What Happened to the Art World?

From lecture, January 4, 2014, Art Students League of New York

After the recent auctions where prices on art work continued to climb so that a mediocre Picasso from his less desirable late period sold for 179 million dollars everyone is still wondering “What Happened to the Art World?” This is from a talk I gave at the Art Student’s League on that topic.

A lot of people are wondering about “What happened to the art world?” From painters, to viewers, to art critics. Even at the New York Times, critics Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter are now concerned. Here’s Holland Cotter in a recent review of an Ad Reinhardt show — “And, tell me, where are the artists today who care enough about art — it was Reinhardt’s life — to look around, see what we all see — an art world sick with greed, arrogance, and soul-killing smallness — and say so out loud? Reinhardt did.”

And Roberta Smith, reviewing the recent November auctions wrote: “Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theater in which collectors, art dealers and auction houses flex their monetary clout…” Smith who supports much of what sells for exalted prices, calls auctions a “rarified spectator sport.” She closes with, “These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.”

“Caring about,” and “loving art for its own sake” are hardly evident in much of what passes for art making, art viewing and art talk today. For instance we learn that in many art schools students are now primarily taught how to talk about their work. (Talking about the work has become more important than the work itself. You can put anything over if the talk is good enough?) Flaubert nailed it though: “The more words there are on a gallery wall next to a picture, the worse the picture.” In our time what art has become is something that is talked up and explained, and then re-explained.

Then think about what are considered the most valuable works of our time. Where does “loving art for its own sake” come in to responding to a blown-up, orange colored balloon sculpture of a dog? (This particular dog sold for $58.4 million.) What does it have to do with art?

Where is the beautiful, or important idea or feeling in looking at a stenciled sign in block letters on a white ground, from the movie “Apocalypse Now,” titled APOCALYPSE NOW by Christopher Wool. It reads, “Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids.” I think this work looks like a sign you might have seen in a college art studio circa 1975. Jed Perl in an article “The Super-Rich Are Ruining Art for the Rest of Us” called this particular canvas, “vacuous Dadaist signage.” Then there’s the Warhol phenomena. I defy anyone to show me what’s visually significant or moving about looking at a black and white “unique hand painted Warhol” — as Christie’s advertised it — of a Coca Cola bottle. (Now the most expensive Warhol ever sold at auction for 57 million dollars.) It’s okay, not badly drawn, a sort of rendering — but great art? And who has made fewer demands on the audience than Warhol? Even Norman Rockwell makes a demand; the effort of rejection. Warhol’s had a success that seems based on authorities in the art world simply making a decision to like his work. Sometimes now he’s even mentioned in the same breath as Michelangelo and Pollock.

The art critic Clement Greenberg believed things would change over time. He’d seen the soppy canvases of Bouguereau — considered the most important painter of 19th century France — denounced by later generations. He thought the same would happen with Warhol and others. But so far — since Greenberg’s death in 1994 — the prices are higher, the claims more exalted. So that in the Jed Perl article I just mentioned, where he’s talking about a loss of values and standards in the art world, as well as a total lack of embarrassment among the super-rich, he finally states, “And now, with the middle class in disarray, art is no longer embraced as anything close to an ideal. Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done.” So that within three generations we’ve gone from a critic who thought the market, as in the past, would correct itself over time, to one who thinks there is no longer reason to hope for correction.

And really, how can you compare the coke bottle, to, say, Matisse’s great “Piano Lesson?” (“Hand painted and with color,” to use Christie’s criteria on the Warhol.) Matisse could create this unprecedented, commanding picture because in addition to talent he had amazing taste. Taste that has not dated — so that the painting judgments he made ninety-eight years ago still work today.

In 1819 Schopenhauer published “The World as Will and Representation.” In Volume 1 he writes about the ordinary lives we lead, which are directed primarily by will; how this driving will is unrelenting, and determines most of our judgments, which are therefore subjective. “In its natural functioning the intellect is working for the will. We are always involved with subjective striving. Only in aesthetic contemplation do we have a chance to be objective for once. Above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are so to speak, rid of ourselves.” In this state the pain our desires cause us, because most of them are unmet, are temporarily abated. Schopenhauer continues, “…aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.”

