judging art

I recently read someone’s comments concerning Jeff Koon’s enormous hyper-polished steel balloon dog sculptures.
It got me wondering how we can or should judge art. I saw Koon’s gallery show in New York a while back with rooms of these brightly reflective, highly chromatic balloon animal creations. Now I could have reacted in several ways. I could have gone in the gallery wanting, say, Rubens and then felt the dogs were a slap in the face. High art? Ha! No way. This is trivial nonsense on a large scale. Or conversely, I could go into the gallery, just curious, and found a fun room of silly huge but oddly pretty dogs…I could smile, cheer my day and take that away with me.
Now I am sure I could also read dense tomes about the deeper meaning of these dogs, a commentary on today’s facile and vacuous over blown society. But by themselves, they are colorful, amusing, very large, well made balloon dogs. Small balloon dogs amuse and a room of huge shiny balloon dogs, amuses me too in a bigger kind of way. My day in NY was cheered.
But is it art? Well I think so. It is well crafted, made with an eye to being pleasing and it has a story either big or smaller, depending on if you read the accompanying tome.
But is it Rubens? Is it Rembrandt? Is a shiny dog, an equal to Donatello’s David? No, of course not…but that is the point. If I enter the gallery hoping for Rubens or grand sculpture of Michelangelo I am doomed to be disappointed, if not irritated. But then comparison in art is a precarious stance. If I were to look at Chardin expecting Rubens, then I might think Chardin is small, provincial, quiet, bordering on boring. And conversely if I were to judge Rubens with Chardin as my ideal, then Rubens might come off as supremely pompous and overblown.
As it turns out, I love both Rubens and Chardin…and yes, I like Koon’s dogs too just for the fun of it all. They are shiny, colorful, well crafted, fun and big enough to create their own environment.
It’s a huge shiny dog. Perhaps laughing is the point. I have come to think that tragedy is easy, it is the laughing and happiness that is so very hard to for us to find. Maybe a joyous shiny dog is more important than another tragedy in paint. Perhaps.
Emerson said we should judge art anew, each generation. He didn’t want his work to be prejudged by his predecessor poet’s works. Maybe he had a point….to a point.
If an artists invites us in to enjoy his work, whether by beauty or story or cleverness or whatever, but stretches out a hand to invite us in, then step one of art is accomplished…then next step is up to me the viewer.
For me, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, and, yes, Koons have, in their own quirky ways, extended the invite.