Gallery Art Media, Ranked
What to think about the types of art you see in museums and galleries.
1. Painting and Photography
I’m not good at drawing, or really any visual art, and I’m not a doodler. But I do practice what I think of as “performance doodling,” which is doodling as a performance for third parties in social situations in which I feel the need to assert both (1) how bored I am and (2) the fascinating and impressive places my mind goes to when I am bored. Now that I’m done with school and no longer spend several hours a day being talked at by assholes (most days!) I have less occasion for it. But when it happens, my go-to performance doodle these days is to do Munsch’s “The Scream” on a single sheet of white paper, in pen. I autograph it and pass it the person next to me, and if they don’t recognize it I pretend it’s my own design.
Saying you like, or are affected by, The Scream, I have to imagine is like saying you enjoy pizza and ice cream and sex. But just as most of us routinely crave those things, there are days, even days that really aren’t that bad, when I get that feeling of existential horror and dread and I wonder for just a second why I don’t off myself, and then I visualize the feeling that I am having and it is The Scream. And then I say to myself, you are just having that feeling like in The Scream, and other people have that too, and it’s not something you should disregard but it’s also pretty normal and you’ll be ok. Just the memory of that painting reminds me of my humanity, reminds me that I’m just some random guy and this shit will pass and dinner is going to be pretty good.
Painting is alone among these categories in that I enjoy everything from highly realistic images to abstract and non-representational forms. I think part of it is that unlike, say, a video installation or a sculpture, a painting is just something on the wall, it doesn’t insert itself into your space and it doesn’t demand your attention and critical thought. Either it earns that or it doesn’t, but either way you live your life and decide the terms of appreciation. An art gallery full of paintings might be an hour to criticize art, or it might just be an hour to walk around and not talk to people, or something might start a conversation. It will rarely bother me, and it might help me live my best life.
Photography is good too, although maybe not quite as good because it’s a bit more constrained to realism, I guess? That’s all I have to say about photography.
Also: bigger paintings are better. Sketches and miniatures are for scholars and people with small apartments who can’t afford any better. Sue me.
2. Non-abstract sculpture
I recently went to the Rodin Museum in Paris, expecting to be blown away. I tired of pensive great white men. One sculpture really did blow me away, and it turned out not to be by Rodin but by the young female assistant whose life he maybe ruined, Camille Claudel. And the sculpture is both about Rodin being a shitbag and ruining her life, and also kind of mocking him for his self-importance and for…being old I guess. Really made me think.
Also, I really like sculptures of super buff dudes, because I aspire to buffness and am a bit gay.
Before he became the world’s greatest strongman and body builder and started an unsuccessful chocolate company (?), Eugen Sandow posed for this sculpture. That’s just a loincloth, though it sure does look like a big dong.
3. Semi-functional Art
Sometimes it’s placed outside the gallery, sometimes inside, but I just love it when someone builds a real-ass teepee, or a small house, or whatever, and it’s art but it’s also absolutely a place that someone is living or will live, and you can go inside it and pretend you live there too.
Likewise, visual art that is also a musical instrument, or a real-ass bicycle that you can ride, or whatever. I’m totally into it. Make all things beautiful, and make all beautiful things functional.
When I was in college, my jazz quartet was hired to play a dinner meeting of donors to the college art museum. (I was super proud of my cool jazz group and how we could play bebop and whatever. Truly, it took me years to understand just how mediocre I was, personally as a musician. But I did understand that even a mediocre jazz combo, if the guys wore suits and arrived on time and could play “Same Ol’ Shit” from the real book, would lend some cache to any evening event and you could charge a solid $150 for it, and the college being in a small Vermont town, I was able to take a monopoly position on that ambience.) The donors were supposed to decide which of three pieces to acquire for the museum, and after some deliberation they ponied up to buy two of the three. One was a seven foot tall cylinder composed of about 1,000 metal rods stuck into the base very close together, sort of like a very dense, very austere, upside down wind chime. If you touched it at all, the rods would vibrate into one another and the thing would pulsate, making this very cool throbbing hum that took a long time to stop. All the donors kept poking it, and I wanted to poke it, it was really cool. I went back to the museum a couple years later, and the piece was there in its very own room, with a velvet rope around it at a four foot radius, with multiple signs around the room saying “For god’s sake please don’t touch this.” It was driving everyone nuts and ruining the museum.
