ROMANCE IN THE GARDEN OF ELECTRODES:The Endless End of Art -Book Review by John Farris

 

 

The End of Art

Donald Kuspit

Art Criticism

Cambridge University Press, 2004

Hardcover

201 pp

$28.00

 

 

 

Recently on WNYC's Brian Leherer Show the artists Jeanne-Claude and Christo, speaking of their Central Park installation stated variously that there was nothing in the work beyond the act, and that the viewer should expect nothing more than the experience of passing beneath the 23 miles of 7,500 pleated and saffron-colored nylon panels affixed to 4 x 4 inch metal poles that rise to a height of 16 feet above the park's winding walkways. Coincidentally enough, I was just preparing myself to go up to the park, deciding that it was a nice enough day to bicycle the few miles from my Lower East Side digs to have some lunch while contemplating this latest phenomenon imposing itself on the city's cultural horizon. There had, after all, not been such flap since the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of years ago -- and for different reasons altogether the Brooklyn Museum of Art's show that included the work of Nigerian artist Christopher Ofili, whose depiction of the Virgin Mary included elephant dung as a medium and about which Roman Catholic then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani became so incensed that he threatened to take over the museum and close the show -- to no avail.

 

Having made my leisurely way up 8th Avenue through the madding, claustrophobic course of belching buses and trucks and cars and people of mid-day, mid-week, midtown Manhattan with my lunch in tow and a notebook for any thoughts I might have wanted to jot down during this singular act of artistic contemplation, I caught my first glimpse of the spectacle I sought -- a hint of saffron poking out from the jumble of stone and steel and glass buildings named for how they seem to rake the sky at 57th Street, a larger detail of the whole (the appreciation of which requiring the privilege of height and some distance given the scope of it) coming into view as I approached Columbus Circle and the great (for Manhattan) vista of green and blue sky created by the park not so much exploding onto my consciousness as being as I entered the park -- a trail of saffron rectangles, clunky poles they were attached to of the same hue and seeming more in keeping with an element of utility to my eye than an aesthetic decision stitching the paths as far as the eye could see -- and doing so, indelibly defining the limits of their space in saffron. Other than that it was as Jeanne-Claude had earlier said -- it was an idea, a concept that found realization. Expecting an element of repose and contemplation, what I encountered appeared  to be a raised soft-sculpture version of the Yellow Brick Road with tens of thousands of Dorothys with their motley crews of tin men and cowardly lions and whatnot sonambulistically making their way towards an Oz that would never ever appear except perhaps in the excitement of the bustle of the great city surrounding them or in their imaginations, the Wizard -- in the personages of Jeanne-Claude and Christo in this incarnation -- in an act of maximum (22 million dollars to open) Minimalism having chosen to leave that minor detail to them -- an unending stream of petitioners to this latest great Court of Art abandoned at its doorstep, now and then waving some article of merchandising such as a photograph or a publication documenting the installation as proof of their petitions that would appeal to the minimal on the grandest scale -- the monochromatic except for those registers provided by the environment surroundings the spectacle -- and due to the muted expectations of the crowd (as though actually having been steered towards a carnival funhouse), ultimately, the banal. Foregoing even lunching there among that pressing crowd of arrivistes, I left the park feeling more than a bit hungry both in point of physical fact and spirit, similar to the way I felt when I found that Neo in The Matrix was truly 'The One'. Good old Neo.

 

Returning home via 5th Avenue I happened to notice a couple of orange structures in Madison Square Park that I realized were intended as sculpture. One was three or four steel girders of between 12 and 15 feet in length stacked like a pyramid of firearms or a teepee: did it matter whether there were three or four -- was there any significance in the number? Was the form intended to make the association I made? A question of engineering or architecture? Free association? They were after all, steel girders; material used in building construction, unmanipulated except for length, color and placement. The other was more girders of approximately the same dimensions that framed the skeleton of what appeared to be a crushed cube. The orange of both was that orange of the type of sealant used to prevent oxidation.

