WARNING: I wrote this in the course of a day, when I was in a particularly dark mood, and not worried about hyperbolic excess. I then shelved it as too negative. later I reconsidered it, and saw it had some good, honest bits, and a few passages with rhetorical flair. Now I share it as reflecting my mood on that day, and with the caveat that it’s much more of a passionate rant than an academic article.
I can’t pinpoint the day, exactly, but it was recently. I suppose I clung to my faith as long as I could. It’s easier for someone who doesn’t have a Master’s in art, and who hasn’t dedicated his life to art to accept that the paradigm has become poisonous.
It wasn’t so long ago that I became completely fed up with politics. Don’t worry, I’ll get to art very soon, but it may matter that my disgust with politics and with the art world came at nearly the same time, one after the other. And if you don’t like my politics, neither do I. I’m allergic to my own politics like Joe Pesci’s character was allergic to his own hair in My Cousin Vinny. I’ve got politics, but they annoy the crap out of me. My convictions and reality are not the same thing, but they are quite likely a more accurate gauge than those of someone who hasn’t realized that essential truth (ex., most our political conclusions are second hand at best).
Something died in the last election, and no, it wasn’t when Trump became president. I think I gave up when the Associated Press cynically declared Hillary Clinton the democratic nominee the day before the vote in California in order to suppress the vote for Sanders, which would have otherwise catapulted him into the lead. If you don’t remember, based on their own uncorroborated phone calls to Super delegates, the newspaper boldly asserted that Sanders couldn’t possibly win because all the unaccountable Super-delegates were voting for Clinton. Therefore there was no need to go vote for Sanders the following day. This unchallenged abrogation of democracy set in motion Clinton’s eventual fall to Trump as well because a lot of Sander’s supporters couldn’t forgive the dirty pool Clinton and Company used to squelch the more worthy candidate. Consider it wasn’t Trump that defeated Sanders, it was Hillary and the DNC who sabotaged him. Sander’s eventual endorsement of her only turned his own supporters against him for selling out. Whatever side one was rooting for, it was an ugly picture and a hope crusher.
Alright, alright, you voted for Hillary. Sure, but, even among her voters many considered her merely the lesser of two evils.
But it wasn’t until Trump was elected that I quit Facebook (for over 5 months, and my return has been minimal). Rather, it was the backlash against him and white working class males, like I had anything to do with it. There’s a level of stupidity that is just a perpetual punishing slap on the forehead. And when people start spittin’ on me, it’s time ta’ go.
Alright, alright, you voted for Trump. Sure, but, even among his voters many considered him merely the lesser of two evils.
And that brings us back to the fine art world. After giving up on politics as hopelessly corrupt or the triumph of stupidity (true, true, the latter lesson was hammered home with the twin elections of “W”), I next became allergic to the art world.
By “fine art world” I mean the blue chip stuff, the big galleries, the rhetoric, the institutions, and the overriding paradigm. I don’t mean the smaller galleries and publications necessarily. I don’t mean Deviantart or Instagram, though they tend to the lowest common denominator. I’m talking about what you see at LACMA, at MOMA, what you read in Artforum or on ARTnet or Hyperallergic (the social justice warrior art rag). It’s not art that I’ve come to abhor, it’s the anti-art institution that I just can’t believe in anymore.
It’s not that I’m bitter and resentful, but rather much more like the dog that if you never let him get the Frisbee eventually stops jumping enthusiastically, running back and forth, panting, and finally barks a couple times and trots off. Oh, and you also kick the dog in the ribs and say he’s rabid when he’s not, and you hurl feces at him and call it art. You could some up my feeling about the art world in three words: FUCK THIS SHIT.
Consider THIS viscously insipid and self-serving notion put forth by Andy Warhol:
Making money is the highest form of art.
There is so much fundamentally wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. But I can show how agonizingly stupid it is by merely changing one word. Behold:
Making money is the highest form of music.
This proposition should strike you as insultingly ridiculous, especially if you are a musician or a lover of music. It doesn’t even compute. Obviously making money has nothing the fuck to do with making music. And yet we accept and regurgitate that it is better than any kind of visual art an “artist” might undertake.
Let’s move on to the second nail in the coffin:
Great artists steal
How dumb do you have to be to not see the inherent flaw in that statement? If great artists steal, who do they steal from? Second rate artists? Third rate artists? Again, let’s change one word and see what happens.
Great scientists steal.
Well, fuck, how can the person who is not the innovator, who didn’t make the discovery be better than the scientist who did? This is a giant pile of shit cascading down on the heads of real artists in favor of parasites.
