Why is it that so many high art types, especially long winded, thesaurus-brandishing critics who write for prestigious art magazines, fail to acknowledge the presence, much less the value, of minor art? And why is it that so many of our good craftsmen recoil at the suggestion that their work might be minor? The reasons are complicated and numerous, but most of them involve the devaluation (or outright denial) of the pleasure that art at all levels provides.
Recent art history, the last 100 years, appears to have taught our culture one over-riding lesson. High art, the most serious art, must be new to be good; and if art is to be new, it must be radical. It must challenge something; the more traditional the thing it challenges, the better. Look carefully at this lesson; it is not a visual lesson. It identifies and classifies art for the mind, but ignores its effect on the eye. Visual satisfaction is beside the point.
"Radicality" exists as a sociological property of some works of art, one which is tied to the particular circumstances of the time in which they are created, circumstances which are readily analyzed by the intellect. Duchamp's perversion of the Mona Lisa was radical at the time it was made. Is it still radical these days, now that an artist like Chris Burden has created a performance piece by firing a pistol at a Boeing 747 on its approach to L. A. International Airport? What is the shock value of scratching a moustache on a printed copy of an old masterpiece, when compared to shooting at a jetliner full of people? Radicality is a time bound property. If today's radical art is remembered tomorrow, it won't seem radical when compared to its counterpart of the future. It will be considered radical for its time, a historical appreciation with overtones of devaluation. That is the best it will do.
The art world did not catch onto the lesson immediately. Radicality was resisted for a long time, resisted until the economic power of radical art began to manifest itself. Much of the economic leverage resulted from the ease with which radicality can be understood, the ease with which radical art can be identified, and the ease with which dealers could educate their clients. Gone is the mystery, the difficulty, the sheer density of really good art. Density is replaced by the most superficial aspects of the serious art of the immediate past, those properties which satisfy the quest for the outrageous.
It is not difficult to understand art, especially if only its shock value is considered. It is difficult to see art. Most of the members of the official art world are terrified by real aesthetic experience, since it always occurs in the isolation of the self and one's own eye, without benefit of intellectual analysis or justification, without the comfort of language to reinforce a judgment. You see it or you don't; no one else can do it for you. To see for oneself is a great test of nerve, a test the avant-gardists avoid in favor of testing for the work's shock value.
Kitsch is still with us, but now the avant-garde is one of its sources, not its opposition. The once esoteric avant-garde has become vulgarized by its love of that common and easily recognized universal property of "mainstream" art: its readily identified naughtiness. Their enlightened minds function without benefit of enlightened eyes. These new vulgarians, the great mass of middle-brows who learned to understand all art by the light of simple-minded revolutionary rhetoric, are led by the art writers, especially those who use the most obscure language and publish the greatest number of articles. The art writers follow the art dealers who, in turn, are guided by the preferences of the "cultured" middle-brow, that is, by the taste of the new vulgarians themselves.
The circle seems capable of continuing forever, as long as the prices keep climbing. Few things are clearer to a vulgarian than the difference between buying an art work for $5,000.00 and selling it for $50,000.00. Such shrewd buying and selling passes for proof of good taste. The vulgarians know that pottery, textiles, glassware, metal work, and other crafts are unlikely to ever command such prices.
If there is one thing craft has always stood for, it is the value of looking good. The best work in crafts, as in any of the arts, pays too much attention to its tradition to qualify as "radical," and so, it will never fetch the big price. To "enlightened" vulgarians, the aesthetic value represented by such work must be suspect. If their vulgarity is extreme enough in its insistence on radicality, they may find themselves supporting the position taken by John Bentley Mays some months ago in this magazine - that the crafts are not art.
A short while ago, two artists bound themselves together for a year with a rope, a radical use of fiber which was widely publicized in the popular press. To applaud the "significance" of such a rope piece and deny the beauty of a fine textile, is to assert the primacy of the intellect in aesthetic experience. Significance can be taken apart, demonstrated, and communicated. Beauty cannot. In visual objects, beauty is seen, and only seen. The significance of beauty might later be described, but beauty itself must be experienced through the eyes. This is a simple fact of experience. It must be an individual recognition, as it has always been. The process which created and educated the great cultural middle-brow distracted thousands of "art lovers" from realizing this fundamental fact.
There is not much that can be done about the delusions these people have about art. To paraphrase (and pervert) Mays, much of what they admire and champion lately is so bad that it may not be art at all. Appreciating David Salle may be merely appreciating the category of painting, not art. It depends on how far one will allow an artist to miss the mark before regarding the result as something other than art.
Art writers, especially the avant-gardist variety, seldom acknowledge art as art. Major art, minor art, any type of art; it doesn't seem to matter. In seeking intellectual satisfaction through the "meaning" of art they miss the only satisfaction that art has ever offered, the satisfaction that comes from looking at it. Instead, they make art into revelation, and evaluate it according to the intellectual and social values which can be legitimately pried from revelation.
