Sunday, March 15, 2015

Professional criticism of contemporary art's more successful artists becomes pointed as apathy mounts within the art community

Art Reaches the Wall
From the dawn of Impressionism in the 1860s throughout the 20th century, more than a hundred art movements would emerge and develop, each one transporting and evolving art as if by some unstoppable force towards the modern era, collectively altering art's perception more in one brief span than all the millennia previous. Then, almost suddenly, there was calm.

Today's Art Disconnect
Today's Art Disconnect - Today's Art Disconnect - A widening gap exists between today's high-end contemporary art, the art community and the public. Auction houses continue to drive up prices for works of select artists along with assumed aesthetic worth, as artworks are treated as investment instruments.  

By the 1980s, art became introverted. Reagan and Thatcher were elected to office. The long-awaited fall of the Soviet Eastern Block and the Berlin Wall only ushered in accelerated militarism by the West. The art community, instead of responding with a counterculture like their earlier Expressionist and Dada counterparts, fell into a cultural malaise or what author Francis Fukuyama coined "The End of History" and the "Triumph of Capitalism".

By the 1990s, insane Internet IPOs and real estate profiteering bubbles would usher in a new era of exclusive capitalism, selectively breeding what would become today's influential "1%". By the turn of the twenty-first century, high-end contemporary works of art would become the latest and greatest trading commodity. A few select artists would manage to reach into the upper echelons of society to embrace the newly founded artistic capitalism.

Revolt Succumbs to Merger
Expressionism and Dada were reactions to early 20th-century economic pressures and colonial military tensions, which eventually erupted into global conflict on a scale never before experienced. Once WWI broke, thousands upon thousands of conscripted young men, the cream of a new generation, would be routinely machine-gunned to death. Consequently, traditional paintings of bacchanals and sunny landscapes became, as it were, out of place.

Impacted by war, artists reacted with a revolutionary, anti-war spirit, which capitalists consistently labeled "Socialism", even when specified political ideologies were absent. To some extent, this was repeated by Americans during the Vietnam War of the 1960s. However, today this is definitely not the case.

Expressionism and Dada
Expressionism and Dada - Artistic and Political Revolution - Schmidt-Rotluff’s “Corner of a Park”, Expressionism from 1910 (left), Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Dada from 1916 (center) and George Grosz’s “Depiction of art critic Raoul Hausmann”, Dada/Expressionism from 1919 (right).

Conversely, the masterstroke of Western government was America's elimination of its own military conscription or "The Draft", in 1973. No longer forced to participate in foreign conflicts, the counterculture of the 1960s was replaced with complacency and a growing desire for material possessions. It was as though the trigger for moral correction had been removed. By the 1980s, symbiosis was in full swing and former sixties protestors were eagerly applying for, if not creating, archetype management rolls previously reviled. Absent, for the most part, were the deliberately degenerate anti-war depictions of Expressionists along with the anti-social, anti-art manifesto of earlier Dada.

Instead, over-commercialized Pop Art morphed into Kinetic Art, which in turn embraced the ongoing technology revolution, spawning Hard-edge Painting. Gone was the gallery experience of applied paint. Even Photorealism, the representational venue of the day, would avoid freely expressed brush strokes and instead embrace a machine-like application of color onto canvas.

It was as if any evidence of human involvement, along with social protest, departed from all forms of art. The art surface suddenly began to reflect the Futurism embraced earlier by Fascists artists, instead of the more passionate parallel schools leading up to Abstract Expressionism.

Artistic Capitulation
Then there is that current stream of high-end contemporary work, which includes the deliberately bad and caters to the wealthy. Since the days of Impressionism, artists have traditionally been part of the downtrodden struggling class. However, as Donald Kuspit of Artnet Magazine observed (article: "The Triumph of Shit") " the avant-garde underclass has become part of the insider Capitalist upper class".  This recent juxtaposition is compounded by the way high-end sales are handled.

Overpriced Bad Art
Overpriced Bad Art - Al Welwei's "Tree #11" sold for $468K and looks remarkably like a tree one might actually grow (left); Jeff Koons' toy-like "Balloon Dog in Orange" sold for $58.4M (center); Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull is priced at $98M (right).

This upscale art market today consists of investment buyers with a need for low to no exposure acquisitions to assure the lowest purchase price for maximum ROI. Purchasing decisions of the latest crème de la crème artworks are usually based on artist name alone. These purchases are typically handled over the phone, via email, through private website posting or invitation-only auctions. Bottom scale purchases range from $100k, with considerably greater sums in the tens of millions applied towards hard to find or must-have items. Imagine a somewhat high-end "house flipping", only with artwork, and you begin to grasp this specialized market.

