November 28th, 2011

Dream of Bingo

Craftsmanship

I spent yesterday afternoon tromping about the Denver Art Museum with Bats & Sarah. (Jerry sadly had to stay home with oogy tummy.)

It was fun -- Bats has posted a good picture of him and me playing with wonky perspective on one of the landings in the Liebeskind extension. (And since it's always a topic when one goes there, my opinion on the building is: you really have to see it in person to appreciate it properly, and I think it's great as sculpture but really lousy as architecture. Art museums really need a lot of vertical walls against which you can display art, and a building that is distinctly lacking in these fails at its primary function and is therefore bad design, no matter how nifty its interior spaces are or are not.)

One really nice outcome of the trip (aside from a lovely afternoon with friends) is that I can finally articulate what leaves me cold about a great deal of modern art: good art requires a high degree of craftsmanship. And in a lot of modern work, the craftsmanship isn't visible to the lay audience. I'm not saying it's not there; there was a ceramic piece that I thought was kind of dumb until we watched a little YouTube video on Sarah's iPhone that explained the intentionality of the design and pointed out aspects of it that were actually quite difficult to produce, and it gave me a much greater appreciation of the piece.

But there were also a bunch of works by Robert Motherwell on display, and one of my problems with abstract expressionism is that, no matter how much we talk about trying to "paint feelings", a huge canvas painted two shades of ocher with a black rectangular outline on it just doesn't convey any sense of craftsmanship to me. I feel like you could hand anybody the same materials and a directive to produce something extremely simple, non-figurative, and non-representational, and that in less than an hour they could produce something equivalent. Now, maybe that's not true, and it is actually a lot harder than it looks, but if that's so, then you need a background in painting to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into looking like it has no craftsmanship, which makes it a work with a very limited audience.

Likewise, there was a flurry of ceramic pieces by Betty Woodman that I think would be much more interesting if they were unglazed. To my untutored, non-artist eye, it really looks like somebody just haphazardly slapped a bunch of glaze on them at random right before firing; it looks sloppy and amateur and ugly. And it pulls your attention completely away from the shape of the clay itself, which is actually quite interesting and has a lot of craftsmanship going into it.

The most impressive ceramic pieces were the ones that looked like an old leather satchel and a pair of old leather boots. Now, a pair of boots and a satchel are really not very interesting, but knowing that they were actually clay made them amazing, because the amount of craftsmanship required was huge and obvious and thoroughly awe-inspiring.

So I'm pleased to finally be able to have the words to say: there are works I don't appreciate not because I don't like them (since de gustibus and all that), but because I don't see any craftsmanship.