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The Armchair Critic

Well Done and Other Lies We Tell Our Artist Friends


In his column, Thato Rossouw argues that shoddy workmanship in the arts must be called out

There is a popular quote echoing through the ghostly corridors of Art History Departments in universities across the world, once said by a man called Ernst Gombrich, which reads: “There’s no such thing as art, there’s only artists.”

I know it sounds deep, but it’s not. What it means is that, for a person to define something as art, they first have to be certain that what they are defining as art was produced by an artist.

Now, following that (dare I say) brilliant rhetoric, I’ve always wondered which noun I need to use when describing the producers of the nonsense masquerading as art proudly exhibited in the galleries and art museums around the world.

I don’t know, but what I do know is that whoever is friends with them, whoever is busy cheering them on and congratulating them for producing what is, on all levels imaginable, crap, needs to pull themselves towards themselves and reevaluate themselves.

Look, it’s one thing to produce crappy art, but when it comes to applauding and essentially condoning the production of nonsense by someone you hold dear to you, validating their display of the emptiness of the organ squeezed between their ears for the rest of the world to see, there is a special seat in the golden circle of hell’s welcoming concert waiting for you to plant your ignorant ass on, and I’m willing to sell you the ticket on discount only if you bring your friend along.

Before going any further with this, though, I believe it’s important that I make it clear that I’m friends with a lot of artists—well, a lot of the people I hang around with who call themselves artists deserve to do so, and the rest are just a bunch of asymptotic wannabes whose chances of reaching the axis upon which all producers of good art reside are as slim as the chances of white people in South Africa giving back the land sans resistance. But, that’s another topic for an entirely different essay, so let us not derail from our trail of thought.

Within the small group of friends that I believe, based on a personal rubric devoid of any professionally crafted standards, deserve to call themselves artists, the artistry of choice is both vast and impressive.

My life is always bombarded with newly created things. From new books to new poems, new dresses, new beads, and even weird paintings of unfathomable human figurines that only the creators know; these people always have something new to show and we, as the circle of trusted friends, are always expected to pass judgement.

As it sometimes is in situation where creativity reigns, some of these new creations tend to be more skewed towards the crap side of the crap-or-art spectrum than they are towards the art side.

Creativity, by its nature, is a trial and error activity. As a result, no artist is ever objective enough to know when that which they have created is more crappy than it is art, and that’s just the way it is. The job of the artist is to produce art, and produce art they need to, but it is the job of the fidus Achates, the friends upon whom the artists rely for support, to call crap crap, and not the ish, because there is a difference.

But this then opens a door leading to a question more contested than whether or not President Zuma gives any fucks about this country: who gets to decide who an artist is and, as a consequence, what art is. This, of course, is a mind fornication of a question for anyone to try to answer, and any attempt to do so is, in many ways, a call to self-mutilation.

Firstly, and this is if one follows Ernst Gombritch’s brilliant rhetoric, art is only art if it is produced by an artist. Which is to say, before there is art, there needs to be an artist. But then again, what constitutes an artist? Isn’t an artist a person who produces art, and is therefore defined by having produced it?

Which then brings us to ask the President Zuma-esque question: what comes first? Is it the artist or the art? And, of that which comes first, who gets to decide whether it’s of a true nature or not; whether it is a true representation of its name and not just another crappy imitation?

But like I said, this is a fornication-esque of a question for anyone to wrap their head around, and any attempt to answer it is a voluntary act of placing oneself upon the sacrificial altar of the arts, and declaring themselves ready for crucifixion.

But still, this leaves the questions that are fundamental to this intellectual toil unanswered: what is art, who is an artist, and who can validate the two? Can a person who functions outside the academy of the arts, a friend whose only contact to the arts is through a friend, whom they’ve always known to be an artist, firmly call their friend to order for having produced what douchebags such as me would call rubbish?

These are questions that one needs to take into consideration before laying the burden of the shit-shaming of art on the shoulders of people who wouldn’t know the difference between art that is shit and that which is the shit.

A very popular statement in the highbrow circles of the global art cannon that I’m inclined to agreeing with is that the process of experiencing art is an extremely subjective one; that a certain art piece could mean as many things as there are people experiencing it.

Without a doubt, I would be mistaken to believe that there was a universal process for experiencing art, and that the process of judging the quality of art is one that is not, essentially, one based on personal preferences. But this does not mean that there can never be any universal standards against which all art can be judged.

Good quality, I believe, is a universal concept. I believe that it is a concept that anyone has the ability to identify. Even if someone functions outside of the art cannon, they still have the ability to tell whether something is art.

My conviction that people who are close to those who produce art have a duty to inform them if they have produced art that is lacking in good quality is, therefore, premised on this belief. If someone finds something to be crappy, I believe it is their duty to call it out, even if by doing so they run the risk of hurting those close to them.

This judgment of good quality, of course, needs to go beyond the aesthetics. Art is meant to be more than just beautiful, and should never be judged primarily on its ability to be so—plus, beauty, as the popular saying goes, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

So, without being overly technical about it, a judgement of the quality of an art piece should never be made because of how aesthetically pleasing it is. It should, rather, include an understanding of all the aspects that make up that art piece.

These aspects tend to vary according to the art form in question, but are all easily identifiable and accessible to anyone, even to those who are not formally trained in the arts. Anyone who has read enough books and seen enough paintings will be able to do so without getting all technical and academic about it, and in the end be able to tell the good from the bad.

For instance, the quality of literature can be judged based on a combination of a number of aspects: the storyline, characterization (mostly in fiction work, but it can also be done in non-fiction), writing style, technique, and a number of other things; while the quality of paintings can be judged based on the artist’s technique, style, and use of colour, to name a few.

Through these and many other things I didn’t mention, I believe that people can start being good friends to their artist comrades, and tell them when they’ve produced crap. I know, it’s a difficult job this thing – you know, not anyone can attach the label “crap” to someone’s  creation – but, if the people doing the crap shaming are not your friends, then who should they be? I mean, someone has to do it, right?

Thato Rossouw is ART STATE’s Senior Writer. He tweets as @Thato_Rossouw

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