Friday, March 23, 2012

Cindy Sherman, Post-Modernism, and Other Subjects

My good friend Mark Stone recently posted a piece on the always excellent Henri Art Magazine about contemporary criticism and its outsize role in the cash value of art. I started to write a comment several times which I planned to add to the post, but it always got too damn long - so at Mark's suggestion, I decided to put up a stand-alone piece here at No Hassle at the Castle instead. Like the comment I kept almost writing, it's going to be a little long and probably ramble a bit, but hopefully it will add up to something by the time you (and I) reach the end.

First, a recap of the Henri post: Big-time collector Adam Lindemann recently wrote a piece for his own blog on the New York Observer about the unanimous standing ovation Cindy Sherman's MoMA retrospective got in the mainstream art press - essentially no one veered from the party line and everyone stumbled all over themselves trying to come up with superlatives (check the Lindemann piece for choice quotes plus links to the full reviews). Mark's point was that a collector like Lindemann is in a unique position to change the dialog not by blogging, but by who he does and doesn't buy.

Lindemann's jab at the sheep-like critics is excellent even though it seems a little disingenuous - Lindemann himself seemed to love the Sherman show, but when Peter Schjeldahl nominates her as the greatest artist ever, the collector blanches, instead proposing Jeff Koons or Richard Prince as more apt candidates. Umm... to me this sounds a little like the current Republican primary contest, but Lindemann's motivations and tastes aside, his point about criticism (or lack thereof) is worth exploring a bit. I actually don't think that the critical group-hug Sherman got was necessarily market-driven, although the money does a play a very weird role in all of this - I'll come back to that part later.

I like big retrospectives - you almost always walk away from them feeling differently about the subject for better or worse. For me, the Sherman exhibit displayed the artist's limitations; the Untitled Film Stills (her earliest works) are still her best by far, and the vast majority of the pictures that came after are bigger and often grosser versions of those, in color. She veered from that idea in the late '80's and '90's to do puke and vag stuff, which you really should be finished with by the end of sophomore year, and then returned to the stronger main line of herself in costume and make-up - which, as I said, never really reached the same level of sneaky sophistication as the early work. I should also add that the Untitled Film Stills, even though I like them, are not really any better on a wall then they are in a book - this may or may not matter to you, but it bugs me.

Did I hate the show? No, certainly not. Do I think she is the best artist on the planet? No, certainly not. Do I think she's the best artist of her generation? Well, I would have to give a fittingly post-modern response: it depends on how you define her generation and what the criteria for that mantle would be. The generational divisions in American art since WWII is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and plays strongly into the love-in that Sherman received in the big journals.

As many of my readers know, I teach freshman classes at one of the big art schools in NYC. In the fall one of my young students, an extremely talented teenager from East New York, came in to class and told me that his art history teacher said offhandedly that the reason Mark Rothko made large-scale abstract paintings was because he hated women. The instructor assumed that all of the students were steeped in the narrative that made that statement make sense and offered no further explanation. My student was completely puzzled.

The historical narrative that gave that particular assertion its logic was, ironically, the one about the destruction of the historical narrative. Rewind to 1968-ish, when all institutions of power all over the world, including those associated with art, were under intense scrutiny. The early post-modernists asked knotty questions of those in the corridors of power; questions about criteria, quality, authorship, originality, race, and gender, and got extremely unsatisfactory answers. The rebels seized the reins from Clement Greenberg's ossified army of middle-aged white guys, and by the early '70's, were essentially running the show.

Unlike previous generations of artists, this was a highly educated group - indeed, this was the beginning of the era when virtually all artists started getting advanced degrees (today, of course, the emerging artist without an MFA is essentially nonexistent). It's important to also note that a critical and curatorial community sprung up with and around them, equally educated and well-versed in the philosophical currents associated with early post-modernism: structuralism, post-structuralism, semiotics, feminist theory, critical theory. Three of the critics that Lindemann singles out in his post are the afore-mentioned Schjeldahl, plus art's power couple, Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz. All came to prominence in the post-modern revolution of the '70's, and Cindy Sherman is one of their own.

But I think this isn't just a matter of rooting for the home team. Sherman's work illustrates a whole constellation of ideas that form much of the basis from which these critics think about, look at, and review art: gender, identity, high vs. low culture and the ensuing debate about quality and criteria, value, originality and authorship, the centrality of painting and the disruption of a specific kind of historical teleology. An enthusiastic reception to Sherman's show would represent more to these writers than the canonization of a particular artist - it would further cement the institutional validation of a whole set of ideas which their careers, sensibilities and credibility is connected to.

