Monday, April 18, 2011

The End of Art and What To Do About It

"Reverse" - Jenny Saville, 2002-2003
oil on canvas, 84" x 96"
[An example of a "New Old Master"]
"For The Love of God" - Damien Hirst, 2007
platinum, diamonds, human teeth
[An example of a "postartist"]

In Pixar's 2004 CG-animated blockbuster, The Incredibles, there is a scene early in the film in which a mother (Helen Parr) and son (Dash Parr) are arguing over the use of their super-powers. The Parrs are a family of superheroes who are consigned to living a “normal” life due to a government edict (brought on by lawsuits), and Helen is imploring that Dash help retain that facade of normalcy by not using his super-speed in school or any public activity, such as sports. Dash objects:

Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone's special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is. (15:30).

This is the framework that Donald Kuspit sets up in his book, The End of Art. It is the very postmodern notion that (as the Fluxus movement worked to establish) everyone is an artist. If this is the case in the 'postart' world of the contemporary, then it is pointless to call oneself such. This apprehends the title and personage of “artist” from its original standard as social arbiter and relegates it to a post of mere vanity. 'Postartist' is the corrected term, with Kuspit borrowing it from Allan Kaprow, the architect of the 'Happenings' performative works from the 1960s. It was the belief of Kaprow and his fellow practitioners that life was more interesting than art – and this was, as it seems, at the expense of art.

For Kuspit, the overtly over-commodified, über-clever, superhyped kitsch, such as the work of Damien Hirst, is the contemporary result of what Marcel Duchamp launched around 1915. He began to purposefully segregate art into a realm of pure intellectualism, abandoning the aesthetic for the anti- aesthetic. His seemingly capricious detachment from art aesthetics was the progenitor of generations of postartists, in Kuspit's view. The European Dadaist movement, once adapted and restyled in New York (much to the credit of Duchamp's Fountain), laid the foundations for postmodern, anti-art movements such as Fluxus, Pop, Performance and Conceptual art. So then, Duchamp's 'willful indifference' evolved with each developing movement into a strict denial of the possibilities of aesthetics and its relation to reality. This is, sadly, a reversal of art's purpose.

It is a bleak, gray landscape that Kuspit paints for us. Postart has overwritten and overridden not only aesthetics, but also its reflective vitality – its relation to our existence. It is only through 'real' art that we can track life through a “phenomenological reduction of the everyday in and through the aesthetic.” (Kuspit, 132). But where now is art's place as a privileged space for contemplation? If art no longer occupies this space, where then is that place in our sphere?

The straight answer is, it still lies in art. For what is now deemed 'art' (which is, in fact, Kuspit's postart) has become, through commodification and novelty for the sake of its own self-consuming disposability, an undistinguishable extension of the modern entertainment complex. Postmodern art now reflects consumer culture in an unabashed mimesis of the shallow artifice of the artificial. And with a culturally bereft, winking nihilism, embraces this fact in its own despite. This points up the common thread of cynical irony so common in postart works. It is also insipidly boring; the premise is always obvious, and you 'get it' instantly. What is functional about this? Art always intends to have a function – which is, at the very least, to provide insight. Non-functionality is synonymous with death.

Now then, I do believe that Kuspit, despite the inherent truth in his words, may be critiqued for his hyperbole, if not lack of hope. Art's death has been heralded and pronounced far too many times for Kuspit's proclamation to also be a literal consideration. Kuspit himself notes these incidents: William Blake's fears in 1820 of an unholy conflation of art and money (162); Gauguin's similar reflections on this topic seventy years later, as he notes how this evil alliance will destroy art in the new (20th) century (170); Clement Greenberg's view on kitsch in 1939 as the defeating foil to the avant-garde (171); Richard Huelsenbeck's observation and agreement in 1957 with the Dadaist assertion that “art is dead” (170); and David Rabinowich's 1963 critique of minimalism as the death of art emblemized (170-171). Even the very idea of the end of art was appropriated in the 1986 Boston ICA show, Endgame (I discuss this at length in a response to the Endgame essays from my first MFA semester*). As Kuspit notes in his postscript (which is altogether too short), there are a good number of artists (painters, he cites specifically) still practicing an art that is materially (aesthetically) resonant, while also satisfying modern, conceptual concerns. In other words, there still remain, and have remained, painters who never believed it was a good idea to throw the aesthetic baby out with the bathwater.

Van Gogh declared that “painting is a faith.” (Lublin, 113). Indeed, with all that has transpired, as chronicled by Kuspit, it seems like one would need to have a deep and nearly blind (deaf would probably help, too) faith in order to continue creating aesthetic art-objects such as paintings. Truth be told, the space of painting has been radically delimited; not only by the inclusion of all sorts of radical and contemporary media (digital, video, installation, performance, etc.), but also by the contemporary critics, dealers and collectors who would control the commodified – and rather unregulated – cash machine that art has become in these postart years. As a painter, my realization of these closed-down parameters caused me no small amount of despair, initially. I felt incredibly marginalized by the cold barriers set up by the contemporary art construct.

