice Biennale, and the prestigious German Documenta show. Marshall's paintings sell for $400,000 to prominent museums and collectors. People of great stature and prominence who pride themselves on their taste have bestowed upon Marshall almost every form of recognition that our society offers.

Apatoff then presents a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, (reproduced in part below) offered ironically.

Country of hunchbacks! —
where the strong, straight spine,

Jeered at by crooked children, makes his way

Through by-streets at the kindest hour of the day,
Till he deplore his stature, and incline
To measure manhood with a gibbous line;

Till out of loneliness, being flawed with clay,

He stoop into his neighbor's house and say,

"Your roof is low for me — the fault is mine."


Up to this point, David has presented no argument. He has reproduced images by Marshall without providing bibliographical context, or even titles. (Most are panels from Rythm Mastr, a 1999 comic book project that involves an African pantheon and a futurist science fiction adventure. Interview transcript here. I saw some of this material in an exhibition at the Contemporary in Chicago some years back. I found it less compelling than the large scale paintings.) Apatoff's strategy (I gather) is to show some artwork with an ironically celebretory text, calculated to mock, without bothering to present a case for his implied naked-emperor conclusion. The approach can only be called methodologically smug yet logically weak.

Several steps down in the comment thread (which features some real doozies) David finally gets around to stating the reasons behind his apparent contempt for Mr. Marshall's work:

I also believe that Marshall does not draw or paint well, that his compositions are mediocre and that his themes, while occasionally clever, are rarely profound.

On what basis does he make this judgment? By looking at some jpegs? He does not tell us. We do not know whether he has engaged any such works (drawings? paintings?) in person. We're not really given a sense of what it might mean from Mr. Apatoff's perspective to draw or paint "well". Rather, we are offered an unsupported, flip opinion. And what about the objection that Marshall is “rarely profound”? In which specific case has Marshall’s work achieved profundity, and how? How often, say, was Matisse "profound"? Twenty percent of the time? Sixty-five? What might be an acceptable figure for a profundity average? And mediocre compositions? Really?

This is cheap writing; it demeans its author.

If we assume that an objectively substantial career is up for discussion, it seems appropriate to do some basic description first, followed by a balanced assessment. The work covers these years, these media, this or that major project, looks like such and such, and is held to be this or that by so and so. That’s what critics do. They describe, as reliably and as dispassionately as possible. They sketch a landscape of work and thought. Then they interpret and assess. On the most basic level, a trustworthy critic approaches an art experience as openly as possible, so as to be fresh in the face of what will be, by definition, a singular experience. If they cannot be surprised, they're ill-equipped to represent us well, which is their job. Critics look or watch or read for us, as temporary stand-ins. (David's comment linked to a post in which he decried the lack of judgment in contemporary art criticism. I agree that good criticism must adjudicate, but like any good legal opinion, it ought to be based on facts and case law, not rhetoric.)

By contrast, in this case we seem to have been treated to a pre-processed conclusion, like those offered by TV pundits with known positions. It’s boring and repetitive, unless you tune in purely for the thrill of self-confirmation. He continues:

I think his work is of the quality of a mid-tier comic book artist-- both in form and content. Yet, the arbiters of taste have proclaimed him a "genius" whose pictures are worth $400,000 apiece, while comic artists everywhere try to eke out a living.

There it is, the glowing ore of resentment, exposed by the elements. The “arbiters” have “proclaimed” Marshall a “genius.” They’ve diluted our standards! They’ve sullied our traditions! (Edna adds: They’re pullling us down, too!)

They spit on our values!

The next sentence makes the point plain:

I would have less of a grievance if comic artists weren't treated with such disdain by the same audience.

Begrudged success as a "grievance." Hmm. And as for disdain: there’s plenty of disdain here, all issuing from the writer. The imagined disdain to which David refers-–that, apparently, of gallery-goers, curators, various arty types--hasn't been established. In fact there is no such disdain. There is disinterest. People follow what they follow, and comic books appeal to a pretty narrow demographic. Truly, those folks looking at Kerry James Marshall, including those sitting on review panels and granting agencies, are thinking about other things altogether. If Kerry James Marshall wants to do a comic book, fine, it’s an art project. Beyond that? These folks do not care. And that, finally, is what’s painful to the constituency David purports to represent. Disdain takes effort. That would be flattering, in a way: they fear us enough to hate us! But disinterest? That's just a sensible response to boredom. Nothing happening here. . .

