Just Plain Nuts

Posted: January 22, 2014 in Review: Just Plain Nuts

People are crazy about art. That’s easy to see and should be easy enough to understand. What’s really interesting though, is to consider those who are really crazy—about art. In fact, a look into this ‘really’ can be hilarious—may even represent an experience far more intellectual and culturally interesting than the art itself. This article is an exposé of such craziness, proffers an explanation for this craziness, and, for perspective, offers a common sense definition of art, and this, to avoid the “What is art?” copout as it were.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring

The Girl with the Pearl Earring

Let’s start out with the brighter more positive idea and experience that we prefer to have in respect to art. The Sistine Chapel—if not actually having had the pleasure of being there, who has not at least dreamt of going there? ‘The perfect painting’—who has seen, considered, and come to understand what art scholars refer to when speaking of such a painting: “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” for example (shown here)? Other more modern, and equally humanistic examples can be cited as well: the work of Monet, Cézanne, or Picasso—artists who are credited not only for fundamental originality in their creative act, or style, but also for making a fundamental philosophical statement on life, and this, through the style itself. With Monet, we learned that having an ‘impression’ of life is the best we can do when observing it. Cézanne’s ‘building blocks’ (delimiting brush strokes) were an attempt at understanding what life is made up of. And Picasso concluded that if you can’t fully understand it, then life is absurd.

And of course, the same recognition must be given those artists who brought to a logical conclusion the inevitable “abstractification” of the world we see such as Delauney, De Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock, with a special note to the noble attempt of Mark Rothko—who tried over and over again to offer us some representation of god, however impossible the task.

The scores of people and the considerable time they spend in line for the exhibitions of such artists may seem crazy but I think it’s understandable, and more importantly, I think it’s somehow honorable—an example of mutual respect between the artist, doing an honest days work, and the paying public, both of whom I should like to think of, as honorable contributors to society.

With this in mind—and not to waste any time—let’s now turn to the nuts, to the too much, to the art nuts who are just plain nuts. My personal vote for top nut goes to a guy who is supposed to be intelligent—worse—who is supposed to be respected—worse still—who we are supposed to have an almost blind faith in, because, this man is a doctor, a medical doctor. I am talking about Leonard Shlain, who wrote the popular book: “Art and Physics, Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light”.

In this book Shlain traces the history of the great discoveries in physics and attempts to show that the visions of the great artists throughout history paralleled these discoveries in physics, even prefigured them, and that the discoveries of these men of such differing disciplines were somehow, somehow, equal in both scope and depth. A nice example of Shlain’s is the following:

A Bar at the Folies Bergère

A Bar at the Folies Bergère

« In “A Bar at the Folies Bergère,” Manet, the artist who heralded the arrival of modern art, introduced into one canvas the theory of complementarity—forty-five years before Bohr—and the key features of the special theory of relativity twenty-four years before Einstein. »

I don’t know….

We’ll get to Neils Bohr, the father of quantum physics, but let’s take Einstein first. What exactly did Einstein do?—compared to painting that bar scene:

He defined what it was, our universe, that thing that seems to represent everything—what can be and what can be known, and this, in scientific, matter of fact, mathematical terms. And thank God he did, because no one else seemed to be capable, up to the task if you will. Indeed, when Einstein first explained his theory of relativity, however clearly, only a handful of people (physicists and polymaths), were capable of having an idea of what he was talking about, and even today only upper level physics students, those steeped in complex mathematical concepts and a deep understanding of physics (matter, energy, forces, and the laws that govern these basic constituents of our universe), are capable of having an understanding for, and of, it today.

Just consider the amazing discoveries that went into his vision of the world, our life: He first determined that light had an absolute speed (the same in every inertial frame of reference), and, that nothing in the universe could travel faster than it, nothing at all, period. (And to think that light was singled out to begin with: light, Lord God “let there be light” light.) Indeed, in the universe of Einstein light shown to be the ultimate phenomena of reference, and this revelation led to his legendary relativity theory:  if—Einstein realized—the speed of light is absolute, unchanging, then it is time that changes, that is relative—time is not the same for any two people. Good stuff, to say the least. He then determined that matter, in and of itself, equates to energy: energy equalling mass times the speed of light squared (E = mc²). He then used all the above to define our universe in a way that, as I have said, few people can appreciate even today due to its depth, scope, and highly counterintuitive nature—describing our universe as a “space-time continuum.” In this scheme Einstein added time as a fourth dimension, having realized that matter, energy, space, and time were all directly related, so much so that space—what common man considers to be straight lines between points A and points B—is in fact curved. This can only be understood when we consider the level that actual reality (real physical phenomena, their actions and reactions) is actually determined and derive from: at the sub atomic level of matter and wave particles. Complex topics indeed. No wonder this curvature concept is so difficult to comprehend, so hugely counterintuitive to us. Our ‘space’, those straight lines between our eyes and the stars when we look up at the heavens does not exist in real terms but only as an imaginary, mental, mathematical concept. In effect, as real things go, even light, the most fundamental of substances, the ‘lowest common denominator,’ the ultimate reference as realized by Einstein, is bent in space—in the presence of mass, when passing by a heavenly body in proximity to its path.

Gravity Equals Space Curvature

Gravity Equals Space Curvature

Now, along with this primordially important and immensely surprising feature, comes the equally amazing fact that a force, namely gravity (what keeps the planets and the other celestial bodies in place), is nothing more than a manifestation of this curvature in the spacetime continuum. Einstein equated a physical force with the seemingly impossible notion of shape, the curvature of space—the indentations created by one heavenly body in the ‘space fabric’ forces another in its proximity to orbit around it. The common man would relate an idea such as force to some typical form of energy perhaps, and a knowledgeable man perhaps to “potential energy” (the energy possessed by an elevated object in respect to the surface it can fall to), but to equate a force to some shape—that he realized—defined our space?! Again, this is all incredible stuff, but real—our scientists depend on it when they go about realizing the great human achievements that define our lives today.

