VISUAL ARTS ‌ A Little Perspective 

What's the difference between sofa art and real art (and is there one)?

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Nothing inflames the ire of a working artist like sofa art. Everyone knows what sofa art is: the mass-produced, living-room friendly, pre-framed stuff you find for sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and Rooms To Go, dripping with banality and lowest-common-denominator appeal. It's also the kind of stuff that decorates the homes (right above the sofa) of millions of Americans, the very antithesis of real art. Isn't it? I began asking myself this question in October, when I learned that corporate furniture chain Kirkland's Home (they have two stores in Charleston) was kicking off a national "art" competition. The winning work would be reproduced and sold at 340 Kirkland's Home stores nationwide, and the artist would nab $5,000. They called it "the search for the Next Great American Artist."

Hyperbole aside, it sounded like a perfect chance to pick the minds of some local players in Charleston's sizeable visual art scene. So when the 10 finalists were named on Nov. 1, I contacted a dozen or so local artists, gallery owners, curators, and administrators, and asked them for their thoughts on the artwork Kirkland's had selected (see a few examples above). I received a deluge of fascinating responses, ranging across topics as disparate as the difference between art and craft, the place of art in 21st-century society, the value of original works versus mass-reproduced art, the subjective nature of quality and taste, the line between selling out and buying in, and — of course — what makes good sofa art.

Here, then, are a few excerpts from those many responses. Find the unexpurgated responses at www.charlestoncitypaper.com . And for all our sakes, please avoid giving anyone a Thomas Kinkade this Christmas. You'll be making the world a better place.


Kevin Hoth Angela Mack Tom Durham Julia Santen R.T. Shepherd Kevin Harrison Johnny Pundt Kevin Taylor
Mark Sloan


Kevin Hoth — photographer, video artist, designer

I was pleasantly surprised to see the apple-tree-in-winter photograph. Photography is finally getting its due as an art form for the masses, which is great in itself, and it's really the only contemporary image in the bunch. The rest of the work could be made at any point in the last 150 years – which for me makes it stale. If a unique vision goes into a traditional medium, I don't care when it was made as long as it shows me something new, something that reflects this moment in cultural time – or shows me the timelessness from today's vantage point.

This comes back to the Craft-versus-Art discussion. When you simply have someone recreating life (still) or using their hand-eye coordination to make a work, that is not art – it is craft. Some craft can be exquisitely created but not have a wince of art in it.

My own favorite quote is "Art runs away." True art is always in motion and hard to target, but you can always spot it. Nowadays, the Idea is pretty crucial and tantamount and holds a lot of importance for me. I think there needs to be craft and even beauty can certainly be there — but there has to be something that makes it contemporary, something fresh that speaks from contemporary culture and life.

I think you get what you ask for from where you ask. I once interviewed people in a midwestern mall about their thoughts on contemporary art. Some part of me knew it was ridiculous — which was the point — but what I later realized was that I got what I asked for from a site-specific populace, even though I chose to interview a diverse population (different ages, races, etc.). The question goes back to who is making the work submitted and what is their purpose? If the photographer who made the apple-tree-in-winter image does a lot more wild and crazy work then I think it's great they got in. They fooled someone who didn't realize who they were. One needs to address the type of artist who is submitting to this contest.

No contemporary artist in their right mind would submit to this unless they could subvert the process (talk to Bob Snead/Seth Curcio about his recent entry in the recent State Fair), needed some cash while showing some decent work, or simply decided to choose to show the work to more people in a less academic or highbrow way. If they can get their work seen by more people than who cares? Maybe someone will look up their name and see what other type of work they do and see some more challenging work that enlarges their worldview of what is creative output by an "artist" of these times.

Cambpell's soup now has Warhol labels on their soup. I think this is great. The biggest place where art crosses into mainstream life is in design and music. Fine artists have a hard time getting any respect from the larger population unless they come into a more mainstream context. But if you just want to be well-known in that one exclusive cultural pinpoint area that's cool, of course.

Personally, I admire work that can fit into an academic gallery, a contemporary non-sales gallery, a contemporary sales gallery, a magazine, or an advertisement and still pack the same punch. Of course the punch will come in different colors depending on where it's packing.

