Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Loving the Authoritarian

For days, a David Bowie song went around in my head, just out of reach . . . couldn't quite hear what it was . . . then I realized, or thought I did, that it was Loving the Alien--a great song, though not my favorite, which is of course Ashes to Ashes. And then there are sentimental favs like The Prettiest Star. Anyway, when I heard more clearly the song that had been nagging me, it turned out to be, not Loving the Alien, but Loving the Authoritarian . . . quite a different thing, given that authoritarianism presumes to a sort of intimacy. It says: I know you and, even better, you know me. You know what I can do for you, thus you know how much you need me. How much you need to give in to me.
Speaking again as Art Snark,let me say: don't do it. Don't give in. Works of art claim no authority, try to exercise none. They mean all that they do only if you are free . . . if you are indifferent to authority and those who try to impose it on you. This is obvious, who doesn't know it? No one, for no one would say: I am weak and fearful and am looking for someone to tell me what to think about art. No one would say that and yet the art world is full of art-lovers who love, even more than art, being told what think about art. I don't understand this. Will return to the subject the moment I see even the faintest glimmer of light on the subject.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The High-End Art World-2

In an earlier post , I suggested that the high-end art world is a work of the imagination. Whose imagination? That is difficult to say, for this art world is the product of many imaginations working together—dealers working with collectors, collectors working with artists, artists working with critics and curators and museum directors. All them interacting in every possible permutation. For the high-end art world is an environmental niche where certain forms of life evolve and thrive, and it is through such interactions that such niches are created and sustained. So far, so good. The dynamics of the high-end art world are no different, in principle, from those of any social environment. But, here's the thing. If we view a social environment as a work of the imagination, a collaborative artwork, a question arises: what is its medium? A painter uses paints. A sculptor of a certain sort uses uses sheets of cold-rolled steel. What, then, is the medium of the high-end art world? What else but works of high-end art—pricey items by the likes of Jeff Koons. Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, et al.
The problem, of course, is that works of art are difficult to see as raw materials, unformed globs of stuff equivalent to globs of paint squeezed from a tube. So the primary job of critics and curators—not to mention the anonymous functionaries who write press releases and wall labels—is to simplify the meanings of the pertinent artworks to the point where they can be seen as raw materials. In the high-end art world, interpretation is simplification, the more brutal the better. The goal is to produce a slogan that can be attached to an artist's oeuvre firmly enough to block the demand for any more nuanced response. So the policy of raising prices to nonsensical levels has a hidden cost. It reduces works of art to empty counters in an ultimately empty game.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Art World's Lamest Idea

We've all had it, the idea that stratospheric prices turn art into money, nothing more and nothing less. This idea certainly simplifies things. It even seems to explain things. But what, exactly? I mean, if art is money, why pay money for it? Trying to salvage the idea, you might say, well, people pay cash for more abstract kinds of money--shares of stock, options, futures, securitized mortgages. . . . so maybe at the high end of the market artworks are financial instruments of some sort. Or, at the very least, vehicles for investment, and of course some collectors--or, shall we say, buyers--do use art that way. Buy low, sell high. But that which is bought in the art market is not, after all, money, not even metaphorically. It is a commodity, and its value owes everything to our idea that a work of art is never merely a commodity. It has a value you can't quantify. It is priceless. So, whatever you pay for it, you've gotten a bargain--and often it feels that, the more you pay, the better the bargain. An outrageously high price serves as a homage to pricelessness, a sign of your devotion to transcendent greatness. And what does transcendent greatness transcend? Mere money. So the transcendently great work of art--or the work of art so pricey that it simply must be that great--functions as a sort of money laundering machine, but better, for it doesn't simply render your money clean. It lofts your money to a place far above the market, an empyrean where considerations of price are lost in the glow of art-historical significance. So, no, art is not money, not even at the high end of the market in the hottest of boom times. Art brings, for a price, the blessings of history.


