The (in)famous Robert Benchley

Maybe there is something more than wry humor behind Robert Benchley’s oft-quoted quip, “The world is divided into groups: those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.” It is after all so comfortingly seductive, the beautiful symmetry of just two elegant and simple options. Like the essential elementalness of coupling, toggle switches and the American two party political system.

And yes, it is also a disastrously incomplete view of life. But its appeal is so endemic because the very structure of bimodality brings order to the chaos of our world. We have minds that have been designed for pattern recognition, with proclivities to make a map through the onslaught of random information and stimuli that come at us every day.

With that caveat, here is one of my favorite order-creating divisions:

Some artists can deal with bad art, and some cannot.

I have been operating from this premise for many years and was reminded of it recently while reading Jerry Saltz’s latest piece in New York Magazine. In a column that covers a potpourri of topics, he offered this personal note:

I see 30 to 40 gallery shows a week, and no matter what kind of mood I’m in, no matter how bad the art is, I almost always feel better afterward. I can learn as much from bad art as from good.

I am not in Jerry’s tribe on this one, and I never have been.

This distinction was demonstrated to me years ago when an artist friend and I spent a day together visiting galleries in New York. Nothing spoke to either of us. Driving back to Boston, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Wiped out. The experience of seeing so much misfired work had left me with bad art poisoning. But my friend had the opposite reaction. She was animated by what we had seen, excited to get back to her studio and do great work.

The difference in our responses was so striking that I decided to conduct a straw poll among my artist friends with this question: Does seeing bad art energize or enervate you?

My network of friends is far from scientific, but here’s what I found:

– Artists who are teachers have a personal immunity to art that is bad, early stage and/or student level.

– Artists who do not teach are prone to be more “sensitive” to bad work. Those who have a proclivity to art poisoning are not as drawn to classrooms or teaching.

What remains undetermined is which came first. Is immunity an acquired skill? It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I am reminded of the explanation provided by artist Anna Hepler in an article by Sebastian Smee about why she left her secure and hard to come by teaching job. The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

No right or wrongs here, just the usefulness of knowing what kind of immune system you have operating.

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