Now I'd like to return to my student who found his history professor's pronouncement so bewildering. The steps which lead from large scale abstract painting to the hatred of women are not self-evident, they have to be taught and repeated, like prayers. As these ideas lose the genuine street-level intensity they had in the late '60's and throughout most of the '70's, they become increasingly reliant on the very institutions they once critiqued - the journals, the museums, the schools - to keep them alive. I've had many conversations with former students of mine who have moved through the fine arts program, and it's clear to me that they find much of it increasingly obscure - it's just not a part of their life experience and hence has little to do with the reason they wanted to be artists in the first place. The early post-modernists are now greying department chairs and their story belongs to another time. Big shows like the current Cindy Sherman retrospective at MoMA and the Pictures Generation show at the Met in 2009, and the press attention they garner, can serve to make it seem vital again.

And then there's all that fucking money, which also has a way of making art seem vital - even though it often signals the exact opposite. Last May, Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #96" from 1981 shattered all previous records for the price of a photographic print, selling for a whopping $3.9 million at Christie's. Unlike the obscene hedge fund dollars spent speculating on recent grads during the mortgage bubble, Sherman's new valuations almost certainly represent the belief that she has passed into blue-chip status - a historically significant, fully museumized artist. I know Mark at Henri Mag will disagree with me on the following point, and I could be wrong, but I think that the particular critics mentioned above probably have some real discomfort with their role in all this (Ok, maybe not Jerry Saltz). Certainly, a famous artist selling for millions is not a new thing. But for the post-modernists, who all made their bones critiquing museums, schools, the art press, galleries, collectors, and capitalism itself, it makes for strange bedfellows. And ironically the people who champion this type of art because they actually believe in the urgency of these critiques have contributed to making it a pillar of the very institutions they claim to hate. Life is funny.

The mysterious d richmond forwarded me an excellent article from the Prospect by Edward Docx about the Death of Post-Modernism. It has many twists and turns, like post-modernism itself, but one of the most interesting points he makes pertains to an especially ironic unintended consequence. Po-mo destroyed all privileged viewpoints and made the idea of objectivity laughable - all criteria of intrinsic quality became indefensible in the face of these critiques. But there is one unit of measure that is irresistible and irrefutable which asserted itself as naturally as the rain in the absence of compelling aesthetic criteria - you guessed already I bet, it's the amount that people are willing to pay. And pay they did - the one percent have deep pockets, don't care that they're being critiqued, and won't take no for an answer.

The Henri piece ends with a link to a recent post on by the always pleasingly caustic Charlie Finch. He makes an analogy between the pay grades in art and in sports - how in the latter the commentary during a game is so often skewed away from what the player is doing in the game and towards how much he makes to do it, and how today's performance will affect that figure. This is a similar point to the one that Docx made about cash value as an end in itself, but Finch takes it one step further - he goes on to say that the players, the artists, and the audience are ultimately inconsequential in this equation. Two block quotes are in order:

"What's missing in both narratives is the traditional public interest that used to motivate the whole process. Did the batter hit a homer? What did the work look like? And the answer from the rich and powerful is essentially that these are constructs no longer intended for public entertainment, but merely to justify the exchange of large amounts of capital between the 1% of the 1%."

And then how about this:

"What's wrong with this picture is that the great majority is left out and, by this, I mean the players and the artists, for, while it may appear that more and more teams and fairs means more success for more participants (putting the "fans" aside, for the moment), the reality is that both art and sports depend on a hypersystem of planned obsolescence to feed the money beast's constant need to prettify the act of consumption with the new."

Oh, dear. All of the above, including my text, Lindemann's, Docx's, and Finch's is a bit of a downer. But I want to close on a genuinely up note, because I feel weirdly optimistic. My good friend Michael Zahn pointed out on a beery night not too long ago: "We're at the top of the wheel." And I agree. Lindemann's dissatisfaction with the New York critical community is a subtle but clear symptom that a certain era is drawing to a close, as is my students' confusion and impatience with the litany of post-modern precepts that the instructors are offering up in the classrooms. Finch himself admits that the big-money game he describes can't go on forever, because once the audience and the artists are completely marginalized, the banquet table will have no legs - it must collapse.

And if you need further evidence of just how enervated these ideas are becoming, go see the 2012 Biennial and the hilariously titled "Ungovernables" at the New Museum. They were both weak, but not in the same way that these big group shows have been for the last fifteen years or so. The work was mainly polite, small-ish and oddly historical. Post-modern motives are now as instantly recognizable as stripe or drip paintings ever were (ok - here's the furnished interior, there's the construction debris, here's the photo of young people with blank looks, there's a diary, here's a snarky critique of painting, there's a pop culture reference, and over there is a video...). I actually think that a void is being carved out that's just aching to be filled with something great, something that will really knock everyone's sock off. Who and what that will be is anyone's guess, but if history is a teacher, it's not a matter of if it's going to happen, but only a matter of when.