For a baker’s dozen of years beginning in the late 1990s, I was the editor of a monthly reference journal called Current Biography. Our articles on accomplished living people relied heavily on secondary sources; in the course of writing and editing each 2,500-word biography of an actor, businessperson, writer, athlete, scientist, politician, musician, or what have you, my staff and I combed through dozens of published reviews, interviews, and profiles. Over the years, I discovered that when it came to what I will call—for the sake of this Catholic publication—flimflam, the biographical subjects who inspired most of it fell mainly into one category: visual artists.
As far as I could tell, this was not the fault of the art critics, or not entirely. It often seemed as though, having pages to fill, and having themselves been conned by the artists, those critics set out, consciously or otherwise, to con the rest of us—using hot air to pad their takes on the meanings of the work under review. One artist, for example, exhibited what he claimed was a section of his own bedroom wall, significant to him because of the countless hours he had stared at it. Perhaps that stands out in my memory because one critic, after waxing poetic about the section of wall, added—uncharacteristically for one in his occupation—that one might be tempted to view the work as a scam. Yes, I recall thinking. Yes, indeed, one might.
The vast majority of the artworks that inspired flimflam were conceptual. That is no accident. An element usually absent from works of conceptual art, in my humble experience, is craft. That, of course, is the point of conceptual art, which emerged as a movement in the 1960s: the materials and their manipulation are important neither for the aesthetic pleasure they give nor for the skill they display, but for what they express. It’s the idea, stupid. But in art, for me personally, craft functions as a passport, lending legitimacy to the intentions of the person whose work I am considering. Clearly demonstrated skill at painting, drawing, or sculpting gets us past the first hurdle, letting me know that the work, whether or not I like it, deserves to be taken seriously. By contrast, I tend to yawn, if not roll my eyes, before works that show no sign of what priests call “the work of human hands.” (And if you truly want me to bypass your museum or gallery installation, one time-tested method is to throw in a TV or video monitor.)
These opinions come with two caveats. One is that I recognize that much conceptual art represents serious and legitimate intentions. (I know: very big of me.) What can make it hard to assess the intentions behind conceptual art is the often ineffable nature of the ideas at the center of such work. Those ideas are like small children: precious, delicate, complex, dependent on the support of solid objects and the stewardship of solid people for their survival. But sometimes the quality of those objects and people make one wonder if the ideas, like a Nigerian prince in an email scam, don’t actually exist. The second caveat is that sometimes, in cases in which the craft that went into an art object seems limited or absent, the work itself is still so striking that it doesn’t matter.