What makes bad art bad?
Conspiracy freak Glenn Beck
thinks he knows. Utilizing his usual schoolboy tactics -- including an inappropriate mock French accent -- he makes 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.
, 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.
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.