Post #940 • January 17, 2007, 10:56 AM • 33 Comments
The Morning News recently ran a gallery of work by Marilyn Minter. Minter's paintings and photographs depict the world of fashion as it strains under the weight of its own expectations: close-ups of the dolled-up, rendered with a discomforting level of detail. They could be posing, or catching their breath after a car crash. The work is no worse than the great run of photorealism or fashion photography, but it made me think, to my own surprise, of the 2005 kimono show at the MFA (for which I sadly can't find a link). That exhibition featured some early 20th Century kimonos which evinced the influence of Art Nouveau and Abstract Expressionism, with patterning and staining that evoked a hint of modern Western movements while remaining recognizably Japanese. Fine art was making its impact felt on other media. In Minter's work, the opposite is true.
I'm going to assert that this has become the case in general. Art once exerted influence, and now is subject to it. Whenever you see art that deals with the worlds of fashion, film, the media, comics, or design, you are witnessing the cultural equivalent of backwash.
One of the great mysteries of art is receiving a thrill from looking at work that has no connection to you temporally or culturally. Visual quality communicates. Clearly those kimono makers "got it," for lack of a better term, when they looked at Art Nouveau, and there are too many other similar examples in art, music, and architecture to list. I think immediately of Baroque sculpture's influence on 18th Century furniture, or that of African sculpture on early 20th Century art, or the formation of jazz from elements that crossed oceans or the equator or both. Makers recognize quality in unfamiliar objects, and innovate accordingly. But I strain to think of an analogous contemporary example, in which influence travels outward from visual art towards other media. Art, like a debtor nation, has become an importer of visual goods from other creative forms.
I ran across another kind of import in the pages of the current Art Journal. (I renewed my membership to the CAA, and the magazine is a benefit. So they say.) The title of one of the articles caught my eye, an essay by Simone Osthoff, professor at SVA and Penn State: "Elsewhere in Contemporary Art: Topologies of Artists' Works, Writings, and Archives." Topology, as far as I understand it, is a branch of geometry concerned with the connectivity of volumes and parts thereof, properties that remain constant even as the forms under consideration distort. I daresay that you wouldn't be able to get through the most elementary topology primer, which if it involves mathematics, starts with set theory. I know I couldn't. I quote Osthoff:
A classic mathematical joke states that "a topologist is a person who doesn't know the difference between a coffee cup and a doughnut," as both forms belong to the same class of round objects with a hole in them - topologically [and otherwise - F.] called a torus - and can theoretically be transformed into one another. The use in art history of such a broad and uncommon term as topology allows one to go beyond the "vanishing point" and the habit of thinking about art in terms of the "projections" of perspective theory. "Points of view come packed with a full kit of ready-made subjects and objects, planes of representation, and radiating 'cones of vision'" [This quote is footnoted with a URL for an unpublished paper by Donald Kunze.] Topology allows for linking near and far, up with down, in with out, in a paradoxical continuous space most easily understood by the classic example of the Möbius strip. Furthermore, topology underlines a reader-response theory. In a participatory paradigm, the artwork often unfolds in real time, and the viewer-reader must complete the work's meaning. As the boundaries between art's inside and outside become less clear, meaning and authorship become more collective and distributed. In a participatory paradigm, for instance, completeness is no longer possible, desirable, or taken for granted. The artist's role as a theoretician and archivist further disrupts boundaries between art production and its documentation, and therefore the traditional hierarchies between artists, critics, and art historians.
The passage is a classic example of the mandarin style in the humanities, complete with scare quotes, categorical blurs, implied but unmeasurable progress, the conflation of metaphors and facts, and needless jargon. But leave all that aside for a moment, and assume for the sake of argument that topology has provided an interesting framework for contemporary art studies. Here's my question: What have contemporary art studies done to advance the study of topology? Nothing, of course. Influence goes back and forth between robust fields, or from robust fields to devitalized ones, but not the other way around.
What happened? An answer may lie in a recent Holland Cotter article, the upshot of which is that an alternative space in Harlem called Triple Candie just put on a show by an artist that doesn't actually exist. Cotter swooned:
So, with no real artist and no real art, what do you have here? You have many questions raised about art and the often unquestioned ideas surrounding it, like originality, authenticity, influence, history, formal value and biography-as-value. Is contemporary art largely a promotional scam perpetuated by - in no particular order of blame - museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam to want to keep it afloat?