So Einstein—by uniting our three shapeless dimensions of space with time, (“space-time continuum”), and this with shape, that is to say, the curvature of space (of the heretofore imaginary world of pure geometry), and all that with gravity (of the realm of physical forces)—wrapped our understanding of the universe up into one astounding, all-encompassing, neat and clean, breathtaking picture. As you can see, trying to say that one or another artist was in advance on a great revolutionary physicist such as Einstein is nothing more than some writer’s vulgar attempt to sell books to the ‘masses’—the mass public to be more precise; this ending precision or clarification being the only clarification that doesn’t seem to be necessary in order to arrive at some truth in respect to this silly book by Leonard Shlain.

Quantum Reality

Quantum Reality

In this aforementioned Manet example Shlain also mentions Bohr, Neils Bohr, another giant in the world of physics, whose work is largely responsible for quantum physics, the other branch of the two most fundamental branches in physics, the first being the relativity physics of Einstein. Together, these two branches of physics are the foundation for everything we claim to know about the universe, and life within. As for quantum physics: it just so happens that it is so difficult that not even Einstein could come to terms with it. For this Leonard Shlain to think that Manet had, in one painting, a vision capable of representing both relativity physics and quantum physics is the single biggest piece of crap ever written about art. Note that the world community of physicists, polymaths—intellectuals in general—regard, still today, the unification of these two physical realms as being the greatest quest in the history of man.

To help appreciate the truly phenomenal talent of the physicists on this revolutionary subject, let’s try to consider the literally incomprehensible nature of the quantum world they had to come to grips with and its unbelievable reality that we all have to live with, conscious of it or not…like it or not. Matter, at the subatomic particle level, comes down to being both a particle, a precise thing occupying a precise place (with its particular behavioral characteristics), and a wave, some imprecise thing spread out over some imprecise space (with its own and opposing behavioral characteristics)—AT THE SAME TIME!—conclusions even held up after experiments that are logically capable of eliminating any doubt stemming from the interference that human observation techniques can have on atomic-scale phenomena being observed.¹ This “complementarity,” as it is called, is what is being referred to by Shlain in the above quote on Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” painting.

Another equally baffling phenomena is “quantum entanglement”, which is another quantum characteristic of sub atomic particles that is accepted by the experts in the field. Here, two particles that become associated to one another, “entangled,” at a given place and point in time and that then become separated—even over light-year distances—still react, instantaneously, to actions placed on one another. It is as if to say, no, it is to say (though this is where our mind must abandon logic), an action on either one of them—and regardless of the distance between them—is an action on both of them SIMULTANEOUSLY !  Quantum phenomena, though unbelievable, is a fact, a fact in practice.¹ All of science today and the products of its labor are built on it. To take just one precious example, and a ubiquitous one at that: the micro processors we are all using—at this very moment—were all built to its specs.
Given the incredibly complicated and amazing nature of these subjects in physics, why then would one attempt to draw a correlation between the talent that goes into art, its discoveries and its importance, with the towering intellectual prowess demonstrated in revolutionary physics; its discoveries and its importance?
The reason must assuredly be because of what it, art, symbolizes, because of what it conjures up in our mind. It’s a symbol of who we are, our quest to answer the eternal and most important question concerning us, that question being: Who are we? What in the friggin’ hell is going on here?—and what is “here” for that matter? For many, art represents—even replaces—our primordial interest in religion, the spiritual side to us, which is fundamental to any coherent self identity in the deepest physio-psychological sense of the term. Gauguin pretty much summed up this idea in his painting: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” In short, it is the role of art to give expression to who we are. Whether or not art is being used to its full potential however, is another story, and about as problematic I guess as mankind in general living up to its full potential. In any case, we can understand the importance of art’s role, and, when in a museum, understand the probable, solemn sense of some sort that we feel—even if we are standing in the presence of some crap.
To help understand how art symbolizes this profound existential concern of ours, we must consider the history of art. Art is man’s attempt to express himself, and, for a given work of art, one might say that the more important the subject is concerning himself, the more important the art. In the past, it is through the art of a people’s religion and government that the common man largely understood himself, this understanding of himself being his most important, greatest concern—a natural, innate, neuro-physiological factor to his existing. And as for the means of addressing this concern: we all know that a picture (sculpture or painting) is worth a thousand words, especially before the invention of the printing press. Art has diversified itself greatly today in respect to its role in society and in its subject matter but what it symbolizes in its most profound sense, remains with us to this day—why else would anyone pay such high prices for such stuff having no ‘practical’ purpose?

Another element critical to our understanding of this subject, that is essential to the critique at hand, can be taken from the same Manet example mentioned above. Manet is not bad art mind you. In fact, it’s not bad. What’s important to understand, though, about Manet, is important to understand when appraising all so called important artists, much less one purported to be ‘revolutionary’ in importance such as Manet: one of the fundamental criteria of any important art is that it be different, original. Obviously, if it is the same as that which has already been done, then we need only refer to the original originator of the work—give credit where credit is due. Manet’s art was different but was the difference positive, negative or something in between? Was it as important as they make it out to be?