[See my extended analysis of this quote, where it comes from, and why it doesn’t mean what people think here.]
And the third strike is the notion that Duchamp’s “Fountain” — the urinal entered into an exhibit as an insulting prank — is the blindingly brilliant achievement of art of the 20th century.
Again, just change that a little and the notion is impossible to entertain. Imagine if you will a composer flushed a toilet in a symphony hall and it was heralded the crowning musical achievement of the last century, and the enduring example for all music to follow. That, my friends, is an exact parallel. And yes I know about John Cage’s piano sonata where the pianist just sat there for around 11 minutes. The difference is that nobody holds that piece as that important, and fewer listen to it. Nobody listens to it more than once. And nobody need look at the urinal more than once either, because according to Duchamp himself the urinal in question didn’t matter. It was just the idea, and the idea was to present something that was BORING, neither appealing nor unappealing. He sought to present the crushingly banal in order to kill art, in the same way, according to him, religion had been killed. For the art world to worship such an act is as brilliant as if Christians applauded the idea of being baptized in a urinal. By the way, copies of the urinal were sold by a savvy Duchamp. I think there are a dozen in museums around the world.
Why is there such a thin line between the utterly insipid and sheer genius? Maybe if that line is too thin, something might be wrong.
And now, some people will assume that I just don’t get it. Yes I do. I aced my contemporary art theory class at UCLA. I can write a paper about why Duchamp’s Fountain is a staggering breakthrough in how we think about art. It opened the doors to what we could conceive of as being art, and allowed art to incorporate any creative means of expression, freeing us from the tyranny of paints and canvases. It changed the way we think about art, and how we perceive an object. By putting the urinal on its side Duchamp forced the audience to contemplate it in a new light, and this shift itself was the art. It taught us to see everyday objects in a new light, as art — which means to appreciate life as art — and handily sidelined adherence to rules and notions that comprised the canon of aesthetics. In a single stroke, it blasted all preconceived notions of what art is, freeing art itself to be anything and everything an artist chooses. Blah, fucking blah, shall I heap on more bullshit?
The problem, dear readers, isn’t so much that the urinal and Duchamp’s other readymades are crap, but rather the rhetoric that art that makes visual imagery (hence visual art) is crap in comparison, hopelessly backwards, and irrelevant. That’s the stinger. You see the difference? Duchamp led a war on visual art and visual artists, and the sick irony is that his non-visual art, openly anti-art, was eventually accepted as the best example of visual art. It’s a clever prank, and a wry comment on art. It’s a kind of art, and I’m all for any and every means of artistic expression, but it does not vanquish visual art, the visual imagination, and visual intelligence. THAT is rancid bullshit on a platter.
I’ve quoted all the people comparing Duchamp to da Vinci and Michelangelo before, and it’s just self-abuse to endure the humiliating sequence of kicks in the teeth. No, folks, the anti-painter and anti-sculptor is NOT in league with the best all-time painters and sculptors.
Some people will conclude that I just reject anything that isn’t in the tradition of painting. Well, no. And I don’t reject everything promoted by the blue chip art world, either, in the same way you could denounce Hollywood movies on the whole, but some of your favorite movies could still have come out of Hollywood. I tend to like Chris Burden’s performance and installation works, also Roxy Paine.
Burden has a piece in which steel girders are dropped from a crane into a pit of cement to form a sculpture. It’s boy art, in a way (a big way), but how is it not fun?
I’d be an idiot to unconditionally revile art based on foregone conclusions and pre-existing preferences. It’s the dumb arguments, including his own — he thought if Michelangelo were his contemporary, he’d be doing performance/installation art — that are offensive. It’s that cult of anti-visual art art. In short, I reject the blanket rejection of visual art put forth by their narrative.
There’s a written or unwritten rule in the contemporary art world that you simply can’t paint a representational image in a new and engaging way, or attempt to do so, as visual art and be taken seriously. I speak from my experience as both an undergrad and a grad student in prominent universities (UCLA & UCI).
Let me give you an analogy. This is like entering a Rock guitar playing contest in which the only thing that is not permitted is playing the instrument. You can smash it, shit on it, set it on fire, snip the strings, belabor it with a baseball bat, paint it, write on it, and tape a lecture on it about why Rock guitar is an example of the oppressive patriarchy and cultural appropriation from early black musicians, etc. But you are not allowed to play it, and if you do you are considered hopeless and heckled. People who love the instrument and want to shred are automatically disqualified. Fuck them! They are not REAL guitarists. The only visual art that is not visual art is visual art proper.
A bonus nail, the ever-popular conviction that:
Originality is dead.
