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Index of Summer Essays

#4: Quacks, Critics & Charlatans

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Sumo Duck Swallower- Copyright 1982  by Dan Piraro - the first time he was ever published -- in DallasArtsRevue

Raymond The Sumo Duck Swallower - Copyright 1982 by Dan Piraro
as published on the cover of TexasArtsRevue (DallasArtsRevue #8)


I’ve been taking my mind off art in my usual manner, by watching movies and TV shows on DVD, specifically Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t!: Season 1: Disc 1, which I rate high as edutainment though lower as cinema, which of course it's not. It's mostly standard fare TV documentarian video with bits of visual flare. But with a point. In fact, a lot of points. Some hilarious, some stupid and some so frightening that I've had to change my mind about things I thought I knew.

The show has, so far, poked big holes in the charlatans who claim to help the grieving by talking with their dead relatives; with medical quacks

(I loved Teller herding noisy ducks back and forth across the set without Penn once uttering the word “quack”); magnet therapy {{ something I thought I believed in, have several big, wanking magnets stuck to metal things around the house, waiting for my next pain.

Will probably use again, next time I have a hurt I can tape magnets to.

I remember trying to convince friends that magnets stop pain, even though I could not conceive any science that would explain it [Neither, apparently, can anybody else.]}}

and chiropractors (one of whom did me acute physical damage just before major lower back surgery many decades ago (Not sure who was the bigger quack — the doc or the chiro. The doc got a lot more money, allthough the chiro talked faster and had better bedside manner).

After watching people in malls reveling in their sincere, self-unaware dupedom, then raving the benefits of such purposely harebrained therapies as having snails slime across their faces (laugh out loud funny a visual), it began to dawn on me that my avocation may have some aspects in harmony with those other fakers, frauds and imposters.

We want to believe.

Tom Moody - Aritst and Critic

from Tom Moody's story about the important relationships
in artists' lives, Profiles In Aesthetic Courage


Do you believe in art critics?

Until a few moments before, suddenly, in the big middle of Penn & Teller's videotic debunking, I had never given it much thought. I thought I did.

I assumed I believed in art criticism.

But there's too much obvious, though circumstantial, evidence placing art critics too in cahoots with faith healers, second-hand smoke haters and baby whisperers. While the DVD was on pause in the living room, I rushed back here and started hacking away at these curious images gnawing.

I know people who deeply and devoutly believe in reflexology, alien abductions, and/or chiropractry. I listen to those friends spouting rationales for their needs to believe, and I feel that same way about my magnets — and my critiques. The charlatanic similarities are obvious.

Too many of us — writers as well as those written about — take this stuff too close. We become it.

I've recently involved myself in several series of email interchanges with disgruntled and/or angry artists who take this art-crit, description and comparison and, especially judgment stuff, way too seriously. All artists — too many of us, at least — want our art written about sympathetically.

We want others to see ourselves as we see us — mostly harmless, with sparks of pure genius.

None of us want our creations or creativity either ignored or compared irrelevantly or irreverently. We want us and our art taken seriously, even when we're off on one of those necessary, deep end, wrong-way passes that so often precede our work's greatest leaps forward.

We want our art proclaimed a benefit to society, or at least sell a couple pieces; maybe get into a real art gallery, so we can entertain further delusions of grandeur.

Through all this, I keep remembering the late poet, artist and art critic Gerald Burns' wonderful cartoon of a very serious man with two rubber stamps, one in each hand. One says, “This is Art.” The other says, “This is Not Art.”


Gerald Burns - Art, Not Art

Gerald Burns: "This is Art; This is not art" from
DallasArtsRevue on paper back in the 20th Century


Everybody has a theory
about The Role of The Art Critic
This list began with an even dozen links. Now only these two work. Google claims 5,860,000 results in 0.06 seconds. Perhaps everybody doesn't even care about art enough to have a theory. But enough people do.

Some think we're only good for warning people off or onto exhibitions. Others consider us somebody to agree, disagree or argue with or about. Someone to laugh at or with. Light edutainment. To present work artists can compare with their own — favorably, of course.

Few recognize that by writing and publishing intelligent stories about local artists (those of us who actually do write about Dallas and Texas artists), we project compounding smidgins of confidence into our community. We help engender a feeling of belonging and that essential sense of community.

Many artists and others automatically put down critics who do not themselves make art, ignoring the dictum,

“The function of criticism
should not be confused with
the function of reform.”

Dallas may either be utterly peculiar or part of a long-term trend, because most of our published critics are also exhibiting artists, or at least creative in a variety of media. Tom Sime makes depthy wax cakes; Janet Tyson constructs objects of Lego blocks; J R takes photos of birds; Michael Helsem paints, poets and invents languages; Jim Dolan acts in movies, poets and stories; Charles Dee Mitchell used to repair plays (may still); Bill Marvel was a herpetologist who wrote for Ranger Rick's; and Janet Kutner danced in ballroom competitions till her back gave out.

Apparently, Dee and I are the only ones left on this list a mere six years later who are still writing about art.

Nope, like dead-talkers and second-hand smoke protestors (America has closed whole cities to exhaled smoke, with no shred of evidence. What everybody knows, it turns out, is wrong.), art critics perform too valuable a service to humanity to be dismissed, dissected or debunked.

There are some questions which cannot be asked. Right?

Like chiropractors, no two art criticism practitioners follow the same science or practice the same cures. Like quacks, alien abduction experts and faith healers, our real power lies in the minds of our victims, er... readers. And like end-of-the-world theorists, so what if we're wrong — over and over and over again?

June 24, 2005




Whatever one thinks of the integrity or motivation of alien abduction claimants, the claims exist and are part of our discourse; and if all of them were to be proven false, that still would be a phenomenon worth investigating — maybe even more so.

Though i think ultimately the advent of Jungian typology applied to art will not so much put criticism on a scientific basis as eliminate many of its routine misapprehensions, the sort of talk about art that is not viciously jargonized still serves a valuable function: too bad there isn’t more of it. You can easily find ten different opinions about a movie, but the painting that gets discussed at all is rara avis.

And what of today’s art ideologies? They too say something about us, only not what we think. And the aliens really are coming.

Michael Helsem


I often wonder what an art critic does when he realizes how wrong he or she was. Can you imagine they got it wrong for five hundred years?

William John Meegan



J R’s Summer Art Essays      index

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