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The Paleolithic decorative hand axe market

Post #1406 • October 16, 2009, 2:20 PM • 88 Comments

Today's must-read comes from the New York Times, in the form of an article by Dennis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution and editor of Arts and Letters Daily.

Asking Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?, Dutton posits that conceptual art is a poor long-term investment because it contradicts evolutionary principles. You should read the whole thing, but here's the money quote:

We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.

I sympathize with this argument quite a bit, which is one of the reasons that the roundups here include a Department of Skills. Skill is a thrill. And we certainly live in an artistic climate that denigrates skill as a subordinate concern to ideas, to the detriment of the work such a climate produces. (The head ought to serve the heart, as Robert Henri said.) But I'm afraid that the argument doesn't stand up this way, even on the basis of evolution.

Richard Dawkins (profiled charmingly by the Independent a short while ago - his wife hand-painted his tie!) suggested an idea he calls the extended phenotype, which looks beyond the traits of individual organisms as characteristics of those organisms. Thus dams are part of the beaver phenotype, and art part of the human phenotype. This is an attractive assertion because it frames art as a bodily, material phenomenon, not something that comes into relative existence by social fiat. But it also lets artists like Koons, who outsource production to artisans, off the hook. According to the extended phenotype, Koons need not embody the skills to produce porcelain renditions of celbrity photos for us to regard such efforts as his.

Ulitmately, skill is a subordinate phenomenon, but it's subordinate to beauty, not ideas. Ideas are part of the skillset - mental skills, if you will. As much as I love skill, skill with inadequate or misguided composition - a problem I call Malmsteen's Dilemma - becomes tiresome. I agree completely that skills are adaptive, and they evolve towards improvement, but they can reach absurd maximums, and as in the case of these unfortunate beetles, the secondary characteristics develop at the expense of the primary ones.

Perhaps it would be better to single out the recognition of beauty, not skill itself in this case, as the main adaptive trait. The theory, then, would say that the pleasurable response to visual quality nurtured important and useful cognitive functions that aided survival, and furthermore made survival itself a more pleasurable pasttime. This makes Koons a bad long-term bet, on evolutionary grounds. If the idea of a conceptual work is the important component, then curators of the future may simply record the idea, as a description, 3D models, and photographs, then discard the originals and recreate them as needed, perhaps by sending them as jobs to 3-D nanotech printers. Meanwhile, things whose value lie in the fact that they were made by particular human hands will continue to be cherished and preserved.

One day we may very well become able to download skills into our heads. Ray Kurzweil, citing neural implants for Parkinson's patients, predicts as much. At that point, you'll be able to acquire master-level figure drawing, or something even better than master-level, like Neo acquired kung fu in The Matrix. Art will mean something quite different after that day arrives. Until then, we can enjoy being part of the civilization in which talent was unequally distributed and relatively rare.

(Since I'm in a sciencey mood today, here's MC Hawking.)




October 16, 2009, 2:08 PM

Just when I have a ton of grading & show-preparation to do you come up with a really interesting post.

I have avoided reading Dutton's book for time reasons and because I have always been disappointed with scientific examinations of art because the scientists involved do not understand art in the first place and try very hard to frame it in their own terms. It never works.

An example might be Dutton's assumption that Duchamp was an "authentic artistic genius", which is not an esthetic take but merely a useful tool for the (well taken) criticism of current "idea art".

On the other hand, he is getting close with his observation about the evolutionary advantages of skill-demonstration.

I suppose I will have to get the damn book and gt into it, but the thought gives me a headache.

I better do my grading.



October 16, 2009, 2:15 PM

I have read Dutton's book and his approval for Duchamp therein struck me as rather forced, rather in contrast to his theories and what I can infer of his personal taste. Where and how did conceptual art go of the rails? He doesn't say.



October 16, 2009, 2:23 PM

Significant form is the answer.

From the book called:
Art by Clive Bell..."What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible — significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art."


Chris Rywalt

October 16, 2009, 2:26 PM

This ties in with something I've been thinking about. The other night I went in to my daughter's bedroom to take her glasses off her sleeping face. For some reason both my kids fall asleep without taking their glasses off. And, as I often do when I look at my children, I realized I love her a lot. And I asked myself, as I often do, what love is. What's it for? Why is it there?

It's become popular to think of pretty much everything in terms of evolution. So the obvious answer that comes to mind is, I love my children for the same reason that all humans love their children: It confers evolutionary advantage to have parents care for their young.

But I've been questioning this reflexive invocation of Darwin more and more lately. Applying evolution this way implies that everything about an organism is evolutionarily determined. And that's simply not necessarily so. Evolution acts only on traits related to survival. Anything else is neutral as far as evolution is concerned.

