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Unto-itself-ness

Post #1861 • May 4, 2020, 9:50 AM • 4 Comments

Jed Perl, “Private Lives: The recession and the art world,” December 2008:

Experience has taught me that every decade or so the art market gets weak in the knees, and when it roars back a few years later the picture palaces specializing in Warhol and other assorted idiocies are doing better than ever before. It is my firm conviction that artists who are really engaged in their craft will pursue it, no matter what. I have never known the quality of an artist’s work to be affected, one way or another, by economic circumstances. Among the contemporary artists I admire, there are those who make a living selling their work and those who make their living in some other way, and artistically it does not really matter one way or the other.... In good times and bad there will be good things to see and bad things to see. Some people will deduce from this that the arts have failed to connect with the rest of life. I arrive at the reverse conclusion, namely that the arts have an essential, unique place in our lives.

Art, it seems to me, represents the triumph of private feeling over public pressures, or at least the ability of private feeling to assert itself in the face of public pressures and public values. I would argue that true art is always characterized by its unto-itself-ness, its freestandingness, its independence. This is not to say that the arts are untouched by the rest of life, only that they are affected in their own fashion....

It is true that there is no artist who has ever stood entirely apart from his or her time. But whatever the complexities of the artist’s shifting social and economic situation, the artistic act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition.... If you believe that art is, in all times and places, a reflection of the possibilities of individuality, then you must embrace this belief as fundamental, inarguable.... Art is not a mirror of society but an essential part of the fabric of society, with a unique role to play, which more than anything else has to do with affirming the stubborn particularity of a person’s existence.

Anthologized in Magicians & Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, 2012.

Comment

1.

John Link

May 4, 2020, 12:20 PM

Perl’s viewpoint is an elegant way to address the foxhole occupied by neo-modernists, though I have little knowledge of which contemporary artists he admires.

When he says, “In good times and bad there will be good things to see,” I begin to squirm. Certainly there is always something. But at some point decay becomes so dominant that the exoskeleton that the good stuff absolutely needs to maintain its goodness disappears, into thin air, it seems. It is just gone. I know there are gremlins to blame: money grubbing, shallow taste, corrupt institutions, idiotic criticism, and the like. But no matter. Making really compelling art is not an act of solitary genius. When the supporting entities vacate the scene, genius alone is not enough.

2.

Scott Bennett

May 4, 2020, 12:34 PM

I get tired of reading about or hearing the idea that art is like a mirror the artist holds up to society. That feels so condescending to me, as an artist. That is all we do? Hold up a mirror? Ugh. But the idea persists, including the idea that ideas are so important in the visual arts.

I think that some photographers perhaps do hold up a mirror to society and that the medium makes a difference. And, to make it more complicated (or not), certainly some painters and visual artists do intend to hold up a mirror. For me, when I see art that is very consciously trying to comment on the ills of society in visual art, it almost always feels insincere. It feels too easy. It feels like a B (or worse) horror movie. But how effective is that, really, as art? Camp, sure, but really good art? I don’t see it.

3.

Franklin

May 4, 2020, 2:26 PM

I have little knowledge of which contemporary artists he admires.

He just finished a magisterial biography of Calder.

But at some point decay becomes so dominant that the exoskeleton that the good stuff absolutely needs to maintain its goodness disappears.

Good art has endured for millennia despite calamities far worse than what we see presently. That said, it won't continue forever in the same places or same forms. History backs up both of those claims.

4.

John Link

May 5, 2020, 7:06 PM

...it won't continue forever in the same places or same forms.

Interesting thought, Franklin. I can think of a number of candidates for the transfer of seriousness, all of which meet the specifications for inclusion in the new-fangled "performative art" category. Bob Dylan's When the Deal Goes Down, for instance. Or Our Souls at Night, a compelling movie staring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

The only objection against calling these works performative art is that both have grossed a ton of money. Well, we could also add they satisfy a large audience. Then there is their attention to craft. Might just have something to do with the "reordering" you reference in your next post.

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