The problem with galleries and auction houses selling exclusive artwork is the inherent disconnect between the buyer and public as well as the artists and their peers. This detachment extends to include museums and the broader art-going community. Consequently, community concepts of contemporary art are often times not in ideological agreement with the latest and greatest, especially when those works are continually moving unseen to and from private collections.

Conversely, the artists catering exclusively to the investment market are not afforded any feedback from their artistic peers or larger public audience until long after the purchases are made, provided the artwork doesn't remain in the crate. Consequently, there exist today two worlds of art revolving in separate orbits of influence.

Many art critics have condemned this investment niche market as "Con Art", or as the critic, Julian Spalding phrased "The emperor has nothing on...” Galleries and auction houses have responded to these critiques as "unfair..." or as attacks on "...the whole of Conceptual Art". Nevertheless, Spalding persists, publishing his book Con Art - Why you should sell your Damien Hirsts while you can. Meanwhile, the malaise grows.

Counterculture vs. Commoditization
Counterculture vs. Commoditization - Nothing minimalistic about the net sales of art today, as artists David Choe (center) and Jeff Koons (right) both have a net worth ranging around $100 million. Damien Hirst's (left) net worth was recently been assessed above $300 million. 

Distracting Noise
So, are a select few tearing down contemporary art for the many? If there is dissension within the ranks, it's not being heard above today's massive amounts of artistic activity.

Today, an overwhelming number of artists are represented by countless galleries. The galleries themselves are divided between entry-level and high-end retail spaces with the occasional appointment-only salons. Add to this the arts and crafts arcades with mixed venue, the ever-present art fairs, along with community art exhibits and today's streets are awash with art, for the most part ranging from tolerable to just plain awful. Craft shops, like the Michaels chain, tend to bring out the artist in amateurs while loved ones urge them on. Consequently, an explosion of amateurism also adds to this growing artistic noise.

Overwhelming numbers cannot but shroud real talent. Finding a Michelangelo or Mozart would be considerably more of a challenge today than during their time. This is because of the additional noise created by the earth's exponential population growth of 400%, from 1.8 to 7.2 billion over the past century. That's up 1440% from 500 million (or just 7% of today's population) when Columbus set sail for the New World.

For all practical purposes, there are more professional artists alive today than at any time in the earth's history, quite possibly more than throughout all of history combined. Meanwhile, the universities, low on math and science enrollments, continue to churn out even more, laden with debt.

Back to the Wall
Ironically, after all, artistic effort to date, the social-economic position of "Contemporary Art" at this moment is remarkably similar to where the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Paris Salon left off before the dawn of Impressionism. At that time, the monetarily successful artists had learned to cater to the Salon's wealthiest clientèle.

By comparison, the "starving artists" which followed in the late 19th and 20th century have today been replaced with enterprising contemporary artists, each one attempting to reinvent art in time for the next sale. However, forcing the new to be unique for the sake of itself has resulted in what could be likened to a day-long, minimalistic opera where a large portion of the audience has had to depart, if only to urinate, before returning.

Today, a voice amongst the conservative bourgeoisie has grown, favoring a rejection of everything since Impressionism and returning to academia. The standard-bearer for this doctrine is the Art Renewal Center (ARC) begun by New Jersey millionaire Fred Ross. It's somewhat reminiscent of Nazi German's "Reich Chamber of Culture" or the "Reichskulturkammer".

However, such a draconian approach ignores a corresponding history. During the reign of Napoleon, Jacques Louis David was somewhat of a cultural minister who rejected all attempts at Romanticism with its passionate individual expressions and visible paint strokes. He would do this through the control he exerted at the Paris Salon, rejecting all entries not adhering to his strict neoclassical standards. During much of the 19th century, French artists could only establish themselves professionally, through acceptance at the Salon. It dominated as the central source for broad exposure, awards, and subsequent commissions. Careers would be made or broken as the result of decisions by its appointed jurors.

When France's Second Empire was established under Napoleon III, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke would once again stand in as a pseudo-cultural minister to maintain imperial taste. However, by that time it was clearly stifling artistic creativity. Subsequently, a majority of artists would rebel, both academic and avant-garde (see the article entitled Proto-Impressionism).

Ironically, it was tiresome, directionless, government-sanctioned artwork, which drove artists to initially develop the avant-garde. Moreover, when David, Nieuwerkerke and Goebbels attempted to discredit contemporary art, they only succeeded in promoting it. The inherent flaw with the Reichskulturkammer approach is a lack of understanding of art in general and modern art in particular.

