Sunday, April 09, 2006

The End of Art

I've been reading a book by art critic Donald Kuspit called The End of Art. Kuspit says that art doesn't do what it used to do. That since Marcel Duchamp opened the pandora's box of the "Readymades" most of the art world has been on a course toward irrelevance, commodification, and sensationalism. He's not a conservative as such; many contemporary art critics have been upset with the state of art today -- critics on the left and the right.

The New York Times Book Review had a great essay/review about this issue in art last December called State of the Art by Book Review editor Barry Gewen. He reviewed Kuspit's book along with seven other books, including one called What Happened to Art Criticism? -- you can guess where that's going.

Kuspit's book and Gewen's essay recall the infamous story of contemporary art superstar Damien Hirst, who had a gallery show in which a piece of art was tossed out by the night janitor. He thought it was garbage left over from the opening. The art, which was the show's centerpiece, consisted of "a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette, an easel, a ladder, paintbrushes, candy wrappers, and newspaper pages strewn about the floor" (NY Times, October 20, 2001) -- in other words, trash. The janitor, one Emmanuel Asare, was quoted: As soon as I clapped my eyes on it, I sighed because there was so much mess. It didn't look much like art to me. So I cleared it all in bin bags, and I dumped it." It was apparently worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hirst was amused. A gallery representative said, "Since his art is all about the relationship between art and the everyday, he laughed harder than anyone else." Of course he did. But it's not because his art is, like Duchamp's readymades, both art and not art at once. None of what Hirst does is really art anymore according to Donald Kuspit. Rather, Hirst's art is both everyday object and luxury commodity/ironic status symbol at once. Think of it: how hard is it for Hirst to make another centerpiece for the gallery? I'm not saying that art should be measured by the amount of effort the artist puts into it, but Hirst is making art by mere declaration.

Hirst's studio flotsam loses its credibility and its art-hood when you put a price tag on it. If the artist is trying to make a statement about art and aesthetics, he loses me when he asks a half a million dollars for it. I once put a dirty t-shirt on a nail on the wall of my first apartment. It was the shirt I wore the first time I ever changed my own oil, and it was spotted with black-brown stains. A couple of guests thought it was brilliant, so I kept it up there for a while. Did it become art when my friends mistook it for art? I had actually set it on the nail to get it off the floor, and forgot about it.

This all reminds me of an experiment that literary critic Stanley Fish (who is now teaching law at Florida International University) did, which he discussed in an essay in his 1980 book Is There a Text in This Class?. [I found the full text of the essay, How to Recognize a Poem When You See One on-line] Fish recalls how he left a list of names on the blackboard from his morning linguistics class. When his seventeenth century English religious poetry class came in, he asked them to interpret what was written on the board. It looked like this:

Ohman (?)

Naturally, the class of poetry interpreters, when told by the professor that they were looking at a poem, interpreted it. Fish writes:

"The first student to speak pointed out that the poem was probably a hieroglyph, although he was not sure whether it was in the shape of a cross or an altar. This question was set aside as the other students, following his lead, began to concentrate on individual words, interrupting each other with suggestions that came so quickly that they seemed spontaneous. The first line of the poem (the very order of events assumed the already constituted status of the object) received the most attention: Jacobs was explicated as a reference to Jacob's ladder, traditionally allegorized as a figure for the Christian ascent to heaven. In this poem, however, or so my students told me, the means of ascent is not a ladder but a tree, a rose tree or rosenbaum. This was seen to be an obvious reference to the Virgin Mary who was often characterized as a rose without thorns, itself an emblem of the immaculate conception."

The point is that we look for patterns. We look for context. What makes art art is:
1. deliberateness
2. reception
If I call something art, it's art. If you see something and think it's art, then it's art. Art is a way of looking.

Fish again: "As soon as my students were aware that it was poetry they were seeing, they began to look with poetry-seeing eyes, that is, with eyes that saw everything in relation to the properties they knew poems to possess." So when people go to a gallery and see a pile of trash, they know it's art because they're ready to look at art. The janitor is looking for things to clean up, he's looking for garbage.

I'm not defining art so much as I'm telling how something can fit the category. It's about consensus, and in today's world, all it takes is one brave soul to declare something art for a plurality of citizens to take it that way. Sure you'll have your nay-sayers -- people who shout, "but that's a god-damn urinal, that's a pile of trash!" -- but in this modern world, we agree that there is something called the artist, a person who makes his or her way in the world by creating things to be looked at, studied, and interpreted -- things without function, but things whose appearance trumps any function. This is art, and anyone can do it.

While I'm disgusted by the prices some modern and contemporary art fetches, particularly the simple stuff like Barnett Newman's or Mark Rothko's lines of color, I'm not disgusted by the art itself. It's not the 'I could do that' factor so much as the inflated commercial value. Look at these pieces not as profound one-of-a-kind masterpieces from the hands of geniuses, but as studies in colors and line, or as pleasing combinations of colors and shapes that might look nice on a wall. I think one of the greatest failings of art these days is that we think it must be:
1) one of a kind
2) created by special people

None of that is true. We don't need a four million dollar Rothko on our wall to enjoy art. Nor do we need a $900 glowing color copy of a painting of a country cottage by the painter of light. We don't even need those ubiquitous Van Gogh posters from any of a number of museums: we could make art ourselves. Sometimes that means tearing a picture out of a magazine and putting it in a cheap frame. Other times it means noticing that your child's finger painting is actually pretty interesting. Or maybe it means taking an art class.

Of course not all of us are going to do these things. We don't all have the time to make art. Or the presence of mind to see the utility of a magazine image. Or the skill to match Thomas Kinkade's paintings. But we all lose when we value art for its worth more than for its beauty; that is ultimately what the "end of art" is about.



Blogger k said...

Everything as art is can lead to a meaninglessness in everything and also allow the view to find a unique aesthetic value in all that is seen. A forgetten t-shirt can have profound meaning because it is the shirt that was worn when you first changed your oil. The shirt invokes mystery in the most personal way for those who are willing to allow it to be art.
To me, it is art in its truest form, something that moves one personally, in a way that can't fully be related to any other person. Without that a slight degree of personalization, nothing is art.

6:48 PM  

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