And anyway evolution doesn't really explain why it's love. It doesn't have to be love. Plenty of organisms survive quite well without love. Ants are probably the best adapted creatures on this planet and they get by just fine without love. Sharks have been evolutionarily unchanged for millennia and they don't have love.

It seems to me that art and beauty are just the same. We don't need to explain them through evolution. Evolution doesn't need them.



October 16, 2009, 2:29 PM

Dutton has a better sense for music and literature than he does for the visual arts. And he's a conservative, perhaps nearly as skeptical about formalist modernism as he is about conceptualism.

But I think that you can grant the plausibility of his conclusions even if you don't share his taste. Even if you are a fan of say, abstract painting or atonal music, you can acknowledge that these things are acquired tastes for most people.



October 16, 2009, 2:47 PM

Dutton would do well to look more closely at the brain and its interactions with both the body and the physical and social environment -- a subject that is oddly neglected in his book. Placing the burden of explanation on evolutionary explanations -- I won't dismiss them offhand as pseudoscience, but they do seem necessarily somewhat speculative -- gives us a forceful but rather one-sided point of view. Understanding the distant past is all well and good; it needs to be supplemented by looking at the material realities of the present.

I recommend reading Mark Johnson's book The Meaning of The Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding alongside Dutton's, as it does embrace all of the above. (But it gives short shrift to evolution, so read both.)



October 16, 2009, 2:49 PM

His conclusion that contemporary conceptual art shows a decrease in skill is empirically correct.

What is implausable, to use your term, and contradictory as well,is that Duchamp, who was in fact a skillful artist, should be called an "artistic genius" on the basis of work which deliberately and directly repudiates skill. That's just thoughtless, at best.



October 16, 2009, 2:57 PM

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people out there who believe (apparently sincerely) that skill is of little or no worth in judging artistic worth. I think that Dutton is trying to take a hands-off, descriptivist approach here. This requires him to take this fact at face value, even when it conflicts with his own taste.


MC Hawking

October 16, 2009, 2:59 PM

Lil' Hawk's got the skill
to headline the bill
droppin' thinks on beats
like a quantum mechanic
carvin' up cliques with a sick metaphysic
like a hella-boss-throwin'-down
intellectual aces
big bangin' it out
in celestial spaces



October 16, 2009, 3:00 PM

This leads him, I think, to confuse historical value (which can be determined empirically), with artistic merit, which has to be gleaned, as it were, from the inside.



October 16, 2009, 3:06 PM

Chris, everything changes according to use.
Love in evolution and love in a poem and love when felt are each different things. Don't worry about it. Just be happy it all works.



October 16, 2009, 3:12 PM

But Arthur, he is not being "hands-off descriptivist". He is making a value judgement about the value of non-skill art. That's the whole point of the post.

And I'm not at all sure he is exercising taste when describing Duchamp as an artistic genius. Sounds to me more like simple reveived opinion.



October 16, 2009, 3:19 PM

Dutton's project overall is to explain, in a scientific hands-off way, why people value the things they do. If he thinks that there are good evolutionary reasons to believe that conceptual art is timesless, he would have to say so, regardless of his own preferences.



October 16, 2009, 3:53 PM

The proof of what is of more worth (not value) to humans, skill or conceptual art's nonskill, can be had by inviting people to trust their instincts. I don't yet know what to do with speculation about that instinct except to enjoy it as such. My sense is that Dutton doesn't get to the bottom of the question because my sense is that the issue can't be dealt with by placing it under a microscope (though I'm interested in efforts to do so). To sort of follow up on what I think Chris was getting at, it seems that humans are wired to regard and value beauty, but that it's unconscious, asleep, and has to be awakened , informed, nourished, or, it gets buried under socializing and whatnot and has to be uncovered and revived.



October 16, 2009, 4:21 PM

A shot at what beauty is: An expression of a sublime sense of humanness and being, arrived at by artists as well as understood by audiences via reflection. The worth of it is that it is a means of getting to live outside of time/immediate circumstances/reactive animal life.

Just a shot.



October 16, 2009, 4:45 PM

Arthur, we seem to be talking at cross purposes.

Tim, most statements about "what art is" are fraught with verbal problems. Until we can establish some physiological basis for art we are stuck with merely describing what it does. We make it; we look at it; it affects us.



October 16, 2009, 4:59 PM

Yes, Opie, rereading my 'what beauty is' reminds me that thus far we've only been able to talk all around it, but we've not yet pinned the butterfly to the specimen page and labeled it. Rummy thing, art.


