Art and Money

It's nearly a cliché at this point to argue that identity politics is a liberal smokescreen to distract from real issues of class, or it should be, but in the mainstream of the arts (and is there really anything else left?) it's still treated as a cause of inviolable importance. Of course, that's based more in a cynical fear of bad press than it is in personal convictions, but it's trite, again, to suggest that no one in the arts has any real convictions. I assume everyone has read Exiting the Vampire Castle, but maybe I'm wrong, so here's a link. Fisher's essay does cover the dynamic itself very clearly, but the problem differs substantially from how it is employed in the art world. For starters, in politics it's a divisive element that stands in the way of effective collective organizing, but in art, which is not a coherent method of activism but, sociopolitically speaking, little more than expensive interior decorating and money laundering for rich people, its primary use is for empty virtue signaling and a sleight of hand to get around the question of whether artworks themselves are any good or not. That's not to suggest that art that deals with identity is inherently bad; off the top of my head I love the work of Deana Lawson and Park McArthur, both of whom make work that is integrally concerned with identity. The problem is how the focus on politicized identity is utilized to distract from the question of whether something affectively compelling is expressed through the content of the work, because it's become politically incorrect to suggest that art is bad if the subject matter is considered morally good. The equation "moral good = artistic good" is very convenient for the art market, because actual artistic quality and emotional content is an ambiguous game of chasing an intangible and ever-shifting criterion of success, and cynically simplifying it to normalized liberal values makes selling art much easier, to say nothing of collectors feeling an automatic sense of virtue in buying such works, which I suspect is much more tangible than whatever value they get from contemplating art that operates only through aesthetic content.

This is nothing new; the art market has always looked for easy ways to prove the value of an artwork to make a sale. That's what the art market does, convince buyers that what they're buying is important and therefore a good investment, and actual perceptivity regarding art is so rare in the art world that it's unavoidable that participants in the market would fall back on strategies other than aesthetic judgment. Hype and trendiness is a perennial trick, of which identity-based art is simply the newest fad. Hype also has the built-in convenience of pressuring artists to follow trends to assure their relevance, which reinforces the centrality of the trend by making itself pervasive through artists naturally caving to pressure and conforming. A formerly popular but now mostly dormant strategy is throwing theory-core gibberish at an artwork to prove its intellectual profundity, or rather to flatter/intimidate the intelligence of the viewer, who inevitably doesn't understand a word and therefore believes it must be intelligent. Using biographical detail to give an artwork narrative significance is yet another; for instance, last week I watched the documentary John Richardson: The Art of Picasso 1927-1973, which gave a decent biographical overview and rattled off superficial trivia like which mistress he painted in which painting but avoided any substantive painterly analysis. Picasso's personal life has been mythologized for being substantially entwined with his work, but even if his egoism and brutal treatment of the women in his life is somehow related to his artistic genius, his biography does nothing to explain what makes his art good. Considering that this biographical narrativizing is often the same procedure used in a considerable amount of identity-oriented art, it's ironic that Picasso's implementation of his personal life in his work seems to be the product of his self-aggrandizing male chauvinism, but it does also articulate something of the dishonesty of trying to speak about art without dealing with the work in itself.

