The look

August 29, 2008
Robert Genn

It's a curious subject that's seldom discussed and surprisingly poorly understood. The idealists and the practical are at odds about it, but it's really neither good nor bad--it just is.

I'm talking about "the look" in popular art. Art is a commodity joined at the hip to an artist's name. That the name is recognized from the work is both its beauty and its curse.

Here's one example out of thousands. Mark Rothko's work is pretty well universally known. Anyone with a smattering of interest or knowledge can pick one out from across a crowded MOMA. Both curators and commoners use words like "soft-edged," "repetitious," "simple," "ethereal," and "consistent," to describe Rothko's work. That's what people know about Rothko. On the other hand, figurative and exploratory work by him is hardly known and seldom collected. Rothko is not just a painting that looks like what a Rothko should look like, it's a brand, and like the wealthy woman who needs a Louis Vuitton purse, well-endowed galleries feel the need to have a Mark Rothko.

The condition isn't limited to the herd-instinct of Public Galleries. That little gallery down highway 101 in Humptulips also plays a role in branding the look. Joe Schmaltz's landscapes need to look like other Joe Schmaltz landscapes. Your local art-collecting orthodontist needs to have seen something like it before. It takes a mighty evolved orthodontist to seek out the more unusual Schmaltzes. Evolved orthodontists are as rare as perfectly straight teeth.

Whether they admit it or not, both the lofty curator and the modest collector see work as a product and have finite expectations for it. Going beyond those expectations upsets their understanding of the particular brand they're looking at. So much for an artist's versatility, varied skills, complex abilities and eternal exploration.

Problems arise when one artist appropriates the look of another artist. If the look is simple to produce, and many looks are, multiple galleries can become glutted. Overproduction of a look leads to devaluation. Such is the circular nature of looks.