Sunday, June 24, 2012

Breakfast in Fur

Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936
The Cereus, which only blossoms for a night, withers away without any admiration from another in the wilderness of the southern forests; and these forests, receptacles themselves of the most beautiful and luxuriant vegetation, with the richest and most aromatic perfumes, perish and collapse in like manner unenjoyed. The work of art has no such naïve and independent being. It is essentially a question, an address to the responding soul of man, an appeal to affections and intelligence.

— G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art1

Peter Aspden has written a piece in the Financial Times which I am still struggling to get my head around. It largely seems to be an unstructured lament about the corruption of art by commerce, but he does make the counterargument that the marketing of consumer goods emblazoned with the words and works of live and dead artists can somehow “be seen as an act of revenge by art on society.” Huh? This seems desperately, even comically wrong to me.

It is true that a number of artists he mentions by name—Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, etc.—and many he does not have made careers which seem nothing less than performance pieces commenting on the dominance, allure, and corruption of commerce, money, and fame in contemporary society. Their work, and their lives, are grounded in ironic commentary on the place of wealth in society and its effect on the production and consumption of art, mediated through alternately hostile scorn for and obsequious subservience to it. It is a clever and potentially subversive program which I would find more entertaining if the basic subject matter—money, the people who have it, and how they spend it—were less mind-crushingly banal. I would also find its subversiveness more compelling were its practitioners less patently desperate to join the ranks of the plutocracy they mock.

But Mr. Aspden is exactly wrong if he thinks these court jesters are exacting some sort of revenge on commerce or that they are controlling it in any way. No, they have embraced the Great Whore of Babylon wholeheartedly, and they indulge themselves and their audience with ironic detachment and sarcastic mockery of the creature while they take her coin and enjoy her favors unshamefacedly. They are prostitutes who wink at the spectators while they take their customers’ money. They are in control of their own corruption, no more.

* * *

And commerce has been beating at the doors of art for, oh, approximately forever. Fine artists used to be simple craftsmen, of relatively low social status, who worked for those who could afford to pay them for decorative, nonutilitarian luxury baubles; namely, the rich. Only in relatively recent times did a myth emerge of the artist as some sort of tortured Prometheus, braving Olympian disapproval to bring the fire of wisdom and meaning to the huddled masses. But even then, and even now, fine art only exists at the sufferance of people with so much surplus wealth they can afford to throw it away on rotting shark carcasses and gilded sculptures of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee.

And the common folk and bourgeoisie have always wanted a little taste of artistic glory too, even if it was no more that a poorly registered print of the Mona Lisa on a postcard. Mr. Aspden himself notes that museums have been selling reproductions of the works of dead artists for decades. Whom does this benefit? Certainly not Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent van Gogh.

As best I can tell, Mr. Aspden seems most upset that the estate of Francis Bacon—another dead artist, natch—is profiting from the sale of his wit and work on cashmere throws and coffee cups.

I’m not so sure about Bacon, though. His work was of a different order, and if we are to regard him as a masterly commentator on existential isolation and mortality, we are surely traducing his work by spreading it so thinly, on mugs, towels, silk scarves. We may live in a cheerfully ironic age, but there are limits. Bacon was trying to say something important about the human condition in his work. He struggled to say it, and we are captivated by the romance of that struggle. But the minute that the results appear on a kitchen tray, some of that subtle alchemical reaction between artist and spectator cannot help but be altered. We have lost something. The descent into kitsch is a one-way street and there is no turning back.

Really? I fail to see how the endless reproduction by museums and purely commercial enterprises of artistic masterpieces on postcards, cheap prints, coffee cups, neckties, and tote bags has done anything to cheapen the content or import of artists far more talented that Mr. Bacon. Do we value Botticelli or Bernini any less because their works have been reproduced on jigsaw puzzles? Of course not.

For surely the value of great art is in an important way orthogonal to the socioeconomic matrix in which it is produced and experienced. It cannot be tamed in the form of consumer goods. Likewise, kitsch cannot demean or degrade the message of Hamlet or the beauty of van Gogh’s irises. Kitsch can only demean and degrade bad or mediocre art, of which we will always have more than enough. Some bad art itself takes the form and essence of kitsch, like the immensely popular images of LeRoy Nieman or Thomas Kinkade. Popularity does not mean art is great, or lasting, or meaningful, but neither does popularity signal great art’s death knell. If Francis Bacon’s art really has something meaningful to say, I am sure it will withstand a few cashmere throws draped around the upwardly mobile living rooms of London.

Surely the socially aspirational deserve the right to signal their sophistication and taste as much as the wealthy, no? 2 Besides, I very much doubt the ladies who lunch will start stocking their tea caddies with reproductions of Méret Oppenheim’s ode to oral sex.

Related reading:
L.H.O.O.Q. (July 29, 2007)

1 As quoted in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, 1964 edition, pp. 426–427 (as remembered). Emphasis mine. I have what I may presume is T.M. Knox’s more accurate translation of Hegel’s Aesthetics at hand, but I have always preferred Hofstadter and Kuhns’ more flowery translation of this passage, to which I was exposed in my halcyon youth. So sue me.
2 Of which this blog, too, is another example. Yes, I partake of the condition of modern art: I am self-aware, and my subject is mostly myself. You people aren’t doing anything to entertain me.

© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.