The Eight Worst Things About the Art World

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
Dec. 17 2013 2:50 PM

Why the Art World Is So Loathsome

Eight theories.

Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters performs onstage at the Designer of the Year Dinner hosted by Chrome Hearts + Design Miami at Art Basel 2011 in Miami, Florida.
Art Basel Miami in 2011

Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images for Domingo Zapata

Now that photographs of this year’s Art Basel Miami are finally working their way out of everyone’s Instagram feeds, it’s worth revisiting Simon Doonan’s takedown of the modern art world. First published in 2012, it explains why Doonan skipped Miami that year—and what’s wrong with art today.

Freud said the goals of the artist are fame, money, and beautiful lovers. Based on my artist acquaintances, I would say this holds true today. What have changed, however, are the goals of the art itself. Do any exist?

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

How did the art world become such a vapid hell-hole of investment-crazed pretentiousness? How did it become, as Camille Paglia has recently described it, a place where “too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber”? (More from her in a moment.)

There are sundry problems bedeviling the contemporary art scene. Here are eight that spring readily to mind:

1. Art Basel Miami.

It’s baaa-ack, and I, for one, will not be attending. The overblown art fair in Miami—an offshoot of the original, held in Basel, Switzerland—has become a promo-party cheese-fest. All that craven socializing and trendy posing epitomize the worst aspects of today’s scene, provoking in me a strong desire to start a Thomas Kinkade collection. Whenever some hapless individual innocently asks me if I will be attending Art Basel—even though the shenanigans don’t start for another two weeks, I am already getting e-vites for pre-Basel parties—I invariably respond in Tourette’s mode:

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“No. In fact, I would rather jump in a river of boiling snot, which is ironic since that could very well be the title of a faux-conceptual installation one might expect to see at Art Basel. Have you seen Svetlana’s new piece? It’s a river of boiling snot. No, I’m not kidding. And, guess what, Charles Saatchi wants to buy it and is duking it out with some Russian One Percent-er.”

2. Blood, poo, sacrilege, and porn.

Old-school ’70s punk shock tactics are so widespread in today’s art world that they have lost any resonance. As a result, twee paintings like Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Constable’s Hay Wain now appear mesmerizing, mysterious, and wildly transgressive. And, as Camille Paglia brilliantly argues in her must-read new book, Glittering Images, this torrent of penises, elephant dung, and smut has not served the broader interests of art. By providing fuel for the Rush Limbaugh-ish prejudice that the art world is full of people who are shoving yams up their bums and doing horrid things to the Virgin Mary, art has, quoting Camille again, “allowed itself to be defined in the public eye as an arrogant, insular fraternity with frivolous tastes and debased standards.” As a result, the funding of school and civic arts programs has screeched to a halt and “American schoolchildren are paying the price for the art world’s delusional sense of entitlement.” Thanks a bunch, Karen Finley, Chris Ofili, Andres Serrano, Damien Hirst, and the rest of you naughty pranksters!

Any taxpayers not yet fully aware of the level of frivolity and debasement to which art has plummeted need look no further than the Museum of Modern Art, which recently hosted a jumbo garage-sale-cum-performance piece created by one Martha Rosler titled “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale.” Maybe this has some reverse-chic novelty for chi-chi arty insiders, but for the rest of us out here in the real world, a garage sale is just a garage sale.

3. Art a la mode.

The growing mania for melanging fashion with art is great for the former, but it has been a gravitas-eroding catastrophe for the latter. The world of style is ephemeral and superficial by nature. Art, real art, fabulous art, high art, must soar and endure and remain unencumbered by the need to sell handbags and blouses. Example: Selfridges recently strapped a massive effigy of dot-queen Yayoi Kusama to the front of the store in celebration of her new collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Similar installations took place at Vuitton stores worldwide. There was no downside for the historic department store or for Maison Vuitton. From a fashion point of view the entire project was memorable and rather marvelous. But what about Art? Did the excitable hordes of tourists who were sticker-shocking their way through the spotty merchandise have any notion that they were scrutinizing the oeuvre of a so-called great artist? Did they, as a result, schlep to the Whitney to see the Kusama exhibit? And what of Ms. Kusama herself? How is the poor luv fairing after being dragged up Rodeo Drive and down 57th Street? Just as well she is already in a nut house. (She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital in 1977 and has lived and made art there ever since.)

4. The post-skill movement.

“No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s,” writes Camille P. But what about those annoying YBAs, the young British artists, the folks that noted U.K.-based art critic Brian Sewell has wickedly and accurately dubbed “The Post-Skill Movement”? Are they profound or influential?

As a window dresser (recently retired) who pursued his craft for more than 40 years, I have always taken a keen interest in art. I have occasionally collaborated with artists—Warhol, Rauschenberg, Mapplethorpe, Candyass—all the while enjoying the freedom of not being an artist myself. I always saw my work as a combo of street theater and Coney Island sideshow. This allowed me to switch styles and try anything without ever feeling the need to create profundity or permanence. Example: I am probably the only person on Earth to have incorporated—back in the ’70s—colostomy bags into a designer clothing display. Did it mean anything? Was it ART? No, emphatically, no! A nurse friend gave me large stash of dead-stock unused bags, and I felt compelled to rescue them, which is another way of saying that I had not prepared anything for my window installation on that particular week and was glad to take receipt of a ready-made prop.

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