Whitehot Magazine

Do Artists Work Hard Enough to Justify Their Large Salaries?


By NOAH BECKER, July 2019

Many people think art is easy and artists are lazy and paid large sums to make fraudulent things. Many consider modern art, especially abstract or conceptual art “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That term is in line with “I don’t know art but I know what I like.” Let’s consider for a second that you’re a non-artist. What goes through your head when you see a Robert Ryman for example – one of his white paintings? Seeing a Ryman of this kind, which is a white on white painting - what is your first thought? All this deep thinking is what sent my parents to the wilds of Canada in 1970, to escape the evils of society and raise a more honest artistic family amongnst hippies. 

American Hippie Family 1970s, (Photos courtesy of The Farm Archive Library and LIFE magazine) 

Let’s go back to childhood. The child who picks up crayons and draws green trees is considered sane whereas the child who draws purple trees is scolded and put under doctor’s supervision, maybe even prescribed drugs. The child that draws a realistic picture is celebrated but the child that draws an imaginative abstract drawing is punished and ordered to improve their skill. All this to me sounds like abusive behavior on the part of parents and on the part of schools - we teach skill when we should be teaching children artistic intelligence.

Let's think more about living contemporary artists. I remember the artist Stan Douglas saying with a smirk, that he doesn’t even know how to draw - I’m sure he has some skill in drawing, maybe not. Douglas was making the point was that he’s a famous and successful contemporary artist working in ways where drawing is not a needed skill. It’s like spelling; nobody knows how to spell anymore. Also kids have no training to write in cursive due to everything being on computers or smart phones. Coloring books and paint by numbers sets were supposed to be helpful to adolescents and adults aiming at proper colors.

Andy Warhol, Do It Yourself, 1962

Let’s go back and ponder our earlier confrontation between a non-artist viewer and a white on white abstract Robert Ryman painting. What happens that sets the scholarly viewer apart from the novice viewer or what I call the "idiot viewer"? Is there such a thing as a “good viewer” and a “bad” viewer? I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh that’s easy, I can do that painting, it takes zero skill.” I’ve heard things like, “What a complete fraud there’s no skill in making a monochrome white on white painting.” Another one is, “Oh it’s a polar bear in the snow.” A cheap laugh always seems to resolve the issue for the idiot viewer. "A child could have done that" is another one in popular use. Picasso and Basquiat are examples of artists who enjoyed the art of children and integrated it into their works.

Picasso and his children celebrating the completion of a collaborative drawing, 1953.

People are conditioned in our era to assume their voice matters simply because they have been provided a platform to broadcast their views. Humans have a tendency when they are clueless about something to respond with a joke or something that reflects their insecurity or at least deflects it. John Cage’s music has been a target of this logic, in particular his piece “4’33”, which is basically a silent space in time. Any argument by enlightened minds against the “idiot listener” to support Cage is has been met with a phenomenon researchers call “The Dunning-Kruger Effect.”(1)

Robert Ryman, Guild, 1982 (enamelac paint on fibreglass, aluminium and wood, 98.2 x 91.8 x 2.8 cm)

Value comes into play here as well, sale price to be specific. How can something that is perceived as easy to physically make have any value attached to it at all? If it in fact was valueless there would be no outrage over someone paying large sums of money for what is deemed as unskilled or crap art. I don’t say “bad art” because bad could be considered good art. This brings us to the idea of labor – and craft and handwork.

The Bible tells us that we cannot enjoy our bread without sweat on our brow.(2) Therefore it is a Christian ideal that art’s value is to be measured by skill, handwork and the amount of labor put into it. Classic example is the idiot viewer’s love of art is when they exclaim, “This painting is great – it looks just like a photo.” This is nothing more than a kind of self-satisfying admiration for photorealism in art that in some way allows the idiot viewer a feeling that their thoughts on "realism" are in some way superior to an "expert" view on abstract art. I'm not a religious person at all but it's interesting to look at how religion has influenced artistic production. 

Marcel Duchamp

After Marcel Duchamp, it was possible for the Christian ideal of labor and hand work to reside in the world of utilitarian objects and art could then be free to explore other modes of expression. We know that skill and handwork have nothing to do with value; it’s often the opposite. People with large amounts of money to spend on art want to conceal art’s handwork so that their money becomes the primary subject of the art. Certainly the production of certain kinds of abstraction take more “skill” or hand work than many forms of photo realism, just look at the work of Frank Stella as one example.

So I’m saying that the idea of photorealism in art being superior to abstraction is an untruth crafted by the perceptions of novice or “idiot” viewers. One could point to Gerhard Richter's figure and landscape works as an example of contemporary art that is representational. But Richter to me is too painterly to be called photorealism. Richter's is realism in line with Warhol and Vermeer. I read something where Richter said he was trying to paint like Vermeer but failed and wiped his work off in a way that mimicked the squeegee passing over a Warhol silkscreen.

For those don't understand art that isn't based on the mimetic reproduction of photography in paint:  tune in turn on and drop out as a way of finding a deeper understanding. WM

(1)The Dunning-Kruger Effect https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

(2)Genesis 3:19 https://www.biblehub.com/genesis/3-19.htm


Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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