My Favourite Idiot

“Hanging around him, she acts like him, she always has, so that for most of her life she’s been somebody she can’t stand.” (Barbara Gowdy, Falling Angels)

I have a favourite idiot. To be clear, this is not any indicator of ‘liking’ said idiot. This is moreso indicative of proximity. No, he’s my favourite idiot because I’m one of a few people who ‘enjoy’ demonstrations of his idiocy on a regular, dare I say frequent, basis. Allow me to cite a relevant instance.
Idiot once jabbered about how ‘people believe everything they read online’, and added to this that they need to go to libraries instead. Let’s ignore for a moment that Idiot is a catholic, and we know their history with book burning, and illiteracy. Instead, let us acknowledge that a visit to the library will find books by Hitler, or Pope Pius or John Paul II, all bursting with lies and sins of omissions that might suggest they be better filed under fiction. But more specifically, Idiot demonstrates a poverty of online criticality as he likes to read the National Post, that ‘merican hedge fund owned bastion of near slander and dishonesty. He’ll cite convict Connie Black, ignoring that Robert Jago has called into serious question Black’s ‘histories’ – statistics and ‘facts’ – about the Indigenous in Canada (if you haven’t read Jago’s ‘obituary’ for Black, take a moment to enjoy it here). Further, the dear Idiot once expressed shock, just shock, that another scribbler with that rag, de Souza, was ‘dishonest’ and fudged how the number of cultists – or members, if you will – of de Souza’s ‘church’ were increasing. When he jibbered about this, to me, I responded that de Souza isn’t a journalist, he’s a propagandist, so what did you expect? And isn’t he the same de Souza who tried to claim Pell’s convictions for aiding and abetting serial child rapists was ‘really’ Pell being ‘punished’ as a ‘political prisoner’ for his homophobic ‘views’?
Now, you may be asking, ‘well, there’s ignorant hypocrites everywhere these days’ – or we could be polite and call it confirmation bias – ‘so, what’s your point?’
Well, my favourite Idiot serves as a fine example of how too many people fancy themselves ‘critical thinkers’ when they are, in fact, the opposite. Unsurprisingly, Idiot is also a fan of Don Cherry – there’s a similar vacant bombasity in play – and Rex Murphy. The latter might be jealousy for Rex’s lugubrious excesses of verbal variety, as Idiot often speaks and writes as though he’s had several cerebral events (but yes, he does whine about not hearing English when he’s out, though what he ‘speaks’ and ‘writes’ isn’t that, either, in my opinion). Would it be unbelievable to add that he’s a failed writer? As you can already smell a stench of ‘mediocre white man’ who fails to understand that he ‘owes the world, not the other way around’, that entitled hypocrisy is surely not a surprise.

Jenny Holzer, from Truisms, 1977 – 79

But, yes, the point I’m circling around. Get to it, please, I can almost hear you say.

Well, as you know – or are likely to know, if you’re reading this – I often engage with groups and different publics around the space of art and art making. This is a space where compromise – you may not be getting what you expect, or your expectations may be challenged – is necessary. I’m reminded of Ad Reinhardt’s fine cartoon, where a smug idiot asks an abstract painting what it represents, and it snaps back the same question at him, to his stunned – and thankfully silent – shock.

Ha Ha What Does This Represent?, Ad Reinhardt, 1945

As well, there’s a wonderful idea from Ezra Pound, that one expresses an opinion like writing a cheque on an account of knowledge and research (this is from his book ABC of Reading) . If the account is empty, the cheque – the opinion – is fraudulent, and should be dismissed as such. Favourite Idiot – who is as full of opinions as he is of feces (perhaps more, as the two are sometimes indistinguishable, and his problem is the opposite of constipation) – ‘writes cheques’ that might bounce to the moon, to push the metaphor further.
When confronted with some work, you’re challenged. I like to cite Theodor Adorno, who warned that too many, when confronted with something genuinely different, fall back on the ‘shamelessly modern assertion that they simply do not understand.’ My favourite idiot isn’t even at that level: what he doesn’t understand, he responds to with aggressive ignorance. If he doesn’t ‘know’ it, ‘no one must know it.’ IF he doesn’t consider it worth knowing, it must not be necessary to know. His ignorance is so self referential that, to paraphrase that Rumsfeld line, he can’t even fathom that there are ‘unknown unknowns.’
To think this is someone who brazenly and confidently belches an ‘opinion’ about art is a problem that requires a firm and fast negative response: a ball gag, perhaps, and I may be speaking metaphorically or literally. I’m more comfortable with the latter, to be honest.

Let’s take this in less caustic, perhaps more relevant, direction. I’ve been writing and encountering a great deal about abstraction, in painting, in the past year or so: interestingly – conversely – I’ve also been repeatedly engaging with politics in art making, and specific artworks, concurrently. These might seem at odds: Boris Groys has offered a scathing but insightful condemnation of much ‘pure’ abstraction as being apolitical, or as espousing the status quo as it neither offers nor demands any societal or social change or critique (usually through contested narratives). But perhaps it’s worth noting that the focus upon abstraction for me has been motivated by what has fallen into my purview for reviewing exhibitions, whereas the political discourse of late has been more so in social media. I often share and post artworks, from within and outside the ‘official’ canon, and to do so in social media is to dance with the vagaries and hypocrisy of ‘community standards.’ I generally do this in FaceBook, and since I was speaking of my favourite idiot’s hypocrisy before, this same mendacity can be seen in a platform that ignores or abets racism and misogyny while banning you for three days, a week, more, for sharing a work by Francesca Woodman or Hannah Wilke, where the artists, in their self portraits, dare to show a nipple. The image I share I below is one that got me a suspension, from the FB social media platform….