Angela Mack — chief curator, Gibbes Museum of Art

My first reaction is that Kirkland is feeding off the rags-to-riches craze that has swept our popular culture with such television programs as Project Runway and American Idol.  You might be a "nobody" one day and a "Great American Artist" the next. (I assume that once Kirkland's announces the winner, he or she will no longer be the "Next Great American Artist" but the Greatest American Artist.)

I would say that all art is commercial on some level. Usually, if someone promotes himself as an artist, he creates objects in an expectation of selling them. How an individual reacts to an art object — whether it is art sold at Bed, Bath, and Beyond or at Sotheby's — depends upon his frame of reference or knowledge base. The more you know about something, the more sophisticated you become in your purchases. How societies go about determining whether an artist is bad, good or great is another question entirely.

Tom Durham — sculptor, painter

Too often I like to dismiss commercial art, but sometimes it can be good. The main difference between commercial art and fine art is not the technical aspect of handling the material — both can have good and bad techniques. But what commercial art does not often do is challenge the viewer with social or political content. It is made only to please the viewer. This is not bad art but boring art.

I prefer work that pulls me into a question of humanity, work that makes me feel emotionally and intellectually. Once in a while, you have that artist who can cross over and have commercial appeal yet also have something to say without playing on sentiment. This is rare.

Though some of the work in the Kirkland's Home contest is technically good — especially the photographs — I found it emotionally lacking and thus boring. Work that is so controlled in subject matter and technique leaves out the risk or chance element of failing or succeeding, and without that it is middle-of-the-road. The 19th-century world of art was filled with beautiful works of art, technically masterful, yet boring (I am not speaking of the many great masters of that period). Today, too many commercial artists rely on copying a photograph or imitating 19th-century works. But even many abstract artists are making abstract designs with little or no emotion.

The very nontraditional conceptual artists have been imitating one another for so long with very little skill and commercializing their works through grants

Is there anything wrong with commercial art? No. But it isn't fine art and it does not affect the market for fine art. Most people who buy commercial art get what they want: a decoration for the wall. But it would be nice if more people were educated about art and felt more secure in work that made them think.

Julia Santen — owner, Julia Santen Gallery

My take is that art for the masses — a.k.a. "affordable" art — is acceptable. If it weren't for reproductions, there would be a lot of bare college walls (that or walls with extra graffiti). For the most part, buying a mass-produced work is someone's first step into buying what they like. They get a reproduction because it's a cool image, or it matches their couch, or it reminds them of that amazing sunset in Witchita. 

  From there, as an original art gallery owner, I hope that they develop an appreciation for original art through visits to museums and galleries. It's that appreciation that's needed before someone sees the importance of buying an original.  

  I'd be tempted to separate those who buy original art from those who buy reproductions solely based on expendable income. And mostly, that is the case. Of course, there are exceptions — proof once again that money doesn't buy taste. 

I am different in that my inventory is an original, but still not a one-of-a-kind. That's still not a problem that I've encountered with buyers; they know how much value originals have and that originals continue to appreciate, and it doesn't make much of a difference to them that people want to reproduce what they have an original of.

R.T. Shepherd — photographer

When I received your e-mail, I asked myself: what if such-and-such gallery in downtown Charleston exchanged their paintings for the paintings at Kirkland's Home? Would anyone be able to tell the difference, save for the respective parties involved in the transfer? Well, now you can see my cynical side.

I would rather give an artwork away to someone who understands it than to sell it to a philistine for an exorbitant price. But I have an income apart from art. Most competent artists in this city sell to pay bills. Sometimes their art suffers from  commercialization, sometimes not. The scrutiny of potential buyers can improve technique, but at the same time dampen the urge to experiment. Norman Rockwell is considered by the cognoscenti as high schlock, Andrew Wyeth as middle, and Edward Hopper as untainted by crassness. Why the distinctions? If Hopper were a young Charlestonian, could his early work find a home at Kirkland's? I think so. I think too that the Gibbes would be happy to buy the same pictures, at least upon getting the nod from prominent local gallery owners. If it sounds as if I am delving into aesthetic relativism, let me say that your query has led me into some culs-de-sac I hadn't quite anticipated. 

