Martin Luther Paradigm
There are some who say that the contemporary art system is as corrupt as the Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther — a corruption that went so deep, the Protestant Reformation rendered the Church asunder. If you do not think so, if you write no crisis in art criticism, if you have cannot see the institutional contradictions, the unimpressive offerings of the gallery, and the break-down of the academic education system, then you are part of the problem and not part of the solution. You are not innocent. There’s nothing worse than discovering we’re the hypocrites, that we have been the ones in denial…
To understand the contemporary requires a major paradigm shift as well as a rigorous bracing of our intellectual apparatus. It means leaving our historically established comfort zone, renouncing our gods: Duchamp. Benjamin. Rorty. This article is my third this year that observes the failure of semiotic analyses and the corruption of art theory. The writing followed my own shocking discoveries of self-destructive structures in the art system that prove capable of corrupting contemporary theory, production, and practice. Theory can shape reality, for better or worse.
It seems that by rules of logic and grammar, the brightest and most intelligent minds in art’s education, production, and propagation do not understand their own field, the subject of fine art, nor can they agree on its purpose and meaning. In this, there lies an apt comparison with religious studies that take for granted supernatural forces no one has ever seen and cannot be quantized. In the 21st century, it feels like academic, editorial, and curatorial forces have disoriented the cultural ecology.
We participate in a process governed by artists, curators, and critics who often have no critical consciousness, choosing to continuously repeat the commonplace. In conversations, articles, and lecture halls, we read about heated discussions by writers who never made art; archivists with no creative experience; artists, scholars, and historians who do not think about their position, failing to consider the implications and consequences of the quotations they apply to art history. This includes the Marxist school in particular, who remain unconcerned that Marxism denies the conditions necessary for artistic ingenuity and individuality. Whom shall we blame for yesterday’s pain?
We can begin with Richard Rorty, 1980s Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, Kenan Professor of humanities at the University of Virginia, and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. A recognized influence on deconstruction, he taught that a word only acquires meaning in relation to other words and never from experience, sensation, or emotions. With such credibility, who would dare contradict him? Yet, he was mistaken — at least in part. A reality check reveals experience comes first, then language evolves torepresent and communicate personal events in a social world. The consequences of Rorty’s perspective haunt us still today in the conflict between individuals and the collective.
We can trace the conflict, not as far back as Nostradamus, but in a similar camp and closer to our time, to Marcel Duchamp and Walter Benjamin. Reading Benjamin’s writing about 19th-century Paris in The Arcades Project, we can’t help but fall for his genius, the beautiful language, and the brilliant words:
The harbour people are a bacillus culture, the porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings. But the palate itself is pink, which is the colour of shame here, of poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen… – Benjamin 2005, 232
Benjamin was also a fervent Communist, who wrote “The Work of art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a prolific piece of modern writing. Susan Sontag, as Benjamin’s apologist, downplayed his commitment to Marxism — but in “The Work of art” and Arcades, the indoctrination becomes obvious. Arthur Koestler was another Communist writer who left the party disillusioned. In The God That Failed, he describes the ‘sacrificium intellectus’ and logical contradictions a Communist writer suffered. The emotional damage that grows from the conflicts essential to self-deception may well explain Benjamin’s catastrophic failure of self-confidence and his consequent suicide in a moment of crisis.
“The Work of art” reads, now, as Marxist propaganda — a tale of flawed assumptions, facts and fiction twisted to align with political theory. The reductions, contradictions, and leaps of faith are clear. A historian will remind us Communists looked on truth and accuracy as bourgeois fallacies, useful but disposable in the effort to instruct the masses. Benjamin answered to the Soviet Writer’s Committee and his work follows the party line. We cannot read Benjamin naively, so as to ignore the writer’s political priorities. We confuse “The Work of art” with today’s academic scholarship or even objective research, when in fact the essay is a constrained political marketing tool denouncing individuality and promoting the rule of the working class. Steam engines once impressed us, but they belong in museums along with the political pretensions of that era, no matter how seductive; one must read Nostradamus with caution.
Benjamin writes: “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (Benjamin 1969). Today, original photographs by Ansel Adams are those he printed from negatives he shot and developed. Most range between $8,000 and $50,000; Benjamin was wrong, at least from a market perspective. And yet for graduate and postgraduate students Benjamin is still required reading. His writing is the foundation of a school of political and pragmatic work that defines art as nothing more than political illustration. A strain of disingenuous thinking entered the art world and inspired much boring, disappointing artwork.
