The Schlock of the New: What We Hate About the Visual Art Scene

Aristotle once said, “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”

The same critique may be administered to both the commodification of art and the popularization of art.

More than ever art that exists within and accepts influences of late stage or hyper-capitalism. In such a scenario, the goal of mega-corporations is to monetize our every action and click, entailed by a trained popular mindset, to be defined as a faithfulness to the most easily consumable, i.e. the infantilizing of art.

There may be art that sits with autonomy but it seems increasingly the rare or fringe. We think of Fluxus art, that was for the most part always resistant.

More normative is the point of view that to be an artist is to “create Art” with a capital A, bringing with any route of inquiry, if there is any, a host of presuppositions that frame Art’s manifestation. Standards determined by the commodification and popularization of art to a large part specify the artistic practice from initial search to outcome as form. In keeping one eye on these standards, the artist provides evidence that allows the degradation to be identified. Their reasoning is thus circular.

Amanda Beech, whose thinking I greatly respect writes, “The existing reference of the name ‘Art,’ defended by a theory of aesthetic autonomy therefore naturalizes itself to the process of capitalist accumulation where together they eulogize a concept of difference.” (1) Or the difference so long as it’s situated within the larger homogeneity, the one with the capital A under the aegis of the capital C. Why don’t stop pretending and just say CapitalA for CapitalArtism to stress that both actors are symbionts. Accepting this condition, we note that the critique of this easy relationship is also a characteristic of the contemporary, with the important e-flux journal often leading the charge, but found in any spot where considerations of the contemporary exist outside of dogma, historical indebtedness, and market toadyism.

A thread appeared on Reddit recently where godzillainaneckbrace asked, what artists, writers, fairs, or “movements” were posters ready to see burn out. (2)

The top votes went to a poster who said “Please god have mercy on me and stop Banksy and Kaws.” It was a pleading to cease with street art that even a tween wouldn’t consider outré or edgy. It was a supplication to stop stuff like Banksy’s 2018 auction house incident that struck me as a sophomoric and prearranged media stunt. And it was a prayer to end the cranking out of KAWS stuff, cartoony and relatively poor sorts of rips/mixes of Murakami, Tom Otterness, and Al Held. I agree. These one-namers are ridiculous symptoms of artists placating to monied Karens and Kevins who are basically morons about art. One poster writes, “finally someone else who can’t stand those brats.” I could slam their work all day: It’s worse really, it’s where art ends and the catbox begins. In my view they repeat, having sold out long ago to the least common denominator called easy public consumption, much like the crappiest of crappy pop music, think Play that Song by Train. Seriously, one would have to have an infantile discernment of music to like their offensive redo of Carmichael and Loesser’s Heart and Soul. The fact it went ARIA platinum and reach 41 on the the Hot 100, whatever that is, proves either a massive secret governmental lobotomy initiative or whole populations are actively being brainwashed. And when challenged the justification is that money equates with quality (more brainwashing). The point is decent, serious artists are sick of it.

Other posters were done with artists whose names have become brands and their art simply a commodity. I certainly share these sentiments. Some of these branded artists once started out with seriousness, maybe, butI think they certainly sold out in the long run. These “fruit grocers” to use a term found in the Netherlands include, as listed on the forum:

Damien Hirst, David Shrigley, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Marina Abramović, and Cindy Sherman. These pretty babies have been and are split between The Guardian and The New York Times in terms of incessant sensationalist jingoistic lauding, which in part accounts for their popularity. We know it’s money media justifying money collecting. I personally, and it seems others too, don’t enjoy seeing their cutesy often superficial-concept work anymore just as I also don’t relish going to the neighbor’s house to see photographs of the recent vacation with the kids. And of course they could care less about me as I’m not part of their satin-elbowed set pretending to be so relevant and so risqué.

Other artists getting slammed by posters include Rashid Johnson (Philip Taafe meets Jean-Michel Basquiat), Francis Alÿs (self described artistic “midwife” known mostly for Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing that documents his pushing a block of ice through Mexico City.), Kevin Beasley (draped fabric), Patrick Martinez (One liner neon signs), and Abigail DeVille (Robert Rauschenberg meets mannequin legs).

In my view, when Art21 picks up artists, the enculturation of art into the worst of capitalist systems and structures of economy is indicated, in other words the stench has begun.

Much of this art world condition is life in an incestuous echo chamber. Artists get built up, they settle in, and then they repeat a signature style ad infinitum to the cheers of driveling fashionistas. They’re the same whether frequenting PBS or the Basel Art Fair. I recall one of the worst examples was the Cy Twombly retrospective at the MoMA. After a few interesting early experiments, Twombly developed his cursive loops and scrawls and repeated them over and over and over. Room after room was filled with packs of vulgar Westchester dilettantes who were goo-gooing and gah-gahing before them all, probably wishing the paintings could be their bland distractions on the feature wall of their dining rooms. Jackson Pollock did this too. Mark Tobey did this too. At the ends of their careers they began to create pastiches of their own work. Back then it was an anomaly. And this is what always terrified me about the Twombly show, it signaled a point where the pastichization of one’s art had become accepted as normative in late 20th Century visual art.

Then there are all the top artists who one poster described as doing “ten variations on Lucian Freud.” This poster was in particular “so tired of figurative painters [who] sold on the basis of…novelty” and sick of others who don’t have ““technical skills or formal sensibilities to execute upon [sic] their ideas.” It affects not just figuration but all forms and styles of art. According to the poster, zombie formalism finally hit figuration. Zombie formalism was a term to describe mostly MFA artists and recent MFA graduates in painting who mindlessly went through the gestures of rehashing of various forms of abstraction. In doing so they presupposed most of the aesthetic norms that made abstraction likeable and salable, which was their true goal all along, without the painting being driven by any serious seeking.

