Don’t you know about No Hands art and de-skilled art? … No cutting-edge artist touches materials anymore, or instruments.
Be just a little patient and indulge me, in which case you’ll find out where that quote comes from soon enough, and what I think of it.
I was recently on a vacation in Kampot from a broader vacation in Cambodia from my extended vacation in SE Asia stretching more than a decade. It hasn’t always been a vacation, as in not working, but it’s been a vacation from America. And as this was more of your relaxed sort of holiday where you saunter about a sleepy town, we thought it might be nice to have a book. In the bookstore I looked for the biggest book with biggest print. Yup, I can remember when older folk (I’ve always liked older folk) marvelled at my vision, and how I could read the finest print on any label and there just wasn’t anything too small. The roles have reversed and I’m the one always dismissively saying, “I can’t read that shit”, and I’m an artist, a visual artist, which, if you didn’t read my last post, is actually not the same thing as a conceptual artist or a ballerina. The biggest, fattest book with the largest print in it was Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood”. Some of you, the indoctrinated, the sure, the true believers in postmodernism, critical theory, and identity politics – those with an (art) education so similar to my own – are rolling your eyes in your sockets about now.
Fucking Tom Wolfe! This is the jackanapes, whatever that means (it’s just a great sounding word that needs to be brought back and redefined like random and literal and racism and privilege and institutional and systemic so that everyone can toss it about cluelessly), who took a major dump on contemporary art. He’s well known in certain reactionary, paint-daubing, crusty, musty, dusty circles for typing up, “The Painted Word”. In this book he accused, well, this is worth quoting:
No more realism, no more representation objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes. …Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!
This book is possibly the New Testament of The Stuckists, who like their painting homespun and looking like it, the clumsier the better. And it is at the same time one of the most reviled stacks of ignorant rambling about art ever compiled, according to the REAL art critics and experts (who were implicitly and explicitly lampooned in the book).
Rosalind Krauss, who writes the most impenetrable postmodern art criticism, said the book was, “a really bad, MSG-headache-producing, Chinese lunch”. The general reception to his book was hostile, filled with gross epithets, he was labeled a fascist, and it was universally determined that he was too ignorant about art to opine on it. And THAT is why I’ve been trying to get my hands on The Painted Word since I heard about it.
Pretty much any decent visual artist – and by that I mean someone who uses her or his visual imagination and makes images – is a bit suspicious of a paradigm in which anything they will ever do can never compare to something like Duchamp’s infamous urinal, Sherry Levine re-photographing Ed Weston’s photographs, Piero Manzoni canning his own shit, or anything that ever has or will be done in that tradition. They may not know what’s precisely wrong with this whole vision of art in which a urinal is considered the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century – which is much more persuasive as parody – and on par with Michelangelo’s painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but they smell something foul, and it’s a sewery smell.
And if you try to sit down and read Rosalind Krauss, as I have, it’s much worse than an MSG-headache-producing, Chinese lunch. I should know, having lived in China for over 4 years and imbibing Chinese food daily. Reading Krauss is like having alcohol poisoning after having to “gan bie” (bottoms up) potent shots of baijiu (grain wine) with various leaders at some business or educational function AND eating a bunch of skewers of barbecued bits of beef and cartilage DIPPED in MSG. If you’d like a sampling of Krauss’ vomit-inducing, ultra-pretentious, noxious, gobbledygook, and my easy dismantling of it, see my article: Inextinguishable Originality: Refuting Rosalind Krauss.
If Rosalind Krauss hates it, that’s a green flag. If the Stuckists love it, well, that’s just the phenomenon of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but I doubt Wolfe would be impressed with most of the homebrewed fledgling attempts at painting the Stuckists celebrate. There are some good ones, to be sure, and I like a good, honest, painting done in the garage or in the backyard so to speak, but it’s gotta’ be a GOOD one. My issue with the Stuckists is that their definition of visual art is too limited, and, incidentally, doesn’t include my digital paintings. Also they deny that conceptual art is art, which I do not. I just say that it’s not music, and it’s not visual art. By me, the snobs on both ends of the spectrum can go pleasure themselves, to put it nicely.