There runs a vein of corruption from Benjamin to Duchamp to Joseph Beuys into present day; they’re all on record for professional dishonesty. For Benjamin, as a Marxist writer, truth was conveniently at the whim of the Soviet Writer’s Committee. It’s documented that Duchamp stole the idea of the urinal from artist Elsa von Frey-tag-Loringhoven, a milestone in art marketing. He’s also on record for ravaging traditional Bourgeois notions, including their stolid honesty. Duchamp’s grandchildren, felt, fat, and fur also played loosely with truth. Joseph Beuys admitted he made it all up, excusing his moral lapse on the grounds the art world needed myths.
Benjamin and Duchamp condemn themselves in text, plainly visible on the printed page but ignored until now, when it’s just too much to persist in denial. It’s time to review this cultural blind spot shaped of the last three or four generations of writers and critics. The negative shock has to be balanced by the understanding that we cannot continue a practice based on self-destructive tendencies.
We have fetishized Duchamp in the same manner as Benjamin. Duchamp, whose work profoundly shapes the contemporary art world, hated ocular, pictorial art. Imagine if Mozart or Chopin hated auditory art, or Stravinsky hated melodic art, or Shakespeare hated the grammatical arts. Self-destructive beliefs lead to obvious self-destruction. In the academic world, especially that of contemporary art, it takes tremendous arrogance to think we can build our lives on a nihilistic platform and not suffer any consequences.
In Duchamp’s time, the term “ready-made” meant an object produced in a factory as opposed to by an artisan. The factory object was still new so it had a cachet, was trendy and hot. Duchamp wrote that he did not understand the ready-made but knew that it was a great idea. We can now see that it allowed the artist to evade the work of making, it was a labour-saving device masquerading as cultural representation.
Jasper Johns, in a foreword titled “Marcel Duchamp, An Appreciation,” writes that “In the 1920s Duchamp gave up, quit painting. He allowed, perhaps encouraged, the attendant mythology. One thought of his decision, his willing this stopping. Yet on one occasion, he said it was not like that. He spoke of breaking a leg. ‘You don’t mean to do it.’ He declared that he wanted to kill art…” (Cabanne 1987, 109). Jasper Johns goes on to write how wonderful Duchamp’s attitude was — but why wonderful? If you don’t like art, why become an artist? It was the result of a trend-seeking nihilism that led Duchamp to quit art, to “break a leg.” He was playing to the gallery, got swept along and lost touch with his soul. The same consequence shadows contemporary art today. Seemingly, no one has considered the effects of a system grounded in such theory. No wonder students rebel. Duchamp’s contradictions continue their toxic influence on today’s art, as much as Marshall McLuhan’s error in saying that art is anything you can get away with.
In 1617, Sir Dudley Carleton protested to Rubens that paintings the artist offered him were in fact the work of studio assistants. Rubens quickly replaced them — it would not do to acquire a reputation for passing off someone else’s work as one’s own. You cannot visit the National Ballet and hire Donna the Prima Donna to dance in your name, then expect a reputation as a great dancer — because an individual work is more important than public reception and popularity. Take the “ready-made” idea to a live performance by jazz musician Ornette Coleman, and drag in a “ready-made” musician off the street to play instead. The quality of the work changes.
And yet in the contemporary art world, Andrea Zittel’s carpenters make furniture that she calls art and sells for six figures, because Duchamp, Rorty, and their ilk made the conditions possible. Something went wrong; our sense of collective responsibility reeks to high heaven, and logic has been replaced by a crude display of power. Martin Creed’s “light on, light off” is a conceptual work grounded in the play of covert power imposed in the vacuum of ambiguity. And still, Creed had to donate his work to the British National Gallery simply to prop up his credibility, as they would not pay the U.S. $190,000 price tag that another museum paid later on, which they paid on the grounds the work was now accredited by its presence in the National Gallery collection. Duchamp told us that good taste was the enemy of art: so welcome bad taste, art’s new best friend.
The Stuckists, a group of contemporary painters based in the UK, demonstrated against Creed. They’re worth a glance, as they occupy the other side of disingenuity in art today. Their canvasses reveal technical competence but a lack of original vision. The Stuckists got their name in 1999, when Tracey Emin said to her then-boyfriend Billy Childish that Billy and his friends were “stuck, stuck, stuck,” in outmoded practices. Originality in art will always be a hallmark (Duchamp be damned!), and therefore being “stuck” meant being a veritable loser in the contemporary art circuit. The group’s adoption of the name Stuckists might serve as a metaphor for our theoretical ‘blind spot,’ adopting insult as reality. Meanwhile, Saatchi is selling Tracey Emin’s unmade bed for $2 million. I offer my own unmade bed for sale at $1.9 million, a true saving of $100,000 — nothing to sneer at in these harsh economic times. And yet there have been few replies, all of them low-bidders.
