Previous: Anthony Falcetta at Rotenberg (9)

Next: The Two English Friends (8)

Backwash

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.

Comment

1.

Bunny Smedley

January 17, 2007, 11:17 AM

Congratulations on a seriously excellent post.

2.

Marc Country

January 17, 2007, 11:33 AM

"... art and the often unquestioned ideas surrounding it, like originality, authenticity, influence, history, formal value and biography-as-value..."

Ah, no matter how many time such "questions" are raised, for some, it always feels like the first time. How sweet, to be an idiot...

3.

Arthur Whitman

January 17, 2007, 11:51 AM

the myths that sell art would become unnecessary

Or less necessary, more realistically. "Good visual form" by itself is rarely enough to please more than a small coterie. Great post.

4.

wwc

January 17, 2007, 12:12 PM

Amen.

That point about the questions raised but never answered (like having things "referenced" in an artwork) is one reason I can't read wall texts or catalog essays anymore.

As for importing, its the case with other more maginalized forms like comics too - I've seen several shows of paintings that "reference" or "borrow" from comics, but I can only think of one or two examples in the past 30 years of comics stealing from "fine art".

and MC (#2), yes, how sweet. I'm not very smart, but a least I know it.

5.

Arthur Whitman

January 17, 2007, 12:51 PM

There is a history of advertising photography borrowing from painting. (See for for example John Berger's Ways of Seeing.) I don't normally pay attention to ads, so I don't know how prevalent this is these days. Of course, the paintings borrowed from are usually classics--Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, Magritte--rather than contemporary works. Also, it seems that such borrowings don't necessarily assume familiarity with the original.

6.

AF

January 17, 2007, 1:49 PM

Great post. I recall a recent appropriation of art by a credit card company, I think it was American Express, featuring broadcast ads that looked a heck of a lot like Barbara Kruger's work.

7.

Bob

January 17, 2007, 2:53 PM

I think in the late sixties the British wing of the Situationist International advocated all artists and authors to exhibit and publish under the name Karen Elliot as a way to dismantle the market.

And you're right, Triple Candies gesture falls flat. They have nothing to gain but more market share.

8.

opie

January 17, 2007, 3:28 PM

Yes, excellent post. Once again, though, it must seem futile. Applying clear rational insight to this business is like teaching Relativity to retards.

"A field that has trouble assigning value to its products is naturally going to rely on extrinsic mechanisms for doing so." Yes, indeed, and well & succinctly put.

Topology in math is the study of geometric configurations and usually pertains to surface rather than volume, as I understand it. It is a consideration for certain kinds of painting because of what is called the "map problem", which is the problem of proving why only 4 different colors are needed to color a map or any complexity. There was an article about this matter as pertains to painting by Bannard: "Color Painting and the Map Problem" Artforum, Vol. 8, (March, 1970) pp. 60 - 61.

9.

Franklin

January 17, 2007, 4:00 PM

Thanks to all.

Wwc, comics went through my head as I was making that list, and I'm not sure why it didn't make it on there. I'm adding it, with credit to you. I too couldn't think of an example of comics borrowing from contemporary art, although you see references here and there to older art. Like Arthur points out, you see the classics cited. I would argue that they're classics for good reasons that we're not seeing repeated.

AF, Kruger's an interesting edge case, someone whose work influenced an advertising campaign after developing itself on advertising motifs. I think we have to call that one even.

I'll work on getting that Bannard essay installed. In the meantime, Wikipedia also has something to say about the four color problem.

10.

Marc Country

January 17, 2007, 7:25 PM

(you might want to go over the post with a spellcheck, Franklin... I'm just sayin'...)

11.

Franklin

January 17, 2007, 7:42 PM

Thanks, Marc. I had two versions of the file open and was making mutually cancelling corrections for a while. It should be reasonably fixed now.

12.

Jack

January 17, 2007, 8:07 PM

I have lingering doubts, which grow progressively more insistent, as to whether I should continue to dignify the official contemporary art scene with my attention and time. The return on investment is decidedly poor. The "needle in a haystack" analogy comes to mind.

