Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Painting Is Not a Refrigerator

Admire its sleek, sensuous lines
This is what civilizations and societies always do: remake the past in the present’s image, mistake the current conditions of knowledge and experience and feeling for an unchanging human condition or biological reality.

— Simon Reynolds, “You Are Not a Switch

Camille Paglia has a very odd, rambling piece in The Wall Street Journal today, talking about capitalism and the visual arts. I am unfamiliar with Ms Paglia’s oeuvre, so I cannot say whether the style of this article is of a piece with the rest, but if it is, I am unimpressed. It reads like a disjointed tour d’horizon, pointing out features of the landscape, interspersed with unsupported and grandiose claims, that never comes to a recognizable conclusion: “Here is a thing, and here is a thing, and this is a fact. Ergo, QED.” Huh?

Her basic thesis seems to be that the visual arts are stuck in the doldrums:

Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. 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.
Well, okay, one might quibble whether leading contemporary artists like Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami are good artists, or artists who will leave a lasting historical impression on the visual arts, but only a fool (or a cultural critic seriously ignorant of the contemporary art scene) would deny they have indeed been highly influential.

She goes on:
What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology.

Painting was the prestige genre in the fine arts from the Renaissance on. But painting was dethroned by the brash multimedia revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Permanence faded as a goal of art-making.
This is just dumb.

First of all, the dethronement of painting as the prestige visual art—which, by the way, has been a very long time coming, and started far earlier than the 1960s—and the rise of multiple competing media spurred innovation, and unleashed a vast influx of energy and creativity into the field which it otherwise would not have enjoyed. In addition to opening up new aesthetic dimensions to explore and exploit that painting with pigment on a two dimensional surface could not, contemporary arts like video and photography and new industrial techniques for sculpture and printmaking attracted vast new numbers of artists into the field who would otherwise have lacked the talent or interest to make meaningful art in traditional media. (Not everybody can paint.) The fact that ways of creating visual art exploded vastly expanded creativity and innovation, not sapped it. This is just plain common sense, in addition to historical fact.

Second, Ms Paglia’s unsupported assertion that permanence faded as a goal of art just isn’t true. Sure, visual artists have been exploring the aesthetic dimensions and implications of impermanence for some time now, all the way back to Ms Paglia’s self-professed “hero” Andy Warhol and his “happenings” in the 1960s, if not before. But for every shark carcass rotting in a tank of formaldehyde or public sculpture carved out of flowers, contemporary artists have given us plenty of paintings, sculptures, and objects which are designed, if only by virtue of being composed of plastic and metal more durable than any organic pigment, to last much longer than your local museum’s Da Vinci. Lastly, just in case Ms Paglia hadn’t noticed it herself, impermanence has become a permanent psychological, sociological, and economic feature of contemporary society. Does she think visual artists as a class are so insensate to this fact or so reactionary that they would not find exploring the condition of impermanence to be an interesting and important theme for their art? And what better way—as only one of many solutions—to do so than to make the work of art itself impermanent? After all, let art collectors and museum curators worry about how to preserve your decaying ice cream sculpture of Henry Ford: that’s conservation, not art.

Hang on. She’s not done yet:
But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s.
And what is missing from this airless ideological echo chamber, according to our narratrix? Why religion and capitalism, of course. (This is an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, after all.) 1

But this is just loony too.

* * *

Put aside, for a moment, the fact that contemporary art has made the nature of modern societies, including capitalist ones,2 a central theme and topic. To be sure, most artists’ treatment of contemporary socioeconomic mores has been critical rather than laudatory, and it is reasonable to expect the political monoculture Ms Paglia postulates in the art world (and which I have no particular reason to doubt) might have something to do with this. Put aside the facile conflation of art world and academy which Ms Paglia uses to bolster her ideological point, a conflation which ignores substantial areas of difference between the two and the irrefutable fact that many (most?) successful practicing artists never went to college. And put aside the fact that ongoing recession in the economy and the recent global financial crisis has soured the opinion many members of society have of capitalism, a fact which perhaps indicates the great unwashed are less out of synch with the critical stance artists take toward their society than Ms Paglia would have us believe.