How do you file a grievance against invisibility? You don’t, because it hasn’t occurred to anybody to set up that office in the first place. And so maybe you fill that void with a fantasy of opposition, with dreams of disdain. Here we find the exhausted, smoldering Silent Majority, muttering about the erosion of standards and–to judge from a few of Illustration Art’s commenters–lingering anxiety about minority encroachments, too. Give it up. The art museums and the curators and the alternative spaces and the critical studies people are simply engaged in another cultural activity. Perhaps there could be meaningful overlap, but any such exchanges will require persons of goodwill and curiosity. Opinion merchants won't help much. It saddens me to recognize, not for the first time, that the paranoid style of American politics extends into a fraction of the illustration community. The evidence is there in black and white, in the comment thread to David Apatoff’s smug mockery of Kerry James Marshall. Curious, that such a bitter response to invisibility should be directed at an artist who is himself working through a legacy of invisibility in African-American history:

The condition of invisibility that Ralph Ellison describes [in 'Invisible Man'] is not a kind of transparency, but it's a psychological invisibility. It's where the presence of black people was often not wanted and denied in the American mindset. And so what I set out to do was to develop a figure or a form that would represent that condition of invisibility, where you had an incredible presence, but there was a way in which you could sometimes be seen and not seen at the same time. –Kerry James Marshall, on the painting Our Town, shown above.

Next: I’m going back to visit the Watts painting tomorrow, just to reboot.

In a day or two, Illustration and Resentment 3. And then I'll be quiet.

Images: Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994 [note the art historical reference to Expulsion from the Garden scenes in the placement and orientation of the figures]; John Singer Sargent, The Wyndam Sisters, 1899; Marshall, Watts 1963, 1995; Brice Marden, Uxmal, 1991-93; Marshall, Our Town, 1995.


David Apatoff said...

Thanks, DB. I welcome this exchange.

I know a little more about legal briefs than I know about art, so let me start by responding to that point. The first step in writing a legal brief is to establish what set of rules applies to the situation. You can’t claim that a law has been violated until you first establish that it applies. In this case, I reject the standard that you seek to apply to my post. In fact, I’m surprised that an advocate for open mindedness would try to impose such a singular standard for reacting to art.

You prescribe “basic description first, followed by a balanced assessment. The work covers these years, these media, this or that major project, looks like such and such, and is held to be this or that by so and so. That’s what critics do.“ Well, that’s what some critics do, although many of the greats such as Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg often chose a different path. Robert Weaver’s criticism of Joe Bowler and Coby Whitmore didn’t follow your prescription either, although I still found it interesting as the opinion of a committed artist. As far as I am concerned, there is a wide variety of interesting and illuminating reactions to art and they are free to succeed or fail on their own terms. I’m not sure what to say about your emphasis on “logic” except that reacting to art can be as much an art as an artist reacting to a still life.

I recognize that the descriptive approach you describe is not only fair but currently highly fashionable.
A recent survey of 230 art critics by Columbia University found that passing judgment on art was at the bottom of their list of priorities, while "providing an accurate descriptive account" was at the top. This reluctance to take a stand on quality caused James Elkins, chair of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago, to conclude that art criticism is in a "worldwide crisis" because "contemporary art criticism is entranced by the possibility of avoiding judgment."

I agree with you that in the right forum (such as an art monograph or a full article) it would be helpful to conduct a full survey, provide “bibliographic context” for every image and disclose whether I had seen it in person. But such an approach is rarely used in blogs, which are a very different medium. A sonnet has its own rules, and should not be confused with a novel.

