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Cash-and-Carry Aesthetics

For years now the art world has been unpredictable, fragmented, disorienting, like a hair-raising rollercoaster ride. The economic situation in the galleries and the auction houses reaches dizzying heights followed by equally bewildering depths. And new artists and art markets emerge even before last season’s artists and exhibitions can be absorbed. All of this has a fascination, no question about it. Drop into the galleries for an afternoon and you may find yourself amused. I do. But when I go back to the galleries week after week and month after month, I find that my impressions grow unstable. I feel uneasy. And I know that I am not alone. Although gallerygoers are stirred by contemporary art and museumgoers are having extraordinary experiences, there is a widespread feeling that nothing really adds up—either for the artists or for the audiences. No matter how eye-filling the encounters that people are having with works of art, these experiences, stripped of context and implication, can end up somehow unsatisfactory. For inveterate gallerygoers the art world has come to resemble a puzzle to which nobody really has any solution.

And why is there no solution? There is no solution because too many of the pieces are missing. The shared assumptions about the nature of art that ought to bind together our variegated experiences are nowhere to be found. Look behind the art world’s glittering collage of a facade and you find a pervasive uncertainty, a culture adrift in sour disenchantment. There is so much disappointment and confusion around the very idea of art that even when the art does not disappoint, people find themselves backing away from the experiences they have.

It is not easy for anybody to write about art in this strange, disconcerting time. I cannot say that I find it easy. The days I spend looking at art have their hours of high exhilaration. There is also an underlying anxiety, because the wonders are isolated, and it is difficult to see how things fit together. I keep looking for a key, a theme, a pattern. Week after week, month after month, I go to the museums and the galleries in many cities, but mostly in New York. And in New York, although I visit museums and galleries uptown and downtown and outside of Manhattan, most of the action, at least when it comes to contemporary art, is to be found along the streets of Chelsea, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, north of Fourteenth Street and south of Thirtieth Street. Walking those blocks, waiting for elevators, sometimes finding that the views of the Hudson River outside high windows trump anything on the gallery walls, my thoughts, more impressions than thoughts, are unsettled.

Some days, I see so much and have so few strong experiences that by the time I get in a cab to go home my mind is pretty much a blank. Other times, things begin to fall into place, at least for the moment. Getting excited about new work can be a clarifying experience; that was certainly how I felt when I began to see the DVDs of Jeremy Blake, with their luxuriant, nostalgia-soaked hedonism. At other times, something indifferent or annoying or truly terrible has its own kind of clarifying effect. As I go from gallery to gallery I find myself trying to formulate an idea or develop a little theory, something that helps me make sense of it all. Not long after coming out of a Tony Oursler show—he makes elaborate installations with surreal bits of video projected on sculptural objects—I found myself thinking, “Okay, the art world is now a variety show.” At some point after returning from Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the most widely discussed of the fairs where more and more of the business of art is going on, the words “laissez-faire aesthetics” came together in my head. And then there was the afternoon when I wandered across an empty plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wondering what on earth I could say about the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and came to the conclusion that under the circumstances all I could do was send postcards from nowhere.

Writing, no matter how difficult, is just about the only way I have of making sense of the disconnect between the enthusiasm I feel for some of the work that I’m seeing and my more general distress at an art world that’s drunk on money and publicity. Although some have argued that tougher economic times can lead to a more disciplined—or at least a somewhat chastened—art world, my feeling is that money and publicity remain paramount even when the money is drying up. In any event, long before the art market’s most recent slide—actually, there is a boom-and-bust cycle in every decade—I had realized that value judgments, in and of themselves, would no longer do. There had been a time when I imagined that my responsibilities as a critic were fulfilled when I described my reactions to the work of a particular artist or the work in a particular exhibition. Finding the words to convey those experiences helped crystallize the experiences for me—and, hopefully, for my readers. But description, no matter how convincing or compelling, is no longer enough. Increasingly, what I believe is essential is figuring out how the parts of the puzzle that is the art world fit together—or at least trying to figure it out. I want to look for causes, for the larger patterns that shape the way art is presented and the way the public perceives it. I’m pretty sure about the kinds of experiences that mean the most to me. But how do they fit together? And why are they constantly elbowed to the side by other kinds of experiences? This is not easy to explain, although it surely has something to do with the rapacity of our new Gilded Age, and with the nihilism of an art market eager to dress each and every new trend in a few moth-eaten costumes from the trunk labeled Dadaism.