Manet:

Manet: “The Pheiffer”

All serious artists such as Manet have to do something different. Consequently, they look at what has already been done, at what is normally accepted to be art, then, do something different in respect to it. And with a little luck, the public will think they are special, or for art nuts: visionaries. Given this constraint—that an artist has to do something different to be considered important, you can consider them in large part to be simple reactionaries. The extent that this is true must indeed be considered when appraising how successful, or important, the originality aspect of the work in question is. And now today, that all fundamental visual aspects of art have seem to come full circle—from the true-to-life rendering of a subject to its totally abstract version—we are even given to ask whether we are in the infamous ‘devolutionary’ phase of Mother Nature’s life cycle.
When judging change, which is inevitable, unstoppable, we must ask ourselves if this change is on the uphill slope of our evolution, where we are fighting to stabilize our survival and make things better, or is it on the downward part of the slope, the part dedicated to the natural destruction of ourselves in the cycle? Has everything been done? Is the only thing different that is left for an artist to do and to claim for his own something that no one would naturally do otherwise, were it not for the fact that everything else that is naturally positive has already been done? One thing for sure, the individual, and by extension the society he lives in and that which represents it, namely art, must change. Nature does not stand frozen in time. And nature never escapes the freeze of its winter, its inevitable decline.

To note: today, when we speak of one’s silly appreciation for something new, one’s uncritical acceptance of this something new, we explain his infatuation by saying that the thing in question is “modern.” Is it more than a coincidence that Manet was the father of modernism?

Manet saw that artists had come to master perspective and depth in painting. He decided to take it out. Big deal.

“In “A Bar at the Folies Bergère,” Manet, the artist who heralded the arrival of modern art, introduced into one canvas the theory of complementarity—forty-five years before Bohr—and the key features of the special theory of relativity twenty-four years before Einstein.” Bullshit.

Let us turn to a living artist now, another top art nut: Takashi Murakami. He’s tough to beat as art nuts go but those willing to pay millions of dollars for something by him may be—must be—considered even nuttier. Many art journalists/critics describe his work as being nothing more than typical manga figures; the only evident difference is that his work is enlarged and placed in prestigious galleries and museums. Viewing it in this context assuredly helps one to see it as fine art, important fine art. Considered one of the greatest artists today, Time magazine even voted him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2008. Well, art is life as we have implied, or at least our best, most recognized expression of it, so, such importance given an artist should not surprise us. That having been said—to set the stage so to speak—let’s take the following example by Murakami, that has brought him much attention: “My Lonesome Cowboy” (1998), a manga-inspired sculpture of a masturbating little boy, which sold for $13.5 million in 2008. Not to digress, but I have to ask myself: Where is this thing anyway? In what permanent collection? Did a private individual buy it for himself? Indeed, what these art-nut wankers are doing in the privacy of their own home or in some private gallery is one thing but when it comes to putting it in public museums, where the general public, the taxpayer, pays is another.

Murakami's My Lonely Cowboy

Murakami’s My Lonely Cowboy

Murakami’s Lonely Cowboy: does it merit the attention it is given in our society? Is it ‘fine art’? Let’s try to avoid the “What is art?” copout and think about it for a second. To begin with, if it is only a manga figure rendered monumental in size and placed in a prestigious museum, then, regardless of the impression it may make on a poorly informed public, it is unworthy of the praise that should be reserved for fine art. It may be a fine example of commercial manufacturing, but that’s all: it was designed and ordered by Murakami, carried out by competent technicians with the necessary technical means and financial resources, and given a professional shine and finish. Nothing that any other commercial venture doesn’t do. But, in my critique of this work, I wouldn’t say that a terrible lack of aesthetic characteristics (colors, form, etc.), or a lack of research towards their end on the part of Murakami is the real problem. The real problem, and pitifully the very one it exploits, is that it lacks a noble, universally accepted, human theme. In fact, what it expresses is an aggression in respect to such an accepted theme. Its aim, and its claim to fame, is just how much it shocks, or provokes the society. A masturbating effeminate mockery-of-a-young-man swinging his penis around with the ejaculated sperm in the form of a lasso. Even considering the fact that the Japanese (the artist is Japanese) don’t have the Freudian, Judeo-Christian sexual hang-ups that we do in the West, is one wrong in suspecting that something is wrong here: that fortunes are being paid for such work, and that it is being found in the taxpaying public’s museums?

Common sense would tell us that the act of sex is of utmost concern to the human being, personal, even solemn given its implications. And we all know that in order to love someone, you have to love yourself first. Now, if what is expressed—the replacement of the strong image of a man, which can typically be a cowboy in our collective consciousness, by a pitiful example of self-hate, an emasculated boy making a spectacle of his sex—meant that nothing is sacred any more, then the artist may be making an interesting point, even an alarming one for the society to concern itself with; but I think his true message, motivation rather, is to provoke and shock the society—And to sell, “sex sells”…shocking sex = shocking sales I guess.

Given the great importance we place on art in society in general and the immense importance given to this artist in particular, a certain analysis of this type of work is called for—for it is in our museums, and our children, who are supposed to be innocent, are in these museums. To the extent that it is a ‘homosexual’ theme, recognized by the society as such (through its unbounded, unrepressed air of sexual liberation), it is an immensely popular subject, however controversial. (Note that the sculpture is a nod to one of Andy Warhol’s soft core gay movies: “Lonesome Cowboys”.)

However, it is not within the scope of this article to try to draw some complete—much less correct—socio-psychological picture of sexuality in society. Suffice it to say that there is good and bad in everyone…and good and bad art to go along with them. I would like to think that anyone today, whatever his sexual persuasion, feels comfortable enough in society today to admit that this, the jerking off little cowboy of Murakami, is, all too simply, not good art, and furthers the interest of no one in the society we all share.

