The Accidental Masterpiece

Most New Art Is Unoriginal and Unexciting
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 5 2005 2:25 PM

The Accidental Masterpiece

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Steve,

I'm beginning to worry that I have a case of the Stockholm syndrome. I've been around the art world so long now that I may embrace my own oppression. Or maybe I'm just less easily dispirited by the inevitable disappointments of the Chelsea crawl. Obviously, Chelsea is like Disneyland because, unlike SoHo, it never was a neighborhood for artists that spawned consonant galleries. It began as an out-of-the-way real estate venture by rich dealers and is now a mall.

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Meanwhile, as Iwan Wirth, the British dealer, recently told the Financial Times, contemporary art has "become a lifestyle" for the rich and overeducated. The bubble market sustains more and more galleries, which now must overfarm the land. Most new art is unoriginal and unexciting.

But then, so are most new television shows, most new restaurants, most new plays and movies and books. Good art is, by definition, distinguished by its exceptional condition, otherwise it would be ordinary art. So I don't expect to find it often—but I try to be open to it when it's out there.

Does that make me cynical or Pollyannaish?

It's risky to confuse the spectacle of the art world with art and miss the real point, which is to have an encounter, as you put it, beyond "value." I think you beautifully describe what we're looking for—what most people want from art—when you talk about a self-conscious gesture that neither reiterates "the bland surface of things" nor stoops to cheap posturing. These gestures reside in the realm of "taste," which remains "an open argument, not a laundry list of acceptable items." I couldn't agree more. A few years ago, when I visited Judd's compound in Marfa, Texas, which he turned into a kind of Lourdes of minimalism and is now a tumbleweed-tossed resort for the Gulfstream V crowd, I found books in his library by Ortega y Gasset, who lamented how an aversion to pathos and dependence on irony "imparts to modern art a monotony that must exasperate patience itself." This speaks, I think, to your experience with Rembrandt and to my point about Alex—and to why in the book I like to dwell on artists like Bonnard and Chardin as well as on amateur snapshots, Dr. Hicks' light bulbs, and Charlotte Salomon, an utter nonentity by all accounts who, on the eve of her death at Auschwitz, poured her whole life into making a work of art with no reasonable prospect that anybody would ever notice it.

Your encounter in Moscow also reminds me of the time I stumbled into a show of amateur snapshots at Ubu Gallery. In that case, unselfconscious pictures, the photographs naturally lacked all pretense. Their honesty left me dumbstruck. Not that they were Bonnards or Cartier-Bressons, but somehow, art had sneaked into them. They were ham-fisted flukes of double exposure and other miracles of dumb luck that sent me fishing through my own shoebox of family pictures, where I came across a fading Polaroid of myself, as it happened, in a museum in Russia. As a little boy I was planted by my parents before Picasso's Absinthe Drinker at the Hermitage. The picture of me is not bad enough to be good (my mother must have been fumbling with the camera), but I mention it anyway to illustrate your point, which the insular art world sometimes neglects, that "to bring life to bear on our experience of sculptures and paintings, or poems and novels and plays—isn't philistinism; it's the opposite of philistinism."

I love the story about Degas that I mention in the introduction: that as an old man in 1911 every day he visited a show of his hero, Ingres, at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. Degas was blind. He went just to run his hands over the pictures. I'm guessing that, as most of us hope to do when we look at art, he wanted to touch something that he cherished and deemed larger and longer-lasting than himself.

It's the difference between life and lifestyle. You're more of a pessimist—or is it a realist?—than I am. I wonder which one of them you think will win out in the end?

Great talking with you, Steve.

Michael

Michael Kimmelman is the art critic for the New York Times. He is the author ofThe Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.

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