Ising a paean in praise of the second-rate. I hymn the lame! The weird! The gauche! The botched!
Which is lucky, given how badly this story has started off. Those exclamation points alone are enough to give a reader indigestion. If I ever start to hymn again, someone stop me, please.
For the sake of quality assurance, I guess my editors should have insisted on a rewrite. But what if, instead of thinking of the current stature of this newspaper, we put ourselves in the shoes of a historian looking back on it from 2105? Couldn't there be more interesting stuff to say about a screw-up -- about how one writer tried, and failed -- than about your average success story?
That's how I feel about a lot of art. Sure, the greats are great -- just as we know they'll be. Titian pays off; Rembrandt delivers; Manet comes through. But sometimes there's more spice in looking at their lesser followers and peers. We've all been taught what great success looks like. It's all too familiar. Only failure is sure to yield surprise after surprise. And often, the also-rans can give a better sense of how art really gets made -- of the mundane struggles of the merely talented rather than the flight of geniuses.
One of my favorite artists is Andrea Schiavone, who had a tiny moment of success in Venice in the 1550s. In his bid for fame and fortune -- both of which he managed, if only for a very little while -- he combined the radical brushwork of Titian, that ultimate Venetian master, with the weirdly serpentine forms of Parmigianino, the great artist from Parma who helped found the style now known as mannerism.
Mostly, the marriage is more odd than brilliant -- more like the Troggs than the Beatles. When he's at his best (for instance, in his "Marriage of Cupid and Psyche" in the Metropolitan Museum in New York) Schiavone's sinuous line gives his pictures lots of sex appeal, while his heavy-duty paint-handling keeps them from cloying. At his worst -- I once made the disillusioning mistake of hunting down every Schiavone (pronounced "ski-a-VONE-eh'') I could find in Venice -- it's pretty clear he has almost no idea how human bodies really fit together, and uses hot paint licks to cover up his haste.
But all the time, Schiavone's idiosyncrasy, his stubbornness in his eccentric taste, is winning. Anyone can appreciate Titian, but Schiavone forces you to think beyond accepted notions of what's right. And even if, in the end, you stay convinced that Schiavone's got it wrong, at least you've had the fun of seeing art through his peculiar lens. The problem for a critic, however, is that there's not much room to talk about someone like Schiavone. (Outside of a rare story on mediocrity itself, that is.) Our culture has a notion that for art to be worthwhile, it also must, on balance, be awfully good. It's not enough for its failures and peculiarities to enlighten and engage.
This point came home to me recently when I wrote about the interesting "Visual Music" exhibition currently at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. That show looks at how 20th-century fine artists tried to make objects that could capture some of the qualities of music. Ideally, they hoped to "translate" musical effects into visual terms.
It was an appealing idea and, in the years to either side of World War I, it encouraged some of the earliest attempts at making purely abstract art. For decades after that, it fed some particularly wild and wonderful experiments. It just so happens, as I said in my review, that a lot of them produced the kind of work you're very glad to look at once, but aren't likely to come back to.
The Hirshhorn's comprehensive, intelligent exhibition gave art lovers their first chance to get that first look at these peculiarities -- and the last such look they're likely to get for some time to come. In the week after my article appeared, however, I was puzzled by the reaction to it. "Lame show -- too bad for the Hirshhorn," said one reader. "Quite a pan," said another. The fact that I'd pointed out the weaknesses in a good bit of the art -- even in the basic idea of art that mimics music -- seemed to get misread as an all-around condemnation of the museum's effort. Our high-flown notions about so-called High Art -- about how good it is supposed to be for us, and how it represents the best that humans can achieve -- don't leave room for the idea that halting work can be worthwhile, too.
Even exhibition curators seem pressured to buy into such notions. I've never read a catalogue that didn't go to bat for almost every artwork in a show. Somehow or other, curators find a way to explain away an artist's every infelicity, often recasting a simple failure -- a bad day in the studio, as anyone can have -- as evidence of an artist's authenticity and independent mind.
What's worse, I think they sometimes believe their own arguments. It's as though the emotional investment that goes into working on an artist blinds you to weaknesses, or at least prevents you from seeing them as such. It certainly prevents you from celebrating them. When curators do come up against a work that absolutely screams its mediocrity, they'll be sure to keep it off the wall. Rather than presenting an even-handed, thorough, good-with-the-bad view of an artist or movement -- the way "Visual Music" did, for once -- most exhibitions try to keep things neat and tidy, and their artists looking at their very best.
For many artists, however -- for all our many Schiavones -- that partial view ends up simplifying what they're about, and making them frankly less interesting. The intriguing successes of a Schiavone are more impressive and revealing when they're shown beside his failures than they are held up alongside brilliance by Titian.
Imagine a wine tasting that included characterful, obscure bottles from Lebanon (Chateau Musar, like Bordeaux but with a hint of high explosives), Spain (the madly oakey, dry-as-dust Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay) and Italy (maybe a smuggled bottle of sweet Venetian fragolino, made from a native grape that smells like strawberries and that is banned by law from use in wine.) There might be a greater range of pleasure in such a weird lineup than in the establishment delights of a flight of famous burgundies. Of course, if all these wines went head to head, the subtleties of burgundy might put the other stuff to shame. But if we then went on to insist on great burgundy all the time, anywhere, we'd be missing other joys: The thrill of discovery, for one, and of eccentricity -- in the wines, and in ourselves for choosing them -- and of freewheeling play. You're told you have to like great burgundy, or at least appreciate its greatnesses: Your cultural capital -- some real capital as well -- is riding on it. With fragolino, as with Schiavone, the pleasure that you choose to take in it is all your own.
It's an everyday pleasure, sure, rather than a vanishingly subtle one. (Who doesn't like sweet strawberries, in a drink or in a picture?) But there's something to be said for that.
Let's not turn things too far around, however. When it comes to living artists, let's continue to insist they push beyond the everyday -- that they rebel against cliche and complacency. Why settle for the second-rate when we can still demand the best?
But once the second-rate is out there, safely preserved in our museum vaults, it can't hurt to pull it out from time to time, and recognize the special payoffs that it has.