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The Dutch Wives, by Jasper Johns (on view at Harvard’s Sackler Museum)

Sebastian Smee. How did Boston get so lucky? Having him at the Globe has made all the difference for me. No wonder my friends down under are still bemoaning his loss (Smee wrote for The Australian in Sydney before relocating here.)

His recent review of the small show at Harvard on Jasper Johns has a few passages that capture the quixotic nature of Johns’ work with an insightful ring of truth that I had to share them here. I have had a long and complicated relationship with Johns’s work, but Smee artfully circles up those diverse feelings into a view that feels balanced and accurate. He hits it directly, even in his intro paragraph:

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

And it just keeps coming. Referring to Johns’s work as “difficult to write about—so tender to the touch,” this passage is also memorable:

One of the reasons Johns’s work is so difficult to write about — so tender to the touch — is that it is stuffed with allusions and clues that amount to a kind of secret order or logic, and thence to what might be thought of as “meaning.” And yet, frustratingly, it goes out of its way to obscure meaning.

That’s because Johns is not interested in clear meanings. Clear meanings are for children and lawyers. He is interested instead in life, and is rightly contemptuous of critics and academics who try to act as village explainers of his work.

When, in a 1965 interview, the critic David Sylvester followed up on an answer to an earlier question by asking, “Do you know why?” Johns said, “No, but I can make up a reason.” It was not a cantankerous joke, I think, but an honest answer, full of gentle forbearance.

Smee goes on to quote Johns from the same David Sylvester interview: “The final suggestion, the final gesture, the final statement [in a work of art] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Johns is just as interested, Smee points out, in the “inevitable collapse of meaning, and what is left in its wake — the “helpless statement.” This is a graceful way to engage with those hard won concepts like humility, vulnerability, and getting to the essence that does stand up, all the way through to the end.

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Tangka from Seeking Shambhala (Photo: MFA)

The MFA’s small show, Seeking Shambhala, is a quiet treasure chest opened up in a corner gallery of the Asian Wing. With a mythical utopian location at the heart of the exhibit, Shambhala (or as it is sometimes referenced in the West, Shangri-La) offers an open invitation to blend both the ancient and the contemporary. An exquisite collection of thangkas (gifted to the MFA in 1906) is combined with Buddhist objects as well as compelling works by two present-day artists, Gonkar Gyatso from Tibet and Tadanori Yokoo from Japan.

From Sebastian Smee‘s review in the Boston Globe:

Is it a real place? A mere state of mind? No one can say. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside I forget precisely what. The word derives from the Sanskrit, meaning “bliss arising,” or, less rousingly, “source of happiness…” Real or unreal, Shambhala has been described as a kingdom in Central Asia, obscured by a ring of snow-covered mountains and enveloped in fog, ruled by a succession of 32 kings…

The thangkas (there are nearly two dozen of them) are the beating heart of the exhibition; you could spend all your time with them alone. They’re magnificent—at once deliriously decorative, dauntingly potent, and laden with arcane symbolism…They make up one of the largest suites of paintings of the 32 kings of Shambala outside of Asia. And they have been lovingly restored for the occasion: Four MFA conservators…reportedly spent 4,000 hours on the job—removing them from old mounts, retouching faded areas, and adding silk borders, veils, and streamers.

The old is put in high contrast to the new. A series of silkscreens, called Shambala, were created by Yokoo in the 1970’s. They came into existence during a critical period in the artist’s spiritual journey when a monk came to him in a dream and spoke of the “King of Shambhala.” That mystical connection seems very fitting for the spirit of this show.

Gonkar Gyatso’s contemporary piece, “Shambhala in Modern Times,” offers another view from a different angle. His seated Buddha is haloed in the detritus of our noisy commercial world—throwaway images, logos, clippings, advertisements. From a distance it is a luminous and sacral portrait; it is only when you look closely that the nature of the elements making up the image are revealed.

