Bad Art

Going back to the conversation between Christopher Green and T.J.Clark that I mentioned before, one of Clark’s comments bothered me. He said that “hack” artists, bad ones, are certain that they have found the right way to render modernity. In context his point was that both Picasso and Matisse are discovering what they do as they do it, though it appeared in this discussion that Picasso is much the more conceptual of the two.

What does make art bad anyway? An artist needs certainty, and certainty is not incompatible with doubt—the ability to live with contradiction being one of the skills required. Following Clark, Mondrian must have been a hack. I don’t think so, because a hack is someone who turns out work according to formula, a formula ready made for a particular audience. Mondrian, and most everyone else that matters, produced according to formula, but they can’t be criticized for that because the criterion for greatness in modern art is that the formula is one’s own. Say that most artists are undistinguished, that they just work within the envelope of what everyone knows, with gradations of quality perhaps, but a truly bad modern artist has to have a singular achievement, just the wrong one, with the proviso that our assessment of what is wrong or right may well change. Rothko, Diebenkorn, Mondrian, and certainly Richter, to stay within abstraction, are all bad artists, but their achievements are real, significant and substantial. In any case, no artist I know of goes to the studio with the intention of rendering the face of modernity.

Richard Diebenkorn, Freeway and Aqueduct

Here’s a good Diebenkorn…









Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #111 1978

and here’s a bad one. Of course it has the sensitive color and handling we expect in this artist. It’s intelligent, and in a way paradigmatic, because there are many imitators, and that might be the key to its failure. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would—the formula is generic. That it is derived from Matisse’s Open Window at Collioure is interesting but no excuse. This work is based on a grid, Matisse’s on a window. The square format of the earlier freeway landscape, and its bland openness, help us to see the world as we have and haven’t seen it before, so it is a better piece, and “abstract” in a more interesting way.

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