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Has Art Reached Peak Goodwill?

Post #1689 • April 30, 2014, 10:55 AM • 2 Comments

[Image: Peak goodwill exceeded. (]

Peak goodwill exceeded. (source)

Art needs a certain kind of generosity in order to function. The world is full of intelligent, thoughtful, aesthetically sensitive people who don't give art much thought. They're not against it in theory, but it doesn't interest them either. In some cases they've seen what goes on in the name of fine art and recoiled from it. Someone once asked about my work in comics and replied with an apologetic smile, "To be honest, I'm not interested in Art Comics. No offense, man." I know of one beleaguered soul who apprised himself of local contemporary art, even attending the openings regularly, until he gave up on it all at once and pursued an interest in Japanese ceramics instead. Contemporary art stopped being worth his time.

Hence it would seem not to be in the interest of the high end of the art world to reinforce its reputation for being a rich person's romper room. Nevertheless it is hard at work doing so, and the eternally class-conscious not-quite-high end of the art world has complained with unusual ferocity. Roberta Smith said of James Franco's goofily restaged "Untitled Film Stills," the ones originally staged by Cindy Sherman, "It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him, while also wishing that someone or something would make him stop." She called the 65 poems by the artist in the accompanying catalogue "excruciatingly sophomoric." Pace is also about to exhibit his paintings of Seth Rogen that Lauren Duca categorized under "This week in things you never ever wanted to see."

Not to be outdone, Gagosian will be showing paintings by Harmony Korine, Franco's director in the roundly panned "Spring Breakers" movie. They look like art but that's about all you can say for them. Paddy Johnson reserved judgment until seeing them but noted her "growing reservations about what celebrity shows like this actually mean for the art world."

Oscar Murillo, who was observed by the Rubell celebrity machine to have cranked out seven or eight paintings in 36 hours in advance of a studio visit, finally finds himself so overextended that he has had to take refuge in conceptual art, installing a chocolate factory staffed by some fellow Colombians at David Zwirner. Scott Indrisek commented, "There’s something sweet but ultimately disgusting about all of this; misguided might be the best summation."

It's tempting to blame the rich for this insidery cluelessness and indifference to aesthetics but the same thing goes on in the public art sector. In Edmonton it made news that public sculpture commissioned by Keeley Haftner, consisting of two stacked bales of recycled trash, was deemed so bereft of merit that an area man wrapped it in a tarp and put a sign on it noting sensibly that "Our tax dollars are for keeping garbage OFF the streets." Haftner's comments on the gesture serve as Exhibit A as to why good people hate art: "I can't say [Coupal's reaction] is completely negative, although it is certainly extreme. ... The question of beauty has been brought up a lot in this debate, which is a really provocative and sometimes problematic conversation."

In medicine there's a designation called "immunocompromised," which means that the patient's immune system for whatever reason is unable to fight off pathogens. Art is immunocompromised. One might fulminate against Franco and Haftner and the rest but the real object of concern ought to be why the art system fosters their parasitism. We should ask why Franco's paintings of Rogen are supposedly bad and plagiarized but Richard Prince's paintings are supposedly good and appropriated. We should ask why Haftner, who can paint, was clearly steered away from doing so and rewarded for complying.

Or maybe we shouldn't, and just let the art world as we know it destroy itself. Maybe we'd get a better art world out of it, one that would justify goodwill instead of burning through it like gasoline.

(Hat tips: David Thompson, Ed Winkleman, Paddy Johnson.)

Update May 1: Greetings David Thompson readers.



Eric Gelber

April 30, 2014, 10:22 PM

I concur with the sentiment behind this but it is wishful thinking. The art world will not destroy itself. The transformation of the art world into pure celebrity culture will not destroy the art world.

It does prove a point though. When celebrities try their hands at music, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon. it might get a little press attention, they might sell out small clubs based on name recognition, but audiences do not take it seriously and sales are abysmal. When celebrities dabble in the art world, make visual art in whatever format their pot-addled minds are drawn to, it usually will be ignored by the blue chip galleries, although some smaller galleries might show the work based on name recognition alone (hello Bob Dylan). Franco, who is popular with the kids and draws a lot of attention to websites when his name appears in an article, is a strange exception in the sense that he is taken so seriously. Would Paul McCarthy's or Jonathon Winters' paintings show up in the Gagosian? I doubt it. So not every celebrity is treated the same way.

Does this mean that Franco is a good artist? No. it means that he successfully packages his work in a neat and tidy conceptual package that touches on all the right bullet points. He plays the game and has a very young, large following. He gets a lot of attention and press wherever he shows up, and he comes across as cutting edge because contemporary art has no purpose, boundaries, quality, relationship to the history of art through the centuries. Art history is dead, but art as an ahistorical niche market for the ultra-rich will continue until the economies of the world collapse. It is not the objects themselves that matter but the scaffolding surrounding them, the social phenomena such as openings, blogs and reviews, press releases, studio visits, the auctions, the display spaces whether private or public, the art school machinery. It is self-perpetuating and no criticism of it will alter the ceaseless process of making the new, churning out different objects that exist in a microcosm and are talked about and bought and sold by an inner circle that simply doesn't give a shit what the hoi polloi think, no matter how politically correct they think their motivations are.


Bill Greenwood

May 1, 2014, 12:34 PM

The greatest threat to the arts in general stems from the failure of the “arts community” in general to grasp the profound irony of artists routinely availing themselves of the confiscatory powers of the state so as to impose their own artistic tastes and visions upon an often unappreciative public in the guise of artistic freedom. Why would an artist’s freedom to create trump my freedom of artistic choice, or even my basic freedom from the tyranny of the confiscatory power of the state?



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