Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

Honoré Victorin Daumier, The Print Collector  Image Courtesy AIC
Today I saw a one-person show, mostly paintings on paper. I looked at the show piece by piece, spending about fifteen minutes in front of each work. I came to one that I might have passed over quickly if I hadn’t seen the others. It was more abstract than the others and maybe a little too neat to be stirring, a little too stiff for me to find an entry point. But the experience of the first four pieces had resulted in my developing a kind of trust in the artist and I applied myself to asking what the artist was going for in this piece. The other works had shown the artist wasn't merely making decoration. I trusted the artist’s process. This idea about trust arose in my mind and I thought: trust, that’s a funny idea. Does trust play a role when we look at art?

I trust work that looks like the artist needed to make it. I mistrust work that is too agreeable. I trust an artist whose work does not make me think of Art the way one trusts a writer whose writing does not make one think “I am reading.” I mistrust work that looks like it is a cog in a career, academic or commercial. I trust work that leaves me in a different state than it found me in. Usually, if I like an artist I trust that artist’s process. But sometimes I trust an artist whose work I don’t really like because they are working in a way I believe is motivated by a real faith in the potential of art.

In the case of the works on paper I mentioned above, I saw that the work was serious, that the artist was not working mechanically, was not making conservative or safe pictorial decisions. When I stood in front of a piece that was harder for me to appreciate, I kept looking. My trust in the artist’s vision urged me to keep looking. Then I realized I have written about this idea before though I have not used this word. When a gallery or organization or critic does something I believe is counter to the highest aim of art (which is, in my view is ideological and not commercial) it causes my trust in this gallery, organization, or critic to waver or not to form in the first place. Trust, the way I am thinking about it now, grows from an experience or series of experiences that show a commitment to these high ideals.

Why is trust in a gallery or institution desirable? For one thing it saves time. If I find a gallery’s program generally well-curated and the work is well-presented, I will take the time to visit it. Conversely, if I have found a gallery’s program unappealing, I avoid it. When a gallery's program is uneven I tend not to prioritize it. If a museum or gallery mounts a group show and the work is hardly low quality, the walls are crammed and the thesis is stupid, I may not revisit that museum for a while. This oscillating level of seriousness makes it hard to completely write off a venue but hard to fully trust the seriousness of its intentions.

An artist also places his/her trust in these institutions. Institutions create the context in which his/her work is encountered. If a gallery offers an artist a two-person show and it turns out that the other artist is the gallerist’s three year old, the artist’s work will suffer and the gallerist will obviously prove to be untrustworthy. I have seen very good artists end up, okay not exhibiting with a three year old, but exhibiting under conditions that I, an art viewer, have a hard time taking seriously.

I am accustomed to looking at art, to arriving at my own judgments. Why would I need to trust a critic's opinion when I can form my own? A couple of years ago I saw the art critic Holland Cotter speak at Tulane. He said this really smart thing and I've never forgotten it. I found the exact quote in his piece in the New York Times: 

"Taste is habit, a form of learned behavior. And habit is what we rely on to make us feel at home and comfortable in the world. So judgment based primarily on taste, like most art criticism, is inherently conservative, predictable, fixed."

I can trust the critic that came up with that. A good critic, one we trust, can take us from our habits to experience something new. Trust in a critic is like trust in a friend who urges you to try something he likes. I trust the critic Jerry Saltz. This is not to say that I like every artist and artwork that he likes. But when I read that he finds an artist worth considering I consider that artist and I am on alert not to have a knee-jerk reaction the work based on the limitations of my mood or taste.

Is trust essential to viewing art? Well, it helps. Think of a person in a situation of mistrust; he is skeptical, uptight, closed. A person who is among friends, allies, and people he trusts is relaxed. In order to experience art we must be receptive and open. Artists earn my trust by working toward their necessarily unique vision, by working toward what they do not yet fully understand, by taking risks and not accidentally adopting norms of scale, media, subject and so forth. Galleries, organizations, museums, and critics earn the trust of serious art viewers by consistently supporting that kind of artist.

I couldn't figure out how to end this post so I am going to send this ending in from left field. Last weekend was the annual "Art For Art's Sake." This phrase "art for art's sake" is one you beat to a pulp in art school. It signifies a concept (three hundred years old or so) that art can (and according to some ought to) exist for its own sake and not to illustrate or promote causes (political, theological, etc) external to itself. Then Walter Benjamin brings it up in his essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and Voila! you find yourself in a grad school rabbit hole art debate wanting to wash your brain and get back to the studio. The use of the phrase for last weekend's event is ironic if not in its inception than in what it has become: pub crawl meets retail meets art openings. In my perfect world (which I realize would be a superbore to many) "Art For Art's Sake" would be a kind of sober lock-in with the work of one of my favorite artists–or even one of my don't-like-but-respect artists–and fellow lovers of art. Ladies and Gentlemen, Art! No food. No alcohol. No re-entry. There would not be 30,000 people in attendance like there was reported to be last weekend's "Art For Art's Sake" but I could trust that they were really there for art’s sake.

Peter Doig    House of Pictures    Image Courtesy Victoria Miro, London

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