Looking back at my Marshall post, it achieves everything I intended: it accurately summarizes Marshall’s status in the the fine art world (citing awards from 4 prestigious organizations, quoting his art dealer and a respected art critic, and listing the price of his work. If you need more detail than that, look it up.) It then accurately quotes Marshall comparing himself to Michelangelo (which makes him fair game as ar as I’m concerned). It accurately shows 5 examples of his work (which is quite enough to establish conclusively he is no Michelangelo, regardless of their titles or vintage). Then instead of a labored analysis or explanation I simply contrast these indisputable facts about Marshall with a sonnet from Edna St. Vincent Millay. (This is consistent with my previous posts about how it is important to leave thing unsaid and let the reader do the work.) If anyone thought that Marshall really belonged in the same annals as Michelangelo, people would’ve scatched their heads and say, “I don’t get it.” (To the extent that this approach works, the viewer does not need to be persuaded by my long, detailed objective analysis because they already get it.)

I don’t accept accountability for every comment that comes in over the internet, but as for my own writings, I think you have a way to go before you uncover that “glowing ore of resentment.” I’m still waiting to find out how you can be so certain I am motivated by resentment rather than a purer form of dislike. Or in the alternative, if you agree to broaden your definition of “resentment” to include the purely altruistic defense of quality, I will happily plead guilty.

DB Dowd said...

David, I appreciate your reply.

Your rebuttal makes plain that you do not think your post on Marshall is objectionable. If that is so, I think we're mostly done. I think that post is about playing to the crowd. The in-house studio audience understands the schtick, and gobbles it up. I recognize that role, and, in cases like these, it's clear that's the one you want to play.

I am after something else. I'm trying to bring reflective rigor to the subject of commercial images. I'm not a partisan. I'm curious. I want to learn new things.

You do not accept that your writing betrays resentment. I think your interpretation of the charge is conveniently narrow. I do not mean that you personally stay up nights burning with envy that Kerry James Marshall has gotten a MacArthur grant. Rather, I mean that your writing (in passages like the ones I highlighted) is calculated to poke at the resentments of the silent majority, a term I use advisedly. These are the same buttons that national Republicans were pushing as recently as the last election, by trying to play "real" Americans against "elites." I'm not diagnosing your politics, which are of no concern to me, but I am noting that your rhetorical techniques bear a strong resemblance to the cultural critique offered by the right in this country. The resentment is thematic, and symbolically aggrieved.

I am sincere when I laud you as a resource. You know a lot, and you bring valuable work to light on your blog. But when you pander to a besieged profession, you undermine all that good work.

David Apatoff said...

DB, you say you are "open minded" and "curious" and "want to learn new things." Yet, in your first two sentences you tell me that unless I agree with you that my own position is objectionable, our discussion can't go forward.

You also say your approach brings "rigor" to the analysis of art, yet your approach is to cast aspersions on what you assume must be the motives underlying my positions, rather than the merits of the art (apparently I could not be taking such positions unless I was playing to some "in-house studio audience.")

You disapprove of my immoderate "rhetorical techniques," then accuse my views of being cheap, boring, repetitive, paranoid, smug, bitter, conveniently narrow schtick; you say I have demeaned myself and I can't see past my own opinions; that I am a mere opinion merchant who caters to an exhausted smoldering silent majority (apparently, one that "mutters" so I guess they're not too silent). And to top it all off, you liken me to the Rush Limbaugh types.

Whew. That's a mighty tough way to learn that my language is immoderate. You'd better hope you're right about that Old Testament prophet business.

You are welcome to question whether my views on art are wrong or right-- for example, whether the fine art community has disdain for commercial and comic art, or whether Kerry Marshall's work is profound 20% of the time or 60% of the time-- but you are fighting a losing battle if your strategy is to question my intentions in writing my blog. You claim I "purport to represent" some faction, but to the contrary I assure you I represent no one. I fly solo, and what I do is the exact opposite of "pandering" or "playing to the crowd." When people professionally connected to the arts take positions on art, they often have to hold their tongue for a variety of reasons unrelated to the quality of the object: professional collegiality or rivalry, ambition or diplomacy, etc. But the joy of my blog is that I have no such constraints or vested interests. I am not trying to get tenure or get rich or win an illustration assignment or make a name for myself. I can speak the undiluted, unvarnished truth as I see it. Who else do you know who writes in this field and has that luxury?