It's not just a matter of finding work I really like, but of finding work I can simply respect and take seriously. There is so much negligible, insubstantial, utterly pointless stuff all over the damn place. And it only seems to proliferate. It wouldn't be that bad if it was commercially successful but seen for what it is and called by its proper name by those responsible (yes, responsible) for knowing the real thing. But no, the whole enterprise, or most of it, is either blind or corrupt, and the most august entities regularly disgrace and discredit themselves by "validating" tripe.

It's like a gigantic, elaborately bad joke that keeps being repeated over and over, ad nauseam, buoyed up by huge amounts of money from the rich and deluded. The dealers, obviously, are not about to stem the tide, and the trendy-unto-death can't possibly get off the merry-go-round and look (gasp!) out-of-it. It's essentially a folie à plusieurs.

13.

jbm

January 17, 2007, 8:08 PM

When subjectivity dictates, the world will be saved. Objectivity has proven to be par only with destruction.
When women are smashing their pelvises against a mans head, we know that the human race will last on this earth. There is a lot of nice things here for us. Why bastards?

14.

ahab

January 17, 2007, 8:36 PM

In a long-past Artblog post regarding how people look at art and how art acts upon people, the idea of feed-forward was raised. Contemporary art seems to have been victimized by feed-forward in the micro and the macro, with many artworld individuals and much of its system just keeling over in the wake of external influences. "How come?" has been dealt with convincingly (everyone is understandably looking out for their own practical interests and needs), but I don't understand how a studio artist can resist such extrinsic influences effectively without getting sucked into their vortex by mere reaction to them. By even thinking about them.

15.

opie

January 17, 2007, 9:52 PM

You just have to keep it out of your work, Ahab. Keep it out of the studio. That's all.

16.

Jack

January 17, 2007, 10:40 PM

As I see it, although there's plenty of blame to go around and multiple culprits, the key element is the art audience, particularly the paying audience. If it refused to pay for or support anything it didn't truly personally like and believe in, and if it would refuse to be cowed or led by anyone it didn't really trust and respect, you'd better believe things would change dramatically. They'd have to.

17.

jbm

January 18, 2007, 2:20 AM

Yet Philip, ironically enough, (because of the literal appearance of his paintings) stated the importance of leaving the demons at the door. This is not allways easy, however, understandingly essential.

18.

ec

January 18, 2007, 10:06 AM

What a cogent post. It argues so beautifully for visual primacy and I couldn't agree more. It also elucidates the lack of common measure that makes art and its assessment so problematic for artists, critics, everybody.
Art always gets co-opted in advertising as has already been acknowledged; art isn't as emptied out as the post suggests, though it certainly seems to come close. Also, Minter's paintings are beautiful! Although they exchange imagery with fashion photography, the paintings gleam and in their finish and absorption with detail, recall Flemish paintings. The stolid expressions of faith and the sumptiousness of Flemish paintings become sullied, despoiled in Minter, which reflect the society...beauty and horror combined. Think of the post and subsequent conversation with world events as a backdrop.
But 'good form': how to define that? The summer 2006 issue of American Artist features three artists--blurry on the details--who paint academically and opened a school in Britian for people dissatisified with the lack of technique or fulfilling education in universities, etc. The images accompanying the article showed classic portraits--individuals, families--and more fanciful winged warriors, armor, muscles, etc. All were solidly constructed figures, beautifully rendered. They looked how Hollywood films funtion: a sequence of predicatable tropes, lush, abundantly portrayed, but filled with the signifiers (sorry) of quality and tradition.
So what is good form.

19.

Franklin

January 18, 2007, 10:31 AM

You can't define good form, Ec. You can only detect it.

20.

opie

January 18, 2007, 10:58 AM

Good form is what your eye tells you is good form, ec. You either see it or you don't. It takes practice and ability, like anything worthwhile.

21.

ec

January 18, 2007, 12:09 PM

Yes, and any serious artist will do that.
But the blog addresses art's dilution by importing other cultures.
The essay indicates a lack of common critiera amongst let's say, critics from the NY Times and Joan Washburn or Aquavella. So who "rallys around art as a repository of good visual form"? Don't galleries, museums, critics, and historians who support good visual form already exist?
So doesn't the question become one of recognizability about good visual form in a larger critical conversation? Again that exists. But isn't the conversation splintered from a lack of consensus and diverse definitions as to what constitutes good visual form? So what changes those conditions, without consensus? put another way, definition.
Questions that arise from the writing...