Ghost Meets Manchurian Candidate

Robert Altman's The Player is one my all-time favs among movies, so I was happy to see it celebrated in The New York Times the other day. The clip posted by The Times includes the great opening scene, an unbelievably long pan that shows, amid all the other activity in this sunny ant farm, shots of screenwriters pitching movie ideas to producers. The movie biz demands, absolutely, that the new must be old. The innovative is the tried and the true remixed--Frankenstein reassembled or should we say resutured? So the writers talk of "Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate" and "Psycho meets Gidget Goes Hawaiian." And so on. The possibilities are so very endless that they have spilled over into the art world. Thus Richard Prince's one-line joke paintings are Henny Youngman meets Generic Monochrome. Jeff Koons's new paintings, mentioned in an earlier post , are Sue Williams meets Alain Jacquet, a Nouveau Realiste from the 1960s. As for Damien Hirst's new paintings, Nothing Matters, these are Early Francis Bacon meets Later Francis Bacon. What does it all mean? It means that in the high-end art world, art is product. But we knew that already. Old Thought meets New Examples. Insight recycled--or, shall we say, resutured?

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clement Greenberg and Kitsch

Clement Greenberg opposed art to kitsch, the mass-produced junk of popular culture. More than that, he proposed art as a means of salvation. Learn to love serious art and you will be redeemed. Your ordinary, unenlightened self will fall away and you will emerge as a superior person. No longer will you be seduced by the fads and fashions of the marketplace. The planned obsolescence of consumerism will be obsolete, at least in the vicinity of your hyper-refined sensibility. To get with the Greenbergian program, there was much to learn--lots of quasi-metaphysical jargon, a roster of artists to praise and another to revile, and a special brand of art-world snootiness. The more adept you became, the loftier your place in the hierarchy that put abstract painting at the pinnacle and consigned the movies, soap opera, late-model cars, and all the rest of pop culture to the nether depths. Needless to say, Pop Art was the lowest of the low, shameless kitsch parading as a serious aesthetic endeavor.
The pay-off for your devotion was a vision of History with a capital "H"--History as the art critic's equivalent of Scriptural revelation. Truth with a capital "T." And what was this Truth? That there is an essence of painting and it manifests itself in successive styles--Impressionism, Post-Impressionionism, all the way onward and upward to color-field painting, in which the true adept could see painting's essence in all its redemptive glory. So far, this is no more than bush-league Hegelianism. To understand Greenberg's importance, you have to see that he gave the succession of styles in art all the allure, the kitschy glamor, of new styles in automobiles, fashion, pop music, and so on. He encouraged art-lovers to respond to new art with all the giddy speed of fans falling for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1964. Not that the Beatles aren't great. But they're not great in the way that great art is great, and, these days, we tend not to make the distinction. Greenberg insisted on it, vigorously, and yet his lofty theories of aesthetic progress turned out to be compatible with the kitschy, consumerist idea that the new is inherently good, and--surprise, surprise--as that idea took hold in the art world the hottest art became kitschier and kitschier. Eventually, we arrived at the point of believing that Jeff Koons is great. Not just great for his moment but for all time, like Picasso or--why not?--Rembrandt.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A True Image of the High-End Art World

First comes our ideal image of the true artwork. It is utterly original and its originality convinces us that it was created in total freedom. We admire the artist's freedom. It is exemplary. We take the artist's freedom as proof that our society and our culture are, at least to some degree, good. Now, here's the twist. The high-end art world models itself on our ideal image of the true artwork.
One difference: artworks are made by individuals. This art world is a collaborative work--the product of cooperation between certain artists, collectors, dealers, critics, academics, and others. Like the ideal work of art, the high-end art world is an exercise in the total, unqualified freedom that shows just how good our society, our culture, and of course our economy are. Because this is a world enabled by freedom--just as a work of art is enabled by freedom--moral constraints do not come into play. High-end curators and museum directors and collectors will say, by rote, all the things we expect them to say about avoiding conflicts of interest, keeping institutions open to all, discharging their responsibilities to the community at large, and so on, but they do not mean a word of it. For they have no interest in any of that. Their only interest is in elaborating their collaborative creation: the world that grants them total freedom and endows them with the status that accrues to those who need not play by the rules.
This is a just a sketch, I realize . . . more in later posts . . .