So, not being able to get ahold of “The Painted Word”, I settled on “Back to Blood”, but still mostly because it was the biggest book with the biggest print in the literature section of a small bookshop in Kampot, Cambodia. Note that “Back to Blood” is from 2012, whereas “The Painted Word” dates back to, holy fuck, 1975.
Yesterday the power went out, and I can guarantee you I’ve had more days without power since I’ve lived in Cambodia than most anyone reading this has had in their whole lives, just as I’ve chugged more MSG in one month in China (perhaps one week) than Rosaland Krauss has in her whole life. It wasn’t too hot and humid of a day so I went out on the balcony, which I’ve generously planted, and continued reading Wolfe’s big, fat book (700 pages, mind you).
And then I hit this utter gem on page 351. An A.A. (Art Advisor) for a billionaire or multi-multi-millionaire explains the concept of No Hands Art. I scanned this, and so, if you are a person who thinks the hundred year old urinal has a faint piss smell, you might find this helps to waft it away [If you don’t feel like reading it, don’t worry, I’ll encapsulate it]:
CLICK TO SEE LARGE IN ANOTHER TAB FOR READING ENJOYMENT!
You can get the gist just by reading this excerpt without really knowing who the characters are. The general story is that this super rich fellow (who happens to be undergoing therapy for porn addiction) buys several works of art by the fictional contemporary artist named Doggs – who produced elaborate carvings of people having sex in glass eggs – without even knowing that the artist didn’t do any of the work himself. But the important idea here, which Wolfe is obviously satirising, is that the best, most cutting-edge contemporary art is made by people who never touch their own art, and there is reciprocal derision for anyone who does. If you didn’t read the excerpts, here’s an edited choice quote from the Art Adviser:
Don’t you know about No Hands art and de-skilled art? … No cutting-edge artist touches materials anymore, or instruments … paintbrushes, clay, shaping tools, chisels … all that’s from the manual age. Remember painting? That seems so 1950’s now. Remember Schnabel and Fischl and Salle and all that bunch? They all seem so 1950’s now, even though their fifteen minutes came in the 1970s. The new artists, like Doggs, look at all those people like they’re from another century, which they were, when you get right down to it. They were still using their hands to do little visual tricks on canvas that were either pretty and pleasant and pleased people or ugly and baffling and “challenged” people.
No Hands – that’s an important concept now. It’s not some artist using his so-called skills to deceive people. It’s not a sleight of hand. It’s not hands at all. That makes it conceptual, of course. That way he turns what a manual artist would to create … an effect … into something that compels you to think about it in a deeper way. It’s almost as if he’s invented a fourth dimension. And there you’ve got the very best, the most contemporary work of the whole rising generation.
This isn’t just a parody, it’s an astute observation about the contemporary art scene, which is too big an industry – a bundle of billions of dollars industry – for a single artist to wrap his or her head around, at least not without tons of exposure, which might be a bit like only really comprehending the inner circle of the corrupt elite by becoming one. Wolfe is the equivalent of a whistleblower on the whole art industry. But, of course, most are going to disagree with this estimation, and from today’s sensibility, which is more rabidly and simple-mindedly political, the made-up works by Doggs would have been attacked first and foremost as misogynist.
What interests me about the passage in the book is how the Art Advisor’s argument doesn’t just extol of virtues of the No Hands variety of contemporary art, most famously practiced by Hirst and Koons, but it necessarily pits it against painting.
And, again, if you didn’t read my last article on the purpose of visual art, what’s odd about this is that art that is ostensibly about ideas, and requires the artist never engage physically, or know how to express her or his own imagination, in any medium, is always and only compared to visual art. So, for example, if someone does a performance art piece it renders painting obsolete, not theater. A video renders painting obsolte, not film. A sound sculpture renders painting obsolete, not music.