Chris Rywalt

October 16, 2009, 5:13 PM

Incidentally, Franklin, I can't believe you're picking on Yngwie. Although I agree a hundred percent. Malmsteen's Dilemma is a good name, but it could just as easily be called Satriani's Impasse or Vai's Predicament.

Really, we could formulate as many of these as we could Bigby's Hand spells.



October 16, 2009, 5:26 PM

Arthur, we seem to be talking at cross purposes.

Yes that's why I'm taking a break here. I'll read the actual article too -- that would help I'm sure.



October 16, 2009, 5:28 PM

Hi, Franklin,

I read that OpEd today and thought he was all over the place. He starts with a tired "this crap aint art" screed, including, "can you believe what people pay for this crap?," and then a sentence or two about the art market. (And how many times have you seen a headline about art or the art market "jumping the shark"? Get it? See, it's clever.) He lays out a flawed definition of terms from the get-go - he seems to define conceptual art solely as art that is not handmade by the "author" of the work, which is too simplistic and reductive. Then he lets us know that he's not one of those unsophisticated louts who don't know anything about modern art by saying that Duchamp was a genius.

Then, it's over to the beauty of the ancient hand-axes, a beauty that goes beyond the useful and therefore proves that humans have always appreciated beauty that comes from skills. He mentions dance, music, and other art forms that humans have enjoyed and valued for eons. But these days you could probably make a robot/cyborg/whatever/machine that would flawlessly perform 100 pirouettes, but without the performer expressing any emotion or passion for the art form, would this still feel like great art?

Skills are indeed important. But why do all these skills-addicts feel it has to be either/or? What about the work that attempts to achieve a balance of skills and content? Visceral and intellectual. I appreciate skills and craft and I agree that a lot conceptual art sucks, but that's not the point. (I think it's just really easy to get away with making crappy conceptual art whereas you can't get away with crappy craft because the standards are more obvious.) The important distinction is not between "conceptual art" and "real art" but rather good art and crappy art.

And to Chris (who won't discuss this or even acknowledge my existence ever since I told him it might be nice of him to apologize to me for the crude expression of his masturbatory fantasies involving me on this very blog - go figure - I'm not holding a grudge, but he is) I would say (if we were on speaking terms) that parental love is most definitely an evolutionary advantage. The vast majority of dysfunctional criminals did not have loving parents. Of course poverty and many other factors, including random variation have a lot to do with that too, but who doesn't believe parental love and caring has a big influence?

Ants are a lower life form. Their brains are, well, smaller than an ant's head. You can certainly see what could be called love in mammals that other than humans.



October 16, 2009, 6:00 PM

Oriane, 'visceral and intellectual,' two different arenas of experience. It's always the treatment of the content that counts for me, not the content itself. And that takes us back to skill as the primary or central issue.



October 16, 2009, 7:25 PM

LOL... "Bigby's Hand".

Add +1 charisma to your character sheet, Chris.



October 16, 2009, 7:27 PM

Speakin' of skillz, the URL link above takes you to a closer look at Smale's 'Inner Sense' show, for anyone interested...


Chris Rywalt

October 16, 2009, 8:04 PM

I can talk D&D and the blues, baby. That's talent!

And now my Charisma's up to 5. Whoo-hoo!



October 16, 2009, 9:59 PM

I was glad to see Dutton's article in the NYT. It may be a sign that someone is getting bored with the same ole same ole. (They published about the GR ArtPrize recently, too.)

I can buy into "endearingly witty Marcel Duchamp" but not "authentic artistic genius". "...making sport of the art establishment" is not the same as making art. But I could take "authentic genius" as testament to the hugeness of the change Duchamp brought to the art world. And the paragraph where all this appears is good enough, though hardly "news" to many of us. Yet it might, along with other parts of the essay, drive a small wedge of fear into the "fearless".

Dutton devotes more than a third of the piece to really old axe handles, using Hirst as his springboard. That seems like what really turns him on, and I suppose the NYT would never publish that side dish as a main course - it is so academic. Myself, there is no "must" associated with needing to look at the whole history of art to doubt the staying power of the medicine cabinet. All you need is to have enjoyed some art somewhere sometime. The shark at least presented itself as a spectacle. The medicine cabinet is a no-brainer-not-much-of-anything. No wonder it is so cheap.

Dutton over does skill. There are lots of "superlative" skills aimed at art that never really get there, Bouguereau for instance. On the other hand, when you find great art you also find whatever skill that was needed to realize that art. The skills that count are those intrinsic to the needs of the work, and should not be defined prior to or outside the work, as in typical academic lists focused on drawing. Many avant-gardists enjoy denying drawing because, presented as a sine qua non, it is an easy target. Shoot your Pollock gun at the universal and it conveniently dies. Shoot your Pollock gun at Hockney, though, and it doesn't work so well. Hockney ought to draw better than he does. Or to an even greater extent, should Alex Katz.

