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Discontent considered

Post #949 • January 31, 2007, 2:20 PM • 29 Comments

It seems like a sign. Within the space of two months, five major art critics have come out against, at least partially, the commericialism pervading the contemporary art market. One more apparently has taken issue with the state of art criticism, including this newfangled blogging thing. (Rounded up yesterday, for those just joining.) Two questions occur to me: First, what does it all mean? Second, who do they think they're kidding?

Art has only one inherent function: to serve as a repository for visual quality. You can disagree with this, but your doing so makes you responsible in part for the art world's commercialism. Regarding ancillary functions of art as central, or conferring upon art a blank function that one can marshall to any purpose, sows confusion about how to assign value to art objects. The confusion, in turn, engenders a critical free-for-all in which participants can regard an object as successful by virtue of the fact that it, or its maker, conveys any kind of experience whatsoever, or lack thereof. This is not a democracy of tastes so much as their Special Olympics.

As I recently argued, a robust field has healthy internal mechanisms for assigning value. In topology, your set equations have to add up. If they don't, no financial force in the world will buy their acceptance. In a field in which one assigns value by taste, those mechanisms often have to make concessions to financial force; one can easily imagine an orchestra that wants to put on Schoenberg but has to put on Gershwin or it will pay for it with its life. Defeat those internal mechanisms for assigning value, and you have a situation in which financial force can run roughshod over every aspect of the original project. You have, in fact, the contemporary art market.

And who bears responsiblity for defeating those internal mechanisms? In light of this question, the disconnect evinced by the above writers takes on mountainous proportions. I largely except Jed Perl, whose tastes often baffle me, but who can and will take a stand for art as art. But not Charlie Finch, whose lecherousness in the line of duty has become not just legend, but policy, and yet notes:

Greed is good. But art suffers in this context, because it functions solely as an economic and social marker, always subject to immediate obsolescence, should economic realities change.

Holland Cotter, in the space of a couple of weeks, came out against the "myths and clichés that sell art and artists today, " then bemoaned contemporary art's lack of revolutionary esprit with a doozy:

The mostly dense paintings, drawings and collages in ["Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle"] make visual sense in New York today. Updated versions of their type have flooded galleries in the last few years. Yet the throwaway, amateur-proud spirit that propelled the older work is largely absent in the new. It belongs to another time and place, with a different set of possibilities and necessities, to a small imploded star, now far, far away, called Underground.

Need I go on? Let's look at Plagens and end this. He has a different complaint, but examination reveals a similar disconnect about his status as part of the problem:

More and more people in the audience for contemporary art would rather read Tyler Green snark somebody in his blog, Modern Art Notes, than ponder the considered judgment of Michael Kimmelman on a MoMA retrospective.

Tyler and I traded a couple of e-mails about this, and we agree that if "snark" is a verb, and it may not be, it's definitely not a transitive one. The misuse of the cant matters, because it marks Plagens as a mere non-member rather than a credible critic of the group. Plagens, who recently polished the legacy of Jasper Johns with his tongue, is writing about the shrinking audience for art criticism for a magazine with a static, one-page website featuring mis-typed art-speak. "Kiki Smith - a traveling exhibition samples Smith's manifold provocations and confirms her surpassingability [sic] to express the vagaries of physical experience". Among other things, Pogo comes to mind.




January 31, 2007, 2:35 PM

Actually I can think if several instances where I would rather read a Tyler Green snark than a "considered opinion" by Michael Kimmelman. That is to say, why bother with either one, but at least the snark is short.



January 31, 2007, 2:53 PM

BTW I hope everyone is aware of what I assume to be the origin of the word: "The Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll



January 31, 2007, 4:36 PM

What ever happened to discussing the elements and principles of design in a work of art. These are the fundementals in which to evalute the success or failure of a piece. I guess now the evaluation is based on the art objects market value, exhibition track record, previous owners, and to what degree the studio employees and assistants participated the its execution.



January 31, 2007, 4:48 PM

"What ever happened to discussing the elements and principles of design in a work of art."

This is not even done in many art classes, JM. Many postmodernist programs consider these things laughably out of date. The market doesn't care, so why should the artists?



