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Pork Bellies and Gold Bars

Post #1731 • December 29, 2014, 6:29 PM • 3 Comments


Terracotta rattle in the form of a pig, Hellenistic, 3rd–1st century B.C., Metropolitan Museum

I agree with many of the thoughts behind an essay making the rounds by the Toronto-based artist Brad Phillips.

According to Artvista, there are 106 contemporary art fairs this year, an astonishing figure if you consider that these are only for contemporary art. Now consider the number of galleries required to facilitate this many fairs (210 at The Armory, 305 at Basel, 215 at ARCO) and from there, the number of artists required to facilitate all these gallery rosters starts to reach into the thousands. The final tally is startling, but math does not offer us a true sense of what’s at stake—you need to physically stroll the aisles of any major fair to get a real sense what out of control looks like, sounds like, and spiritually feels like. A friend recently returned extremely depressed from a fair that he was included in, which makes perfect sense, because never before have artists been exposed to this much art commerce in one place, and never have they had to face the reality that what they made—no matter how considered, theorized, or politicised—was nothing more then an exotic purchase for the novice collector or a speculative purchase for the professional collector.

As Darby Bannard put it, If you are lucky, people will buy your art for the wrong reasons. Left out of the above is that if you go to the fairs for aesthetic fulfillment, to find something worth looking at, you're going to come out of them covered in hay and clinging to memories of the few precious needles you spied while digging through it. Phillips curses the whole sorry project that is contemporary art and it's hard to argue with some of the better lines.

As far as I can see the only way to return some integrity and measure of reason to contemporary art is for a small number of unafraid people to speak their mind, in public and in print. As artists and writers, we have a depth of knowledge about why certain things work and others fail. If you see something failing, point out why.... If a selfless, masochistic coterie of artists and writers can begin to tell the truth, not about the art world (which is surely the most boring and deoxygenated world there is) but about art itself, then perhaps informed opinions that take art seriously might begin to have an effect on the vast, uninformed world of people who’ve turned it into a spectacle sport that they can watch from the stands, while creative people, who usually have suffered enough, are thrown to the lions.

The conclusion hits a bump, though.

When art becomes pork bellies or gold bars, it loses what makes it precious, the mental detritus of human beings who were compelled to make it. Art can be beautiful. The impulse to make it, whether or not one chooses to participate in the larger world involved, is a sincere and unusual impulse. This is something worth fighting for. If young artists are immediately put off by or drawn towards this entirely other thing – business, auctions, prices, galleries – the aversion or the attraction are both harmful for artists and art. The way to deal with the industrialists and speculators is by visible disenchantment with the world they’ve constructed around an honest enterprise, and by a return to looking. Looking at art.... Forget what the artist looks like, forget how old they are, forget what’s being said about them and who says it. Look at what they are making. If it evinces any response in you, pay attention to that response. The relationship between the object and your experience with that object is the foundation of all visual art.

I sympathize with the sentiment (some of it, anyway; industrialist art collectors have heretofore had a decent track record) and I realize that only the metaphor is at stake, but here's the thing: Pork is tasty. Gold is pretty. Because these commodities appeal to human delectation we can have a conversation about them that starts from commonality, from second and third principles instead of first ones because we share a sense of their value. This is what's missing out of the exercise of contemporary art criticism, and for that matter, the exercise of contemporary art. Allow me to fix this:

When art becomes penny stocks, it loses what makes it precious.

Or perhaps:

When art becomes multi-tranche synthetic collateralized debt obligations, it loses what makes it precious.

Which may be overstating things, but you see the point. We're not talking about pork, which at least you can cook up and eat. We're talking about converting money into a thing which can be turned back into money, perhaps more of it, and in the meantime may be worth nothing whatsoever. Its value rests upon guesses about what other people are going to do with it next, with advantage going to the bigger insiders. Quite a bit of art would be improved if it aspired to the value of gold, or even charcuterie. Quite a bit of taste would improve if it sought out analogous experiences of enjoyment. That is precisely the virtuous attitude reflected in the command, "Look at what they are making. If it evinces any response in you, pay attention to that response." Go even further—honor Wittgenstein's exhortation, Don't think, look!



Chris Rywalt

December 30, 2014, 10:27 AM

I was prepared to disagree with you vehemently as you started disagreeing with Phillips but you swerved and left me wanting to stand up and cheer. You're exactly right about the CDOs of art.

Phillips makes me feel bad I stopped reviewing art.


Walter Darby Bannard

December 30, 2014, 3:29 PM

Many thoughtful artists feel the way Mr. Phillips does, but truth-telling is not the answer. Telling the truth means saying that most art, including much commercially successful recent art, is awful, even assertively repellent, and the art world hates that. It makes you unpopular and the art word remains unaffected. This is a classic human situation. Read Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.

When I was coming up in the late '50s the visual art world was just beginning to grow into a major cultural phenomenon. You wanted money and fame but back then the culture told you that this came about by being better than the other artists. They were your competition. We were not all talented and each had a personal version of this credo but we assumed the eventual rewards were the byproduct of superior art. That came first.

In the meantime visual art has become a worldwide, billion-dollar business. How and why this happened I don’t know, but nowadays if you have money you need original new art. That’s the way it is. And, as the saying goes, size matters. The art fairs are just as natural in this environment as shopping malls. They also work–that’s where art gets sold.

Size also changes the nature of art makers. Talent and seriousness does not expand along with the market. The talented people, or at least those who, like Mr. Phillips, deplore the consequences of size, diminish in proportion. The crap takes over. This also a natural consequence. The only thing that can possibly make real change is for the bubble (and it is an incredible bubble) to burst, for whatever reason. Believe me, it won’t be the real artists who make this happen. Their job is to make good art.

The answer, such as it is, is to go back to art, to yourself and to friends who know the difference and will tell you how you are doing. It is all the more difficult now, unfortunately, because the profitability of bad art has led to a disintegration of the very notion of goodness, which in turn leads to an apparently insuperable obstacle for good art to become visible enough to attract the practitioners of this art to one place, as has always happened in the past (with Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionsm, et al.). This, in turn, provokes what we call a “movement,” which provides a methodological underpinning to support those more talented artists. Maybe this process is not necessary for good art, but it seems like it is.

In our day there were not enough people interested in new art, or so we thought. Today there are too many. Each circumstance has its hard choices. The only answer is to allow yourself to see the best and go with it and take your lumps. Or take the careerist path and go with the crowd. Maybe, as Frost said, you take the road less traveled by. But don’t expect it to be easy.


John Link

January 5, 2015, 3:43 PM

All I can say is that nowadays truth-telling seldom gets you anywhere except into trouble—arguably more trouble than it's worth—and that's the positive outcome. More likely it gets you ignored. With a monster trend firmly in place, there is little tolerance for deviance. Shunning the outliers is the most effective tool for maintaining the status quo.



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