He also misunderstands the hand of the artist as the characteristic that denotes the line between conceptual art and all the rest. Most of the great frescoes were mostly painted by assistants (Sistine Chapel is an exception). Rubens let his crew work on paintings while he traveled. Did that make all that stuff "conceptual" like Koons is conceptual?

The mistake in "conceptual art", I think, is to take the artist's word for it that whatever is said to be art is in fact art, or even worth being considered as art. (Duchamp showed that anything can be approached aesthetically, just as he showed with equal force that doing so does not guarantee the approach will yield anything.)

The real test of this guy Dutton would be to find out who the artists are that he thinks obviate the need to worry about the future of art. But I can't really complain much. I'm satisfied enough that he got it put up in real ink.



October 16, 2009, 10:08 PM

Comment #9 was me, not the original. I saw after posting that there are quite a few more of those vids up on Youtube.



October 16, 2009, 10:10 PM

I'm sure you were all wondering...



October 16, 2009, 10:38 PM

John, of all people, you should not buy into the myth of "The hugeness of the change Duchamp brought to the art world". He gets the credit (or blame) but he was hardly responsible for it.

The test of an art critic is what he likes. The test of Dutton is whether he can get down deep enough to touch on the source of art. I have my doubts.

Your 3rd & 4th ¶s are excellent.



October 16, 2009, 10:47 PM

If Dutton's piece can do somebody some good, more power to him, but he's not filling any unmet need for me, and I expect the same is true for most everyone here. In other words, I can't get worked up over this. And if I have to start arguing with somebody about Duchamp, well, I'm sorry, but it's not worth my time. Life is short enough as it is, and Duchamp and his, uh, legacy, have already taken up far more of my time than they ever deserved. Among many other things, too many, I have the cultural legacy of Japan to navigate. Conceptual art, for me, is simply a non-issue.



October 16, 2009, 10:53 PM

Thanks opie for your comments. The "hugeness" is an empirical fact as far as I am concerned, though. Duchamp himself did not do many "Duchamps", but they led to our now being buried in a nearly infinite number of their variations. That the accomplishment is dubious does not change how far it has gotten.

I would readily admit, however, that he did not do the work of spreading it. As you know, he lost his original urinal. Apparently he did not himself see the role it was to play as the century played out - or he didn't care.



October 16, 2009, 11:15 PM

As for Bouguereau, the time and place in which he lived encouraged and rewarded his chief weakness, as well as his technical skills, which were real enough. The same could be said for any number of current art stars, only sans the technical skills part.



October 16, 2009, 11:26 PM

Does the art world know that anything goes is going nowhere? My sense, at least around my neck of the woods, is that a void is being felt, but in the absense of no direction out, there is treading of water.



October 16, 2009, 11:31 PM

Let me try that again, please. the absence of a clear direction out, there is treading of water.



October 16, 2009, 11:52 PM

Tim, what I think you mean by "going nowhere" makes no difference to the art world as long as the money keeps rolling in. Somebody like Hirst, for instance, could go anywhere, everywhere or nowhere--it's all the same to him, I expect, as long as he can sell whatever it is for big enough prices and remain a celebrity.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 12:06 AM

I don't know, Tim. From what I can see -- I mean, I hardly lunch with Mary Boone or anything -- not only doesn't anyone know a way out, they're not even looking for one. Most of the crappy work is still being shown. I just saw a couple of Koonses over the summer, which didn't even have the tiny modicum of value of a typical Koons -- you couldn't even say, "Ooh, big and shiny!" -- and last week I accidentally ended up seeing a huge show of Jack Pierson's crud. To use the terminology of the book I mentioned earlier, the same branded galleries are still showing the same branded artists without a care in the world.

I haven't heard an inkling of a tremor of doubt from the big guys. It's only the little guys who are sinking, and that's regardless of what kind of art they show.



October 17, 2009, 12:07 AM

Jack, the wet-finger-in-the-wind impression I have is that Hirst's cachet is now based on inertia; it's just a matter of time.



October 17, 2009, 12:11 AM

Chris, what reactions are you picking up at those shows? Surely you couldn't be the only one there with your take.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 12:22 AM

Like I said, I don't talk to anyone higher up the food chain. This is purely a worm's eye view. But the people I speak to -- Loren Munk, for example -- tend to be the kind of people who just like art. Any art. You tell them something is art, and they're happy with that. They're very uncritical. In fact the dealers I've met seemed that way, also. In their cases I assume they don't say anything negative for professional reasons. But other people I meet basically seem satisfied with what they're seeing: The galleries are open, there is art being shown, there's free beer and wine.

