August 29, 2008
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,"
"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.