Critique of a Critic: Rising to Garth Clark's Bait


Post #4 Subjectivity vs. the Art Establishment

Just wanted to acknowledge all of you who are keeping my email box full.  I am so deeply gratified by the support.  And thanks also to those of you who are listening to Garth's podcast and waiting patiently to see what he will say in his response.  I appreciate those of you who want to see the trajectory this thing will take before posting a comment.  I promise to keep it provocative but clean, and I'm sure that Garth will do the same.  A quick shout out to my big brother David, who quipped, "Remember Matt: criticism is too important to leave to the critics!"  Don't know if that is a famous quote or one of his own, but I thought it very clever.  But let's move ahead...

I was talking to my friend Moni Hill yesterday evening after my daughter's swim practice (Moni is the swimming coach and a painter too), and she was asking a few questions about the debate I am hosting in this blog.  Her tone implied: "I don't really get it, what are you two arguing about?"  I told her that as a potter and craftsman, I felt a bit offended by the provocative tone of Garth's address: "How Envy Killed the Craft Movement."  

"Yeah" she said, "But I guess what I mean is envy of what?"

"Of Art, Moni."  I was a little exasperated,  "That is his whole argument: that craftsmen are envious of the prestige and money that come with admittance into the art world."

"But Matt, I totally think of what you make as art."

I have had this conversation so many times in my life that it exhausts me,  but I do think it raises the whole "Subjectivity vs. Art Establishment" issue.    Allow me to explain in some detail.  Moni is a self-taught (non-academic) painter, and in my opinion she makes really beautiful but quickly rendered small acrylic on scrap wood paintings.  They are bright and cheerful, exploring assymetrical color balance in a geometrically divided field.  They often have a stylized bird or two or a flower as a focal point and a sweet thought written on the side (the side perpendicular to the wall, which is still part of the color field)  Garth would probably hate them for their "cloying-blah-blah-blah" or maybe he would love them (sans sweet sentiments) if they were made by a designer in a limited number by a machine and sold as wall paper ("applied arts" and "modern design," n'est-ce pas?)

I told her plainly that I viewed her as a craft painter in the sense that she makes beautifully crafted paintings quickly and charges reasonable prices and sells them quickly.  We must have a dozen of them around the house and they warm me like a favorite mug or bowl made by a potter friend: the bright human spirit on display, a physical embodiment or trace of a person's soul.  (I feel this in a more intellectual way when looking at an "artifact" in a museum, but it is closely related)  I find this good cheer uplifting when I come in from the workshop after a morning of physical labor, and it is perhaps a deeper, more personal experience beacause I know her.




But she seemed a little crestfallen and told me something like: she knew she was on the folky end of the spectrum but that in her mind she made "art".  After a short pause she asked:

"Does it even matter that I think I make art?"

I dodged the question and dutifully assured her about the nobility of craft and how Garth and I both agreed that craft is a wonderful and even necessary part of the human experience (not totally sure Garth would sign off on that statement), and we said our goodbyes.


All day the conversation gnawed at me.  Why did I feel like such a chump for explaining the "truth" as the Art Establishment sees it to a person I care about and whose work I love?  My thoughts were on a slow treadmill:

Well, sometimes the truth hurts...

Maybe I should have told the dreaded white lie?

Maybe I should have dodged the question better?

She'll get over it...

Sometimes you have to stand firm...

Around went the thoughts (Hey Garth, what was that about a craftsman's prediposition toward self-loathing?) until I slowly felt a shift in the emotional weather.  That sounds so dumb, I can't believe I wrote it in public, but honestly I began to feel something like an epiphany.

I smiled when I began to think what a colossal idiot I had been.  Garth wasn't making an intellectual argument at all.  His argument was academic, and not just in the sense of being scholarly: it was total nonsense.  His opinions wouldn't matter to 99% of the human beings on this planet, even if they all spoke english!  But I would hazard to guess that 50%, maybe 75% of those same billions of people could look at a painting by Moni Hill and feel a little something (even without speaking english!).

But here's the kicker.  That other 1% is really insecure about their taste, and they have piles and piles of money.  And if someone with lots of credentials tells these folks that a particular piece of art or craft is good or important, they'll buy it.  That is a good investment.  But let the buyer beware as the old expression goes; there were lots of well credentialed hotshots selling Enron stock eight or nine years ago and a lot of other well heeled hotshots selling bundled mortgages in the waning months of W.'s second term.  The folks who were buying these investments are bust (they might even wish they had bought government bonds), but the sellers (except Ken a.k.a. "Kennyboy" Lay) are sitting on the beach with expensive drinks and pretty girls.

What is good art or good craft?  From a buyer's point of view, a more important question is what kind of art or craft do I feel drawn to?  Everyone likes to think they have good taste, but taste cannot by bought.  It can be earned honestly by exploring all the options and developing an ability to perceive different types or styles of objects that honestly reflect that collector's interests.  An honest craft dealer would never steer a customer away from buying an object that they like in favor of a more expensive object.  And an honest craft dealer would never push someone toward a purchase when the buyer says simply: "I don't like it".

But if craft or art purchasing is just an impersonal investment like buying a stock (And I don't mean to imply that Garth is one or the other;  I have never met him or visited his galleries), then the "inside scoop" will become much more important.  An art or craft dealer of this type is similar to a stock broker.  What matters is the bottom line:

"Here, buy the RJR, people are never going to quit smoking"

"Here, buy the Lockheed-Martin, we're headed to war and you can make a killing!"

"Hey, buck up!  Don't be sentimental.  Pay no attention to that little "voice of God" in the back of your mind's ear!  That's just your conscience talking.  You want a profit, right?" 


I could go on, but I'm not a true conspiracy theorist.  And FYI: I do believe there are a lot of honorable stock brokers in this country.  I just think there are a whole lot of lost sheep out there, and the ratio of shepherds to predators is always in flux.

Be good shepherds and make good work.  So long as you do it with love and respect in your heart, God will recognize the fruits of your labors as Art. (OMG-- does that rhyme?)


p.s. Garth, is Kahlil Gibran too cloying for you?

p.p.s.  Next post to explore my affection for what might be termed, "Fine Art".