Corrupting Canadian Art: Geoffrey Farmer in Venice, 2017
André Breton wrote of the Readymade in the Surrealist Dictionary; “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”.(1)
Today, in large numbers of peer-reviewed trials worldwide, the artist’s choice has consistently failed to elevate common objects to the dignity of a work of art. It’s now an established principle worth repeating that it is not the artist’s choice that creates art, it’s their vision and effort. And only when that vision is transcendent and the effort is successful; art is a valuation and excellence has always been its calling card. A pile of trash at the Tate remained trash for weeks no matter how often the artist came by to elevate it to the dignity of a work of art. Huffed. Puffed. No art. No dignity.
Andrew Witt reviews Geoffrey Farmer’s show in Venice using generic talk spun by the yard on the art-marketing machine, made to wax brightly on dull art. Not to deny Witt’s abilities as wordsmith but it misleads an innocent public who will walk away from Geoffrey’s show with broken hearts, crying hot tears of bitter disillusionment.
Witt’s review is called A Disobedient Object but Jerry Saltz does it better; “Anarchy Lite; It’s everywhere, and it all looks the same. Those post-minimalist formal arrangements of clunky stuff, sticks, planks, bent metal, wood, concrete and whatnot leaned, stacked, stuck, piled, or dispersed. There’s usually a history straight out of Artforum or the syllabi of academics who’ve scared their students into being pleasingly meek, imitative, and ordinary.”(2) These broken sticks in Venice function as symbols of broken art theory. The collective unconscious lends a semiotic hue saying we broke art by faking it; even if King Canute commanded, those sticks would fail to be art just as the waves failed to ebb.
Farmer does have ingenuity, he’s inventive. Over two decades he has consistently come up with postmodern ideas that reject art, that could never be mistaken for art, and that have nothing to do with art. Those words were originally Duchamp’s description of his found objects, which he said were simply a pastime to relax with, because “they’re not art, could never be mistaken for art, and have nothing to do with art”. If Farmer based his found object practice on Duchamp then that entire section of his work is annulled; if he (and we) thought it was art because we assumed Duchamp’s found objects were art, then he (and we) were obviously wrong: it’s not art. If he thought his work was art because postmodernism rejects traditional art, think again. When you make “non-art” you literally have no art. Geoffrey Farmer is not a meaningful artist, he’s a salesman excellent at selling himself and convincing others.
We often hear “my child could have done that”. Yet any artist who perseveres beyond their juvenile attempts eventually acquires experience and in time produces sophisticated art. Unfortunately much work never goes there, when Buchloh and even Saltz tell us skill is undesirable and Sol Lewitt says an idea is already art. Why bother with effort when everything we think and do is already art? In an individual we’d call it a narcissistic disorder like identity politics; now we must take the academic-curatorial complex to the psychiatrist’s couch and speak truth to power.
Michel Foucault also advises this parrhesia, so we could legitimately say Joseph Beuys’ or Geoffrey Farmer’s art consists of posing as a conceptual elite to follow the money. What else was Beuys doing, endlessly parading his felt, fat, and fur while consistently lying about his past and his work, all for an artist’s fee? Art escort? Farmer’s formal practice consist of denying tradition with a dose of ennui while disturbing nothing in our cultural heritage except for the budget. That is clever: there is no art in Canada’s pavilion in Venice, nothing to judge, it’s very minimalist. There is rubble that any workman could claim, this pile is generic as rubble gets, there’s a rusty mask but no art here, nothing to see folks, just move along. Oh, I forgot. They raised the roof in Venice by a few inches. Facebook devotees announced it only seconds after that headline was leaked to the press! The roof was raised, but obviously not high enough to reach the dignity of a work of art.
Still, any curator having spent their budget on what they assumed high art would be loyal for life rather than confess they’ve been had and blown a bundle. Does the curator’s choice raise the artist to the dignity of being an artist? Do Joseph Beuys’ lies raise him to dignity? Anarchy Lite in Venice is an embarrassment, a misreading of art history, naked goose-bumps under global scrutiny. I’ve mentioned Roger Scrutton before but his views deserve repeating. His article for the BBC, “How modern art became trapped by its urge to shock”, says that “it is now an effective requirement of finalists for the Turner Prize in Britain to produce something that nobody would think was art unless they were told it was”, (as with Canada’s Sobey Prize, which was awarded to a 2 meter length of metal fencing rented from home hardware.) Understanding this phenomenon is integral to understanding how a high culture works, and how it can become corrupted.(3)
We should note that Sol Lewitt’s conceptual statement, that an idea can be a work of art, is contradicted by the very language he used; a work of art requires work, then we judge the quality of that work. Some have said art is process and not a product. If that was true we’d never finish anything. Farmer’s aura is based on a postmodern strategy of making the work incomprehensible, but it’s really about denying tradition… which cannot help but make the work vanilla even when his marketing team claims a fetish!
Lewitt was wrong; according to Wiki an idea is not art, it is the mother of science; science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. These are ideas, while making art is a process, and art is the product. We are now at those rare moments when art history sloughs off a skin, old heroes unravel like used sweaters, auras fade as we realize the words make no sense. Postmodernism chose the senseless as dogma, just as the right wing elected Trump. And there have been some peculiarly adept at playing this role of artist, pace General Idea of Toronto fame. Geoffrey Farmer excels at the role, going through the motions that please academia: illustrating art theory, acting out the rules, disrupting tradition by cleansing art of any trace of passion, talent or inspiration.
