I recently landed on this article by the Washington Post's art critic, Sebastian Smee, spewing invective over a particular artist being given a retrospective at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn museum. (Is Sebastian Smee not the perfect name for an art critic? Some people, from the moment they have been named, must be destined to fulfill certain destinies.) I haven't got a terribly strong opinion on the artist, Georg Baselitz, myself. I was (and am) not familiar with the artist, and at a first glance on Google Arts & Culture and Image Search I can't say that much connects with me. A terrible amount of upside-down folk. Okay.
The main thrust of the article is the accusation that the artist continues to have a reputation simply to save the reputation of those that actually bought into what he was selling. The art world is reaping the rewards of holding on to a sunk cost fallacy:
"Quite simply, too many people have paid too much for Baselitz’s blowzy work over too many years for his reputation to undergo the correction it warrants. Too many curators and collectors have placed their chips on the roulette wheel of his talent. None of them wishes to lose what loose change, intellectual or real, they have bothered to fork out."
Again, I don't have an interesting or worthwhile opinion on the artist, but I do appreciate the phenomenon Smee is discussing. It reminded me of another book I read just the other day, and that I mentioned here on the blog. I'm talking, of course, about Square, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.
Square is an anthropomorphized shape living in a land of other similar shapes. He has a cave filled with other (non-animated) squares that he pushes out onto a hill each day. "This is his work," we are told flatly. (Though I note that it's not called his job, but his work.) Then one day, we are introduced to Circle, who comes hovering by. She has been taken, for some time, by his sculptures. When he asks what she means, she talks about all the wonderful and perfect replica square sculptures he makes of himself, and how he is absolutely a genius.
This is all news to Square.
Furthermore, he is to make Circle a perfect sculpture of herself. How indeed can the genius refuse the request of a fan? He works and frets all night. He is a genius, so what what he makes must be perfect. She is, herself, perfect — a perfect circle. She doesn't even need legs! Square has two legs under his shaped body to carry himself. His trickster friend Triangle has two legs under his body to carry himself. Circle has none! She just floats here and there, presumably spewing random positivity to everyone she meets. So her sculpture must be perfect.
It goes about as well as one might expect. He chisels here, he chisels there, and eventually he's chiseled the whole damn block away. There's just a bit of rubble lying about in all directions and a puddle of water (is it sweat? tears? I'm not actually sure. It could be just plain water, I don't know enough about chiseling/sculpting to know how much water is used in the process). When she returns, she sees what he's left with and...it's perfect. She declares him once more a genius, and this time he believes it. The book ends with the closing reflection, "But was he really?"
Not to try to make too much of a kid's book, but it's a fun look at how we want other people to see us. Square deeply wants to be seen as a genius, even if he only just found out he was one. What happens when the book ends? Does he internalize it, making genuis sculptor a part of his identity? Will he ever have to confront a lack of talent or ability, or will he surround himself with "encouragers" that assure him he's a very special shape? One imagines a future hellscape dystopia wherein some other shape—an octagon perhaps—is writing screeds that the entire sculture community has been hoodwinked by Square, and that Circle and her fellow cohort are too invested in saving face to admit their emperor has no clothes.
I only hope that that shape has as good a name as Sebastian Smee.