Vincent Van Gogh, back when he was a nobody, wrote eloquently about the dangers of putting over much confidence in “names” in art.  He was prescient.  Today the official art of the museums consists almost entirely of names — which is to say that the contemporary objects on display do not necessary strike a visual person as being particularly interesting to look at, yet we are urged to accept the objects as the highest forms of art.  And it strikes me as significant that the chief selling points of the objects is that they are purportedly made by “important” artists of our era, who are usually people that we’ve never heard of.

A certain kind of art is plausible only for audiences that possess a university degree.  No farmer from either Missouri or Bangladesh is likely to be persuaded that a uniform grouping of various colored squares is important to look at or to contemplate.  However, the same inartistic farmer might be very moved by the extraordinary skill evident in something like the precise rendering of forms found in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

It’s obvious in the case of the uniform squares that anyone could produce a similar effect and equally obvious in the case of the Leonardo that one is seeing something rare, difficult, meaningful, enigmatic and skillfully made.

I’m discovering from my blog stats that a surprising number of people are visiting here specifically in search of information about Ellsworth Kelly, since my one previous post on the man has garnered the most traffic of any of my posts!  (Sigh.)  I’m guessing that these unknown visitors are students from classes in contemporary art, come hunting perhaps for useful quotes or information.

To demonstrate my willingness to be helpful, let me refer you to a video on Youtube of an interview with the not terribly interesting and now elderly artist.

The problem of Ellsworth Kelly, which needs to be explained only to educated people and never to farmers from Missouri or Bangladesh, is that he isn’t really doing anything.  It ought to be perfectly obvious, but your college professor is standing there telling you that the man is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and meanwhile perhaps you don’t possess the highest confidence in your own powers of visualization.  But you are being duped.  I’m sorry that there’s no kinder way to phrase it.

Ellsworth Kelly is a classic case of “what you see is what you get.”  His canvases are plain shapes painted different colors and hung on museum walls.  Anyone, however, can get their image on a museum wall these days.  At the top of the post I feature a lovely scene where my painting Lattice shares space with Joan Mitchell abstractions in an enormous exhibit at MOMA.  Lattice really holds its own, don’t you think?  And look how bravely the guard protects my painting, too ….

It would take a long post to explain what art does that Kelly does not do.  The range of things that genuinely comprise what art is includes a great variety of images and objects.  But certainly one short cut to a definition of art in purely practical terms is that it equals something that matters in your own life.  If my readers find genuine meaning in Ellsworth Kelly, if they look at his colored surfaces and find rapture, well far be it from me to dissuade them from whatever works.  But the more visually alert a person is, the more of sensibility that one possesses — whatever intuition of nuance and mood and evocative power stirred by seeing the ordinary objects of common living experience, the images that draw out our deepest feelings and thoughts — these are not, I think, found in his spare fabrications.

They are squares.  That’s what they are.  Somebody tell the professor.  But don’t believe me.  Believe Van Gogh who diagnosed this problem over a hundred years ago.  It’s the worship of “names,”  though even that doesn’t quite explain it in Kelly’s case. Here, it’s the odd worship of nothing.

I first discussed Kelly here.

7 thoughts on “Creativity verses Ellsworth Kelly

  1. Yayaya for you. I agree one million percent. Modern (so called) Art has disappeared up its own fundamental. (And it drives me crazy when they say noone cares about good art anymore, people care, it’s just not in art galleries.) We need to reassert the possibility of genuine creativity and reconnect art to its initial and primary purpose, communication, as opposed to over intellectualised navel gazing and image shuffling. Let us declare the death of postmodern nihilist university art gallery wanking once and for all and say that art exists, creativity is happening, as it always has, in the streets.

  2. Hi, Aletha.

    Thank you for your bravery!

    I noticed that you had me in your blogroll, and after reading your posts, I am certainly honored.

    Keep it up,

    Lavanna Martin

  3. I like Kelly’s work. I agree, his work is overrated, but I don’t think that it is so without a reason. I feel that his art is a product of the times and that it is a very great example of it. Would his art have been called such in the 1600s? No, of course not, but it can be called that now. Isn’t that the very definition of modern art?

    I don’t look at his art and say “Oh what nice squares!” I look at his art as an indirect comment on art, and the society that accepted it as art, at the time.

    By the way, shame on you for stereotyping the farmers of Missouri and Bangladesh. Who says they could not appreciate modern art?

  4. Lydia,

    Ellsworth Kelly is one participant in what is called “modern art,” a term that actually has less to do with contemporary art-making than with specific, accepted, narrow “cannonized” forms of “art” as defined by the “art world.” In short it’s a term for a style and little more. What it excludes is far more varied and rich than what it allows. There’s a lot of painting being done today that museums completely snub — and wrongly to say the least. And I don’t accept the very premise that these artists recognized by officialdom actually have any lasting merit or even any transitory merit. Kelly is completely meritless.

    A good analogy for the false art of today would be the way that French painting was oppressively dominated by its Salon for such a long time that the French painters now known as Impressionists had to manage as paupers for twenty years before they could gain any recognition. Now they have completely eclipsed the artists who were the hip artists of their generation. But our “Salon” has an even tighter grip than that one!

    Real art is the art that meets not merely one generation’s standards but that of larger humanity, an art that addresses something real in human life. I don’t see “modern art” having anything at all to do with life anywhere, not even contemporary life. So, actually I wasn’t stereotyping Missouri and Bangladeshi farmers in anything but a positive way: because they are rather more intimately acquainted with “real life” concerns, I think they might have a more natural relationship to genuine art than some other demographics do. Perhaps. Certainly an artist like Van Gogh found some first admirers among ordinary people who were not of the fashionable set.

    I am not saying that Kelly’s “art” fails one standard: I am asserting that it fails all standards. Moreover there is nothing in the images (such as they are) to have any meaning beyond the rather arbitrary invented meanings assigned to them by their proponents. They are just squares! Do Kelly’s admirers realize that the works of great artists have meaning intrinsic to them, meaning that is not the property of any society, meaning that is inside the image itself?

    I happened to be at the National Gallery of Art yesterday where I looked at a “Kelly” as I awaited the arrival of a friend. I was thinking of my Kelly readers, wondering what on earth motivates them!

    One advantage, though. If you like Kelly’s thing, you needn’t bother trying to buy one. You could duplicate what I saw yesterday, for example — anyone could — quite easily. Indeed Kelly doesn’t paint his own paintings. They are produced by a company.

    Lots of luck doing that with Degas!

    Anyway, thank you for your comment. You are among the brave few Kelly admirers who actually leave comments here. You’re the member of an elite.


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