On Taste, Richard Serra and the Green Eggs and Ham Syndrome

"Art produces ugly things which frequently become beautiful with time." 
- Jean Cocteau
Although I pride myself on having wide ranging taste in art, there are some artists that consistently rub me the wrong way. There is one major American sculptor in particular whose work I don't care for.

Yes, I am a Richard Serra disliker.

Before I go further I should clarify something: I don't dislike Richard Serra personally. I had the chance to meet him when an exhibition of his was being installed at a gallery where I worked in the early 1980s, and he was very pleasant to me. He was immensely intelligent, and I enjoyed having the chance to drive him on a few errands and hear him talk about art. Serra has a temper -- I watched him chew out the photographer who had been hired to document his installation -- but I figure that "fiery" can be sign of integrity. As I gained a generally positive impression of Richard Serra the man, the two massive pieces of battleship armor that I saw installed in the gallery floor were charming me less than he was. Over time, and after periodically viewing many more Serra installations, I still haven't warmed up to Serra the artist.

I think that Serra's work is vastly over-rated, pompous and inhuman. I think that most of the credit for the presence found in Serra's steel pieces should go to the foundry in Germany that fabricates them. Serra strikes me as an aesthetic bully whose installations are imposing to the point of actually intimidating the public meant to appreciate them. I do, however, think that Serra's large steel pieces sometimes make nice backgrounds for photographs of people. So do rusting battleships.

OK, my opinion is out there now: I'm in trouble, right?


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Richard Serra: Sculpture - Gagosian Gallery, London. Gallery 3: Fernando Pessoa (2007-08), Weatherproof Steel. Photo by Matthew Retallick

By airing out a private judgement in public I have given you -- the reader -- the opportunity to judge my taste against your own opinions and biases. If you agree with me you respect me more and if you disagree we are now at odds. As human beings we are always most comfortable around others who share our taste. We are naturally insecure around those who disagree with us, and when the matter involves taste things get quite personal.

Taste is art is about a kind of freedom: the freedom of preference. Each of us likes what we like and nobody can or should define our taste for us. If a student tells me "I love Thomas Kinkade!" I try to keep my disdain in check and congratulate them on having a passion for art. At the same time, I also get ready to offer them a broader range of art to look at. I believe that the proper way to teach art appreciation is to expose not to indoctrinate.

When I find myself getting too smug about my own taste, I keep humble by reminding myself of something I call the "green eggs and ham syndrome." Years of looking at art have taught me that sometimes something that I have been rejecting morphs into a source of pleasure. "I like green eggs and ham!" I suddenly exclaim...

When a work of art that we previously found puzzling, unsatisfying or even repellent suddenly enchants us, an internal boundary is erased. According to the British writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton, all art involves "drawing a line somewhere." Challenging works of art dare us to cross the line of our preference and to even change our notion of what may or may not be art at all. Expanding the boundaries of taste offers an exciting prospect: new pleasures.

One of the reasons I read art criticism is that individual critics hold out the prospect of new discoveries. Of course, I reserve the right to disagree. My disdain for the works of Richard Serra puts me directly at odds with the views of an art critic that I genuinely admired, the late Robert Hughes. Here is what Hughes wrote in the Guardian after viewing Serra's installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao in June of 2005:
"Let's come right out with it: on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century."
That is high praise from a man that had extraordinary erudition. Just re-reading it activates some insecurity on my part: could I possibly be completely wrong about Richard Serra? Then again one's taste is never "wrong," even though people will tell you that it is.

Am I six months away from discovering a work of Richard Serra that I find immensely moving and beautiful? Is one of  Richard Serra's curving walls of COR-TEN steel going to be my green eggs and ham? Possibly...

Of course, this blog isn't about Richard Serra. What I want to write about is the mutability of taste. Whenever I lay out my own opinion about art I do so realizing that my taste is not stable: it's development is an ongoing project. I have written enough to sometimes be called a critic, but I'm too aware of my own intellectual capriciousness to take on that responsibility just yet. I worry that declaring myself a critic would result in more people being critical of me.

Critics play a role in the way that taste is transformed into commerce, so they occupy a hot spot in the art world. One of my Facebook friends -- an artist -- recently had a few choice things to say about art critics on his Facebook status:
"I am so sick of these so called art critics who don't know shit. A friend asked recently: How does someone become an art critic? My reply: Well, first you have to fail or give up completely at being an actual artist. From there you find a way to tell other artists how to be good artists."
Those comments hit home because I am an artist turned writer. And yes, there is something very appealing about becoming a larger fish in the art pond and having the chance to give patronizing advice and pronounce judgement. Having my brief public rant about Richard Serra was very satisfying: it let me, the failed artist, connect with a nice juicy revenge fantasy. Frankly, it also felt good to disagree with Robert Hughes, who became a critic after "failing" as a painter.