A Murakami Flat Painting

A flat Murakami painting

Along with this base provocation that has created so much publicity for Murakami we must also consider the more technical aspects to his art that has made him so famous, so important, so “influential”. To this end, let’s consider his originality, his significant contribution to the arts, which is a prerequisite for being considered an important artist. The originality, for which he is famous, is his flat style, or “superflat” as he calls it, which refers to the fact that the forms within his paintings are two dimensional. Any depth in these paintings, when there is any, is achieved through layering, but there is no ‘natural’ depth or perspective that is rendered. To the extent that this is his claim to fame, recognized by those in the world of art, we must assume that these people are nuts, art nuts, because there is absolutely nothing new about this so-called flatness in art. It was directly copied from popular Japanese comic book and graphic arts, whose inherently simplistic style by the way—for those with common sense—explains exactly why it is considered comic book or graphic art in the first place, but not ‘fine art.’ And if we are to pull a big name out of the bag of so-called fine art, it was Manet, as we stated earlier, who made this style, or effect, famous—for whatever it’s worth.² Even the idea of flat (“superflat” as he says) was not invented by Murakami. This was borrowed from the international best selling book on world trends: “The World Is Flat” by Thomas Friedman. In a nutshell, the art nut’s shell: this flat style of his is nothing more than what you would expect to—and indeed do—find in a “Where’s Waldo?” book.
In the end I guess we should wonder if the only reason Murakami is really considered so important is because he is so famous, which is reason enough in this media driven society of ours. But worse, he is not even famous on his own doing. He is made famous by the businessmen behind him, by their modern techniques of marketing and promotion. He styled hand bags for Louis Vuitton—by his own accord, a big reason for his success. He has a factory, where the workers, and a large number of them at that, actually produce the work for him (certainly impressive to the impressionable nut). In short he is less of an artist than he is a businessman, worse, he is the product of businessmen.

Important note: we have come a long way from the period of the “Salon de Paris,” which had the official approbation of the ruling monarchy. In those days, in order for an artist to gain respect, he had to be selected for, present his work in, this exhibition. But here, censorship was more the norm than any respect for any innovation in art. After the French Revolution, society opened up and over time art critics of a diversified press came to replace the standards that were set in the past by such committees as the Salon de Paris. These art critics were art scholars. Today, since the advent of the mass media, which now is even “interactive,” these critics have all but been silenced. Today, the art merchants—their business structures—and the unruliness and tastelessness of the mass media, solely determine what art will come to the front. There is no longer any elitist review of art. What you get is whatever you get… and beget—to the extent that you (through your interactive media participation) are the mass media.

…and, somewhere in here we have to consider the sad possibility that if someone like Murakami is considered so important, and this, for the sole reason that he is so famous, well, this must assuredly be due, in large part, to the plain and simple fact that we as a people are just so lost… All people care about is that the artist is famous. Fame is what people seem to be most impressionable in respect to. It equates with a feeling of transcendence that allows so many nobodies to feel that they are somebodies. The quality of the art is of no importance whatsoever in comparison to its celebrity. In fact, the crappier the art is the better—for those who feel the need to strike out at the society due to their personal discontent.

Is it only a pathetic nostalgic person anymore who believes that a real artist is one who endeavors to make a true ‘human’ statement—in the form of his art—for the veritable transcendental effect that it may have on himself and the viewer of his art? This is far from the dubious incentives and vulgar products of the purported practitioner of fine art today who in reality is nothing more than a common commercial artist—in all senses of the term. What this kind of artist brings to our society today (our hyper media driven society) is unfortunately nothing more than that which only someone terribly vain and impressionable can appreciate—when captivated by his celebrity status. Which makes me think, as pathetic as the story of Van Gogh is, it still stands as a fine example of great art, perhaps the standard to go by, whereby, one considers art to be something made not firstly for—and not according to—what the art merchant can readily sell to the popular masses. Van Gogh, in his lifetime, never impressed anyone in the commercial world of art, and certainly not in a media driven one. He painted for reasons of the highest human order, above fame and profit, yet, given the prices that his paintings command at auction today and the enormous receptions given his art at museum retrospectives today, no one denies that he is one of the very top successes in the history of art. Most probably the very top, if we had to choose the one. And a couple other artists like him such as Cézanne and Picasso, whose life-work demonstrated the same heart and soul, with a humanistic philosophy behind it, would complete the podium of winners. Over a century later, their art, of universal relevance and appeal, endures. And of course like praise is in order for certain more contemporary artists—those highly disciplined artists whose vision brought to a logical conclusion the inevitable “abstractification” of the world we see, notably Delauney, De Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock.

A money grubbing, slick manufacturing, media storming approach to art is everything in the world of the art nut today and everything for the kings reigning over them. Of these contemporary kings, we have to take a look at Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, the world’s two most expensive living artists. The prices people pay for their stuff is unimaginable—unless or course, one considers the limited cultural intelligence of the person buying it…or his exceptional business intelligence, for it is a highly profitable investment. Underlying this though must be the fact that the person is given to think he is buying something whose value can be equated with our noble idea of art—that art is an expression of who we are—which has come down to us and remains with us, however tenuously, through the ages. This underlying impression of his though—and however forgiving it may be—only makes the situation easier to understand, not any less unfortunate.
Man is curious, he is naturally intrigued—by something new, different. In society there is the following basic dynamic: those bringing forth the new and different in order to satisfy our natural interest in it and those seeking it out. In the case of the art we are exposing in this article, however, there is absolutely nothing new being done, not even anything that isn’t perfectly ordinary, so, one has to wonder—why no one seems to wonder—why it is so successful. Extensively alluded to above, we have to come to the one and only conclusion: the effect and efficacy of business marketing and communication. Today, marketing and communication is everything. The worthiness of it in respect to its end, to sell, is undeniable. The worthiness of the art work itself, however, towards its end—less its goal be to shock, create a “buzz”, and make bucks—is all but non existent.