The setting of this show is also in keeping with a spirit of the illusive and ethereal. Walking to the exhibit takes you through quiet galleries of ancient sculptures and meticulously detailed woodcuts. The show itself hangs in the foyer leading into the darkened space that is the Buddhist Temple Room, a space that holds its worthy silence with gravitas. Worthy of more visits, the show is up through September 30.


Gyatso’s Shambhala in Modern Times


Close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala


Another close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala


From Tadanori Yokoo’s series, Shambala


From the deCordova Biennial, a work by Cambridge-based Joe Zane (Photo: Carroll and Sons Gallery)*

OK. I haven’t seen the show yet. But Sebastian Smee‘s Boston Globe review of the newly-opened deCordova Biennial rang true of so many shows that I have seen lately:

I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve…Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators—for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious—still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.

Wicked yeah.

For my regulars I am repeating yet again. But reading this review brought to mind the quote from Roberta Smith‘s response to a similar show. Her words, like Smee’s, speak to a gap that exists between curators and art makers:

After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.

What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.

Her advice to curators is right in line with Smee’s response to the deCordova show:

They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.

These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.

Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.

Smee did find a few submissions that offered something to the viewer. His closing line is a keeper: “These promising, good, or interesting things were outnumbered by lightweight gestures of cling film conceptualism—cut off from fresh air, refrigerator-ready, coddled in cleverness.”

I just love this guy. The image is pitch perfect.

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*Here is Smee’s specific response to this work by Joe Zane:

In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.” Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.


First floor view of the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, Boston

I’m of several minds when it comes to the oft-argued place that museums should/could/would claim in the cultural milieu of contemporary life. Beyond the obvious tensions—high brow vs low brow (in a world that is increasingly no brow), elitism vs art for the common man—it is daunting to create a meaningful experience of contemporary art. Unwieldy and uncategorizable, it is bit like herding cats and not a job I would want. No matter what you do, some of your stakeholders are going to be unhappy.

So yes, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA in Boston that opened last weekend pleases some and irritates others. As has been pointed out, the collection is not a comprehensive one. (Not surprising given how many years the MFA was not actively expanding their contemporary holdings.) The thematic approach to the galleries—each room of eclectic work is held together by titles such as “What’s it about?,” “Quote? Copy? Update?,” or “What’s going on here?”—is the increasingly common Art For Dummies approach to complex visual traditions. But to focus on listing the important contemporary artists whose works are missing or to roll one’s eyes at commentaries written for middle school level reading comprehension is to overlook what is extraordinary about a new and updated museum wing devoted to contemporary art and its issues. I’m for celebrating the rising tide that raises all boats, for increased exposure, visibility and comfort with contemporary art memes.

I grew up near San Francisco, and the only museum that showed contemporary work, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was housed on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center. While paltry and small, the SFMOMA still gave the adolescent version of me a chance to sit with a Rothko in person, to see Stellas and Motherwells and Diebenkorns. I didn’t visit New York City or Europe until I was 18 so this was my art world as a child.

That space was dinky and dingy when compared to Mario Botta‘s iconic five story museum that now holds a city block just south of Market Street. The new structure offers twenty times the viewing venues of its earlier incarnation, and the face of contemporary art in the Bay Area today in general is substantially improved. But thank god for its earlier incarnation. It changed my life.

It is a different world now of course. My kids grew up with the MFA just a 20 minute walk away and with frequent trips to New York City, Europe and Asia. The Boston area is now museum rich with new and improved versions of the ICA, the Fogg, Peabody Essex, de Cordova and the Gardner. But in a political landscape increasingly dividing haves from have nots, I have a heightened appreciation for institutions that are committed to universal access and to the common weal. During dark times like these, I just can’t be overly critical when gratitude is the more appropriate response.

One reason to visit the museum soon: Christian Marclay‘s The Clock. I have read—as have you no doubt—all the hype about this 24 hour long montage. I was curious but a bit skeptical. Well. I was and am completely intoxicated. I walked in and thought I would stay for 20 minutes. Three hours later, I was rapt and still didn’t want to leave.