Am I too negative? That is surely a criticism leveled against many critics. The response, at least my response, is that criticism, even the most negative criticism, can be fueled by enthusiasm, by avidity. I believe mine is. I criticize because I care. Still, when I’m with art world friends and we are happily, exuberantly complaining about any number of aspects of the current scene, there frequently comes a moment when we hear our own words all too clearly, and a terrible gloom settles over the group. In the silence everybody is wondering: Is it really this bad? When that question is raised, I like to invoke the example of Charles Baudelaire, who, in his Salons, was as devastating about the art world of mid-nineteenth-century Paris as anybody could possibly be about early twenty-first-century New York. And yet, I remind my friends, Baudelaire was writing even as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Gustave Courbet were painting, and he certainly knew there were giants in his midst, even if he had doubts about Ingres’s work. Baudelaire, of course, lived in one of the great ages of criticism, and ours is a time when many question the value of criticism, and newspaper and magazine editors more and more seem to feel that they can do without critical writing. The role that art critics and art magazines play in our culture is greatly diminished. It is the dealers and the collectors and perhaps a few curators who are the arbiters. Even Artforum, a magazine once both revered and despised for its strong critical voice, is now mostly known for the advertisements in the print edition and for a website that has become a key source of gossip about art world goings-on.

Of course, when the poet Randall Jarrell, half a century ago, published an essay titled “The Age of Criticism,” he was not happy about what he saw, either. His complaint, focused on literary matters, was that there was too much discussion of the arts that fed on other discussions of the arts, and too little emphasis on direct experience and on criticism as a record of that experience. Of the better literary journals of his day, such as Partisan Review, he commented that “each of these contains several poems and a piece of fiction—sometimes two pieces; the rest is criticism.” Jarrell was not against criticism. How could he have been, considering that he was as devoted to his own criticism as to his own poetry? What he wanted to emphasize was an essential distinction between the visceral experience of art and the analytical experience of criticism. And he was opposed to any form of critical writing so absorbed in its own analytical operations that it drew attention away from the immediate experience of art. There is surely still too much self-aggrandizing criticism. But in the art world the sad fact is that hardly anybody is any longer willing to criticize anything.


Among artists and committed gallerygoers there are now so many things that nobody is willing to argue about that it is difficult to know where to begin. Nobody any longer wants to make a case for or against representational painting or sculpture, or for or against abstract painting or sculpture. The old debates about the relative importance of form and content are seldom heard nowadays. And anybody who begins to speak about the importance of high culture in a democratic society, or who wants to make some critical distinctions between high culture and popular culture, is likely to be met by skeptical looks, as if there were something unacceptable about even the possibility of such a discussion. As for discussions about quality, about why some things are better and some things are worse, these are frequently dismissed as intellectually dishonest, as grounded in insupportable assumptions about the nature of artistic experience and the nature of art.