Other variants or parts include that painting is dead, and originality is impossible. The idea that originality is dead is self-defeating, as well as the justification for appropriation or “stealing”. The greatest comeback to this, which I didn’t come up with, is “when was the cut-off point?”. This is like declaring nothing new could be invented before computers, or after computers and before smart phones. It’s like the way the computers on the original Star Trek don’t have anything as sophisticated as Windows 1.01 (that’s the first one). They are going where no man has gone before with computers that consist of dots and beeps. We always surprise ourselves, and either we were never capable of originality, or we will always be capable of it. The latter is proved every day.
The idea that painting is dead (which includes digital painting and all image making which relies on the image intrinsically being worthwhile and engaging) is as appealing and persuasive a notion as music is dead. It would represent the death of visual intelligence. Nevertheless this idea is most promoted in art schools and other art institutions. For some reason musicians are not stupid enough to declare music moribund and congratulate themselves for it. I’ll come back to this briefly when I talk about Koons.
For most my adult life my favorite artist of the 20th century was Francis Bacon. Many, many people would agree. And I think I could still have faith in the art world if he were not reviled by the leading critics. But Jed Perl, Jerry Salz, and Peter Schjeldahl have all denounced Bacon in the most unflattering terms. I declare them pretentious, myopic ideologues who wouldn’t know art from a piss pot. If you want to give yourself a headache look up Jerry Salz on Duchamp’s urinal, and his impenetrably grandiose prose celebrating it (you can just search my blog). They are also sniveling cowards who wouldn’t have launched their denunciations of Bacon directly to him, but rather waited until he’d died to smear his grave with their feces. it is the triumph of the written world over the painted image that they celebrate.
[See my defense of Bacon and thorough debunking of his critics here.]
We’ve seen the world’s richest artists — Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst — pay people to make their art for them. All Hail!
A single one of Hirst’s more than 1,000 spot paintings painted by assistants is worth more than all the art combined of most any living artist. One sells for between $53,000 and $1.7 million. Take THAT swift kick to the balls struggling artists!
Let’s do some easy math. 1,000X50,000 = 50,000,000. That’s less than the bottom figure for the cheapest end of the spectrum. The averaged sum X 1,000 is over $80,000,000. And what is the underlying concept behind this phenomenal conceptual “painting” project? You have to know that the philosopher-type artists’ articulations of their projects can be a bit verbose and difficult to assimilate, but here it is anyway:
“To create that structure, to do those colours, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour.”
The only thing dumber than Hirst’s justification for this enterprise is whatever was going on in someone’s head when they decided to spend a million dollars on one of these rectangles of Wonder Bread wallpaper. Sell them now while you can. Art isn’t just the artifacts of cynically gaming the system, and assuming the art audience is stupid.
Most people who go to art school have to give up and do a day job just to survive. And then they can, well, at least still enjoy the great art produced by the REAL artists. Certainly million-dollar-a-pop paintings will enrich the lives of artists as well as art audiences. And then you get a shitty, formulaic, minimalist dot grid “painting” executed by assistants that is not only vacuous, but the real art is taking advantage of gullible rich people: making money is the highest form of art. In a word, the dot paintings are a SCAM.
This is that same anti-visual art narrative. Evenly spaced dots in a handful of colors, painted by assistants according to a formula. Give me a break. Look at the gallery above and tell me it’s really worth attending and spending even one minute looking at each painting. This unadulterated shit sells for half a million dollars a pop, and there’s nothing there. It’s the cult of the genius celebrity artist, like Duchamp. And yet, I could write a defense of it. I know the ropes and the rhetoric and can spin it myself.
Above, Jeff Koons thinks he improved old master paintings by hiring people to copy them and affixing a blue gazing ball to the front. I would love to see what Eduard Manet would have to say about this astounding arrogance. Koons actually sees himself as a painter on par with the old masters (and a sculptor working in the tradition of Michelangelo, by the way) because of this bogus approach. And I’m a composer on the level of Beethoven if I hire a bunch of people to play his 9th symphony with kazoos. Derp!
Allow me to serve up another analogy. I can speak basic Chinese because I lived in China for nearly 5 years, so I can appreciate how difficult the language is. Joseph Conrad (y’know, “Heart of Darkness”) was born in Russia and taught himself English when he was 21. Imagine how fluent you’d have to be at a foreign language to write literature in that language, and highly complex writing at that. Koons claiming he is a painter or sculptor is as persuasive as if he were to hire Chinese artisans to reproduce Chinese calligraphy for him, and then declare himself a fluent Chinese speaker, and a poet not only on par with, but superior to Li Bai (one of the most famous Chinese poets). Note that Koons’ own paintings — the ones that aren’t copies of someone else’s art — are computer collages painted by assistants, and the painterly areas are “stamps”. I don’t even know if he did the computer collages by himself. A digital painting is a painting, but a digital collage is a collage.
