Bringing the snark

By Alec Clayton on December 2, 2010


There are critics who love the snarky comment more than anything. They'd rather fire a witty barb at an actor or artist than see a good play or art exhibit. I don't do that. Or I rarely do. If anything I'm usually overly nice, but once in a while I give in to the temptation to nail someone, and when I do I hear it from readers.

I can praise everyone and never hear from anyone, but let me fail to mention somebody's grandchild who had a no-name part in some ensemble bit and I get emails asking why I slighted him.

Recently I called the painters Bev Doolittle and Thomas Kincade super slick commercial schmucks and a reader rightly called me on it. I shouldn't be so nasty. That was totally unnecessary and out of character for me, but it felt good. Some folks beg for derision.

I would not be so critical of unknown local artists who were struggling to gain acceptance in the art world. If they showed promise but were not yet ready for primetime I'd criticize them in the manner of a helpful professor. If they were really, really bad I just wouldn't review them at all. But so-called artists who gain widespread popularity and make a lot of money by creating pictures that are slick, commercial and gimmicky, and which appeal to cheap sentiment and are masterfully marketed, should be called out. They muddy the waters of art.

The public is easily duped. Show them enough of that stuff and they begin to believe that's what real art is. Why bother to go to a museum and see the real masters and maybe have to stretch their minds and open their hearts in order to grasp and begin to appreciate what may be new and off-putting to them when they can go to that gallery in the mall and pick up a lovely landscape that looks like the Christmas cards that enchanted them in their childhood? Never mind that it's mass produced.

It's easy to like gimmicky or sentimental art. It's much harder to like a Frances Bacon or a Pablo Picasso or even a Caravaggio. Those demand long and careful study. But the rewards are much greater for those willing to put in the effort. The commercial exploitation of stuff that's easy to like inhibits people's ability to learn to like the truly worthy art. They listen to Bob Denver instead of Bob Dylan, to Lawrence Welk instead of Beethoven. They read cheap romances rather than Shakespeare and Faulkner.

So what? Let ‘em read and look at and listen to what they like and the lovers of Shakespeare and Beethoven and Caravaggio can read and look at and listen to what they like. That sounds logical enough, but the commercialization of lesser art stifles greater art. The next generation's Faulkner can't even get his book published and the next generation's Caravaggio can't even get a gallery show because the purveyors of art are so busy making money off the likes of Doolittle and Kincade that they won't take a chance on the next generation's budding geniuses.

That's why I sometimes get snarkier than perhaps I should. But I try to save it for the ones who are laughing all the way to the bank.