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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 18:09   #1
Juan Varela
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Is Bird Art kitch?

Googling for updates on Birds in Art show I found this comment on the exhibit in a blog. Would like to hear your views on it. The whole post can be found here.
…While originality is key for most contemporary art exhibits, wildlife art is traditionally more about what viewers like rather than what will challenge them intellectually. All pieces chosen by the Woodson Museum to represent the current popular aesthetic are of a size that would comfortably fit as a display in a collector’s home. (…)
One aspect, however, remains constant throughout: the subjects of each piece were created for pleasure rather than any deeper reflection. All artists introduce their subjects as birds they’ve been fascinated with since childhood or have inspired them or made them laugh in some way. The Woodson Museum deliberately does not choose symbolic scenes of dead birds, bird hunting, or natural violence even though they easily could. Instead, they choose to focus year after year on the type of wildlife art that stimulates content enjoyment from the viewer.(…)
So how does an annually kitsch exhibit warrant such recognition in the contemporary art world? According to art historian Robert Silberman, bird art’s popularity is simply a result of the fact that people like it. Kitsch artwork can be described as any form of art that is considered to be of low quality and have inferior artistic value. In his article from Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Silberman discusses the value of avian art and its status in the contemporary art world. He writes, “Much of it is properly described as decorative or illustration. Call it what you will, it is genuinely popular, and it’s popularity rests precisely on the fact that it does not challenge the viewer.” The wider realm of esteemed contemporary art thrives on the critical and analytical quality of the work and therefore kitsch artworks, such as happy wildlife art, continue to be at odds with other, more respected fields contemporary art.
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 18:58   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Juan Varela View Post
Googling for updates on Birds in Art show I found this comment on the exhibit in a blog. Would like to hear your views on it. The whole post can be found here.
…While originality is key for most contemporary art exhibits, wildlife art is traditionally more about what viewers like rather than what will challenge them intellectually. All pieces chosen by the Woodson Museum to represent the current popular aesthetic are of a size that would comfortably fit as a display in a collector’s home. (…)
One aspect, however, remains constant throughout: the subjects of each piece were created for pleasure rather than any deeper reflection. All artists introduce their subjects as birds they’ve been fascinated with since childhood or have inspired them or made them laugh in some way. The Woodson Museum deliberately does not choose symbolic scenes of dead birds, bird hunting, or natural violence even though they easily could. Instead, they choose to focus year after year on the type of wildlife art that stimulates content enjoyment from the viewer.(…)
So how does an annually kitsch exhibit warrant such recognition in the contemporary art world? According to art historian Robert Silberman, bird art’s popularity is simply a result of the fact that people like it. Kitsch artwork can be described as any form of art that is considered to be of low quality and have inferior artistic value. In his article from Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Silberman discusses the value of avian art and its status in the contemporary art world. He writes, “Much of it is properly described as decorative or illustration. Call it what you will, it is genuinely popular, and it’s popularity rests precisely on the fact that it does not challenge the viewer.” The wider realm of esteemed contemporary art thrives on the critical and analytical quality of the work and therefore kitsch artworks, such as happy wildlife art, continue to be at odds with other, more respected fields contemporary art.
A very interesting quote Juan. I'd suggest sending it to Todd Wilkinson at Wildlife Art Journal to see if he might post it there, though I do hate to give credit to the author.

I've been involved with wildlife art, particularly bird art, for six years. From what I can see bird artists are very reluctant to talk about it critically. Though Todd is always trying to get some responses at WAJ almost no one ever replies publicly. Seems odd in this age of everyone saying anything all the time. Though I'm a born theorizer and arguer I do appreciate why people might be silent. If often seems that discussion just leads nowhere.

I apply every year to get into BIA and never do so what I say might be colored by sour grapes. That said quite honestly I always find I have to work to find something I like in the catalog. I have a very old habit of just browsing art books, museums, galleries first before looking seriously. I like to see what catches my attention. With BIA it is 1-2 works at most. That is very depressing to me. I'd like to see more art that grabs me right off. I never do. What I do see is between 10-20% of big white and pick birds, generally egrets, swans, etc. I've actually counted these a number of times to make sure I' m not imagining things. So to me that indicates to a certain extent that the author is right. There seems to be a predilection for pretty birds.

