How did the art world become such a vapid hellhole of investment-crazed pretentiousness? How did it become, as Camille Paglia has recently described it, a place where “too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber?”
Being an artist used to mean something. It meant for the potential to reinvigorate, stimulate, cause asunder, offend, titillate or simply notify the art world that you had finally arrived.
Of course that’s all bollocks these days. The art world professes to offer none of this anymore. Instead the art world has become a barometer of investment vehicles maintaining healthy rates of return (yes, think blue chip if you may; every major art gallery and institution does), a cacophony of people seeking to surround themselves with posers, money and glitz and must-see parties, and endless name dropping at hotel nightclubs just to get past the staunch doorman in order to hobnob with your purported A-list glam crowd, a melting pot of Hollywood actors, musicians and fashionistas.
Take Art Basel Miami. These days we hear more about the bad behavior of Tinseltown actresses and self-entitled socialites than the actual art itself.
Art is only important if these people turn up. Art basel is killing it. In some way the art world has put itself in the unenviable position of failing to mean anything unless these creatures bother to turn up and lend an art circuit event its street credibility. In Art Basel Miami’s case it’s the glam cache that matters most. The more glamorous the scene is perceived to be, the more worthy and glam the art work and art world is inferred to be by proxy. Never mind the notion that art is supposed to be redeeming, introspective and contemplative, but then again maybe the meaning of what art actually is has changed and as a society we’re somehow content for art to be shrill, shameless and superficial … an afterthought fashion accessory. The ultimate insult to the art world is the way we as a society perceive art.
The punk tactics of the 1970s used to have real resonance. It would shock us but also force us to reconsider the current dialectics of how government, power and social kinetics actually ran. We’d take the time to consider it. But these days we are actually shocked if the art work fails to appear shocking from the get-go. In essence, we are ensuring that art is now defined by frivolous tastes and debased standards.
Then there’s the real problem of art as a fashion accessory, as it has in recent years become.
Barney’s Simon Doonan reflected in a recent article for Slate: “Art, real art, fabulous art, high art, must soar and endure and remain unencumbered by the need to sell handbags and blouses. Example: Selfridges recently strapped a massive effigy of dot-queen Yayoi Kusama to the front of the store in celebration of her new collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Similar installations took place at Vuitton stores worldwide. There was no downside for the historic department store or for Maison Vuitton. From a fashion point of view the entire project was memorable and rather marvelous. But what about Art? Did the excitable hordes of tourists who were sticker-shocking their way through the spotty merchandise have any notion that they were scrutinizing the oeuvre of a so-called great artist? Did they, as a result, schlep to the Whitney to see the Kusama exhibit?”
Once again art is just an appendage to a bigger spectacle. What matters isn’t necessarily the art itself (it has for the most part been said, done and created over and over again in new ways that we as viewers have become spent) but the surrounding brouhaha that comes with the art. Art has in some way become the question of which after-party to hit up on a Monday night. Don’t I know it personally.
But perhaps what has hurt the art world the most is the fact that art is actually being run as a business.
Artists are refusing to create for the sake of the creative process. They are thinking big dollars. Rent to pay. Glamorous lives to lead. Who is also thinking the same are the entities that house and showcase these artists’ work. They’re in it for the money. Creative process, artistic integrity? That’s lovely, but isn’t that why Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear for all of us? To explain the torture of being an under-appreciated artist 200 years ago?
So now the art world is busy chasing its tail, trying to figure out how to nurture itself into becoming the next designer good that Charles Saatchi will invest in (and by definition make into a blue chip), that established art galleries, both private and public, will showcase (where’s the bloody risk taking anymore — how many retrospectives of Andy Warhol can I be forced to sit through?) and that artists will carefully watch in order to tailor-make their own art into something that will make its way up the investment ladder too. But does that even matter when everyone insists on the tried-and-true staple artist that can get the sale done, the rent paid and the nice holiday booked…
Perhaps art reflects its times. It’s not all bad or lazy decisions by artists, but a conscious and subconscious reaction to culture, as well as a poignant indicator of things to come, just like artists have always done. Take Matthew Collings, an eminent British art critic and thinker, who say ( paraphrasing), “If modern art is hard to understand, it’s because our times are hard to understand. If it seems like trash, perhaps we live in a time of trash.”