That’s crap.

When I’m visiting a show or a museum, I’ll sometimes hear disparaging comments about the work. “I wouldn’t give two cents for that,” one woman sneered at a piece I found rather clever. An artist in a prestigious show characterized another person’s work as a “gimmick”, even though she wasn’t quite sure her own piece had been hung right side up. (Seriously. She had to go stare at it for awhile before calling a staff member over to flip it.)

Well, we’re all human here. I do the same thing, although I go to some effort to keep a filter between my mouth and my brain. Inside, though, my critic-mind is merrily commenting away. I see a lot of work and think “That’s crap” or “You’re boring me” or “Seriously? People used to paint that kind of thing on the sides of vans.”

The thing I try to remind myself of, though, is that we’re all on different paths. The people learning a new medium, who dip their toes in by trying someone else’s technique. The people whose experience of art is enhanced by translating a master work to a different medium. The veteran artists who attended RISD and have established themes and personal styles. The latecomers who are struggling to sing and express their souls after years of having their needs take a back seat to everyone else’s.

We often don’t know, really. We can simply react to what we’re seeing – perhaps appropriate in the case of illustration or graphic design – but if we don’t know about the creator, we may not see a piece with clear eyes. Perhaps it’s best to try to retain a sense of compassion, even when we think something is gawdawful. While we may not find a particular artwork compelling, on some level it’s wonderful that the person created. Maybe that was an immensely courageous act, and showing a series of badly rendered drawings which reek of cigarette smoke is a high point in this person’s life. Let’s applaud that, even if we aren’t moved by the work. Compassion.

With that notion in the back of my mind, I recently viewed a show, Menagerie, at the Mingei in San Diego. Menagerie was comprised of renderings of animals from the permanent collection. I wandered through, some things catching my eye and some not.



Sitting firmly in the “not” category was this collection of animals. I walked by them rather dismissively, thinking “meh, a bunch of animal blobs”, then forced myself to look again. Perhaps the museum had a good reason for adding them to the collection. Perhaps I’d learn something if I studied them.

There was a card with the collection:

Sonabai Rajawar
Animals, c 1985
Clay and Paint

Sonabai Rajawar lived in forced isolation for 15 years in a remote village in central India, unable to see or be seen by anyone other than her husband and child. Through the necessity of expressing her own vision in the face of this adversity, Sonabai created toys for her son and sculptures for her home, imagining a world full of color and light. Using available materials, she created whimsical animal sculptures exclusively from her own vivid imagination.

And there it was: I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about this woman, but I could already imagine her. Married to an abusive loon of some sort, I guessed, someone hideously controlling who kept her locked up until he saw the dollar signs emanating from her work. Or maybe he died first, then she gained freedom. I would have gone nuts in such circumstances, had my spirit totally crushed, but she came up with a coping mechanism, a means of expressing the beauty and goodness inside. Unbelievably admirable.

“She dug clay mud from around her well,” one of the museum staff told me, “she made the paints herself, from things she had on hand.” Imagine that, grubbing around in the dirt and grinding up spices and seeds for pigments, perhaps, in order to make toys for one’s child. Quite literally creating something out of nothing. Evidently she visited the U.S. near the end of her life, when the Mingei mounted an exhibit of her work. She was amazed and delighted to discover the existence of ready-made tempera paints in a rainbow of hues.

And I, in my hubris and with my access to the endless array of supplies we have in the west, was initially dismissive of her work.

I will close with a picture of something that is literally, but not metaphorically, a piece of crap:


That’s right. This charming little dog was made from dung. As with Sonabai Rajawar, that may have been the only material this artist could access, yet the creative spirit burned so brightly. It’s something I’ll try to bear in mind the next time I look at someone’s work and am tempted to dismiss it as crap.

2 Responses to “That’s crap.”

  1. Dorothy says:

    You’ve pushed me to look farther. This woman’s story is one of those delcious wicked stories no one tells their children anymore. Only it’s true! Let’s just hope Disney never hears of it – we’ll have a new Indian princess.