I generally find though that as I go back through the catalog I always find much more that I like. Sometimes I find art that I can appreciate but don't really like. But I think this is true of any group exhibition. There will always be some things of quality that a viewer just won't like. Still I do find it depressing to go through the 10-15 catalogs that I have and find almost nothing that is appealling at first glance. To me that says something about the show. The work that generally does appeal to me before I even know who did it generally has the name Lars Jonsson, Barry Van Dusen or John Busby attached. I'm sure this year that I'll instantly like the work of both Darren Woodhead and yourself.

All in all though I find BIA work very unadventurous.

Of course 'adventurous' is not easy to define. All I would say is that to me it is work that both appreciates the subject and the history of art, so that it sees art as a vibrant medium and uses birds as subject.

So that's where I agree with the author. But I'm much more in disagreement than agreement. That's because the author doesn't seem to realize how art has always been informed, and in fact thrives, on the love of the artist for his subject. That is what is so horribly and thoroughly wrong with the contemporary art world. It seems to think that 'true' art is all intellectual, that it is intellectually challenging. I always try to point out to people that Marcel Duchamp exhibited his urinal over 100 years ago. It and art like it is hardly challenging or interesting now. It's far more hackneyed than the academic art that the Impressionists reacted against. And the art establishment of today is just as blind as it was during the time of the Impressionists.

I once went to a talk in Philadelphia by a famous New York critic. As he rambled on I realized most of his metaphors were military. An artist needed this 'strategy' and that 'strategy.' What in the world do strategies have to do with the primal urge that brings most artists to art in the first place? To me the art that this author considers good and challenging is intellectually bankrupt but in particular it is spiritually bankrupt. It doesn't see that an artist liking his subject and his audience doing the same is good not bad. Kitsch isn't kitsch because somebody likes it. It's kitsch because it is done formulaically by the artist with the intent of evoking a formulaic response from the viewer. I think you can certainly find some bird art that does that. But most does not. And I think in particular most good bird art does not. As bored as I often am by BIA I really don't think most of it is formulaic. Though I do withhold judgment on all those big white and pink birds.

Well I imagine I've possibly set the record for longest post here and probably alienated a lot of people along the way. But BIA and the contermporary art world have both been itches that I've wanted to scratch for a very long time.
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 19:56   #3
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Fine post, Ken - and a good question, Juan.
I don't see BIA - ever. I haven't a clue what they exhibit - BUT; I have seen some of the recent pieces accepted via another 'platform', and to be honest, I found them generally devoid of much other than good technique. Care to post a few examples, anyone?
However - reading the quoted critique and the allegations directed at wildlife art, I will reply with one word - Landscape.
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 22:52   #4
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I can’t agree more with you Ken. I was a keen reader of the late Wildlife Art Magazine and, appart from excellent articles and good samples of great art, I found lots of boring material. Its right that there’s a lot of wildlife art born to please the lowest instincts of the audience.
This said, I’m sure that you’ll agree on the point that a lot of art has a formula in its origin: landscapes, portraits, marinas, etc., have their own audience that don’t want to see many changes in the recipe. Even abstracts have in many cases clear references to the great artists of the post-war
The World of art or at least the critics and many galleries, suffers today of that blindness that you mention. Take for instance the recent exhibition of Damian Hirst in the Tate Gallery. I’ve seen more talent in the collections of stuffed specimens of the Natural History Museum in Madrid.
Generally speaking the kind of work that you see in BIA is formulaic in many instances but I tend to think that is not much to do with the museum’s orientation. I rather think that many artists fear to send “risky” pieces and prefer a “safe bet” to see their paintings selected. I wouldn’t say that the jury is “instructed” to prefer certain subjects or styles.
In my view, art is subject to renovation through research, and like scientific theories, it changes from one generation to the next. Wildlife art, instead, is in many ways tied to realism from its origin as an illustrative art, but also from the deep knowledge that many artist and viewers have of the motifs depicted. I think that we wildlife artist are conditioned by the fascination of nature and its many forms in the same way that impressionists were drawn by the “plein air” and the discovering of colour. I’m doubtful that anybody that don’t share this fascination can understand the difference between painting from photos or painting from your own sketches.
In present times, we are assisting to a trivialization of the culture. The intellectual class has practically disappeared and most of the art is based in marketing, strategies, and slogans (no new, it was already practiced by Warhol and the factory). Yes, I think that you cannot qualify the Bird Art as kitch when most of the culture nowadays is “light” when not pretentious and empty of meaning.
I’m not sure if the recent book (La Civilizacion del Espectaculo) of the Nobel Prize Mario Vargas Llosa is available in English, but if you can find it I’ll strongly recommend it since is an incredibly smart view of the situation of the culture in the present world.
Well this is maybe another record in posting! Sorry!
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Old Tuesday 14th August 2012, 23:12   #5
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Personally, although some may reasonably be defined as such, I think defining all wildlife art as kitsch is unduly harsh. It seems to me that in some ways the writer is defining all art solely within the context of contemporary art. “Artistic value” (whatever that may mean) is defined wholly by current ideas of what that might entail. Much of wildlife art may indeed be 'properly described as decorative or illustration' , but how much work produced in the last few millennia, much of it recognised as 'art', couldn't be so described? I don't think those grandees who employed artisan artists to paint portraits, views, etc had much in mind beyond the decorative or illustrative Even those works that had a narrative basis largely depended on the viewer being conversant with mythology and in a sense did not 'speak' directly to the viewer. Does that mean it's not art? Where do works by Constable, Stubbs, etc., etc stand in this context? In part I feel that this whole process is as much about mystification as clarification.

