Creative Misery

by Janet Tyson December 4, 2011


Barbie-with-Windows: making the creative digital world more inviting to girls


Re-booting my brain after being challenged–Challenged!–on my Feeding the Beast blog.  

So I’ve found a couple sources of useful ideas. One is a facebook post by Ken Johnson, whose book, Are You Experienced: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art, I reviewed a couple of months ago.

Johnson usually posts questions that test the viability of various ideas. His latest concerns an article by Freddie deBoer, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, for the online journal, The New Inquiry.

Illustration for Freddie deBoer's essay

The article is titled “The Immiseration of the Creative Digital Class”, in other words, the impoverishment of its sense of purpose and meaning. DeBoer’s thesis is that members of this creative class have a level of self-awareness that is fueled by competition and consumerism. While some of deBoer’s ideas aren’t terribly original, the way he ties them together is impressive.

Here are some quotes from deBoer’s article—not so many, I hope, that I’ll get in trouble for copyright infringement. He starts with a reference to Internet users, whose claims about the importance of the Internet generally refer to their own importance. He continues with the following bits, among others.To wit:

  • “For the postcollegiate, culturally savvy tastemakers who exert such disproportionate influence over online experience, the internet is above and beyond all else a resentment machine.”
  • “The modern American ‘meritocracy,’ the education/employment vehicle, prepares thousands of upwardly mobile young strivers for everything but the life they will actually encounter.” Does anyone think of MFAs in studio when they read this?
  • “There are those professions (think: finance) that extend the status contests of childhood and adolescence into the gray years … . But for a large chunk of the striving class, this kind of naked careerism and straightforward neediness won’t do. … Many were raised by self-consciously creative parents who wished for children who were similarly creative, in ethos if not in practice.” Here I flash to Jake and Dinos Chapman.
  • But “ … self-conscious creativity becomes sublimated into the competitive project and becomes twisted.”
  • The result is a loss of meaning, and into “ … this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context—the self as consumer and critic. … the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning.” This likely answers the question about why creative people spend large sums of money on eyeglass frames.

"Tragic Anatomies" (1996) by Jake and Dinos Chapman

After reading and re-reading the article, I commented on Johnson’s post by saying that, in effect, these aspiring individuals are creating selves–by picking and choosing and buying various commodities–and  then marketing those resulting “selves” to themselves. This is, admittedly, a developent of the old idea of life and “lifestyle” but I think that digital communications and the further growth of commodity culture have resulted in a qualitative difference. Anyway, when they’re brought themselves to a level of sufficient desirability, they (and their creative peers) consume their selves as though they were yet another product.

What does this have to do with art? I mean, apart from the obvious reference to those who get involved in art because it’s creative and you get to wear Toms. For starters, it means that too much art made today supposedly “critiques” and “subverts” consumer culture, even as it mirrors it and does nothing to challenge it–because the makers know nothing other than the consumer soup of which they’re an ingrediant.

But I began by mentioned triangulation and two sources of ideas. Getting into that second source needs another blog–about a wonderful new book addressing outsider art.




janet tyson December 5, 2011 - 07:03

Not sure this totally pertains. But here’s a C. Saatchi essay on today’s art world. He probably has a point. I just wish that he’d named names.

Charles Saatchi: the hideousness of the art worldEven a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow

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Charles Saatchi, Friday 2 December 2011 18.11 EST Article history

Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year’s spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another.

Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich.

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.

It is no surprise, then, that the success of the uber art dealers is based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich. The new collectors, some of whom have become billionaires many times over through their business nous, are reduced to jibbering gratitude by their art dealer or art adviser, who can help them appear refined, tasteful and hip, surrounded by their achingly cool masterpieces.

Not so long ago, I believed that anything that helped broaden interest in current art was to be welcomed; that only an elitist snob would want art to be confined to a worthy group of aficionados. But even a self-serving narcissistic showoff like me finds this new art world too toe-curling for comfort. In the fervour of peacock excess, it’s not even considered necessary to waste one’s time looking at the works on display. At the world’s mega-art blowouts, it’s only the pictures that end up as wallflowers.

I don’t know very many people in the art world, only socialise with the few I like, and have little time to gnaw my nails with anxiety about any criticism I hear about.

If I stop being on good behaviour for a moment, my dark little secret is that I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation. For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call “an eye”. They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This “conceptualised” work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again.

Few people in contemporary art demonstrate much curiosity. The majority spend their days blathering on, rather than trying to work out why one artist is more interesting than another, or why one picture works and another doesn’t.

Art critics mainly see the shows they are assigned to cover by their editors, and have limited interest in looking at much else. Art dealers very rarely see the exhibitions at other dealers’ galleries. I’ve heard that almost all the people crowding around the big art openings barely look at the work on display and are just there to hobnob. Nothing wrong with that, except that none of them ever come back to look at the art – but they will tell everyone, and actually believe, that they have seen the exhibition.