Kiefer's Refuse

Kiefer’s Refuse

And we asked for it, so to speak. After all the horrible crap of the 1970s and 80s: Anselm Kiefer’s refuse (shown here), Julian Schnabel’s broken plates falling off the canvases, the abominably chain-sawn logs (called sculptures) of the lumber jack hack, George Baselitz … respectable, influential people (businessmen and other art patrons), were asking for something ‘cleaner’, were asking the art world not to take them for idiots. But look what they got! Did the hard working and astute businessman really need the artist to divine what’s popular in the media, the minds of the masses, in order to exploit that? Did the hard working and responsible businessman really need the artist to show him how to manufacture, to bring to market some slick product with a gloss on painted metal or plastic? Certainly not, but it’s what he got and seeing that art is such a good financial investment, then no matter, he will buy this stuff too. And should buy it in that it is good business. As a matter of fact, the more expensive the price this outrageously expensive stuff is sold at, the more money made on the investment—due to price-scale appreciation.

Hirst's Diamond Studded Skull

Hirst’s Diamond Studded Skull

From the superhuman efforts of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci to the super sub-human effortlessness of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, everything has, as they say, been done. When you have everything, decadence naturally sets in—to the point that today, for those afflicted by our bling bling culture, serious work—requiring work—is perceived as being the enterprise of a sucker. In this case better the ‘artist’ give the afflicted art fan something that requires no effort like a diamond covered skull, as in the case of Damien Hirst or an inflatable copy of the Hulk, as in the case of Jeff Koons, both shown here. In the case of Hirst’s skull, consider that this object, the skull, was as popular a pop culture icon as existed at the time. He saw fit to use it, this immensely popular and ready-made object, as a work of art. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the research? No, just grab the latest fad and cover it with diamonds. And even this ostentatious exploitation of diamonds in his art was nothing more than copying the life style and fashion (referred to as “bling-bling”) of the immensely famous international stars in the world of hip hop. Lastly, Hirst—who is famous for being a concept artist—can’t even claim the concept of “ready-made” as an original concept because, as we all know, ready-made is a famous art concept invented almost a century ago.

A Koons Hulk

Koons Hulks

Regrettably with much art today, the manufacturing and/or monumental quality that is visible to the viewer is the only ‘good’ thing about the art piece. This is typically the case for the two artists we are discussing here: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Jeff Koons who has amusement park balloons, candy, or whatever, made in giant shiny aluminum metal. Or Damien Hirst who makes an exact 20 foot replica of the Anatomy Man toy (only to be sued by the manufacturer one might add). In fact, much sculpture or art objects today look like nothing more than brightly colored nick nacks fresh out of the molds of the Chinese mass-crapola, worst-of-consumerism factories. And if that isn’t bad enough, consider this: it is not even the so-called artwork that is demonstrating any intelligence, any intelligent research in the way of form, design, or any other art trait. In effect, any admirable creativity and/or research that is to be found is found instead in the original objects—the toys, nick nacks, what have you—that the artwork is copied from!

Hirst's copy of Anatomy Man

Hirst’s copy of Anatomy Man

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about such artists, whose work is displayed in such noble places as Versailles and whose galleries may use doormen requesting a mandatory invitation to get in, is: the bigger the lie, the more believable it is.

Hirst's Shark

Hirst’s Shark

How ’bout this shark-in-a-tank by Damien Hirst? The only claim to fame of this formaldahyded squale could be the originality an artist might claim in moving a natural science exhibit—from a natural science museum—into an art museum. But of course, that wasn’t the case here and even if it was, the originality wouldn’t be any interesting contribution to fine art; instead, it would just be another travesty of it. In effect, this is supposed to be visual art, and in no case does this switcheroo-of-lieu oeuvre show any observably original characteristics. Instead, it is just another embarrassing art “concept” and manifestation of a self-absorbed-in-self-importance art nut. Reminds me of a variation of the all too tried-and-true trick whereby an artist and his promoters claim originality for some style of art—that, in reality, is perfectly common, already done since forever it seems, many times over in everyday life—whose only difference is the fact that it is being placed, for the first time, in the context of fine art, that is to say, in prestigious museums and galleries. Comic book drawing or simple logo-type graphics done on canvas come to mind, not to mention the likes of the everyday flower pot; see Jean-Pierre Raynaud, below.

A Koons Balloon Dog

A Koons Balloon Dog

Our pop-art provocateur Jeff Koons broke a world record for a price paid for a single artwork by a living artist in 2013. His sculpture “Balloon Dog (Orange)” fetched $58,405,000. To think that this is nothing that millions of street entertainers and children’s birthday party clowns have not already done, and each one of them, hundreds of times over. Whose money was spent on this? We couldn’t have done a little bit more for Darfur?

Up until now I have primarily addressed provocation due to common stupidity, largely because it can be humorous, which is the primary theme of this article, but it would be amiss on my part if I gave you the impression that this was the worst of it. There’s more worse out there than you can shake a stick at, and not just worse stupid, but seriously humanly degrading, human suffering, no holds barred worse—and in places where one wouldn’t at all expect to be cornered and agressed by such “alternate” themes or scenes. Just google—to take just one example—pictures for Bjarne Melgaard, a prominent Norwegian artist working out of New York who is featured in internationally prestigious galleries and museums. There’s a whole new “school of art” today dedicated to nothing but this kind of stuff—as fine art!

It is important here to interject the following point: violence is not only physical, it can be psychological too, and, to the extent that psychological violence is difficult to put a finger on, it may be the most difficult form to treat. Whether we are “liberal” or “conservative,” we should be asking ourselves: how much psychological violence—because it is less apparent than physical violence—are we allowing ourselves to get away with, to inflict upon one another in society? Or, if you prefer to pass the buck: how much psychological violence is our government letting us get away with, due to the fact that psychological violence is less apparent and consequently more difficult to legislate against? Lastly, for one or another of us to accuse someone, dismiss him, as just being neurotic because he is speaking out about these matters, let’s try to remember that neurotics are people too, and for those of us claiming such a superior level of compassion and understanding, well, let’s try to understand that these suffering people, forced to swallow the pill of what they see as being illogical or unnatural, should—just perhaps—be accorded as much compassion and understanding as those we typically accord it to, if indeed our end goal is this greater compassion and understanding and not just some strictly personal agenda based on an unchecked ego, which—we have to admit—only serves to limit our compassion and understanding.

