The case against wall fodder
by Alec Clayton

The critic Clement Greenberg was famous for visiting artists' studios, looking at works in progress and pronouncing, "That's a painting" or "That's not a painting" -- not this is a good painting, or even this painting has promise but needs a little work, but simply it is or is not a painting. OK, he was not always that cold. Often he would make specific suggestions, and these suggestions were much appreciated by at least some of the artists. But his reputation was based on his more autocratic statements, thus the nickname "Pope Clement."[1]

As a self-critical painter, I feel almost compelled to make equally harsh judgments, or at the very least to constantly question what is or is not art. (My wife jokingly calls me an art snob.) To compromise, qualify or equivocate would be to settle for mediocrity. But as a critic whose job it is to pass judgment on the work of others, I can't bring myself to be that harsh. I know how much work it takes for an artist to put together a show, and I am well aware of what courage it takes to put the work out there for the public to gawk at. I don't want to belittle or insult the artist with my critical commentary. I want to be encouraging rather than discouraging. So my tendency is to try to find something good to say, even when I do not particularly like the work, but I shudder at the prospect that my words could promote acceptance of mediocrity. There is far too much work out there in the world that is trite, banal and uninspired, and I do not want to be responsible for promoting more of the same.

That same tiny voice that whispers in my ear telling me to find good things to say also tells me there's really nothing wrong with a pretty picture of flowers in a vase, even if it's been done a thousand times before and even if this particular picture adds nothing to the experience of art. At least, that voice whispers, it would look nice over someone's couch. The colors are pleasing, and you have to give the artist credit for being able to blend brush stokes so smoothly. But another voice tells me that this picture is the visual equivalent of a sappy romance novel. It asks me how I could possibly live with myself if I encouraged people to go see -- and heaven help us -- even buy such tripe. This voice tells me that dignifying such work as art belittles the lifelong struggles of the people who create real art.

Real art offers a maximum of variety and excitement within a unified whole. It evokes a deep emotional response. It questions, challenges, provokes and often upsets. It looks at the world in new or unique ways and often forces the viewer to re-evaluate previously held beliefs. It is seldom safe or easy, and although it may be beautiful in a profound way, it is hardly ever pretty. Everything else -- the vast majority of so-called art that I like to call wall fodder -- falls short of being real art. Wall fodder may be pretty, decorative, cute or enjoyable, but it is not art.[2]

The specific qualities that differentiate art from wall fodder are so numerous and varied that the subject has been touched upon in hundreds of books and hashed out in thousands of seminars and discussion groups. It would be terribly presumptuous of me to say what is and what is not art, but by posing the question I can at least hope to stimulate people to develop the critical discernment necessary for a more fully aware appreciation of art.[3]

And I can suggest that the most important tool in developing that level of discernment is simply to look. Look often and look long.

If you stand in a gallery and watch the other patrons, you will notice that most of them will spend about five seconds with each work of art. But every once in a while you'll notice someone spending long minutes with each painting. You'll notice that he backs away to look at it from a distance, and then moves in extremely close to examine it almost as if with a magnifying glass. He will wander around looking at other works, but then return over and over again to the same one or two works. That person is really looking. Chances are that person is another artist. He might even be me.

In the caldron

What you have just read is the text of a talk I gave at a discussion group. After I reached my cute little end statement: "He might even be me," I was met with dead stares from the group. Perhaps I had misjudged my audience.

I attempted to encourage them to comment or ask questions. The first question came from a woman who wanted to know if Tiffany was an artist or a craftsman. My first thought was: Tiffany? Isn't she a rock singer? Oh no, I think she means the guy who made all those glass lampshades. "A crafts person," I answered, and tried -- rather unsuccessfully, I fear -- to explain my reasoning.
Then there was a fellow who said, "I consider myself an artist. I tie flies."

I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking: You may fool the fish, buddy, but you don't fool me.

One lady told me she had seen some Picasso paintings once, and they were all full of ugly angles. And the Tiffany lady said, "Surely you don't think Andy Warhol is an artist." I politely informed her that I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole (especially not with that group), and then I exited -- as gracefully as possible -- thinking: These are the folks for whom wall fodder was invented.

