Souless Art

This guy has a point.

Conceptual art has been around for a long time now and frankly it’s static and rather dull.  By it’s very nature, conceptual art is reaching for our lower nature.  It’s designed to shock, not inspire. Of course sometimes that leads to crap, literally.

Often you see stuff so bad that you want to throw up.  Well the “artist” beat you to it.

Of course there’s the outdoor “installation,” usually paid  for with wads of taxpayer cash and usually brutally ugly in every way.

There was a time that outdoor art celebrated human triumphs.  Now it’s just pile of twisted metal representing our defeats as victories.

Of course the problem with this stuff is deciding what’s the work of genius and what’s dreck.

When the only way to tell if a painting is genuine is  to check a catalog, there are real problems.  But that’s where things have gone. The amount of actual work that goes into a piece has gone down into the dumps while the work of marketing the “art” to the wannabe sophisticated becomes the point.  Take Mr. Koons for example. The man who wants ot hang a fake steam locomotive over the High Line, for 20 million dollars. For 20 million you could get a real locomotive built.


I’ve been  watching the antics of Jeff Koons for a while now.  The interesting thing is that not once have I have ever seen anything that he does for himself or original work.  He’s always copied something else did, only made it bigger. Or brighter, more flashy and just plain stupid looking.  He must be an incredible marketer, because he is no artist.

What kind of person just takes other people’s stuff without attribution? I feel for the poor sculptor who made those pieces for Dark Horse and probably got a reasonable rate for a figure and then, along with Dark Horse, sees this guy making a direct copy, metalizing it and marketing as high art on auction for millions of dollars.

Of course Mr. Koons is hardly the only one finding treasure in what others create.

Look I’ve got a bunch of pictures online and quite frankly, if somebody started taking prints and selling them in galleries without my permission or perhaps even knowledge I would be more than a little upset. On the other hand what I put up is not selfies on Instagram.  Still Mr. Prince could have contacted the people who’s picture he downloaded and provided some renumeration and credit.


Exploitation seems to be that pattern with these people. They’ve been doing for a long time now, taking original stuff out of pop culture and copying it in outsize proportions and marketing as high art for big money. They think of themselves as the “idea people,” but never actually even create those, content like Koons to alter somebody else’s stuff, make it shiny, blow it out of proportion and call it art.

What kind of person sucks the creative life out of people and just wastes it like this?  I have to wonder about the endless series of art serfs that Koons recruits with promises of connections and so forth and then uses up before dumping them back out in the street, cynical and having been creatively wrecked.

Of course, wrecking creativity may have been the point.


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When art became  something to shock rather than inspire, there was something huge lost.  Sometimes you can see it in the same artist as the work becomes more abstract.  In general though, when a medium goes Avant Garde  the life and creativity goes out of the art that you see.  Going through the MOMA, you can almost see it happening in paintings, sculpture and finally design finally stopping at a video installation called 75 watts, where  a bunch of Chinese factory workers go through contortions to make a useless thing.

75 Watt, an object for dancing in the factory line

Didn’t anybody notice what was missing? As Ed Driscoll points out, the Avant Garde became the stale old Garde and didn’t even notice.

As Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller once wrote, “Back in 1999 — on the cusp of George W. Bush’s presidency, and as Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress — conservative leader Paul Weyrich issued a controversial open letter declaring that conservatives ‘probably have lost the culture war.'”

And in many ways Weyrich, who passed away in late 2008, was right — the left did win the culture war; so much now is merely a mop-up action after the big battles have been fought. But that’s the problem with winning: the ideological group that held themselves out as radicals and avant-garde (and they were — a century ago) are now the garde, and as such, bourgeois themselves. (Or bourgeois-bohemians, if you prefer David Brooks’ analogy. But the modern left are far more bourgeois* than they want to admit.)

Which is one of the reasons why, as  I mentioned at the start of the year, the Left is slowly devouring itself. The simultaneous drive to épater les bourgeois and dive for the fainting couch after every minor offense and burn all the heretics cannot hold forever.

* And far less intellectual, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

When even liberal art critics notice that art is stale (and get hit by the usual PC crowd) then the art world has reached past it’s sell by date.

So, why this return to the political and cultural commandments of 20 years ago? Perhaps because now everyone has a voice and an opinion about every issue, and that voice, even if it’s alone, can sound loud; perhaps because, with a crisis of authority in media and politics, people are policing themselves and reverting to the last time the rules were known, agreed on, and enforced. This may also explain why so many early-1990s bands and musicians are being revived. For part of the culture, this is a return to their youth in the 1990s; for the other older part, it’s a return to the good, old days, when everyone knew what was right and wrong, what was allowed, and what wasn’t. But to me, this doesn’t look like separating right from wrong. It looks like we are eating our young.

When I wrote about that Ofili show, I started with the memory of the controversy surrounding Sensation’s arrival in New York, when half the city railed against this ornate painting by a black artist of a black woman. I said then that it was hard to believe how distant that time of political witch-hunting felt now, with the art world in such ascendance that no one would question its right to a home in this city. And yet, and yet. Now I realize that things aren’t so different — that we’re doing the same thing to ourselves in the name of better values, but with the same dogged close-mindedness that turns any human virtue alien and ugly. If there are only a handful of acceptable ways to express yourself, no one is really expressing themselves at all.