We all know, when social mores come up in a conversation, that one person or another’s example of baaad has “always been around” (as our clever retort commonly goes); yes, but the ultimate question we should be asking ourselves is: but is it getting worse? Is it getting worse for what scholars in the human science fields refer to as environmental reasons—ones for which we are responsible (as opposed to genetic reasons)—and, is there any reason to believe that, given the socio-psychological dynamics that govern us and our society today, a final limit to these excesses can one day be expected to be drawn?

White SpaceIn a retrospective exhibition of Bjarne Melgaard at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, photographs of young boys originally published by NAMBLA (The North American Man Boy Love Association) were produced as paintings and exhibited. I’m not going to subject you to any images of such scenes in this article³—we’re all of the opinion that it’s bad, we’re all so smart we know it exists, has always been around…have come to accept that much, yes…but is it getting worse? And, I repeat, is there any reason to believe that, given the socio-psychological dynamics that govern us and our society today, a final limit to these excesses can one day be expected to be drawn? Without our civilization coming to an end. A violent end. As usual.

Here’s something related I’d like to share, or rather, I dislike sharing with you, but since it’s related: Not long ago while walking to the contemporary art museum, Beaubourg, in Paris, France my wife and I passed before a café where the walls were retractable, nothing between the café interior and the sidewalk outside. At a front row table—on the sidewalk you could say—sat a guy holding his sex slave on a leash, wearing the same getup as the poor bastard in the movie Pulp Fiction. There he is for all passerbys to see, even children ripe for a traumatic experience: His master is holding him on a chain leash. He is knelt down between his master’s legs, head down submissively like—no worse—than a dog. He’s half bare, wearing only a pair of black leather shorts, black leather suspenders with assorted chains, a black leather collar with metal ring to which the chain leash was attached, and a black leather mask like a sack over his head with its rudimentary holes allowing him to breath. On the floor, head down, on his knees, between his master’s legs, a monstrous site to see, enough to truly twist the mind of any impressionable child passing by, leaving yet another troubled youth for society to deal with. Just after seeing this I walked into a police station that happened to be on our way to report the incident. They said it wasn’t their sector.
This having been said, let’s now try to climb back out of the garbage dump. Hopefully, a certain awareness of this stuff will help us to better appreciate the gravity of the situation—and incite you to protect your rights as a taxpayer, as a dignified citizen. If your museum curator is using your money for stuff that is nothing more than another commercially manufactured and media hyped pop culture figurine—that you should be buying off the shelf at Toys R Us instead—then stand up to them. If your museum curator is using your money for this baaad (read jerk off) stuff with the pretext that it has “always been around,” well that ain’t good enough—stand up to them.

It’s embarrassing to have to speak about art with such enthusiasm: we all like to go see art, but at the same time we have to admit how silly/embarrassing it is. So we’ll go see it, often ‘privately,’ but we’re certainly not going to show—around others—any deep interest or care for it, so embarrassing it has become. Nonetheless, if you can see a way around this, stand up to these idiots.

Anyone willing to fulfil this role in the ‘resistance’ will have found himself something to do in his local community at least as important and prestigious as that of the curator of the community museum. Towards this end, I can help you formulate a charter, or mission statement as they say nowadays in the world of business.

At this point it would help to have a good idea of what good art is. Common sense is probably our best bet at coming up with an answer here. And because we all have common sense, I’m sure we can all come to some conclusion on this. Furthermore, the fact that we all have common sense explains why such crap art today is so successful: it shocks our common sense. It provokes those in society who have “arrived”, those with a sense of contentment, and for those in society who don’t feel satisfied with their lot in life, for whatever reason, they see the artist provocateur as their spokesman.
“Anything can be art.” is bullshit. “What is art?” is a cop-out. And believe me, for any workable definition of art, Merriam Webster is not enough. Common sense, as I stated above, is a better approach. Perhaps we can compare notes on what our common sense definition of good art is. To this end, I offer here my own idea. Good art is a combination of things—like all important human issues for that matter—it is a matter of a combination of things.

To be considered a “work of art” (as opposed to simple art work, that is simply decorative), a painting or sculpture should satisfy certain criteria:

