Monday, June 07, 2010

The Re-Enchantment of Art 3: the Decadent Present

In a recent article in Prospect magazine, The dustbin of art history, Ben Lewis defines clearly, and in historical context, what has baffled so many: Why is so much contemporary art so very bad?

Lewis makes some very convincing comparisons between the decadent art of the Rococo period in European art history, among other end-phase periods of former grand art styles, and what is being presented nowadays as post-modern and conceptual art. His central point of comparison, which I find convincing, is that we're now living through the final-stage death-throes of the Modernist project—a point I have made many times: post-Modernism is really Late High Modernism, not a new trend but the end of Modernism. What was once great and vibrant and life-changing and original has collapsed into self-reflexive decadence.

Lewis writes:

There is a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.

Over the last decade, not only conceptualism—perhaps the dominant movement of the past three decades—but the entire modernist project has been going through a similar process. Of course, some important and inspired artists have made important and inspired work in recent years—from famous photographers like Andreas Gursky and painters like Luc Tuymans to lesser-known video artists like Lindsay Seers and Anri Sala. But there is something more fundamentally wrong with much of this century’s famous art than its absurd market value.

I believe that this decline shares four aesthetic and ideological characteristics with the end-phases of previous grand styles: formulae for the creation of art; a narcissistic, self-reinforcing cult that elevates art and the artist over actual subjects and ideas; the return of sentiment; and the alibi of cynicism.

Self-parody (art that refers only to other art), narcissism (the personal self is the only real subject), formulaic rule-sets for art-making (in the absence of truly open-minded exploration, we reproduce and copy), the cult of the artist-personality (especially post-Warhol), the cynical use of cliché and sentimental iconography to simultaneously manipulate and mock the viewer and/or buyer: all these are aspects of the art that is now considered the gallery/museum mainstream. In a nutshell, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and their ilk. (I've never yet been able to decide if Koons was actually making fine art, or if he is rather a one-man icon factory.)

The archetype of the Hero-Artist that Modernism was founded on (itself the ultimate flowering of the Romantic notion of the heroically feeling-motivated artist)—the lone rebel breaking out against the backdrop of stale salon and academic art—was the leading narrative of Modernist art's technical and thematic innovations: from Picasso through Pollock, from Mondrian to Frank Lloyd Wright, from Georgia O'Keeffe to Edward Weston, from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot through to Jerome Rothenberg and Octavio Paz, and the many innovators in between, in all their various styles. A full century of the Modernist enterprise has left us with many high marks to reflect upon.

What archetypes do we have now?

We have the Sellout-Artist rather than the Hero-Artist; the conceptual artist who feels entitled to a museum career merely because they have the ability to shock and provoke. The artist as Brand, in which artistic variation means only diversification of media. The artist who consciously embraces commercialism, who attempts to portray their own commercialism as a mocking commentary on the commercialism of the overall art-market system. The successful insider who mocks being a successful insider.

We have the Reproducer-Artist, he or she who (in genuine postmodernist style) thumbs through art history to borrow images and meanings and icons and reproduce them on a theoretically level playing field, for them to interact—which usually means disjunction and juxtaposition rather than genuine interaction—in other words, steals the art of the past and present and recombines it in theoretically new ways. This is collage-making brought to its ultimate end: the only thing "new" is the recombination; none of the elements are original. In fashionable literary circles, we get flarf and Oulipo and other "post-avant" poetry and flash-fiction stylings; most of which proudly state, in multiple manifestoes, that they mean nothing. Cleverness is all: content is dead and gone.

At what point does an artist quoting another artist's work, referring to other art by reproducing it as a reference, become outright plagiarism? If you quote another artist's entire opus and put your name on it, are you really making a comment about anti-authorship, or are you really just being lazy? Are you attempting to conceal your own lack of ideas in your appropriation and cooptation of the ideas of others?

We have the Theorist-Artist, who must write a manifesto before making any artistic move, whose works are mechanically determined as well as mechanically reproduced. There is always a Movement, an -ism to be named. The artist must be a permanent avant-garde, rebelling against an establishment, even if the artist becomes the establishment, the institution. Permanent avant-garde placed in permanent opposition: to what? Sometimes to nothing but other theories. In literature, neo-formalism and Language Poetry are alike in their conception of political rebellion against a straw-man status quo; although they are opposed stylistically, they are identical psychologically in their need to put theory before art-making, ideology before inspiration.

We have artwork after artwork that plays out in the mind without ever really touching the soma, or the heart. Art which is some cases openly claims this to be a virtue.

