Speakeasy – Art, like life, is not fair
‘Regional artist’. Being called one is not much of a compliment. Still, it is better than being called provincial or minor. All three words mean about the same thing when they refer to artists. They mean being less than the best.
Regional refers to being out of it, being cut off from the source of power due to one’s geographical location. In the US today, it means living too far away from New York. Most of the artists in this country are regional artists, including myself. The truth is that it is just too inconvenient for New York to pay much attention to us. To make it in New York, you have to go there.
That seems fair enough, except being from a region isn’t quite acceptable in New York these days. There are more artists there than anyone knows what to do with anyway. Then there is the matter of the city’s reputation. It can’t be maintained if outsiders are allowed to just walk in and become famous. Therefore, a certain portion of the art crowd’s resources are devoted to keeping regional artists in their place, that is, to keep them regional. We can make it (to a degree), we can be attended to, but only if we remain regional, only if our work does not threaten what New York regards as its special preserve, making of major art. I was once told that James Surls, a Texas artist, is making it in New York because he does what New York thinks ought to be done by a Texan: kinky, crafty, narrative wood carvings, clearly regional, clearly provincial and clearly minor. He is not that bad, so he can be enjoyed. But he is no threat to the assumption that major art belongs to New York. His success helps keep other Texan artists focused on being the next to be called to New York. They are in their place, so to speak, fighting among themselves for the positions most likely to be looked at when the call comes.
Like all effective rulers, New York takes steps such as the elevation of Surls, to see that provincial uprisings are kept to a minimum. The art press has grown to understand that most of its readers live in the provinces and enjoy hearing about local folks every now and then. The stories can be about other localities, so long as they are about some locality. One province can stand for all provinces. So we get an occasional article about the art of a large city or whole state. Chicago art, New Mexico art, Texas art – in 5000 words or less, plus a few reproductions. Most regional artists regard such articles as the gateway to fame. They exhaust themselves jostling for a favourable position when the writer comes to town. Wining, dining, dancing, screwing, money. Whenever the writer wants can pretty well be delivered – discreetly too. Of course, writers of integrity don’t let this affect their judgement, and most writers have some integrity. I say this seriously. They have their fun, but they do their job as well as they can according to whatever insights they might have.
Being included in one of these articles is of questionable value, unless one is a university art teacher building a resume. But it isn’t bad. It is just that everyone remembers the locality the article is about and not the artists. There are a lot of aesthetic strategies which might improve one’s chance of being chosen. They come down to being very good, but nonetheless representative of the region. Most importantly, you can be too close to what New York regards as the current major style. Major styles, of course, are not the cause of major art. Very few people in the world recognise this, so style is protected and fretted about as if it is the only real source of art.
The regional artist must realise that the official art system is organised to avoid taking his or her work seriously for as long as possible. This means that most regional art will never receive any attention. Taken absolutely, this is not unfair. Most of the work done in the regions, like most of the work done in New York, isn’t that good. The safest thing anyone can say about a randomly selected work of recent art is that it isn’t that good. You don’t even have to look, because the chances are so great that this judgment will be correct. The question remains, though, whether New York plays by the same rules when it comes to itself.
By now you can tell I am over 40 and have not made it in New York. True. Still, I have a right to be bothered by what takes place there. Out here in the provinces we are too timid to think that our best artists are great artists, and usually we are right. New Yorkers, on the other hand, think nothing of putting up their trash as great art, and usually they are wrong. They remember a lot of very forgettable artists and persuade many of us to help them do it. I don’t mind the system’s corruption or its power. Corruption is everywhere and power has to be somewhere specific, otherwise it isn’t power. What I do mind is the way New York puts over its own minor art as being major art, something that has been going on since 1960. That was when the world recognised that Jackson Pollock had made pictures which were as good as any that had ever been done. But with the consecration of Pollock, American art opinion changed direction 180°, and decided to never reject radical art again. Unfortunately, the same disregard for aesthetic quality which preceded the recognition of Pollock continues to this day. That didn’t change. But the manner in which quality was to be ignored did.
