Would somebody please, please, please save the art world from itself? Jed Perl, the great art critic, recently gave it his best shot, writing an Emperor-has-no-clothes piece for The New Republic:
The cash registers are ringing and that’s the only music anybody any longer really hears in the art world. Among the lesser but still considerable prices achieved during auction week was $26.4 million for a painting by the mid-career artist Christopher Wool, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The painting, Apocalypse Now, is one of Wool’s early word works, this one emblazoned with a line from the Francis Ford Coppola movie: “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS.” Just about the first thing you see in Wool’s Guggenheim retrospective is another word painting, Blue Fool, this one with nothing but the letters “F O O L” emblazoned in blue on a white ground. I like to imagine the fool is the person who paid $26.4 million for Wool’s Apocalypse Now. But of course if you believe that money talks and nobody walks—well, then I’m the fool for regarding Wool’s works as vacuous Dadaist signage.
Palinistas as performance artists and what mimesis is. And speaking of “vacuous Dadaist signage,” Molly Ball at The Atlantic wonders whether Tea Party activists, in attacking Republican Senator John Cornyn as a liberal, are in fact dadaist performance artists:
[I]f even staunch conservatives like Cornyn can’t satisfy the right, the Tea Party has truly entered its dada period.
There’s a great deal of irony here, obviously. If you can’t distinguish irrational political behavior from artistic behavior, something has gone seriously awry. In classical art theory, good art is mimetic (it imitates what is most true about Nature and the inner life; it is representational). It “holds, as ’twere, the mirror up to Nature” (Shakespeare). In a sense then, even Dadaist and other forms of absurdist art, are mimetic because what appears to be most true about Nature, the inner life, and political life is that it’s absurd–and this is what Dadaist art and its contemporary equivalents tell us (and the wealthy purchasers of art tell us). Art reflects the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age), and that’s what contemporary artistic mimesis is doing.
So maybe our most well-known living artists are telling us something important: that the highest truth is that we live in a chaos, not a cosmos; that we are in a collective existential situation in which unironic heroes must of necessity be deluded as to the true nature of affairs; that any serious striving for wholeness and truth is a fool’s errand.
Jonathon Keats: imposter? An example of the kinds of critical theorizing that supports the contemporary art world can be found in the writing of Jonathon Keats, who recently landed a gig (bizarrely) as a Forbes contributor writing on art. He calls himself a “conceptual artist” (an example of his work is above), and he has written an art manifesto worthy of an Onion News parody, and yet I think he might be (at least mildly) serious.
His manifesto has gotten some straight press, such as from Wired magazine, and he has accompanied the manifesto with the kinds of art pieces he means to promote. Those art pieces were on exhibit in 2011 at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. Here’s the title of Jonathon Keats’ manifesto:
The First Copernican Art Manifesto
At first glance, the title seems hopeful: an artist calling other artists to think about their art in the light of a scientific discovery. But below is the manifesto itself, which is inane. Rather than taking science seriously, the manifesto simply demonstrates how a pretender to the title of “artist” might make excuses for mediocrity, most particularly his own:
Science began with the Copernican Revolution. Recognition that the world is an average planet, and that our place in the cosmos is nothing special, has allowed humanity to make generalizations about the universe based on local observations. Yet while the Copernican Revolution has enlightened scientists for centuries, art remains Ptolemaic. Masterpieces are worshiped. Only the extraordinary is deemed praiseworthy. If art is to foster universal understanding—and be more than a cultural trophy—the great works must be abandoned. Art ought to be mediocre. The art of the future must be Copernican.
1. Painting must have the average color of the universe. Let it be beige.
2. Sculpture must have the predominant composition of the universe. Let it be gaseous.
3. Music must have the gross entropy of the universe. Let it be noisy.
4. Architecture must have the fundamental geometry of the universe. Let it be flat.
5. Cuisine must have the cosmological homogeneity of the universe. Let it be bland.
6. Film must have the mathematical predictability of the universe. Let it be formulaic.
7. Dance must have the characteristic motion of the universe. Let it be random.
8. Literature must have the narrative arc of the universe. Let it be inconclusive.
How convenient that the artist-critic has landed on an artistic principle to which no conventional talent in art is actually required.