This piece is titled "Art and Money", though, because I'm not interested in a reactionary takedown on identity politics in itself but rather in the way it is utilized as an empty moral palliative for the wealthy and an amoral justification for easy sales, or, in other words, a tool for the further streamlining of the art market. Reducing art to an identity-based moralism is an effective means for counteracting an aesthetic critique: it's apparently within the bounds of respectability to call my writing misogynist for writing a dismissive review of a blue chip female artist's work because "I didn't take the time to understand it," without elaborating on what I didn't understand, as if it's impossible that I could be both not sexist and not particularly appreciative of a female artist's work at the same time. I would be earnestly excited to receive a substantive critique of my writing because I'm always eager to hear a serious perspective that disagrees with my own, but it's simply childish to act as though my lack of interest in Cindy Sherman is an act of gender discrimination, especially when in the very same batch of reviews I was even more dismissive of Lawrence Weiner. Anyone who reads my reviews should know that I'm often stridently uninterested in the art I see, regardless of an artist's standing or reputation. No one seems to care when I drag a famous male artist through the mud, but doing the same to a woman artist is sometimes called discriminatory as if I reserve this treatment for women. Once an artist is canonized their profundity is not guaranteed for all time, and as a critic it's my job to subjectively evaluate how meaningful artists are to the present moment. Of course I understand that Sherman's work is about the feminine construction of identity, I'm not stupid. Everyone knows that, so I didn't see the point in saying it to prove I understand it. But just as you can lead a horse to water, no one is under a moral imperative to like an artwork when it's been explained to you, although much of the art world seems to think otherwise. The Untitled Film Stills were great, but the other photos struck me as visually dull and a bit heavy-handed. I'm sure that her work was incisive in 1980, but her investigations are well-worn in an age where the cultural pathology of selfie culture is taken for granted. My perspective may be rather literal and male, but I've very seldom had my opinion of an artwork swayed by learning about its applied meanings because even the most conceptual work won't suddenly change how it looks once you know what the artist was thinking about. I'm well aware that my writing is based in my limited subjectivity, but my detractors seem to think that pointing out that fact should negate my position as a critic, as if that limitation isn't inherent. Instead of holding me accountable for not encompassing all perspectives, there should be many more critics like me. However, the entire art world is built against the existence of honest critics, even on a petty personal scale, let alone when the real moneyed interests in art get involved. It's in the interest of galleries and institutions to act as though the canon is sacrosanct, and if that untouchable space can be expanded to any identity-related art, so much the better. Anyway, this is all about something much simpler: Jordan Barse was under the false impression that her gallery would be guaranteed automatic good reviews because we're social acquaintances. After I wrote a negative review of a show, her attitude shifted from trying to butter me up at openings to looking for opportunities to be combative and dissuade me from coming to her gallery at all, and her Cindy Sherman response was simply ramping up that opportunism. It seems offensive that she would refer to my writing as misogyny in a world where women experience very real violence and discrimination, and her recourse is apparently an internalization of the art world's duplicitous rationale that tries to peddle every gallery experience as a moment of transcendent profundity in spite of the prevailing air of manifest indifference, as if boredom was always the fault of the viewer and never the artist or the gallery. Even if Theta is a small gallery for emerging artists, she's opting in to the Zwirnerian blockade against the emergence of any real critical discourse around art out of a fear of risk to the financial interests of rich people and that artists, gallerists, and buyers might be expected to actually understand something about art to do their jobs, which is doubly cynical through employing the rationale of misogyny as an expedient towards the goal of making me go away. What this attitude leads to is a social conservatism with a built-in distaste for anything radical in art that might challenge the prevailing convenient arrangement that art about identity is considered automatically radical in spite of being culturally normative and often meager in actual artistic content. This is why money is more central here than identity, because identity is simply a decoy that allows the rich to protect their financial interests by shutting down the dangers of discourse and the unpredictability of trends based on less superficial signifiers. The strategy reroutes the notion of quality in art into something literal and therefore easily commodifiable, and moreover requires no actual conviction or concern for the political efficacy of the work, let alone whether the work is any good. What I mean by "radical" is not, again, some right-wing reactionary call for more edgy offensiveness, because that's just the other side of the same reductive normative coin. What I mean to suggest is that all good art is inherently radical because the content that characterizes a good artwork is always a more complex and affective vision than what normative culture allows for. Good art affirms life by engaging our senses, emotions, and spirit, and that engagement is always beyond the norm. Our society is a sick and oppressive system that seeks to use human beings as grist for the mill of capital and is threatened by anything that could make us feel alive, or enriched, or anything other than soporific alienation. Just because art is supposed to do that doesn't mean that the art world is any better than anything else.