Posters are sick of nationalistic mouthpieces such as Art in America. They are sick of both pay galleries and vanity/pay-per-show galleries.

Egos didn’t fare well either. One poster called Jerry Saltz the “Donald Trump of the art world but nobody seems to care.” If you want evidence and have the stomach, take a look at Saltz’s Frida Kahlo, based on Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser (1940). (3) Now if you still aren’t vomiting a little bit in your mouth, you can watch reruns of the old television series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Make Art Great Again?) in which “judges,” including Saltz, applied vague standards in a manner that would be abhorrent in any decent classroom. As the hosts, who I always just viewed as opinionated fops, paraded around I was reminded of us an outdated era where sage on the stage, know-it-all professors had pet students, normally those they slept with, and who graded on feeling because art is to be felt, or on transcendence because art is to be experienced, or on [insert your own mysterious criteria here that probably is best conveyed in a scenario that includes drinks and some fawning].

What bothers the posters, I presume, is that in the fact that nobody seems to care is an inclusion of artists. It’s that so many, including artists, seemingly drank the Kool-Aid of money dreams as the raison d’être, even at the expense of their own artistic trajectory or ethical stance. As one poster wrote, these are people who “act super woke” but who are “commodifying the entirety of you [their] existence for fake capital (social capital).” Here the poster is also talking about those who upload images of their art and go after likes and followers on social media sites. I find it much like the critique offered on the radical metaeducational Pinky Show where there’s a phrase from those like socially conscious yuppie SUV mommy that says, “They’ll be like, “Whoo! I just threw a water bottle in the recycling bin! The planet is saaaved…!” (5)

The dislike continued for artists who just used technological or social media platforms for their own gain, without any consciousness of post-internet art in which the technologies or platforms are in the service of artists. I agree but I won’t get into the details here as that would require a fair amount of foundation to make it clear.

Theorists were not exempt either, as one poster wrote, they were sick of art “lubed up with Deleuze” which although it has a nice ring, asks for clarification. One presumes they are tired of art continually being framed by art’s actualization of its social function, or as Anne Sauvagnargues wrote, interpretations of desire and power. (4) I’m more forgiving here because I generally view one of art’s functions as a philosophical project, and as such there are many ways to approach such a project. But, true enough, when the unregulated market for art takes over, as arguably it has, then factors outside of art control what art becomes important, which one poster said, can be “Deleuzian videos of jelly stomping.” This would be, I suppose, akin to film studies professors taking seriously the toothpaste regularly pumped out of Hollywood. In any field there’s always an army of sycophants ready, willing, and able to help spin dross into, into….fake tans?

Finally, even art schools take a hit. Which artist’s daddy owned half of wall street? Which artist received a check for a million dollars on their 18th birthday? Which artist is the spouse of a famous movie star? Art school students know this, and they know they are outsiders who have no chance to compete. These outsider artists are smart enough to recognize that the same nepotism that kiboshed Bernie in 2016, or that allows the majority of the super rich to inherit money while spouting it’s all about hard work and dedication, is the same nepotism that infects the world of art from top to top.

It’s a Vegas art world. What happens on Madison Avenue states on Madison Avenue and what happens in the stale halls of art schools stays in the stale halls of art schools.

One poster questioned, “What is art in the age of $100,000 art degree?” Their answer is humorous: By “setting your students up to formulating a financially sustainable studio your [sic] contributing to the ever growing sea of regressive cynicism bottled in oil on canvas.” Artists with art degrees contribute to the economy sure, but not in ways they expect. They buy tons of art materials, they shine shoes at the museum cloakroom, they sit at a gallery desk for minimum wage, they crate art in a back room, they pay to enter museum shows, and generally live that fantastic artistic life in which true creativity means dining on wet cardboard and cat food while unable to afford health care. “The myth is strong with this one,” as Darth Vader wearing a Mark Kostabi mask might have said.

The forum responses were not all negative. “A ton of grassroots stuff” is out there said one poster, and there is art “taking aim at powerful groups” such as institutional critique. But, it is not my goal here to detail the amazing groups and art being done globally parallel to the sickness of artistic ego, commodification, and disenfranchisement. For a good entry point, take a read of Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. (6)

References

(1) Beech, A. (2014). Art and the New Materialist Power: The Death of Anti-representationalist Critique in The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism: Part Three, (pp. 293–318).

(2) Found online at https://www.reddit.com/r/ContemporaryArt/comments/er6o5u/hate_thread_galleries_artists_writers_fairs_or/

(3) Frida Kahlo, based on Self Portrait, Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser (1940). Photo: Marvin Orellana. Photo-illustration: Joe Darrow for New York Magazine. Found online at https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/jerry-saltz-how-to-be-an-artist.html (Scroll down to Lesson 6).

(4) See for example the review by Genosko, G. (July 26, 2014) of Deleuze and Art by Anne Sauvagnargues, Samantha Bankston (tr.), Bloomsbury, 2013. Found online at https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/deleuze-and-art/

(5) The Pinky Show. Re: Structure, Power, and Agency. Found online at https://www.pinkyshow.org/projectarchives/videos/re-structure-power-and-agency

(6) Sholette, G. (2017). Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. (Of note: The foreword is by Lucy Lippard). London, UK: Pluto Press.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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