Would artists really want to do a ninetieth-century birth of Venus in the 21st century? Ironically, a Picasso or a Duchamp would have had no problem with a contemporary improvisation.

Overcoming Ignorance
Nevertheless, being familiar with all of Modern rt is the first step to uncovering the contemporary artworks that will inspire or direct art forward.

Appreciating Recent Art History
Appreciating Recent Art History - Most who visit the Patricia and Phillip Frost Galleries or the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC invariably discover modern works that will excite and influence them. 

A good place to start is with the Smithsonian Modern Art collections in Washington DC. A trip to the Smithsonian's Patricia and Phillip Frost Gallery or its Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will doubtlessly prove enriching. Those who can find nothing in those galleries to be stimulating would probably be best advised to stick to cinema, sports or politics rather than attempting to change something from which they are so obviously far removed.

Most important, artists, above all others, must become immersed in the sometimes complicated, yet always amazing history of a continually evolving modern art form. Resist the book-burning mentality. Instead, attempt to understand and weigh what has transpired. Anyone can criticize. However, real solutions require involvement.

Jumping from the bridge to return to the source of the river is simply not an option. Not only has too much water passed under the bridge, the fish too have evolved.

Gavel of Merit
Who decides what is good or bad, quality or junk? In the past, it was a king or a pope's acquisition, which determined the greatness of art and its creator. Later it would be acceptance by the Paris Salon. Today, that judgment is determined with a gavel slam at the large auction houses.

In a world focused on obtaining wealth or obsessing upon the celebrity wealthy, big-ticket items are synonymous with quality, even greatness. Consequently, Christie's ability to obtain $33.7 million for Jeff Koons' giant, brightly colored "Tulips", though seemingly outrageous, immediately categorizes that artwork as rare and valuable, regardless of aesthetic views. The museum community is also impacted, since there are those amongst them who have acquired and continue to inventory associated works, despite what any dissenting or irate curator may proclaim.

Minimal Art ...Maximum Profit
Minimal Art ...Maximum Profit - Jeff Koons' giant, toy-like "Tulips" (left) sold for $33.7 million, while Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", a dead tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde (right) sold for $12 million.

Will artists today imitate the early days or avant-garde and once again walk away from the commoditized salon artwork craved by the aristocracy? A recent BBC documentary entitled "Where is Modern Art Now" claimed that today's artists are going through a "more reflective period", that "...the market has been controlled too long and it is time for art to take over again", interesting choice of words..." the market". How about the artwork, or is the market today's artwork?

How would Duchamp or Man Ray react to today's art market? Perhaps in some Dada-like way, Christie and Sotheby are today's real artists, corresponding as ethereal corporate art entities employing another's artwork as a type of paint, with auctions being some commoditized expression which is then proffered to a pseudo-canvas spreadsheet. The auction outcome then becomes the ultimate avant-garde experience. This transfigured artwork is then shared to the art-loving public as a form of number: $13.52 million, $28.08 million, $33.7 million or 40.4 million, and so on.

This would be consistent with the slick surfaces of today's art, so removed from the human muss and fuss of brushstrokes and tool marks. Christie and Sotheby would then be elevated to an ethereal artistic plane, a persistent force providing mankind with the quintessential art experience as simplified or "minimalistic" binary expressions. The artwork would then be appreciated most by those whose lives it seemingly enriches through its possession and subsequent turnover.

Evolution or Extinction
Today's contemporary art is like those dying bees we keep hearing so much about. If the bees go, so does mankind. The same might be said for art, as the avarice displayed in today's auction houses is definitely not the creative essence of man but rather a disease, perhaps a cultural plague.

Consequently, it is for the next generation of artists to determine if a pulse remains to be found within any future body of art. Should the patient die, it will only prove tomorrow's artists, regardless of their numbers, to be shadows of their predecessors. Shadows burdened with student debt, indentured to some minimalist golden calf.

Additional Reading

The evolution of Fine Art...

What's this thing called "Fine Art"? 
The portable camera and the Industrial Revolution changed the art world forever. Today similar seeds are being sewn for yet another departure.

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

Uncovering art history... 

The Modern Art Cheat Sheet 
include key movements that continue to have lasting impact since the Industrial Revolution and Impressionism. Modern Art is just a few clicks away.  

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

Art Transfigured
Digital reproduction and Fine Art! 

Art Transfigured: 
Art has seen many transitions since the invention of the camera. What if the future of art was computerized, high-definition reproductions of museum artwork? 

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

 Copyright ©2015 Tom Mallon. All rights reserved.