The blogs I frequent tend to be that way, also. People just aren't that demanding. And the crowds are as thick as ever in the blue chip galleries. Gagosian's Picasso show saw a huge turnout, but Jack Pierson at Cheim & Read last Thursday was packed. I could barely make it through the rooms and almost stepped on some of the art.

And I don't see the art trending away from the weird crap. Recently I've seen some egregiously awful stuff, like Stéphane Calais at ZieherSmith. Hold your nose if you follow that link.

I mean, there's a lot of different things being shown all the time in Chelsea. There are a few galleries that hold to academic-style work, seriously technical figurative kind of stuff, a few always showing landscapes, that kind of thing. AbEx still shows up. I don't see things changing at the moment, really.



October 17, 2009, 12:36 AM

"people I meet basically seem satisfied with what they're seeing...The blogs I frequent tend to be that way, also."

I will not embarrass you, Chris, by asking for any names, but why do you bother with the zombie crowd? Is it simply an occupational necessity, of sorts, or some kind of masochistic compulsion?

Surely this blog is not the typical art blog, but to hear you tell it, we might as well be mutants or alien creatures. Don't you get whiplash or something?



October 17, 2009, 12:36 AM

I was also sympathetic to Dutton's argument, of course, though it seems a little too easy and trendy. I think Franklin's right to focus on beauty over skill - skill subordinate to beauty, not ideas. And skill is not enough on its own. I wonder if the main argument here is about humanism and a lack of it in so much contemporary art? Donald Kuspit gets at this in an interview critiquing Pomo in general.



October 17, 2009, 12:43 AM

Thanks, Chris, for the on-the-ground reportage. Here, it's a shorter story. On the ocassions when I've ventured lately into local artgallerydom, I've seen that the ones who are paying attention to the 'art' being shown at the top drawer galleries (We get a lot of the stuff that NYC gets, plus the locals who hitch their wagon to whatever 'star'; there has always been that connection because of, believe it or not, opera and theater.) are lost. The vast majority of others are merely socializing. That's what suggests a void to me.



October 17, 2009, 12:48 AM

My notes to self about Kuspit's comments were " The retreat from feeling and emotion in contemporary art, ignoring tradition, a closed system. In a way it's about a loss of a sense of exploration. There's an argument for craft here somewhere."

My post art school training was in an eccentric, Japanese flavored humanism, which colors my view of these arguments.



October 17, 2009, 12:51 AM

Chris as the embedded worm in the NYC art scene. I rather like that image, actually.



October 17, 2009, 12:57 AM

Everyone's views are colored by something, David, and, as with painters, the quality of the coloring varies considerably. In other words, the issue is not the coloring per se, but rather how good or effective is it.



October 17, 2009, 12:57 AM

sorry, can't get he link right,



October 17, 2009, 1:01 AM

"How good is it?" Sure, that's what we're talking about Jack.

The other good questions are "Where do we come from, What are we, Where are we going?"



October 17, 2009, 1:12 AM

David, the better questions are Where do I come from, what am I, where am I going? The journey of a soul is a solitary one.



October 17, 2009, 1:15 AM

You're very ambitious, David. When it comes to art, however, the answer to "How good is it?" all too often precludes the need for your other questions. If it's not good enough, further questioning is just beating a dead horse.



October 17, 2009, 1:31 AM

Well I was just trying to stay on the Darwinian theme via Gauguin. And I try to remember what Issey Miyake said: "The challenge of the age is to maintain ordinary sensibilities", especially when Damien Hirst is around.



October 17, 2009, 1:52 AM

Issey Miyake's sentiments are admirable, though I might replace "ordinary" with "sensible," even if his wording is more graceful. Alternatively, one could simply reject the bloated, contrived, fraudulent sensibility of Hirst & Co. for what it is, as well as what it is not. Of course, I'm biased; rejection evidently comes far more easily to me than it does to the NYC art scene types Chris describes.



October 17, 2009, 2:22 AM

As for skill not being enough on its own, that depends on how much is asked of it. My point is not so much to disagree as to qualify. Here's an example:


It's a pastel by a minor 18th century English painter, William Hoare. No, it's not on the level of Gainsborough, or Reynolds, or even lesser contemporaries, for that matter. But it is, if nothing else, charming, and in its way, satisfying. It is eminently respectable.

Respectable. That is the very least a work of art should be, as art. I can think of a worse litmus test, which is not to say there is no better.