If you are affected - moved, amused, provoked - by the assembled Hayes oeuvre, then is it art? Are [Triple Candie directors] Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett artists? (They would certainly say no.) Are they themselves perpetrators of a scam? Or are they critical thinkers working in an alternative direction to the market economy? Imagine the consequences if lots of people started creating "fake" art without acknowledging what they were up to? [sic] The whole art-as-investment illusion would evaporate. The market would crumble. Art myths could no longer be trusted. The Triple Candie's Hayes biography [of the non-existent artist], in other words, is spun largely from myths and clichés that sell art and artists today.
Indeed, you have these questions and others, and many will confuse the questions with conceptual sophistication or radical sentiment. It is only the former, if even that. Triple Candie's strategy is an attempt to purchase credibility using the tokens accepted as currency, in every sense, in the contemporary art world: the raising of questions. It's no more radical than a Kyoto office worker paying for his soba noodles with yen. To think otherwise indicates a kind of blindness that I find hard to explain except that careers are riding on it. I'm reminded of the Upton Sinclair quote that has become a favorite of Al Gore's: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
The questions that the exhibition raises are easy to answer, or at least dispose of, if you have no investment in them - the converse of the investment that Cotter describes. What you have there is art: objects presented as art in an art context. Its sincerity, its qualities, and the responses of its audience (or lack thereof) don't effect that. Contemporary art is largely not more of a scam than any other business that sells things that people don't need; a lot of artists are making work, and a business, no more or less, has arisen around them. More interesting is that question of what would happen if a lot of fake artists glutted the market with cynical objects. I would suggest that it has already happened. The artists in question aren't acknowledging what they're up to because they don't know that they're fake. But answering the question in the way he intended it, people would either get smarter about assigning value, or collect the fakes with undiminished gusto with no injury to their stunted aesthetic sensitivities. The art market wouldn't so much crumble as bloat, and Cotter would be cheated of comeuppance against his straw-stuffed art investors. As for the myths and clichés, I've said it before about Cotter, and I'll say it again: There's no cliché in art like the cliché of challenging cherished clichés.
Here's the issue: a field in which people widely believe that these questions are important, problematic, or challenging is not fit to export influence anywhere. Art is one of the few valid arenas for the notion that something is true because you feel it to be so. Felt truth works for its creators, and up to a point for its audience. But when its critics and historians use it, you end up with a muddle in exactly the place that the field needs answers, facts, and reasonable arguments. Instead, the critical and historical enterprise is built on the raising (and importantly, not the answering) of questions, and unfalsifiable analysis that cannot succeed at anything except perhaps intellectual titillation. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, except that it has harmed the larger project of assigning value, where it hasn't replaced it outright. A field that has trouble assigning value to its products is naturally going to rely on extrinsic mechanisms for doing so. In the case of art, this is where people start monitoring auction prices, asking how old the artist is, using the magazines as collection checklists, relying on advisors, and other shams of taste that substitute for the real work of getting in front of a work of art, looking at it, and detecting its quality.
Because the above styles of critical and historical validation have become so prevalent, artists have shaped their works accordingly. This is largely, if not exclusively, a career decision. So they too have no effective mechanism for assigning value, and become obliged to import objectives from other media, like Minter, or flail in the emptiness, like Triple Candie. The strategies correspond to Osthoff's and Cotter's respectively. Recognition won, the cycle confirms its own validity and rolls forward on its circular track.
Topology gets along fine without contemporary art studies. It has internally imposed standards of provability and elegance that obviate the need to haul in benchmarks from other fields. In fact, every field gets along fine without contemporary art studies. I suspect, frankly, that even contemporary art would get along without contemporary art studies, at least as practiced above. I'll conclude by offering an alternative scenario to Cotter's. Imagine the consequences if a lot of people rallied around art as a repository of good visual form, and set out to establish their own galleries, museums, critics, and historians. The art market would develop a sensible, enjoyable niche, the myths that sell art would become unnecessary, and its participants could make investments of cash or philosophy in good faith instead of cynicism.