This trancelike work flows from one scene to another, stitched together with references to time (in complete sequence with IRL time) and a deft weaving of haunting moments of human life. Using elements such as rain falling, the view from a window or a running figure to move from one sequence to the next, Marclay lifts you ever so gently into a transcendent sense of our own collective unconscious, a (mostly) Western dreaming that is breathtaking. Almost 24 hours later, I’m still caught in its magic. As Sebastian Smee wrote, it is a dazzling piece of work.

(Note: The MFA is mounting the full 24 hour showing on October 9 starting at 4pm and running through Monday. I will be out of town that weekend for a wedding but if I were in Boston I wouldn’t miss it.)


Gallery view including Kara Walker‘s massive painting, “The Rich Soil Down There”


Works by Gerard Richter and Donald Judd


A few unexpecteds on view: Eclectic exhibit, “Quote? Copy? Update?” includes the old and the new


Artist Yee Sook Yung‘s wild tower, “Translated Vase,” is displayed next to 13th-century celadon ware

In addition to being pleased to see works by Richard Tuttle, El Anatsui, Kiki Smith and Sigmar Polke, here are a few other personal favorites on view:


A beauty by Ellen Gallagher, “Tally”


Cecily Brown‘s “Skulldiver III”


One of two pieces by Mark Bradford on display, “Backward C”

Another note: For a more in depth view of the new wing, see Greg Cook‘s review in the Phoenix.

Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee was written a fresh and engaging review of the Fluxus show currently at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Generally known in the US through the work of artists and musicians like George Maciunas, John Cage and La Monte Young, the Fluxus movement capitalized on the high jinx, random access, playfully questioning approach that characterized the Dada era of the 1920s. Like the furtive and often transgressive ideas that had a significant impact on cultural development described in Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces, Fluxus has had its own leaky margins, spilling over into many contemporary visual art and musical forms.

My favorite passage in Smee’s piece came near the end:

The American writer Janet Malcolm once wrote that the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice in one’s head saying, “But this is ridiculous.’’ She meant, I think, that the reception of all art demands a suspension of skepticism. It demands whole-heartedness, sincerity.

Why? Because from the standpoint of life, art is at a disadvantage. It is artificial. It is not strictly necessary. And therefore it is never far from redundancy. The values we assign it are imaginary — that is to say, a great credit to our imaginations.

Fluxus artists made work that deliberately turned up the volume of that “nasty little voice in one’s head,’’ as if wanting to test our willingness to tune it out.

I like them for this. Not because I think the art world on the whole needs more silliness (most days it seems awash in silliness), but because such tests can have a salutary effect. They threaten our complacency. They yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. They return us to first principles. And they underscore the provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.

I am always interested in what can yank us out of tired habits of seeing and thinking. The importance of finding the fresh view is true for art makers as well as art viewers. So yes to first principles, yes to remembering the “provisional, fragile nature of the strange and extraordinary edifice we call art.”


Sebastian Smee (Photo: Boston Globe)

What great news—Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe, has won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Hats off!

Smee is the first art writer at the Globe whose opinion has mattered to me. His reviews are carefully crafted and thoughtful. And as knowledgeable as he is about contemporary art, his writing is engaging for anyone to read. With the current oversupply of mandarin, self-referential, “for the cognescenti only” art criticism, Smee goes against that trend. In their announcement of his selection, the Pulitzer board pointed to Smee’s “vivid and exuberant writing about art’’ and his knack for “bringing great works to life with love and appreciation.’’ All true. Refreshingly so.

