I went to the museum the other day and saw some ink paintings that pissed me off. They were from the 60s and 70s but done to make sure even a casual viewer would know they reference traditional Chinese painting. Not awful just mediocre. The kind of stuff that might decorate a therapist’s waiting room. What pissed me off was they were in a world-class museum.
I don’t entertain these thoughts too often because they would stop me from continuing but the crappy ink paintings made me wonder out loud why my work wasn’t in the museum. Who decides what gets in?
Art has been used since forever to make political and economic deals go down easier. The only way I can accept these ink paintings’ place in the museum is as tokens of diplomacy. I don’t know the particulars nor do I want to.
What if some billionaire politician came to me and said I could have a show at the museum to help him promote his slave colony in outer space? Would my ego allow me to refuse? I’ve spent my whole life doing a thing that’s been largely ignored. Now a guy comes and offers me more exposure than I ever dreamed of. Could I say no?
What if I say yes and the exhibition is a success. Can I show my face in the museum after, knowing what the success cost? At this point, I’d welcome such a problem but have no clue what I’d do.
It’s a weird time for museums in general. People are asking about how and why they show what they show in ways they didn’t used to. I read an article about some new museum in Germany filling rooms with looted Chinese art. How can the public get anything out of it, no matter how beautiful it is, knowing how it got there?
I guess I can feel thankful that my anonymity keeps my pictures ethically pure. But does it really? Is that even a thing to aspire to? I’m not making objects of devotion likes Buddhas or Christs. There’s no morality test as part of my creative process. What makes me so sure I’m on a more righteous path than the guy in the museum with his crappy ink paintings?
The thing I thought looking at them is that given those same walls I could fill them better. This may be sour grapes or delusion but I don’t think so. The result of a long and deep engagement with a thing gives a person the right to discern good from bad in a pretty unilateral way. You get to know a thing from the inside. How it was made, what it took, and you can judge it at a glance. This doesn’t mean anyone else will agree or even listen. It’s not like I can take my certainties to the curator and she’ll throw these paintings in the dumpster out back like she should.
I’m busy taking out my own trash. I hauled a bunch of art-school-era paintings and drawings from my parents’ basement back to Chicago. I’m trying to breathe some life into them. It’s weird to look at this stuff after thirty-plus years. Some are no better than the thrift-store castoffs I salvage for frames; others have a few square inches worth keeping, surrounded by yards of dead space. A few contain history that’s best rubbed out and forgotten.
They aren’t bound for the Art Institute. Not right away anyhow. They’ll hang in a bar and the front of a frame shop this summer and my conscience can stay clear and clean. Few people will question whether they belong on those walls except painters even lower down the food chain. They’ll look and wonder why my work is up instead of theirs like I wonder about the ink painting guy in the museum. It’s an endless cycle.
I’ll hope that somebody likes a few of them and takes them home so I don’t have to bring them back here.
Listen to a talk in Russian with my father.
RIP Sam Gross.