Short Fuse Visual Arts News: What is Good Art? Me and Barry McGee

By Harvey Blume.

A sample of Barry McGee’s work at the ICA

What is good art?

One of the guards at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art came over, on his own initiative this past Sunday, seeing that my friend and I were deep in discussion about a complex, and to my mind, dubious, painting in the museum’s permanent collection, to suggest that one feature of good art is that it reminds you of all sorts of other good art.

Let it be noted, first off, that ICA guards, these days, do take initiative in coming over to talk. This is remarkable and completely commendable. In New York, say, and at other art institutions in Boston—the Gardner, the MFA, the Harvard Art Museums—their like will talk to you, perhaps, but if and only if you start it up, at which point you might discover that the bearded guy who’s been eyeing you closely so as to ensure you don’t touch the priceless, Greek vase you’ve been studying actually knows a world about Greek vases, loves them, and, if even lightly prodded, will share.

At the ICA, it seems, guards have been released from this rule of strict reticence. They are young, and not, let us remember, standing on their feet all day for big bucks; they are artists and/or art lovers themselves and appear to have the green light to gravitate to visitors who seem susceptible to a chat so as to unobtrusively offer their opinions. This is a terrific and in my not inconsiderable experience of art viewing, unique approach. Let it go on.

But back to the question left hanging at the outset: what is good art? Yes, it’s always a pleasure when a work of art brings to mind other viewing experiences—entailing memory and the pleasures of connection. But that, of course, is never enough. The art must, no matter how much it brings to mind other art, push all those connections and associations aside long enough to make a distinctive space for itself.

That, to my mind, is precisely what the Barry McGee show currently on view at the ICA in Boston does not do. McGee was a graffiti artist from San Francisco. His work may at times remind you, distantly, of Jean-Michel Basquiat and more immediately of Shepard Fairy. It may touch on R. Crumb along the way. It quotes from but does not in the least improve on the work of foundational video artist Nam June Paik. It never stands on its own.

The McGee show is puzzling. ICA curators have hosted superb shows: the Shepard Fairy installation (2009), for one, and the marvelous Anish Kapoor installation (2008), for another. In the Kapoor show, the ICA gave this innovative artist a setting that in turn burnished the setting itself.

I don’t understand why the ICA has made the mistake of allotting a one man show to McGee. I applaud the fact that ICA guards, presumably with permission, will now engage with visitors. At the same time, I wonder if the curators and directors of Boston’s waterfront art venue have lost their way.

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