Please don’t read my pompous views above as referring to the great majority of gallery shows, where dealers display art they hope someone will want to buy for their home, and new collectors are born every week. This aspect of the art world fills me with pleasure, whether I love all the art or not.

I am regularly asked if I would buy art if there was no money in it for me. There is no money in it for me. Any profit I make selling art goes back into buying more art. Nice for me, because I can go on finding lots of new work to show off. Nice for those in the art world who view this approach as testimony to my venality, shallowness, malevolence.

Everybody wins.

And it’s understandable that every time you make an artist happy by selecting their work, you create 100 people that you’ve offended – the artists you didn’t select.

I take comfort that our shows have received disobliging reviews since our opening exhibition of Warhol, Judd, Twombly and Marden in 1985. I still hold that it would be a black day when everybody likes a show we produce. It would be a pedestrian affair, art establishment compliant, and I would finally know the game was up.

Rainey Knudson December 7, 2011 - 10:49

Never thought I’d say this, but: Amen, Charles Saatchi.

janet tyson December 7, 2011 - 11:11

Again, I wish I knew who he was talking about. American bankers? Chinese plutocrats? Corporate CEOs who’ve gotten huge bonuses in spite of the shitty economy? The Kardashians?
Are they people who’ve gotten richer since 2008?

Janet Tyson December 5, 2011 - 08:25

Pay attention to this. Vicki Meek, artist and director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, posted this link on facebook. It’s an NYT story on Art Basel/Miami.
Vicki’s point is that Occupy the Artworld needs to happen– and not just be talked about as another “alternative” presentation at the big expo.

free anonymity December 5, 2011 - 10:50

Robert Hughes has been saying this for years if not decades. Curse of the Mona Lisa is a good watch, germane, and I think freely available (to consume) on youtube. ‘Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world.’ He probably has something surly to say about Saatchi’s ‘eye’ as well.

It’s odd to find the radical critics of big-business charlatanism among the ‘conservative’ Hughes, Jed Pearl, Donald Kuspit, et alia. But the Saatchi essay is a nice read. Thanks for posting it and the other link.

Janet Tyson December 5, 2011 - 15:01

Thanks for the comment. It’s like, just when it seems that the ‘art world’ cannot become more egregious, it does. The argument that commerce and patronage always have been intrinsic to production of art no longer can be used to justify the mutual preening that goes on between artists, collectors (private and institutional) and the media (including much of the art media that seems more focused on hype than on honest criticism). And, for sure, it’s ironic to find the conservative critics blasting the extremes to which the market has brought production of and commentary on art.

Charles Dee Mitchell December 6, 2011 - 13:35

People with any sense spend good money on eyewear because it is going to be on the front of their faces everywhere they go.

janet tyson December 6, 2011 - 16:14

Dee, thanks for commenting. I agree that well-constructed frames that flatter one’s face make a sensible investment. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m referring to people who’ll spend $400+ on frames because of the brand name or the trendy style. And because it makes them look ‘creative’. Who knows? Maybe wearing the hipster frames actually makes them more creative.
That said, you’ve been a stylish guy for as long as I’ve known you, and your glasses always are the last word. But you back up your style with substance.

Ryan December 7, 2011 - 11:13

Jerry Saltz references Saatchi’s essay in yesterday’s column.

Rainey Knudson December 7, 2011 - 11:33

Yeah. Amen, Jerry Saltz.

Does anyone take Lindemann seriously? Talking about his Tod’s loafers? What is this, the sixth grade?

janet tyson December 7, 2011 - 13:44

I’ sufficiently out of it that I don’t know who Tod is, but am imagining that his loafers are expensive. Also had not heard of Lindemann.
Can’t excuse myself for not know the latter, but the former just demonstrates the extent to which writing about art has expanded to include writing about other expensive goodies (a point I made with my reference to high-end eyeglasses frames).
Saltz used a word that I like a lot: autocoprophagy. Eating one’s own shit seems to happen a lot these days, as does shitting in one’s own bed. Actually, I’d like to see the snake eat its own tail.
The world has seen decadence before. It’s seeing it again.

Charles Dee Mitchell December 7, 2011 - 13:51

If you are wondering just who Saatchi is talking about, look at any of the websites that feature coverage of the Miami Basel parties.

janet tyson December 7, 2011 - 13:56

Got it! Although it might do nasty things to my blood pressure.

janet tyson December 8, 2011 - 09:38

Galveston ceramic artist Beth Thomas posted this on facebook. It isn’t directly linked to the conversation here, but it’s relevant. It talks about the end of the world as we know it. Doesn’t mention the Artworld, but if you read between the lines … .


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