Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Art Community and Common Sense

Ryan Trecartin
"Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense."

- Gertrude Stein
We're a week-and-a-half into 2010, and I'm hoping that the din produced by so much fin-de-decade media will soon die down. It's no secret that we citizens of the United States (and all other essentially "Americanized" peoples) are principally defined by our consumption. What's more, after decades of adaptation to the consumer role, we've become so fond of the talk surrounding our consumer products that the consumer reviews themselves have become another kind of consumable. Regrettably, this is no less true in the arts.

I've made a contrarian effort this year to avoid most of the "Top" lists and their Op-Ed equivalents, but I've not been totally chaste. The diviners of social, political, or cultural trends have been working furiously to meet their deadlines, and the surplus of art-related stock-taking is in large part responsible for the dearth of new HH content. Anything that I write here will only add to the pervasive and stupefying hubbub; it is further distraction from the business of life well-lived.

And yet, here I sit, writing this post. Like all the other commentators, I'm guilty of editorializing and contextualizing that which is better meditated upon individually or mulled over with our loved ones. And I'm guilty of adding one more perspective to the countless millions already vocalized, furthering the unfortunate and wrong-headed belief that subjectivity reigns. What I'm engaging in, then, is dangerous. While post-modern notions of relativism are valid and philosophically valuable, our globalized culture must strive to sort, such that we can, the wheat from the chaff. That is to say, in a time of increasing cross-cultural interaction, the need for some consensus, some agreed upon hierarchy of moral, ethical, and aesthetic value, is acute. It is a dangerous and exciting era; as such, it is a good time to be a artist.

I agree with Roberta Smith's contention that "the years 2000 to 2009 saw the emergence of a tremendous number of really good, interesting, promising artists." My list of "really good" artists, however, is very different from hers, and Ryan Trecartin, one of the artists that the New York Times' critic celebrates in her recent article, "Make Room for Video, Performance and Paint," is definitely not on it. I don't know Trecartin personally, and he may be a well-meaning, pleasant enough person, but his artwork is poisonously self-absorbed. In this respect, at least, Smith is right to assert that he is an important representative of the decade past. The art world, and especially that of New York City, the community to which I'm most attached, has seen an explosion of navel gazing.

To be fair, most artists engage in some level of narcissism. At the end of the 1990s, when I was in my early twenties, I had puerile aspirations to produce "art videos" of my ejaculating penis (paging Sterling Ruby), and my paintings were dominated by angst-ridden self-portraits and hyper-sexualized imagery. The few paintings of that period that survive are today stacked in my parents' Virginia garage, partly covered by a plastic tarpaulin and years of accumulated mouse shit and winter-killed wasp corpses. Such is the fate of personal history. Serpent-like, we periodically shed our skins and move on, hopefully a little more wise. Some of us, however, put our sheddings and bruises on display, mistaking personal exposure for bravery. Indeed, in some contexts it is brave, but when the sharing is marshalled in service of a cult of personality, it is a celebration of individual dysfunction. And when such exhibitionism is mistaken for art, it is an indication of critical and cultural dysfunction.

Believing that art is fundamental to humanity, and that it is transformative and sacred, I don't accept Freud's famous contention that the artist is a neurotic who seeks to attenuate or postpone confrontation of his or her mature psyche. In fact, for most of our species' tenure, the role of the artist was precisely the opposite; we were called upon to ground our brethren is real experience, be it material or metaphysical. Yet Freud's categorization accurately describes much of the juvenalia that passes for contemporary art. Certainly, we artists should be embarrassed by this trend, but you can't kill the messenger, as the saying has it; Trecartin and others creating hysterical or megalomaniacal artworks are reflections of the dominant (and apparently yet ascendant) iCulture. It is instead the critics and the gallerists, the purveyors of taste, that should be most ashamed of themselves.