Now it is of course true that many of the old arguments—about representation and abstraction, form and content, high and low, good and bad—were academic or meretricious or both. The essential experience of art is a matter of emotions that can be powerful or elusive or any number of other things, and to the extent that those old arguments drew attention away from the fundamentals, they were symptomatic of the crisis that Jarrell described in “The Age of Criticism.” The debaters, as Jarrell might have pointed out, were often blind to all subtleties and nuances, or willfully ignored subtleties and nuances they knew existed. The old arguments, however, no matter how maddening they could become, had a way of sharpening the mind, if only because the weaknesses in the arguments meant that new arguments had to be devised. What is to be deeply regretted today is the eclipse of the spirit that fueled the intellectual debates of yore. The arguments that used to erupt on street corners and at gallery openings and at dinner parties and everywhere that artists and art lovers met, no matter how painful and even pointless they could at times appear, were in essence idealistic, an effort to understand better, to see with greater clarity: to penetrate to the essence of art. When nobody wants to argue about anything anymore—and that is where we are today—the likelihood is that nobody believes in much of anything. Or at least nobody is willing to admit in public that they are in fact a believer in some particular idea about art.
Welcome to the age of laissez-faire aesthetics. Anything goes, and the old modern rebellion against standards and distinctions has been replaced by a newfangled conviction that anything can go with anything else. Take, as an example, the words that Sabine Folie, then a curator at the Kunsthalle in Vienna, wrote for Dear Painter, Paint me . . . , an exhibition that toured Europe a few years ago. “Trash,” Folie explains, “has become a transcendental necessity.” In her essay, entitled “Meta-Trash,” Folie observes that “there can no longer be any painting without trash.” This statement is not meant to open a conversation. Folie is not asking if trash can in fact be transcendent (whatever that might mean). She is simply presenting an outrageous juxtaposition as a statement of fact. What holds the art world’s attention is the commingling of heretofore irreconcilable standards and distinctions, not high versus low but the shotgun marriage of high and low. “Trash,” Folie remarks, “hangs over our heads like a sword of Damocles.” The truth is far worse. The sword has fallen. “Meta-trash” is triumphant. The mayhem is almost indescribable. And if next season trash and transcendence get divorced and each marry something else, so much the better. The other day, in the catalogue of an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s late work, I read an essay in which Warhol turns out to be a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It took me awhile to get the drift of laissez-faire aesthetics. I was held back by my assumption that even the kookiest art world ideologues must believe in some sort of logic, or at least some connection between cause and effect. I am not sure I would even now understand what makes the laissez-faire aesthetes tick, had I not been struggling to come to grips with the skyrocketing reputations of a number of younger artists, especially Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin. I could not see why Yuskavage’s soft-porn figure paintings, with their smarmy renderings of babes with big breasts and big hair, were praised, simultaneously, for evoking Giovanni Bellini’s altarpieces and Walt Disney cartoons. How, I wondered, could anybody mistake Yuskavage’s glib highlights and shadows, like something from a mid-century magazine illustration, for Venetian chiaroscuro? I was equally confounded by the press I read about the painter John Currin, whose slick, sleazy studies of suburban housewives were said to be channeling both the mythological narratives of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter Lucas Cranach the Elder and the raunchy cartoons in MAD magazine. What I eventually realized was that I was looking for emotional or intellectual coherence when in fact those were values that the artists and their supporters had either rejected or perhaps simply lost track of; it is difficult to say which. Classicism and kitsch are now nothing more than differently spiced sugary treats, to be picked out of the candy dish—and then sampled, consumed, or tossed in the garbage. Yuskavage and Currin can channel high and low with impunity, with no obligation to reconcile them, or indeed any idea that there might be a conflict.

The people who are buying and selling the most highly priced contemporary art right now—think of them as the laissez-faire aesthetes—believe that any experience that anyone has with a work of art is equal to any other. They imagine that the most desirable work of art is the one that inspires a range of absolutely divergent meanings and impressions almost simultaneously. The collectors who make sure that John Currin’s shows are sold out even before they open believe that it is their privilege to respond to anything at any time in any way they choose. A painting is simply what everybody or anybody says it is, what everybody or anybody wishes it to be. When collectors hang a Currin on the wall, they are given permission—more than that, they are given the right—to appreciate this oilcloth horror as a painterly painting as exquisite as a Velázquez, or to enjoy it as an incompetent high-kitsch send-up of classical painting, or to assess its value as social commentary, or to laugh at it as a piece of Dadaist stupidity for stupidity’s sake. Or they may enjoy their Currin as a financial trophy pure and simple, proof of their buying power. Or they may regard it as an object of delectation, in much the way that they have been instructed by some art-historian-turned-art-consultant to enjoy a painting by Bonnard. They can have it every way. They experience no conflict. The painting is whatever the collector wants it to be. And Currin gives them enough cunningly mixed signals that the possibilities seem endless.

I recognize that the taste for Currin, and for Yuskavage and a number of other artists, is in part a continuation of developments that are now a generation or two old. The what-the-hell attitude with which the new high-end consumers of art confront the whole question of meaning will strike some as reminiscent of the mindset of a number of collectors in the early sixties. Back then, there was a group of big spenders who were turning their attention from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art and boasting about how much fun they were having now that they had sloughed off the serious themes of the mid-century abstractionists. The in-your-face kitsch of Currin and Yuskavage is certainly related to that earlier rejection of modernist ideas about seriousness and quality. And laissez-faire aesthetics also owes something to the ironic fascination with downright incompetence that gave birth to the movement known as “Bad” Painting, kicked off in 1978 with a show of that name at the New Museum, organized by Marcia Tucker. By the time Tucker mounted her exhibition, there certainly existed what many regarded as a critical groundwork for the new counter-connoisseurship, in essays such as Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on Camp” and Pauline Kael’s 1969 “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” There are, however, essential differences between garbage then and garbage now. They are distinctions that would have been perfectly clear to Sontag and Kael, who had always taken for granted the significance of traditional artistic values, and who both, late in life, pointed out that they had never meant for camp or trash to trump old-fashioned quality. Pop Art and “Bad” Painting, in any event, were self-consciously ironic; they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent. Irony, even in the whatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the eighties and nineties, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They had a target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea. The artists treat everything equally. David Zwirner, the dealer who has played a major role in pushing Lisa Yuskavage’s reputation into the stratosphere, has observed in an open letter to the artist that “frankly, I am not sure what your work is about.” He makes this declaration without any apparent embarrassment. And while Zwirner does hasten to add that the paintings are “utterly sincere,” I am left with the gathering suspicion that the meaning of the work is designed to be unresolved, that the work is meant to register as noncommittal, at least from the audience’s point of view. This laissez-faire attitude is just right for a new breed of high-end shopaholics.