Avant-gardism, as developed and codified by Marcel Duchamp, furnished the model for the construction of the new Academy. It also provided the standards by which art opinion was to judge current art. It replaced the provincialism which led to the misjudgment of Pollock, but it didn’t understand the point of art any better than the provincial attitudes it displaced. It was, in fact, a worse way to proceed. One of the tenets of avant-gardism is that one moves up the Great Artist ladder by one-upping one’s predecessors. So American artists set out to one-up Pollock, and in effect, try to make art that was better than had ever been done. Only in America could something that silly get serious support. Support it got, however, and of a magnitude rarely seen in the history of art. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, Judd, LeWitt, Flavin, Kosuth and others each played the one-upping game with tremendous, historically unprecedented success, if success is measured in terms of the art opinion of one’s own immediate time. New York put these people across as being the new great artists, and we in the provinces were quick to agree, lest we get left behind. For a while, there was an almost universal agreement that great art and new art are the same thing. But the best – Lichtenstein and Johns – were and are minor artists; good, but minor. The worst – Kosuth – isn’t an artist at all. This is how art gets back at the foolish art crowd. It lets them live out their delusions.
This way art has of getting back at fools has been going on for a long time, since the days of the French Academy. Art opinion will eventually correct itself, as it has for the past hundred years, and recognise that it was once again wrong about the art of its own time. Then museum directors will quietly deaccession the worst objects, move the best of what remains to the back galleries, and the major art of the period will take its rightful place. There is no need for us provincials to be intimidated by what happened in New York during the 1960s and 70s, just because we didn’t live there. Anyone with a decent eye can see it for him or herself. The sorting out will take some extra time, because never before has the system invested so much capital on the basis of its judgment of correct art. The inertia of all those investor dollars will slow things up a bit, but really good art outlasts its resistance, even when the resistance is well–heeled.
But lately, things have taken a turn for the worse. The taste of the official art crowd, the new Academy, has sunk to a new low. Schnabel, Scharf, Haring, Salle, Longo and Boseman, along with the imports, and others, have achieved so little, yet they are so highly regarded. Dealers, museums and art writers have joined with these artists to celebrate the return of ‘content’ to art. The new Academy praises their work because it is radical and it tells us something about angst, about suffering, about 20th-century life. It is as if everyone believes the reason we still look at mediaeval art is to learn about piety. Well, the best of this group – Schnabel – may become a decent minor artist, but he has a way to go. There is less hope for the others. None of them compares favourably with Lichtenstein or Johns or, for that matter, with Rauschenberg or Stella. Yet they are receiving so much notice. Why, and why does their work bother me so much, much more than that of previous ‘great artists’? They would say I’m troubled because they are so good, but I know better than that.
The way their work comes on is at the heart of why I don’t just walk away and forget it, as I do with other inferior artists. It affects me like pornography affects women (and some men) because it excites by assaulting aesthetic sensibility itself, just as pornography excites by assaulting sexuality itself, at the expense of women. The new expressionism gets its attention at the expense of artists. It is a kind of art pornography. Ordinarily, over–the–counter sexual pornography attracts attention because in debasing sexuality it makes it exciting. Pornography encases sex in a fantasy just as imaginary as the Victorian uptight fantasy it displaces, but the new fantasy is free of romantic pretension and titillates the beast within all of us.
Just as pretension gets in the way of sex, so does it interfere with art. When I look at pictures by this latest group of ‘great artists’ I don’t worry that I will be taken in by slickness. Their work is refreshing (I cringe a bit, using such a positive word) in that it is free from aesthetic pretension. But that is because it is free from anything aesthetic. The pictures aren’t really pictures. This group doesn’t make pictures in the sense that urbanised artists have been making them for thousands of years. Unlike the German Expressionists, the neo-Expressionists don’t understand how pictures are made nor do they appear to care. They try to get some pre-civilised, pre-urban need to make an image, any image, no matter how bad, so long as it is there. Their work is an attack, grounded partly in arrogance, partly in ignorance, upon our civilisation’s entire pictorial achievement, just as pornography is an attack upon the entire humanity of sex. Most women and some men can’t become comfortable around pornography, even after they are certain that this level of existence is low and not worth taking seriously. Its violence is directed against their sexuality in particular. Violence is hard to ignore when it is directed against oneself.