One of art’s great weapons is its bad taste — how something can seem ugly, wrong, or off but still help extend art. Art is for anyone; it just isn’t for everyone. And we have to stop acting as if it is something to be domesticated, proper, good. Oscar Wilde thought that art is amoral, something first for itself; sometimes, it’s something you cross the street to avoid. Sometimes art is Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” blatantly howling a barbaric yelp. Come what may. Operating within rules isn’t art. It’s about acceptance. Being good. Moreover, if we’re this bunkered in, what are we retreating from? What are we so afraid of? And why?

Art has become a commodity, not to be admired for what it is, but for how much the person paid for it.  You look at that stuff and wonder skill of the schmoozer who sold the trash to people with money and no sense. Stuff made by creative people, who as above get their creativity drained out them. As this piece looks at, the art world is rotten from the top to the bottom.

Yet art events continue to make me uncomfortable. Whether it’s a press preview at a huge museum, a commercial art fair or a packed gallery opening in Chelsea, I’m always anxious to leave. The lighting is always too bright and everyone acts as though they, like the art, are on display, smiling grotesquely as if a camera is lurking. It’s usually so crowded you can hardly view the art, though it doesn’t seem as though people look at the art as much as they schmooze, and you have to stand the entire time. The social discomfort is the least of my qualms with the art world, though. Here are the main reasons why the art world nauseates me.

1. Art collectors treat art as an investment.

For the most part, the only people who can afford to buy art in this economy are people who are not affected by this economy, the top 1 or 2 percent. Of course, rich people have always patronized the arts— Michelangelo would never have been able to produce his masterpieces without the Medici family— but today’s billionaires aren’t just patronizing artists, they’re investing in and branding them. The top 10 billionaire art collectors have 18% of their net worth invested in art, though the average billionaire invests about .5% of their net worth in art. Investing in art can sometimes prove more lucrative than the stock market; a recent study shows that works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have been appreciating at a higher rate than the S&P 500.

There is money to be made not just in selling art, but also in evaluating its worth. In the same way a financial advisor would help you make investment choices, there are art advisors who counsel your art purchases. “Appearing as if from nowhere, like a biblical swarm of locusts: The art advisors…. in the last few years, advisors have popped up literally everywhere and now outnumber collectors 2 to 1,” says financial writer Adam Lindermann. Many contemporary art collectors have no interest in the art itself, making priceless works of art nothing more than fetishized commodities.

Flipping, selling artworks immediately after purchasing them at exponential prices, is also a common practice among art collectors. Many financial advisors predict that continuing to inflate the value of works of art that are constantly turned over will soon cause the art bubble to burst. “The auction houses are experiencing a situation where every auction total is higher than the last and these vertiginous upward prices cannot be maintained forever. Someday the music is going to stop and somebody is going to be found without a chair to sit on,” says art expert and former Sotheby’s employee Todd Levin…

4. Art factories steal souls.

More and more, highly successful artists are relying on mass production factories to produce their masterpieces. There’s nothing wrong with hiring others to help with the artistic process—this has been done for centuries. But artists like Jeff Koons who employ hundreds of workers to complete their works without ever laying a single brushstroke on the canvas (because that might upset the artistic decision-making process) have turned Warhol’s concept of the factory into an artistic dystopia. People are paying millions of dollars for eyesore animal balloon sculptures that were produced by Koons’ underpaid art serfs, who are fired if they do not complete their painstaking tasks exactly as assigned. I believe creative people should turn their own suffering into art, not cause other people’s suffering with their art.

The problem with so much stuff that comes out of the art world these days is that it tries to be sarcastic and comes out snark. There are limits to  how long you can make crap before it just belongs in the garbage.

Ah, sarcasm: the very highest form of wit. In the dictionary, “sarcasm” is still defined as the use of irony to convey contempt. But what we call sarcasm, especially on the Internet, has become less a technique than an attitude: a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies. I submit that this sarcastic attitude, which presents itself as the perspective of a knowing few, is actually one of the dominant aesthetics of our age. Sarcasm is our kitsch.

The problem of kitsch has vexed aesthetes since at least the 19th century, when industrial production introduced a new level of cultural expression between folk traditions and high art. The term originated in 1920s Germany to describe cultural products that were excessively garish or sentimental. “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas,” Clement Greenberg wrote in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations.”

The defining feature of kitsch is that it preys on our desire to feel art succeed. It follows the formula of meaningful expression and exploits our willingness to manufacture the sensation of meaning. How wonderful, after all, to see a painting and be moved. As a species of contemporary kitsch, sarcasm takes advantage of our readiness to respond to actual wit. It, too, is mechanical and proceeds by formula. And online sarcasm is now industrially produced, thanks to the mass quantities of content that digital media must churn out each day.

I frequently see a quote from the 1960’s that says this, “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art” supposedly coming from the communist party.  By the 1960’s though, the damage had long been done. Driven by it’s typical drive to remove standards the limousine Liberal art world worked just the same as every Liberal or Progressive endeavor and created nothing more than the usual dead space that always seems follow the Agenda.