4. Performance art
I used to think poorly of performance art, and these days I wonder if that was because it’s so often a female medium and I was a kneejerk shitheel for so long. Also--I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen performance art in a gallery before, so who knows, maybe I really do hate it.
I think my first critical thought about performance art came when I was reading an article about John Lennon and it tangentially described some of her work (I think it was “Cut Piece”), which I found more interesting than John Lennon. (Fuck the Beatles.) After that it was hard to subscribe to the whole blaming Yoko for the Beatles’ breakup thing, because that whole narrative requires you to believe that the Beatles were more interesting and worthy of attention than what Yoko (and John, I guess) were doing before and after they got together. (Also, fuck the Beatles, but I will say also that Yoko’s music is just awful, even if you consider it a form of performance art.)
Over the years I have returned to thinking about Marina Abramowicz’s piece where she just sat in a chair and you could sit and look at her. On the one hand, the hubris required to demand that be viewed as art...on the other, I kind of want to sit face to face with the person who would do such a thing.
And I still think about that Marina Abramowicz piece sometimes, which means it was pretty successful.
I think that gets to the essence of artistic value, in one sense at least--everything below this on the list, I really struggle to differentiate one piece from another and I certainly can’t recall any piece that moved me emotionally or caused me to think differently about the world. Certainly nothing I come back to time and again, and respond to differently such that I understand my own growth as a person.
5. Abstract sculpture
I get it. We all like curvy lines. I only need so many three-dimensional distillations of the essence of the curvy line.
6. Effortful media
You traveled the world, collected the pantyhose of 6,000 abused women from 189 different countries, and knitted them into a ball? Cool. My feelings on domestic violence have not changed (it’s really bad!), but I’m not enjoying looking at this ball.
7. Children’s art
Art is by definition intentional, and the quality of it directly correlates to the complexity and integrity of the artist’s intentions. I’ll accept that children are capable of making great art unintentionally, because they’re capable of acting with complex and authentic intentions without intending to create great art. But even when they do, the quality of their art is inextricable from the fact of their childhood. Which is all to say that any display of children’s art is just bullshit, because nobody has the heart to sift through thousands of artworks by children and try to say that some are actually higher quality than others, and few people have the heart to tell children that their art is shit--which is what they understand you’re saying when you don’t pick their art for the gallery, which is why everyone’s art gets picked, so it’s just a lot of bullshit. In conclusion, children are great and art education is wonderful but we don’t need to pretend anything they make has value unless we’re their parents. Even then it’s best to throw it all away when they aren’t looking.
If you are over seven years old and you still want to glue shit to a piece of cardboard and take it home to mommy and daddy, you need to take a hard look at yourself. There has never been a good collage.
9. Non-narrative video shit
We have rooms specially designed for the display of video art. They are called theaters...also living rooms, dens, literally dozens of types of rooms, actually, that are great for watching video art. If you see video art in an art gallery, you know it’s going to be some story-less garbage pile of images designed to make you re-think the possibilities of the visual medium and the spaces in which we contemplate it. As if hundreds of other artists couldn’t do the same thing while also telling a story. Abstract video art, like much abstract art and anti-commercial art in general, is often just a front for an artist too afraid to compete in the commercial media space where any asshole can tell good from bad to some degree.
If you make abstract art, you can always try to convince the family members bankrolling your art degree that they just don’t get it because their tastes are too plebeian. I made some wonderful music while I was getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, really mood-setting, intellectual, environmental, non-melodic stuff.
10. Abstract video shit
As above, except with a lot of flashing colored lights instead of, you know, taking a camera and filming things. Ooh! Laser beams! A hundred years ago, someone convinced the world that a urinal was art, and it was, because no one had thought about found objects that way before. Taking 1970s discotheque lighting technology and putting it in a gallery does not make it art, and yet it seems like every gallery--museums are worse, actually--must have a dark room in it that starts strobing and pulsing at you as you walk in. Sometimes there’s also a video of honeybee mating dances on one wall.
11. Abstract video shit with audio
As above, but about 60% of the time it’s a “mixed media installation” which means you can hear rainforest patter and/or clips of political speeches while you watch bees fuck.