Why the Art World Is So Loathsome
For years I happily free-associated with my papier-mâché, my props, and my found objects … and then something weird happened. Artists put down their brushes and stole my objets trouves, my staple guns and glue guns. I first noticed the trend at the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London. Enter the Post-Skill Movement.
With its Damien Hirst vitrines, Tracey Emin camping vignettes, and Sarah Lucas found-object tableaux, this landmark show was like one giant Barneys window. This realization brought me no satisfaction: “If art is morphing into display, then what the hell are we window dressers supposed to plonk into our constantly changing vignettes?” I asked myself as I gazed at Jake and Dinos Chapman’s defiled window mannequins. I felt like a professional hooker who is no longer sure what to wear because all the regular respectable ladies are now dressing like sluts. (Which, by the way, they are.)
In a desperate search of some gravitas and some skill, I fled the Sensation tableaux and ran next door to the adjacent, and infinitely more artful, Victorian Fairy Painting exhibit. FYI, the catalog for this strange and significant show is still available and makes a lovely holiday gift.
5. The flight of craft.
As stated above, a lack of skill and craft among artists is sucking the life and the gravitas out of the art world. There are, thank God, still some artists and designers who are bucking this trend and making gorgeous stuff. You won’t find it at trendy galleries or at Art Basel. You are more likely to find it among the potters and craftsmen on Etsy. My favorite artists at the moment work in the field of illustration and applied art: Examples include Ruben Toledo, John-Paul Philippe, and Malcolm Hill.
6. Adderall a go-go.
Short attention spans have made art into one quickie sight gag after another. Is that an oversized Tiffany bag? No, it’s a metal sculpture by Jonathan Seliger. Gotcha! Clearly, in our frenetic, technology-obsessed age we have lost the ability to contemplate and are interested only in visual puns. Camille to the rescue: Glittering Images—I keep banging on about her book, but only because it’s so fantastic—is an invitation to think, to scrutinize, to gaze, to stare, to shut the fuck up, to learn, and to self-cultivate. La Paglia dares to take us beyond the high jinks of contemporary art and refocuses our Internet-scrambled brains on the pure uncynical contemplation of high art. Surrender to her!
7. Dollars and shekels and rubles.
My father-in-law, Harry Adler, was a committed, ferocious, lifelong passionate artist who produced a massive body of work in all mediums. However, I never once remember him holding up a painting or a drawing and asking, “How much d’ya think I could get for this?” Unfettered by the impulse to grease his creative journey with financial validation, he pursued his art with freedom and authenticity.
Today’s successful artists, on the other hand, seem obsessed with money. How, you may ask, does this jive with the artist’s bohemian esprit? In the age of Occupy, when the 1 percent are so reviled, how do groovy, liberal, and, one assumes, democratic dealers and artists rationalize their politician-like reliance upon, and coziness with, the super-wealthy?
“Aha!” I hear you artists say. “But what about fashion? Aren’t fancy designers and retailers reliant on exactly the same group?” To which I reply, “Exactly my point. Fashion has no lofty goals. It’s about buying a dollop of transformative glamour and a jolt of prestige. Should art not aspire to more than that?”
8. Cool is corrosive.
The dorky uncool ’80s was a great time for art. The Harings, Cutrones, Scharfs, and Basquiats—life-enhancing, graffiti-inspired painters—communicated a simple, relevant, populist message of hope and flava during the darkest years of the AIDS crisis. Then, in the early ‘90s, grunge arrived, and displaced the unpretentious communicative culture of the ‘80s with the dour obscurantism of COOL. Simple fun and emotional sincerity were now seen as embarrassing and deeply uncool. Enter artists like Rachel barrel-of-laughs Whiteread, who makes casts of the insides of cardboard boxes. (Nice work if you can get it!)
A couple of decades on, art has become completely pickled in the vinegar of COOL, and that is why it is so irrelevant to the general population.
Enough kvetching. Let’s end on a positive note. Not every blue-chip artist today is shoving his poo into tins and calling it art. I love me a little Nick Cave and an occasional Jeff Koons. And here’s the great news: While we wait for the art world to change direction and seek out a more meaningful place in our lives, there are no shortage of chuckles to be had. The landscape of art has never been more vast or intriguingly bonkers. The pretentions and foibles, to mention nothing of the gobbledygook theoretical justifications that accompany all the neo-Duchamp-ian bollocks, provide many occasions for amusement, mockery, and parody. If Jacques Tati were alive today he would have unwittingly blundered round that “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale” looking for a new raincoat. On his way home, he would have popped into a travel agent and booked his flight to Miami.
Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.(Photo by Roxanne Lowit.)