Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Glenn Beck and The Truth about bad art

What makes bad art bad?

Conspiracy freak Glenn Beck thinks he knows. Utilizing his usual schoolboy tactics -- including an inappropriate mock French accent -- he pokes fun of a painting called "The Truth" by Michael D'Antuono. (The accent is inappropriate because Beck is trying to send up the New York art scene.) This work depicts Barack Obama in a Jesus-like pose, complete with crown of thorns.

I'm not sure what message D'Antuono hopes to convey with this image, nor do I much care. Perhaps he created this work to parody the worshipful attitude some liberals have directed toward Mr. O, especially during his first presidential campaign. Or maybe the artist really is loopy enough to see Obama as Jesus. Most likely, he hopes to have it both ways. What we have here is simultaneously an icon painting and an excuse for "postmodern" schoolboy smirking. 

I agree with Beck: The painting is terrible. But my reasons for coming to that conclusion differ from his.

I speak as someone who used to be a professional illustrator, and as someone who appreciates craftsmanship. Here's the work:


Click on the image to enlarge, or go here.

Judging from the artist's other work, his shtick seems to be creating paintings from photo reference. He grabs attention through thuddingly obvious message mongering, not by any display of technique. (However, I must admit that his other works do show a higher level of skill.)

In short and in sum, D'Antuono hopes to make a buck by providing a thuggishly liberal rejoinder to the thuggishly conservative Jon McNaughton. Although I'd probably prefer going to a dinner party where D'Antuono was the guest of honor, McNaughton is the better painter. He isn't great. But he's competent.

Let me repeat my own strong feelings. Time for boldface. Capital letters. I want to make sure we're very clear.

ART IS NOT ABOUT SUBJECT MATTER.

PAINTING IS NOT LITERATURE.

SUBJECT MATTER IS THE LEAST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF ANY PAINTING.

ART IS NOT WHAT BUT HOW.

IF YOU HAVE A MESSAGE, WRITE AN ESSAY.

Dimwits -- and the art racket is now run by dimwits -- insist on talking about the visual arts in literary terms. Why? Because they are ill-educated (despite their MAs and PhDs) and do not know what constitutes good painting.

(The only form of art that people don't like to discuss in literary terms is, of course, the novel. Modern book reviewers would rather talk about a book's cover, font choice, subject matter -- anything but the quality of the prose.)

Let's use terms that everyone can understand. Ever watch American Idol? Sure you have; we all have. Hell, even I have, and I don't care for pop music. (I don't know if the show is still on the air. That doesn't matter.)

The greatest gift that Simon Cowell gave the world was his insistence that we judge a singer by his or her ability to sing. In the pop music world, fans too often judge singers by extraneous factors, and thus fixate on fashion, sexuality, politics, drug usage or other irrelevant biographical details. People who pretend to care about the singer's art are usually pretty quick to focus on bullshit that has nothing to do with the craft.

Yet the craft is the only thing that matters.

Suppose someone were to judge an American Idol contestant by the political content of his or her song. Suppose Simon were to say: "I agree with the sentiments expressed by those lyrics you just sang. Therefore, you are a good singer."

That would be pretty absurd, wouldn't it?

ART IS NOT WHAT BUT HOW.

The same standards apply to painting. When you pick up a brush, I want to see some skills. It's showtime. You're on. Let's see what you can do.

And frankly, I don't give even a fraction of a fuck about your politics. Degas had appalling political beliefs: He was an anti-Dreyfusard and a regular reader of Libre Parole (the kind of rag which would have published Glenn Beck if Beck were French and if he had been alive back then). But let's face it -- as a painter, Degas was about a thousand parsecs ahead of both D'Antuono and McNaughton.

Here's what's wrong with The Truth:

1. The brushwork is both dull and sloppy. It's not free enough to have character; neither is it tight enough to be convincingly realistic. A "brushstroke-free" approach should convey interest through glazing, through the subtle layering of color, through the use of chiaroscuro. This artist applies paint to canvas the same way he might paint a chair. He just glops it on.

2. The lighting is all wrong. Look at the light on Obama's head. Doesn't match the rest of the picture, does it? The face obviously derives from a reference photo lit from the left, even though the rest of the picture is lit from above.

3. The rendering of the circle on the seal is wobbly. The style of the overall picture is sufficiently realistic to make amateurish patches stand out.

4. The President of the United States is wearing a bright blue jacket. Really? How often do presidents wear cerulean blue, as opposed to navy?

5. The red lining of the jacket is poorly handled. I would expect the jacket and the body to cast a shadow on the lining.

6. What's up with that gouge in Obama's face next to his mouth? I think that's supposed to be a jowl. Such things should be handled with subtlety; this painting makes Obama look like he survived a knife fight.