January 31, 2007, 5:33 PM

"Why should the artists" care ?
Because in formative years, this is what mattered when looking at art :
a) gut reaction to line, sculptural form, pictorial space, color relationships...
b) a sense of awe, stirred feelings, elation, exhaustion...
c) time is suspended
Ther elements and principles of design are learned after, however the initial stage of art admiration is a viceral experience. Then art school puts all of the other stuff in thus supplanting passion with reason.



January 31, 2007, 5:35 PM

"Then" (sorry I need glasses)



January 31, 2007, 5:45 PM

Bravo, Franklin, I liked your definition. Lets see what happens to the market (anyway never reached the Caucasus ;-))



January 31, 2007, 5:45 PM

(1) “Art has only one inherent function: to serve as a repository for visual quality.”

Ok, so, I disagree with (1) and in so doing disprove (2):

(2) “You can disagree with this, but your doing so makes you responsible in part for the art world's commercialism.”

What?? Why? What have you been taking up north? C’mon boy. You used to be more careful with your arguments.

Take care.



January 31, 2007, 7:00 PM

My pleasure, Hans. Also, thanks for the link to The Moon Fell On Me. I have to get you on the blogroll.

AT, I thought it was pretty clear. Here's another version, working backwards:

- The commercialism in the art world comes into being because financial values bulldoze artistic values.

- Artistic values can't stand up against financial values because the contemporary visual art market has weak internal mechanisms for assigning value.

- It has weak internal mechanisms for assigning value because of two widespread beliefs: 1. Art, like an anonymous function, has no inherent function except what is assigned to it; or 2. Art has an inherent function, but this function is one that can be performed by other creative forms and does not distinguish it from them. In the first case, art cannot fail. In the second, it can only succeed by benchmarks that are not inherent to visual art. Both beliefs eviscerate the assignment of value.

- What distinguishes visual art from other media is the project of form-making. Art's inherent function is to serve as a repository of visual quality: good form. An art object can be made to serve other additional functions. But if it doesn't serve its inherent function, it is either bad art, broken art, an edge case between art and non-art, or something similar.

Hope that clears things up for you. Far from taking anything up here, I find the environment quite tonic.



January 31, 2007, 7:58 PM

I agree with you, JM. Just stirring things up a bit.

Franklin, I think AT had somewhat more of an obligation to detail what was wrong with your original statement to deserve such a lengthy answer from you.



January 31, 2007, 8:44 PM

It's okay. It was fun to go through the exercise.



January 31, 2007, 8:54 PM

...and a good read.
" Artistic values can't stand up against financial values because the contemporary visual art market has weak internal mechanisms for assigning value."
What are these internal mechanisms ? Or is a retorical question ?



January 31, 2007, 11:01 PM

Here are a few pertainent quotes by Marshal McLuhan:
The nature of people demands that most of them be engaged in the most frivolous possible activities—like making money.
We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into
the future.
Mud sometimes gives the illusion of depth.
When a thing is current, it creates currency



January 31, 2007, 11:11 PM

That's an eminently decent question, JM. Its just the way things get decided, whatever that may be. In the case of the BSO, it might be an understanding that they'll play Schoenberg, they'll lighten up with some Gershwin, but they are not going to play Britney. The topology people want to see proofs that are innovative, correct, and elegant. Scion xB customizers won't jack them up, because low is The Way. Sommeliers might recommend a shiraz over a pinot noir, but aren't going to suggest a malt liquor. Linux people will tell you that Ubuntu is a beautiful distro for reasons that I hope I'll grasp once I start working with it. The culture, by which I mean the culture dedicated to the form, has shared understandings about what the form is about, what makes it wonderful, what it excludes, and what could make it better. In the hypercommercialized environment described by the above writers, those understandings have been undermined to the point that money can walk in and start calling all the shots. Try that with the Ubuntu people. You might get killed.