 

Without specifically having mentioned Jeanne-Claude and Christo in his new book The End of Art, Donald Kuspit refers to this phenomenon in contemporary art as 'postart'. The front jacket illustration of the book is an overview of an ashtray filled with the butts of filtered cigarettes and ash, a detail of Damien Hirst's 1996 installation "Home Sweet Home" in which a collection of half-full coffee cups, ashtrays with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a paint-smeared palette, an easel, a ladder, paintbrushes, candy wrappers and newspaper pages strewn about the floor was the centerpiece. Offered for sale by the Eyestorm Gallery at six figures, the installation was dismantled and discarded after the opening by a janitor who had mistaken the unsightly mess for trash. When informed of this unfortunate eventuality, Mr. Hirst is quoted as having laughed -- saying he was thrilled by the junking of his junk work, the dirty litter of his studio -- for, being mistaken as life it confirmed that "his art is all about the relationship between art and the everyday."

 

Winner of the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, editor of Art Criticism, contributing editor to Artforum, Sculpture, New Art Examiner and Tema Celeste magazines, Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York. He has been the A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell, received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fullbright Commision, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the author and editor of hundreds of articles and books, most recently, The Rebirth of Painting in the Late 20th Century and Psychostrategies of Avant-garde Art. For Kuspit, transference now often  takes place in the viewer rather than in the object viewed. Referring to Martin Creed's exhibition of a lightbulb turning on and off in an empty room -- a work that won the Turner Prize of 2001, he calls it the "humorless blackness of nihilism, the blackness of the humor confirmed when what presents itself as a work of art -- an advanced one, no less -- is mistaken for a slice of life, which is what Hirst's cleaning man did." He allows that "the humor becomes even more black -- or is it that the nihilism becomes more humorous? (at least to the skeptical) when after it is removed from the art situation it can no longer be seen as art -- no longer holds its own as art."  For Kuspit, "Making art has become a case of putting on the emperor's new clothing and getting away with it -- calling raw life interesting art and convincing people that it is, which suggests just how much postart must be taken on faith, indicating that it is a minor cult." He feels this entropic slide towards the banal in art had its antecedents in Dada -- a movement the pulse of which was clearly addressed to what was perceived  as ultimately the banality of life -- the entropic -- and was expressed in the intellectualisms and readymades of Duchamp (who ultimately gave up art to become a Chess Master), and introduces art in a raw state -- a l'etat brut -- bad, good, or indifferent. "Duchamp," he says, "rebels against the aesthetic weighing and analysis of art -- against pressing any kind of social judgment on it," and, he posits, "Without aesthetics, what does the work of art become? Something like the mechanical drawing Duchamp used 'to escape taste.... It upholds no taste, since it is outside all pictoral convention.'"

 

Commencing with Frank Stella's comments to Glen Lowery, the Director of MoMA in May of 2001 regarding Modern starts, the show viewed by Lowery as a way of revisiting, through an exhibition of select works from its collection, the history of twentieth century art. Stella, annoyed by the way the works had been installed is quoted as saying, "Modern starts might just as well have been called 'Mastubatory insights'..." and "... a more apt subtitle would have been, 'Pointless, clueless and souless.'" The rationale for Stella's ire is quite clear to Kuspit: "Why," he asks, "did he say that 'there are no temperate words to describe the way Modern starts manhandles the collection of the Museum of Modern Art?" Stella is worth quoting "at length," says Kuspit, "for the attitude to art he attacks suggests, no doubt intentionally, that what used to be called high art no longer exists, perhaps not even in name." Having said in reference to what he has termed 'seminal entropy' that the public street has, in effect, come to replace the studio for many post modern artists, he says of Alan Kaprow -- who for him is a seminal postartist, "Happenings, pitched to the crowd took place on what might be called a simulated street rather than in the private studio. The artist was no longer centered in the studio where he was the master of all he surveyed, but decentered in the street, another marginal figure in a social space in which everyone is marginal, for the street has no center." Stella himself is reduced in a subsequent chapter titled, "The Decline of the Cult of the Unconscious: Running on Empty," along with Warhol, for making crowd art -- in which the work of art "can only reach the crowd by becoming a spectacle, if not sacred, although, no doubt, fame is the secular form of sacredness, that is sacredness without the divine -- without soul." Warhol is Kuspit's example of the popular postartist, for, "Warhol was an expert in what has come to be called experimental marketing. He in fact became a brand name like Campbell's Soup and Coca Cola, whose products he represented. Indeed, he reproduced them in the same mechanical way they were produced." Kuspit's view is that money and career have everything to do with this attitude: "The success of the transformation of art into money became explicit in 1975 when Warhol nonchalantly declared, with deceptive cleverness, business is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I wanted to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called 'art' or whatever I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

 