Antinomially, I do feel that artists as diverse as Andy Goldsworthy and Donald Judd have been our alternative artists who have been involved with vision and re-enchantment all along, even as the decadent art goes on simultaneously in the urban centers. More than one artist living and working outside Gallery Row in New York City has shown us ways towards re-enchantment, all during this same period: but they are not the darlings of the galleries, the museum retrospectives, or the art-buyers who listen to the dealers who promote artistic fashion over enduring quality.

As many working artists will tell you, the gallery and art-buying big-city "scenes" for the most part perpetuate this state of affairs. There is too much profit invested in the structural edifice of decadent postmodern art for galleries or dealers to let it collapse anytime soon: there remains much money to be made. Does anybody buy a Koons because they love it, or do they buy it as an "investment"? What form of capital is involved in such a transaction: social, financial, spiritual, or aesthetic? Does anybody really like this stuff? Meanwhile, genuinely visionary artists, and artists who have something different to offer, are for the most ignored, or kept in their place as outsiders. Galleries are inherently conservative financially: they rarely show anything that hasn't sold well before. To be "inside the system" means one has to become like what sold well last year: cynical, self-reflective or narcissistic, and ironic.


Irony is the new sincerity, and has been throughout postmodernism. Irony replaces civic grace. Irony is the only acceptable way of approaching the world. Anything non-ironic is labeled retrogressive and mocked. If your art isn't heavily ironic, you probably won't get noticed, much less lauded by dealers or galleries.

When Lewis refers to "the alibi of cynicism," I feel he is at root discussing irony. The excesses of art are claimed to be critiques of society's over-valuing of art in a decadent way. But such art is rarely convincing—except as irony. As Lewis writes about cynicism:

Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these faults, but invoke in their defence a critical attitude towards their material. Yes, Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism. . . .

Here is art celebrating its own superficiality. In doing so, it absorbs any criticism made against it, like Warhol’s celebrities—or Hirst’s Golden Calf, which ironises the adulation and criticism his art receives.

Subverting hierarchies of taste in art: even if I could take Koons seriously on this point, I would never be able to forget that Warhol did it first, and did it better. What is Koons but a third-generation Warhol, only with bigger and brighter and shinier toys? (I admit I do prefer Warhol's art.) Another difference between Warhol and Koons is that Koons' art is deliberately decontextualized, ahistorical, non-referential—more characteristics of postmodernism—in ways that Warhol's art is not. Warhol remains bound to the context of his times; because, in his time, he was innovating something new. Warhol may have claimed to celebrate the popular and the superficial, but his art nonetheless resonated with history. Postmodernism, in removing historicity, indeed celebrates its own superficiality (which becomes another form of narcissism).

One of the contemporary trends in art that I personally find alternately mystifying and infuriating is its smallness: its smallness of scale, smallness of interest, of ambit, its unwillingness to even acknowledge grand themes, much less embody and express them. As Lewis writes: Art has become small, superficial and self-indulgent in its emotional range: sentimental rather than truly intellectual or moving.

Now, I like the gods of small things, too. I like close-up photographs of tree-bark and pond-water textures that reflect the fractal nature of the world's geometry. But I also like broad landscapes. One needs to look at the whole mountain forest, not merely the moss on the north side of one small grove of trees. Postmodern art's narcissism is actually part and parcel of this smallness: a refusal to look outside the self-recursive self, to see the larger, cosmic Self.

The parallels in literature are the dominance, in poetry, of the post-confessional lyric (the dominant style emerging from MFA workshops) wherein the subject is always the writer's own life and emotion; and in fiction, the short story about small personal lives in relationship, the parlor-story, as opposed to, for example, the historical sweep of Dr. Zhivago. The latter is a novel equally personal, equally a love story, to any being published now—but on a large scale, using a large palette. Who writes such epics now (that don't refer to the epics of the past, with irony)?

Smallness of ambit also manifests as repetition of themes. In genre fiction, for example, fantasy publishing is glutted with High Fantasy trilogies featuring elves, magic, heroes, trolls, and all the usual characters—none of which would have been conceived had not J.R.R. Tolkien written The Lord of the Righs. Several of my SF/fantasy-reading friends keep trying to engage me in various of these High Fantasy series being published now; but few strike me as more than warmed-over Tolkien; or worse, self-recursive winking ironic acknowledgments and parodies of Tolkien.

