Wednesday, September 24, 2008

sharks alive

Helen Rittelmeyer has written a smart, probing piece that I disagree with completely.

Anyone is free to like or dislike or like any artist, of course. (Which, incidentally, frequently confounds people writing takedowns like Rittelmeyer is here.) Rittelmeyer can bash Damien Herst to her hearts content, and should, when so inspired. That's her prerogative.

But her piece is filled with unfair arguments, and a penchant for a lazy acceptance of old tropes about the mores and motives of contemporary artists. Let's dive in.

Art majors will be art majors


the super-rich will have their trinkets


but why must we pay for their indulgence with the coin of public attention?

Well, we don't have to... though of course, Rittelmeyer is, perhaps contrary to her interests.. What we should do-- what critical integrity requires of us-- is to attempt to confront a work of art on the level at which it is intended, to consider it in good faith, and to make an effort to evaluate its quality based on not only universal notions of artistic success but on the specific success or failure of the work's assumptions. And, again, Rittelmeyer is free to reject Hirst on either level. But we should insist on the attempt to see where art and the artist are coming from as absolute preconditions of principled criticism.

Hirst’s work on 'outmoded ideals' of beauty — or, heaven forbid, the artist's 'moral responsibility' — we'll find that Hirst and his customers are only that much more self-satisfied ('more happy' seems the wrong phrase for these people) to have tweaked our noses.

I don't know that Hirst would call beauty outmoded. But Hirst, like many, seems to believe that beauty is not the end-all, be-all of art, or of life, and is interested in exploring things beyond beauty, or conventional ideas of beauty. That's an old saw, but a good one; the degree to which he succeeds or fails at it is a matter of personal taste. As for the second part, the nose-tweaking, well.... I accuse people of contrarianism often, and the urge to say "You only think that because it bugs other people that you think that" is a powerful one. So I'm none to judge. But this is essentially unknowable, and relies on a capacity for mind reading that neither I nor Rittelmeyer possess.

This is the biggest problem of all.

The important thing about the girl in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere is that I feel something about her; the important thing about the shark in Hirst's tank is that I 'get it.' A full appreciation of Manet's painting requires actually seeing it, whereas there's nothing in Hirst's piece that I can't 'get' simply from comprehending the concept. Never mind a thousand words; Hirst's 'masterwork' is worth four: shark in a vat.

This is wrong, deeply wrong, and crucial. The aesthetic value of conventionally un-aesthetic things is precisely at issue in a work like this. The shark has aesthetic value, it has a look, a texture, a visuality, that most certainly cannot be condensed into words. Yes, this work of art-- like, incidentally, "Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère", like all art-- has a concept, has cognitive value as well as aesthetic. That no more excuses us from eliding past the aesthetic reality of the shark than it would excuse us from eliding past the work (quite radical in its own fashion, by the way) that Rittelmeyer expects us to take seriously. "Shark in a vat" is as reductive as "Chick at a bar".

The reason Duchamp's "Fountain" hangs on a museum wall at all is to be confronted as a work of art, for its aesthetics. To put a urinal on the wall is not, in fact, to say "Haha, I'm unmaking art!" (though, truth be told, Duchamp might have said exactly that). It is to ask us to consider it in the way that we consider a painting, or a sculpture. It's to ask us to consider a mundane, unartistic object according to the same principles that we evaluate a Rembrant, or a Giotto, or a Simone Martini. It's similar to John Cage's "4:33", another much-ridiculed flogging horse of postmodernism's discontents. That piece, which asks you to listen to the ambient noise around you with the consideration and open-heartedness that you would bring to music, is also a study in bringing the mundane and the everyday into the arena of art. Is that a gimmick? I don't know. I do know that both excite me, and expand my notion of what it means to live and breath in an aesthetic, corporeal world.