If you don’t have the skill to do it yourself, you can’t take ANY credit for the execution. You can only claim the skill of coming up with the idea (threadbare as it is), and much more importantly, having the money and connections to pay someone to make it happen. This applies to Koons, Hirst, and to a lesser extent, Paul McCarthy. Take away their money, and what are you left with? Only McCarthy could still do his disgusting performances, which nevertheless have a certain aesthetic to them (they are theater, though, quite obviously).
This super-sized mega-art created by teams of artisans and paid for with millions of dollars is the mother-ship of empty spectacle cashing in on the unexamined belief that bigger is better art. Same goes for Julian Schnabel’s three-story-high neo-expressionist paintings. If your art is about the emotion, than the feeling in the viewer is paramount, not the real estate of the canvas, and how much it sells for per square inch. Schnabel is just doing the equivalent of Spinal Tap turning their music up to eleven. Louder doesn’t mean your riffs are heavier, or that your solo is more fantastic. It’s a cheap crutch. If you are relying on money, hirelings, or size to make your art POP, you need a crutch because you can’t do it on your own and have the intrinsic worth of your art shine through. You are like someone who shows up to a fist fight with a gang, or weapons, and claims to be the boxer extraordinaire.
I’ve endured an ART retrospective for Bjork at MOMA [because pop stars make the best fine artists]; a piece of crumpled paper being seriously exhibited by art museums as high art [they put the piece of shit behind glass on a pedestal for fuck’s sake]; and Marina Abramovic just sitting in a chair and staring at whomever decided to worship at her feet heralded as some great awakening of art (even if it’s 3rd rate theater, and rips off a performance by Chris Burden of three decades earlier). I kept holding on and making excuses for the art world.
Did I mention Milo Moiré hatching paint-filled eggs out of her, uh, vuh jay-jay?
It’s NOT from a movie parodying contemporary art. This is the real deal, folks. Bow and scrape before it, you Philistines!
Hey, take a look one of Tracy Emin’s better “paintings”:
This kind of so-bad-it-just-must-be-amazing abomination has awarded her a top position teaching drawing at the Royal Academy. Her students will learn to draw like shit, because you don’t need to learn all those rules of perspective, lighting, shading, anatomy, composition and so on. Throw all that out, get sloppy drunk, and just scribble away for a minute or two. Voila!
No, wait, if you haven’t seen this gem, you just must watch Paul McCarthy talking about his sculpture, “Captain Ballsack”. He was my teacher at UCLA. Imagine ten weeks of listening to this guy.
This sculpture of a dick and balls is in, if you weren’t paying attention, “an edition of three”. It’s even got crass commercialism weaved into it. And if you watched the video you might be struck again by the cringe-worthy somehow also being so brilliant the average mind cannot fathom it. It’s so stupid and boring that it just must be brilliant and exciting. The best/worst part is when he says, really slowly:
Like, this is like the balls. And back here is the, the dick, or the penis, back here.
Genius! Now, that might seem a little harsh, but I had to endure a term with this guy as my teacher, and he did more harm than good.
You know that thing where you kinda’ feel sorry for priests because now they are all tainted by the pedophilia scandals? I can understand, because I teach English in Asia, and now everyone needs a criminal background check because, well, some unsavory sorts made us all look like we skipped over seas for sickeningly nefarious reasons. This sort of thing shakes your faith, kinda’ like when the self-proclaimed enlightened gurus — think OSHO — amass a fleet of Rolls Royces and million dollar watches while boasting of exploring their female devotee’s nether chakras. Enough of this kind of art being seen as the Holy Grail and, well, one then can’t help but conclude that the holy grail is indeed a piss pot.
Did you know Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog Orange”, which sold for over $58,000,000 was claimed to be the “Holy Grail” of contemporary art? ‘Twas. I quoteth Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s [hold on to your seats]:
“At a time when collectors are propelling rare master works to new price levels at auction, the sale of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog will be a spectacular event for buyers around the world. This is a definitive icon of the 20th century. The Balloon Dog is the Holy Grail for collectors and foundations. In private hands, the work has always communicated the prominence and stature of its owner. Like Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn, which influenced Koons’ choice of the orange metallic color for Balloon Dog, it is the ultimate masterpiece, instantly recognizable to the art world and public alike. To own this work immediately positions the buyer alongside the very top collectors in the world and transforms a collection to an unparalleled level of greatness.”
