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“I Don’t Get Art”

Tracey Emin Money

Is it actually controversial to say that you don’t get art?

People act like it is. And maybe it seems that way, for some people, if for example they’re surrounded by other people who do “get art,” or pretend to get art, or are part of the art world, or however you want to frame it.

That seems, at any rate, to be the case here.

On the other hand, someone’s announcement that they don’t “get art” seems to always be followed by rounds of back-clapping and (self-)congratulations. People seem to take a lot of pride in announcing that they don’t get art. It seems to be a particularly easy way of being culturally brave.

Dismissing art, full-stop, is a lot easier than engaging with it. Than, for example, making the argument that this art, or this particular tendency in the art world, is wrong or facile or misguided or whatever. Than taking some actual stand regarding what constitutes good art, and why.

I don’t particularly agree with Michael Fried’s stance on art, for instance, but it does give a reason why certain art is bad. It thinks through why some art is good, why some art is bad, and what the difference between the two might be. It doesn’t dismiss, it argues.

Likewise, there’s a pretty common argument that the contemporary art world is structured in such a way that art becomes a repository of abstract (financial) value, a form of currency, rather than a source of aesthetic experience. The Tracey Emin piece above, also mentioned in the Vice article, is obviously a comment on this – a particularly contradictory sort of comment, given that Emin’s photo is fully part of the structure that it is, seemingly, critiquing. Possibly you can accuse Emin of bad faith – of wanting to be “against the system” while receiving its benefits – but, again, such a perspective is an argument, not a dismissal.

I think what bothers me most about this Vice article is that I get the sense that the author is capable of making such distinctions*, but rather than doing so is opting to make the controversial, not at all very controversial, cop-out of saying that he doesn’t get art, and thinks that everyone else is just pretending to. What bothers me is that it seems designed to let people off the hook, to encourage easy answers. The author presents himself as an art-world insider who is telling his audience: Don’t worry, you don’t have to think about this stuff that seems strange or difficult, because everyone who does think about it is really just being a pretentious asshole.

It seems, ultimately, condescending. Not to the art-world or artists, but to the article’s audience, who apparently can’t be expected to think through why bad art might be bad, or that there might be a difference, even in contemporary art, between bad art and good.

*”I went to art school,” he writes, “wrote a dissertation called ‘The Elevation of Art Through Commerce: An Analysis of Charles Saatchi’s Approach to the Machinery of Art Production Using Pierre Bourdieu’s Theories of Distinction'” – I’m assuming, based on the title, that he’s pretty well familiar with the art-world critique mentioned above.

  • James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Barrelhouse Magazine, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other places. He is the editor-in-chief of Artifice Magazine/Artifice Books (www.artificemag.com). His first book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, is forthcoming in 2012 from Tiny Hardcore Press (www.tinyhardcorepress.com).

19 thoughts on ““I Don’t Get Art”

  1. Culturally brave, or just anti-intellectual? If “Are you fucking kidding me?” passes for cultural criticism, Coco’s opinions are no better than those of the straw men he invents as targets (i.e., the audience whose willingness to engage with these artworks he seems frankly envious of). He’s devoted no more rigor to his own argument than he seems to think these artists (or their audiences) have to theirs; in other words, he’s less interested in advancing ideas than in creating (or really, exploiting) alliances. It’s what opinion — as opposed to criticism — is designed to do. As you point out, Tadd, we’re all tarred by this rather stupid brush.

    1. This comment seems particularly interesting in this context: “You are not alone. In fact, I think most people who bother to even think about this garbage agree with you. I sure do.”

      “You are not alone” – numbers rather than reasons matter here. As if at some point there’s going to be a battle between the two sides, and this commenter has Glen Coco’s back.

      1. Right, exactly — Coco’s post is about audience, at least somewhat, I get it, but he only barely addresses the work that audience is assembled for. He might as well be telling us how much he hates their shoes for all that the work even matters in his post. Even when I was looking for some, any, engagement with the works, the best I could do was “Are you fucking kidding me?” How is this any better/more interesting than Rush Limbaugh’s opinion of Emin? Or Pat Robertson’s? Or Shaquille O’Neal’s? Everybody’s got one.

  2. Probably “culturally brave” belongs in scare quotes. But yeah, it’s force rather than critique. You can see it in the article’s comments – anyone who speaks up for the works is insulted rather than engaged.

  3. Yep. And I think it’s such bullshit, as you point out, that the self-congratulatory “I don’t-get-it” types are somehow seen as plain spoken and truth-telling, as if they’ve pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes, as if art is either gettable or not gettable, as if there were ever clothes expected in the first place. Let’s admit, good god, that this stand is equally as pretentious and annoying. 

    Also. You truly don’t get art? You think it’s smoke and mirrors? Fine. Cool. It’s all good. No worries. You know what? I don’t believe in god. But I don’t stand around in churches and loudly proclaim that I don’t while people are enjoying their hymns and things.

    1. I think maybe there’s a version of this position that’s less disingenuous, the person not “on the inside” who doesn’t get art (which is the audience that I think this article is aimed at). Still, in this case, there’s the question: why is there such self-congratulation/pride/etc for “not getting art”? As you say, if you’re not interested in it, nobody’s forcing you to pay attention. The only explanation I can come up with is that the idea that there are people who do “get it,” or who plausibly pretend to, represents some sort of a threat to those who don’t. In other words, the very existence of people who are into contemporary art is read as a judgment on those who aren’t.