On a more personal note, I have been carrying on my own “dialogue” with Smee over the past few years on Slow Muse. So much of what he has written has been noteworthy to me, and the following posts all make reference to his writings:

Chilhuly at the MFA
Mark Bradford: Silent Strength
Stella, Smee and Subjectivism
Bad Art Poisoning
Liang at the ICA
Doubters
The Intuition Deliminator
The Fundamental Geometries
Fascination of Feeling: Pick One
That Damned Underbelly
Fairey: The Conversation Continues
Elizabeth Peyton: In Between
Tara Donovan

For those of you who are not familiar with Smee, here’s his bio from the Globe:

Sebastian Smee is the Globe’s art critic. He joined the paper’s staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. Before that he worked in London, where he was art critic at the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper, Modern Painters, and Prospect magazine. In 1994 he received a bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in fine arts from Sydney University. He reviews books regularly for the Spectator and is himself the author of books and essays on the British painter Lucian Freud as well as “Side by Side: Picasso v. Matisse.”


Chihuly installation in the new courtyard of the MFA

A new exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture has opened at the MFA. People who are new to his work are often full of awe and delight. I remember feeling that way too when I first encountered his wildly expressive, technically mind-boggling, larger-than-life work. There was nothing quite like it. And his color sense was (and is) extraordinary, so I wasn’t surprised when Judy Pfaff, an artist whose work I adore, went out to study with him at his Pilchuck Glass School.

That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have seen Chihuly installations all over the world. Now I am just not that interested in seeing more. Over exposure? Too much of the same thing? I’m not sure if I have a full explanation.

Sebastian Smee, my favorite reviewer at the Boston Globe, expressed a similar response. He does acknowledge an upside to Chihuly’s work: “Chihuly makes spectacular art. Grandiose and eye-catching, his work is made to interact with architectural or natural environments, and aims squarely at seduction — the seductions of color and form and, not least, of virtuosic technique. It is, one might say, celebratory art.” But he begins his review of the show with this question: “Is it unfair to describe the majority of Dale Chihuly’s glass-based work as tasteless?”

Ah, there’s that squirrely term, taste. Squirrely and yet such a pervasive element in any aesthetic assessment. I’m full of strong opinions about art—as are most artists—and of course those opinions are influenced by my concept of taste.

This is Smee’s take on that issue:

Taste, after all, is a social concept more than an aesthetic one, and is beside the point when judging serious art…And yet, the two concepts — art and taste — can never be completely separated. And if taste is primarily a function of social life, the truth is that Chihuly has for a long time now been a social sort of an artist…

I have no quibbles with Chihuly’s factory-style operation, his terrific rate of production, or his immense popularity. None at all. Nor am I bothered by the general absence of ideas in his work: I am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.

It’s the works themselves that I find so off-putting. And again and again I find the problem with them is that they are tasteless.

They’re tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Too many of them derive their raison d’etre from numbers and scale, rather than from any kind of inner purpose. They don’t understand restraint. Even when they do give off a whiff of minimalist intent…the combination of materials feels willed and strangely arbitrary.

You sense that if something is outlandishly ambitious, or if it is going to be technically difficult to do, that will be enough reason for Team Chihuly to do it. Make it big, make it bright, make them say, Wow!

I get what Smee is saying, and I am in basic agreement with his point of view. But for me that last line captures something even deeper, a crucial element that seems to be off base here: intent. My personal test for potentially powerful and moving art is often based on the Smith Doctrine*: Art made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. And by that measure this isn’t it.

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* The Smith Doctrine: Roberta Smith first published that memorable phrase in the New York Times in February 2010. Since then I have referenced it many times on this blog. My original post is here.


Mississippi Gottam, by Mark Bradford

I’ve been a fan of Mark Bradford for a while (and most recently was completely knocked out by the Bradford in the permanent collection at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), but the current show at the Boston ICA offered me new insights into his work. Because there are so many ways to enter into his work, pick any of many lenses—political, sociological, race-based, gender, abstraction, counter trends, arte povera, inner city aesthetics. So maybe this is a show that needs several viewings to appreciate the density of meaning and form that Bradford is pursuing.

In his review, Silent and hidden, in the open, Sebastian Smee does a very good job of describing my experience of seeing that many pieces hanging together:

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.

