A couple of quotes:
“Art is a conspiracy between artists and rich people to make poor people feel stupid.”
That’s from Kurt Vonnegut.
And this from Robert Hughes, the late, great art critic for Time magazine:
“Art prices are largely about voyeurism and toxic snobbery. They are what you see when you peer up the anus of ‘culture.’”
So, it turns out, you aren’t alone if you think contemporary art has some explainin’ to do.
I’ll get to the quotes in a minute. First let me say something about the title: Edmund Burke at Miami Basel. It refers to the 18th century British politician Edmund Burke who had some interesting ideas about art and politics. He was born in Ireland and, rare for an Irishman, he wasn’t a troublemaker or a rebel. He believed in order and reason.
He’s remembered mostly for his defence of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The French Revolution in 1789, and the blood-soaked anarchy that came with it, shocked him. France’s ancient monarchy and political system had been demolished in very short order. He worried that Britain could be next. He thought that the revolution was a prelude to an era of chaos and disorder.
His legacy was this simple idea: Rather than destroy a political system and start from scratch, it’s better to get rid what doesn’t work, keep the things that do work and build on them. It’s the fundamental idea of conservatism.
Miami Basel refers to the annual art show in Miami where super-rich collectors, the so-called 1%, go to see and buy new work. It’s also a huge social event and it’s an exciting venue for the not-so-rich as well. There’s a huge range of work – large, small, traditional, cutting edge, bizarre. Some of it, to me at least, is incomprehensible.
So I wondered what someone like Burke who believed in a steady, historical progression would make of it because some of the art in Miami, and in contemporary galleries around the world, is the product of another revolution. Unlike the French Revolution it was an artistic one.
It happened in 1917 and it turned the art world upside down. It left it unmoored, without an agreed-upon system of aesthetics, without agreed-upon standards of quality. It was a prelude in other words to a period of disorder.
Up until then, art had developed as a series of styles and ideas about how to represent the visual world. One movement was a reaction to the one that preceded it and on and on. Prehistoric art was followed by the Classical period, followed by the Medieval. You know the drill – the Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neo-classical, Impressionism.
This all ended in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp submitted his ‘Fountain’ to a show in New York City. His mass-produced urinal was rejected by the judging committee, sadly. I know what you’re thinking – another insensitive jury pissing on an artist’s work. But that’s not the case here. They were actually pissing into his work.
Over the years, a lot of copies were made and by the 1960’s it had became an icon of the modern movement.
In 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British art world professionals. The Independent newspaper noted that with this single work Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.
After that, anything could be called art unless of course it was realistic painting. That wasn’t considered serious art by collectors and curators. And with a few exceptions — Ron Bolt, of course being one of them — that’s still the case.
To understand what art is about today it might help to come at it with an open mind. Here’s a thought experiment. Transport yourself a thousand years into the future. There has been another long, dark period, like the Middle Ages in the interim – not exactly a remote possibility given the current state of the world – and you’re on an archeological dig looking for treasures from the past.
It would be the equivalent of what the Italians did in 1400 or so when they started digging up ancient Greek and Roman sculptures — the discoveries that stimulated the Renaissance.
So here you are. It’s 3018 and you uncover a masterpiece from the early 21st century. A piece of art that represents the pinnacle of creative expression in what was then known as the Postmodern period. You dig down, pulling up clumps of earth. Finally you see something glinting in the rubble.
What treasure, what priceless creation have you uncovered? Jeff Koons’ Golden Poodle. You haul it out and stand it right side up. You try to imagine what this earlier civilization was like. What were the principles that this culture was built on? What was important to it?
Well, looking at this gigantic poodle, it’s clear what was important: huge, shiny objects — replicas of children’s toys. But why? Was it really a culture obsessed with trivia and mindless entertainment?
You keep digging. What do you see next? Damien Hirst’s famous shark in a tank. What to make of this one? Well, first you might ask, what kind of people would keep enormous pet fish in such small aquariums?
But since you’re digging on the site of a former art museum you assume that it must be a piece of sculpture. You would probably think that the shark must’ve been an important symbol, maybe representing predatory capitalism. And you would be right.
But you would miss the joke. You would miss the postmodern irony of it. This is art that seems to criticize the excesses of capitalism but at the same time is a perfect example of that same excess. Let’s face it. If you were really a critic of capitalism, you’d give it away rather than sell it for $8 million like Damien Hirst did.
You might notice something else. That these pieces are similar to a lot of public art through the centuries.
They’re expressions of power. The power of the church, the power of the state and, in our age, the power of money. What’s interesting is that this kind of work never holds its value in the longterm. Good, short term but not for the long game. To last, it has to be something more than just an expression of power. It has to touch us on a deeper level.
Let me give you a couple of examples. This painting The Campaign of France, 1814 by French artist Meissonier sold for 840,000 francs in the 1880’s. At the time it was the most expensive painting in the world. This one by Lawrence Alma Tadema The Finding of Moses was bought in 1908 for around 5,000 pounds, a huge sum for the time. At the peak of their careers these two were the richest, most famous painters in the world.
Does anyone remember them now? Some art historians, I guess. What happened to them? Well, Meissonier’s painting is tucked in a corner of the Musée D’Orsay but people hardly notice it as they rush by to see the Impressionists. The Alma Tadema painting which, by the way, is 7 feet wide, sold for 252 pounds in 1960— about the price my parents paid for their color TV. Then, amazingly, in 2010 the price skyrocketed. It sold for $36 million. Why?
