art values against fashion values
Post #341 • August 9, 2004, 6:36 AM • 42 Comments
A large segment of the contemporary art world values its product according to the same criteria as the world of fashion: sexiness, edginess, and currency. Those values aren't a problem for fashion because hardly anyone expects the greatest fashion ever made to deliver the same intensity of experience as the greatest art ever made.
Those values correlate to more demanding values in stronger art: beauty, rigor, and innovation. But the fashion values are far more accessible. In fact, you can throw a party around them. Not so for the latter values, which require the artist to make hundreds of tiny, quiet decisions in the private act of working, and for the looker to expose himself to and reflect upon countless works of art. They require an intersection of sensitivity and work ethic that is rare in people. They require self-criticism. They require talent (for making or looking) and labor.
Because the fashion values resemble art values, one can fake talent and labor by throwing around enough jargon, attitude, or cash. It is possible to fake it to yourself. In fact, the art world involves large communities of people who have faked it to themselves and each other. They are having a lot of fun. Self-criticism is rewarding but not all that fun. It is an upright mindset that relatively few people embrace, and those who do are not able to apply it at all times or to the rest of their lives. It can be overdone, and it can be done errantly. David Park once wrote,
For more than twenty years I had preferred other qualities to those of representation. During that time I was concerned with the big abstract ideals like vitality, evergy, profundity, warmth. They became my gods. They still are. I disciplined myself rigidly to work in ways I hoped might symbolize those ideals. I still hold to those ideals today, but I realize that those paintings practically never, even vaguely, approximated any achievement of my aims. Quite the opposite: what the paintings told me was that I was a hard-working guy who was trying to be important.
Self-criticism isn't just a Greenbergian invention.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
I feel that Clement Greenberg's religion was more than incidental to his outlook; the god of the Jews evaluated his first act in the newly formed universe. One gets the sense from Genesis that if God didn't think light was cutting the dots ("This just isn't, like, bright enough for Me, you know?") He would have let the earth sit under a dark heaven until He worked out the bugs.
But even the goyim are in on it, like the proverbial Balinese woman who said of her people, "we have no art; we just do everything as well as possible." When the disciples of the Buddha inquired how they could do everything he asked of him, he replied, "Just do your best." Only they could know what their best was. Likely not even they knew until they went to go find out. It seems that the deep thinkers of all times identified self-criticism as the method for living a good life.
Self-criticism can only be exercised in the act of something that can be done skillfully or not, and skill has been slipping out of the definition of art. "Art, n., 1. Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature," says the dictionary (which means that I make art when I sweep my walkway, and I'd like a grant for it, please). But definitions Number 2 through 8 have skill, quality, and beauty written all over them.
Nevertheless skill is not sufficient in itself for the exercise of self-criticism. It happens sometimes that the anonymous author of The Minor Fall, the Major Lift posts something about art and I find myself on the opposite side of an argument from Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interview Magazine, assuming it's really her, which it may very well not be. She had this this to say regarding a recent post:
...all artists are extremely influenced by that which surrounds them. In a, dare I say, postmodern or new millennium culture, were surrounded by a lot of vapid shit. Practitioners such as [Damien] Hirst or Tracy Emin do a pretty good job of harnessing such external stimuli and extracting how they are affected by it personally or how the culture as a whole is moved or changed.
This is arguable at best, but I concede that these artists have skill: at sexiness, edginess, and currency.
I used to think that time would test the legitimacy of art embraced by the market or dialogue - that the really bad stuff would be revealed as trendy or zeitgeist. But the wealthy are able to make what they value valuable, and that goes as well for the Medicis as for Charles Saatchi.
She ignores the fact that Michelangelo expressed the highest aspirations of Florentine culture, not its basest, and that culture believed in eternal values that transcended the activities of the world (including the egos of patrons). Michelangelo was recognized as divine, not just cutting-edge. He hooked into something greater than skill and fashion and pursued the superlative. Michelangelo's environment was hardly free of ugliness and vapidness and deceit. But one can choose one's ideals to favor their opposites, even today.
Just as skill is slipping out of the idea of art, cultivation is slipping out of the idea of culture. Culture is a farming term, from Latin cultus, meaning "tilled." Culture has long implied an activity that is civilized, nourishing, slow, attentive, laborious, skillful, and a product of human, earthly, and heavenly energies working in synchrony. "Culture," as the term is used in the Arts & Culture section of the paper, means something like "entertainment with tonic properties." Watching a cultivar grow is not entertaining, but it is pleasurable and tonic, like any meaningful work can be.
If the original senses of art and culture and the values associated with them - beauty, rigor, and innovation - are dear to us, we must resist the values of fashion, recognizing that the former can be hard to tell from the latter and they all sometimes mingle without harm. The latter values dominate, and resisting them demands vigilance, but I want art, and I cannot stand the idea of settling for counterfeits.