Holy fucking shit.
It’s also a lawn ornament. It’s an exquisitely produced, one-ton, high polished chrome lawn ornament which the artist commissioned artisans to build for him, but still a lawn ornament. And what would the musical equivalent of the balloon dog (available in 6 different colors, mind you) be? What would the ultimate masterpiece and Holy Grail of music be if we applied the standards of contemporary art? It would have to be appropriation done with the conviction that originality is impossible (and some heinous component of the patriarchy and colonialism, if not “whiteness”). Probably something like paying an orchestra and singers to play the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.
If I believed in parallel realities — I think it’s cuckoo — I can imagine this happening in some other version of Earth. Art went on to make amazing paintings, and music skipped Rock ‘n Roll and did cynical appropriations of TV theme songs and commercial jingles instead.
I ask this now and again, but if you are new to my blog, where is the visual art equivalent of rock music? It just plain didn’t happen. When the Beatles cut Yellow Submarine, the art world had Joseph Kosuth exhibiting a chair, a photo of a chair, and a framed dictionary definition of a chair. Jim Morrison he was not.
Kosuth asks the mind-blowing question, which is real? His conclusion was that the dictionary definition is real, because without the definition we wouldn’t know what a chair is. On top of the dreary minimalist presentation, and unadulterated didacticism, his conclusion is flat out wrong. Two-year-olds who couldn’t give or understand the definition know what a chair is. By Kosuth’s logic, no animal knows what anything is. Nevertheless we must celebrate a dry-ass prop illustrating a fallacious piece of pseudo-philosophy as an artifact of unbridled genius. It’s bad art and bad philosophy, but if you pay me I’ll write an article under a pseudonym defending it.
Music was reaching an enormous audience, the Beatles were rivaling Jesus in popularity (for those old enough to remember the scandal and record burnings), and the art world was playing cynical mind games and self-worshiping for the most mundane and trivial insights.
How about Sherry Levine taking photos of photos by Walker Evans and declaring them her own art because it meant something super-duper profound just to do that, and it wasn’t bullshit.
You see, she was re-contextualizing them. That’s that same old Duchampian sleight of hand. I’m supposed to believe in all this with utter conviction. I’m supposed to do this kind of art. Did I mention I have an MFA and Paul McCarthy was one of my more illustrious teachers? I was graded and my future depended on my ability to make this kind of art, and articulate arguments supporting it.
Hey, that reminds me. McCarthy was also the teacher of a much more famous artist than me (I’m not even a blip on the radar), who shoots paint out of his anus. Here’s Keith Boadwee forcing a breach with conventional painting:
This is my religion, and I don’t believe. How can I take a paradigm seriously that takes squirting paint out of your ass seriously? Everything is about shitting on real visual artists, the perpetual war on image makers. Here, even Jackson Pollock is considered someone to disavow, and this disavowal is considered better than his work, because only an artist that is more brilliant could parody action painting in such a way.
This is the idea that art is about one-upmanship. The real artist of today outsmarts the artists of the past, and all visual artists. We are all against artists who try to make a visually compelling and original image. And thus we are automatically above them.
I like my Pollock, but there’s a bit of bullshittery to it as well, much as I’d rather not admit it. There’s the gimmick; the branding; the producing a recognizable product for the marketplace; the monopoly of a set of techniques; the underlying belief that art progresses like science in astounding breakthroughs; and the uber sophisticated justification that later was overturned and now is considered heinous. The last name of the critic who most promoted him — Clement Greenberg — is now a bad word synonymous with machismo, patriarchal, minimalist, flattened-picture-lane, reductionist painting. And so many a newer artist can start a career by attacking the older artist in their art. This includes the egg plopped from nether regions paintings, the anus paint-squirting paintings, and the food-coloring vomit canvases (stay tuned).
More recently the art world has indeed been taken over by religion, and become a place of worship for props promoting the commandments of a radical left agenda. If you don’t believe in this paradigm, you are OUT! If your art is not part of the (final) solution, your art is part of the problem, and this is meant with deadly
flatulance seriousness. And I don’t believe in it any more than I believe in Santa Claus. I can’t. They keep telling me I’m the devil — the evil other — and I’m just not capable of believing that. The radical left might as well tell me I shot Kennedy.