22.

ec

January 18, 2007, 12:09 PM

Yes, and any serious artist will do that.
But the blog addresses art's dilution by importing other cultures.
The essay indicates a lack of common critiera amongst let's say, critics from the NY Times and Joan Washburn or Aquavella. So who "rallys around art as a repository of good visual form"? Don't galleries, museums, critics, and historians who support good visual form already exist?
So doesn't the question become one of recognizability about good visual form in a larger critical conversation? Again that exists. But isn't the conversation splintered from a lack of consensus and diverse definitions as to what constitutes good visual form? So what changes those conditions, without consensus? put another way, definition.
Questions that arise from the writing...

23.

ec

January 18, 2007, 12:10 PM

Sorry about the double post.

24.

FRC

January 18, 2007, 2:27 PM

Franklin, your assertion that "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" is maddening.

I wish I had more time to comment - but in general your example of Art Nouveau influencing the Japanese appears to be, well, incorrect. It is my understanding that quite the opposite is the case - Art Nouveau was heavily influenced with the introduction of Japanese prints! Mass-produced Japanese prints...!

And why don't you consider "art" (painting?) part of "the media"?
You bring up 18th - early 20th Century: what WAS "the media" then...?

(Great post -- it got me to comment again.)

25.

Franklin

January 18, 2007, 2:37 PM

Read it a little more specifically, FRC: "whenever you see contemporary art..." That's the context of the sentence in the paragraph.

These particular kimonos actually did cite Western nouveau and abstraction. The Art Nouveau movement in general was of course inspired in part by Oritental motifs.

Does anyone include painting in "the media"? I think TV, Internet, radio, etc.

26.

wwc

January 18, 2007, 2:43 PM

"Media" implies mass-media. TV, printing, internets. Painting is not part of that just as furniture or wallpaper isn't.

27.

opie

January 18, 2007, 2:49 PM

There are no "common criteria", ec, and there are no definitions of "good form". There can't be. There are shared attitudes toword art, and at the same time there are many different attitudes toward art. Everyone uses art for his or her own purpose, just like anything else. Many people currrently involved with art are not at all interested in "form" or "good form", even though these are the traditional approaches to evaluation of art.

The consensus is (or was) formed by an accumulation of appreciation among people who were involved in art. It is not a codified process. It just evolves that way.

28.

FRC

January 18, 2007, 3:12 PM

Franklin - I understood the context on first read; better upon another read;
but it is much clearer when you add 'contemporary' to your
statement after the fact.

I'm not sure why it makes a difference, however.
Was it OK 100 years ago but not now?
Before photography; before radio; before TV;
before the 'internets' even, painting was a dominant
form of media! (Ask the Pope!)

Ultimately I agree that "art once exerted influence, and now is subject to it."
But I think your idea of "art" & mine may be different; mine based
on my 'design' bias & yours on painting/'fine art'...

29.

Pretty Lady

January 18, 2007, 3:33 PM

Franklin, you are now my New Hero.

30.

opie

January 18, 2007, 3:38 PM

Uh oh, Franklin. Wait 'til Supergrrl finds out about this!

31.

Bunny Smedley

January 18, 2007, 3:51 PM

I am sure that Supergirl is not only used to the odd bit of Franklin-worship, but more than capable of dealing with it.

32.

Franklin

January 18, 2007, 4:39 PM

She's been known to engage in a bit of it herself, and the reverse frequently occurs. Thank you all the same, Pretty.

33.

ron Cohen

January 29, 2007, 12:18 AM

the two artiicals in the times from 1999 reviewing anonoymous artist show at rc arts in maplewood cover all the mysterously similar issues elaborated by triple candie show of lester hayes...
first article

second article

Subscribe

@franklin_e

franklin.e

Offers

Other Projects

Legal

Design and content ©2003-2017 Franklin Einspruch except where otherwise noted