It is with regret that I am going to participate in a favorite pastime of DC art bloggers, and take issue with an aspect of Blake Gopnik's article in the Washington Post today on the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures on New York Avenue. Gopnik's denounces these for "not being weighty" and therefore, not art. (Incidentally, I say "regret" because I find the knee jerk reactions to Gopnik's articles to be almost as annoying as the articles that inspire the criticism themselves, but that's a separate issue.) I actually mostly agree with him that the works are simplistic, though aesthetically pleasing, so picking out exactly what rubbed me the wrong way was tricky; but I bristled after reading this paragraph:
These works aren't being billed as sweet decor, as cute pick-me-ups or as crowd-pleasing tchotchkes. The museum is calling them "world-class art." But if that's the case, we have to wonder why the art we settle for outside on our streets should be so much less weighty than what we hope to find inside our museums. Titian, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cassatt, Cézanne, Picasso -- they're hardly purveyors of good clean fun that gets us smiling. Not all the art we've valued most has been grim; some has even been cheerful. But one way or another, all of it has been substantial.
I suppose this mindset goes hand in hand with the idea that art needs to have conflict, the same way you need conflict to make an interesting movie, and how we like to imagine our artists as tortured souls; or that any art which is cheerful also has to be ironic in some way à la Andy Warhol, or how we dismiss artists who commit the sin of creating pieces that are "decorative" as though that automatically makes them lesser work. But this is a slippery slope. Art can be light-hearted and substantial at the same time, though not all of it is necessarily, and the idea of denouncing it because it wasn't as provocative as a giant vagina you could walk through (one of de Saint Phalle's earlier works he cites) seems unfair. Though I'd be kind of curious to see that on New York avenue.