John Currin has become the voice of laissez-faire aesthetics. The man and his art and his reputation reflect the cracked values of an art world where most of the people in charge no longer know what gives a work of art life. The unease or confusion that greets Currin’s portraits of suburban matrons and young cuties and gay couples, larded with allusions to Old Master paintings and pop culture, is said to mark the emergence of a freshly off-kilter sensibility. His lounge-lizard gambits are hailed for giving classical values a modern twist. In the catalogue of a recent retrospective of Currin’s work, the art historian Robert Rosenblum announced that “Currin knows his Old Masters inside out,” an assessment that Rosenblum based on his experience going through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection with the artist. Currin has even curated a selection of masterworks at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, thereby proving that he likes Velázquez as much as the next guy. He certainly knows how to spritz ideas. He has a line on everything, from photographs of models in Cosmopolitan to Cranach’s Venuses and Eves. He dabbles with misogyny, but slyly, so that it registers as nouveau masculinity. And of course this pleases the guys in Tribeca, with their fashion-model girlfriends and steak dinners and cigars, among whom there might be somebody with the half a million bucks that you need to buy one of Currin’s paintings. This relative newcomer—Currin was born in 1962—is the art world’s equivalent of the fast-talking politician. He will overwhelm you with glittery ideas even as each sentence that comes out of his mouth leaves you more convinced that he believes in nothing.

The laissez-faire art world is a treacherous place. Even the most hard-fought vision or vantage point can look implausible in this slippery universe. And any artist who manages not only to maintain a personal vision but also to build a solid critical reputation becomes a paradoxical figure—an anomaly, if not a freak. Consider Bill Jensen, who is now in his sixties. He began, some thirty years ago, painting dark-toned, febrile abstractions, dream visions haunted by memories of the art of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove. In recent years his work has become more open, more expansive, more casually lyrical. Working with paint that has sometimes been thinned to the consistency of Japanese ink, Jensen unfurls jagged, looping calligraphic strokes over surfaces that have the luxuriant patinas of faded gold leaf and weatherworn bronze and centuries-old vellum. If there is something sleek and easy on the eyes about these paintings, that is just their Gilded Age come-on. In most of the compositions, broad strokes of paint create a floating foreground suspended before an equally ambiguous background. The weight of the colors and the differences in surface treatments give these juxtapositions a specificity, a focus. Jensen’s paintings have a fascinating double life, grabbing a gallerygoer on first glance while also working slowly, almost covertly. He lets us know what kinds of things he is thinking about. An interest in Japanese ink painting is evident. So is his fascination with an old idea of the artist as a craftsman. And one can see many allusions to Willem de Kooning and to Abstract Expressionism in general.

Among artists Jensen has an ardent following. He is a figure in the Brooklyn bohemia that nowadays centers around life along Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, where the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings browse in one of New York’s few independent bookstores, Spoonbill & Sugartown. He has exhibited with blue-chip galleries, first Mary Boone, and now Cheim & Read. And yet from the vantage point of the international art machine, Bill Jensen hardly exists. The trouble for the laissez-faire art world must be that Jensen’s work rejects consensus, that it’s so particularly, so insistently what it is. There’s no irony about Jensen’s relationship to de Kooning or Japanese brush painting. And when his color becomes extravagantly giddy, with eye-popping oranges and purples and greens, the point is not to be campily carnivalesque but to be heartfelt, exuberant, exultant. What Jensen cares about is his own inward-turning feelings, sometimes to the point of obscurity. So the process by which this work finds its audience is naturally slow, incremental, irregular, unpredictable. Why should it be otherwise? The health of painting does not depend on huge audiences; a couple of dozen people can sustain an artist’s career. I am not thinking here only of modern art or of the avant-garde. Jean Fouquet’s illuminated pages and Nicolas Poussin’s allegories were meant to speak to minuscule audiences.