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Contra Danto-2

Theory is driven by desire. In other words, what the theorist says is true of logical necessity has, in truth, nothing to do with logic. It is what the theorist wants to be true. Marx wanted to see the triumph of the proletariat and invented a splendid architecture of argument to show that the proletariat would triumph. In case you've forgotten, that didn't happen. Something like the opposite happened. Now, Arthur Danto's argument for the end of art is, to put it mildly, not as grand as Marx's. But it is just as grandiose, for the desire that drives it is just as intense as the desire that drove Marx to imagine a workers' paradise. Given that Danto's argument is nonsense, there is only one one question: why did he want to see the end of art? What about that denouement seemed so paradisiacal to him?
Of course, there is never just one question. Here's another: how was it possible for the art world to take so seriously a writer who advanced a lame argument for, of all things, the end of art?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Contra Danto

Arthur Danto says that there is no visible difference between a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol and an ordinary, supermarket Brillo box. As I noted in an earlier post, this is simply wrong, as any fool can plainly see. Danto is no fool, so his error must have a purpose. What could it be? Gosh, I wonder. Danto is not only a philosopher but also an ambitious philosopher and ambitious philosophers have this in common with bright ten-year-olds: they are know-it-alls with an explanation for everything. So I wonder if Danto designed his Brillo Box error as the keystone of a total explanation of the history of art. If so, this is how it works:
The history of art, according to Danto, is driven by a question: what is the relation between art and the world? From Neolithic times to the Abstract Expressionist era, various artists answered this question in various ways, not one of which was absolutely conclusive. Then along came Andy, who made Brillo Boxes indistinguishable from real Brillo boxes. Art and the world converged and the history of art came to an end. Gee whiz, Professor Danto, that's amazing! And so convenient. No more of those pesky art-historical problems, now that art history is over and done with.
Danto's philosophizing does away with a large, messy subject and, even more helpfully, it shows us how to make sense of art without actually looking at it. And who, in our hectic, ADD-afflicted world doesn't need to cut corners? If you can acquire Danto's knack of looking but not seeing, it shouldn't be all that difficult to learn to listen without hearing, to read without understanding, and so on and on and on. The savings in time and energy—in other words, the increases in productivity—are potentially limitless, and isn't that what it's all about? Increased productivity?

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Horror, the Horror

There is a scene in Dragnet, starring Jack Webb, in which he wears snazzy sunglasses. Or maybe it’s an atypically stylish tie. Anyway, he has modified his usual dowdiness to a degree that delivers a severe shock to a female acquaintance, the other character in the scene. “You’ve gone hip!” she gasps, and drops her bag of groceries. Luckily, I wasn’t carrying a bag of groceries as I read Hal Foster’s “Precarious,” his most recent piece in Artforum.I definitely would have dropped it. Not that Foster has gone hip. He’s gone all touchy-feely, in the elegiac mode of an old-fashioned liberal. An amazing change. Foster praises Robert Gober for a 2005 installation evoking the awfulness of America's behavior on the world scene after 9/11—no explication of a thesis from the once hard-nosed theorist, just sympathy for the artist's horror. Jon Kessler conjures up the same subject with another installation, only the mood is even grimmer and Foster is even more sympathetic, and still more so, as the lugubrious parade goes on and on, right to the end of the decade.
I don’t want to exaggerate the degree of Foster’s transformation. He was never an October apparatchik on the Benjamin Buchloh model. Where Buchloh was nastily dictatorial, Foster was merely pompous and peremptory, misreading artworks in service to the great cause of reducing them to slogans. This policy gave off more than a hint of bondage fetishism, as Barbara Kruger, for example, cooperated with Foster’s need to tie her up in a single, extremely constricting role: lead prosecutor in the case against consumerism and the male gaze. Playing along with this bondage game was supposed to be empowering—and it was empowering, in the market place.
Now Foster is lamenting the horrors of the decade just past, as we all should, and praising the art that lamented those horrors when they were fresh. Gone is the October idea of the artwork as a finely honed, precisely targeted weapon in the ideological wars. In its place is Foster’s variation on the old idea of art as the mirror that moral sensitivity holds up to a cruel world. From artwork as active agent to artwork as passive reflection. As I said, an amazing transformation, and not entirely welcome, in my snarky view of things. I mean, if you are concerned with contemporary horrors, why not look them in the face? As if I didn’t know . . . as if I didn’t do the same as Foster and everyone else, looking away from current events, finding them bearable only second-hand, in the representations supplied by our more sensitive artists.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Graveyard Smash

