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the cult of speed and surface

Post #122 • October 6, 2003, 3:47 PM

From Michael Betancourt’s IMHO:

To anyone who comes to Miami for any length of time and visits our galleries, museums, shows or clubs, it's obvious that Miami is a "now" city. Its people spend their time looking for immediate gratification of sensual needs, but usually reject those experiences that are primarily mental - intellectual - rather than aesthetic. (Stopping in at the places where locals do discuss art, such as Franklin Einspruch's Artblog, this reality becomes immediately clear. While there is discussion, there is also a strong rejection of any art that isn't aesthetically-oriented.) Such emphasis might be a result of the climate, the local art scene's provincialism, or the unique blending of cultures and hedonism specific to Miami, but whatever the cause, there is a very real belief that if the art isn't an object - mainly and especially painting… - then it can't be art. Or ART.

Ever since a cabal of marketers tried to rope me into a demographic called Generation X, I have hated being held up as a representative example of the zeitgeist. But besides that, the above is an inaccurate rendering of what goes on here at

If my supposed rejection of the intellectual experience was an example of the local sensual climate, then I would be its champion. The opposite is the case; I find Miami’s fixation on sensual gratification to be galling. (I believe that if cosmetic surgeons and weightlifting emporiums disappeared, local mate selection would be catastrophically derailed.) Not all sensual experiences are created equal – some are fleeting, others are profound. Which are which is up to the individual, but I can say that going to a club and getting drunk is a different flavor of pleasure than looking at art. To conflate the two into something called ‘sensual needs’ is not discriminating.

The various modes of art form societies around them that play by different rules. Part of what happens in local discussions is that two sides show up for a game, but one brings hockey gear and the other brings baseball gear, and each accuses the other of being out of touch with what’s really going on in sports. At that point there’s only one game possible: Kill the Man with the Ball. As the blogger around here, I have the ball. It has been educational.

Let me clarify: I place the value of the intellectual experience below that of the sensual experience in art because I believe the head ought to serve the heart, as Robert Henri put it, and not the other way around. One of the last things our old Zen master said to the sangha was that we would never be able to figure out this life with our conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking is entertaining and interesting, but it does not reach to the core of experience. I am most interested in art that addresses the core of experience, and that tends to favor aesthetically-oriented art over that which is intellectually-oriented.

(The postmodernist take on this, I have learned, is that my ‘aesthetic’ is an elitist construct. I’ve concluded that it is no less of an elitist construct than any other kind of orientation. If you hang around people who like old – excuse me, classic cars, you find a highly elitist group. Your entry and acceptence into this group hinges on your ability to talk the lingo: horsepower, options, authentic paint colors, modifications, and so on. It helps if you can buy them, but it’s not required, and anyone who owns them without being able to talk shop is branded as a dillettante. People who have proven their expertise can have disagreements about which models or years of models are the best. If postmodernists think their society is any different, they’re wrong.)

Anyway, it’s no fun being in a gang if you can’t have a rumble sometimes, and that’s where the arts writers come in. So here we go:

I repudiate IMHO’s attempt to associate my thinking, even hypothetically, with hedonism and provincialism. I do not support the destructive pursuit of pleasure – the wages of cultural sin are cultural death. The implication that aesthetically-oriented work may be promoted on because of provincialism is absurd; much of the local intellectually-oriented art is as derivative as all get-out, and it is not more original to take your cues from New York circa 1995 than New York circa 1945 or Florence circa 1495.

I am reluctant to say that something presented as art is not art or ART or even Art. I am not reluctant to say that it’s bad, stupid, broken art, if it is, but I avoid denying things their category if that’s where their makers place them. (Yes, I’ve done it, but rarely.)

As for the rest of the IMHO piece, Conceptual art was zero threat to the gallery system and destroyed its own critical potential without any help from it. Categories ought to be challenged, but the postmodernist tendency to meld distinct products of human activity, such as ‘art’ and ‘ideas’, throw both into a categorical oblivion that can’t be sustained. Knowledge makes increasingly fine distinctions as it develops.

Betancourt lumps together prolonged, subtle pleasure and instant grat, and concludes that video’s basis in time itself leads to its invalidation. Actually, the need for instant grat by what he aptly describes as “our entertainment culture of distraction” is bad for all media. Any form of art, even painting, ought to justify sustained viewing. And the perfect art for the Culture of Distraction is none other than the intellectually-oriented art that Betancourt says, incorrectly, that it is not willing to engage. There’s a populous middlebrow echelon that is above buying work to match the sofa but falls for art with superficial edginess.

Video art becomes ‘video installation’ (and I would add, ‘video sculpture’) because ‘installation’ and ‘sculpture’ are robust categories and ‘video’ is not. It has nothing to do with its time element. But regardless of what category it goes into, the real obstacle to its appreciation and skillful manufacture is the Cult of Speed and Surface, whose adherents are unwilling to go up a ladder atop which serious aesthetic ambitions and serious intellectual ambitions sit out of view and out of reach.




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