But perhaps the joke is on me for taking the manifesto seriously. Still, in the off-chance that Jonathon Keats is serious (and, God, I hope he’s not), I offer my own Copernican art manifesto to illustrate Hume’s dictum that no is makes an ought. You can derive very different conclusions from Copernicus than the ones that Jonathon Keats does.
THE SECOND COPERNICAN ART MANIFESTO
The Copernican principle admits of no center; therefore, the average needn’t assume the center. Copernicus decentered, not just the earth, but universal (catholic) authority. The Copernican provocation is the Protagorean provocation: in the absence of a governing center, man can make himself the measure of all things.
So, take center stage! The Copernican universe, in its bland sameness in every direction, is open to your imaginative manipulation and welcomes you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. It is your empty stage. The Copernican universe and the anthropic universe are one. Therefore:
- Let the art of the future reify no average as the center.
- Let genius measure the frame.
- Let no “must” intrude on any medium.
- Aquinas for Ptolemists; Nietzsche for Copernicans.
I suppose my own parody of Jonathon Keats’s parody—for I’m guessing that’s what his manifesto must ultimately be—illustrates how the metaphorical mind can readily make off with a fact or claim (scientific or otherwise) to any strained associative insight or conclusion it wants. And maybe that’s the point of Keats’s conceptual art and writing: logically possible worlds are infinite, and most of them are absurd, including those purporting to ground themselves in solid scientific principles. For 21st century urban seculars, scientific authority casts spells in the way that religious authority once did for medievals, and this makes for the danger of swallowing new absurdities. So, caveat emptor. Keats drops us into a cascade of subtle non-sequiturs (conclusions that do not really follow from their premises) under the pretense that he is reasoning “scientifically.” His very production of a manifesto–a serious thing–is illustrative of an absurdist thing, which is the game Jonathon Keats is playing (to come off as serious when he’s not).
So he did his job as a contemporary performance artist. He got me. But at least the joke wasn’t costly (as it was for the person who paid $26.4 million for a Christopher Wool painting).
Improvisation vs. imposture. Dostoevsky famously observed (in The Brothers Karamazov) that, without God, everything is permitted. And this brings me to raise the issue of God and external standards: absent these, art and art criticism are open; they are actions absent net or compass; imaginative improvisations which are curiously hard to distinguish from impostures. An absurdist like Jonathon Keats clearly delights in straddling this line. (How on earth did he get a job writing art criticism for Forbes magazine–how amusing is that? Wouldn’t you have enjoyed being a fly on the wall at his job interview?)
Christopher Wool: the 26 million dollar man. Below is a Christopher Wool painting (image source: Wikipedia). I like its irony; it makes me smile. For me, it gets its energy in part from my knowing that it has appeared on white museum walls and not, say, as copy for a New York advertising agency promoting testosterone replacement therapy. I wouldn’t want this sort of art to go away. It’s not a zero sum game for me. But it also shouldn’t crowd out more difficult art (which is what it seems to be doing).
Norman Rockwell vs. Jackson Pollock, Christopher Wool, and Jonathan Keats. Norman Rockwell famously did, as a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, a Jackson Pollock painting better than Jackson Pollock; and, as if in an effortless flourish, he also added a conservatively dressed gentleman to stand before it, gazing into the painting as if it was a giant Rorschach card. Christopher Wool and Jonathan Keats seem to me in need of similar ironic treatment from a more formally skilled artist.
But isn’t it curious that, for the most well-known contemporary artists, all aspects of existence–from love and reason to politics and religion–are subject to parody and irony except other artists’ work? It would be a bad career move to take after one’s fellow artists, unmasking the fraudulence and absurdities in their gestures. Rockwell could only do it because he wasn’t taken seriously by those in the art world who took Pollock seriously.
But who was the better artist and ironist, ultimately? Pollock or Rockwell? It’s true that Pollock brought something new into the world–a whole new genre of art making–and he must be remembered for that. But Rockwell, using conventional means of storytelling in art, also displayed a unique style and personality; something unforgettable.
But in the ecology of the contemporary art world, why is there so little room for artists who might aspire to storytelling and technical excellence, and so much room for ironists and pretenders like Christopher Wool and Jonathon Keats?