Tuesday 31 January 2006

Sebastian Smee's reply to Jane Burns

Dear Jane Burns,

Thank you for going to the trouble of writing your letter. Although I don't quite see things the same way as you on this, I do appreciate what you are saying, and the robustness with which you've said it, so perhaps I can try to address a few of your points.
It's a very difficult area, this art-craft debate, and no doubt needs to be addressed at greater length than I did in my piece. In a way, though, it might be healthy to let the confusion be, and not to draw lines in the sand, which is why I started the piece the way I did. On the other hand, it IS worth exercising some discrimination, and one of the areas in which we might usefully make distinctions is in the area of taste.
Your friend was essentially right: the purpose of the piece was more to write an essay on the tensions between taste and art than to write a straight review. (Taking an essayistic approach is something I am encouraged to do by my editors, in part, I suspect, because we are a national paper, and straight reviews can be frustrating to read if you don't live in the same city as the show in question.) Taste is an interesting subject. Our society has traditionally applied it to craft-based work, which is why I thought it was relevant to these shows. The work in Transformations was craft-based, but much of it strove to be seen as art (or the gallery tried to have it seen that way). I felt that most of it failed NOT in its attempt to qualify as art, but as GOOD art. Much of it was tasteless (messy, one might say) into the bargain, but that is neither here nor there; it was just mentioned as an indicator of the very different aims that many craft artists have today. (I realise that that aside may have created confusion, and I can see why you thought it made my argument
Part of the problem with Transformations, I felt, was the sheer variety and proliferation of forms. This is what I meant by "concocted and unclear". It was very hard to make sense of individual objects without reading a great deal about them in the catalogue and on the wall labels, and that, for me, was a problem. (IT IS A PROBLEM ONE ENCOUNTERS IN A GREAT DEAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART, TOO, WHICH IS TOP-HEAVY WITH THEORY AND WHAT HAVE COME TO BE KNOWN AS "REFERENCES", HENCE THE NEED FOR EXPLICATION). The selection, arrangement and pacing of a show should be more articulate. I felt this show lacked any kind of internal coherence. Perhaps the main problem was that the works were coming out of too many different traditions at once, and very few of them arrived at what I felt were satisfying forms. As well, too many of them included references to various art historical or biographical points, but I didn't feel those references were a) artistically compelling in themselves or b) articulated well enough in the work itself. You had to read about it to "get it", and that, once again, is a problem in my mind, in all areas of the arts. You raise Ricky Swallow and the biographical references in his work, which are indeed there, but they alone do not make HIS work compelling. (Indeed, I personally don't find Swallow's Venice work very successful, in part because the form of the work, and its interplay with the content, isn't satisfyingly worked out; there is somehow a mismatch.) Getting back to taste, it is about more than just predictability and conformity, and I try to point that out in my piece: it is a way of recognising like-minded souls and calibrating individual impulses to feelings of group belonging. It has always had a role to play in art. But, as I say, in the end it is more of a social concept than an artistic one.
I hope this satisfies you to some extent, and as I say, thank you for taking the trouble to write to me.
Yours sincerely,
Sebastian Smee

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