Michael Godard is that quintessential quantity, a bad artist--the kind who succeeds by appealing to the lowest aesthetic instincts imaginable. Arising from the milieu of Southern California, Godard was typically unsuccessful in other occupations--engineer, illustrator, caricature artist, and allegedly had a difficult childhood, and a troubled family life (a chronically ill daughter who died young). His signal success in creating cartoon-like canvases of high contrast polish and comic thematic content has redeemed an outlaw personality and brought him into the mainstream of successful pop art.
Is it possible for an artist to be so successfully "bad" that the work flips over into genuine quality--in effect, transcending the usual categories and genres to occupy a place that has integrity because of its honest, straightforward meretriciousness? It may be so.
I'm not a serious art critic, and I often think I'm on uncertain ground when trying to estimate the value and quality of modern art. Was Rothko a genius, or a charlatan? Was Warhol great, or just an audacious advertising executive? I don't have any clear ideas about that. I often despise bad art--for instance, the work of Norman Rockwell, which makes me feel I've been drenched in sewer water every time I see one of his canvases--probably for the right reasons, but then I encounter an artist who breaks all the rules, and still manages to communicate something to many people.
Godard, mind you, is no golden-hearted, modest craftsman, toiling away in obscurity and proud indignation. He's a no-holds-barred self-promoter who pushes himself and his work forward with undisguised vanity and ambition. In America, cartoonists have often attained the rank of serious artist. Charles Schultz, for instance, or Walt Disney built very lucrative careers, veritable marketing empires, out of a few simple comic strip narratives. We certainly don't measure the aesthetic quality of them against the yardsticks we use to judge, say, Monet, or Winslow Homer, or Lucien Freud.
Everyone acknowledges that various media entertainments may, through their popular appeal, achieve a degree of recognition that tends to raise our estimation of their value to levels that rival "serious" art. It's not a new thing. And each new generation of avant garde artists routinely gets vilified for, in effect, dissing the traditions of devotion and quality and performance which set previous standards of taste.
Taste is a funny thing. In our nervously shifting world of art values, wayward or eccentric figures may appear briefly, their propulsive rockets filling the night sky with color and pizzazz, only to fizzle out after a few years of high sales and whipped-up excitement. Every so often, you'll see road-side stands of black velvet paintings, which people who travel in motorhomes seem to find enticing. Unsophisticated taste in art has a long and undistinguished history in America.
But what is it about the success of a minor cartoon artist, that should so offend our sensibilities? Colin David unburdens himself of a stern indignation in his undated "Michael Godard: Worst Artist in the World." Mr. David condemns Godard for his poor technique--getting the shadows wrong--and his showmanship. But when we're dealing with a generic art that admittedly doesn't aspire to higher values, what is the point of such criticisms? Is it all just sour grapes?
Few artists are able to make a living of any kind with their own work. Many teach, or hold day-jobs, or just scumble along, either hoping for a break, or imagining that someday their work will emerge from the obscurity of the quotidian to stand forth as hypnotic images of our epoch. But this seldom happens. So why should it bother us, when someone overcomes the large resistance to artistic acceptance, and actually manages to make a living selling pictures or objects to people for significant money?
It may be envy, or it may be genuine scorn--feeling as if the rewards of aesthetic effort ought to fit some higher standard of taste and function. But who shall decide what those standards of taste should be? Van Gogh may command prices in the hundreds of millions of dollars for individual canvases. But does this necessarily imply that all art, in any context, should aspire to this level of import? "People like what they like," and why not? What should prevent the ordinary householder from buying an oil painting at an artist's fair to place over his mantel? In what sense is this a desecration of the public's respectability?
I look at Michael Godard's works as a form of sophisticated cartooning. They probably belong in the lounges of Las Vegas, or in the livingrooms of the not very sophisticated Hollywood stars who "know what they like," and "don't give a damn what anyone thinks." I could imagine them in an animated state, and certainly the digital animation technology could do wonders with them--these little green olive characters getting into all kinds of mischief. The glorification of alcoholic beverages, which they clearly embody, seems to me merely a minor fetish, which is really unnecessary to the spirit they capture.
In what sense, then, are these works less ennobling or uplifting than a Ralph Steadman cartoon, or a Ronald Searle drawing, or a piece by Edward Gorey? Are we so categorical that we are only able to see humor if it is aimed at the correct target, or addresses the acceptable problem, or manipulates the permitted subject? Steadman may parody book collecting or wine tasting; Searle may satirize British public schools; and Gorey may vamp with the late Victorian Gothic. But woe be to the Los Angeleno biker stud who fantasizes about olives climbing out of cocktail glasses into the fantasy world of casinos, noir heists, and tropical getaways.
"The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back"
As probable substitutions for the things most people will never own, or probably never see first-hand, up-close, secondary art occupies an important niche. To imagine the world into art is a completely human aptitude, which is expressed all up and down the spectrum of class, education and interest. Who's to say Michael Godard is either worthless, or misguided, or unworthy? Most people got a good kick out of the dancing raisins singin' "Heard it on the Grape Vine" a few years ago on commercial television. And those little peanut M&M's diving into a chocolate swimming pool--they were fun too. I'm rootin' for these little olives in their inebriated escapades, but I have no illusions about quality. We'll leave that to the highbrow critics who roll their eyes and clear their throats.