Jensen has his imitators in the art world, no question about it. But he is not a consensus artist. His effects are not reproducible. His best paintings are singular statements, irrevocably solitary. And so they violate the very principle of laissez-faire aesthetics, which has everything to do with an emotional promiscuity, with an ability to be all things to all people. In this sense, laissez-faire aesthetics mimics the reach of popular culture, although without the democratic idealism that gives the best of pop culture its essential power. It is the very essence of popular culture that the intense feelings a song or a movie kicks off in one person are also experienced by many other people, almost simultaneously. When somebody refers to “the summer we fell in love and everybody was playing our song,” they are describing one of the essential pop experiences—the sense that the individual is connected with the group.

Among laissez-faire artists there is an assumption, sometimes openly voiced, often silently implied, that if an art experience cannot spread like wildfire it is not really significant—and that it is somehow undemocratic. I reject both claims. It is true that the greatest popular artists produce at least the illusion that they are living where the audience is living. But painters set out to do something entirely different. We interact with a painter’s work in a radically different way. We develop a one-on-one relationship with a painting, a relationship that is intimate, maybe even secretive. When people find something lacking in even the best contemporary painting and sculpture, they may actually be saddling this work with an unwarranted assumption, widespread today, that all major works of art are going to have the pervasive effect that we know from some of our great experiences with popular art—with movies and rock music. The result is a flattening of all artistic experience.

The biggest danger now confronting people who love painting and sculpture is a unitary view of culture, which in practice amounts to a view that all culture is, or should be, popular culture. No one personifies this new attitude more completely than Matthew Barney, the good-looking man who is often the subject of his own videos and photographs, and who has become an expert in inflating experimentalist gambits to grand-opera proportions, never more so than with Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, mounted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2003. Barney’s sleek self-consciousness enabled him, in his younger years, to make some money as a male model for J. Crew and Macy’s advertising campaigns. He offers modernist obscurantism wrapped in a metrosexual package, and the result is another version of laissez-faire aesthetics. He was a downtown sensation with his first show at Barbara Gladstone in 1991, for which he videotaped himself, naked except for some mountain climbing equipment, scaling the walls of the gallery. Since then, he has become an international pop-bohemian phenomenon.

Visitors to the Guggenheim show were probably a bit vague as to why Barney, looking as buff as can be in a pink kilt, had filmed himself climbing up the rotunda of the Guggenheim and then projected the results on video monitors suspended from the ceiling of the museum. My impression, however, was that people were glad to go along with the arcana of the Cremaster cycle, a series of five phony-baloney mythopoetic movies, accompanied by dumpster loads of junk from some godforsaken gymnasium of the imagination. Barney stars in a sprawling but static pageant of athletic prowess, cross-dressing, and gender-bending, with settings ranging from an Art Deco skyscraper to a rugged coastal landscape. The audience at the Guggenheim may not know what is going to come next, but they immediately take everything in stride. They feel oh-so-up-to-date when Barney poses in a gynecological examination chair. It doesn’t matter what any of this means. You’re simply expected to accept the illogic. (The cremaster, for those who have not yet heard, is the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles; it is described in a twenty-page glossary in the Barney catalogue that has entries ranging from “anus island” to “zombie.”) With Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, the Guggenheim Museum became an artsy-fartsy version of the multiplex. And that is right in line with laissez-faire aesthetics.

What laissez-faire aesthetics has left us with—in the museums, the galleries, the art schools, and the art magazines—is a weakening of conviction, an unwillingness to ever take a stand, a refusal to champion, or even surrender to, any first principle. More than anything else, what laissez-faire aesthetics threatens, with its insistence that anything goes, is the disciplined imagination without which an artist is rudderless, a wanderer in the wilderness. Some will say that what has finally been eclipsed is the modernist adventure, with its celebration of a well-defined set of artistic principles and values: purity, progress, formalism, abstraction. This is not necessarily to be regretted. The way art is understood will of necessity change over time. But what is now in doubt is much bigger than modernity. It is nothing less than the freestanding power of artistic experience, which we discover in works of every time and place, from the Tanagra figurines and the Romanesque manuscripts to the paintings of Rembrandt, Poussin, Corot, and Mondrian. There is nothing laissez-faire about any of these masterworks. When we contemplate them in all of their particularity—in the insistent singularity of their poetry and in the almost delusional extremism of their endlessly various visions—we see that they are anything but easygoing, that they are, each in its own way, relentlessly, triumphantly intolerant. An artist’s vision is always a solitary kingdom.