Under the rubric of “social justice” we’ve seen a painting by John William Waterhouse taken down and replaced by a piece of paper regurgitating politically correct talking points. A masterpiece painting is replaced by written text. Let that sink in. OK, let me help those blinded by ideology. Imagine going to a movie theater, and the movie is replaced by text protesting it, and the text in question is considered a FILM. OK, still not convinced? Imagine the text is anti-abortion or anti-gun control. Suddenly the idea that a text advocating a cause is a work of art seems more than monumentally biased. The critical flaw of political art is that if you don’t agree with the politics, the art automatically fails. This renders aesthetics, skill, creativity, imagination, vision, and beauty completely irrelevant.
Chuck Close’s paintings must come down because he made naughty comments to some female sitters while in his wheelchair. The problem here, religious zealots, is NOT that he is being called out for ugly, sexist behavior, but that we must squash art based on the behavior of the artist: quite a dangerous precedent indeedy.
The good social justice warriors are already preparing to SHUT DOWN Gauguin!
And Picasso must go.
Why, Caravaggio was a murderer, and a WHITE MALE! Burn his paintings and call the bonfire radical performance art! Yes, I could even defend this. The “art” is the process of engaging with the community, allowing other voices to contribute to the dialogue about art, redressing historical social wrongs, and helping to mold a better and more just future. Surely THAT is more important than a pretty picture!
HEY HEY, HO HO!
CARAVAGGIO HAS GOT TO GO!
People demanded the destruction of a Dana Schutz’ painting because they projected white supremacy onto it, and tried to ruin her career. Again, you are insisting a work of art be annihilated and congratulating yourself for being progressive?!
They even went so far as to protest a show by her without that painting in it, on the grounds that her other work must contain the same vile, white supremacist mindset. They accused her of upholding state sponsored violence against blacks, and bolstering genocide against indigenous people. Her crime was that her attempt to be an ally to their cause wasn’t good enough. Burn it! Burn the witch!
An Egon Schiele retrospective comes with a sign declaring that accusations of inappropriate conduct around minors was thrown out of court back in the day, but we are to understand that we should pan the artist today anyway. Whether one agrees with the specific political arguments or not, and even if one cheers them on, we still have to admit that politics has utterly triumphed over art, and THAT is sickening whatever the politics are.
And the final nail in the coffin, the worst one by far, is the same thing that ended my career in grad school 25 years ago, and I hate to bring up this topic, but: IDENTITY POLITICS/POLITICAL CORRECTNESS..
Before I launch into this highly divisive, controversial, and dangerous topic, I’d like to establish that we hopefully agree that we are for justice, fairness, a social safety net (OK, I may have lost the Libertarians there), a healthier environment, and a better world. We are not for prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, etc…
Can we at least agree that nobody is born guilty? No. OK. Well, I tried anyway.
There’s a show up now called “On Whiteness” which is supposed to be an intervention, and, well, just leaves me bereft of hope. This stuff is so toxic I don’t even want to crack the lid. I’m just going to push away the whole jar.
Bear with me, I’m not alt-right (I was for Sanders, remember, and then Jill Stein), I’m not a Nazi or a skinhead, but I do have a big problem with the tyranny of overreaching social justice, and it’s based on personal experience in the art world. Here’s the adamant belief attached to the “whiteness” show:
“Whiteness as a source of unquestioned power, and as a ‘bloc,’ feels itself to be endangered even as it retains its hold on power.”
Riiiiight. The problem with this notion is that the average white person doesn’t fear losing absolute power, but rather being vilified, reviled, and automatically excluded or dismissed, especially in the art world. It’s not the prospect of an equal playing field that is threatening: it’s not being allowed to play on it, which is a reality for a lot of people. Yes I know that there are Charlottesville type outliers and extremists, but they don’t represent the majority.
Shall I quote one of my instructors in grad school?
We’ve heard from you for 2,000 years, and nobody cares what you have to say anymore.
This is a person in a position of power, within an institution, telling a student he needs to shut up and bow out because of his race. Nah, that wasn’t just one teacher. Another counseled my peers as to why they shouldn’t hate white men:
“Are you going to hate a pig for your whole life”
You see, the problem wasn’t that white men didn’t deserve to be hated, but rather that my peers shouldn’t waste their precious time on someone who wasn’t even human.
One of my peers lectured me about how, “Only a white male, only a straight white male, can be a racist or sexist” while openly categorizing me as the scapegoat, the evil other, the whipping boy.
I found out that when my group of students was selected for the grad school, I was the first pick. Later, I found out that I didn’t get the better scholarship because the law stated you couldn’t award scholarships based on race, ethnicity, and so on, and the Dean interpreted this to mean that you shouldn’t give it to a white male. Hence, I was denied the scholarship explicitly because of my race, even though, as first pick, I had earned it. And yes, I was poor and needed it.
