Sunday, December 2, 2012

Culture or Trash?

I just finished reading James Gardner's 220-pge skewering of the postmodern art scene, Culture or Trash? The subtitle reads, "A Provocative View of Contemporary Painting, Sculpture and Other Costly Commodities." Written by a former art critic for the National Review, the book is well researched and and well written, thus making it an easy read with plenty of anecdotes to hold one's interest for the duration. Any artist who has been involved in the arts since Warhol's Brillo boxes hit the scene will recognize many of the names and be familiar with some of the stories.

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." 

My personal problem with Gardner's book is that he's chosen throughout to make blanket statements that discredit his own authority. On page 18 he writes, "Who are the artists about whom it is now possible to be energetically enthusiastic? The art that is revolutionary is not very good, and the art that is good is certainly not great." Over and over he reminds us that we live in something akin to the dark ages as far as art goes. He declares that we've witnessed "a depletion" of "civilization's powers of creativity."

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.

Nevertheless, the author does raise a lot of good questions, many of these the same that artists themselves have asked. Chapter 2 shines a spotlight on the art world, primarily from 1960-1993 when the book was published. On page 42 he brings us stats on the auction houses. In 1959, the ten most expensive paintings sold that year went from £275,000 to £48,000. In 1987-90, the top ten paintings went for $82 million down to a paltry $26.4 million. The latter were primarily 20th century painters, the former set included only one. Today's art auction sales figures are as shocking as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon when it first appeared.

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.

People like Jeff Koons were an easy target, as well as others whom Gardner cites who are already forgotten. Koons famously sold some cheap vacuum cleaners for a small fortune as art and floated basketballs in tanks of water for art's sake, not sport. "To my knowledge," Gardner writes, "he has never made a work of art that was formally or even spiritually ambitious." For some reason, Koons is a strange animal in the freak show section of the art scene, an anomaly of sorts.

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.

1 comment:

Ann Klefstad said...

Haven't read the book, but the _National Review_ is a very, very politically conservative magazine. It sounds as if his blanket condemnation of all and everything isn't very useful.