Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, pt. 4

Click here, here, and here to read parts 1, 2, and 3 of "The Good the Bad, and the Ugly."

I hadn't intended to revisit the "Bad Painting" series, but I was quite struck when I recently read that the Guggenheim was planning an open Youtube search for the next big thing in video art (click the picture above to enter), and they wanted it to come from outside the usual fine art circles and MFA programs.

This development has little do with painting, good or bad, but it does have quite a lot to do with the environment and rationale that set the stage for Bad Painting to become a genre in the first place: the idea that the artist as a person with special talents, training, and sensitivities is no longer a valid profile. A major museum having an open-call on Youtube seems to me to be an extremely effective gesture in the drive to completely de-professionalize art. The live question of course, is: why exactly would you want that?

An attempt to answer this question requires that I go back over a little ground I already covered in the first three installments of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Post-Moderninsm circa the late '60's sought to be the perfect opposite of Modernism in many respects. Modernism's chief spokesman at the time was Clement Greenberg, whose broad influence and dogmatic notions of quality, purity, and formal criteria made him the perfect symbol of entrenched, intransigent power, ripe for overthrow.

Quality, beauty, talent, resolution, taste, connoisseurship, and professionalism all came to carry a strong stigma in the fine arts, in striking contrast to virtually all other art forms (theatre, literature, film, poetry, dance) where things from this list are not viewed with reflexive mistrust. Institutional critique became the new criteria for post-modernism, and has remained so for its many tributaries over the last 40-plus years. As I've said in these pages many times, institutional critique is now itself an entrenched, intransigent institution; it's taught at the big schools and shown at the big museums, and this puts it in a peculiar quandary. But rather than belabor that point, I'd like to follow another, slightly different thread.

In the 2nd installment of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I mentioned that Bad Paintings were always made by artists who had presumably come up through the schools and made their pictures look bad self-reflexively, in the spirit of Post-Modern criticality. Works by Neil Jenney, Albert Oehlen, Julian Schnabel, Joan Brown, and William N. Copley, right up through Elizabeth Peyton, Karen Kilimnik, Dana Schutz, and Josh Smith often quite consciously bear a striking resemblance to pictures made in freshman painting classes and retirement communities, but the critical distance they espouse is key - there has never been a Chelsea gallery exhibition of genuinely bad paintings made in utter earnest by students or retirees trying hard to make good painting but failing. The nearest example one can find is the '90's trend for Outsider artists, but again, these pictures were never shown side-by-side with art-world Bad Painters, and the interest in the Outsiders was often heavily skewed to biography.

This distinction between Bad Painting as a critical gesture and real bad painting was always tenuous at best. It seems to me that the Guggenheim's stated desire to open the gates to any and all that wish to participate, using a medium that requires little in the way of specialized skills or equipment, is analogous to allowing genuine bad painting in to the museum for consideration and denying the real but unstated privileged status of the insider Bad Painters.

The putative reasoning on the part of the Guggenheim team is at least in part an attempt to democratize art, a theme that has been a big part of the dialogue in recent years. But there is a subtle power play that has been underway for quite some time that belies the stated goal of inclusion and openness. The Guggenheim will have a panel of experts judge the Youtube videos, and they will decide what gets shown. Obviously, these are institutional insiders, because there has never been a drive to democratize and de-professionalize curation. On the contrary, it's hard not to notice that in recent years curators have played a much stronger role in the shaping of art exhibitions, and the role of the artist has become, quite often, to provide work that illustrates curatorial themes. The strongly themed and curated exhibition has become the norm, and shows that are simply chronological or organized around broad categories ("Recent Abstract Painting") are becoming rarer.

The first time I became fully aware of this phenomenon was in MoMA's "Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" exhibition in 1997. Works from various periods were grouped under nine categories, including The World as Perceptual Field (I), The Mechanisms of Consumer Culture (VIII), and Postmodern Simulacra (IX). Stylistic affinities and chronological developments were downplayed in favor of curatorial juxtapositions across time and geography, done so to show the more subtle, philosophical connections between works. Since then, shows curated in this manner have become such a common part of the landscape that it's hard to remember a time where this wasn't the case, when the art led the way and the curation followed. But this much is clear: exhibitions of this nature raise the curator to the same level as the artist, if not above.

The more naive and unprofessional the artist is, the greater the need for curators to cull and explain the works to a bewildered public - to divine its cultural relevance, which, along with institutional critique, is a major theme in much contemporary art. Viewed in this way, it becomes clearer as to why the rise of the Young Artist category, beginning in the late '90's, coincided with the appearance of the heavily-curated exhibition. Young Artists are often cast as feral, rebellious, and very much in touch with the latest aspects of technology and pop culture, but inarticulate. And curators, like narrators on a wildlife program, are needed to translate their actions and gestures for the rest of us.

Nancy Spector, deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Foundation, had this to say about the video search:

"Many artists today work quite profoundly with popular culture – that is something we recognise and embrace. It doesn't concern me that a tribute to Lady Gaga could end up being an important work of art and we don't want to rule that out."

But this statement raises a knotty question that runs parallel to the insider/outsider questions I posed in relation to Bad Painting. If there's a strong desire to question and critique the institutional distinction between high and low and to show work that is in a strong dialog with the zeitgeist, why not just show the Lady Gaga video and cut out the artist altogether? This would be the last logical station stop in the de-professionalization or art and the ascendancy of curation.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel pointed out that when a major cultural shift is underway, as in the toppling of Modernism by Post-Modernism and the continuing related critiques, each step in the process must be explored in great detail, no steps can be skipped (in my translation it says that each phase must be "tarried over"). The Guggenheim's current project seems to be the most recent development in a particular vein of reasoning that devalues the image-maker and raises the stature of the thinker-curator-critic-interpreter. It also has the classic earmarks of an endgame, but then again I've been saying this for a long time - I guess we're not quite done tarrying over those remaining steps.