Camus said that "liberty is the right not to lie." I guard that right jealously. If it weren't for Camus' liberty, I would have not have bothered to write a single post.

In an effort to practice what I preach, let me turn at the end to a point on the merits of the art where I may be able to narrow the gap. You patiently comb through the work of Panter and Marshall looking for things of quality. You say you don't like everything, but you identify some features that you really like. For example, with Panter you like his "strategic use of transparency and overprinting." You and I would probably agree on the merits of many of those features. Where I get off the trolley is that I don't think those features are enough to merit a massive two volume deluxe art book that commands the attention of Time Magazine and the New York Times. I don't think they make Panter "the most influential graphic artist of his generation" just as I don't think Marshall's good points make him comparable to Michelangelo. And anyone who goes around saying such silly things in a free society runs the risk that someone will contradict them.

DB Dowd said...

David: of course you can write anything you very well please; I do not begrudge you the right to your opinion. You can also devote as much energy to tearing down anybody you wish, on whichever terms you like. Liberty is fabulous that way.

To review: your posts on Panter and Marshall mock and denounce. The terms of the mockery are very plain, and you bring relish to the work. If I have misread you, please correct me.

Nasty critics who swim upstream can be great reading. Ultimately, the issue is not whether you are right or wrong about this or that artist--it's whether you are worth reading. So far, when you move into this territory, you aren't. Your complaints are standard ones, and like it or not they're in alignment with those of the right. If you don't want to be associated with those who make such arguments, make different ones.

David Apatoff said...

DB, if my complaints are standard ones, please steer me to anyone who has made such remarks about Panter or Marshall. They may be out there, but all I seem to come across is the glowing praise (or self-praise) I quoted.

You are right that some of my remarks contain mockery, but you will never, ever see me mock someone for being a mediocre artist. The problem starts when a mediocre artist posts on his web site that he is "the most influential graphic artist of his generation" or tells the press that he is comparable to "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael." Then that artist deserves to be mocked, and I am pleased to perform an important social function in doing so. I think there is a bright line between mocking a lack of artistic ability on the one hand and mocking vanity, hubris and the bad judgment of institutions such as the MacArthur Foundation on the other hand. I try to observe this line fairly consistently.

For example, when Chris Ware says that he doesn't draw very well, I give him a great deal of credit for his self-awareness, and I reserve any "mockery" not for Ware but for fawning critics who write things like, "Ware is capable of creating beauty anywhere and always. Ware's work, in this way, is also quite like Bach's." Even in an era of false praise, people ought to be a little more cautious about saying foolish things in public.

Does this make me a "nasty" person, as you suggest? I don't think so. I view my role as that of a 100% sincere, independent observer of the art scene who is sweet natured but not afraid to comment on folly or injustice when he comes across it. I belong to no tribe or clique and I have no preconceived notions of where that folly or injustice might be. I hope you will compare the list of adjectives you used to criticize me with the adjectives I used to criticize Panter or Marshall, and then ask yourself whether your label for me is fair.

mahendra singh said...

I like your open & rational (and cool-headed) exposé of what you call the culture of resentment in illustration work today.

One very important point: such resentment, both justified & not, has been around since probably Lascaux. At times, it's been draughtsmanship vs. color (late renaissance Italy), ancients vs. moderns (baroque France), etc.

Our modern twist on the subject is the rather depressing rift twixt fine art & commercial art, a rift which is somewhat defined by the deliberate display (or not) of drawing skills & general craftsmanship.

My illo teacher, many years ago, counseled us young 'uns that we will never, ever come up with anything genuinely new, that it's all been done before. The older I get, the more I understand her honesty.

For what it's worth, I deplore the technical skills of many of my contemporaries but I also know that the wheel of fashion will inevitable turn again … and again!

Please continue your blog's current direction, it's refreshingly straight ahead!

Dan Z. said...

I think Marshall's actual quote...

"Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. . . . They represent the core of the historical pantheon of great artists, recognized worldwide. And a big part of my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists." ... is pretty different from what you've twisted it into, David.

I love these Marshall paintings too. I'm gonna go look at that Watts one today myself.

David Apatoff said...

Actually, Dan, I disagree with you. If Marshall was a young artist aspiring to be good enough to be listed among the greats, I would admire his quote. However, that's not what he was saying. He was a mature, 55 year old artist complaining that the existing work of African American artists (including his own) had been wrongfully excluded from the pantheon of great artists for racial reasons. If you had included more quotes from his interview, we would have learned that Marshall always saw himself "as being one of those guys"[the old masters] and believes he has "proved his ownership of the very grandest European tradition;" further, we would read that Marshall chose to experiment only after his alleged "mastery of the tradition" of the greats.

This is the kind of hubris that I've said makes an artist fair game for criticism. Marshall's implication is that his work would have been included if art history was not written by white males. (Perhaps DB will consider featuring this grievance in his history of artistic resentment.) I agree with Marshall that much of art history has been written from a skewed position. Many of my blog posts are devoted to that same theme. But I think if you compare a 55 year old Marshall with a 55 year old Leonardo, they don't belong on the same bookshelf, let alone in the same book. I recognize that people may differ.

Dan, I have not suggested that you deliberately "twisted" Marshall's meaning by omitting these key passages. Instead, I believe that you either missed them or assigned them a different priority than I do. So I'm not sure why you would presume that I attempted to "twist" Marshall's meaning by leaving out a phrase. I did include that phrase ("my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists") on my blog when I quoted Marshall. With repetition and the passage of time, I shortened the quote in these comments for space and convenience. (I also left out the other confirming quotes above.)

You and DB may think I am judgmental but I don't recall ever assuming bad faith or a hidden agenda on the part of the artists that I critique, nor do I recall calling them names like "cheap," "paranoid" and "bitter." It would pain me if my critics lost their reputation for being "open & rational (and cool-headed)" over something as unimportant as my posts.

Dan Z. said...

Thanks for the reply, David. I by no means wanted to imply bad faith or hidden agendas on your part. I shouldn't have use the word "twisting" in regards to your repeated use of Marshall's quote. Sorry.

But I still get a totally different impression of what's he talking about throughout those interviews. I never get the sense that he's comparing his drawing skills or compositions or "chops" to those of Da Vinci or anyone else. When he says he always saw himself "as being one of those guys" he's talking about being excited about finding an book of old masters in the library in the 4th grade and feeling kinship. And when he says he "proved his ownership of the very grandest European tradition" I understand that he's talking about a deep respect for a system and tradition he admires and wants to be a part of.

I'm willing to accept that you and I can read that interview and interpret it differently. I happen to think his paintings are rich and complex and beautiful and am probably prejudiced to be more lenient of his PR.

Honestly I'm sick of talking about words and would rather talk about illustration! I'm gonna go get a closer look at those neat maps you posted recently.

DB Dowd said...

Thanks all for the latest round of comments. Mahendra, I appreciate the vote of confidence. Dan, I had considered making the same observation concerning the Marshall quote.

And David: we part company on a fundamental level very early in the game. Specifically, when you are in your hubris-patrol mode (which as a fraction of your total word count is relatively rare), your writing is designed to bring low the mighty. You pronounced yourself satisfied with your Marshall post. Fair enough. I assure you that I would be critical of that piece regardless of who wrote it. And I stand by my assessment of it.

I have raised children and taught many students; I am always mindful of the difference of assessing the work, not the person. My criticism is reserved for your writing, not your person. If I have muddied that distinction, I regret doing so.

I posted the (lengthy) last chapter this morning. I'll await your respective PsOV as time permits.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Dan-- I really appreciate knowing that, though we may have different aesthetic reactions, we approach this stuff with the same good faith assumptions. From our past dealings (as well as from the tone and character of your excellent publication) I was certain that was the case. Most importantly, I agree with you 100% about getting back to the pictures, which is after all the reason for all this!

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