Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 1

Not long ago, my studio-mate and I had a crit group over to talk about out current paintings. There were, including my studio-mate and myself, six painters, plus one photographer who started as a painter, one sculptor, and one civilian. At one point in my space, I was asked about the things I count as important while working. I rattled off a laundry list which included space, scale, part-to-whole relationships, color, and so on. One of the painters commented that these sounded like student concerns, and another pointed out that I seemed to be preoccupied with making good painting. I confessed that I did in fact want to make good painting, and the latter artist suggested that it might be better if I try to make bad painting. The topic resurfaced several times in both mine and my studio-mate's spaces.

And I've found this to be the case for as long as I can remember: there is a reflexive mistrust for painting to which any of the following can be be applied: beautiful, elegant, resolved, professional, good. It's a reflex that I often feel myself. The natural assumption is pictures possessing of these qualities must be facile, superficial, decorative, academic. And this is so deeply ingrained that suggesting a painter should intentionally make a bad painting doesn't seem unusual in the least. The painters who were in my studio are all artists for whom I hold a great deal of respect, and interestingly, most make works that are brought to a high level of finish. Yet, at least rhetorically, virtually all agreed that good painting was suspect.

So how is it that the label of good painting came to be viewed as a near-universal pejorative, even by painters themselves? It would be easy to pin this entirely on the major critiques of Modernism in the '60's and '70's: the postmodernist/feminist critique, which viewed quality as an arbitrary criteria enforced by the current power group, or Minimalism, that sought to undermine the concept of connoisseurship and and the importance of aesthetic decisions with a one-thing-after-another approach, or Pop, which adopted a smirking, mocking attitude toward the previous generation's attempts at sublimity. But for all his talk of taste and quality, one can find the origins of this attitude in Greenberg himself. Writing about Pollock in 1945, the critic said: "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first."

An obvious artistic response to the negative reactions associated with good painting is a simple one: make art that lots of people don't like, and/or art that is self-consciously ugly. No artist wants to be viewed as an entertainer or an academic, so there is a strong pull toward this seemingly counter-intuitive solution. Most would agree that making a challenging picture is more important than making one that's seductive. A surprising number also agree that these two attributes are mutually exclusive.

A Google search of the term "bad painting" results in a startling number of hits, suggesting that it's considered a style or school of painting. It begs several interesting and somewhat comical questions: What is the criteria of judgement? Should one seek out the most bad, or the least bad works? What are worst attributes of a given bad painting? Are these the best attributes (and vice-versa)? And perhaps most importantly: If a large majority people come to embrace bad painting, does it become good painting? Would the criteria of bad and good simply reverse via consensus?

These questions, along with the major critiques of painting and the explicit or implicit correctives they proposed, are among the things I intend to explore in subsequent installments of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." As always, feedback and suggestions are welcome.