Nonetheless, I have chosen to 'keep the faith,' as it were, not only aligning myself with the 'New Old Masters,' as Kuspit names the artists in his postscript, but also looking to other sources for inspiration. In a 1971 debate, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault discussed ideas and motivations behind creativity in a modern age. At one point, Chomsky talks about the modern suppression of creativity by social institutions and posits that if this chain of oppression is unbound, it will reveal an inherently humanistic surge of artistry. Foucault's reply is not necessarily a disagreement, but it is a practical insight into the modern era. He is far more interested in how creativity can (as it was then, and still is now) operate, and perhaps flourish, within a set of constraints: “It is not a matter of combination. Only creativity is possible in putting into play of a system of rules; it is not a mixture of order and freedom.” (Chomsky-Foucault, 29). This describes a more limited framework giving a more stable creative foundation that would be unavailable if everything was permissible.

This theme can also be found in the excellent Lars von Trier film from 2003, The Five Obstructions. In this documentary, von Trier takes his mentor, the filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to task over Leth's The Perfect Human. Despite his deep admiration for Leth's work, von Trier challenges his mentor in a kind of Oedipal duel, daring him to make new versions of this film with particular obstructions in place. The first obstruction, which takes Leth to Cuba (an unknown quantity to him, thus restrictive) with the restriction that he can only shoot 12 frames per shot. While filming, Leth laments his agreeing to this: “It's totally destructive!” and “He's ruining it from the start!” (4:30-4:40). But later, upon seeing the completed new version, von Trier is amazed and remarks, “The 12 frames were a gift!” (15:40). The successes of the new versions were all in thanks to the restrictions put upon the veteran filmmaker. (In an amusing moment, von Trier 'punishes' Leth by insisting that Leth make a free-form version of the film. After the fantastic experiences with prior obstructions, Leth is horrified at the prospect and pleads for another obstruction.)

In this age of super-interconnectivity via the digital realm, we have – cliché notwithstanding – the world at our fingertips. For the creative mind, a new dictum has arisen: 'everything is allowed, nothing is permitted.' Such a thing easily neuters our creative impulses. So then, it is precisely through the narrowing of our artistic boundaries (some chosen, some preordained) that we can obtain a more focused – and consequently, more expansive – vision.

With this realization, I (and others) can herald the downfall of postart. Postart was the easy way out, co-opting anything and everything (the commercial as well as past art movements) in a backhanded, ironic  and unsympathetic manner.  The postartists' appropriated and deconstructed art reprisals emblemize a lack of artistic courage and conviction. Such spectacles are akin to dressing down a (perceived) weaker rival in public, in lieu of addressing one's own insecurities. However, this act lays those insecurities rather bare in such a way as to incriminate the actor as an unknowing fool.

The job of an artist is to not be foolish, but insightful. Through searching in earnest for my artistic path, I have jettisoned the notions of postmodern postart insisting that representational painters cannot represent art in any way other than anachronistically. Finding the magnetic North of my aesthetic compass should never have been something about which I felt was a less-than-artistic pursuit. My formalized language of representational painting is the vehicle that allows me to announce my unconscious unconsciously. So then, in pursuing the deviations and visual inquests using my foundational aesthetics and professional skill sets as the basis, I can and will reveal the full scope of myself and my relationship to the contemporary world in my work.

Works Cited:

Chomsky, Noam and Foucault, Michel. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature. New York: New Press, 2006. Print

The Five Obstructions. Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. Films Sans Frontières [France], 2003. Film

The Incredibles. Dir. Brad Bird. Perf. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson. Disney/Pixar, 2004. Film.

Kuspit, Donald. The End of Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print

Lublin, Albert J. Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. Print

* May 16, 2010 entry on the “Studio Berehaven Annotations” blog –


Jeff B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff B. said...

Hi Rob,
I am with you on this... and think that I too addressed (at least partly) the issue in my last paper (shameless plug:, "Death by Irony"). Knowing of some other conversations around AIB, and tangentially, PaFA (Bo Barlett is an Alum.), I'm wondering if this is a conversation that's been going on continuously since the beginning of Modernism, or if it is gaining more traction since Art started (de)evolving into meta-Art c. 1970 and onward.
Maybe it's nothing new; the work I find most compelling seems in one way or another to reach back to a traditional notion of an artist working to become an accomplished artisan as a means of reaching towards the universal: Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jim Campbell, John Curran, yes Jennie Seville, and even James Turrell. That being said, I'm anxious to see if my current work is actually more "postArt" in your opinion -- a admittedly real, though undesired, possibility at this point.
[BTW: Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine can kiss my white a**]

Rob S. said...

Jeff, thanks for the comment! Love the "feeding" clip, by the way. You might enjoy Michael Borremans' motion work, by the look of this. I don't think your work qualifies fully as "postart," fortunately (my opinion), as it does indeed resonate with an aesthetic value, something that is heavily downplayed in postart works. The "conversation" you refer to is more of a collapsing of the way critique is executed, from what I'm seeing. I think it's at its low ebb right now. See you in school soon! -R.

Dana said...

Hi Rob,
I wanted to send this to you a while ago - very good fuel for representational work - this is a piece of writing from my mentor Roger White:

JG said...

a joy to read. keep up all the words, i want to read more of your thoughts. something relating to a faith in painting, was one of the original ideas i had for the title of my thesis. it turned into "an occasion to modulate technology" painting practices are tricky to defend - and easier to discourage than encourage. you are doing a great job.