When critics miss the point of art so often, when they can't see how good Olitski can be (and most of them can't), or how bad Stella is in almost everything he does (and most of them can't), then it is futile to expect much help from them in distinguishing between the levels of experiencing art. What are those levels? Major and minor cover it well enough, as far as I am concerned. This isn't my distinction. It has been used for many years. Of course, there are levels within the levels, but going too far into them gets to be an academic, however valid, exercise. What is important is to recognize that some art satisfies with greater intensity than others. It isn't a question of whether minor art can be good. Any art which satisfies is good. Major art hits with maximum intensity; that is what distinguishes it from other art. But this difference is not disjunctive. Good art, major, minor, all of it, forms a continuum. Consequently, it is not always easy to say whether a certain artist's work is major or minor. Sometimes the distinction does not matter much, as in the case of Edward Hopper's paintings. Other times it does matter, especially when the official art system is proposing major status for work which clearly does not satisfy with the visual intensity of the best that our tradition has produced. Roy Lichtenstein's work is a good example. Much of it is good, but none of it has been major, despite the avant-gardist contention that it must be major because it altered the definition of what is allowed in painting. Altering rules is one thing, visual intensity another. Lichtenstein's pictures often satisfy, but they never satisfy at the maximum level. Their expanded definition of what and how to paint is beside the point.
How are the levels distinguished? Certainly not according to media, although I have know many museum workers who make this mistake. Distinguishing media is another exercise of the intellect, not the eye. Picasso's pots are better than any of the sculpture made by Calder. This does not change the fact of their being pots. To say that pottery is a minor art, and sculpture a major art, is to make the type of a priori statement that art abhors, the type of statement that it eventually contradicts.
The distinction between major and minor is made after the experience of a work, not before. It is never decided on the basis of how thought-provoking or new it is. What counts is the intensity of the experience. For some, this fact simplifies the question because they know what they see. For others, the necessity to consult their experience plunges them into eternal doubt and useless philosophical meanderings, for they do not know what they see and are unlikely to ever know what they see. They take great satisfaction in their verbal facility, and remain smug in the ability of their skepticism to enclose itself in the neat, well-lit, impenetrable prison of one idea. But they don't venture out with the judgment that a certain artist is major, unless all their colleagues appear to support the idea. Since they don't enjoy art very much anyway, they miss the point of minor art as completely as they miss the point of all art.
Major artists are rare, just as major composers are rare. Does the intensity of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor diminish my pleasure at listening to Willie Nelson? Not that I know. Often I prefer Willie Nelson. But I don't confuse the two; I am too aware of the difference between the two experiences. Nelson is light years ahead of John Cage, a fact known through the experience of their music. I would be very disturbed if Nelson became ambitious and did to his music what Cage did to his, in order to take it "higher."
Similarly, there is something tragic when a good craftsman decides to "go beyond craft," and looks to the world of the avant-garde and its audience of educated vulgarians, for the key to "transcending" minor status. Minor art is almost as scarce as major art. While it can be viewed as "second best" when compared to that of the masters, it can also be validly regarded as still close to the masters, much closer than the avant-garde has stayed these days. The pleasure of seeing minor art is real. Understandably, many artists dislike the designation "minor," but whenever someone denies the importance of minor art, he is also devaluing visual satisfaction.
Some of the artists in the craft community have challenged the system of art politics with a rhetorical game by turning their underprivileged status into a one-upping of the establishment, by showing that they can be as avant-garde (and just as bad) as the painters and sculptors who grace the pages of Artforum. They borrow the affectations of the latest movement, attach them to a craft medium, and send it forth as heavy-duty sculpture. Anyone who scoffs is said to "not understand how craft has evolved," or worse, to "have prejudged craft."
While such work may be no worse than its New York counterpart, this is no way to approach the making of major art. It is sad that real craft is expected to pay homage to this "advanced" stuff which, for all its "advancedness," can't provide much satisfaction, whether high, low, major, or minor. Those of us who can see will always benefit from anything done well, no matter what the level, for good work is always rare, and always valuable. Bad work, no matter how ambitious its aim, remains bad.
The same cultural litter which permeates the avant-garde system has received a surprisingly strong hearing in the craft community. University art departments have a strong influence here, because so many ivory tower instructors frown on anything except the "highest of the high." Since most of them are tenured, they do not suffer many consequences if their choice of what constitutes the "highest of the high" happens to be wrong. University communities, despite their apparent devotion to the investigation of the truth, gravitate to the opinions expressed in the prestigious art journals whenever they experience doubt. Going by what they read in the art magazines, too many art faculty members rejoice when a traditional potter attempts to "conceptualize pot making" by poking holes in the bottom and sides of otherwise perfectly good covered casseroles, throwing in for good measure twists of the lids, so they no longer fit. The worse the casseroles look after their encounters with the stick, the better they are thought to be. This ugliness certifies that craft has been transcended. We should be able to see better than that. We ought to be smarter than that. Experience says the stabbed casseroles look bad and no longer serve their non-aesthetic purpose, that of cooking food. Word magic doesn't change experience; it only changes minds.
I wanted to end by exhorting the craft world to clean its house by throwing out all those who would contaminate its tradition with their dabbles in avant-gardism, by ignoring all the growling dogs with glazed white teeth one seems to find everywhere "advanced" craft is shown, and by turning its back on the writers and galleries who are bent on promoting nonsense. But that would not be fair. The evidence is that the craft world has done much better in these matters than any other group in the art community. There have been slips, but on the whole, craftspeople have stuck to their guns as far as the primacy of the visual. Most of what is recognized is at least plausible, headed in the right direction, wanting to look good. Much of it is good enough to bring the pleasure that art alone offers; it remains a positive record of excellence which cannot be touched by the "high" art group. Not today. Probably not tomorrow.
Published in American Craft, August, 1986
Retitled August, 2000
Published here thanks to the kind permission of its author
Posted June 29, 2002
© John Link, 1986-2002