Friday May 09, 2003

The Relunctant Gallery-Goer

Excerpt from: But is It Art?: The Value of Art and the Temptation of Theory Book by B. R. Tilghman; B. Blackwell, 1984.

For more on But is It Art, visit Questia —the online library for research.

A persistent feature of the last hundred and more years of art history has been the seasonal recurrence of what Ian Dunlop has labeled The Shock of the New.

On any number of occasions during this period the artworld has been shocked by the appearance of avant garde movements that have seemed to challenge artistic traditions and prevailing conceptions of art. One thinks immediately of the impact made by the first impressionist showings, the fauves, the post-impressionist, the surrealists, and so on. Professional critics and casual gallerygoers alike have been disturbed and puzzled by these new developments that they did not know what to make of.


The new works did not seem to accommodate themselves to what art was thought to be like and frequently the motives of the artists were themselves impugned. This sort of thing is still very much with us and has been especially exacerbated by a number of movements of the very recent past including some manifestations of pop art, minimal art, arte povera, conceptual art, and the like. One need only think of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, Claes Oldenburg’s Placid Civic Monument, the hole he had dug in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum and then filled in again or the piece that Robert Barry offered for Lucy Lippard’s Seattle World’s Fair show which consisted simply of the remark ‘All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking 1:36 P.M.; 15 June 1969, New York’, not to mention the examples, both real and imagined, of the last chapter.

When faced with this sort of thing the plight of our plain gentleman, described in chapter 3 evokes sympathy. But what exactly is his plight? It is not that he thinks the work before him is bad; after all, he doesn’t know what is relevant to the assessment of its worth and in this respect he is like the man who doesn’t see the point of the joke and doesn’t know where to look for it. His first reaction might be to dismiss the business out of hand as a kind of nonsense or as a prank or joke, and not a very good one at that. But he is reluctant to thus dismiss it out of hand. A great many allegedly serious people do take it seriously and he thinks of those traditional critics who proved to be the laughing stock of later generations for making mock of the impressionists, the post-impressionists and all the others we now rank among the modern masters.

He has grounds for his reluctance.»

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