Earlier Kant in his “Critique of Judgment” also brought up objectivity which he referred to as disinterestedness. He wrote that aesthetic experience is disinterested, it does not look for solutions to life, it does not cater to our will, it is not about the merely agreeable. He wrote that the term Beautiful, as opposed to pretty, is Absolute and must have universal validity, meaning that is all people “ought to agree.” This is close to his idea of “common sense” on which laws are based. To identify the Beautiful one calls into play “the judgment of taste.” Kant regarded taste as “a faculty for judging everything in respect to which we can communicate our feeling to all other human beings.” He called taste in art “the faculty of estimating an object or mode of representation by means of delight or aversion, apart from self interest.”

According to Kant there is no formula for arriving at the beautiful. And unlike sensual pleasure Beauty can only be experienced by human beings. He states, “For judging of beautiful objects taste is necessary… for production of such objects genius is necessary.” Kant defines Genius as “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.” He continues, “We can all learn what Newton has set forth in his immortal work, but we can not learn to write spirited poetry.”

The feelings of awe and excitement, the experience of disinterested pleasure, the ability to lose oneself — these are a lot to give up. And what will happen over time when contemporary artists no longer attempt to make beautiful art? Art that appeals to our senses and intellect; art which sets off “the free play of imagination and understanding,” to quote Kant again. What will happen when the idea of beauty dies out?

Instead, pieces that feature decapitated chickens, or artists slicing themselves with razorblades? Then there are the food, bee, and pollen “artists.” Klaus Weber who trained as a member in the class of 1996 at Berlin University of the Arts had no teacher “a class, critical of the traditional master-teacher model was run by the students themselves.” With this extensive preparation Weber did a series of Bee Paintings where bright white canvasses, varying in size, were splattered with the foecal matter of bees.

From the beginning, one of the problems with Pop is that it never attempted to be beautiful. I’ve looked at Warhol’s gold Marilyn Monroe painting many times at MoMA, and always turn away in disgust. And once you know it’s not real Brillo boxes, that piece isn’t interesting either. David Zwirner in an interview with Nick Paumgarten in the “New Yorker,” mentioned having the brillo boxes around as a kid and hiding behind them. I can see they’d be good for that. This work is neither delightful, nor interesting to look at. There is no challenge.

Do collectors really spend time looking at these things. The way say, Paul Mellon was purported to, or Henry Frick, or the eccentric Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes? I think it was Andrew Mellon who had a whole separate apartment set up in Washington. He could go there in the evening and contemplate his pictures. Now it would have to be, “I think I’ll sit down and look at that coke bottle again.” Would Mellon travel to his second apartment to look again at the coke bottle? Warhol is an investment: it’s just like looking at money hanging on the wall.

Now insiders say that collectors acquire art not for love, or because they care, but for investment. Which will work as long as there are good enough explainers around to tout their art. There’s a new book by British art critic Julian Spaulding that addresses this question. It’s titled: “Con Art — Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirst While You Can.” As Spaulding wrote about Hirsts oeuvre, “But they have no artistic content and are worthless as works of art. They are, therefore, worthless financially… Nor does the act of placing something in an art gallery, whether it’s a stack of bricks, a bin bag or an unmade bed, automatically make it a work of art, any more than framing a canvas with paint on it automatically makes it a painting.”

You go to a museum, it’s more like a church: So much about belief, so little about seeing. And in the art world’s frenzy — the deals, the auctions — it shares something I think, with the quest for the holy relics in the Middle Ages. The nobility, and elite of the clergy would run around Europe spending inordinate sums on chalices, nails, crowns of thorns, pieces of wood purported to have once been touched by Christ. There was even a foreskin relic: “The Holy Prepuce.” They’d buy these, often competing against each other, and then carry their trophies back to churches in France and Italy — where they still sit – mostly unseen, and often disccredited.

The very notion of what art is has lost all meaning. And many museums seem to delight in sponsoring weird — often unsafe — pieces which attempt to expand the definition of the meaning of art. On the tamer side, MoMA had an open microphone installed on its first floor in 2010 which visitors were encouraged to scream into. And the noise was annoying if you’d come to the museum to look at a painting. In 2011 the New Museum had a giant slide installed A playground slide. It was fun. A slide is a slide. A coke bottle is a lovely piece of industrial manufacture. Why were these in a place called a museum?

What value has been served by opening the definition of the word Art to include objects like this? How is it enhanced either for viewer or purchaser? Or, even, aritst? I think the contemporary audience is starving for what used to be called art. You see it in the museums: the tide moves towards the impressionists, towards the Indian sections, towards things of beautiful making: There are slides and bottles and cow intestines outside. The audience has gone inside in search of something else, painting and sculpture made by human beings who knew how to put something together. Why rob the public of what art had always provided? Beauty, transcendence, feeling.