Art World Outsiders

In the past, I’ve written about artists the public loves to hate. Today, I’m going to write about two the critics can’t stand – Jack Vettriano and Thomas Kinkade.

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ABOVE: Jack Vettriano, The Singing Butler, 1992, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches

Jack Vettriano

Born in Scotland, Jack Vettriano was raised in poverty and dropped out of school at 16 to work as a coal miner. He began painting at 21 and applied for art school at 36, but was rejected. His first success as an artist came in 1989 after two of his paintings were accepted and sold in the Royal Scottish Academy annual show. Since then, his work has consistently sold in the six figures, and reproductions alone have made him a millionaire. He claims not to care what the critic’s think, which is good, because they don’t like him very much.

“Vettriano is not even an artist. He just happens to be popular, with “ordinary people” who buy reproductions of his pseudo-1930s scenes of high-heeled women and monkey-suited men, and celebrities who fork out for the originals of these toneless, textureless, brainless slick corpses of paintings. I urge you to visit the National Gallery. Look at great paintings for a few hours. Now take a look at Vettriano.” Jonathan Jones, UK Guardian

“In a work like The Singing Butler the information hangs on the surface. There is little joy in the handling. You sense teeth gritted in the execution. The movement of the paint on canvas does not suggest self-knowledge or skill or the embracing or abandonment of history – in other words, the authorship on which the best painting depends.” Moira Jeffrey, The Scottsman

ABOVE: Thomas Kinkade, Victorian Christmas, 1991, oil on canvas, artist board, 20 x 24 inches

Thomas Kinkade

Born and raised in California, Thomas Kinkade received formal training at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and began selling his work through galleries in the early 1980’s. He later founded the Thomas Kinkade Company and began selling originals and reproductions through mail order and dedicated retail outlets. While this made him extremely wealthy, critical success proved allusive, and in 2012, he passed away from alcohol poisoning at the age of 54.

“Kinkade’s products have a consistent message: that if we want the feeling of living in a conflict-free world, we can buy it. The cost — as distinct from the price — of this feeling is mere denial of all one’s experience of citizenship, of human relations, of historical awareness.” Kenneth Baker, San Fransico Chronicle

“Kinkade calls himself the most controversial artist in the world, and arguably, he is both the most loved and hated painter alive. To his millions of adoring fans, he represents the triumph of populism and wholesome family values over elitism and intellectual snobbery, the victory of the heart over the mind. To his detractors, he represents the triumph of sub-mediocrity and the commercialization and homogenization of painting. (I can’t bring myself to describe what Kinkade does as “art.”) Kinkade is far from the first painter to mix commerce and creativity; Salvador Dalí, for example, wasn’t shy about self-promotion, or pimping his services to the highest bidder. But perhaps no other painter has been as shameless or as successful at transforming himself into a corporation as Kinkade. Kinkade’s detractors also dislike him because his work is fucking terrible, a maudlin, sickeningly sentimental vision of a world where everything is as soothing as a warm cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold December day.” Nathan Rabin, the A.V. Club

The Emperor Has No Clothes

If you follow modern art, you will likely come across the term: “The Emperor has no clothes”. Where does it come from? What does it mean? I recently found out.

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ABOVE: Joe Sixpack, Swimming Pool, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 36.9 x 30 inches, sale price: $15,000

The Emperor has no clothes.

The above expression comes from Hans Christian Anderson’s short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and is used to describe the belief in something that is not true.

In the tale, a vain Emperor – who is obsessed with clothes – is conned by two swindlers into spending a ridiculous amount of money on outfits so extraordinary, they are invisible to those who are incompetent or stupid. In reality of course, there are no such clothes.

Foolishly, the Emperor sees this as an opportunity to purge his court of undesirables, and he sends his top advisers to observe the swindlers at work on his new wardrobe. Fearing that they’ll be deemed unfit, the advisers inform him that the cloth is magnificent.

Once ‘finished’, the Emperor is dressed by the swindlers – who rave about how great he looks – and a procession is arranged where he can show-off his new clothes to the entire city.

Not wanting to be seen as stupid, the townspeople greet the naked Emperor with thunderous applause, but while they are expressing their admiration, a small boy cries out… “But the Emperor has no clothes.”

The moral of the story: pretension not supported by reality will always seem foolish to those who see the world for what it is, rather than what they’ve been told (i.e. children).

In a modern art context, the term could be used to describe anyone who spends a ridiculous amount of money on a blank canvas, pile of bricks, or Instagram screen shot – or anyone too afraid to call them out for it.

Critiquing the Critics

All artists love art (duh), and every artist needs to stay informed. Here is a quick list of critics we should all follow.

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ABOVE: Jerry Saltz, Photo: The Knight Foundation

I love art, and I love to read about it. That said, I am not a fan of Artspeak, and I’ve little interest in PHD hyperbole.

If you’re into well-formulated opinions – written in plain English – you’ll love the following critics:

Jerry Saltz – New York Magazine

My favorite art critic. Saltz is all about accessibility. He often responds to comments on his articles, is a Facebook pro-star, and even did a Reddit AMA.

Roberta Smith – New York Times

Married to Jerry Saltz, Smith is by far the more formal of the two. Even so, her reviews are clear and insightful.

Adrian Searle – UK Guardian

Searle loves the camera (in a good way), and his video reviews are often excellent. His writing isn’t bad either.

Jonathan Jones – UK Guardian

His articles are short. So are the tempers in the comments section.

Tyler Green – Modern Art Notes

I have a soft spot for Tyler Green. He reviewed a group show I was in (glowingly).

Paddy Johnson – Art F City

Although New York based, Johnson has covered many of the art world’s biggest fairs. She even reviewed Art Toronto (albeit, not glowingly).

Hrag Vartanian – Hyperallergic

If you’re at all into contemporary art, Hyperallergic is a must read.

But is it Art?

I don’t believe anyone has the right to pick and choose what is, or isn’t art. If creating fills your life with passion and purpose, then you are an artist, and what you produce, is art.

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ABOVE: Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII, 1966, sculpture, 5 x 27 x 90 inches, Tate Modern, Photo: © Tate, London [2014]

But is it art? The question provokes furious and impassioned debate from people of all walks of life.

Several opinions exist, but the following two are among the most popular:

If it questions nothing, and is simply an exercise in aesthetics (which are entirely subjective), then it is not art. It is decoration.

If it is all theory, and there is no finely crafted end product (e.g. – conceptual art made from found objects), then it is not art. It is rubbish.

Quite frankly, I think both arguments are nonsense. Yes, there is a lot of horrible art in both camps, but there is a lot of great art too.

As individuals, we are free to choose what we like or do not, but ultimately, our opinions are simply that: our opinions.

Critics may be well versed in the arts, but they aren’t always right. Conversely, those less educated, aren’t always wrong. It’s about balance, and both sides deserve a spot at the table.

I honestly don’t believe that anyone, regardless of their credentials, has the right to pick and choose what is, or isn’t art.

Simply put, if creating fills your life with passion and purpose, then you are an artist, and what you produce, is art.

Is it good art? That is the question.