Essayist, critic, and philosopher George Steiner is far more intelligent and incisive than I, so I include a pastiche of pertinent excerpts from his 1989 book, Real Presences.
"The usages and values predominant in the consumer societies of the West today [are] the secondary and the parasitic[...]. Literate humanity is solicited daily by millions of words, printed, broadcast, screened, about books which it will never open, music it will not hear, works of art it will never set eyes on. A perpetual hum of aesthetic commentary, of on-the-minute judgments, of pre-packaged pontifications, crowds the air. Presumably, the greater part of art-talk or literary reportage, of music reviews or ballet criticism, is skimmed rather than read, heard but not listened to. None the less, the effect is antithetical to that visceral, personal encounter[...]. There is little 'ingestion'; it is the 'digest' that prevails.


The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual and social configuration; but the honing is uniform. Political enormity and the circus, the leaps of science and those of the athlete, apocalypse and indigestion, are given the same edge. Paradoxically, this monotone of graphic urgency anaesthetizes. The utmost beauty or terror are shredded at close of day. We are made whole again, and expectant, in time for the morning edition.


Two principal impulses energize the American spirit: immanence and egalitarianism. The crux of American time is now. The past matters in direct reference to its usability in and by the present. [...] No other culture has so dignified the immanent. [...] Poets, novelists, choreographers, painters of the most derivative or passing interest, are made the object of seminars and dissertations, of undergraduate lectures and post-doctoral research. The axioms of the transcendent in the arts of understanding and of judgment [...] are invested in the overnight."
Steiner, I presume, frowns on the Top Ten lists and "best of the decade" summaries as much as I do. I also believe that he would dismiss as "derivative or [of] passing interest" most (though not all) of the artists that Smith praises in her article. The cultural longevity of most on Smith's list is questionable, certainly alongside the likes of Alec Soth, Bill Viola, Matthew Day Jackson, Omer Fast, or Tom Uttech, all contemporary artists crafting intelligent and soulful artworks.

Smith writes, at the article's close, "In all, we are confronted with the distinct possibility that quantity and quality may not be so mutually exclusive after all. More means more better." That's very true. But more also means more bad, of course, which is why we today have an urgent need for critics, curators, and gallerists who, like Steiner and Donald Kuspit, are willing to reside outside the community, to avoid political entanglements, and to judge, sometimes harshly. To those critics, artists, and gallerists already plugged in, let's begin this decade, this arbitrary but useful marker in our human journey, with a renewed commitment (a resolution, if you prefer) to be more rigorous, contemplative, and socially committed. The art world, like the world at large, needs fixing, and responsible action is the only thing for it.

Happy Twenty-Ten. Here's hoping that it's healthy and auspicious.

Image credit: Ryan Trecartin, 2007

1 comment:

Donald Frazell said...

Culture is never evolved in a vacuum, all is built upon what became before. If we are ignorant of it, then we are at the level of earliest humanity, immature, yet still of passion. But passion has been banned, it is upsetting, and doesnt support the status quo, as everything is about the now, and those who have keeping their lifestyles growing their goal, never lessening even if times dictate it must.

Gauguin and Matisse were considered rebels against French culture, yet they truly continued it. George Braque being derided for making cubes, yet at his death was given a burial of a French hero. The epitome of French culture, the School of Paris being almost totally followers of him and Bonnard, yet truly of universal themes and progress.

Purpose is what dictates technique and style, with no content, art is but decoration. This is what is lacking. Instead we have derivative slices of Cezannes apple, or decadent prosaic themes of self worship and psychological aberration. Absolving such "sins' as simply sophisticatied, instead of building for a better future for mankind by constantpurification and jettisoning that which is not of humanities betterment.

God has been banned, a truly evolving concept, the only one that counts, and creative arts main concern, along with a common mythology of who WE are, of humanities growing definition, and exploring the world we live in. All laid aside, at the temple of self worhsip.

I do believe this will be a huge year, either a turning to a gathering of humanity, arts true calling, visualizing our essence, or fall into splintered tribes, to devolved into eventual chaos. Art is a unifying tool, that is its role in culture, our Purpose. We must toss all the accumulated garbage of the decades of careerism and meism, for constructive self cirticism, endless study of how we got here, and feeling what is important to us. For passion is at arts core. Or it does not exist.

art collegia delenda est