Further, under the rubric of the college, the only kind of art that I could make was conceptual work deconstructing my white male privilege. Do you see the problem here? Everyone else (I was the only straight white male) did work to empower themselves and their group identity, but I was supposed to punch myself in the face. On top of that, I could not be the best, but only a helper in the cause. Obviously, if the purpose of art is social justice, and social justice is interpreted as including ending whiteness by any and all means necessary, a white person can’t be celebrated as leading the cause. If a white male artist were the best, or second or third best at fighting white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia… his position at the top would be reaffirming supremacy.
This is NOT the same thing as being automatically chosen above everyone else. A general notion white artists will encounter is that they should step aside so that more worthy non-white artists can have a shot at the spotlight, a career, and being able to survive as an artist. Nobody needs to hear the “same story” told by white men. White men are over-represented in the art world, so, we don’t want any more. You need not apply, pig! That’s the part that we are, uh, fragile about. There’s a world of difference between not wanting to lose being the default winner, and not wanting to be the default loser. Being served the latter while accused of the former is a bundle of joy.
Oh, dear critics, just pan back and ask yourself what is the core problem of discrimination and things like racial profiling. It’s punishing the individual for acts of their group, or assumptions about their group. If you want fairness and justice, I am with you. Don’t pretend to occupy the higher moral ground if instead of fairness and justice for all NOW, what you really want is to turn the tables (except it’s not really turning the tables because the true villains are long dead and the new victims are innocent). This merely perpetuates the same cycle, rather identically. If only the names and faces change, and we are not essentialists who believe you are defined by your biology at birth, or born guilty, than nothing changes. The cancer of prejudice and discrimination grows.
Step back before throwing that stone in your hand. Imagine a scenario where you are told that in your lifetime you must be sacrificed for the greater good; that you also deserve this because you are automatically guilty; you necessarily harbor deleterious qualities; you are in fact morally inferior; and the culture which you by definition are told you are inseparable from is so vacuous and heinous that it must be destroyed by any and all means necessary. Further, those that tell you this can applaud their own virtue in judging you and administering your punishment, all the while mocking you for any objection you might cobble together. Your only choice to be redeemed is to confess your innate guilt, which is also your moral inferiority, in which case you are tolerated as a penitent sinner who accepts your designated trajectory of an inferior station in life as deserved, and as letting you off easy, for which you should be grateful. While this would be absolute heresy to the cause if applied to anyone with a different DNA at birth — the cause of not judging people by their DNA at birth — in your special case, such harsh justice is celebrated as the highest good.
Imagine that applied to you, in this life, right now.
And I do recall in a graduate seminar a peer of mine standing up and declaring that fairness was not enough, and what she wanted was a “turning of the tables” and for “white males” to be on the receiving end of discrimination, and to be her subordinates, and even “slaves”. Clueless applause filled the room. I sat in silence. I wasn’t allowed to speak, while simultaneously being criticized for not speaking, because I should have been confessing my sins. I was designated “in denial” and considered morally and artistically inferior: excommunicated as a lesser being, artistically disqualified, and generally perceived as a repugnant existence occupying space and time. Would that such a pariah quietly vanish without a trace!
The only times I was vocal was when supporting my peers in critiques, and I was all for protecting and empowering disadvantaged groups who were historically or presently discriminated against. My evil that made me the enemy was to not accept that I was myself the evil enemy by virtue of my birth. And I didn’t ultimately reject this narrative just because I was the garbage to be taken out, but rather that such an eventuality made the hypocrisy of it all blindingly apparent. Only the witch knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she is not a witch, and thus is also intimately aware of the reality that the witch trial [by ordeal] is a sham.
I could field whatever was thrown at me in art school, and as an undergrad I got a 10k fellowship based on a juried competition. But the one thing I couldn’t do as an artist, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much I sacrificed or how creative and imaginative I was, was change my biology at birth. I was automatically disqualified. When all my peers went on to teaching positions, and other avenues of making art, I worked temp jobs. And it was therapeutic for me, because suddenly if I worked hard, it was appreciated. I wasn’t automatically shit.
And this pernicious narrative which destroyed my art career 25 years ago, and which I am still paying for, has now taken over the whole of the official art world. Scores of artists now need not apply because of their DNA. They were born guilty, and they shall be punished!
When it comes to “whiteness”, we just need to change anything before “ness” to see the problem, but the most obvious thing to put there is “Jewish”, and the historical example of blaming a race for everything wrong with a society should start to reek (no matter which race is the bad race). Scapegoating a race is the highest form of art, I guess. I mean, you’ve just got to know it’s OK to say bad things about a certain race, and only that race, and that’s not supposed to raise an eyebrow or two.
