Monday, May 7, 2012

The Sweet and Sour Smell of Success


I've noticed an uptick of late in the amount of ink spilled about the fact that fine art is a clearly delineated career path, with training centers and critical and institutional mechanisms that work something like a conveyor belt.  In his review of the New York debut of the Frieze art fair, Holland Cotter sums up the situation:

"The gentrification of contemporary art itself is an old story in two parts. Part one is about a 20th-century model of an avant-garde, with artists as feisty cultural delinquents and idiot savants who set themselves outside the mainstream to make baffling things and think deep thoughts.

In part two, set in the 21st century, the model has changed. Now artists, whether they know it or not, are worker bees in an art-industrial hive. Directed by dealers and collectors who dress like stylish accountants, they turn out predictable product for high-profile, high-volume fairs like Frieze."

The fact that Cotter was able to run this down with such brevity shows not only his knack for concision, but also how familiar the story is by now.  Just about anyone interested in reading a review of Frieze already knows this stuff; very little historical framing is required.

An awful lot of people, including many of the participants and beneficiaries, find the whole thing extremely distasteful.  But there is another point that no one seems to be addressing: Art has always been a career path.  Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Reubens, Hals, Vermeer, Tiepolo, etc., etc., etc. all earned their living in this highly specialized activity for which they had an unusual aptitude.  Every culture has art; the art of every culture is wildly varied, but one thing is consistent: the people who make whatever that culture determines to be the best examples of the art that it wants become highly paid professionals.

It was my intention at this juncture to type something like "and I have no problem with this," because I like being a contrarian bomb-dropper, but that's not exactly true.  I do think that the best artists should be able to earn a living from art-making (I know "the best" is a hot-button phrase, but that's another essay).  Making art that's really good requires a time investment that's very difficult to work around a 40-hour work week; Marx pointed out that people who work under a capitalist regime spend most of their off-hours simply recovering from work.  The idea that they could develop their aptitudes and capacities is difficult if not impossible, and the result is many wasted gifts.

The asterisk for me is not whether the artist should be able to earn a living, but who from.  Societies throughout history and all over the world have had an unspoken agreement that the very best art is among their most precious commodities.  And guess who tend to control a given society's most precious commodities?  Bankers and industrialists, kings and dictators, corporate lawyers and hedge-fund managers!  The 1% is a cross-cultural phenomena and they've always owned the best art!

The result has been much hand-wringing on the part of the spiritual heirs to the avant-garde.  Ever since Ronald Reagan, politicians on the right and left have had to convince voters that the reason they want a career in government is because they hate government.  An extremely similar line is used is in much fine art - a certain amount of institutional critique is expected as a credential for being a "real" artist, and professionalism is viewed with the highest degree of suspicion.  The 4/30/12 issue of New York Magazine has a cover story called "How To Make It in the Art World."  The corresponding package of stories return again and again (sometimes in tongue-in-cheek fashion) to the idea that the way you make it really big in the art world is by being perceived as an outsider to the art world. 

It seems to me that what is going to change sooner or later is not the commercial aspect of making and selling art, but the pretense that the artists, galleries, schools, and journals are trying to subvert it - which they aren't actually trying to do at all.  Artists and commentators about art are stuck in a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the powerful model of the historical avant-garde.

In the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, from Manet, through Impressionism, right up to the Cubists and Fauves, the most advanced artists were considered rebels, reacting to a conservative establishment whose measure of quality began and ended with Raphael.  Modernism famously triumphed over 19th century academicism, but by the late '60's faced their own rebellion.  Post-modernism and feminism pointed out that Modernist criteria had simply replaced one academic dogma with another - and also called attention to the fact that the chief exponents were virtually all middle-aged white men.

These two successful revolts set precedents that still loom large over art in the 21st century. First, that the most advanced art will be misunderstood by the general public and rejected by the academic art establishment, and second, that the institutions of this latter group must be continuously critiqued and subverted.  But here's where the problem comes in - institutional critique is taught at the big schools, shown at the big galleries, museums, and fairs, and reviewed in the big journals.  It has become the art establishment in the most naked sense.

This has led to much posturing.  All artists want to be successful - even the ones who claim that they hate the art establishment and include that antipathy as content in their work.  The sooner we can drop that, the better - self-expression is, to me, so much more precious and interesting than piety.  I think that the big art fairs and survey shows will improve dramatically with the absence of critique as an over-riding theme, but many participants will have to admit something that has been true throughout history, that was even true throughout much of the avant-garde period in the 20th century, and has been overwhelmingly true since the mid-'90's: we survive at the pleasure and whim of the 1%. 

None of the strategies which have been adopted in the last forty-five years for the subversion of the relationship between art and capital have done anything whatsoever to change it.  And unless a working socialist model for the production and exhibition of art can be established and maintained, something along the lines of the WPA Artists Project, then the uneasy relationship between art and capital will always be in place.