The first chapter explores how painters and sculptors went from being blue collar chaps to becoming superstars and celebrities. Historically, in the Renaissance era, being a painter was comparable to being a ditch digger. Da Vinci attempted to give importance to painting because it was generally ill thought of and vulgar compared to poetry and music. The only thing worse than painting, in the arts, was to be a sculptor. Da Vinci admired sculptures but dissed those who did them as being "mere stonecutters." So Gardner, former art critic for the National Review, strives to address this turn of events that has resulted in artists being so revered today.
I was surprised at how few reviews there were of this 1993 diatribe on Amazon.com. Two, actually. Here is a section from the first:
James Gardner's "Culture or Trash?" is a well-written, intelligent, and well-placed criticism of the twisted, ill-conceived, and philosophically indefensible practices of the Western "art world." Just as relevant today as when it was published six years ago, any dyed-in-the-wool bohemian who can muster the guts to read this one all the way through will doubtlessly suffer much cognitive dissonance, as page by page, cherished art world illusions are stripped bare.
That's pretty strong stuff. It certainly captures the tone of the book. The second reviewer helps with particulars.
Postmodernism: In contrast, it is critically important to a Postmodernist that he be so identified. He defines himself by what he is not. First and foremost, he is not a Modernist. He is in fact an Anti-modernist. As long as a work of art rejects Modernism, it is Postmodernism. A sculpture of plastic vomit: They weren't doing that 15 years ago, so it's Postmodernism. Three basketballs floating in a water filled aquarium: They weren't doing that 15 years ago, either, so it also qualifies.
Although Postmodernism is at the core of his discussion, he includes discussions of most of the other 20th century schools such as Minimalism, Contemporary Art, etc.
What is revealing, according to Gardner, is that there are so many artists producing this stuff, so many agents representing them, so many galleries and museums showing this "art," and, most surprisingly of all, so many people willing to shell out very large sums of money to own and display it.
As part of his answer to the question that is contained in the title, Gardner states: "Postmodernism is . . . . the reduction to absurdity of this artistic rebelliousness . . . . rebelliousness pursued for its own sake."
I would counter that just because one reads art magazines praising some rather strange and esoteric installations that this is the only kind of art being created in the world, or that it's all done tongue-in-cheek with no serious purpose other than to be different. He laments that there is no talent, and I would suggest he get out a little more and see that the world is awash with talent.
Gardner asks why art seems less impressive today than when Da Vinci was painting. I'd suggest that there are many ways to answer this, first noting that there really are some fine painters doing Renaissance-style realism. Keep in mind that there were no cameras back then so draftsmen and painter were very important to kings, queens and others seeking to leave something of themselves for posterity. Cameras today have replaced that function. But it's more than that.
The second chapter of the book explores the role of post-modern philosophers and their influence on the arts. The anecdotes are many, and like other stories throughout the book, it reads like a typical junk mail appeal that condenses all the bad in the world into one concise ten page letter designed to have us send money to fight the ACLU or the Religious Right or whatever the cause of the day is.
The stories are well-sketched, and examples abound of art that seems altogether strange to the common sense lives most folks live. I remember reading reviews of Chris Burden shows in ArtForum while in college. In one event he had himself nailed to a Volkswagen, crucifiction-style. In another he did a performance called Shoot where his compatriot fired a rifle at him, shooting him in the arm. These kinds of events have been legion the past half century. Gardner takes aim at the critics who praise it all as if anything different of new were wonderful.
I did learn a few things from this book, however. That Ayn Rand did not believe photography could be called art. That Frank Stella did not paint all his paintings, but had assistants do the laborious work of painting his designs. That the German artist Rudoplh Schwartzkogler, who made a film of himself cutting off his penis one inch at a time (as art), did not actually do this, for it was a hoax. (I read it in an art mag in college.) His name, like others cited in this book, has been pretty much forgotten.
A review of this book by the Kirkus Review was also on Amazon.com where it was compared to shallow kvetching. "For serious, balanced, and truly provocative studies of contemporary art, see (Robert) Hughes's Nothing if Not Critical (1990), or Arthur Danto's Encounters and Reflections (1990) and Beyond the Brillo Box (1992).
Meantime, life goes on.... Let's keep wrestling with the meaning of it all and see where it leads.