The recently unveiled official Obama portraits are generating a lot of ArtSpeak.
“ArtSpeak” is a secret language used by artists, art critics, art curators, and art salespeople. They use this language to baffle and befuddle the rest of us into thinking, “Gosh, I don’t understand what he/she said, therefore this must be great art!”
For example, here’s some ArtSpeak from a CNN interview with an art critic on Michelle Obama’s portrait:
“may lessen the sense of verisimilitude.”
“provisional and improvisatory…”
“realistic renderings are also seen as a bit retardataire…”
And this, from Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barak Obama’s portrait and was speaking of his own artistic style:
“to cross temporal boundaries and fuse contemporary urban street [culture] with the Western art historical canon.”
See what I mean? ArtSpeak.
A different critic described the background of Mr. Obama’s portrait as “a playful decorativeness that nonetheless feels organic.” Based on his facial expression, I think Mr. Obama looks like he’s sitting in a bed of poison ivy. Clearly, I’m not an artist, art critic, art curator or art salesperson.
So instead of focusing on the Obama portraits, here is my take on those folks who delight in using ArtSpeak to baffle and befuddle us:
The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisited
Here’s a tale about an Emperor who was so enamored of art that he spent much of his subjects’ taxes on paintings, sculpture and the like.
He rarely troubled himself about domestic or international matters, except insofar as they affected the art market and his acquisition of yet more works of art. His great palace more resembled a museum than a residence; and as one might say, “The Emperor is sitting in council,” it was instead said of him, “The Emperor is in his galleries admiring his collection.”
And what a collection it was: works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo and van Gogh hung alongside creations by contemporary artists; statues stolen, or rather, recovered, from Greek and Egyptian excavations were displayed with modern sculpture; and an entire, separate gallery was devoted to works by artists ranging from Alechinsky to Zocchi, all cleverly titled Untitled.
One day, two rogues, calling themselves painters, arrived at the Emperor’s palace. They claimed they could create a painting of the most wondrous images, but those images would remain invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for the office they held. In other words, anyone who didn’t speak ArtSpeak.
“Had I such a painting,” thought the Emperor, “I would find out which people in my realm are stupid or unfit for their office.” The Emperor clapped his hands and said, “Let the painting begin!” He provided the rogues with a $500,000 advance, a private studio, luxurious living quarters and a brand-new Viper, to assure their comfort while they completed this miraculous work.
The rogues set up a huge, blank canvas, then demanded the costliest paints and brushes which they then put in their L.L. Bean backpacks to later sell at flea markets. Using their own ratty, old brushes they utilized on just such occasions, they made a great show of working all day, and on into the night with the palace lights ablaze.
After several weeks the Emperor was most curious as to how the work was progressing, but he was, at the same time, very nervous about viewing it. For he remembered that a stupid person, or a person unfit for their office, would be unable to see the images on the canvas. “I know,” thought the Emperor. “I’ll send somebody else to view the painting – my chief curator. He is an expert on all matters related to art, and certainly is fit for his office. He can bring back a report.”
So the chief curator went to the studio, where the two swindlers, or rather, artists, were hard at work stroking their dry brushes across the blank canvas, then pausing to stand back and admire their work. “Holy Toledo,” thought the chief curator, “I don’t see anything on the canvas! Does this mean I’m stupid? Or unfit for my office?” Wisely he did not say this aloud. But one of the rogues turned to the chief curator and said, with mock humility, “Tell us, sir, what think you of our efforts so far?”
“Marvelous!” exclaimed the chief curator. “The potent, yet totally ambiguous composition operates like a filmic montage; disparate images are collaged in sequence to create a resonating unfixable meaning!”
“I was hopping you’d say that,” the rogue replied modestly. Then the rogues asked for another $500,000 advance, which the chief curator arranged before he hurried off to report his findings to the Emperor.
Rumors began, as rumors will, and soon the whole country was talking of the Emperor’s new painting. The Emperor knew it was time to see the painting for himself, but he first sent a summons far and wide, commanding all the curators and art critics in the land to join him at the palace to view this wondrous work. As the group entered the studio, the rogues appeared to be hard at work, their paint brushes still dry, the canvas still blank.
“Is it not incredible?” rhapsodized the chief curator. “The physicality of the paint redefines the parameters, and addresses the formal issues with an underlying narration that touches upon the psychological and emotional aspects of our lives!”
“Huh?” thought the Emperor, panicked, because all he saw before him was a blank canvas. And if he saw nothing, it meant he was stupid and/or unfit to be Emperor! Aware that everyone in the room was awaiting his response, the Emperor studied the canvas for several more moments, then slowly nodded.
“Yes, indeed,” he said. “The painting does stress psychological depth, but avoids narrative details. And note the balance of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter. It’s a fusion of the imaginary and the real.”
The curators and art critics were quick to jump on the bandwagon, though they, too, saw nothing on the canvas. “The juxtaposition of primary and secondary colors creates a dense, flat surface pattern and gives vitality and dynamism to the composition!” exclaimed one curator.
“Note how the artists used color to link horizontals and verticals, and to tie together diverse textures to reflect contemporary philosophical preoccupations,” added a critic.
“But rather than presenting pictorial space as an illusion of three-dimensional reality seen from a fixed point of view,” chimed in another critic, “the artists are presenting the totality of the object through a multiplicity of views!”
“In their milieu they possess the best oeuvre of the genre,” cried a second curator. “Ground-breaking! Original!”
“They’ve broken down the image into discrete, abstract facets, subordinating the image to the act of visual analysis,” intoned yet another critic.
“A painting,” concluded the chief curator, “whose greatness is equaled only by its ambiguity.” The Emperor then insisted that the rogues accept another $500,000 advance, and a date was set one week hence to allow the public to view the painting for the first time. Tickets for the show sold out in less than an hour, and scalpers began doing a brisk business as word of the painting’s magical properties spread far and near.
When the day of the exhibition arrived, the rogues carefully carried the blank canvas into a gallery in the palace that had been selected for this momentous occasion. The Emperor stood next to the painting, eager to hear the comments from his subjects to determine who might be stupid, or unfit for their office. As people began to file in, the rogues vacated their luxurious living quarters, loaded their loot in the Viper and headed for the border.
All day people viewed the painting, paying homage and exclaiming over the genre and the oeuvre, lest they be thought stupid or etc. The Emperor’s subjects were all aware of his fabulous collection of art – their taxes had helped pay for it, after all – but nothing in the collection had had such an impact as this.
Late in the day, a young family who had been in line since 4am that morning finally had their chance to view the painting. As they stood before the canvas, their young son squirmed in his mother’s arms, understandably tired and cranky. “Mommy,” he wailed, “why are we standing here staring at this white thing? There’s nothing to it at all!”
The words of this innocent child were whispered to one another, until everyone in the gallery was shouting, “There’s nothing to it at all! “There’s nothing to it at all!”
And the Emperor knew the people were right, oeuvre notwithstanding.