I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about looking at art and viewership, but today I want to talk about what looking at art does to/for artists in particular. I recently took a brief sojourn to Chicago for the Filter Photography Festival and had the opportunity to see the good, the bad, and everything in-between while visiting the city. If you haven’t had the chance to visit Chicago recently, it really is the most wonderful place to be an artist and to see art, it is a city that supports and physically embraces the arts. I had the pleasure of coming of age as an artist in this city attending the School of the Art Institute for my BFA and I think, as a place, it allowed me to develop an eye and a passion that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Back to the topic at hand, however, as I strolled through 2nd Friday opening offerings st small galleries for emerging artists in Pilsen I started to think about what looking at bad art does for the artist/viewer and this concept was further brought to my attention with a later visit to the Art Institute to see some of my favorites from my days as a student.
John Baldessari, in his conversation with Chris Knight at the Hammer a few weeks ago, mentioned his reason for living and working in Los Angeles, “I live here because L.A. is ugly… If I lived in a great beautiful city, why would I do art? I always have to be slightly angry to do art and L.A. provides that.” Does the same hold true in terms of viewing and being exposed to bad art? First we have to think about what makes art bad. I’m not talking about art I don’t like when I say “bad art,” I’m talking about art that may be conceptually uninteresting, aesthetically unappealing without reason, contextually inappropriate, or just conceptually and physically mismatched, but to such a degree that it is unredeemed by any underlying respect for the artistic impulse that inspired its creation. In a discussion on the Museum of Bad Art located in Dedham and Somerville, MA, published in Architecture Boston, Louise Reilly Sacco, the Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director of MOBA, asserts that bringing high school students to MOBA and then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston “frees kids to laugh and point, to have their own opinions and argue about things. Then they take the experience to the MFA, where they might otherwise feel intimidated… Maybe the ugly… frees us.” There may absolutely be a point to this in terms of novice viewership, but I wonder if this freeing reaction is different for artist/viewers. Artist/viewers tend to already be (or feel) expert enough to analyze art on their own terms, and, for them, does looking at bad art upset the “input” function to art progenesis, or, as Baldessari might feel, does looking at bad art in fact inspire through its excitation of anger, confusion, or distaste, an impulse toward art making so essential to that progenesis?
On the other hand, good art… Does looking at good art, beautiful art, inspired art, fascinating art, respected art, inspire creativity or stilt it in the recognition of the already-done-ness of almost every concept and form the mind can create? Some might say that looking to great art for inspiration, visiting museums holding works you love and respect during the process of creation, is in fact courting the disaster of mimicry in the artist’s own work. As artists, the things we see and learn go into our work whether consciously or subconsciously. In many ways, I feel that the predominant and excessive reading of internet-eze causes poor expressive fluency on the part of even educated speakers and writers. To the same end, I truly wonder whether prolonged exposure to bad visual input taints the aesthetic well from which creativity springs. In terms of reading and writing, a heavy dose of literate prose can counter-act the damage done by our text and twitter heavy cultural linguistics, so perhaps the same is true for the visual arts. There is so much visual stimulation in our modern environment, can we temper it through consistent exposure to historically important and aesthetically fluent works? For me, the space of the museum and the concentration on works of art that it permits, allows me to re-set my viewing eye that becomes lazy in our ocularcentric culture just as reading critical, historical, or poetic literary works resets the mental laziness inspired by our entertainment obsession.
In the end, looking at art and thinking about art is never truly harmful, whether good or bad. Some people are inspired by beauty, some by ugliness. The reasons for creation are as numerous as practitioners. For me though, I find that the greatest art comes from people who had an active visual life, who maintained positions among groups of artists or libraries of great works, who looked intentionally and allowed that to become a part of their own work.