Contemporary Art is a farce. Most of it is meaningless and boring to view. Note that the artists who make it aren’t important. Who is important are the curators. They, carefully trained at Universities to know what is worthy of our attention, are the arbiters of cultural significance. It is they who are mentioned first in any reviews.
I find I can say this without concern because artists like me will never get the attention of the curators, the mainstream galleries, the art market, or the museums. Therefore I have nothing to lose. There is no reason to hold my tongue or kiss ass.
Why? Perhaps it’s because I am a lousy artist? That I can’t measure, but I can measure these factors: I am too old. The art world feeds in the young, whom the market devours in new batches every year. Most of whom are forgotten within a year of discovery. At 72, it is presumed, I have nothing new to add to the art dialogue. New is lexicon of selection. There is always a new, even if it is really old, because if it looks different, utilizes a weird material, technique, or context. It is new at least to the selectors. What I do is not new. I draw in an old way. I do not have an art degree. I came to art after first being an architect.
Art schools are what produce contemporary artists. They are professionals, and art is now a profession. It is the place that is patrolled for the next versions of the viable for the art market’s needs. This deplorable situation, which to me leads to phony and pompous intellectualism from the teachers, most of whom aren’t intellectuals, but probably read the current art rags. and the students, most of whom weren’t smart enough to get into medical school or business or management school. This wasn’t always the case. Many of the acclaimed modern masters weren’t trained artists. Henri Matisse was first a lawyer.
Then there is size. Contemporary art should be big. The size inflation, I think, began with Abstract Expressionism. Some of the Pollock’s are really big. Size seems to have grown over the decades. I remember going to the old Whitney Museum in New York in the 1960s and 70s; the Poons’, Oliski’s, and Morris Lewis’ were huge. I was impressed with this stuff and bought into it as a definition of the avant-garde. James Rosenquist, an artist I liked who just died in 2017, had a painting that spread over more than one wall. I was blown away by this appropriation of billboards into art.
Every year big kept getting bigger. This could of course have to do with the expansion of the art market to contemporary work. In this market that equates cultural value with economic value, it could be said, that art is best appreciated by its square footage. For whom then, but a rich man or a museum, could have the wall space to display and the wallet to acquire huge art? But as art got bigger, it seems to me, content faded away.
Morris Lewis, Tet 1958, 12’ by 8’, Whitney Museum of Art
Pop Art was the precursory to meaninglessness because, in my thought, the less content the more art was avant-garde. Andy Warhol, the artist who is the icon of the importance for Pop Art, established the idea that art was not the arcane territory of the historians and the cultural elite, but should be accessible to all. He, whom I neither dismiss nor dislike, initiated the slide into vacuousness of contemporary art. To see an Andy Warhol is to get it. It is a fast transfer of meaning. You don’t stand in front of one of his self-portraits and contemplate. You look and move on. Warhol was no intellectual. He liked money, and money was what he achieved. He was a perfect fit to the needs of the art market — Easy to comprehend and ultimately expensive to buy. That is once it was declared culturally acceptable.
Others might argue it was Marcel Duchamp, who began this process. I would argue that this is not true. Duchamp, a French intellectual, changed the idea of what art could be with his fountain, the urinal displayed under the name R. Mutt at the Armory show in the early 20th Century. Ever since then artists have been searching for meaning in different way. Duchamp with his room, his boxes, and his spinning wheels created the precursor of most of them. Conceptual art was becoming the mode, where meaning had its last gasp.
Thus art traveled down the lane to irrelevance. Each movement: Op Art, Minimalism, Neo-expressionism, and others descending ever further into the cave of nothingness. I look at the current rages in art: feminist outrage, black backlash at exclusion, LGBT expression, climate change awareness and description, as important issues, but do they do more than point the finger at cultural problems? Most, like Warhol’s work you get by a quick take, and move on. Why linger and look? They are visually uninteresting, and these issue-oriented works are the best of the lot. All, perhaps not all, (John Baldessari is a prime example) are pure rubbish for art market consumption. Dare I say balloon dogs and stuffed sharks in tanks?
Thus, I not being a member of a identifiable movement, not much of a maker of beautiful objects, nor someone who does big all the time, and who doesn’t hew to the model of making consistent things as if I were a light manufacturer serving the market of oligarchs, corporate elites, or financial manipulators, have no chance in this world. I strive for something meaningful, visually and comprehensibly, that is outside the established new parameters, (Perhaps it is conservative of older values?), and I am not alone. I know artists who follow this same course and feel the same frustration. Video artists in general suffer the same fate. They don’t attract the same fervor of hip curators. Most museums aren’t audio-visually set up to display the work. For example a recent show at the Whitney on portraiture displayed a large photograph augmented by video of rippling water by Corey Arcangel, called Diddy/Lakes, 2013. It was a wall work that explored none of the greater possibilities of video. I found it pretty but thoroughly meaningless. The Whitney has become the warehouse of contemporary cultural vacuity. I shall explore more on this situation in a second article about why make art and three subsequent articles about the artistic, social, and economic value of art.
Corey Arcangel, Diddy/Lakes, 2013, Whitney Museum of Art