Derrida’s method of deconstruction was to look past the irony and ambiguity to the layer that really threatens to collapse that system. He would have approved the notion that to be successful today an artist must be avant-garde or even post-avant-garde. It follows that where there’s a territory there must be a cript, a look, a model, a style: an orthodoxy that subverts, negates, and contradicts the avant-garde, pre or post. Arts producers graduate from similar post-secondary programs and therefore share the similar values, which are reflected in their association, production, and the systems created thereby. Surely a cultural blindness results from these group judgments.
I recently saw the work of photographer Anne Collier and have some criticisms for those whose photography illustrates art history. Eliminating the visual from visual art may satisfy the theoretical scholar, but the status of photography has, regrettably, plummeted from the valued position it occupied even twenty years ago. In comparison to Collier’s images, Hal Morey’s Grand Central Station is a work of art and his personal vision; millions passed those sunbeams without a second glance as they rushed off to work. The grandeur of the photograph comes from the pictorial balance, the composition, Morey’s play of light and shadow, the sensual and the aesthetic. Collier’s work instead subscribes to the school of “cold photography,” with the photograph as a record or document lacking an autonomous aesthetic modality. This paradigm of rejecting formal, ocular aesthetics was seen as an advanced development when it became popular three decades ago. Now we are shown photographs of book shelves and reproductions, supposedly “mining” art history. When content operates outside the materiality of the work, the work is boring.
Admittedly, boredom makes up an inescapable part of research and study; our ability to persevere and extract only the pertinent information is an admirable one. Our tolerance and capacity for boredom, and the selective processing of information, has extended into curatorial decisions. In the art system, when enough curators lean towards conceptual influences, the system becomes overextended with numerous Walter Maria rooms holding earth, or holding oil, or filled with water… and we as viewers are offered extensive installations of rubble. Academics have confused process and purpose, losing sight of the art, which was at some point replaced by descriptive methodology. This transference can be called an effect of confirmation bias. Not only are people more likely to interpret information to fit their pre-existing beliefs, but they’re also more likely to go looking for such information.
In truth, the arts will never lose their fan base, even when hopelessly confused, because of the religions art history left behind. Humanity will always need something to believe in (preferably the same thing their neighbors believe). The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837), by Hans Christian Anderson, is an idiom for these relational “truths” that bear meaning only in their acceptance and adoption of a mass public. Human beings are herd creatures who seek the conformity of collective expression, a common agreement on the meaning of symbol, sign, and language. Our psychology is such that, under the pressure to conform, even those who do not believe (yet believe all the others do) will eventually ‘get with the program’ and turn into team players, even firm believers. Until some 300 years ago, “free thinker” referred to a dangerous radical, one defying church and state when the ruling class did the thinking for everyone else — when disagreement was settled at the stake or the executioner’s block. Michel Foucault, in The Archeology of Knowledge, writes that in every society, the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and distributed. Foucault’s observation is not irrelevant in our consideration of the mercantile aspect of art. For example, salaries, sales, and grants are often directed to those who support common ideology and will return the favour rather than those instigating change. Within an academic system, standardization is as inevitable as an intellectual approach to art, in spite of being a contradiction in method and form, action and goal.
Traditionally, we know that music, painting, sculpture, and dance, among other historically formal media, are expressions from the unconscious or non-verbal mind. These are rarely shaped through intellectual functions but typically with feelings or intuition. In practice, a dancer works physically, a painter applies pigment mechanically, as does a sculptor with their material. When we engage the pragmatic consequence of materiality, the creative unconscious can take over otherwise conscious decision-making faculties. Consciousness and language seem too slow compared to sensory processes, suggesting a degree of complexity and sophistication in the unconscious mind that gets impeded by acute. A bee’s dance describes the flight from the hive to a field of flowers. This dance includes an hourly-changing sun-based orientation to the field, as well as the caloric value of that patch, all performed as a formal dance. The invisible or imperceptible content in a bee’s dance leads to far reaching speculations on unconscious content in the artwork of The Naked Ape.
Author: Miklos Legrady