The Stinks and Rapids: Is Art Important?

“The current of Art he says runs not between
Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows–
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives the millstones and dynamos.”

Robert Pinsky Stupid Meditation on Peace

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The question continues to come up in conversation over tall skinny mocha’s or while sipping a syrah on a restaurant patio on a warm summer evening. Is art relevant? Is it more important now that we have an economic crisis? Is it less important because the art market has fallen about as far as the DOW?

Art is no more and no less important today than it was before the mortgage crisis, the stock market crash, the LAMOCA fiasco, and the election of Barack Obama. It is no more and no less important than it was before Damien Hirst made $198 million in his two-day direct to auction sale with Sotheby’s last September. What isn’t important and never has been is the $198 million or even the $1 million that approximately 100 contemporary artists were able to command for a work of art. What isn’t important is the “art market.”

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The art market with its auction houses and contemporary art fairs is the cult of celebrity that has overtaken the aesthetic and cultural value of art. We gape at the accident scene; the collapse of AIG and world markets the same day Hirst and Sotheby’s lined their pockets with seemingly endless piles of cash. We want to divert our eyes from the crash scene, but we desire to see the blood and gore. We know the end is near. We know it has to come, but we keep hoping it won’t happen in our lifetime, that we won’t have to witness the destruction. Now we wait to see just how bad it might get. Who will fall next and what does it all mean?

Ultimately, it means nothing. Art will remain. Art will be created. Art will go on in spite of the market and the machine that was created to falsely inflate its value. Art has always had the power to heal, to comfort, to inspire, to protest, to speak up when others are mute, to make a statement, to create a mood, to discomfort those who are too cozy, to poke, to prod, to inspire awe, to challenge the maker and the viewer, to push the limits and boundaries of society and culture. This has not changed and will not change. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Stieglitz, Agnes Martin, Donald Judd all did what they did because of their cultural and societal surroundings. In spite of whatever market existed. Today’s artists will continue to do the same.

Much of the contemporary art we see glorified today is all shell and façade and empty assertions. There is so much repetition and copying and mimicry and style as brand logo that contemporary art has become frozen and inert. It is generic like chain stores and Wal-Mart. Even great artists like Richard Serra are so overexposed, over viewed, over done that their work loses its meaning and impact. The large curving arcs of rusted steel had meaning until they were repeated over and over again. Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes would not have the same impact nor meaning if they were installed in museums around the world—three here, four there. Judd understood that those 100 aluminum objects needed to be installed per his specifications in a place he deemed fit for them. He happened to find a vacant Calvary headquarters in far West Texas, in a small, dying town called Marfa.

Judd boxes
Damien Hirst may have had something if he had done one pharmacy installation, one cow in formaldehyde, but the multiple butterfly paintings created by his corporate employees at Science, Ltd and pawned across the globe for ridiculous prices so that the hedge fund manager could have the same collection as her banker and the Wall Street guy next door did nothing to promote or encourage Art.

For me, it became evident that the end was near last year when the Takashi Murakami exhibits at LAMOCA and the Brooklyn Museum of Art featured a Louis Vuitton boutique with artist-designed handbags for sale. The art and the artist are diminished to nothing more than a logo and yet we argue about whether design is art and art is design. How are Murakami’s flowers more Art than the eponymous LV logo imprinted on brown leather bags? They aren’t.

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The art world that was, was like a sorority—the artists were like pledges, hoping to join the ranks of Sigma Alpha Artists. Know the right people, graduate from right MFA program and garner the attention of the “art market.” Curate the SITE Biennial and move up the ladder to Venice, be chosen to create an ephemeral work for Lucky Number Seven and the artist becomes their own brand—jockeying for the next Whitney Biennial.

At another level, retired Engineers who are trying to start a second career as artists are willing to print giclee replicas of their already low priced paintings and sell ink jet prints at discounted prices instead of finding value in the joy that painting brings them or settling on a comfortable price point for buyers. It’s the Wal-martification of the art market. We used to invest in handmade boots, take them to a cobbler and resole them so we could keep on wearing them. Today we buy cheap imitations produced in a factory in Shri Lanka, and when they fall apart in a year we go out and buy another pair. Family’s often owned one original painting that they handed down through the generations—the kind you see on Antiques Road Show. Art can be disposable. Art can  be an heirloom. It’s not just a poster you hang on your wall until you get tired of it. It is the fine work of a craftsperson. An aesthetic creation to be valued, not multiplied until it has no value. Artists may scoff at the work of Thomas Kinkade, yet most of them are just a few steps beneath him willing to whore their work for a few dollars.

