I just finished Robert Adams’ latest book, Art Can Help — a collection of short essays that are a call to action. In the current economic, environmental, and political climate, he thinks that artists have an inherent responsibility to make work that is positive, engaging, and inspirational. Adams refers to Koons' and Hirst's work as empty, and “born of cynicism and predictive of nihilism.”
In the book, Adams starts by laying down Edward Hopper as an inspiration to his own work, and using it as a measuring stick for future work. While I’m fairly familiar with Hopper’s work, and even had a poster of “Early Sunday Morning” in my college dorm room,
I was happy to be introduced to another work of his, Rooms by the Sea, which I’d never seen. Painted in 1951, it was certainly ahead of it’s time. It's an odd painting. It also oozes compositional balance and visual depth. I can look at stuff like this all day:
Adams cherry picks a bunch of photographers whose work he admires, and comments on a few of each of their images. Much of the work I found flat and uninspiring. Much of it is “good” work in what I’d call the classical sense, the work is smart and well composed and meticulously printed (who even works with printmakers anymore?), but it doesn’t resonate with energy and freshness the way other work does. For me. They just feel sort of old, meaning not new. Like this one by William Wylie:
The book is beautifully written, which is typical for Adams. He's an awesome writer. One issue I have with this book is that Adams attempts to draw a line between what is art and what is not art: “There is, however, consolation to be found…in the reassurance of some stories, in the inexplicable rightness of some music, and it the witness of some pictures.” Some pictures.
Inexplicable rightness is something I certainly believe in, but it’s not something I’d try to use to draw a line in the sand. I’m more inclined to side with John Baldessari, who says that “if the artist calls it art, then it’s art” and Joseph Beuys, who claimed that everyone is an artist. So while I can certainly appreciate Adams’ point of view, and his desire for artists to step up and use their skills for the common good, I don't think that art making is exclusive.