7. The warm yellow highlight on Obama's shirt isn't reflected on the rest of his figure. (Overall, I would say that the shirt is the best-handled aspect of this picture.)

8. Both lapels are badly painted. The left one almost disappears; the right one displays a very bizarre contour. I suspect that the artist worked from an insufficiently detailed reference photo. He should have used common sense to fill in the visual information that the ref didn't convey.

9. The curtains are unpersuasive. Look at the folds of the drapery where it is held by the hands.

10. When composing an image, a painter should avoid lines that direct the eye toward the corners.

11. Where's the mole?

On the plus side, the lettering and the stars are very well handled. 

And that, Mr. Beck, is the proper way to critique a painting. If you can't speak intelligently about technique, don't talk about art. Screw the politics of the thing.

Update: I wrote the above without familiarizing myself with D'Antuono's background. Turns out he's roughly my age -- and he, too, worked as an illustrator, making more money at the trade than I ever did. He even did a stint an AD for a big agency.

Wow. Based on "The Truth," I thought he was a kid.
Comments:
Bzzzt. Your no-no list might be a good one for someone who wants to be a painter, but its nonsense for how art and everyone else get along.
 
Your attitude is nonsense, Tiro. For centuries, people have taken pleasure in painters who displayed craftsmanship.

You really like "idea" art? Like that crap that Damien Hirst spews out?

That shit is shit. It appeals only to a small, debauched crowd -- not to "everyone else."

People like painters who can PAINT.
 
The jacket buttons! The crap lighting! And what's with the dent below the tie knot? Neckties don't hang like that. And has any US president worn a jacket with a fake breast pocket?

Can D'Antuono actually distinguish between a seam, a fold and an edge?

And the base of the figure's right thumb!

Maybe he's referring to naive art and we're too naive to get it? :)

If he knew anything about geometry, he could have used 108° angles and alluded to a dodecahedron. If he'd wanted to make intelligent reference to the Christ legend rather than just giving us a cross and a (seemingly unpainful) crown of thorns, he could have made a decent contrast between the space behind the curtains and the space in front.

Of course the work is utter skipfill. I'm sure how anyone can disagree with this except by judging it as advertising.
 
Due to the sheer offensiveness and stupidity of this article, I may never visit this site again. Not that any others would care or that even Joseph himself would care, but I care. I don't even know where to begin with this article. I do feel totally betrayed by Joe. He spent not a considerable amount of effort convincing me to support and vote for Barack Obama, and then even before Barack Obama is confirmed as victor for a second term, he acts like it doesn't matter that Barack Obama won. Instead of focusing his cannon upon where it should be firing, at the Republican Party and all its cohorts and it's degenerative ignorant as fuck offspring such as the Tea Party (not an actual party, a social movement and a congressional faction by the same name established by Michele Bachmann), our friend Joe has decided to relentlessly attack Barack Obama. I do wonder if this is because Joe thinks that Barack Obama is a Republican in Democrat's clothing, so to speak. But I still feel personally betrayed because Joe told me there is a difference between Romney and Obama, when I insisted that any differences were null and void and of no significance. I wanted to vote for Jill Stein. Barack Obama is not a socialist, and I am very much a socialist sympathizer. To the article itself. Joe's statement I agree with Beck is one of those statements that completely alters my perception of a person. He says 'the painting is terrible'. His thesis is:
"ART IS NOT ABOUT SUBJECT MATTER. PAINTING IS NOT LITERATURE. SUBJECT MATTER IS THE LEAST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF ANY PAINTING. ART IS NOT WHAT BUT HOW.
IF YOU HAVE A MESSAGE, WRITE AN ESSAY."

To truncate it all, Joe is saying that art cannot transmit messages or stories. I wholeheartedly and completely and utterly with all of my being disagree virulently with each and every single point of Joe's thesis. As someone (myself) who believes that art is the ONLY redeeming contribution to existence that humankind has ever made and is the most important thing that humans do, far more important than even medicine or welfare, I see humankind's sole redeeming feature in its capacity to create art. Beyond that, basically everything else it has done has disgusted me. So, to me, humans rise and fall on art and art is everything. Yeah, it's that fucking important. To Joe, for his contributions to creativity and art, I say, thank you. But you have missed the point regardless. Art can and does transmit messages, stories, morals, philosophies and almost everything literature and essays do. Symbolism is a perfect example of how art transmits messages. During times past, when soldiers wore uniforms bearing an artist's rendition of the cross, this was seen by other folks as a message to let them know these soldiers are Christians. Cultures and societies across time, have used art to communicate with each other and transmit messages and stories to each other without sharing common languages with which to actually write literature or essays that would be understandable between one another. Because humankind has countless languages, yet art is understood universally and is evocative everywhere. It is not just that art can transmit messages, it's that it should transmit messages and it has throughout known history. Depictions of the so called black death pandemic transmit messages to us centuries later, letting us know the feelings and emotions of the experiencers of this plague, as well as serving as representations that it actually ever occured in an age without photography. This article is quite possible the worst one I've ever seen here and it has literally hurt me and affected me emotionally. I am truly sad about it. Joseph and Glenn Beck's attack of 'The Truth' painting represents nothing less than votes in support of censorship and their systemic hatred for Barack Obama and for Beck at least, his support of blasphemy laws driven by his psychotic religion that poses a clear and present danger to each every non-christian on the planet.