Kevin Harrison — painter, filmmaker

This is something that all artists contemplate. In the two extremes stand opposing views on that cursed term "sellout." Are we selling out or buying in? If you're lucky enough to be able to harness your creativity and summon up some form of business savvy, I say more power to you. I guess the real question is does it feed the soul or just the wallet?

Seventy years ago there was a difference between artists and production studios. When we didn't have the luxury of digital cameras or the instant global access the internet provides us, it would have been much harder to become a mass marketer. Today it's much more tempting. If soccer moms are creating designer burp rags and charging $400 for a piece of cloth, the consumer's not buying them because they soak up the milk any faster, they're buying it because it's art, or at least that's the perception — and perception is half the game. That's why certain buyers of high end-art won't touch anything that isn't really expensive. Because the thinking is that if someone else deems it worth that much then I want in.

I am having a show in November, and right now am in the process of finishing up several new paintings. None of them are of the cityscapes that most people have come to know of my painting style. Suddenly, I have a new "series." I've titled it "French Noir." A take on vintage prints, utilizing my own photography and graphic design to create the images that I then paint on oversized canvases. Part of my motivation for going in a new direction, (besides the cliché that an artist you should always break new ground), is that I realized it would be a good marketing move to have two different styles available. Hoping that this will boost my sales and possibly appeal to a different sensibility, while just painting something I think is cool.

So I'm diversifying? Am I selling out because I paint images I hope people will love so much that they will pay me thousands of dollars for? If so, how am I different from the sculptor who has his work discovered by a conglomerate who put him on retainer. If it feeds his family, again, I say good for him. I guess the real question is does it feed the soul or just the wallet?

Johnny Pundt — graphic designer

Thomas Kinkade started mass-producing his work — which, to give him some credit, does provide a beautiful representation of his skill in painting light — but that meant that his "giclee" or inkjet-printed work would have less value as art. Since I'm a big fan of printing, I like the idea of mass-producing to certain degrees. Making editions of  500 and such reaches more sofas, and some people like that. Maybe it makes the buyer feel like they are part of a giant Kinkade army. 

Some people want instant art to hang on the wall so their friends will think they're that much more classy. But is it that the artwork makes the cheap furniture look better, or the furniture makes the art cheaper?

I definitely want to make a drippy painting of a sofa to hang over my sofa when I get one. Maybe with some paint that runs down the wall...

Kevin Taylor — painter, filmmaker

All of Kirkland's selections are about what I'd expect from "sofa art." Sofa art has to look like art must look.

I don't want my paintings mass produced in any way. I owe it to anyone who has ever bought a piece of my work not to do that. They paid for an original something that can never be replicated — something that is truly one of a kind amidst a culture flooded by molds and imitations.

Giclees are the worst — the ones that fool your eye into thinking it really is a painting. They're always trying to perfect the technology to make it even more "real." That's a product, not a piece of art. Think of the space over a couch as a leak. This leak needs to be patched. The more of these leaks that are patched with cheap alternatives, the less likely people are to go find original works. It really comes down to people not having an appreciation of original art. They need to see the difference.

I think buying art is kind of like getting a tattoo for some people. Once they get one, they catch a sort of fever, and usually want more and more. When people buy art, they begin to see their guests become impressed by this. People really seem to notice and are fascinated by a great art collection. A piece of art can say as much about the person who bought it as it does for the artist who made it. The more people see these simple concepts and understand them, the less "sofa art" will be sold.

Mark Sloan — director, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

What this contest says to me is that the art world is a very big place, and there is room for all sorts of tastes to more or less coexist. All art is subjective, of course. And everyone has some sense of what kind of art they like or respond to, whether they have any background in it or not. Most often, this "taste" is formed by work they have seen previously. Some folks like art that is traditional and serene, while others choose the outrageous or outré. While these award-winners do not produce the kind of art that interests me personally, I certainly support their right to make it and sell it. It so happens that I have a strong interest in adventurous contemporary art. I enjoy seeing things I've never seen before and art that makes me a little uncomfortable. But I fully realize that most people do not want art that challenges them. I understand. Life is hard enough without having a painting demand your attention.

Of the 10 finalists in Kirkland’s Home’s ‘Next Great American Artist’ competition (pictured here), one winner will be sold in 340 stores nationwide. To some eyes, they all stretch the limits of banality; to others, they beg the question: what place does art have in the 21st century?



















 


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