February 1, 2007, 7:38 AM

And the football people will let you have idiotic half-time shows, but you better not mess with the game.


david rohn

February 1, 2007, 10:00 AM

That art is a repository of visual quality (would value be a better word) i doesn t seem to be the same as saying that (contemp) art can t stand up to financial presure-but I can see how the 2 are related.
If art is a repository and documentation of a developement / progress / evolution of visual / cultural /aesthetic values / views, and even experiments , then we know why we have museums, art books , criticism, and even art collectors, all to express the importance , even reverence for these documentary objects that artists have made.
Of course, who decides what s important has always been an issue: art critics and 'scolarly experts', often those with the loudest, if not shrillest voices, dealers with the clearest eye or most cogent marketing strategies, or now collectors, often those with the best - oiled publicity machines, have had a stronger say in what is valued than the ordinary viewer, or rather sadly, artists themselves.
Since the '80'sI ve been wonderinng if the large amounts of public and private money that has been invested in contermporary art will make it more difficult for values to revise and corrrect themselves to really recognize what s of value, instead of what some not perhaps most informed, or most manipulative, participants have established as valuable.
But the establishment of artistic value now seems to have been manipulated , by crooked (and indicted) auction houses, dealers and market savvy money men who have (I believe) gleefully transformed the art world into a kind of alternative financial market, and not least because of the perks of giving thpse involved the luster of parading as cultural cognoscenti.
So now , we have an art world where 5-10 million dollars, a good PR agency (specializing in art of course-but connections in the hip/alternative press works too) can make anyboody into an art expert in 5-10 years. Art Dealers and museum directors (who can t afford ratcheted up artprices) are left to chase after these new collectors; and they rule in a way that I don t think was ever true before: I mean I don t think the de Medici's fought with the Duke of Milan over artists for speculative or prestige purposes
Well it s great there s so much interest in contemporary art , and I guess we have to say that all this money that s being thrown at art means that people value it highly In fact if pricing structures are accurate reflections of artistic value there are hundreds of artists under 40 years old whos work is more valuable than that of large numbers of old masters-I guess there s no time like the present and we should congratulate ourselves for havinf produced a culture mary times more florescent than the Renaissance.
If press comments on the last Miami Basel fair(see Dec. 25 New Yorker article) are any sort of barometer , there s abit of a disconect going on-maybe it s sour grapes over the gigantic new middle class milliionaires the Bush tax code has produced. Or maybe all the money and hype are wagging the dog.But this whole scene does look rather overblown and unsustainable.
If contemporary art crashes the way it did in the late '80's early '90's art will lose more than cache. Last time it lost credibility(my own gallery quit selling contemporary art for African textiles which looked mmore legitimate , genuine at the time.That said, periods when contempporary art are out of fashion may be more conducive to soul searching and adversarial art , instead of what now sometimes looks like pretty and obviously expensive objects of curiosity meant to adorn the homes of the hip rich.
Of course when art recovered the techniques of publicity, branding and marketing came back stronger than ever-which sugests that contemporary art is now an industry in the same way that music became an industry, so expectations that some sort of correction will change this industry may be overly opotimistic.



February 1, 2007, 10:26 AM

"which sugests that contemporary art is now an industry in the same way that music became an industry, so expectations that some sort of correction will change this industry may be overly opotimistic."

That's the real fear, David. What always counts, really counts, in any period, is the good art that is being made, as Bunny has recenlty pointed out. It eventually works its way up.

But even good art goes in cycles, and we may be in such a down cycles now. I hope not. We'll see.



February 1, 2007, 3:23 PM

I doubt that big money can make big artists or good art experts. But what is money ? Just printed paper, its alright to buy any art with it, until people stop believing in it's value.

Here in Georgia hungry artists are sometimes going to the grocery next door and exchanging a painted bread into a couple of real ones. Imagine, when it's a "bad" painting, you even do not get a bread for it. Like Pirosmani did it or some legends with Soutine (Fish for painted fishes). How much fuel you would get for a Martin Eder ?

So in the end, what will the artists do without a market ? Stop painting then ??

What market had Pollock, the biggest time of his life, almost none.


howard r levirne

February 1, 2007, 4:27 PM

Dear Artblog:

I would like to have some sources where artist's can display and sell outside the mainstream of galleries and other ass kissing, go-begging places and giving 1/2 your sale money away. Where is an underground off-beat place to show??????. If not would like to start with other artists/bloggers. LET ME HEAR FROM SOMEONE ON THIS!


howie L



February 1, 2007, 4:46 PM

Well, Howie, we are all getting so rich and famous selling through our various secret underground gallery connections that we hate to share it with anyone. You understand, right?


