New York Today: Some Artists Comment
by Carter Ratcliff

There are artists in New York with more charm than talent, but rarely artists with more talent than charm. Charm helps you more in New York than talent. Talent you take for granted. It’s like openers. Both show in the work. Charm becomes good urban manners and explains why some people go farther than other people.
Urban manners? Not telling someone what you think about his show unless he asks you. That’s rudimentary. Urban manners in art is making paintings that are interesting. If you’re doing the same painting that 90 other guys are doing, you’ve got bad manners. I have a few idols as far as good manners go. They all have real bad taste but real good manners.
It’s a question of high style. Low-style and high-style painting are two different things. Low-style artists are very often offended by the vulgarity of the large gesture. It has no modesty. Modesty isn’t considered a virtue in high-style painting. Low-style painters think the opposite. They want a civilized life and their kind of painting is part of a civilized life. If I wanted that, I’d live in London or Paris. Artists in New York have uncivilized lives. So you have urban people with urban manners to get them through.
New York painting is indoors. It’s rough but elegant. There was a tradition of large-scale art established here by the older Abstract Expressionists. Everyone accepted their values. I think there’s been some hedging off on the grand gesture. But for 20, 25 years it’s been a prime value. The art reflects this and it became the taste. Sometimes people like it and want it because it looks a certain way, not because it has those large-scale values, but New York is still the place where those values count. It can contain anyone’s ambition. So people with large ambitions still come here. This is where you compete. You can be really aggressive about ambitions here.
Is ambition neurotic? It sure is! Artists are slightly disturbed people. That’s a big reason why people come here, because they feel a little disturbed about themselves. Then sometimes they find a comfortable place – and when that happens to your friends you feel very happy for them. But a high style is impossible without competing with other artists over what a painting should be, trying to find as big an audience as possible, trying to find a position in society but not being too easily convinced that you’ve done it. So there’s always competition. A jerk is someone who competes with the wrong guy.
Take someone like Joshua Reynolds, a high-style artist. Most people would argue right now that his taste was off, but there was this basic idea of a large picture. That’s what an artist is supposed to be doing with his life. You feel sympathetic toward that. It’s not some little piece of the artist’s soul to meditate with. He’s not making some little item.
In New York, you’re forced to look at other high-style artists. They’re working with values similar to yours, so you think of how successfully or unsuccessfully they’ve dealt with them. It crosses time barriers. You can go to Egyptian stuff as easy as you can go to Art Nouveau. It’s all accessible. Anything that has the same values, that is supposed to be understood by a lot of people, is accessible. Chinese, anything…
High-style painting is a vehicle for grandeur and power. It’s personal in that it represents what one man feels art should be, but it’s impersonal in that it doesn’t represent how he feels today – or how he feels, period. It has nothing to do with self-expression. It has values that come from trying to figure out how to have the best possible relationship with the largest possible number of people. You need some sense of an audience for a high style. A large part of the audience in New York is other painters. Then you get the people who follow art closely, then people who look at it more casually. But you always have to think about the audience. If you think you’re the Messiah – if the art is totally personal, totally obsessional – it’s not going to have any big style. That kind of art has those small, private values which never make large art, somehow.
It has to do with personality. If it’s not going to be self-expression, it can’t be just formal values, either. It has to do with subject matter and a lot of things. Guys wearing nice suits in the ‘50s were putting the painting on the canvas differently from the guys who were wearing clothes with paint on them. The artist doesn’t shed his personality when he goes into the studio. That’s an important part of his life, obviously, and since it isn’t very civilized here in New York, the big gesture in the art compensates for that.
It becomes self-indulgence in a big art form, rather than self-indulgence in personal feelings. And that self-indulgence isn’t civilized. It becomes the way people lose their lives – without really screaming. But we’re all on stage here, we’re all in operas. High-style painters in New York are all a bunch of opera singers.
Excerpted from an interview with Carter Ratcliff.