A pickled fish, of course, is not a urinal, and putting it in front of us as a work of art is a different thing than planting the urinal on the wall. And, of course, the shark in the tank happened decades after the urinal on the wall, though in that I suppose I am indulging in the language of novelty that Rittelmeyer probably wouldn't appreciate. But what remains is the notion of this shark as an aesthetic object, and, it's true, the question of what that shark means to us when confronted as art. Whether or not it works or inspires is subjective. I don't find it damaging, or debasing, or fraudulent, or otherwise illegitimate. Like many artistic cri de couers, Rittelmeyer's seems to advance a notion of art that requires artistic fragility. As with my beloved "Portrait of Ross", Hirst's shark can be enjoyed or reviled in a way that doesn't threaten art, in this moment or forever. Visual art, for all of its bad press, is a resilient thing.

If everything we needed to know to experience the full force and meaning of De Chirico's work, for example, was captured in acknowledging that he repeatedly represented a bunch of buildings casting shadows, who would ever bother actually going to the gallery?

Not many! See above.

By declaring that trying to be authentic is the closest we can ever come to being authentic, conceptual art sets its own trap. It tells us that the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify — that the only thing we can tell each other honestly is that we're trying to tell us something. Nonsense.

Ah, well, here's the shame of it. I don't think the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify. I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.

Look. In the modern era, wherever you'd care to place that, there was a crisis of representation. (I should say that this next bit isn't mine alone but rather is boilerplate undergrad art history. It's still true.) Everywhere, traditional structures of certainty and meaning were being subverted. Religion, science, government, civic society were all facing new and frightening challenges. Into this maelstrom came the popularization and eventual universality of the camera and the photograph, a direct and insurmountable challenge to the preeminence of the artistic image as the primary mode of representation. In the face of this challenge, the response of many artists has been to abandon the notion of representation at all. Just as literature in the modern era was the literature of exhaustion, art in the modern era was the art of a tradition that had, in a small but significant way, admitted defeat. Art itself fails, in the modern era.

This Piet Mondrian print above may bother you. It may say nothing to you. It may satisfy none of your concepts of worthwhile art. But it does not lie to you. It doesn't pretend to perfectly or accurately present you with a true or real image. It recognizes the failure of the artist, and of art, to distill life into easily digestible aesthetics. (Interestingly, the Impressionists that Rittelmeyer admires were themselves straining against a neoclassical notion of art that imagined the role of the artist as a small-scale God.)

Art has never really stopped being in crisis. Luckily enough, this move away from representation as the default mission of visual art came at just the right time. There are, with apologies, only so many different ways to paint waterlilies. And while we shouldn't turn our backs to that kind of representation, and haven't completely, the turn away from it did represent a frankly astonishing moment of artistic fecundity and abundance. Free from the constraints of a limited artistic vision-- from artistic conservatism-- there was a flowering of new and bold methods of expression. Of course, for many, the problem with taking the lid off is that soon the jar is bare. I don't quite agree, but whatever else is true we are left in the place where there is no greater cliche than the "My kid could paint that" assumption of the universal vapidity of contemporary art. Jackson Pollack's work, an attempt to turn pure emotion into a canvas, is beautiful and invigorating and fierce. But it is also deeply vulnerable, like Hirst's work is vulnerable. There is no referent, no seascape or covered bridge or model to compare it to, to legitimize it. It requires trust, and an open mind, and a above all a desire to appreciate what it has to say, the very things Rittelmeyer seems unwilling to extend to Hirst's oeuvre.

Anyway... we're left with the shark in the tank. Not to be repetitive, but you can judge the shark as you see fit. The problem, if you're Rittelmeyer-- if you're anyone who wants to move beyond Merz, Pop and ready-mades-- is where do you turn, if not in the direction of the crisis? As some book I once read somewhere said, the trial for anyone who feels the way Rittelmeyer does is that soon you are left asking for yet more paintings of "green and pleasant land". I'm willing to listen to those who would say that the admission of the limits of art in the early parts of the 20th century was an tragedy for art. But where else to turn? We risk, as Ben Marcus wrote about a different kind of artistic conservatism, an art that can only "slap mortar onto an already stable artistic world".

