Saturday, February 23, 2013

Back in school -- liberated from history

This week in art history class we read about the dividing line between "modern" art and "contemporary" art.  It falls somewhere around 1970 and its distinguishing feature is that contemporary art, unlike modern art and all earlier movements and genres, is not part of a continuing narrative of art history, not part of a grand trajectory of styles that change over the centuries, each one emanating from the ones before.

Instead, contemporary art has been liberated from art history.  Contemporary artists can do any damn thing they please, borrowing from any source they wish and combining ideas and motifs from many different periods, styles and sources.  They have also been liberated from those pesky concepts of standards and criteria for judging value.  Where once it was legitimate and appropriate for critics to identify "good art" or "bad art," that's no longer true.

My paper this week reflects on what has been lost in the crossing from the old world of formal standards into the anything-goes world of contemporary art.  If there are no commonly accepted standards of what constitutes art, let alone what constitutes good or bad art, then the only mechanism that can fill the vacuum is the marketplace.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (detail) -- sold in October for $34 million, the most ever paid at auction for work by a living artist.  The painting had extra cachet because the seller was rock star Eric Clapton.

I find it ironic that the (usually French) philosophers who hold capitalism in such passionate contempt are complicit in this abdication of value to the crass philistines of the big-time art market. The philosophers apparently like to think of contemporary art as being untethered from daily life, gloriously liberated from the stultifying traditions and history of art, able to do whatever it wants without consequence.  Yet no human endeavor is truly separable from life.  If artists wish to be supermen soaring above petty rules and regulations, they will be disappointed when it's time to pay the rent.  Those who glory in the freedom to appropriate from all sources, to give new meaning to established images, may be rudely awakened when they are sued by the makers or corporate owners of those images.

In flushing the concept of standards down the drain, the philosopher-kings of contemporary art may face unintended consequences.  If the art world is to exist without standards, what will be taught in schools of art; and if schools of art wither away, what will become the feeder system for the pro leagues of the big-time gallery/market complex?  Perhaps Yale will offer a joint MFA/MBA to reflect the realities of art production.

With no standards and criteria to be learned, who will staff the galleries and museums?  Perhaps the ideal gallerist or curator will no longer be an art history major but a marketer fresh from an apprenticeship at Disneyland.  This is already happening in the museum world, with its emphasis on blockbuster shows, but at least so far the blockbuster is seen as the necessary cash cow to support the other elevated (and worthier) missions of the institution.  In the absence of standards and traditions of high art, perhaps the cash cow will take over and the other shows and objects will be divested as hamburger.

With no standards and criteria emanating from the art world, how will galleries, collectors and auctioneers decide what is valuable?  Instead of the educated taste of a community of artists and art connoisseurs, we will have only the trendy taste of rich people for luxury goods.  Perhaps Gagosian will be acquired by LVMH, with the Hirsts displayed and marketed alongside cognac, champagne and luggage.

In inventing and/or identifying a world freed from the burden of standards, the champions of contemporary art may find themselves regretting what they wished for.


  1. Interesting observations. I took a class on contemporary art last spring and it was hard to wrap my mind around. I can say that my school still has standards and criteria for art making, but maybe we are behind the times.

  2. Parts of the art world do seem to be rushing up their own fundament, but I also used to worry about the publishing world getting rid of editors and replacing them with the money men. In that latter arena it seems that just as quickly as the larger and larger publishing houses expand and swallow each other, small independents arise with good old core values and produce worthwhile titles - until they too are swallowed, ... and then new small independents arise - etc. etc. So maybe that is happening with the art world too.

  3. Wow, you are just assuming that all standards need to come through organized channels and that museum directors hold the high ground as to what is good. Throughout history it has always been the maverick individual or group that has bucked the system and come out ahead. Look at Henry Ford who pushed to make cars for the middle class, or the early computer gurus who forged ahead even with major ridiculing from the jocks or Steve Jobs who made both utilitarian and beautiful objects. If society creates only with a set of known standards and criteria set by a few people we are going to be severely limited in our future.

    1. I'm not saying that standards must be set through organized channels, but if they're not, then you either have no standards at all, or standards set by the marketplace. Ford, Jobs, and the other pioneers you mention succeeded by and through the marketplace, which may work pretty well when you're talking about business.

      But when you're talking about art it seems to me that marketplace "standards" have drawbacks, some of which came to mind in this paper.

  4. I think, as with almost anything, the golden path lies somewhere in the middle. Standards may well be worth knowing - so you are aware of what you are disagreeing with and going against. Total freedom in the field of art will eventually lead to a debasing into effect-ivism and block-buster processes of displaying. As it can be seen with TV - once the market took over, quality went down. Or with the EU - once the politicians stopped pretending this was all for the idea of a common continent, history of humankind and stuff, but let the market reign (which they had intended it to be for from the beginning) things went down the drain. That will happen with art, too. Too many blockbusters kill the show, and the seriousness of people involved. But perhaps there is another chance for art, after that. Just the question remains: how long will it take to get to that stage?!

  5. I disagree. Throughout history there has always been an abundance of mediocrity with a few superb items standing above the crowd. Some of the network shows on television today are better than ever, even with the so called "blockbusters". Total freedom is the only way to assure complete creativity.

  6. Interesting discussion. I have just started a Fine Arts Degree and am wrestling with similar aspects of conecptual art. Contemporary art it seems to me does expand the viewers thought processes by placing the art expression in a context which each person investigates from their own experience. I'm not usre about "standards" but I suspect that we can all develop an aesthetic intelligence which enables artist and viewer to form an opinion, neither is in a void