The Quality Instinct: Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eye by Maxwell L. Anderson

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Staff Review by Jack Edson:
What is it about a work of art that makes it a great work of art, or a mediocre work of art or even a lousy work of art?  Is it all subjective, as the worn out adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” would have us believe, or is there some objective criteria that we can utilize to determine the value of a piece of art?
Maxwell L. Anderson has directed five large art museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and he says he has always been trying to determine what is good about art and to know more clearly why he might evaluate a piece of art the way he does.  In this book, he does not exactly reduce the evaluation of art to a science, but he provides a pretty strong checklist that art lovers can use to help determine why a particular piece of art works for them.
Anderson’s checklist, reduced to its most absolute brevity, scrutinizes a work of art in five ways.   He asks, to what extent is the piece original in its approach, crafted with technical skill, confident in its theme, coherent in its composition and memorable for the viewer?
Originality might be the easiest term to illustrate.  Anderson recounts a visit that the American sculptor George Segal paid to the storerooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.  In his career, Segal made many plaster sculptures of figures engaged in mundane activities.  Segal used the materials of the old plaster casts, but in a new and different way which showed the activities of people of his own time.  Anderson’s retelling of this incident is an example of the wit and humor he shares throughout the book, something that art lovers will thoroughly enjoy.  Segal spotted a plaster cast of the famous Roman statue, “The Dying Gaul” and asked Anderson how much he wanted for it, jokingly attempting to purchase it.  “How about an even trade for one of yours?” replied Anderson, making the point that Segal’s sculpture was new and original while the plaster cast was only a replica of the real thing.
Anderson makes many points while discussing craftsmanship in art.  One might expect that fine craftsmanship might cause a piece to be a fine work of art and that poor craftsmanship might do just the opposite, but this is not necessarily so.  A quilt by one of the Gee’s Bend quilters might not have fine quilting, but its lively design and irrepressibly bold design seem to take over the quality of craftsmanship itself.
How does a work of art show confidence in its theme?  Anderson gives us the example of a 12th century  enameled reliquary box, the Malmesbury Chasse, which readers may have seen displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto where Anderson served as director for several years.  This reliquary retains the overall shape of a coffin, but works out the themes of life and death by using a variety of Christian imagery made by thin lines of copper separating different enamel colors.  This piece shows no doubts about anything whatsoever.
One particular trick Anderson gives us in evaluating portraits comes from the 19th century scholar Giovanni Morelli, who judged portraits by the way the ears were painted.  Did a painting show a particular ear, or was it merely an approximation of an ear?  Morelli closely observed unimportant details of a painting, seeing if the unimportant details were treated properly, or if the artist resorted to using familiar shorthand to depict details rather than bothering to give equal time and effort to less important elements.
Coherency in composition is easily demonstrated in a masterpiece such as “The Alba Madonna” by Raphael, but Anderson gives us more examples from his museum career.  During his tenure at the Whitney Museum, plans were made by the architect Rem Koolhaas to greatly enlarge the original building that was designed by Marcel Breuer.  The proposed design by Koolhaas provided a large addition which curved up and around the original building, illustrating Anderson’s idea of compositional dissonance.  In its day, the original Breuer design had seemed outrageous, while years later, the Koolhaus design continued this tradition of seeming outrageous.
Can we ever forget an encounter with a truly fantastic work of art?  Probably not, and that is Anderson’s final test for a work of art.  Did it stay with us after we parted from it, did it touch our heart or change our way of thinking?  Otherwise, why would we even bother with it in the first place?
How does all of this apply to contemporary art, the art that is made today and has not been critically evaluated through a long view of history?  Anderson reminds us that the works of the Impressionist painters were dismissed in their own time, but they made quite a comeback shortly after that.
Anderson provides many examples of art pieces that have presented problems in evaluation including the completely white paintings of Robert Ryman, the talking video puppets of Tony Oursler, works of art that sold for a fortune but were found to be forgeries.   It is always fun to read his evaluation of these difficult pieces.  Readers will want to remember what he said, anticipating the day when some acquaintance stands in front of a favorite piece of art and mentions that their child painted something like that in kindergarten.  This book will give the reader plenty of ammunition to fire back if that situation arises.
Besides the information it presents, this book is great fun to read.  Names are dropped, prices are mentioned, and experts misjudge the value of artworks both too high and too low. Art lovers will enjoy reading about the inside knowledge that museum curators have and the author’s enthusiasm and love of art is very inspirational.
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