Sorry Jerry (Saltz) the art market is less ethical than the stock market. It’s overblown and incestuous. The unregulated greed of the auction houses and dealers and yes, even the artists themselves, has created a system that cannot be maintained. MFA students are cranked out into a system that falsely inflates their value and ability. Voila! They are branded as a successful artist, shown in Contemporary Art Museums around the world. The New York media covers the same artists issue after issue, the same shows are reviewed by critics who write basically a version of the same review.

Even Hirst says the contemporary art market is overblown. But the problem is not with Art or the passionate artists who create work because they must, because they have to, because it has meaning beyond a product, object or market. The problem is that we cannot distinguish any longer between the two.

In our desire to fix what is wrong with the art market, we cannot crush the life from the Art. We need fewer artists doing the same thing and more artists pushing the boundaries stretched by artists from the past. We need independent voices willing to speak out and act as regulators of the marketplace—not regulators of the Art. We need critics willing to debate and stand up for what they believe. We need to recognize that there are artists all over the world quietly making interesting and challenging art, overlooked by the system and market.

The old ideas are useful only as jumping off points. We cannot return to the past, we need new ideas and ideologies. We need time for contemplation, for creation, for expansion, for identifying and addressing the cultural and emotional needs of our society. We are not the New York School or the California School. We are not an ism or a schism. We are more than concept and object.

This is a time for dialogue, but more importantly, a time for finding solutions. The factory may no longer be a working model. The artist must return to the studio and make art on a smaller scale, a more intimate scale, art that may cost less and mean more. Maybe artists, writers and curators disassemble and retreat to monk-like solitude to find new inspiration, or maybe they assemble and work together in a way we never have. In times of economic challenge we have to be entrepreneurial. We have to figure out a way to turn our ideas into reality, to create what we must. When challenged, we find solutions. Some nonprofits will close, some artists will hang up their brushes, some galleries will go out of business, but those that want to survive will find a way.

It’s not going to be easy. It may not be what we want hear or believe, but some of us will go away and others will emerge. And those that have the tenacity to hang in there will find new ways to do business. Art is for everyone, not just the millionaires and billionaires. The journey will have its ups and downs, its rapids and it stagnations, but in the end, nose to the grindstone, a few dynamos will emerge.

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2 thoughts on “The Stinks and Rapids: Is Art Important?

  1. Those artists who do have something to say using visual means must study arts’ roots and know what elements are new and what elements stand on the shoulders of giants. “Old ideas” and “new ideas and idealogies” when expressed visually are rarely new in the context of history, but intention does change. I only beg for awareness of visual history so we do know if we indeed are using “old ideas as jumping off points”. Old is not insignificant and old can be yesterday but does yesterday have longevity?

    What is important as artists is the awareness that we in this moment are the only ones who can describe what concerns we have in this early 21st century and to express this with all of the powers and visual tools we can muster. Artists must have the determination and resolve to create Iconic visual statements of this time and to develop the truth through ones own self integration of past and present; and lastly, to at least aspire and deliver the quality of composition and execution like that of Rembrant, Titian and Michelangelo Merisi or the power of a Pollack.

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  2. I agree – art has been hyped – hyped – hyped. I was at Basel, didn’t see you there. Picked up some souvenirs. This is not collecting. This is the trophy art for a wall. Unfortunately, only “names” and “recognition as a so-and-so” matter.

    Yes, there is alot of good art that is being overlooked because of the hype. It will arise – but unfortunately – this will be a slow path that will require that art critics and curators do their jobs. Scoff at what is bad or overdone! Push the artists who are really good but simply aren’t getting the press. Let people know about differences in galleries – are they art stores or do they truly promote a handful of artists with great potential.

    Guide the reader to the best!

    Vilis Inde – inde/jacobs, Marfa, TX

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