October 17, 2009, 7:40 AM

John if you trace the evolution of Pop and the various novelty styles you will see that Duchamp's actual influence was minimal. After Janis had him make copies of the Urinal in the 60s(?) he became the poster boy, that's all. He was certainly perfect for the role.

Duchamps so-called seminal role has become one of those things that proves the adage "If 'everyone knows it' it is probably wrong".

I think we had this out on the blog some years ago.



October 17, 2009, 7:43 AM

Jack, I often use the word "respectable" for work that is straightforward and workmanlike and uncrappy. It almost sounds pejorative, and I mean it to be only a middling compliment, but a compliment it is.



October 17, 2009, 9:38 AM

Opie, influence is influence. No need to deny it.

Because Duchamp instigated a non-specific, anything-can-be-art, nearly-empty style, his influence was not subject to the usual constraints. As Aristotle pointed out centuries before, the fewer characteristics there are in a definition (that is, the more vacant it is), the greater the number of entities to which it can be applied.

The complexities of a fully realized style such as cubism put limits on how far its influence could go. By being so non-specific as to almost be nothing, Duchamp started something that could easily go viral. Anyone can do it and once the art world caught on to that, every wanna be revolutionary did.

The paucity of his "contribution" is exceptionally inclusive, and easily accommodates artists as different as Kosuth, Koons, and Hirst, as Dutton points out, along with legions of others. Its intrinsic ease of application and direct path to the intellect made it the tool of choice for expanding the definition of and audience for "revolutionary" art.

Duchamp's is an invasive conception of "innovation" that is quantifiable, and therefore easily accessible to the "enlightened" who value understanding over expereience, while qualitative innovation remains as difficult as always to assess. With the advantage of my retroscope, it is easy to see how the quantifiable version of innovation would spread exponentially faster than the quality of innovation. The number of "enlightened" culture lovers far exceeds the number of cultivated ones, so there was much more support available for Duchamp's approach, support that eventually found its home there.

By instantiating almost nothing Duchamp provided something that has attached itself to almost anything. It's as if the smaller the germ the harder it is to stop from spreading. One way or another, though, culture must stop it. Ignoring it does not work, if history is any guide. Dutton's essay, flaws and all, is a step in the right direction, though what ultimately defeats a vacuum is substance that fills it up.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 10:10 AM

Jack asks:
I will not embarrass you, Chris, by asking for any names, but why do you bother with the zombie crowd? Is it simply an occupational necessity, of sorts, or some kind of masochistic compulsion?

I don't consider everyone who sort of just likes art to be zombies. As far as the various art blogs I read, I read a weird subset of them based mostly on whether or not I like the person and their writing. I don't read very many.

One I can name is Linnea West's Art Ravels. Her writing is breezy and short. She's not very judgmental. I'm not sure she likes everything but she's coming at art from the outside -- she's not a visual artist at all -- and she has no clear motivation other than just liking art.

She's not a zombie but neither does she seem to have strong opinions. That doesn't bother me much. I don't think people need to have strong opinions about art. I do because it's become something I'm interested in. I purposely started writing criticism because I wanted to know how I really felt about art. Not everyone requires that level of effort. It's okay to just dip your toe in -- not everyone needs to know the butterfly stroke.

Others are more like what you'd call zombies and those I keep up with in case they say something really stupid so I can mock them on my own blog. I don't keep close tabs on them, though, because I just can't be bothered that much. I have sites like ARTINFO and Art Fag City in my list of feeds and just skim incoming headlines to see if anything interesting comes up.

Tim makes an interesting note about socializing: That's actually what gallery openings are about here, too. It's a bunch of people getting together to bullshit and drink. Most people at openings have their backs to the art. I'm not sure a lot of them care. A good proportion of them are art students, I think, who come by in knots of five or ten. Obviously they feel this is their world, the way crayfish like to be under rocks. There are some older regulars, too, like me. There's this one guy I almost always see but I don't know who he is. He looks to me like your stereotypical elderly guy who's lived in New York his whole life and digs the art scene, used to hang out with Thomas Hart Benton and watched Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center, that kind of thing. No offense to the older people commenting here -- this guy looks like he's about a hundred.

And then there are people there like Loren Munk who are sort of personalities on the scene. He's an artist and he takes videos constantly. He's never judgmental in front of me (for all I know he goes home and laughs his ass off). He just seems happy to be out and about and looking at art.



October 17, 2009, 10:30 AM

John, that leas a very learned and profound disquisition on the character of the Duchampian view and the relationship it has to recent art, but it completely misses the point of what I was saying which was that Duchamp's INFLUENCE on the genesis of what is happening in current art is much less that you are saying. I am talking about art history, not artistic parallels.

