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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Canadian Notes and Queries, WTF??

The new issue of CNQ (Canadian Notes & Queries) just arrived. It’s full of some terrific reading: ponder Steven W. Beattie’s “Fuck Books: Some Thoughts on Canned Lit” and then read David Mason’s love affair with books. There’s more and I’ve not read it all – I would like to respond to some of what I’ve already read. I was really beginning to like this magazine.

Then I came across a hideously ridiculous article that is making me seriously question the editorial judgment behind the magazine. It’s one thing to rant a bit about the current state of affairs as Beattie does. Has Canadian literature become embodied by a “persistent and virulent strain in CanLit” that “rely for their force and effect upon prose of heightened poeticisms and lyrical trills…”? It goes on. Yes and no. Beattie rakes Fugitive Pieces across the coals, with good reason. On the other hand Red Dog Red Dog by Patrick Lane is one such novel relying on heightened poetic language and frankly the fact it didn’t win every award in Canada including the Booker is a bit of a disgrace. It is truly one of the most magnificently written novels I’ve read in years. It’s quite another thing to run poorly written, poorly considered, rambling verbiage that wastes 13 pages.
I’m talking about the long masturbatory hortatory harangue by Ron Shuebrook that reads like one of Hilton Kramer’s rants in his garbage magazine The New Criterion.
Let me preface. I was in a meeting the other day discussing a grant and one person said, “everyone knows what makes a really good work of art.” I was the first to jump all over this statement and others in the room followed suit.

Ron Shuebrook would probably defend the statement. His position seems to be that great art is Western Art of the best white male European tradition and that today’s artists are falling prey to contemporary influences -- subtext, why can’t they just learn what they’re supposed to learn, why can’t they go back to being serious and creating the good stuff. He calls these contemporary influences “disturbing factors.” For Shuebrook the lineage of great contemporary art began with Cezanne and went through Matisse, Marsden Hartley to Diebenkorn, including Motherwell when he feels like it. It’s a hackneyed saw, one that was promoted by many art schools last century, to their detriment. I might even guess the Art Student’s League in New York still believes and teaches some version not far from this, having moved a bit up from the position that all art must be done in ochre, like Rembrandt.
Shuebrook is just another old white male trying to defend a Modernist position that for too long in the art world remained unquestioned. This was exactly the position more than one of my instructors took while I was an undergraduate student in 1978. I believe they all have fallen prey to what might be called the historicity syndrome, the works’ inclusion in history makes them great. Others would call it succumbing to marketing. Proponents believe that quality is embedded in these works in some unique way that fits for all people and can be taught, including the fact their students will never learn it as well as they know it.

Shuebrook is so full of himself the article makes for a tough slog. He says, “Having now produced thousands of works, I have come to recognize in my sustained practices that I have had no desire to have my own art replace the accomplished art of others.” This is pretty much meaningless, no art replaces that of others. What I think he means is that he’s great but merely wants to hang along side those artists of history he considers great, not to replace them on the walls. And I guess he wants to let us know he’s done thousands of works. Hell, I interviewed one artist who did hundreds of thousands of works so is Shuebrook lazy?

He continues, “Rather I have been more interested in building my own critical contributions on an intellectual and psychological foundation of historical art and pictorial knowledge and understanding.” He has this in italics. Many things are going on here. He assumes there is some shared and accepted body of knowledge when it comes to art and especially serious/great art. He can’t see he’s promoting a privileged, colonial, outdated position that it might hardly deserve notice except it is still found throughout art schools and it appears in this contemporary magazine. Hey Ron, wake up. There is no one way of knowing. People are diverse. Art is diverse. Nobody has the authority any more to say there is one set of criteria related to genuineness or quality or whatever you want to call it that could possibly fit for all works of art and especially for all peoples.

Secondly the quote suggests Shuebrook works under what we call the fallacy of intention. Well, I meant to do XYZ is not good enough when the work does something else. Beginning artists all do this, well I meant my work to say XYZ. The answer usually is that it’s actually doing ABC. They learn over time to be more perceptive critics of their own work. In the real world if you pinch someone’s behind and are brought up on harassment charges, you can’t say, I meant to do …add your reason here. It is not an excuse.