Another aspect of the superficiality of postmodern art is its smallness of feeling, its narrow emotional base. This is perhaps one of the most pernicious smallnesses in play: Because evoking strong emotional responses—other than shock and disgust, that is—is considered passé by so much postmodern art, we are left with the numbing-out of psychological disassociativeness and depression. Acedia is actually considered a positive value in postmodern art; although few would give it so clearly a spiritual label. Spirituality is suspect, spiritual content, even meaning itself, are suspect, and to be avoided at all costs. This isn't really about blandness: it's about numbness. Once again, irony stands in for genuine feeling. One is expected to be numbed-out in front of the paintings; one is supposed to have no strong feelings either way. Responses to art other than intellectual are devalued. The shrug is taken to be a supportive response; in a bizarre use of doublethink, indifference is redefined as love.

I want to be clear, in my criticisms here of contemporary art, which echo Mr. Lewis', I am being neither despairing nor apocalyptic. In fact, there is a great deal of art being made nowadays, as well, that is inspired and endowed with meaning. But you might not have heard about it, if only because it's not making millions of dollars in sales for the artists, the galleries, and the dealers. The wrong turns that contemporary decadent art has made has been perpetuated, even exaggerated by the gallery/dealer/financial systems. But it is not the only kind of art being made. I will be getting around to that soon in this essay series. I am working my way towards describing possible re-enchantments in art; but we must first honestly survey what is happening, right now.

Lewis concludes his article with, in part:

There have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money?

We must first assess the current state of affairs, honestly and with a cold eye. Then we are able to see what visionary, enchanted alternatives have also been going on—if not so publicly, then at least chthonically.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Music went through the ringer in the sixties and seventies – by ‘music’ I mean classical music – and yet it survived and, apart from some Europeans who are still clinging around the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen, is all the better for it. I don’t think that art faired so well. I blame awards like the Turner Prize who thumb their nose at the general public by saying that something like an empty room with a light flashing on and off is art. Okay, let’s just say that it is art – and, in the broadest sense I believe that it is – what it is not, and should not be, is award winning art, art that people can point the finger at and say, “This is what we should all be aiming for, folks.”

There is far too much talk in art these days. It has been the case for decades. The more any art needs to be explained – and that goes for music, books, architecture, the lot – the poorer it is to my mind. Seriously, you look at a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and you know it has been painted by a master craftsman. You may not like it but most people know quality when they see it.

Art should not equal fashion although I agree that certain styles have come in and gone out of fashion over the years. So there’s a trend towards irony in art at the moment. Well, that’s okay, we like irony, but the irony still needs to be the cherry on top of the cake; without the cake we’re just standing there with a sticky cherry in our hand.

The cult of personality is a worry though. It affects everything these days. Tonight the last (Oh, please God let it be so) series of Big Brother begins in the UK. I believe there are 80 people up for some sort of vote, all wanting to be famous for being famous. I wonder how new the direct correlation between personality and success is? There have always been “big personalities” in the arts who attract attention and that directs attention towards their work. Is that wrong or are they just lucky to have exuberant personalities?

I have a widget on my desktop and every day I get to see a new Artist of the Day. It is rare that I find one that I detest with a vengeance. I can usually find something. Are any of these artists multi-millionaires? I doubt it. But they are real artists, people who are in it for the art and not the fame. I’m sure Koons and Hurst and all the rest started off as idealistic young artists but just as power corrupts, fame (which let’s face it is a kind of power) corrupts too.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That there's far too much talk about art these days is one of the symptoms. It reflects the ascendancy of Conceptualism, which needs to be explained, to be talked about. Then talking becomes a habit: all art needs to be explained, justified talked about.

I agree about the Turner Prize. I actually have no problem with conceptual art per se, but I rarely agree with giving examples of it the top art prizes, with their imprimatur of success and de facto trendiness. And yes, others do start to imitate because a prize has been won. You can see that happen all the way down to the local state fair group show level of art presentation; although it looks doubly silly next to the quilts and handicrafts also shown at most state fairs.

I don't know that the cult of personality is about exuberance so much as persistence. I have known many bad artists and musicians over the years who have succeeded primarily because they're tireless self-marketers. They have a way of presenting their work, and themselves, for good or ill, that gets peoples' attention. They create a spectacle. Julian Schnabel was really good at creating a spectacle: everything was a performance, and he is never off-stage. As Warhol originally formulated, famous for being famous. I agree that a lot of reality TV, which I think is some of the worst TV ever made, is all about people wanting to be famous for being famous. Maybe the Big Personality types (extraverts all) have an advantage, in the short news-cycle of artistic fashion; but for the most part, it's not the Big Personalities who endure. Some do, but most don't. So it's hard to draw a conclusion as to whether or not it's a good strategy regarding posterity. I have my doubts.

10:07 AM  

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