The whole novelty movement was in the cards through Surrealism and Dada and out there in force in NY by the 30s and 40s and the pop/minimal/intstallation was well under way before Duchamp hit the art mags in the 60s. He just happened to embody the characteristics better than anyone else, and, as happens with any historical phenomenon, he thereby gets credit for it.

I hate to pull rank, but I saw it happening.



October 17, 2009, 10:31 AM

Yes, Duchamp was essentially a character in search of an author, ideally a highly opportunistic and challenged author who could use and elevate him to negate its very considerable shortcomings. He found such an author in the already compromised art world spawned by Pop, which needed and wanted ever greater leeway, dispensations and rationalizations. It was a way to get more and more while delivering less and less (in terms of substance, obviously, not quantity or "variety").



October 17, 2009, 10:35 AM

Talk to the old guy, Chris.

You will almost certainly learn something.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 10:38 AM

As a youngun looking back, it seems to me the art world leaped on Duchamp and Pop because it was a way of getting consistency out of art, which is necessarily inconsistent. It's just the industrial age factory applied to art: To maximize profit you need to standardize product. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko -- very unreliable. All over the place, really, and prone to sudden and surprising death. Much better to replace them with guys like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, level-headed businessmen likely to stick around for the long haul.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 10:39 AM

Oh, I do want to talk to the old guy. I just don't know how to approach him. I'm actually socially awkward and shy. Hard to believe, I know.

I think if I see him a couple more times I'll just go up and talk to him.



October 17, 2009, 10:51 AM

Chris, just as you apparently cut pesky insects more slack than I or your daughter finds appropriate, you're unduly, uh, supportive of people who like anything and everything just because it's labeled and presented as "art." Such people are perfectly entitled to do that, but they fall under my art zombie umbrella--make that tent. Big tent.



October 17, 2009, 11:06 AM

And Chris, you could say that I, like Ms. West, am coming at art from the outside, since I'm not a visual artist. I am, however, somewhat more judgmental, or so it would appear.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 11:55 AM

You're also significantly older and crankier. I guess what I'm willing to accept is that people who are new to art, or young, or don't make art central to their lives, are going to take time to develop. And I'm willing to give them some slack while they do.

Some people, on the other hand, will never learn. Those are zombies, it's true.



October 17, 2009, 12:12 PM

Chris, it's not like I'm old enough to be your father, or I doubt it, but that's not the point. I've been "crankier" for quite some time, if not always, but I suppose it could be a congenital mutation.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 12:30 PM

My father's not that old and you sound pretty old. He's, um...wait, I need to do some math. I think he's 64. Around there.



October 17, 2009, 12:32 PM

Like I said, Chris, I'm not old enough to be your father. Ergo, I'm a mutant, or so it seems.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 12:58 PM

I think pretty girls in their 20s are just less cranky than most. And you're more cranky. Believe me, I understand. I'm as crotchety as they come.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 12:58 PM

By the way, I had you pegged for 88.



October 17, 2009, 3:17 PM

Maybe I'm more cranky, congenitally, or maybe I expect more because I know better, or at least I know that far, FAR better is quite possible, not just some sort of Platonic ideal. Of course, ignorance can be bliss, of sorts.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 7:12 PM

My psychiatrist pointed out that that's bullshit. Ignorant people are really very unhappy. Bad shit keeps happening to them and they can't figure out why.



October 17, 2009, 8:31 PM

You're not a mutant Jack... you're probably just secretly Canadian.



October 17, 2009, 8:51 PM

MC, I might be secretly Jewish, for people (including some Jews) keep assuming I am, but not Canadian. I mean, I hate beer.

Chris, I meant that the less one knows to expect, the less likely one is to be disappointed.



October 17, 2009, 9:02 PM

And Chris, even though I'm not a psychiatrist, I can tell you that you're wrong (except technically) when you say "I don't think people need to have strong opinions about art." If they don't, they're simply not serious enough about it, or can't engage with it deeply enough. That is certainly permitted, but it means they're not real art people, and they're not suited to discuss art with those who are.


Chris Rywalt

October 17, 2009, 10:06 PM

Well, right, I mean, that's what I was saying. People don't need, in a general sense, to have strong opinions about art, any more than they need to have strong opinions about string theory or alpaca wool. You can go your whole life without forming strong opinions about lots of things.

But if you want to be an artist, or involved in the art world as a collector or dealer or whatever, well, of course I think you should then have strong opinions. Still, not everyone does.



October 18, 2009, 10:17 AM

Chris, strictly speaking, people don't need art. There are very few things people really must have for survival purposes. My point was that if people are going to identify themselves as art lovers or art people, not as something they keep to themselves but as a kind of badge, they can't just run around like blithering sheep. I mean, they can, and obviously do, but it's not respectable. It's faintly ridiculous. Or maybe not so faintly.



