Artists are among the least satisfied by what the blue-chip art world is churning out, and there’s a simple reason why.
I’ve known for decades that thousands of dot paintings, for example, couldn’t hold an artist’s attention; and if you’d seen one, you’d seen them all. There’s the old notion of being an artist’s artist, in which case you get into all the craft and technical virtuosity of a piece — the feat accomplished. In that case, minimalist dot paintings were dead on arrival. None of that is new. In the last while I just happened to unravel a few tangled threads, and connected some conspicuously ungainly dots.
Other artists aren’t the target audience. They aren’t even a consideration.
One just assumes artists make art for themselves and other artists, who are going to be among the biggest connoisseurs of art. OK, maybe this is just something I always took for granted. Think of it this way. If you are a scientist working on a pivotal experiment, or even a grand theory, it’s your colleagues in the scientific community who are going to be the most interested in your discoveries. Your articles about your findings would need to be peer reviewed. But in the art world, artists en mass are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating or even enjoying contemporary art.
It’s a bit odd. If I were a musician, I might care if other musicians thought my compositions or performances were boring, superficial, lackluster, or to put it bluntly and succinctly, shit.
And it all boils down to this. The big name, blue-chip artists are making art for the buyers: the buyer’s tastes, the buyer’s station, and the buyer’s belief system. And the buyers must have tens or hundreds of millions in disposable income. It’s art intended to flatter the aristocracy, but is also a rather brusque slap in their faces. It assumes that the goal is to take candy away from the billionaire baby. The art audience is presumed to be made up of suckers who the genius, entrepreneurial artist-huckster schemes to fleece. What the snake-oil salesman sells is his pitch, not the placebo in the bottle. The often threadbare schemes can be the art itself.
Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” makes little sense to artists. It hasn’t strayed much from Duchamp’s “Fountain” — of more than a century ago — and those of us who studied contemporary art in college saw a lot of this type of material produced by undergraduate students days after getting a lecture on appropriation art. There’s nothing to look at that one couldn’t match by peering in the nearest waste bin. But it does make sense from the perspective of the game of contemporary art, which is played by the rich kids in their exclusive clubs. Artists can be let in on the game, and aspire to have a seat at the table. The piece reaffirms the narrative and beliefs that have been imposed on art from above: art is a game of one-upmanship, and curiously, outsmarting presumed lesser artists who use skill and imagination to do the hard work of addressing the human condition.
Here, art is understood as a statement within the gallery/museum framework. A banana taped to a wall by anyone else, or appearing anywhere else would be worthless, and everyone knows it. It had to be done by an art-world celebrity and shown in a giant art venue.
Ironically, art that proves that anything placed on a pedestal in the sanctified art-world space is valuable, simultaneously loses all value once it is itself removed from that arena. Similarly, art that gains its importance from challenging the art-world marketplace is only appreciated if at the end of the day, it plays into it, and pays into it.
The human condition is not only irrelevant to the fashion art object created for the billionaire class: it’s anathema. Who wants to be reminded of the struggle of the thronging multitude, or that one is ultimately part and parcel of the beleaguered, suffering majority, save for a bit of luck and a sprinkling of clever corruption? Better to increase the divide and maintain the fantasy of ultimate difference.
It’s even preferable that the art in question not be that great, even at the highest prices, because the goal isn’t to keep it, but to flip it for a substantial profit. Art needs to be a slick high dollar commodity that can move fast on the market. If it ultimately ends up worthless, that’s inconsequential unless you are the one who held on to it and is caught with a hot potato.
This does not mean that all art sold for outrageous sums at Christie’s or Sotheby’s is soulless pablum. Real art also goes up in value. It just means that a lot of it is.
If art is a prop or place-holder for moving money and high-stakes gambling, than the artist’s job is to streamline the product to cater to the market. It is the death of art proper, but the ascendancy of the art of the empty template. And thus we end up with the shock of the new schlock: redundant and regurgitated radical breakthroughs in art that were never art proper to begin with, but rather props for arguments about or against art.
