Friday, November 27, 2009

Great works of art and the miserable books about them

Oh man, this horrible book. I keep wishing I could somehow just sum it up in a couple of pithy, brief paragraphs, but so far it hasn't worked. And the more energy I spend thinking about it, the less I bother to make pictures, so that it threatens to cut off my productivity altogether. (Although it has also gotten me away from the computer for a bit, so maybe that's not so bad.)

I suppose the main thing that's on my mind is how much the writing reminds me of a number of troll-ish blogs I've come across over the last several years, and also the similarly troll-ish (is there an equivalent non-internet word for such behavior?) people I've had run-ins with during my time at art school. It's that what the author says he's doing and what he's actually doing are two very different things. Here are three excerpts from the preface:

"In order to make this book effective, it is necessary that some strong statements should be made, in order that certain truths should sink into the public mind. But no statement will be made merely to create a sensation; life is too short for such stupidity."

"I have no private axe to grind, no grouch to ventilate, since I am content with my modicum of success in life and art."

"I trust the public will regard as entirely unprejudiced the views I shall lay before it as to what constitutes a work of art, and what makes it truly great."

Ruckstull definitely makes strong statements. He hardly does anything else, in fact. He spends chapter after chapter repeating all the (two or three) reasons why his half-dozen least favorite artists are sadists, symbolic sadists, masochists, suffering from mental degeneration, or otherwise crazy. He has one chapter titled "The Gospel of Ugliness" in which the author is listed as "Mephistopheles," which turns the rise of "degenerate art" into some kind of epic battle of Biblical proportions. I would argue that this particular chapter is largely meant to create sensation. (I suspect it's also meant to be humorous, but mostly it just sounds like the guy is getting really carried away with his own cleverness.)

It's hard to tell whether or not he really is content with his own successes. I don't get the impression that he is. There's a chapter of biographical information at the end, in which he describes a number of ambitious sculptural projects and laments the impossibility of finding anyone to sponsor or fund them. And his writing seems full of angry bitterness at the undeserved fame and success of various Modernists, particularly his fellow sculptor, Rodin. He devotes an entire chapter ("Deformation of Form a Menace") to a lengthy discussion of Rodin's character, morals, and personal habits, and seems to have a very specific personal grudge against the man.

Given what his writing is like, it seems unlikely that the public would regard him as unprejudiced. I'm not exactly his intended audience, since I'm living in the wrong era, and since he does specifically say that the book is meant for people without formal art training, but even without that, his not-quite-logic and apparent obsessive hatred of a small number of people and specific styles does not seem unbiased or detached. He seems to have some delusions of grandeur, too. "We have no hesitancy in saying that we regard this definition of art as the most important slogan ever announced in the world of art." (p.89) I suppose it's possible that Ruckstull was famous and influential enough, in his day, to be able to make a statement like that, but even if that was the case, it seems awfully arrogant. There's a similar section (which now I can't find again) where he's really pleased with himself for being the first artist in the history of the world to have come up with some idea or other. Which is unlikely to the point of being ridiculous.

So, with all that in mind, I find it's not at all surprising to discover that the chapters of the book were originally articles in a magazine that Ruckstull founded and published himself. Aha! It's a zine, at least in the sense of being a self-published work of minority interest. And the number of subscriptions was "not sufficient to make the Magazine sustaining" (p.ix) which means he was basically a blogger with not too many readers outside his own circle of friends.

What I really want to know, now, is how he managed to get picked up by a real publisher. My copy of the book says Garden City Publishing Company which Wikipedia says is part of Doubleday. And somebody apparently reprinted it recently enough for it to turn up on Amazon.

I think I've got most of the analysis out of my system now. Maybe soon I can go back to making pictures.

1 comment:

Gissel Escudero said...

Yeah, ignore this guy and go back to your pictures. He seems affected by a bad case of envy. Perhaps he died of it! :-D