Improvisation, Nude: The Emperors of Contemporary Art and Art Criticism Have No Clothes. Is that Okay?

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 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:

  1. Let the art of the future reify no average as the center.
  2. Let genius measure the frame.
  3. Let no “must” intrude on any medium.
  4. 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).

File:Chris wool the harder.jpg


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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Improvisation, Nude: The Emperors of Contemporary Art and Art Criticism Have No Clothes. Is that Okay?

  1. Pingback: Being critical | How my heart speaks

  2. I thought the key phrase in this very fine post (thanks, I’ve read it several times!) is “critical theorizing that supports the contemporary art world”. I’ve always thought that much of 20th and now 21st century art criticism was about trying to subordinate the artist to the critic. So making the critic the dominant player in the culture’s conversations about art, rather than the artist. Part of this project was achieved by applying critical techniques to texts that clearly weren’t “great literature” (comic books, for example) which was a subtle … or maybe not subtle at all … way of pointing out that if the critic can find equal meaning in Hamlet or Spider-man versus Green Goblin, then it is the critic who possesses the power of insight, not the work. Another part of the project was achieved by convincing artists to play along, that is to create works with a great deal of intellectual content (the critics home turf) rather than technique or emotional content or the slippery concept of beauty or the even slipperier concept of vision or soul or some ineffable experience that can’t be analyzed or explained — Nabokov’s tingling spine. Wool seems to playing right along and doing well for himself. I suppose I’m fine with that. I’ve often half-joked that modern art is “intellectual pretension copulating with a gimmick” which is fair enough since so much of it seems to be deliberately half a joke itself. Most of the time the copulating doesn’t result in conception. There is the occasional genius child delivered to the world, however. For those, I am quite thankful.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’ve always liked Mark Tansey (perhaps you know him). He combines the skill of a traditional artist with the irony of a postmodern. Because what he does is technically difficult–more difficult than, say, finding a shark and putting it in a Plexiglas cube–he seems to me to justly earn his humor and meditations.

      Also, perhaps you’ve read Roger Kimball as well. He’s a conservative (political, social, and cultural), but his critiques of art seem to me (at least 60% of the time) pretty much on target. A book of his that is quite good is “Rape of the Masters.” In that book, he sasses art critics that over-read into the paintings of great artists.

      His alternative method for reading, however, strikes me as paltry and unnecessarily constrained (focus on the artist’s biography and explicit intention, make some formalist observations, and leave it pretty much at that). It’s old school.

      And that’s the faultline between traditional critics and postmodern ones. Is there more in a painting or piece of literature than the author knows or intends? Can you bring Freud and your own associative mind etc. to an artist’s work?

      I believe, of course, that you can, but I’m also interested in bringing to art readings that are plausible and interesting, not merely fanciful.

      But the more I think about what art is for, the more I land on the word “linger.” When Goethe writes in Faust, “Stay moment, thou art fair,” he’s reaching for a way to capture what is fleeting. The artist gives you an opportunity to linger. And the critic is able to linger in a museum for an hour, looking at a painting, then snap a cell phone picture of it, bring it home and put it on her computer and linger yet further with it. The longer you linger, the more you see. And academics, with the leisure to linger long and being talkative sorts of people, start to see themselves (the vocabularies they use, etc.) reflected in the art. They can exhaust the artist’s biography and see formalist elements, but if they love the piece of art enough, they want to linger with it more; they want to make the image speak.

      It’s a kind of idolatry. If the god will not or cannot speak, we will speak for it in its silence because we want to share our enthusiasm. We will make elaborate temples (architectural and written) to our gods. Every museum houses a pantheon; every library, shelves of writing concerning this or that god from different vantages (Caravagio, Leonardo, etc.). This isn’t entirely “the subordination of art to criticism” (as you put it), but forms of praise; signs of worship.

      I don’t buy Susan Sontag’s argument in “Against Interpretation.” It’s all interpretation. You can’t look at anything without an intervening screen of concepts, moods, etc. (acknowledged or not).

      Postmodernism (and all forms of talkative criticism) is a form of admiration; another excuse to talk. History just keeps going, and we love novelty. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a movement like postmodernism, then a reaction to postmodernism, then a new historicism, then a new, new historicism, then some form of neoformalism, then the revenge of the neostructuralists, etc. It’s what we do with the silence. It’s shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic. Reality is Titanic; we’re heading for death. The maw of silence is all around. We’ve got to do something with the beauty and the terror we feel. It’s like writing a love letter to write criticism; you can’t capture the beloved in the letter, but you can at least get your energies out by talking about some aspect of the beloved.

      It’s metonymy (the part standing in for the whole). Our descriptions of the beloved must, of necessity, be less than the thing itself, and yet we, being restless, can’t just sit with our silence. And invariably, when we talk a lot, being narcissistic, we start talking about ourselves.

      A challenging (and excellent) reflection on the relation of image to text can be found in W.J.T Mitchell’s book, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology.

      • Hey Santi – first, thanks for the post-length reply and also the author suggestions, all of whom are likely to linger on my ever increasing list of writers I should read but probably won’t.

        When it comes to art, I think of myself as a quantum mechanics guy. I think it possible to recover some decent approximation of artistic intent, but I don’t think her intent is wholly knowable; I don’t think artists can wholly understand their own intentions; and most importantly, any art worth our attention allows room for, really demands, audience / viewer / reader input and interaction. Some messy interaction of these elements, in some proportion, give you something like criticism sometimes (there, I believe I’ve just qualified myself out of existence).

        I’m not sure criticism is driven mostly be love, I must say, because that would seem to exclude the qualified negative review or the out-right pan. I would say criticism is driven by art that is at least interesting. I’ve started and stopped reading books that are so bad in dull and uninteresting ways that they don’t merit the time to criticize. But interesting failures are another matter, and sometimes more fun than success!

        Again, appreciate the long response and best to you. P.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I like your quantum mechanics analogy, and as to love, perhaps the better word is passion (which can include emotional responses like resentment–as in Bloom’s characterization of postmodern criticism as the “school of resentment”). The response to art is born of a lingering passion.

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