No, what is really loony is her implied notion that denizens of the art world were ever anything but card-carrying members of a hermetically sealed sociopolitical echo chamber. Visual art is now and always has been a hand-crafted luxury good, produced by a relatively small community of artisans in tiny numbers for an equally tiny community of wealthy patrons and collectors. Fine artists have never been in touch with “the general audience,” whatever that is supposed to mean. They produce and sell art for and to the sociopolitical elite, whatever that elite happens to be at the time. In the past, the art-sponsoring elite consisted of Popes, Borgias, and wealthy Dutch merchants, among others. Today it consists of the pillars of modern financial capitalism, wealthy plutocrats and corporate institutions. This forms a particularly ironic counterpoint to Ms Paglia’s assertion that fine art is hostile to capitalism, given that the hedge fund grandees, Philip Morris corporate art buyers, and trust fund parasites contemporary artists sell to are its greatest boosters. Do you really think Steve Cohen is unaware of the political agenda of pieces in his collection? Do you really think he cares?

Let’s face it. The general population normally doesn’t give a rat’s ass about fine art. Sure, they make an annual pilgrimage to the local art museum, for some “kulcha,”—normally when out-of-town relatives visit, natch—and they visit museums and historical cultural sites when they travel abroad. But in each instance almost all of them look blankly at the artwork of any era, mumble how their child could do better and scoff at the newer ones, and can’t wait to get back to some football and pizza at the hotel. You want to know what kind of art the common man likes? Leroy Nieman prints and Thomas Kinkade paintings. The common man in Renaissance Italy was just as oblivious: he might ooh and ahh over the realism of the sword cut in Jesus’s side on the painted altarpiece, but he didn’t linger in church for aesthetic contemplation. The concept of fine art for the common man is nonsense. They have no interest in it. Why should they?

* * *

What is particularly bizzare in the end about Ms Paglia’s disquisition is her schizophrenic take on what she sees as the solution to the problem she has manufactured identified. In one breath, she says “young artists must be rescued from their sanitized middle-class backgrounds,” presumably by being taught how to woodwork, throw a pot, or scumble oil paint across a canvas, like the heroic Americans of her youth who grew up with steel mills, shoe factories, and leaded gasoline. In the next, she glorifies clear-eyed, commercially savvy Promethei bringing sleek and streamlined industrial design to the masses. Industrial design, Ms Paglia laments at the end, which lacks the spiritual dimension of great works of art.

What conclusion, if any, is she actually trying to draw?

Thus we live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.

Thus young artists have been betrayed and stunted by their elders before their careers have even begun. Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?
College students are the common man, Camille, in numbers if not socioeconomic status. Most of them will have little interest in or interaction with fine art of any kind over the course of their lives. Far fewer of them, plus some talented non-college graduates, will ever actually pick up a brush, chisel, or video camera. An even smaller subset of these will ever make an impact at all. Their output will be tiny, scattered, and subject to being lost, ignored, or appreciated for all the wrong reasons. Most will never be able to support themselves or their families.

If there is a tragedy about fine art, it is that it is simultaneously so small, unprotected, and unimportant on a personal scale and potentially so important on a cultural and historical one. You can’t socially engineer your way around that. It is the nature of the beast.

That is what fine art is, Ms Paglia. It has always been a wasteland.

Related reading:
Breakfast in Fur (June 24, 2012)
L.H.O.O.Q. (July 29, 2007)

1 Hence the title, unexplained or even addressed in the article, “How Capitalism Can Save Art.” You may note that I do not address her point about fine art’s divorce from religion. First, I am not so sure this is true, at least when it comes to spirituality, but it is incontrovertible that religious institutions no longer sponsor fine visual art in the way they used to. Should that change, I am sure you would see a veritable resurgence of religious artwork. Artists gotta eat, too, you know.
2 I hope and presume Ms Paglia realizes there are and have been non-capitalist societies in the world and that they have included at least their fair share of artists.

© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.