Andrew Klaven asks in the link below  if the conservative or other freedom loving alternative can provide alternatives.  The answer is that I think that it’s already happening. I think that it’s way too early to call the culture war over.

So is the culture war over? Not hardly.  It’s easy to look at the high art crowd and think that, as this piece does.

According to Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, the culture-less period foreseen 67 years ago by Eliot is the one in which we are all now living. His latest collection of essays, ominously titled, Notes on the Death of Culture, adheres to Eliot’s understanding of culture as “not merely the sum of several activities but a way of life”—one that recognizes a shared heritage of ideas and principles, religious and philosophical knowledge, and standards in art and literature. This way of life, Vargas Llosa argues, has never been attainable for everyone. Throughout history, “there were cultured and uncultured people and, between those two extremes, there were people who were more or less cultured and more or less uncultured, and this classification was quite clear the world over because there was a shared system of values and cultural criteria, and shared ways of thinking, judging and behaving.”

So much for all that. We’re now living in what Vargas Llosa calls “the civilization of the spectacle,” an era characterized by the replacement of ideals, principles, and intellectual life with images, gestures, and a “universal prevailing frivolity … where everything is appearance, theatre, play and entertainment.” This transformation, he says, has affected every part of society: art, music, journalism, politics—even sex, which in the era of the spectacle “has become a sport or pastime, a shared activity that is no more important, perhaps less important, than going to the gym, or dancing or football.” Stripped of all taboo, all mystery and privacy, eroticism, “which turns the act of sex into a work of art,” has become impossible in the civilization of the spectacle, replaced by “purely instinctive and animal sex. It meets a biological need, but it does not enrich the life of the senses and emotions and it does not bring couples closer together, beyond the sexual coupling.”

The degradation of human experience and endeavor is the defining feature of our era, according to Vargas Llosa. One can see its effects everywhere in public life: politicians more concerned with appearances and slogans than ideas and convictions, journalists are drawn to scandal and gossip, and readers prefer entertainment and titillation over information and analysis. Vargas Llosa has special disdain for the contemporary art world, populated in his view by celebrity charlatans like Damien Hirst, whose purely sensational work (for example, a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde) is the very embodiment of form over substance. He argues that the disappearance of aesthetic standards is to blame for the sorry state of the art world, which now produces supposedly “daring” artists like Chris Ofili, who made his reputation by using elephant dung as a medium and producing, for example, a piece featuring the Virgin Mary surrounded by pornographic photos.

The disappearance—or rather, the deliberate dismantling—of standards is the chief source of the decay Vargas Llosa sees in our culture. It’s tempting to accuse him of suffering from some form of golden age syndrome—the belief that everything was better in some bygone era and that the present day is the nadir of civilization—but that would be to dismiss out of hand his central thesis, which isn’t easily refuted.

But that would be wrong.  Yes the art world is caught up in vandalism and garbage, but that doesn’t mean that creativity  and talent went away. Instead, the real talent found new media.  Like that little Dark Horse Popeye that Koons copied.  I’ve been collecting the Spectrum Fantastic art books since the late 1990’s and seen great stuff, that because it’s not forwarding an agenda, just needs to look good.

The so called low arts of comic and science fiction and fantasy illustration produces full of life and optimism.  No factories needed.  The funny thing is that you can get prints or paintings from artists like Michael Whelan, Stephen Hickman, Donato Giancola or many other artists for a tiny fraction of what Koons will charge you and you will like having it on your wall.  Unlike so much of the high art stuff that you want to dump in the garbage.

In the long run, I think that the current times will be remembered not for the bad, but for the good.   Just as nobody remembers a bad movie it’s gone and most do not age well, so to will the Avant Garde stuff disappear simply because nobody wants to look at it.




  1. MadRocketSci · June 12, 2016

    Complaining about bad art, while it is important in explaining what is happening to the world, doesn’t create good art.

    Reacting against bad art in the creation of new art is also probably a trap. Bad art is created in reaction against something good in the world, in furtherance of some agenda, but good art has to be created on its own terms, in pursuit of its own internal logic, probably without reference to the bad art in the world.

    There is a lot of good art out there, IMO: You just have to ignore the hammer of cultural opprobrium and filter out all the depressing crap to find it.

    This guy (who invaded my brain in childhood), for instance [Chesley Bonestell]:

    [David Robinson]:

    (Yes, I’m a space geek).


  2. MadRocketSci · June 12, 2016

    In the long run, I think that the current times will be remembered not for the bad, but for the good. Just as nobody remembers a bad movie it’s gone and most do not age well, so to will the Avant Garde stuff disappear simply because nobody wants to look at it.

    Agreed (I think I was thinking along the same lines you were). And I see you also point out some pretty good artists of your own (thanks for the links). It seems these days, all the good art is “low art”, but “low” is an evaluation according to standards I don’t use, so it’s all good. 😛


  3. MadRocketSci · June 12, 2016

    Shakespeare was low art, in his time. Alexandre Dumas was a serial novelist paid by the word. I wonder to what extent all the great art of an era was considered hackwork at the time?


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