  • Be technically successful and respect the fundamentals of aesthetics: The materials, harmony (of colors, in brush strokes, with surface textures), and geometry (forms, proportions, distribution), must all work together.
  • The work expresses what the artist wants to express visually, and in an interesting way: If it is not interesting visually and/or can not be properly expressed visually, the artist should consider expressing it with another media other than a visual one. The work can be elaborate or minimalist but it has to have visual impact. An example of the shortcomings that we are talking about here would be the work of Jean-Pierre Raynaud, whose product is the thoroughly mundane flower pot (a copy of one and in its most common form none the ‘less’). This may be art (conceptual art to use the precise term for it), but it is not a ‘work of art’, which carries connotations of technical and intellectual prowess, as well as representing a certain visual marvel for the spectator. Further clarification to Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s work is given at the end of this art definition list.
  • Be original: A work which respects the criteria mentioned here and which is truly original at the same time represents the highest achievement in the domain of fine art. However, such ‘revolutionary’ art is quite rare. It may be that a work is only original in the same way that every human being is original and by corollary, any man-made ‘creation’ on his part is original. If this is the case, what will make it a ‘work of art’ is respecting/executing the other criteria mentioned here in a masterly way. Marketing forces may be such that an artist tries to convince himself of more than this, however, he is most probably just deceiving himself. A stronger art statement on his part might be to simply admit the truth. Attention: to the extent the artist’s quest for originality compromises the other criteria that define a work of art, his work is distanced from being a work of art. Examples of artists producing valid works of art without being revolutionary are given at the end of this art definition list.
  • The idea should be significant: In fine art ‘significant’ equates with ‘humanity’. The idea behind it, driving it, should be human, either directly or indirectly. An obvious example of direct would be a figurative work depicting some aspect of the human condition, along with masterful technique to convey it. An example of indirect could be that of an abstract work, in which case, the humanistic expression may be the heart and soul put into—or the cleverness seen in—the creative act, which naturally speaks of our nature or being. The loose definition that is given here gives the artist all reasonable leeway in that which is necessary to satisfy this criteria. What isn’t necessary is the phony dialectic the artist and/or art merchant too often come up with to try to demonstrate how the artist has found “that one thing,” to borrow an expression from the popular vernacular.
    In effect, today, it may be too much–to expect an artist to contribute as much as what is often attributed to the likes of Monet, Cezanne, or Picasso, who, as I said at the outset of this article, are credited not only for fundamental originality in their creative act, or style, but for making a fundamental philosophical statement on life,  and this, through the style itself. Indeed, ‘fundamental’ may be too much to expect today now that they, and others, have already laid so much of the ‘fundamental’ foundation. And of course, the same recognition must be given those artists who brought to a logical conclusion the inevitable ‘abstractification’ of the world we see, notably: Delauney, De Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock.
  • To Sum Up: As one can see, a work of art is a combination of things. Beware of the artist who tries to make you think that through his work—which appears to be nothing because it really is nothing—he has found that “one thing,” that one special thing. An impressionable viewer may react to it as such but this is purely psychological. The viewer’s mind is only processing a feeling that is naturally within all of us: the feeling that there is something missing, that we are looking for something, an answer…to some mystery, presumably the proverbial mystery of life. But the truth of the situation is that the ‘work’ on the part of this type of artist is nothing more than an illusion and the reaction on the part of the viewer, a delusion.
A Raynaud Flower Pot

A Raynaud Flower Pot

As clarification to the art of Jean-Pierre Raynaud mentioned above, whose product is the thoroughly mundane flower pot: this is just another example in a long line of art whose credo is « anything is art », all you have to do is present it in the context of art. The artist himself sums up his art, and other art like it, as follows : « Art is the sublime lie. » Now, if by this statement he was trying to unmask so much of the meaningless nonsense masquerading as great art, he should be considered one of the more important artists today, unfortunately however, that’s not where he’s coming from—in perfect contradiction to himself, he really wants to be recognized for elevating this stuff to the rank of fine art. And regardless of the conceptual confusion, there is a more fundamental, practical problem: the art medium he has chosen to express his idea is visual, and his work, such as this flower pot—all too simply—contributes absolutely nothing new visually.
Further to point three above concerning originality: I offer here a few examples of artists doing original-enough work to qualify as real artists without being revolutionary: The German artist Jonas Burgert is one (shown below), not to mention his immensely famous compatriot, Neo Rauch. And an unknown from Paris, Genneviève Boschel, a self-taught painter, who began late in life—with little to no commercial success, and who now, on top of these career difficulties, has fallen victim to cancer. I certainly would have liked to have seen more work from her, witness the progression of an undeniable talent.

Genneviève Boschel

Genneviève Boschel

Jonas Burgert Painting

Jonas Burgert Painting

Geneviève Boschel

Geneviève Boschel


To conclude with the definition of art, it is necessary to say what it is not:

  • It’s not about knowing how to draw, in and of itself, how to render something on canvas pretty much the way it looks in real life. Good like that is like being good with numbers and becoming an accountant. You need to demonstrate vision.
  • It’s not about some concept that has absolutely no human interest, but instead, is ‘interesting’ only in some esoteric, academically technical way for those heady individuals in the art milieu, or of course, for the art merchant who has to be able to claim—for marketing purposes—some sort of originality, which for the most part unfortunately, is only forced, purely and simply contrived, non existent and/or deficient. A perfect example of this is the “all-black” paintings (shown below), of Pierre Soulages, the pre-eminent living French artist (shown below). Such contrived and forced art may not be readily apparent to the typical viewer. He may feel that the work is above his head, which in fact is one of the weaknesses of the common viewer of art that the less than honorable artist hopes to exploit. For an in-depth review of this “all-black” work, refer to the “Whose the Idiot” article on the Home Page of the Day4th Art website.
  • It’s not about being original when your originality is nothing more than some difference that no one else has yet claimed or done because normally no one would want to do such a thing if it weren’t for the fact that he’s feeling the defeatist’s notion that there’s nothing good left to be found and done.
  • Last but not least, it’s certainly not about the talentless type of photography we see today, a seemingly inexhaustible stock of snapshots cluttering up so many silly galleries, gawked at by so many wannabe artists living in the FaceBook-Instagram world.
Pierre Soulages'