Gates might be a perfect example of that. The artists had to raise 22 million dollars for an aesthetic project slated to last no more than two weeks, and after the opening ceremony (the unfurling!), were whisked away in a 300,000 dollar limousine. I would say that is pretty good business. "And what," asks Kuspit, "is sensuousness in a world of simulation and reason in a world of computers? Clearly, art, aesthetic contemplation, beauty, eternity, freedom, are experimentally and conceptually passÈ in a world of relative values and technical necessity. The best art can hope for -- whatever calls itself art and the society agrees to call art (or is forced to by administrators) is to become a current, newsworthy social event." I am afraid Kuspit is onto something here. Invention might have become the mother of necessity. The machines Jean Tinguely produced  in the middle of the last century that he called metamatic, programmed electronically to act with antimechanical predictability when viewers inserted felt-tipped marking pens into a pincer and then pressed a button to begin the motion of the pen across a sheet of paper clipped to an "easel", have more or less become computer programs. The "Vision in Motion" of Moholy-Nagy had -- before he'd even gotten the words out of his mouth -- become cinema, certainly crowd-pleasing, and with the production of Howard Hughs' (another businessman) \italic{Hell's Angels}, certainly a newsworthy event. The architecture of the Bauhaus has become \italic{de riguer} -- not to be transcended until the designs it inspired include an ability to levitate on their own. Tinguely's 1960 "Homage to New York", a self-destructing machine, is dismissed for being "hardly a technological wonder and obviously with no constructive value" that is "about as far as such technology dependent art goes towards 'aesthetic excitement'."

 

"Postart," says Kuspit, "signals the end of this cult of the unconscious. Without the unconscious for inspiration, art begins to run on empty, which is what most of it is running on today. The belief that the unconscious is a social construction -- a bourgeois ideology -- is an attack on it. Conceptual art, which lacks unconscious import -- semiotic wit replaces the dream's wit -- is in the forefront of the attack." He goes on to say, "Indeed, technology has come to replace theory, social criticism, and the unconscious in postart, which is why it seems increasingly  impossible to be an artist without also being -- indeed, first being -- an engineer, computer whiz, or video technician." He might have said that today, technology drives the theoretical. This is borne out in contemporary rock music, where often computers are used even by drummers, to mark what are called 'beats'. The use of body waste disturbs him, from the elephant turds of Ofili (David Hammons, whose work is ignored here, had earlier used elephant dung as a sculptural medium and whose "Higher Goals" -- a series of poles varying in length of between 20 and 40 feet with basketball hoops attached evoke the desire of African Americans to succeed at anything) to Kiki Smith's 1997 "Tale", in which a female figure is represented on all fours with a trail of shit emerging from her anus. He wonders if Smith might be merely updating -- in an act of seminally entropic appropriation -- Robert Mapplethorpes 1978 "Self Portrait", stating that "it is as though she had removed the handle of the fetishistic whip inserted in his anus, releasing a trail of shit," concluding that Mapplethorpe's photograph is "more daring than Smith's sculpture." "Excremental postart," he says -- "art that performs the banal, turning it into a spectacle without offering insight into its is self-defeating." One wonders what Smith might have done to Kuspit with that whip.

 

While I have to agree with much of what Kuspit says, I do have a problem with most of what he calls 'New Old Master Art'. The admonition of Joshua Reynolds comes to mind: "All theories which attempt to direct or control the art upon any principle falsely called rational, which we form to ourselves upon a supposition of what ought in reason to be the end or means of art, independent of the known final effect produced by objects on the imagination, must be false and delusive." I also have a big problem with the general and systematic omission of Blacks in his discussion of Modern art, presumably for issues of derivation. In an article in the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter says of this tendency, "Many of the forms regarded as cutting edge to the west in the past 40 years -- installation art, conceptual art, text-based art, performance art, body art, sound art -- have been integral to African and Islamic cultures for centuries. Yet Picasso's adaptation of African forms is viewed as evidence of his receptive vision, while an African Artist riffing on Picasso's riffs on Africa is a copycat." Romare Beardon, for example, in the context of the Modern is never mentioned, nor is Bob Thompson, who with a brilliant color field palette, manipulated classicism in Western themes to some success. Examining motives of the subconscious, this might be the reason for Kuspit's glaring omission, and his offering of these 'New Old Masters' as a paradigm.

 

 

 

The End of Art will be published in paperback in March of this year.

 

Steve CannonTribes