These works are deeply moving and lush even though there is nothing lush about the materials Bradford uses to make them. These are collaged/decollaged assemblages of posters and signs–layered, tattered, worn, wrinkled. His works are majestic and yet fragile, complex and yet direct, deep and yet very attentive to the surface.

Bradford is articulate and open about his way of working and where much of his imagery comes from. He is elementally connected to his neighborhood in Los Angeles (his studio is now in the space that was once his mother’s hair salon where he worked when he was young), strongly influenced by being African American and gay, and deeply moved by the powerful thinkers he was exposed to when he studied at Cal Arts—Michel Foucault, belle hooks, Cornel West. His manner is gentle and unassuming. There’s little of that “look at me!” energy in his tall, lean and understated presence. Which is deeply refreshing.

As for Bradford’s place in the flow of things, Smee is astute in addressing Bradford’s decision to move towards abstraction AND towards painting, two problematic issues for those who follow art fashion (which is a fair term since the art world in its upper registers more closely resembles the highly trend-based world of fashion and celebritism):

On the face of it, the decision looks gloriously perverse. The ’80s seemed to sound a death knell for abstraction. Few artists were interested in it. Its possibilities seemed played out. People were hungry for content, for representation (in all its senses), for the righteousness and punch of politics.

Bradford was part of this. How, with his background, could he not be?

But identity politics can be cruelly deterministic — not to mention hostile to the uncensored movements of the mind, to art. As he began making major work in the early 2000s, a big part of Bradford sought to shake off the expectation that, as an artist, he would hit all the predictable notes.

Hence, perhaps, his attraction to abstraction.

Despite its utopian beginnings in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, abstraction in the United States has tended not to mix with politics. Even abstract artists with a strong political bent have kept art and politics determinedly apart: Ad Reinhardt, for instance, was politically active as a citizen, but there’s not a trace of politics in his monochrome paintings.

I’ll be back for another visit before it closes in mid-March.


Chocorua IV, 1966. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas.
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
© 2010 Frank Stella/ Artists Rights Socety (ARS), New York. Photo by Steven Sloman.

In a recent review of the Frank Stella show, Irregular Polygons at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee ended with these words:

I myself really do admire Stella. There is such verve and liveliness in almost everything he has done. He has played the abstract game as well, as intelligently, and as thoroughly, as anyone. He has relished first abstraction’s self-sufficiency, and then its links with the outside world. And he has not been afraid to recognize its limits.

And yet other artists — even other abstract artists — so often look better. And when they do, it’s because their reasons for painting or sculpting the way they do go deeper. They’re more personal, more persuasive.

It’s not that you can’t feel temperament or personality in Stella’s work. His personality is too forceful for that. Rather, it’s that the personality you do feel is always floating away from the work. You’re feeling the restlessness of that personality, and — notwithstanding all of Stella’s spatial games — a sort of pond-skimming inability to puncture the surface of things.

His works are marvelous, and then they are not.

Ah, that ageless issue of taste. Of preferences. Of proclivities that make one artist more appealing to us personally than another. My good friend Carl, a lifelong Stella fan and about as knowledgeable on the man and his work as anyone alive, is so personally connected to Stella’s oeuvre that this dismissal by Smee was more than irritating to him. My response was that everyone who lives their life centered on the visual arts has their “anchor” artists, those two or three lynchpin individuals whose vision is so aligned to your own that you keep coming back to them over and over again. And Stella isn’t on Smee’s list, clearly.

Long ago I quit trying to achieve the highfalutin goal of detached objectivity and just surrendered to the subjectivity that runs my life whether I acknowledge it or not. Opinions about everything! Favorite foods, favorite movies, favorite artists—and oh so many topics to explore and choose favorites from. It’s feast of subjectivity.

My anchor artists? As a young art student the list was Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. Right this minute I’d say my list is Agnes Martin, Brice Marden and Richard Tuttle. But being the rampant subjectivist that I am, that could change tomorrow.


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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