Could it be that my reactions are petty and personal? It is certainly possible, just as it is similarly possible for anyone who pronounces judgments about taste. I keep in mind that while a particular critic or commentator may be broadly exposed and profoundly learned, they are human too.

Despite being a "Serra disliker" I recently took some time to read a blog by Ed Schad, who wrote a review of a Richard Serra drawing exhibition now on view in Los Angeles. In his blog, he talks about the way that Serra's works have a kind of force of nature about them, and makes this observation:
"Nature is at best apathetic of us and the enormity of its silence and disregard of us has a strange way of making us seem precious and unimportant at the same time."
In other words, some of the same things that have made me hostile to Serra's works -- their uncompromising force and intimidating presence -- are directly connected to the aspects that Ed found so moving and profound. Ed's blog in itself is so beautiful that it made me promise myself to go see the Serra show. Part of me hopes that Serra's works will live up to Ed's praise. Part of me also hopes I don't like the show, so I won't have to change my mind.

Your taste is who you are. My taste and I are both human, flawed, and always evolving.

For the time being I remain a Serra disliker. What about you?

4 comments:

  1. I think disliking art is entirely opinion based as long as you can recognize why other's praise it. It seems to me you respectfully dislike Serra without diminutive or rude about it. You sound like an art critic to me. ;-)

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  2. Good piece, John. I think we all have strong likes and strong dislikes and it is all acceptable. We can disagree or ignore what we disagree with. We can change our minds. That we consider what we see is important.

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  3. John Seed,

    I have just read this article on HuffPost, but do not comment there, and am glad to have discovered your blog.

    It seems to me that likes and dislikes are not really the stuff of criticism, nor is the comment of Hughes's that Serra is the "greatest" sculptor alive. Personal opinions are just that and do not get at our collective experience of a work of art.

    Criticism ought to be about both a detached, or disinterested, assessment and an understanding of a shared human reaction (even emotion) to a piece.

    Serra is indeed a very provocative artist. He seems to want to share the WOW factor of massive steel that he first felt as a young man visiting ship building sites. Yet there is often the feeling of intimidation that one can experience in his work. That is not unintentional, nor is the sense you express of feeling a little bullied. Is this not the artist who objected to the public dislike of his Tilted Arc piece, implying that that was not reason enough to remove it? As I recall he fought rather vociferously for his rights as an artist over the rights of the people who had to live with his piece.

    Serra confronts the viewer with steel and in doing so may provide the viewer with the opportunity of confronting himself. This certainly has the possibility of making many quite uncomfortable, alienated and even generate feelings of dislike. Serra might respond by saying, "OK, you feel dislike, discomfort, now go back and just be with it for a while, be with yourself, just experience it."

    Tilted Arc was I think an aggressive piece, and I would not dismiss a certain arrogance in its creator. It felt like a piece imposed on a place, not one designed for people.

    After that debacle, Richard Serra's work has taken on a far greater awareness of the viewer and of the relationship to the human. Tilted Arc had a rather masculine force to it. Since then Serra's curved and arced pieces are rather feminine in nature. They envelope, they encompass, they almost embrace the viewer. Yes they are vast and hard, but they are also fluid and delicate. In my view the word greatness can be applied to art that brings together diametrically opposed elements into a unified concept. (This is something one sees more often perhaps in physics where a photon is either/both a wave and/or a particle, or when time and space exist, but not really.) Almost in opposition to these curved arcs, Richard Serra also creates massive blocks of steel which define and dominate the space they inhabit, yet also rely on that very space for their dominance and meaning. The viewer then inhabits the space that the blocks inhabit and define. It is impossible to walk in that space without reference to those blocks. They forbid you the space they occupy and they influence the space they allow you to occupy. In my view, one of the most successful of these pieces is Stacks made in 1990 for the Swartwout building at Yale Art Museum. The two steel blocks, proportioned to a human scale, are in a long room and placed 60 feet apart, almost magnetically influencing the vast space between them.

    I find the act of experiencing Serra's sculpture worthwhile. What I dislike is the atmosphere of adulation, and privilege generated by the 'art world' which surrounds them and to some extent nullifies their simple power. The world does not need a Richard Serra sculpture in every city on the planet. As you point out the successful production of these sculpture is largely due the German fabricator, so theoretically, they can be made as long a steel is available.

    Thanks for the article.




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  4. I think Serra's pieces should have holes and nooks so kids could play on them.

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