Jay
 
Ya, that jacket color is a really weird choice- though I think I can recall pics of Carter wearing something along those lines. Perhaps just another proverbial red cape waved in the face of repubs? It seems clear provocation is the point of this work (which you're right is quite mediocre).
 
"Yet the craft is the only thing that matters."

Spot on. As an artist--or rather, a cartoonist--I've had a righteous anger at the art critics who, for all their blather, have not one jot of artistic skill. I've spent years just to get a few things right, and I still feel that I always need to improve my craft.

Plus, Glenn Beck is a jerk. Simple as that.

"People like painters who can PAINT."

Couldn't have said it better.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
Josh, the first part of your comment is very weird. My piece was not in any way about "Barack Obama: Good guy or bad guy?" You are reacting to words I did not write.

But what you have to say about art's purpose is on point, so let's talk about that.

You think the business of a painting is to convey a message. I think the purpose of a painting is to be beautiful. (Of course, I recognize that there are many different types of beauty.)

You may be new to my thoughts on that matter. My manifesto may be found here:

http://cannonfire.blogspot.com/2011/12/fraudism.html

In particular, I'd like to draw your attention to the Gruenewald example seen in that post. In that post, I compare his famous crucifixion (the one that spurred Huysmans' conversion) to a deliberately childish drawing made by yours truly on the same topic. If art is about subject matter, then what is the difference between Gruenewald's painting and my drawing?

A lot of modern art critics talk as though there IS no difference. They use the same terms to talk about realistic paintings, crude cartoons, photos and even video. It's all the same. To them, only the IDEAS matter.

That attitude bugs the hell out of me.

Josh, if you are fair-minded, you should try to look at it from another point of view.

Imagine you are a young artist.

You grow up enraptured by the examples of great talents of the Renaissance and Baroque masters. You spend years and years trying to learn how to replicate that magic. When other kids are out having fun, you're studying anatomy and cross hatching, learning how to make your lines flexible and lively, yet precise. You learn about composition, about light and shadow, about color theory. You learn about the mineral and chemical composition of oil paints.

And then you find that nobody in the world of "fine art" cares.

Art people, it turns out, are really word people. They want to talk about ideas. They don't care if the image is well-done or poorly done. They don't care if it is a photo or a quick sketch on a napkin. All they care about is the literary content.

If you were that young artist who had spent years studying how to paint well, how would you feel when you learned that craft no longer matters?

Wouldn't you feel betrayed? Wouldn't you feel as though you had been subjected to the all-time greatest cosmic ratfuck?

Lots of people who are not Christian -- who, in fact, despise all religion -- love that Gruenewald altarpiece. They also love Leonardo's "Madonna of the Rocks" and "Last Supper." Not to mention those heartbreakingly gorgeous Madonnas by Raphael and El Greco's magnificently elongated portraits of Christ.

I'm not a Buddhist, but I can stare for hours at a great Tibetan Thangka painting.

The Mona Lisa is considered the greatest painting of the European tradition. You know what that work means? It means nothing. It's just a picture of a lady. I've read plenty of nonsense written by people who think that there's something more going on in that image. But all of those arguments are strained. The picture works so well because of the skill involved -- because Leonardo captured something ineffable and magical.

If you want to convey an idea, do what I do every day: Write an essay. Art is not about subject matter. It's not about ideas.

It's about skill and beauty.

I may not be the only person speaking out against our current cult of the ugly. But sometimes I feel alone.
 
Yo Joe--just so's you know: I have never, ever watched so much as a few seconds of American Idol and never will. The whole "reality show" schtick makes me sick to my stomach, it's so goddam cheesy.

I prefer scripted drama--you know, art? However lowbrow it may be (I'm big on crime shows these days--LawnOrder, NCIS (especially NCIS: Los Angeles since I'm so damned homesick these days I can hardly bear it.)

There's no amount of money in the world that could persuade me to watch that "reality" crap.
 
It's something the dead cats and broken bottles guy might like. Paint by numbers by a far sighted er... what's another word for someone who sucks at art?

Oh and BTW the Red (republican) lining in the Blue (Democrat) jacket, think that was intentional?
 
I find it amusing he's posed like Nixon.
 
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