      I don’t feel like the author of this article feels art as a threat, though; I get the impression that he’s catering to those who do, which I feel like is actually pretty reprehensible.

      1. Totally agree. He’s enabling people who feel defensive and strike out because of it, who feel threatened, as you say, by some sort of perceived knowledge that they don’t possess. He’s validating that, which is really messed up.

      2. And while, let me be clear, I DO NOT think this guy is a Nazi or anything at like that, I say dangerous because the is the kind of shit that intellectuals start and that ends up out of their control. Or worse, they use anti- intellectualism for their own ends. Like Goebbels when he put a whole bunch of modern artists (who he loved) in a gallery and told the public to go laugh at them and ridicule the pretentious artists who thought this was art. He presented himself as an expert, an insider, and so people trusted him to validate their thoughts “intellectuals” who made it. Again, NOT saying the guy has any bad motives, is a Nazi, nothing like that. Just pointing out the uses of such dangerous anti-intellectualism in the wrong hands.

  4. I think a lot of good points are raised in this article & comments. At the same time, I enjoyed Coco’s piece, and too often find myself affronted by poor art that is being promoted as “quality.” The “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it” aesthetic, or the suggestion that Coco is “mean” or his article is a “cop out,” seems misplaced. I don’t see the fuss. Anyone here who didn’t like Coco’s piece can feel free to address the pieces of Emin art displayed on the Vice site and “engage.” But, by damn, if I went to see art like that, I might want to write a satire piece myself.

    1. Thanks, Caleb. I don’t think that I suggested there was any problem with Coco’s article being “mean,” nor do I agree with the statement “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it” – far from it. The “if you don’t have anything nice” bit actually drives me kind of crazy. I like disagreement, I like argument. And I like people who are willing to intelligently call bullshit, whether in satire or “serious” criticism. (A good example of the former is Henessey Youngman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y_8DWg5W0w)

      But I stand by my argument that Coco’s article is a cop-out, even on the level of satire. And I don’t know that I’d actually read this as satire – as I try to get at above, what I think the article ultimately comes down to is a kind of pandering to readers who feel like they’re being somehow judged for “not getting” art.

  5. Hey Tadd,

    Speaking as someone who wholeheartedly agrees with Michael Fried, I don’t think it’s correct to say he divides the art world into “good” and “bad,” While Fried himself preferred and prefers art to objecthood, it’s not as though either one is, in the abstract, superior to the other. (I myself quite like both modernist “Art” art and postmodernist “object” art.)

    Rather, the pertinent aspect of Fried’s distinction is to see how different the commitments are between the makers of art and the makers of objecthood—which I think is entirely noncontroversial. (The respective artists seem to entirely agree with it.) To have discovered and articulated that distinction is Fried’s great genius, and what’s made him the most important art critic of the past 50 years.

    Either an artist is committed to internal formal aesthetic unity, or one is not—it’s a simple but crucial distinction that entirely dictates what critical responses the artwork evokes. The best recent I’ve seen of that Nicholas Brown’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption Under Capital.”

    The quick and dirty way I think about it, when looking at an artwork, is: “Is this particular element right or wrong?” If that question can be answered, then the artwork is art (in Friedian terms). If the question can’t be answered, or is irrelevant to the artwork’s effect, then the artwork is objecthood.

    And if the artwork is art, then it should be aesthetically unified. If it is objecthood, then it should be as theatrical as possible. (My one quibble with Fried is his use of the word “theater”; I prefer “spectacle.”)


    1. Thanks, Adam. I think this is a really clear explanation of what Fried is up to. My point bringing in Fried above though is really just that, rather than dismissing all art (or even all contemporary art), he makes an argument for one kind of art over another.

      It’s certainly the case that many theorists following on Fried have found his distinction useful, without sharing his commitment to “absorption” over “theatricality” – so in that sense, I’m definitely over-simplifying when I say that he gives an account of why certain art is “bad” (“bad” is also not really a commonly accepted theoretical term, though it’s useful in rants). But it’s pretty clear that Fried is arguing for the value of one direction for art over another.

      1. Oh, definitely! And I think it’s a fine simplification, in general and in Fried’s own terms. Although I shudder at it somewhat, and think it obscures what’s really useful about Fried’s most excellent argument.

        One of the best demonstrations I’ve ever seen of objecthood is Chris Burden’s flying steamroller:


        It’s simply fucking amazing—pure theatricality, pure spectacle.

        Burden’s an artist who really gets Fried’s distinction. His lack of commitment in aesthetic unity frees him up to totally go for spectacle.

        Of course, that opens him up to Nicholas Brown’s and Walter Benn Michaels’s respective critiques of objecthood (and I think they’re right, ultimately), but Burden is demonstrating the logic of objecthood in a brilliant and wonderful way.

        The Vice article, which is vapid, is making a really, really, really stupid version of Fried’s original A&O. What’s amazing to me is how someone who has no doubt read Fried could write something so shallow in his wake.


  6. that vice article and the million like them are tiring not because he doesn’t like emin or art or whatever, it’s tiring because it’s such shitty journalism. if you don’t get art, why are you writing about it? if you don’t get art, why did the editor assign you to write about it? the truth is, he gets art fine he’s just pandering to whatever audience he thinks he has. what is art journalism supposed to be? a regurgitation of any observation a 12 year old at the museum might make [the emperor’s new clothes] or to get us to see the subject in a new way? ok, hate emin if you want, but to go aw shucks about it is so boring, and so played out. cliches [the emperor’s new clothes] serve nothing except to get your column inches filled.

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