Marc Country

February 1, 2007, 8:55 PM

Well, there's the Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society, up in Canada. Despite the name, ECAS has members from other parts of the world... some artists that you may have even heard of...

Still, I wouldn't go bragging about the amount of work that gets sold from our annual 'alternative' venue show... if we break even, we consider it a success. Sorry, Howard.

Regarding "internal mechanisms", Bertrand Russell touched on this a bit in his book, The Conquest of Happiness... The Relevant Excerpt is Here.

Also, I seem to recall you posting, or linking to, a Paul Graham essay that touched on the topic as well, Franklin... maybe you could fire the link to that back up here...



February 1, 2007, 9:17 PM

This one?


Marc Country

February 1, 2007, 9:57 PM

Nope, This one, I think...


Marc Country

February 1, 2007, 10:03 PM

Paul Graham:
"One way to tell whether a field has consistent standards is the overlap between the leading practitioners and the people who teach the subject in universities. At one end of the scale you have fields like math and physics, where nearly all the teachers are among the best practitioners. In the middle are medicine, law, history, architecture, and computer science, where many are. At the bottom are business, literature, and the visual arts, where there's almost no overlap between the teachers and the leading practitioners. It's this end that gives rise to phrases like "those who can't do, teach.""


"How much you should worry about being an outsider depends on the quality of the insiders. If you're an amateur mathematician and think you've solved a famous open problem, better go back and check. When I was in grad school, a friend in the math department had the job of replying to people who sent in proofs of Fermat's last theorem and so on, and it did not seem as if he saw it as a valuable source of tips—more like manning a mental health hotline. Whereas if the stuff you're writing seems different from what English professors are interested in, that's not necessarily a problem."


"Where the method of selecting the elite is thoroughly corrupt, most of the good people will be outsiders. In art, for example, the image of the poor, misunderstood genius is not just one possible image of a great artist: it's the standard image. I'm not saying it's correct, incidentally, but it is telling how well this image has stuck. You couldn't make a rap like that stick to math or medicine."


"Standards in art, for example, were almost as corrupt in the first half of the eighteenth century as they are today. This was the era of those fluffy idealized portraits of countesses with their lapdogs. Chardin decided to skip all that and paint ordinary things as he saw them. He's now considered the best of that period—and yet not the equal of Leonardo or Bellini or Memling, who all had the additional encouragement of honest standards."




February 1, 2007, 10:53 PM

Hans, another McLuhan quote:
"Money is the poor man’s credit card."



February 2, 2007, 9:13 AM

"money will ruin everything"



February 2, 2007, 10:11 AM

"and yet not the equal of Leonardo or Bellini or Memling, who all had the additional encouragement of honest standards."

This is what I mean by the deterioration of the form, or "down cycle", I mentioned in my reply to David Rohn in #17. It is unlikely that the overall pool of talent and ability changes much from generation to generation, but we are ego-driven and we tend to belittle the effects of the environment on the level of the art being produced within it.

We are presently in a talent-crushing period, whatever the reason, and that's why, despite the huge production and the great vogue for new art, there is so little worth seeing. On the other hand, look at the Fauves and all the rather minor talents - Derain, Dufy, Camoin, van Dongen, Manguin, Friez, Vlaminck. Puy, Valtat - that thrived during the scant couple of years that the style lived. The psychology of the times has a lot more effect on us than we think.



February 2, 2007, 10:22 AM

BTW both those Graham articles linked above by Marc & Franklin are really obligatory reading for the smart people, containing such gems of observation as "One reason so many good ideas come from the margin is simply that there's so much of it."

I know "smart people" is not PC, but what the hell. The dumb people should read it too, but Graham is the kind of writer who has the very rare capacity of seeing the obvious, taking it seriously and stating it simply. The dumb people like their thinking to be denser and more convoluted, and they won't get much out itf it.



February 2, 2007, 12:39 PM

While it is true that art in the first half of the 18th century, especially in France, was rather frivolous and "fluffy," there was still a good amount of very real talent, certainly in technical terms, even if it wasn't being put to the best posssible use. There is very real charm and visual pleasure in much of that work, even now, which is not to be dismissed lightly. There was certainly artificiality, which reflected the nature of the society involved, but we're still talking about real human pleasures and concerns. Fragonard may be "light," but there's still real substance there, artwise.



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