Part of being a contemporary artist is entering the state where you believe your own bullshit. We live in a postmodern, post-truth world of everything being relative and subjective, in which case bullshit is as viable a set of propositions as is anything else. Why not believe it? What is the measure of what is real or valuable art? The easiest answer, which requires only a handful of neurons fire in unison at any given time, is that the art that sells for the most is the most valuable. It totally works in a 2-dimensional world where people are vertical pancakes with smiling emojis glued on their facades.
But for art to have any worth of its own, it needs to be something separate from the worth of money, in which case cementing the value of art to that of money entirely robs art of its own inherent value.
The art world is stuck at the level of “a little knowledge is dangerous”, and can’t get past the notion that art made in order to get a reaction from the art overlords trumps art that’s made to satisfy artists themselves, and that is inherently good. The most valuable art is sometimes hardly anything in itself: it is instead a maneuver, a seemingly brilliant strategic move in a game of art ideas and economic sense. But the game is an unreality built on a fluctuating set of subjective and often crackpot fashionable beliefs. Art becomes the fodder between the brackets. It looks like this [ ].
But real art stands on its own without the contextual training wheels. Getting Duchamp, Hirst, Koons, or Cattelan — worse, buying them — is merely clever. It’s a lot smarter than thinking only representational painting is art, or that art, when done right, can’t be made out of anything or using any procedure. There are pieces by Chris Burden, Roxy Paine, and Andy Goldsworthy, to name a few, that are made with unconventional materials and processes that are very rewarding and easy to like. And who doesn’t like a good Christo and Jeanne Claude, James Turrell, or Yayoi Kusama But in the case of the obviously unskilled and superficial art that is supposed to wow us with it’s audacity — Martin Creed’s crumpled papers, for example — it’s only new, or shocking, or even mildly surprising, if one’s been in a coma for the last half century. The badge of radicality is so crusty it needs to be dusted off with a sand-blaster. On the surface, we might admit, it’s also kinda’ dumb. There’s that too thin gold line between the ingenious and the imbecilic.
Getting the art joke can be fun. Being in on the joke can be satisfying. But falling for the same old joke makes one the unwitting butt of the joke, and the art itself a joke.
Laocoön and His Sons and Mauricio Cattelan’s Comedian
Yes, there’s a moment of realization in which it does seem quite clever, even brilliant to apprehend why Cattelan’s banana duck-taped to a wall is a repudiation of, and thus superior to, or at least as good as, the Laocoön and His Sons. It seems so deliciously counterintuitive one gets a titillating buzz from the heights of the epiphany. And then in a more sober and deeply contemplative state, one can see the obvious difference, and that one work is disposable garbage merely propped up by beliefs and attitudinizing. Those stuck at the second platform are still smugly turning up their noses at the assumed philistines wallowing beneath them, apparently unaware that it’s even possible to ratchet up their understanding to the next level.
Art created with laser-like focus for the eyes of the highest and most gullible bidder has little or no appeal to other artists. It is merely admired as a strategy to get rich: a strategy that presumes to outsmart the billionaire art buyers by convincing them they are smart by buying it. You’d think when said buyers caught onto this ruse, they’d be a little pissed off, or at least insulted. As for other artists, or art in general, who cares about all that when you can be a multi-millionaire artist showered in accolades, and without putting in the hard work or sacrifice? That is itself a gold-ticket message: you can be a great artist without hard work; you can be enlightened without suffering; you can be the best without effort. You are so very special.
Doubtlessly there are many very wealthy people who don’t fall for this art hustle, and have a much more genuine and broad appreciation of art. Nevertheless, the game of art trumps art at every turn, except when it comes to the intrinsic quality of the art in question, which is, or should be, the only thing that really matters. Yes, it’s quite savvy to realize art is ultimately a symbolic wafer that can be traded for millions, but one becomes malnourished imbibing such vacuous pap, devaluing the transcendence of art for the transgression of abstract profit.
Art needs to be its own reward, not a speculative empty cranny — the emptier the better — to hook a price tag on. Artists who cater to a presumed shallow but bloated market inevitably produce thin gruel “not suitable for human consumption”.
No worries though, the big name artists already got their tens or hundreds of millions, and whatever I think doesn’t even register. Even if their radar somehow picked it up, they wouldn’t even notice that their art of one-upmanship was one-upped by my parodies.
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