Art Wrap – Not Exactly “All Figured Out”

Friday’s Junta on contemporary art was one of the best yet and a lot of fun for everyone involved. We had a lot of good feedback: thanks to everyone for coming out.

JohnJ started us off with a quick overview of artistic movements in the last 140 years, with an emphasis toward trying to explain how we got to the present moment, not just in terms of movements and periods, but in terms of the modern way art works: galleries, openings, agents, etc. It wasn’t always this way, but there is a pattern. Certain “tastemakers” – those with money or influence – determine what is relevant and what gets promoted, and these people are not all artists. They are curators and patrons and customers, from Lorenzo d’Medici to modern hedge fund collectors.

But that is the “art world,” separate from art itself, where an artist must make a living using his work – and often himself – as a commodity. When did art become a path to celebrity? Some argued that it was with Picasso and other painters around the turn of the 20th century – essentially that celebrity came with the rise of the mass media. But wasn’t Shakespeare’s name known throughout England in his day? Well, yes, but he had a technological boost as well; he wrote in the wake of the invention of the printing press.

There were some interesting sidenotes about writing, with the question being raised whether it should be included in a discussion about “art.” Of course! said I, and some others, although a painter disagreed and it was painting that dominated the conversation. What about poetry, does anyone still write it? Yes, said a poet who was with us, and brought up Mary Oliver, who is indeed prolific, but who is also part of an earlier generation (b. 1935). I pointed out that Twain grew massively wealthy and famous by his writing (although he died a pauper), and until recently it was still possible to become a celebrity by writing (although if it’s fame you’re after, you’d better stick with crime or romance novels and skip the poetry.)

Damien Hirst is “the first billionaire artist.” Which is absurd on its face, but it brings up good questions about authenticity. If Hirst puts a shark in a glass case full of formaldehyde, what makes it different from you or I doing the same? DC wanted to know why a urinal, when placed behind a “velvet rope” by DuChamp, suddenly became art. The question becomes one of context: the place where one views the art, the background of the artist and how much of it is written next to the piece, and of course the title of the piece can change interpretations easily. DuChamp called the urinal Fountain.

DuChamp said that anyone could be an artist; that anything could be art. This was the precursor to Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, and today it is really happening. Art is life, art is expression, art is commodity. The thing and the representation of the thing now overlap so heavily as to be nearly the same thing. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy DeBord wrote “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” That was 37 years before Facebook. Today it presents a paradox: if everything is art, then nothing is art. So how do we know what’s good or bad?

We have to learn for ourselves what feels authentic and original. And those tastemakers are important. They perform a real function, by paying constant close attention. They watch the ticker of the art world go by, and from the great flow deduce the zeitgeist. Only over time do patterns emerge. But like Jeff*, a painter in attendance, said, “You come to New York as a young person painting still-lifes, with a traditional background, and you see what’s happening here, and you stop doing that, because what you’re doing could have been done 300 years ago.” When John Cage wrote “4:33” it was revolutionary. But writing a silent song today is not relevant, because it’s not moving the needle.

Towards the end, we spoke of art which lives but is not commoditized – the work of the undiscovered or unappreciated. Henry Darger lived alone in a small apartment, having little social interaction, yet was busy producing lengthy novels and paintings. Van Gogh was never famous in his lifetime and died penniless. And for some, dressing up like superman is a path for “fame and fortune.”

Like JohnJ said, “We could talk about this all night, and no one is going to leave here saying, ‘Yes, we’ve got it figured out now.'” With that in mind, I’ll end here and say thanks again to everyone who came out. It was a great night. Look for the next Junta to gather near the end of May…

* I originally attributed this to Sam. Apologies.

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