Next Shuebrook goes onto discuss “great western traditions of painting that have set the highest standards of aesthetic accomplishment.” Could he please write down exactly what these are and for whom? Oh yes, no need. It’s been done in many How-To books, How to Paint Like Old Masters; How to Compose a Painting etc. He’s just moved from realism to abstraction but the agenda is the same. These are no longer relevant to anyone except hacks. Shuebrook continues to denounce that younger artists are not much interested in serious art and great works, they merely follow the path of superficiality, smug ignorance, and self-delusion. Has that pissed off most of you younger artists yet? Write Shuebrook and maybe he’ll let you study with him to learn the CORRECT way to paint.
After a while Shuebrook’s not-too-deep rants get exceedingly tedious. I’m still on page one of the article by the way. Contemporary trends are disturbing for “knowledgeable observers and mature artists of integrity” like Shuebrook. He just doesn’t stop.

How many artists across the globe would he be disenfranchising with this narrow minded dogma? And then at the start of page two he sort of admits his reality, “Although my assertions may seem to be coloured by a generational nostalgia for an ideal time of widespread cultural awareness, balanced analysis, and professional standards…”. Yep, it’s his own past seen through rose colored bifocals. Guess what, it wasn’t like that even then. He’s ignored countless movements back then that challenged forcefully everything he believes in. Earlier this year I put together a list of art movements since 1955 and counted have been over a hundred. And I readily acknowledge this list excludes most of the world who was creating art during this time, often with very different knowledge bases and sets of evaluative criteria.

Shuebrook goes on for another few pages lamenting the decline of serious, great art while name dropping as many artists as he can that he either studied with or looked at the art of as a means of trying to, I guess, insert himself into a history that has excluded him. In all my years in New York I never heard of this guy. Yeah, many artists try this strategy but to think it’s a truly workable strategy is a bit irrational. He drops names of artists I knew and studied with too; so he liked Jack Youngerman. Well get this, I studied with Jack at grad school. He was brilliant, witty, smart as a whip, generous, and he supported me by seeing to the heart of my endeavours. He wanted artists to find their true voice, and here’s something Shuebrook won’t like hearing, Youngerman wanted our works to look new, to be of the present and not look as though situated in the past.

Shuebrooks own paintings are a sad pastiche of other artist’s figured-out styles, at least the ones featured with this article. As artists we know this, we fault artists for merely rehashing other peoples’ styles because we know it means they never discovered their own voice. Combine the lines of Brice Marden or those like the drawings of Diebenkorn with the flat areas Matisse, use black from Motherwell, think Hans Hofmann had the last word on plasticity, dip into the paint handling of David Row and that’s about it. His works look dated. In art if it looks dated it is dated. If it looks dated and is not ironic then we worry. Here’s a hint: the 1950’s took place over sixty years ago? Time to move on. Shuebrooks paintings look overly composed, styled, mannered, and predetermined. They are safe to the point of boredom. I can’t image this guy taking any chances without first seeing the effect in an art book or magazine.

Equally offensive is Shuebrooks continued use of some vague idea around perceptual engagement as though this makes up for all else. I suspect this follows some Ab Ex mandate that says the only content of art should be the formal elements. He writes, “I also have come to believe that authentic meaning can only be achieved through the viewer’s perceptual engagement with the actual work of art.” He doesn’t do it but I will: Apologies to all the visually impaired people in the world who may experience art in a way that’s not perceptual and to all other artists who know art can be/mean many different things including the non perceptual. As an artist keenly interested in perceptual phenomena, I have no real idea of what Shuebrook is attempting to say. This is because it sounds good. It’s a buzz word. Ah yes, visual art must be perceptual to carry meaning. Again the viewpoint is narrow, outdated, wrong, and really quite annoying. His final backing his position up with Hannah Arendt, she died in 1975, again shows he’s really out of touch with the reality of contemporary art and thought. Enjoy your little pompous self-created throne, and don’t forget to flush when you’re done.

All this said, I have to question why CNQ thought such backwards thinking and rambling naval gazing was fit for its magazine. If they want to continue such features, I can put them in touch with hundreds other such artists living bitter lives in which they continually justify their never having been seen as great (they don’t seem to see the contradiction in being bitter and justifying). I beg you please, no more of this crap.