What gets missed

by Titus OBrien March 2, 2009

A lot of people are talking about Holland Cotter’s recent article in the Times, about a return to real art values indicated by the current economic collapse. Most seem to be saying “hear hear!”

At least they are out here in the hinterlands, which is funny, because no one here makes any real money off their art anyway.

A few others think he just means a return to stuffy, grey, dull
“socially active” videos and process performances – and there are
indications they might be right. He says “why not make studio
training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology,
anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not
build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes
students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals,
schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real
life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very
different than it does today.

I don’t know – this sounds an awful lot like exactly the way a
certain brand of art has continually looked for, say, the last 30
years? The perpetual impulse to find a meaningful shtick necessitates
it (no one’s cooked immigrant food yet as art? Hello, Rikrit!) Grad
programs are too short in duration already to be taking away a year to
go do social work; and when students get out of art school, 99% of them
go get jobs in unexpected places to pay off those loans anyway. I don’t
know if you need to build that into programs. That’s life, man. People
with guts generally know it, and make real life a priority over fame.

Cotter’s rundown on art history is colored by what he characterizes
in the last few years as a lot of parties, a lot of hucksterism, and a
scene awash in moolah. It’s an incredibly recent take, even going as he
does back to Pop; totally New York-centric, and facile. Downtown v.
Uptown, Soho, Chelsea, collapse. Modern, postmodern, cash fashion,
collapse. Younger and younger art stars, the MFA factories, the
spectacle of the fairs, blah blah blah.


All that has simply never interested me all that much. I was, and
am, perpetually drawn to art for what seem to me in the end deeply
mysterious and incalculable reasons. The context and its products (at
their best) simply seem able to do things that others cannot.

What strikes me is how shortsighted, in the end, the speculative
views of prognosticators like Cotter’s are – the other end of the
spectrum being Donald Kuspit’s call for a “New Old Masterism” (gag.)
The last couple years I have had the privilege and sometime burden of
attempting to “teach” this multi-headed boneless hydra called art to
late-adolescent aspiring creatives. What I remind them again and again
is that “Art” is at best 500 years old – in other words, a relatively
brief historical moment that has little to characterize as consistent,
or anything close to fixed to “return” to.

What we generally understand as art today is even more recent, maybe
100 years old, maybe less, and the only real continuity is found in its
rapid mutation and a ravenous co-opting of anything defined as outside
of itself. This was actually as true for Caravaggio as Picasso, or
certainly Cage, Beuys, Smithson, Guston, Levine, Hockney, or Hirst.
Make your own list – in some way, they all act as dustbin divers and
Duchampian recontextualizers. In the midst of inescapable, increasing,
mind-bending novelty, artists also find more time resistant human life
expressions. Important functions – part bottom feeding, part frontier
busting, part standard bearing.

Who knows what will happen? Money, I suppose, just sort of became
another sort of energy/matter to manipulate, as Damien so effortlessly
seemed to show. It did perhaps reinforce a certain distasteful
re-emphasis on the object, and I know I haven’t always found that
particularly interesting. I do have a certain nostalgia for reading the
stories of hungry impassioned beauty and truth seekers who rose to the
top in previous eras with brains, intensity, good works, and empty

The things I think that make for good art/artists, and maybe define the enterprise:

1)    Authentic Inquiry: a real question, which in the end (no
matter the necessary twist) is always really “What am I? What is this?”

2)    Respectful dialogue: every good artist has a strong sense of
lineage; of direct and meaningful conversation with historic forbears,
and to an important if lesser extent, peers.

3)    Honesty. As Daniel Richter said, “People lie. Art should not.” Or Picasso’s art is the lie that tells the truth.

I can’t think of any other criteria that can’t be included in the
above three, or that aren’t so narrow they exclude something important,
though I’m not saying this is some kind of final word. Art, science,
and ethics (“the beautiful, the true, and the good”) are the three main
trunks of the same human meaning tree – and meaning is one word for the
thing in the end we psychically and socially can’t live without. We
mustn’t lose sight of that, whether the coffers are full or empty.

PS A friend turned me on to this interview from youtube, with Agnes Martin. She sums it all up. There it is.


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