Likewise, serious artists, and I count myself one, can’t become comfortable around the new bad painting because its violence is directed against our aesthetic sensibilities and powers. These bad paintings don’t simply aspire to be high art and fall short of the mark. They seek to become high art by destroying the whole tradition of aesthetic experience, so they can replace it. The one-upping begun in the 1960s has reached a conclusion of sorts. The highest traditions of urban art are to be demolished, along with the sensibility which made them possible. Forget one-upping previous artists; it is now time to one-up art itself, high art, at least. Other artistic revolutions have occurred in the past, but they were to restore the highest level of the urban tradition, not to make it go away. Those revolutions were led by artists of the finest sensibilities, not the worst. Unlike sexual pornographers, the new art pornographers offer precious little to take tradition’s place, except the thrill of destruction. I would call them barbarians, except that would give them too much credit. Attila knew what he was doing. They don’t.
Just as women are the targets of pornography, artists are the targets of bad painting. It makes its way at our expense. The very fact that it exists and receives attention costs us something, just as sexual pornography costs women something. Unlike sexual pornography, art pornography passes for the real thing.
My vulnerability to all this is greater because I live in a provincial setting and have provincial attitudes. My awareness of my own provincialism makes it more difficult for me to resist the new Academy’s axiom that only insensitive and naïve neoconservatives oppose new art. I am afraid they might be right. The fact that my eyes tell me different does not still the fear. It was difficult enough to live with the new Academy’s success in putting over minor work as major, but this is tougher yet.
Civilised picture making will endure because art is hard enough to see that it does. It is far harder than this group of juvenile artists and their supporters realise. Sometimes its hardness is expressed maliciously. They ought to watch out, but chances are they won’t. They have too great a share of the praise from current art opinion. I know art will get its way because it always has, but I fear becoming a casualty of the process. Art, like life, is not fair. Its driving force is to maintain its quality, not to serve justice. Whatever maintaining quality requires, is done.
Tenderness, or self-doubt, is a necessary part of making good pictures. But too much of it can lead to loss of nerve, which is fatal to the artist and the art. Witnessing the critical success of the attack on aesthetic sensibility has made it more difficult for me to live with my doubts and fears. Rather than let them feed upon neo-expressionism’s success and destroy my nerve, I am tempted to set them aside. To do so is damaging in other ways. Either extreme is a bad move. Art, because it is so hard, does not care what individuals such as myself do, so long as somebody does what has to be done. Nor does it care where it is done. Tough world. New York took advantage of the hardness of art when it transferred the centre of power from Paris to itself. Only fools, and I guess the new Academy fits that description, would think the transfer to be permanent.
The advantage of the regional setting, as I see it, is that we are less directly pressured to succumb to the everyday chaos which governs the functioning of the official art world. Pressure is an absolutely necessary ingredient in the creative mix, but too much of it overwhelms and numbs sensibility. It is strong enough to be felt just about anywhere, if one wants to feel it, thanks to modern transportation and expansion of the art world. But with the distance comes the feeling of being left out, and therefore many regional artists try to join the various bandwagons as they gain attention. Since we don’t live in New York, we are forced to do it by proxy. That is really worse than doing it in person. There is nothing much sadder than talking with a 40 or 50-year-old university art teacher who followed the trends, had his or her students follow too, and can’t understand why fame never came. Incredibly, more often than not, the University is held responsible. But that is another story.
Volume 35 no. 6 July/August 2021
1 thought on “Speakeasy – Art, like life, is not fair”
It’s not enough to go to N.Y. You have to start by going to the right school for your M.F.A.