In visual art, this has meant a new aesthetic code. It sets the perverse expectation that the viewer's expectations are always to be confounded and never to be satisfied. Stuck having to both satisfy and not satisfy this requirement, the code must eliminate the distinction between art as a means of expressing an idea and art as a means of evoking one. So the evocation substitutes for the idea. What you see is what you get.

I would simply suggest that Hirst or any other self-conscious experimentalist doesn't, in fact, think that his art is eliminationist. I imagine he thinks that the dichotomy between expressing an idea and evoking one is a false one, and that if art does not challenge the arbitrary, it would fail in exactly the way Rittelmeyer laments; Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, in more insidious ways, are evoking rather than inventing. There is a sense in which the most ardent traditionalists are also the cruelist ironists. The more that a covered bridge becomes a hotel-wall cliche, the less meaning it has, the less it represents, the more it subverts precisely the artistic tradition it purports to be honoring. It's silk-screened art, as effortlessly tossed off and photocopied as Warhol at his most nihilistic, with the added poison that it thinks it's being genuine. What you've seen is what you get.

What's more, I find a strange reversal going on here, a sense in which Hirst is getting it coming and going. Rittelmeyer criticizes him for having nothing but a concept, an idea, and then turns around and questions the use of art as only a thing. This are opposite notions. I know that what Rittelmeyer wants is emotional content to spring from this aesthetic/corporeal content and cognitive content. The question I have for her is whether she's sure that her inability to discover such emotional meaning ensures that there is no such meaning to be found.

But do contemporary artists really imagine that they are so much 'deeper' or more complex than their predecessors?

Well, no, at least not to my knowledge. I don't know of any contemporary artist who thinks this, and would have appreciated it if Rittelmeyer could have provided a citation that supports this notion.

Oscar Wilde said it was far easier to make history than to write it, and writing history is more than a presentation of brute facts. It's the crafting of our facts into tragic, inspiring, seductive, fascinating, or even simply beautiful stories. Unfit for such a challenge, Damien Hirst and his ilk have found it easier simply to make one damned thing after another.

But that's my problem with art traditionalism exactly: it privileges just one damned thing after another. It's why this year will see the publication of another thousand lame riffs on middle-period Updike, and sadness for those of us who don't want to read a new repackaging of "Daisy Miller" yet again. Where is represenationalism? There are many artists working in myriad media and with various aesthetics in representation, and good for them. But this is a post-representationalist representationalism, a gift from an art world that, whatever its faults, has been bound and determined to wring out meaning and appreciation from every corner it can find. We can criticize many of the specific outputs of that, and I frequently do. But to insist that the Damien Hirsts of the world are doing and saying nothing of value is to insist on the artistry of cliche, of deference, and of vapidity. The line from Rembrandt to Damien Hirst might be tangled and scary. The line from Manet to Thomas Kincaid, painter of light, is a kind of death, more profound and sadder than any shark in formaldehyde.

(All of that being said... "Hanging's Too Good for Him", as a title, is fantastically clever and funny.)


bcg said...

This Piet Mondrian print above may bother you. It may say nothing to you. It may satisfy none of your concepts of worthwhile art. But it does not lie to you. It doesn't pretend to perfectly or accurately present you with a true or real image. It recognizes the failure of the artist, and of art, to distill life into easily digestible aesthetics.

If this is true, why does old art hold up so well?

william randolph said...


I'm glad that you are around to comment so thoughtfully on so many things: I see your replies at The American Scene quite often.

And so I hate that my first comment here will be the pointing out of a typo. Normally, I let these things slide, but this is the most interesting typo I've seen in a good while (from the last paragraph):

“Where is represenationalism?”

This term seems like it could find wide application in some kind of post-colonialist art history context.

All kidding aside, keep up the good work.

Freddie said...

I have to admit, William... I made that up on the spot! Sounded good at the time...

william randolph said...


In a response to this post at my blog, I've tried to draw a distinction between art conservatism and art traditionalism. I know you talk to tons of people about this stuff; I'm wondering if you think there's anything to it.


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