Why the Art World Is So Loathsome
Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images for Domingo Zapata
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?
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:
“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.
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.)