October 18, 2009, 11:27 AM

Jack, re your comment to Chris in #72 you might've read not too long ago about a study which found that the people of Denmark are the happiest in the world because they have the lowest expectations.


Chris Rywalt

October 18, 2009, 2:09 PM

I always think of the MADtv spoof of dating services, "Lowered Expectations".

Jack, we do agree. Except that I'm more willing to be nice to dopes, I guess. For a little while, anyway.



October 18, 2009, 2:50 PM

Had a vaguely interesting experience yesterday evening. I saw a photography show by Peggy Nolan, sort of incidentally, since I was mainly there to see a painting show by someone else. Anyway, the photos were all of a recent trip she took to Japan, her first. Nearly all were about 5 x 7 inches, in color, not digital, no manipulation or fancy stuff, simply framed.

Initially they registered as nice vacation snap shots, but the more I looked at them, the better they looked. There was nothing flashy or in-your-face about them, and the understated, simple, yet sensitive and yes, aesthetic approach worked very well with the Japanese subject matter.

I liked the show much better than I would have expected (I'd never seen Nolan's work before). Most "art" photography either does little for me or actively irritates me, especially when it's overblown, over-the-top or trying too hard, as is all too frequently the case. This show seemed just right.



October 18, 2009, 3:03 PM

Peggy Nolan is really goddamn good. Where was the show?


Chris Rywalt

October 18, 2009, 3:09 PM

A girl I knew back in high school, who I liked very much back then, has turned into a very talented photographer. Joanne's site shows mostly her wedding photography and some travel photos she's taken, but last year on Facebook (when I was still on Facebook) she published some photos she took when she went back to Korea for a while. Oh, wait, here they are (took me a bit to find them).

I don't usually like photography very much, and I don't consider it art (we've probably had this discussion here before) but her photos really struck me. She's very good. And I'm not just saying that, since we're not really friends or anything any more.



October 18, 2009, 3:53 PM

Nolan, talk about subtle! And I thought I yielded up my charms almost imperceptibly! She invites the viewer to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, IF the viewer is prepared and has the time/patience.


Patrick Lawrence

October 18, 2009, 4:04 PM

I think this is just added evidence that the change in art philosophy of today is going in the wrong direction. And that this philosophy that includes ideas like great artists have to make art different from the past and art for art's sake will take art to a dead end.


Chris Rywalt

October 18, 2009, 5:09 PM

Pretty wild site there, Patrick. I don't usually approve of Flash, but your site does pretty okay with it.



October 18, 2009, 6:16 PM

The Nolan show was at a private non-commercial gallery space that has shows about once a quarter or so. It's the project of a Miami art collector named Arturo Mosquera.



October 18, 2009, 7:31 PM

Chris, your friend's Korea photos, generally speaking, are too effect-oriented. The effects are too intrusive; they call too much attention to themselves and, ultimately, trump the subject matter, which comes to seem almost incidental, like a coat hanger on which they've been hung. This, to me, is certainly skillful professional photography, but it's also slick and commercial-looking--the sort of stuff I expect in travel magazines. Nolan is something else, and much more to my taste.


Chris Rywalt

October 18, 2009, 9:49 PM

Hm. I didn't find them so. Some of them are, I guess, now that you mention it. But others aren't, unless the effect you mean is depth of field, which, while underutilized by most amateurs, hardly qualifies as an effect.

I'm not trying to argue with you, by the way. Your opinion is your opinion. I see what you're saying about some of the photos, even I don't entirely agree.



October 19, 2009, 9:51 AM

Chris, you're obviously entitled to your own take on these photos, like anybody else, and no, they are not all the same. Some are better and some are worse, naturally. However, in pretty much all of them, to some degree, which varies, I sense or detect the same underlying tendency or bent. I dare say it's perfectly OK, even desirable, for a certain kind of photography meant to accomplish a certain function, but it doesn't interest me any more than what I'd see in a good travel mag or National Geographic.



October 20, 2009, 9:51 PM

Sorry I was otherwise occupied the day this most stimulating quotation turned up, but I still go with Pollock, "technique is only a means to an end." You can have all the technical skill in the world, but if the end result is a bore,then the work fails regardless. As for Duchamp, I question his technical abilities--seems to me he was a big idea man, but since when does it take a lot of technical skill to stand a bicycle wheel on a stool? And, oh God, his paintings show such a dismal color sense! Especially the early ones. The contrast between the exquisite grays and browns of Analytic Cubism and the mud colors of Nude Descending a Staircase say more about Duchamp than his admirers would care to own.



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