My theory is that these paintings reflect the economic and political climate of their time. Alma Tadema mainly painted idyllic scenes of people lounging at their villas during the Greek and Roman Empires. He sold his paintings when the British Empire was at its peak. The buyers saw themselves as imperialists reflected in the mirror of Greek and Roman history.
The same for Meissonier. He painted mostly battle scenes at a time when France was trying to recapture its lost glory on the battlefield.
The value of Tadema’s paintings dropped drastically through the beginning of the 20th century because the British Empire had fought two world wars and was shedding its colonies. Then in 1960 their value went through the roof. It was bought by an American buyer when the US was at the height of its powers and the subject of empire was attractive again.
Artists like Koons and Hirst are essentially riding the same wave. They reflect a period in history when capitalism is triumphant, when vast inequality is the norm. Their sculptures are celebrations of acquisitiveness.
Here’s a prediction. As the US as a great power declines the value of Koons’ and Hirst’s sculptures will decline along with it.
OK. Back to the quotes.
That bit about peering up the anus of ‘culture?’” You might think that Robert Hughes was indulging in hyperbole.
But, if you look, for example, at the work of Italian postmodernist, Piero Manzoni, you would see that what he said was literally true. Here’s one of his pieces of, yes, a can of the artist’s excrement. It’s exactly what you would see – minus the can – if you looked up the artist’s anus. You probably don’t need other examples but excrement does seem to play a big role in modern art. Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary using elephant dung, Serrano’s famous Piss Christ, Tracy Emin’s bedsheets and of course Duchamp’s urinal.
My favorite though is by the famous graffiti artist, banksy, who once sold a painting called, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.”
What Hughes was basically saying was, that the top end of the art market has been corrupted by money. It’s a world of secret deals, quick flips, conflicts of interest, tax dodges, fakes, price fixing and dirty money.
Unfortunately, all this has an affect on the work of other artists. It trickles down. When the only criterion for quality is price, thanks to Marcel Duchamp, the other criteria are no longer valid. You end up with art that’s meaningless and crude.
Here’s some work by the really big names in contemporary art:
Christopher Wool . Apocalypse Now – it sold for $26 million in 2013
Having said that, I have to qualify it somewhat by saying that out of all this mud some roses do grow. There is some great modern, non-objective art. Some of it is brilliant and beautiful.
I can’t explain why I like them. I just do.
But one of the things that separates theirs from the other work is that you can see a human hand and mind at play. There’s evidence of a brush or squeegee or blow torch, manipulating the material, expressing a personal vision. They’re doing what artists should do: making art that touches us emotionally, forces us reflect on our humanity and makes some sort of connection to the physical world.
Now I’d like to show you some work that I think Edmund Burke, and anyone interested in keeping the good and chucking out the bad, would appreciate.
These are pieces by young artists working today producing that I think speaks with a contemporary voice. They use traditional media like oil on canvas or tempera on wood to create images that have much more to say to us than some of the stuff displayed in public art institutions.
I’m not arguing that abstract and conceptual art shouldn’t be admired and respected. What I am saying is that a lot of it, especially at the top end, is not worthy of serious attention. And I’m also saying that some of realistic art being done today is relevant to our time and has interesting things to say. It should have a place in modern museums alongside the rest.
Here are some paintings by American artist, Leah Chapin that do something unusual. They portray and celebrate the aging human body. For all their playfulness and theatricality, I find them quite moving. There’s no attempt to hide the depredations of the passage of time. They revel in the unvarnished truth.
These are by Julio Reyes. They show young people in blighted industrial landscapes. The beautiful colour and paint handling is very traditional and belies the subject matter. They speak to the prospects of their generation and the next one. And ask an important question. Why is our natural environment being swallowed up and desecrated by industry?
Aron Wiesenfeld. Some of these have the innocence and naiveté of a children’s book but they’re much darker. They’re often about a journey, one where the territory is strange and ominous. The vegetation is overgrown and threatening. The subject, always a fragile young woman is lost and disoriented. They’re different from Reyes’ work but they reflect the experience of many people around the world today.
There are lots of artists like Daniel Sprick who paints portraits and still lifes, but he brings an astonishing level of precision to them. And his subject matter and compositional sense are very much of their time.
This kind of art is the culmination of a long history of humankind making marks on a surface. We’ll probably never stop doing that.
We started with this 14,000 years ago. We got to this , then to this . Realistic painting is a hand that reaches out from the past and shakes our hand in the present. It reminds us that we really haven’t changed very much and that the important questions about the human condition haven’t changed either: How do we deal with our mortality? Will we always wander in the dark and struggle to understand our place in the universe? How can we find meaning in our lives?
A lot of people think the greatest artist who ever lived was this man – a painter of religious themes, landscapes and his own face in the mirror. In many of his self-portraits — you can see it in his expression — those were the questions that were on his lips.
I think Rembrandt and some of the painters who have followed in his footsteps have more to say to us than gigantic, chrome poodles.
Excellent speech and art show at Arts and Letters last night; delighted to find your speech on this site. I’m sharing it with friends.
Alan I All OK? I will be having my oysters and vichysoisse at the Albany Club tomorrow. . Looking forward to Friday and you. –My computer went funny at the previous email. Did you get it: ? Betty
This was one of the best talks delivered at the Arts and Letters….should be published.