In order for Doggs to be a cutting edge artist, painters like Fischl, Schnabel, and Salle must be dinosaurs rotting in sludge. They can’t co-exist like music and literature. Those artists, whom I rather like to a degree, are all visual artists who made their own work with their own hands. But the obvious thing that Wolfe doesn’t mention here, and that I’ve been focusing on, is that they used their visual imagination. Doggs, like his real world counterparts, does NOT use his visual imagination to any conspicuous or significant degree. It is much more cerebral than that.
Here’s a sample of works by the hopelessly antiquated artists mentioned in the Art Advisor’s comments. I have no idea if Wolfe likes these 80’s Cal Arts artists or not. They are ultra-unfashionable. Not in my top ten of the last century, but of some interest.
Ever worked in a marketing department? I have. Artists like Koons or Hirst don’t need to engage their imagination any more than your average CEO of a midrange company making decisions about how to market their product. I worked in the marketing department of a computer RAM manufacturer, and every ad we put out had to go by the CEO, in which case he was the real cutting edge artist. He was also an inspiration as to why I never wanted to get involved in commercial art = someone else makes the final decisions. F that!
One of the things I find peculiarly odd and surprisingly weak is how art theory falls apart as soon as you apply the same standards to another medium. Imagine going up to Jimi Hendrix after a show and saying, “You aren’t a REAL musician. Ha! You play guitar with your OWN HANDS! You even sing.” It’s just going to be really tough to dismiss musicians who play their own instruments and compose their own music.
What’s the alternative? You may have noticed that today’s musicians focus more on their dancing skills and plastic surgery. Last time I watched the VMA awards (highlights) I was suprised at how few instruments I saw at all, and how much booty. There’s something missing and it’s a whole section of the brain that includes the imagination and complex aesthetics. If we have souls, or anything like them, even metaphorically speaking (as in a real appreciation of consciousness), they are missing as well, and not welcome in the dominant trends of the art world. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that Alex Grey isn’t taken seriously at all in the mainstream art world. Way too spiritual! And that’s bad! If he used his same skills to make utterly cynical images, he’d be a darling of the art world.
Now, before you regurgitate that ridiculous and fallacious argument the grand philosopher, Damien Hirst likes to hash out, uh, no, the conceptual artist is NOT like a composer who doesn’t play the instruments but composes the music. Not only can the composer most likely play a few different instruments fairly well, he composes his own music.
In Koons’ latest piece, for example, he took an extant figurine and commissioned a company to make a giant inflatable version. This was No Hands in the extreme.
And it was also No Imagination, which is probably even more important. You can’t say he did the equivalent of Beethoven composing his 9th symphony, but not playing all the instruments. He didn’t compose anything. And this is the same problem with the architect analogy, where, y’know, Frank Lloyd Wright designs his buildings, but he doesn’t lay the bricks. Wright and Beethoven imagined their art and executed the plan for its construction or implementation. There’s no imagining anything in this piece by Koons. Both Koons and Hirst have been sued again and again for plagiarism. They can’t claim that they are doing the equivalent of composing original symphonies or designing original buildings. And they aren’t using their imaginations, well, not any more than anyone imagines when they go shopping and decide which products to buy, if you can call that using the imagination at all.
Folks, it’s No Hands AND No Imagination, and that’s what makes it so great, so cutting edge, and everything else so antiquated and irrelevant in comparison. For many people the best art is the art that says fuck art and fuck artists.
[Addendum: For a perfect example of a contemporary work of art that gains “status” by shitting on art – in this case Michelangelo – see my latest article].
Here’s a selection of some of my art, ‘ncase you were wondering:
And if you like my art and art criticism, and would like to see me keep working, please consider making a very small donation. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per significant new work I produce, and cap it at a maximum of $1 a month. Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).