Ah, but that's so smug of me. It's taking the easy way out. If art matters, and it does matter very much, then those of us who write about art should feel compelled to make it as clear as possible. And I do feel so compelled. That's why I'm writing these words. What I would love to do is say in clear and simple words: There is a lot of junk out there that masquerades as art, and if you cannot see the difference between wall fodder and real art you are missing out on something that will greatly enhance your experience of life. Following that, I would like to be able to say: This is the way you tell the difference. I would like to be able to list the necessary ingredients that make good art good. If there were such a recipe, we could all go into galleries with checklist in hand and check off a dash of balance and a measure of contrast and three parts texture ¾ and then know whether or not we are looking at good art. Of course, there is no such recipe, and if there were, the first item on the list would probably be: Art does not adhere to recipes.

The best I can do is suggest some things to look for. Please understand that these are merely guiding principles, and that for each principle there are countless exceptions.

The technique trap

I know what it takes to paint an apple that looks so succulent you want to bite right into the canvas or to paint a figure that looks like a sharp-focus photograph. My mother was able to capture the look and feel of an orange on a table or a river at sunset with a kind of impressionistic truthfulness that was amazing, and she did it after only a few lessons and a year or so painting. I tried to develop an equal facility through six years of college and countless years drawing and painting, and in some ways I was never able to match her skill. Some people must be born with it, and if they're not, it must take Herculean efforts to develop it. So, I can definitely admire technical skill in the visual arts. But I also know that technical facility can hide shortcomings such as an utter lack of idea, conviction or passion. And I'm convinced that when viewers are seduced by amazing technique, they may not see past the flash and polish to discover that there is really nothing there.

I've developed a kind of radar that warns me away from slick art. If the surface is highly polished and the frame looks more elaborate than the painting, my first reaction is to back off and start questioning: What's really here? Is the obvious technical skill a means to an end or is it an end in itself? If there is narrative content, does it ask probing questions or stimulate thought, or if it is purely decorative is it unique and interesting? Are there stimulating contrasts of visual elements and does everything seem to fit together?

No matter what the subject or "message" of a painting, a painting is nothing more or less than an arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. These shapes can look like imaginary or real objects in the world, or they can be shapes that have no relationship to anything outside of the work. How well these objects are painted certainly matters, but what matters more is why they are there and how they are arranged in relation to one another. If they depict something real or imagined, they should tell a meaningful story or trigger an emotional response, and if they do not refer to anything beyond the canvas, they should at the very least be interesting shapes or colors that fit together in some kind of visual design. Virtuosity is not art. Beware the slick surface that covers a vacuous heart.

Variety within unity

Variety within unity is pretty much a necessity in any art, whether it be painting or literature or music. Literature provides variety through various characters, each with his or her personal idiosyncrasies, through a variety of sentence structures, and by introducing the inevitable conflict or contrast. And it provides unity through the author's voice, through the logical arrangement of chapters, through consistency of character (hopefully with a surprise or two thrown in), and through such devices as repeating similar images or metaphors. Music provides variety by changing accents and volumes and by the use of a multitude of sounds, and it unifies through harmony and rhythm.

The visual arts, of course, do all of the same things. Variety in the visual arts comes through contrasts of shapes and colors, and through an infinite diversity in the quality and types of lines and other marks. And there are countless ways to unify these various visual elements. Cézanne, for instance, used the same choppy brushstroke throughout his pictures, and he would always have an arm or a tree or some other object parallel to the edge of the canvas, which emphasized the flat, rectangular format and created a kind of frame within the frame that held everything together. Picasso unified his pictures through the use of linear design, with lines that would enclose shapes in one area and leave them open in others. In many of his pictures the same contour line would define more than one shape, thus locking it all together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Other devices used to unify various elements are repetition of shapes or colors, or keeping everything keyed to a limited value range (as in music: singing in key). No matter the contrivances used to bring the pieces together, in the best works everything seems to fit.
The signature of the artist

People speak of a signature work by an artist, meaning a work that is immediately recognizable. Used this way, the term signature does not mean the name an artist signs on the lower right-hand corner; it means the individual look that says this is a Picasso or a Pollock -- what is generally thought of as the artist's personal style. Pollock's signature is his interlacing web of line. Nobody does it like Pollock. Nobody would dare. Mark Toby's signature is his all-over surface of calligraphic marks. When you see that, you think Toby, even if it is a copy. And even though Toby and Pollock both used interlaced markings in an all-over field, nobody who is familiar with their work would ever confuse them.

Real artists have a recognizable signature, and most makers of wall fodder do not. There are exceptions, however. There are some great artists who do not have a clearly recognizable style. One who springs to mind most readily is Gerhardt Richter, whose paintings range from abstract to photographic realism.