Of course the final question to ask is why compromise my own peace of mind like this? No one would walk away from the collective feedbag and march to a different drummer unless driven from within. It is my deepest conviction Canadian art needs a wake up call. Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, which are reflected in their association, their production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments.
The Canadian art system is a monotheist pyramid, all the money coming from the government at the top. This money trickles down through the academic-curatorial complex of curators, professors, peer artist juries. If you’re not plugged into the network you’re not getting a feedbag, and you won’t be an artist for long. There are exceptions; inspiration fuels a vocation even outside of Animal Farm, but mostly peer pressure forces everyone into a polite convention.
– Today’s art, smarter than you –
One of Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibitions years ago at Catriona Jeffries Gallery consisted of bringing trash found on the street into the gallery, and piling it up until it reached the ceiling. At that point, workers cut a hole into the ceiling exposing the open sky, a hole big enough for Farmer to keep adding to the pile till the pyramid of trash extended a ways above the roof.
That hole in the roof was a potlatch. In New York Leo Castelli did the same with Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, a massive spending on prime Manhattan real estate; a status symbol and pissing contest of how Castelli pays the highest rent then fills the rooms with dirt. The credit should go more to performance artist Leo Castelli who, in so doing, dispels any doubts clients may have at paying $135 million for a Warhol. Shock pays for itself. So with Catriona Jeffries who was willing to pay the tens of thousands to have her roof breached and then repaired, the construction costs are small change compared to her dealer’s commission when the pile of trash is purchased by the National Gallery.
Of course the optics are fascinating; bringing trash into the gallery till it blows a hole in the roof, symbolic of how trash sold to the National Gallery blows a hole in Canadian culture.
Someone objects: ”why are you talking trash about the National Gallery”?
I reply: “do you really want trash as your aesthetic and national culture”?
They answer: ”surely the curators at the National Gallery know more than you”?
I reply: ”maybe they don’t, maybe they’re just more aggressive”?
The lesson the Canadian art world wrongly took from Farmer’s show was that trash was art, whereas this work was really about the public’s perception of the system and the role of networking in art; the method traced and made evident how insider trading and curatorial power work within art administration. Collusion between Farmer, Catriona Jeffries, and National Gallery curators show all conspiring to cause a scandal by edifying the latest incomprehensible art, a work that contradicts any expectation we ever had of art, aesthetics, meaning, and culture. This is today’s art, smarter than you (well obviously, considering you don’t understand it).
High culture is being corrupted by a culture of fakes, warns Roger Scruton in The Guardian. Farmer’s work is really about the power dynamics between the artist, dealer, and curator, where the work of art becomes a stand-in, a symbol, meaningless yet highly toxic just for that very reason of accrediting meaningless art. If it lacks meaning we’d expect that it’s no longer art but a fake, a meaningless collection of trash in the place of art, the artist playing the conceptual card. When art is replaced by trash, the gatekeepers seem irresponsible and even worse, unethical. It’s their job to know what art is, failing which they should resign their post for evident incompetence. Lack of ethics inserts when the curator profits from the shock (read attention, career spotlight, brand traction) that comes when the obvious fake is promoted at the highest levels.
The viewer can only believe that surely there’s deep meaning here somewhere, no one is playing a trick on us of substituting the real with the fake, pyrite for gold? That’s exactly what is happening. It is called a postmodern art strategy. The process plays on our fear of being found ignorant, the guilt of the intellectual who suspects others knows something we don’t because we’re too busy teaching and looking after the kid, and haven’t had the time to read the latest or perhaps missed the clues, didn’t pay attention, and art now really is heading this way. After all, we are constantly told the idea is the most important aspect of art, which means the art is less important, and when art is the less important part of art, art is unimportant. Sol Lewitt clarified that when he wrote that an idea can be art, even if it never leaves the artist’s mind. Most cultural workers are faced with schedule issues and ideas do not take up time, no hours of execution needed. Then from an ethical sense of responsibility, if we believe something we should act on it; artists believe in Sol Lewitt so making physical art is surly a mule-headed yearning for bygones, when we can think about art and that’s all it takes?
Winners write history (surely a prescription for winning). Now science says art plays a biological role and it’s a question what happens when art no longer fills that function. Most of what we call art are cult objects of historical illiteracy; Duchamp said the readymades were never art. But it’s an academic illiteracy chewing holes through the cultural elite! And that is why in 2018 we find neither artist nor a curator, but a high priest in an academic cult as far removed from art as homeopathy is from real medicine.
Bankers created sub prime loans and the global financial crash of 2008. If bankers can suffer collective madness surely so can the art world, running with the lemmings. How come no one noticed? If we have not seen as far as others it is because we are standing on the shoulders of cross-eyed and very short giants. Else the giants are standing on our shoulders.
– Endnotes –
 André Breton , Paul Éluard, Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme– [Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism] 1938. http://toutfait.com/the-unfindable-readymade/
 Andrew Witt, A Shattered Mirror: Geoffrey Farmer’s Disobedient Object in Venice. http://momus.ca/shattered-mirror-geoffrey-farmers-disobedient-object-venice/ – comment-22191
Jerry Saltz, Art’s Insidious New Cliché: Neo-Mannerism, Vulture magazine,http://www.vulture.com/2013/10/jerry-saltz-on-arts-insidious-new-clich.html?mid=fb-share-vulture
 Roger Scrutton A Cult of Fakery has taken over what’s left of high culture https://aeon.co/essays/a-cult-of-fakery-has-taken-over-what-s-left-of-high-culture
Toronto Editor: Miklos Legrady
Published by Luxenburg Magazine