Could anyone sensibly deny that Turner's paintings are 'art' and great art at that. I'm not entirely sure what it means for art to “challenge the viewer”. Make them think perhaps. Make them reflect on their world maybe. Question their assumptions. Take them to another unfamiliar place maybe. Looking at Turner's 'Rain, Steam and Speed' I can feel many of these things (and who could say it's not also immensely decorative). Do I ever find myself reacting similarly to wildlife art? Certainly. It can make me feel cold, sense the wind on my cheek, question mysteries like migration, think about consciousness, etc. Is that what is meant by challenging the viewer? I don't know. Of course there's often the suspicion that 'challenging the viewer' is a code for snobbishness and intellectual pseudery. I couldn't possibly comment.
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 10:08   #6
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As a potential exhibit for the Tate I would like to gather together a host of over intellectualizing art critics and exhibit them in a gigantic bird cage where they would inevitably bore each other to death with their own words....

Art critics are an art unto themselves....

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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 11:40   #7
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I've often said that what I do is merely illustration rather than art as I often just draw directly from a photo, but the quote above does stray into Brian from Spaced territory:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhUMRgZjKr8
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 14:22   #8
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Originally Posted by Juan Varela View Post
In present times, we are assisting to a trivialization of the culture. The intellectual class has practically disappeared and most of the art is based in marketing, strategies, and slogans (no new, it was already practiced by Warhol and the factory). Yes, I think that you cannot qualify the Bird Art as kitch when most of the culture nowadays is “light” when not pretentious and empty of meaning.
I’m not sure if the recent book (La Civilizacion del Espectaculo) of the Nobel Prize Mario Vargas Llosa is available in English, but if you can find it I’ll strongly recommend it since is an incredibly smart view of the situation of the culture in the present world.
Well this is maybe another record in posting! Sorry!
Hey Juan,

I'm trying not to quote everything you said but I do find myself in agreement with almost all of it. And you're absolutely right that abstract art can be just as formulaic as realistic. I've always believed that good artists don't try to be 'original', as the author suggests. Instead they try to be fresh, to renovate older styles, subjects, etc. to make them seem fresh and vital to contemporary eyes. Today I think we live in a world, at least in the art museums, of false and shallow originality. I do think that people who really love and paint the natural world, whether landscapes, wildlife or whatever are a healthy antidote to that. Unfortunately the art world rarely takes them seriously, unless they put an ironic spin on it. I'm not sure if a contemporary Velazquez was painting today, especially with nature as his subject, that the art world would notice.