There are hack artists who develop formulaic ways of painting and repeat themselves endlessly. This might look like a signature style, but it's not. It's a fake kind of art. There is no magic formula for spotting it for the fake it is, but, with enough looking it becomes rather obvious. A good example would be the very popular art of Bev Doolittle, who uses the same trick in almost every painting. Her basic trick is to put a spotted pony in a dappled grove of trees; i.e., camouflage. It's a neat trick, but she's repeated it about a million times and it gets boring quickly. Another obvious example would be Thomas Kinkade, who turns out factory reproductions of paintings that look like 1920 greeting cards and puts a few highlights on each assembly-line reproduction so he can claim they are actual paintings.

Recognizing such charlatans is simply a matter of looking. It always comes down to looking: look often and look long. Keep looking, and as you look you will notice that the wall fodder starts to get really, really boring, while the good stuff gets better and better.

The integrity of the picture plane

From about 1955 to 1975, give or take a few years, "the integrity of the picture plane" was one of the most oft-repeated catch phrases in the world of art. To oversimplify a complicated theory, maintaining the integrity of the picture plane means recognizing that a painting is an arrangement of colors on a flat surface. During the Renaissance, painting was thought to be a window on the world, and this window looked out on a world of linear perspective, an illusion of deep, three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. But even then, the best artists limited their illusions of space in order to make everything fit together in a two-dimensional design. (Incidentally, people now look at Renaissance paintings and marvel at how real they look in comparison to modern art. This illusion of reality is due in large part to the use of perspective and the smooth blending of brush strokes. But if these people who hold the old masters up as an example of real art would take the effort to really look, they would see that the best of today's photo-realist paintings look more real than the best of old master paintings.)[4]

Beginning with Manet in the mid 1800s, an awareness of the flat surface of the canvas became increasingly important. Paintings became flatter and flatter and flatter until finally, some time in the 1970s, people began to rebel against flatness, and illusionary space once again began to appear.

Personally, I may be willing to allow a certain amount of illusionary space to creep back into painting. Nevertheless, I think an awareness of the integrity of the picture plane is still a good indicator that the artist is more than a little bit sophisticated. That means the painting should be flat, or at the very least the space should be a succession of overlapping picture planes as opposed to the deep space that makes the viewer feel like he's looking into the surface as if through a window into the world depicted by the artist. (I know that some “post-modernists” would say I’m being regressive, and they may be right, but at the very least I believe contemporary artists have to be aware of all the spatial implications of their work.)

The message vs. the look

During the same time period when "the integrity of the picture plane" was the catch phrase of the day, there was a belief that how a picture was painted was more important than what the picture was of. The way it looked was more important than what it was about. Form was more important than content. But the same people who rebelled against flatness also rebelled against the primacy of form over content. In fact, the pendulum swung so radically that many artists and critics said content was everything and form was nothing. It doesn't matter, these champions of content said, if a picture is badly painted; it doesn't matter if the colors are ugly and the shapes are uninventive and the drawing is crude; what matters is the message the art conveys.[5]

Perhaps this gives away my prejudices (not to mention my age), but I believe visual art has to be visually exciting. Even if the message is profound, if it is not presented in a visually exciting way, then it is literature or theater or something else, but it is not visual art. This would seem to cast aside many contemporary forms such as video and multi-media installations and performance art, but I believe these need to be judged by different criteria. Art that is presented as visual, no matter how conceptual, must be judged formally as well as conceptually, and that means taking into consideration such things as the balance and harmony of color and line. Even if I were to concede that there are cases in which content can take precedence over form, then the message had better be pretty damn profound. If the message is simply that ripe apples on a blue cloth are pretty, or that racial discrimination is not a good thing, or that politicians can be corrupt, that's stating the obvious and that's not enough. To be considered good art, the message has to not only be original or profound, it has to be stated in a unique or compelling or visually exciting way.

The case for originality

That original art should be original is almost too obvious for words, but many paintings seen in galleries are not original. To me, the word "original" means more than simply something that is not a reproduction; it means more than that the artist did it all by herself with her own two hands; it means something that has never before been done in quite the same way. The most common of all examples of what I call wall fodder is painting in the style of the French Impressionists. The world is flooded with watered-down versions of landscapes by Monet and Renoir. Monet and Renoir created beautiful art, but they did it well over a century ago. We've seen quite enough, and their followers are seldom half as good as them anyway, so what's the point?

