February 12, 2004

Talking Trash

We mostly talk about foreign policy over here at B.D. But permit me an aside.

Back in December, while passing through New York, I hit the Whitney to catch an Arshile Gorky exhibit (trust me, I'm not biased as someone with some Armenian heritage, but it was great!).

Taking the elevator back down, I stumbled upon wunder-boy John Currin's exhibit.

Forgive my French, but I thought his work was crap.

So it's gratifying to see that someone can express this much more eloquently and persuasively than I did to the friends I was traipsing through the Whitney with.

Do go read, if you have even a passing interest, Jed Perl in TNR on this (subscription required).

Some key grafs spelling out why, per Perl, Currin's work represents something of the apogee (so far at least) of "meta-trash" in the art world.

First the ultimate reason--the total ascendancy of bricolage gaming about, irony, cynicism--what Nietzsche called the "death of a feeling":

"I really don't care if Currin has actually put a little sweat into his musty impersonations of old master techniques. You can give the canvas a workout and still be a stinko technician. The real problem here is that technique in art cannot be divorced from belief. And Currin believes in nothing. I expect that Currin's fans will roll their eyes at the very mention of belief. The idea that some artistic faith ought to have a hold on their hero-of-the-moment denies Currin the swaggering independence that is mistaken for creative freedom. Currin's supporters, and they are the same people who have pitched for Lichtenstein and Schnabel and Koons, have moved beyond belief. Of course this attitude has a long history, going back to Duchamp's frontal assault on the magical aura of the work of art. But there is a new quality to the skepticism that we are seeing today, for it is not so much a skepticism about the modernist orthodoxy--or about classical or romantic values--as it is an unwillingness to believe that anybody ever actually believed in anything."

Another reason: the detioration of art criticism:

"What is involved in the critical response to Philip Guston and Norman Rockwell and John Currin is not a healthy playfulness about values but a wholesale derangement of values. Art writing has been so perversely clever for so long that some of the people who are banging this stuff out on their laptops may no longer recognize their own jokes. When an earnest critic in Time announced, about the Currin retrospective, that "almost three decades after the death of Fairfield Porter, we could use a decent genre painter again," I felt assaulted from several sides at once, because Porter is so much more than decent and Currin is so much less, and because so many immensely interesting artists have been working with the figure for the past thirty years, year in and year out. Currin floats upward in an atmosphere of critical unreality."

The $$$ factor: people with lots of money sometimes, er, have little to no taste (not necessarily people with real money mind you, but the guys with 500K to burn in Tribeca lofts, or now likely sprinkled through the LES who, as faux-sophisticates and (pre)trendsters, are shopping around for "collectible" stuff to, er, impress the chicks and fill up the walls):

"These are perfectly good questions. And the closest thing to an answer that I can offer is based on empirical observation. While more and more out-and-out mediocrities, such as Richter and Currin, rise to the top of the heap, nearly all the best contemporary artists remain unknown in the wider world, including painters such as Bill Jensen and Joan Snyder, who have exhibited at blue-chip galleries and therefore at least in theory have access to big-time collectors. So I have been forced to conclude that money generally likes mediocrity. Perhaps the self-satisfied vacuity of artists such as Richter and Currin feels familiar to the Wall Street wizards and the Hollywood producers who buy half-a-million-dollar paintings in their spare time. I can find no other way of explaining why certain people find it perfectly logical that a John Currin is worth five hundred thousand dollars, while the very same art world smarties were sent into peals of laughter a few years ago when galleries in London and New York had a price tag of a few million dollars on Balthus's last masterpiece, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a painting that will come to be loved the way the nudes of Correggio and Titian are loved today."

Oh, let's not forget the Zombie-fication of museum-goers:

"Museumgoers have been treated like zombies for so long that by now many of them have given up and are inclined to check even their most cherished assumptions at the door along with their coats. This go-along-to-get-along attitude prepares the way for Currin. Since nobody is sure what he thinks or feels, he can seem to be as hopelessly uncertain as the people who have come to see his paintings at the Whitney. For some visitors, the Currin retrospective may create the illusion that the artist and his audience are getting together to assess our sick society, with its blow-dried matrons and giggly suburbanites, but of course the playing field at the Whitney is anything but level, because Currin is making a fortune by mocking the very people who have paid the price of admission. With Currin, the taste for trash is a kind of free-floating prurience that embraces fashion magazine photography, afternoon soap opera sentimentality, the va-va-voom proportions of Vargas girls pinups, the slick graphic tricks promoted by mail-order learn-to-draw programs, the sensuous tug of pictorial illusionism, the pretensions of the art audience, and the overloaded emotionalism of old master paintings. What the sophisticated audience knows about art--that it can be abstract or representational, that it can be sincere or ironic, that the old masters can be made modern, that the art market is itself a form of art--becomes a series of talking points that give Currin and his sour eclecticism a dizzying aura of significance. "Trash," Sabine Folie remarks, "hangs over our heads like a sword of Damocles." But the truth is far worse. The sword has fallen. And the mayhem is almost indescribable. John Currin, with his studiously inept mix of Cranach and the Cosmo girl, is "meta-trash" triumphant."

Indeed.

Read the whole thing. (And, if you aren't a subscriber to TNR, ante up the twenty odd bucks. It's worth it. Much more than plopping down 500K for Currin's "art", that's for sure!)

Oh, by the way, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted a lot of this a long time back.

Soundbite: In a liberal democracy, without trained aristocratic patronage of the arts, the quality of cultural production would likely inexorably decline.

Why? The artists has to make money, and so his or her product has to appeal to a wider segment. Thus, the mediocrization of artistic production.

Sure, the debate is more complicated. But that's another big reason (related to some that Perl enunciates above) why "meta-trash" is triumphant today.

Posted by Gregory at February 12, 2004 10:14 AM
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