If you are an artist, the question is hard to answer. You are friends with your contemporaries, but not with people who have been dead for centuries. If the question is about people you think are good but not great, then it’s even harder.
After all, you’re probably right about these people being good, so why haven’t they broken through to general recognition? This may be because they belong to some small group that doesn’t have a lot of political power. If so it’s hard to see how you could help them.
The more I thought about this, the less plausible it seemed that any one person could meaningfully help another person succeed. But I kept coming back to what I knew: artists and writers do often help each other out. When someone needs an introduction to someone else who can help their career, someone almost always comes through.
This happens even when there is no obvious reason why one artist should help another. So how do we explain this?
I had a theory that artists tended to be more generous than non-artists, and this was just an extreme example. The problem with this theory was that I knew too many artists who weren’t generous at all; in fact they were pretty much the opposite.
I didn’t know who Morris Lapidus is. I know that he did the distinctive modernistic décor of many American hotels in the 1950s and 1960s. I also know that he did the original Holiday Inn near Times Square, which I remember from childhood trips to New York City. And I know that he was one of the great American designers, who knew every detail of what you see when you look at your world.
I’m sitting in the office of Jasper Johns, at his art studio in Connecticut. It’s a place he’s had for more than forty years, since he was in his early thirties. I’m looking at the art on the walls. I won’t bother to describe it. The point is not that any individual piece is great or terrible; it’s that there are so many of them, and they are all so similar.
These are the works of one of the most influential artists of the last half century, but there are no other artists here, because Johns doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t need them. He has assistants to help him with technical details, but he’s never sure if what they do is good or bad, so he doesn’t talk to them much either.
Jasper Johns has spent his whole life doing exactly what he wanted to do.
People are always saying that this is an age of conformity, but in fact we are startlingly diverse. The time when everyone dressed the same and listened to the same music and believed the same things was a few centuries ago, before industrialization. People’s lives were so short, their days so full of work, that any individual choice was too small to make much difference.
But in an industrial society you have choices about everything from what toothpaste to buy to where to live. Your decisions make you different from everyone else, which takes work and thought. People don’t really want to think about these things, which is why advertisers are constantly bombarding them with new products to choose from.
But the upshot is that people are more different from one another than they ever were before. If you go back in history you find that people married their cousins and rode horses because everybody did. But if you go to a modern city like New York or London or Shanghai or Sao Paulo, you find people who have come from all over the world and live together in buildings taller than anyone would have dreamed possible even a few decades ago.
The question is whether this enormous diversity of lifestyle is leading us toward a kind of standardization.
It is impossible to make good art if you are in the habit of censoring yourself. And since all artists draw on techniques pioneered by others, it is almost impossible to make good art without having seen bad art made by others.
El Greco was a bad artist in many ways. He willfully violated all the rules of perspective that had been developed over the previous five hundred years. His figures were distorted, his colors crudely applied, his compositions confusing. If he had never existed, there would be no reason to invent him. But because he did exist, Picasso and Cézanne and so many others developed whole new ways of seeing and painting.
If you are looking for an example of bad art that made possible good art, you cannot do better than the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. Rodin was a popular sculptor in his day; people who saw his work loved it. But eventually its major weaknesses became apparent: Rodin’s figures all look like they are wearing masks or helmets or buckets on their heads or pieces of paper folded into hats, but never like real human beings.
And because Rodin’s limitations were so obvious to later generations of artists, they developed other ways of representing human beings besides making realistic statues.
In the 1960s, a new kind of art emerged. It was called pop art. In some ways it looked like other kinds of avant-garde art from the time. But it was different in an important way: it was popular.
In those days, popular meant lowbrow and vulgar, and highbrow meant sophisticated and respectable. Pop art wasn’t just disreputable, it was actively antagonistic to established opinion. The pop artists knew that most people hated what they did, and they liked it that way.
Pop art was also a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, which had been dominant for a decade before pop art appeared. A lot of critics blamed Abstract Expressionism for the bad things going on in the world at the time — war and oppression, mostly — because of its general feeling of pessimism and futility. Pop art was optimistic by comparison; at least you could have fun with it.
Pop art was not the first movement to use the techniques of mass-market publicity to make art, but it was the first to become famous doing so.
The idea of using cheap and vulgar materials and methods of production has a long history in art, but most previous examples were meant as satire or protest. The Pop artists wanted to celebrate the objects of popular culture. Andy Warhol once explained that he liked Campbell’s Soup “because I like things you eat.”
The difference between Warhol and his predecessors is like the difference between critics and satirists. Satire uses familiar forms to make fun of something unfamiliar; it would be impossible to satirize a soup can because no one would recognize it. By contrast, criticism uses familiar forms and attitudes to show us something we’re overlooking; it would be impossible for a critic to like a soup can because no one would believe him.