Francesca Woodman, On Being An Angel #1, Providence, Rhode Island , 1977

But artworks both abstract and political can be fracturing and unsettling, and can, of course, ‘offend’ many. What you ‘do’, with that reaction, is of course up to you, and in the end indicates more about the one being offended than the artwork itself. To return to my own experience: when I engaged with more light than heat at Rodman Hall, I found the show opaque, pretentious and – if I were to steal the idea of ‘gesture’, from the artist / curatorial statement – a ‘gesture’ either incomplete, or more akin to a teenager flipping us the bird. BUT I visited repeatedly: I researched other projects, other works, by the artists and curators, and nagged others to visit with him, seeking the opinions of others, with diverse ideas and expectations. After all this, I found my opinion to be sound, and well founded.

Alexander Rodchenko, Pure Colors: Red, Yellow, Blue, 1921

Alternately, if you’d spoken to me ten or fifteen, years ago, you’d find I dismissed abstract art, especially painting, out of hand. Some of this was due to how, during that time, I was living in Saskatoon (‘Paris of the Prairies’, they say, but they are wrong). I was drowning in what I’ve come to call Karaoke Modernism (or #karaokemodernism), and that blotched and obscured my vision to what painting can, could and should be. It’s been more than half a century since Reinhardt’s black-on-black art-is-art-and-everything-else-is-everything-else declarations, or Rodchenko’s work, a century ago, where with Pure Colors: Red, Yellow, Blue he declared an end to narrative (pictured above). I’m not saying I agree with these artists’ assertions: but I understand them, and will defend them, when a ‘favourite idiot’ smirks and snots disapproval.
The same abrupt correcting slap is required when confronted with a favourite idiot of a FB censor. An elderly catholic relative used to talk about how, when taught by nuns, if he put his hands in his pockets, he’d be accused of masturbation (the penguin would call it ‘breaking the seventh commandment, as they saw it tied up in adultery and fornication). My response was how exhausting and deforming it must be to grow up among such dirty minded sorts who saw ‘sin’ everywhere (in works like Wilke or Woodman or – unsurprisingly – so many female artists offering challenging postures and narratives), and that hated their own bodies so much that it oozed out of their pores and they tried to smear it on those around them, even children. Perhaps, considering we’re speaking of catholics, especially children…..

So, what are we to do about my favourite idiot? Well, I say ‘we’, but we both know I mean me. How does one engage with the irrevocably ignorant? I feel this is an even harder question now, as someone I relied upon for guidance with this, in the past, RM Vaughan, has gone missing, adding more despair to 2020. But Vaughan, in an appropriately infamous piece for the CBC, wrote about what he had learned during his decades of arts writing, and one point was about – of course – never reading the comments. If I may quote: No one, least of all the writer of the article, should ever read the comments section. Never, ever read the comments section. This, of course, applies to emails, hate mail, and other such letters that predated the immediate idiocy that social media and the web has ‘gifted’ us. This offers a fine connection to my favourite idiot’s distrust of the online sphere, as he was ignorant before the online communities coalesced, and will continue to a further nadir if the web stopped tomorrow. Sadly, I always – and still do – consider the web a space to expand your knowledge, and seek out challenging and differing opinions. But it is far too rife with Wente – ian ‘belief perserverance’ or ‘selective fact retention’….

Sometimes, however, engaging full force is necessary. Call into questions their own assumptions, or ask what works or people they’re genuinely referring to (a fave instance was ‘everybody likes this kind of painting’, to which I responded with ‘besides you, and your friend, both of whom can’t name a contemporary artist, who else makes up your idiot brigade of ignorance?’ Yes, I favour negative re enforcement, as an educational tool, or a means to end the din of dimness).

I always prefer disengagement or not even listening to said ‘opinions’: after all, people can jabber what they like, but I’m not required to listen. Further, those of you who know me know that your intrepid #artcriticfromhell has been known to meet ignorance with contempt, dropping names and ideas and such, to hopefully overwhelm said idiot with the idea that there are many more places to stand than the island they have chosen, and refuse to step away from. If this doesn’t so much as convince them as indicate that their ‘thoughts’ are as welcome as flatulence in an elevator, I’m fine with that too. Sometimes, depending upon the level of harshness invited, I’ll even offer Mao’s statement – tinged with threat, if you know that story – that those who demonstrate they have no knowledge on a topic are not permitted to speak….

Opinions expressed here are solely my own, and have no reflection on the various publications I have contributed to, nor continue to be involved with, nor any organizations I’m currently involved with, in any capacity. Any resemblance to anyone you know is, ahem, purely ‘coincidental’, and might be something you consider dealing with, on your own or with support.