27 July 2014

Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?

From Axel Nagel's recent essay "Beyond the Relic Cult of Art", at the Brooklyn Rail:

"In contrast to copying for training purposes, which proceeds from the premise that the lessons of the model could and should be applied in the present, copying them as artifacts proceeds from exactly the opposite premise, that the model is foreign, that art has moved irreversibly in new directions. In reproducing the strokes made by the original artist, I relive them as a series of decisions, decisions that were natural for him and are not for me. It is not just that his individual style is different from mine. If it is old enough, the entire period style, the very premises on which he worked, are different. The strange quality of a sleeve, therefore, and my resistance to it, prompt questions about the otherness of those times generally."

Nagel's essay is the latest in a series on the topic of art forgeries appearing at the Rail under the umbrella of The Held Essays On Visual Arts. The series on forgeries apparently kicked off in response to critic Blake Gopnik’s recent NYT essay, “In Praise of Art Forgeries”; including (so far) a riposte essay from Alva Noë, a counter-response from Gopnik, another essay by David Geers, with Nagel weighing in recently.

Frankly, I find the Gopnik essays abysmal (about which, the less said the better).  But they nonetheless touched off a debate. And what followed with the responses from Noë and Geers is fairly basic stuff for anyone who’s ever given the matter much thought, or read any previous discussion on the topic. Because there’s a body of literature on this very topic already, one that stacked up throughout the twentieth century, most of it penned by philosophers and aestheticians of the academic stripe. And for already familiar with these debates, the Held essays read like a casual, 101-er recap. Concerning the usual questions about authenticity and originally. About the singularity of a work of art (particularly in the case of painting) as executed by one hand, as weighed against a copy made by other hands. Also too about the matter of the intention of the maker, not only as it relates to expression but also to how a work might be the result of the artist’s search for a solution to a certain creative “problem.” And then come difficult questions about the valuation of art works – be it the “aesthetic value” of a work as perceived or derived by the viewer (who might not know that they are dealing with a fake), or the monetary value assigned to the work because of its supposed singularity (as paid by some overly-eager collector who might not know that they are purchasing a fake).

The former instance is where things get slippery, because it’s where the discussion starts venturing out of the domain of the merely aesthetic and down another philosophic avenue – the one called ethics. Because no matter how much postmodernism might’ve made us jaded about notions of “sincerity” and “originality” and the like, most people (even hair-splitting academic aestheticians) still agree on is that deceiving or defrauding other people is a shitty, shitty thing to do. Which, once you get down to the brass tacks, is the only intention or “creative solution” that a forger has in mind when they go to work.

Nagel’s essay is a welcome step outside of this unresolved debate, reframing the questions surround copies and forgeries in a broader historical context. Yes, the act of copying was once less stigmatized; but those were much different times. And yes, forgeries are very much a response to a particular type of art market. And as the recent Rothko/AbEx forgery scandal has demonstrated, it’s an enterprise that always rushes in when there’s a bubbling market.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that there’s something completely absent from discussion on this topic; something that I think would be very central to discussion surrounding artistic intention and “problem solving”. That being: Yes, it’s a process that involves a great deal of thought, contemplation, sweat in the execution stages and any number of erasures and doings-over. But that same process can also involve a number of other, less taxing things – like whimsy, irony, spontaneity, and (as they say) jouissance. The act of copying or forging, with all its slavish technical concerns and formulae-aping, doesn’t allow room for such things.

19 July 2014

Hi There

I might as well go ahead and call it, even though it's probably been evident enough in recent weeks: Summer hiatus. Or something akin to. Mainly on account of having something like some "life event"-type biz to attend to these days; the sort of thing that involves a lot of distractions, strategizing, attention to certain details, etc. etc.. The sort that leaves limited headspace, temporarily shoving most everything else to the margins.

Counted among the casualties: Several lengthy posts that I can't time to finish, languishing in drafts mode. But if things have been slow lately, it was an indicator of The Shape Of Things To Come for the better part of the summer. Then, once I get round to it, a flurry of tl;dr blahblah. With a forecast of maybe sporadic intermittent bubblings on the surface blahblah-wise.

But anyway, speaking of summer: Hope yours has been a nice one. Cheers.

09 July 2014

Epiglottal Interlude

Thought of posting this song a while back, sans explan. Since then, I discovered that we have a colony of bats nesting in our attic.

01 July 2014

Hegelian Aesthetics vs. the Bronzed Turd

Career-spanning retrospectives often serve as a type of critical proving ground, if not a waterloo, for artists of a certain vintage. They often arrive at the point at which an artist’s cultural legacy is either up for renewal, or – frequently enough – for reevaluation.

Case in point: The Cindy Sherman MoMA retrospective of a couple of years ago. Until that time Sherman had been largely unassailable – one of the very few American artists who survived the critical backwash again the NYC artworld of the 1980s, one of the only artists of her generation whose status went unquestioned over the decades that followed. Up until the MoMA retrospect, which brought a couple of surprises. The first was its accompanying debut of a series of new work that met with harsh dismissals by a few critics; the argument being that the new works were definitely – and unexpectedly – weak. Otherwise, the reviews were generally positive. In a couple of instances, a critic would break ranks and used the occasion to declare, “I never liked her work to begin with.”