I can't remember where it was but I'm sure I saw Vargas Llosa on TV speaking about his book somewhere in the last 6 months. Oddly enough I've been aware of him for more than 40 years. When I was first in college I had an interesting classmate who always let everyone know he was the nephew of Vargas Llosa. Out of curiosity that got me reading his work way back then. I have to say though I haven't read him in a while. I'll look for that new book though! I think I'd enjoy it quite a lot.
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Old Wednesday 15th August 2012, 20:51   #9
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John's question upthread about where Constable, Stubbs and all stand in this really struck a chord.

its easy to be seduced by the new and seemingly exciting and lose sight of how blindingly brilliant realist, representational animal [landscape] art can be

goodness knows I am a sucker for grubby, scribbled, splooshy offerings, but you've got to keep a hold of what is truly classy, even if it is within established convention and easy-on-the-eye

I had the pleasure on hol' last week of revisiting an old favourite [ploughing in Nivernais] painted in the mid-1800s and you can see from this tour that it holds its proper place amongst the fine art

http://www.motion-vr.com/tours/Ringl...Gallery21.html

http://b.vimeocdn.com/ts/145/472/145472419_640.jpg

http://www.rosabonheur.fr/wp-content.../05/boeufs.jpg

but painted today, where would it end up?
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Old Saturday 1st September 2012, 12:54   #10
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John's question upthread about where Constable, Stubbs and all stand in this really struck a chord.

its easy to be seduced by the new and seemingly exciting and lose sight of how blindingly brilliant realist, representational animal [landscape] art can be

goodness knows I am a sucker for grubby, scribbled, splooshy offerings, but you've got to keep a hold of what is truly classy, even if it is within established convention and easy-on-the-eye

I had the pleasure on hol' last week of revisiting an old favourite [ploughing in Nivernais] painted in the mid-1800s and you can see from this tour that it holds its proper place amongst the fine art

http://www.motion-vr.com/tours/Ringl...Gallery21.html

http://b.vimeocdn.com/ts/145/472/145472419_640.jpg

http://www.rosabonheur.fr/wp-content.../05/boeufs.jpg

but painted today, where would it end up?
Held off on commenting on this thread for awhile but I did want to mention Stubbs. Many years ago when I was a complete believer in abstraction I lived in Kentucky, famous for its horses. In fact there were some right outside the door of my rented house. They convinced me to buy a book on Stubbs, whom I'd never really looked at. I remember when I did I thought: you know there really has to be a place for art like this in contemporary art. You just can't forget it in the interest of abstraction or whatever the current trend might be. To a certain extent that was the beginning of my interest in animal/wildlife art.
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Old Saturday 1st September 2012, 21:54   #11
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It's not easy to define what moves the artist, and it is difficult to define art.
You've mentioned Constable or Stubb, but we could include Sargent, Sorolla, Caillebote or Liljeford, among others. It's all about light, color, composition, drawing, etc., nothing challenging if it's not the eye of the artist, its talent to offer a different view of a quotidian scene -childrens on a beach, the sundown light on a park promenade, a resting fox or three workers polishing the wood floor-. All this images tell a story in the same way that a Lars Jonsson's painting of a group of curlews on the shore, talks about migration, life cycles, and so on. You need an eye for that...
It's said the every writer or painter writes or paints always the same work. This probably have to do with the essence of the art. The point for the artist is the process itself, the act of painting and the dialogue with the unfinished work. Once done, the painting can be accepted or not and the artist can be satisfied with the result or not, but there's nothing else he/she can do, unless starting again. We learn during the act of painting, from the mistakes or the findings. We make a living from our finished works but repeating a formula eliminates the most important and joyful part of the art work, thus leading to kitch art.
John Berger has an interesting collections of essays on Drawing. He says, and I completely agree with him, that a painting provides images and stories to the observer, while the drawing -the sketch- gives the artist himself, its presence is not concealed by layers of oil.
The Wildlife art offers, more than any other kind of art, the immediateness of the pencil or the brush stroke because we produce more sketches or studies than other artists of these days.
Or at least I think so...
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Old Sunday 2nd September 2012, 20:21   #12
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The Wildlife art offers, more than any other kind of art, the immediateness of the pencil or the brush stroke because we produce more sketches or studies than other artists of these days.
Or at least I think so...

I think so too, about all of what you've said but especially this last section. I was thinking the other day how much I enjoy sketching from life. And then it hit me that I really don't know anyone who sketches from life anymore, although I do know that there are a lot of people sketching in nature and also urban sketchers. But I think that they may not be as dedicated as wildlife artists in the sense of really trying to get down what they see on paper. I could be wrong. In any case I realized pretty much the same thing that you just said that it is wildlife art in particular today that really encourages people to do sketches. I'd never really thought about that before.

I haven't read John Berger in many years but next time I'm in the library I may look for his books. I do know that I've always found Rembrandt's sketches as exciting as his paintings.
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