Pierre Soulages’ “All Black” Paintings

We have probably gotten the idea that people do go nuts over art, but we may nonetheless ask: compared to what? Are they any more nuts for example, any worse, than the sports and movie nuts? The money we pay for sports stars or actors and their films do indeed make one wonder. An astronomical, other-worldly amount of money is paid to get the best athletes to win the world championships. If they win the championship, they prove they’re the best. That part seems simple enough. In art this part is different. The artwork commanding the highest prices seems to be proof of who the top artist is. But as we have seen, this can’t be true given the crap quality of the work. It’s obviously not that simple. And as for whether these athletes deserve this type of money, even if they are responsible for the championship being won, well, that is another question. As for films: a cinephile collecting films isn’t paying millions of dollars for them, and the taxpayer isn’t paying millions for the screening of some Hollywood production in his community’s museum. The same can be said for the one-song wonders of course, pop ‘artist’ ‘musicians,’ most of which today are nothing but simple products, from top to bottom—almost objects—manufactured by the American Idol and other copycat programs from bottom up; they (and foremost the businessmen-initiators behind it all), earn a fortune, but, no one’s making us buy it—and no one’s calling it “fine art”, with a big price to pay, both literally and figuratively, for any poorly informed community that gets it wrong.
As elucidated above, art today still conjures up in our minds something that is precious if not sacred.
Given the profound importance we place on art, what it symbolizes deep down inside for us, I figure an artist ought to at least try to live up to its image, assume his responsibility as an artist as it were. In effect, an artist knowing what the people, the media entranced masses, like (for their “buzz”) and giving this to them is not the same thing as giving the people something that they don’t already know—but should know—and thereby, making a veritable contribution to their culture, to the society in general. This is the job of a real artist. It’s the real job of any person when you think about it.
Sometimes it seems that becoming rich and famous is in itself enough to ruin this ‘reality.’ Success corrupts. Writer’s block sets in, takes its toll. Be that as it may, you first have to become rich and famous, but on whose terms? Doing something that you know deep down inside is meaningful may not be what the typical viewer can be expected to understand, or even want. Better being a starving artist and risk being made fun of–for being a starving artist? In any case, it’s certainly better to be honest with yourself, and certainly more honorable to have tried to make serious art, which doesn’t make fun of an innocent public for being taken in by such crap.

It is the best business cultures who have the most successful art markets. Today it is The United States, England, and Germany. France is dead for two reasons: it is socialist economically, and elitist culturally. In the past, however, it was France, with impressionism for example. But France at that time was preeminent culturally as well as economically. Tomorrow it will be China, who is more capitalistic as a people—even than the English, and that’s saying something. The quality of the art doesn’t matter; it’s the quality of the business end of the art market that counts. As for that French moment of glory—at the end of the nineteenth century—if it hadn’t been impressionism, it would have been something else for they had a well established art market. Again, the quality of the art doesn’t matter in the end.

The two major players today, England and the United States have the highest paid artists, examples of whom, are given in this article. As ultra business cultures, it is not surprising that they have such well oiled business markets, which includes the art market of course; but to the extent that art represents our cultures, perhaps England and the United States benefit also from the fact that they speak English, the international language, and are leading world powers, the United States being number one and for the most part uncontested. And, and naturally converging with this extensive (read intensive), business and social influence—to make one mad mix—is mass media; how it can be exploited by business marketing experts makes all the difference in the world. Indeed, with them at the helm, a balloon dog may seem to be The Pietà.

To note: I wonder if Jeff Koons can even make a balloon dog, a real one, one from a simple balloon.

The media, which dwells on controversy and discontent, is singularly The defining characteristic of our society today in cultural terms, culture being our human interests and our expression of these interests. Given its obvious power over us, the Facebook-Twitter phenomena, and whatever their legions can get to go viral, we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves why we are so vulnerable. Sociologists and psychologists would begin by examining the fundamentals of the human condition. There are existential problems to consider—the problems that exist by the simple fact of being alive, there is the dynamic of the individual versus the society he lives in: the psyche of each individual trying to exert its will, trying to enact its agenda while at the same time the society poses constraints, pits the wills of others against it, against the will of the individual. Another fundamental factor: control of the aforementioned problematic, or the responsibility of teaching self-control in society. This necessary control is breaking down at both the lowest level, that being the family, and at the highest level, that being the state—our government to whom we look to maintain a certain order in the society in which we are obliged to live. Both these levels of influence are critical in order for the people to live together in society—in reasonable harmony and ‘reasonably’ free (without some totalitarian force having to see reason for us). Unfortunately, this all seems to be crumbling. No more reference points today, anything goes, freedom taken not just to, but beyond, its limit. No one willing to admit he’s wrong, take pride in a real sense of personal self criticism. In the face of common sense, in the face of Mother Nature, in your face. I’m OK, you’re OK, everyone’s OK, and yet no one’s happy. And it shows. Today we are like rats in a cage—an overpopulated cage—just too many of us, and mass media is augmenting the degree of—as well as exacerbating the effects of—our close proximity within the cage, making our situation more and more unbearable. And it shows—in our art…and in the unfortunate rapport we have with art.

Footnotes:

¹ Let’s not fall into the same trap as Shlain: Despite the fact that many physicists—and certainly journalists who do not master the complexity of the subject—speak of such simultaneity, we shouldn’t fall into the same trap of this Leonard Shlain and speak of such unbelievable phenomena in such a categorical way. The strangeness of quantum mechanics is already enough of a fact without being so categorical about all the strangeness we hear about. The effect, ‘the transfer of information’, that is happening between two sub atomic entangled particles, ‘simultaneously’, is happening in a certain, precise experiment and probably at the speed of light, but not simultaneously. Regardless though, given the fact that we can know what we do know about the effect of simultaneity in this experiment speaks indeed of an amazing phenomenon, and doubly so given our constraints on information when observing sub atomic particles, the constraints of course being due to the disturbance we naturally inflict upon a sub atomic particle through the act of observing it.

² For the record: in ancient times, due to their primitive understanding and technique, three dimensionality, depth and perspective, was not rendered in art. Egyptian art is typically given as an example of this shortcoming, or limitation. As art evolved, the artists naturally came around to mastering this, Giotto is typically given as an example of an artist who brought this about. Once three dimensionality and perspective was mastered it was the standard to go by for all serious artists, for many years to come, centuries even; then Manet, as we have already said and explained above, thought to ‘flatten’ art again, in order to be different, claim some originality for himself, and thereby have a chance at being considered important.

³ White space: Studies show that an alarming number of people, with minds forever distracted (read dimwits), don’t like to read anymore, so a writer is advised to give them “white space” (more blank space) to keep them interested. For those diehard voyeurs of Melgaard who insist on seeing some graphic nihilism in his honor, I submit an appropriate yet publicly suitable replacement here in the form of blank space.

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