In terms of what sort of reception might greet a retrospective exhibition, timing has a lot to do with it. An artist’s reputation or critical esteem can fluctuate many times over the course of his or her career. So if the show in question meets with mixed, ambivalent or even hostile reviews, it might simple be that it coincides with the moment in which critics and viewers begin to pose certain questions. Has the artist’s work finally outlived its geist, and was now being reassessed by the sensibility of a different cultural climate? Were they perhaps crap to begin with, and we’re only now able to recognize this is hindsight? Or is all this just an example of the pendular sway of opinion – the inevitable but passing dip in esteem that often proves temporary before consensus regroups and rights itself? The path to canonization is almost never unswervingly linear.

And now it’s Jeff Koon’s turn. Admittedly, he’s always been a polarizing figure, and still is. But this time, on the occasion of the Whitney’s Koons retrospective, the detractors have their opportunity to line up and take their shots. For one, there's Thomas Micchelli at Hyperallergic:

“There’s really no getting around the sense that such preciously fabricated works as ‘Saint John’ and ‘Michael Jackson,’ when placed inside the walls of a preeminent art museum, bespeak a contempt for the less-affluent classes who find the Walmart versions of these images pleasing. Whether such latent condescension is intentional on the part of the artist or museum doesn’t matter; the imagery’s faux-democratic appeal to easy fun (to reference the title of another of Koons’s series) is bound to engender in the art-smart viewer either regression or ridicule, despite Koons’s stated goal, as related in a wall text, that they be seen ‘as an elaborate allegory […] aimed at freeing us to embrace without embarrassment our childhood affection for toys or the trinkets lining our grandparents’ shelves.’ We really don’t need an assist from Koons to accept the unsophisticated joys of childhood; the ideal of the child has been a tenet of Modernism since Charles Baudelaire.”

And at Artnet critic Ben Davies offers his own peculiar critique, more or less reaching similar conclusions:

“These works at least nod to questions of privilege. They suggest thoughts, however unformed, about who culture is aimed at and how desire is constructed. But realizing the specific racial and class components of one’s own taste also means some degree of self-doubt, and self-doubt is exactly what is purged as time goes by and Koons becomes a bigger deal.”

Personally, I feel Davis's attempt at a socio-economic tack almost misses its target completely. And I take issue with Micchelli’s assertion about the quasi-populist “condescension” that defines Koons’s career, if only because it always struck me – more specifically – as the product of cynical pandering. And reaching for Arthur Danto’s “End of Art” thesis seems not only overly generous, but ill-suited for the topic at hand. (If there’s an “end of art” diagnosis that Koons’s work exemplifies, it’s the one put forth by Donald Kuspit, landing squarely in the category of what Kuspit categorizes as "postart.”)*

I suppose there is such basis for labeling Koons the Most Important Living Artist of the past few decades. A fair enough verdict, providing you happen to believe that that self-blinkered acriticality, market bubbles, thought-killing clichés passed off profound truths, and the habitual recycling of artistic gestures from the recent past are the defining characteristics of the current era. And one could also make the same argument in terms of Koons’s influence on other artists that followed in his wake; but that argument would be too contingent on a favorable unanimous consensus about Damien Hirst and many of his YBA peers. Similarly for such a case being made where ever-increasing sums of money becomes the dictating criterion.

And then there’s Jerry Saltz. Long one of Koons’s most faithful advocates and defenders, even Saltz feels obligated to lace his review of the retrospective with caveats:

“Koons helped art reenter public discourse while also opening up the art world. ...The very environment he did so much to reengineer, followed by the mad amplification of the luxury economy, has meant that Koons’s art now seems to celebrate the ugliest parts of culture. The rich and greedy buy it because it lauds them for their greediness, their wealth, power, terrible taste, and bad values. Just as Koons was a positive emblem of an era when art was reengaging with the world beyond itself, he is now emblematic of one where only masters of the universe can play.”

Whereas Peter Schjeldahl writing for the New Yorker can only shrug:

“We might justly term the present Mammon-driven era in contemporary art the Koons Age. No other artist so lends himself to a caricature of the indecently rich ravening after the vulgarly bright and shiny. ...It’s really the quality of his work, interlocking with economic and social trends, that makes him the signal artist of today’s world. If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.”

Which I suppose could be translated to mean that a culture gets the type of art that it deserves.

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*  Not that this should be construed as an endorsement of the criticism of Donald Kuspit. Far from it. But I suppose the ideal obligatory exhibition companion publication could feature – in the place of the usual laudatory blahblah by curators, critics, and art hsitorians – one long text that was some sort of frankensteined suturing of Kuspit’s The End of Art, Fukuyama’s The End of History, and Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, except rewritten in the style of your standard management-lit self-help tome. (Life coach not included.)

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