For Urs Fischer, the best thing about being an artist is that you get to say which ghosts haunt your art. After a spin through Fischer's current show at the New Museum, I'd say that his favorite spook is Andy Warhol. Aside from a few exceptions noted in an earlier post, just about every image and object on view looks like a tepid reflection of something in Andy's oeuvre. I know what you're thinking. Tepid reflections are the stuff of serious art, these days. Fine, but you can't even see Fischer's work until you've brushed aside a dense forest of cobwebs and exorcised Warhol's remarkably persistent spirit. It gets a bit tedious and what, after all, is the point? Hardly present anywhere in this three-floor extravaganza, Fischer is absent even from his Self-portrait, which shows him demurely sleeping--a reprise of John Giorno sleeping in the Warhol movie Sleep.
There is so much Warhol in this show that it needs a Warholian sound track, a pop song played over and over and over, ad nauseum, the way Andy did at the Factory. He favored hits by girl groups like the Shirelles. More suitable for the hopelessly haunted Fischer, I think, is The Monster Mash, that rock'n'roll version of the old-fashioned horror movie, as performed by one-hit wonder Bobby “Boris” Pickett.
Here's a link to the original 45, on YouTube
And this is a link to the same song, performed (sort of) by Boris Karloff.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Utopian Mr. Koons

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have a great deal in common. Yet they are not identical. One difference is that, unlike Hirst, Koons has made some terrific works—his Puppy, for example. It is indeed terrific but it is not a work of art. What is it? A great big endearing spectacle, beloved by the child in all of us. Like the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center or your favorite balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. . . a diversion, and why not? Just one more diversion will do no harm, surely, in a world swamped by diversions—a world where politics is entertainment and entertainment is a mindless flow of reality shows, cooking shows, celebrity interview shows. A world of schlock spirituality and tabloid fabrications.
I know what you’re thinking. It would be nice if the aesthetics of diversion were not impinging so vigorously on the aesthetics of serious art. If galleries and biennials did not serve, so often, as outposts of the entertainment industry.
But just a minute. What a society needs, first and last, is coherence. Piet Mondrian dreamed of a utopia built from the premises of avant-garde painting. The Mondrian world was to provide, in every detail, the redeeming experience of serious art. No entertainment, no kitsch, just art. Rather than forget this impossible dream, why not invert it? Why not work with utopian fervor for a world with no art, just entertainment? Just kitschy diversions and nothing else? We’re nearly there, and if we want to go all the way, we could do no better than to take guidance from Jeff Koons, author of the monumentally adorable Puppy.

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Monday, January 4, 2010


It's Not all That

At a certain point in his illustrious career, one of the ancient Greek painters—not sure which one—Zeuxis, possibly—anyway, at a certain point, he began to give his paintings away. They were so good, he said, that he couldn’t put a price on them. By putting a price of $100 million on one of his recent works, Damien Hirst admits it's not all that good.

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