This brings up two questions. The first is: Is truly original art even possible considering how much has already been done? And the second is: Say artist X paints water lilies in a pond in the style of Monet, and he does it just as well as Monet did it (highly unlikely, but this is hypothetical). Then wouldn't that be good art even if it were not original?

My answer to the first question is yes, it is still possible to be original, but it may be a question of just how original is original. The first person to ever use perspective in a drawing was truly original. Picasso and Braque were certainly original when they invented Cubism. Nothing like that had ever been done before. But they based their work on things that had previously been hinted at by Cézanne, and as everybody knows, Picasso borrowed ideas from everyone and everything. Still, he put his borrowed ideas to use in unique ways. When Jackson Pollock started painting on the floor instead of the easel and dripped his paint from sticks onto his canvas instead of painting with a brush, and created all-over patterns with no beginning or end (as opposed to the tradition of painting shapes onto a background) ¾ when he did all of this, he was not doing anything that had not been done before. Plenty of other artists had already dripped paint, and Mark Toby was already painting all-over patterns, but nobody had ever before done all of these things together the way he did, and so Pollock's drip paintings were truly original. The point is, while being absolutely original may be next to impossible, being relatively original is not only possible, it is necessary. If you can't do something that has never before been done, then at least do what has been done in a new way.

My answer to the question about artist X painting water lilies just like Monet is that no matter how beautiful it may be, it's not art. Let's put it this way: If I really put my mind to it I could probably write my own version of "Romeo and Juliet," and it might be just as good as the one Shakespeare wrote, but nobody would consider me a literary genius for having done it.
While familiarity may have an attraction all its own, we all know what familiarity breeds. If we've seen sunsets in nature that are strikingly beautiful, then when we see a painting of a sunset we are apt to be attracted to it precisely because it reminds us of something we have already seen and grown to love. Not because it is art. I would rather go outside and look at the real thing.
Edward Hopper presents a twist on that. His urban scenes look so familiar that people swear they have been on that particular street or had coffee in that particular diner when, in fact, his scenes are compilations of memory and imagination that exist nowhere in the real world. That is originality: the ability to create an imaginary scene that is so real you swear you remember being there.

Familiarity breeds contempt

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. When I go into an art gallery I may immediately spot a work of art that I like, and perhaps another one that I don't much like so much. But after spending some time in the gallery, I begin to notice that the one I liked doesn't look quite as good as I had at first thought, and the one I didn't like gradually begins to look better and better. It's amazing how often this happens.

I think this happens because, in the case of the work we initially like but soon grow tired of, we are attracted to the familiar. The familiar is comfortable; we're predisposed to like it. That's why people go to see "The Nutcracker" every year at Christmas, and then go home and watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on television for the umpteenth time. But the familiarity that attracts us soon wears thin. To bring our analogy back to our subject of paintings, it may be that the painting we did not like at first put us off because of its originality, because it does not offer the comfort of familiarity.

Mediocre art gives easy pleasure. Like ice cream, it is sweet and goes down easy, but its pleasure is not long lasting. It is nothing more than wall fodder. Art that is worthy of being called art, on the other hand, is seldom easy to digest but always worth the effort.

[1] My quote of Clement Greenberg may have been misleading. When he pronounced a work of art either a painting or not a painting, he was being purposefully dramatic. Reading Greenberg's reviews makes it abundantly clear that he recognized an infinite range of grays between the black hole of non-painting and the clear white light of painting. Similarly, I know there are many shades of gray between real art and wall fodder. But I too like to be dramatic at times.
[2] The term "wall fodder." comes from 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.
[3] When I use the term “art” in this context, I am thinking primarily of painting. There would be more exceptions to my comments if I were to discuss sculpture, environmental art, mixed-media installations, video and performance art and so forth.
[4] Realism in art has two distinct meanings. It can refer to the opposite of idealism, as in gritty and honest and uncompromising, or it can refer to the illusion that the object depicted is a real object in three-dimensional space. In this context, I am referring to illusional realism.
[5] During the ‘70s, it seemed that the only thing that mattered was the idea. IDEA -- all caps and italicized -- was king, so much so that Tom Wolfe wrote a deliciously funny (but totally stupid) book about it called The Painted Word.

"I think Alec always let's the art get a hold of him, and then gives it a chance to see if
it can hold on." He is very honest about how the art works or not, both from a academic, and
a visceral point of view." - Read Alec's Visual Edge column every week in the Weekly Volcano. - Paula Tutmarc-Johnson, Two Vaults Gallery


copyright © Alec Clayton 2002

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