I know, I know, people still don’t have the balls to say the Emperor is wearing an essentialist, biological determinist codpiece. Even if you agree, you can’t openly say that some of the people declaring all whites are automatically white supremacists are guilty of pre-judging people by their race (a.k.a. “racial profiling”). True, they aren’t saying all white people are evil — just “whiteness”– which is merely an invisible virus that afflicts every single white person until they are baptized into renouncing their former evil. When people know that they are afraid to say, “Hey, you guys are going too far”, it should be an enormous red flag. And people ARE afraid, afraid of being the next target, afraid of their careers being destroyed. Years, or God help us decades from now, we’ll look back and say the left had run amok and hijacked the art world, and everyone was afraid to stand up to them, or stand up for art.
And yes, I can write an article on why “whiteness” is the most pernicious and unexamined narrative operating in the Western world, and why it needs to be abolished by any and all means necessary. It’s underlying assumptions of white superiority underly the systemic, structural, and institutional racism that discriminates against POC and consciously or unconsciously justifies wars of conquest across the globe visited on brown-skinned people. It creates the ubiquitous assumption that whiteness is the norm: the standard against which all others are judged, and judged inferior. It is the monolithic impediment to the freedom and success of billions of people around the world, and at its most vicious results in slaughtering unarmed black men in the street for the crime of merely not being white. [Aaaaaaand while there’s definitely truth in there, it’s a grotesque exaggeration, cherry-picking, and an extraordinarily biased projection on mostly innocent working class people who just happen to be white, have nothing to do with any of that crap, are struggling merely to survive, and which justifies open hostility and prejudice towards them as righteous and praiseworthy. Whenever it is OK to hate someone, one might pause to consider if it really is in the name of love..].
Again, I mention this because it is a dominant, if not the dominant operating system of the official art world of today, and one I can’t hope to survive in.
How many kicks and blows can the art world deliver to an artist before she or he is broken down by it? You aren’t even considered an “artist” anymore. You are a gnat.
You are expected to buy into all that: the crumpled paper; the photos of photos; the dick and balls sculpture; the ultimate masterpiece; the paint shot out of the anus; the belief that whiteness is everything wrong with the world; the urinal rendering painting irrelevant; the death of originality; great artists steal; that making money is the highest form of art… And when you can’t stand it anymore you just vomit it up.
To art, I dedicate my life. To the official art world, I convulsively spray the walls with vomit.
I still make art, but I stopped following all the big art publications. I no longer see the fine art world as my target or audience. I need not apply anyway. It’s the inverse of Grocho Marx’ famous joke, “I wouldn’t be a member of a club that would have me as a member”. I wouldn’t be a member of a club that categorically excludes me as a member. I just make art for whoever is interested.
I want to know what’s going on in the blue chip art world as much as I wanna’ know what’s going on in the Pentagon. I’m better off not knowing, because overall it makes me sick, because it is sickening.
But that doesn’t mean at all that I’m giving up on art. I’m just removing myself from the the anti-visual art narrative, the sea of toxic relativity, and the ideology that retroactively disqualified me at birth from having a chance. Enough lamenting the various obstacles, booby traps, prejudice and institutional opposition I face. Best to keep making art against any and all odds, and jettison the bullshit sea of toxic relativity.
Further, I’m sick of cynicism. I’m all about what is practical, productive, healthy, and positive. And despite odds or the fact that my work is patently out of fashion at the moment, I’m strongly confident that if I keep at it not only will I make art that matters to me (OK, I already have, but will continue to improve), I’ll find and reach my audience. It’s just not likely to happen at all through the art world which has been hijacked and subordinated by self-serving money and politics.
Of course, as always, I could be wrong, and you are only wrong until you discover you are wrong, and then you WERE wrong and aren’t anymore. There are a few stellar incidences where I discovered I’d been wrong about something for years, decades, or my entire life. When you discover you are wrong, that means you’ve found a greater understanding and toehold on reality. This is always more valuable than holding on to thinking you were right when you weren’t. It’s a discovery, and I’m an explorer, so I hope to find higher ground with a broader and more accurate view.
This article is a bit hyperbolic and I’m focusing on what I see as the worst trends in the art world. I do know that some painters and other artists I admire are successful, but they are generally considered also-rans, and not cutting edge, because to be cutting edge you must have abandoned visual art proper.
Any text is a poor substitute for reality, and a pinhole view of it leaving out more than it includes. This one is certainly no exception.