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Still More on Art

Still More on Art

One more observation about what has happened to art: I realized once, and wrote somewhere, that the moment when recent art went off in a wrong direction was that moment when artists were permitted to define what art is. In other words, anyone who calls herself/himself an artist can now make or do something and say “This is my [today’s] work of art” and no one can argue otherwise. Time was when artists produced paintings or sculptures that people wanted: you went to an artist to say, “I would like a portrait of myself” (or of my grandfather, or my king, or my castle), or a religious picture to put in the church, or a sculpture for the public square--whatever it might be--and you negotiated a price, and the artist did it. Did this lower the quality and originality of the art, as lots of artists today would argue? I don’t need to answer that, only to suggest that you look back over the history of art and see the works that still arouse the most aesthetic appreciation and visual excitement, and read about the circumstances of their creation, and the  question answers itself. And it was the same in China, as readers of my book The Painter’s Practice know very well. (The Chinese-language edition of that book, by the way, is selling very well and arousing lots of comment, most of it favorable. Tell your Chinese friends to look for it: Huajia Shengyai, by Gao Juhan.)

I recall a meeting of the Arts Club here in Berkeley, of which I have been a longtime member, in which Peter Selz was giving a talk about Christo’s “Running Fence,” a lot of white sheets hung on lines between poles like someone’s laundry, stretching from the road to the sea somewhere over in Marin County. And Peter mentioned that Christo had to pay the farmers who owned the land for their  permission to put this “work of art” over their property. And I spoke up, as the Opposition Voice I often was, to point out how we have moved from centuries in which people would pay the artist to do something they wanted on their land--erect a sculpture, design a building, whatever--to the situation now when the artist has to pay the owner of the land to put his work there. It was a time (as I remember pointing out then) when another prominent sculptor, Richard Serra, had constructed as his work a large bent wall on a public square in New York that required office workers in the building to take a long way around where they had previously walked freely. It was eventually removed after a long public debate that attracted much media attention. Art lovers fussed about those philistines who can’t appreciate a true work of art; most people were happy to see it go. Serra opposed the moving of it, saying that it was “site-specific”--meaning that he meant for people to have to walk around it and be annoyed.)

Much the same observation underlay the lecture I gave in Shanghai in the 1980s for the Chinese Artists’ Association, the one that caused such an uproar (see Reminiscence no. 9, “Angry Response to Talk in Shanghai.”) It was my “Xieyi As a Cause of Decline in Later Chinese Painting” lecture (which is printed as the final chapter in my Three Alternative Histories book), arguing that when painters in late-period China were able to persuade their old patrons that quickly-done pictures in the sketchy xieyi (“drawing the idea”) manner were better than the those in the older xiesheng (“drawing from life”) manner, they made life easier for themselves but helped to bring about a general decline in Chinese painting. Another case of artists being allowed to decide what good or acceptable art is, to the general detriment of art.

I doubt very much that we will ever go back to an age when the purchaser of an art work could tell the artist: No, what you’ve given me isn’t a real painting, it’s a dumb scrawl, and I’m not going to pay you for it. Most everyone in the art world today will tell me:  That would be terrible, a reversion to an earlier and unenlightened period, to the bourgeois formalism (or whatever) from which we have long ago emerged. To which my only response is: Look at the NYTimes tomorrow and see what’s being produced and promoted as art. Do you really, honestly, want one of those? (Supposing it’s something one can have, and not just watch.) The pile of ceramic sunflower seeds, the shark in formaldehyde, the trash pile in the middle of the room? (Of course there will be those who will answer:  yes, of course I want one, and I’d pay millions of dollars for it--millions I can easily spare.)

And that arouses a final memory: when Hsingyuan was an art history student at Stanford, she went with me to the home nearby of a rich woman who was  a noted supporter of contemporary artists--artists who had come into her home, done their “works,” and gone off with their checks. It was a nightmare:  I could not imagine living there, dodging around a big water tank full of god-knows-what, forever fearful of moving awkwardly and damaging a fragile “work”. As it was, I brushed against some construction of balsa wood and broke a minor projection from it, and received severe looks from the woman, who now would have to call the artist back to repair it. And as we were leaving I unguardedly said something aloud to Hsing, on the order of “Thank god that’s over!” which the woman overheard, and I was reproved (quite properly) for my rudeness.

All for today’s blog, written late at night by your overage & out-of-touch blogger, James Cahill (March 26, 2012)

Afterword: A prominent contemporary art critic to whom I sent this before posting it responded with irritation, pointing out that it can be read as an all-over condemnation of contemporary art and the collectors of it.  I didn’t mean that at all, as I responded to him: there are lots of artists working today whom I admire, and lots of perceptive and discriminating collectors. I was complaining about a tendency, and (as I would see it) a general decline in the all-over quality and interest of art being produced in our time--brought about in part by the giveaway to artists that this blog deals with, letting them define art in any way they please, with no way being wrong. I am still inclined to believe that is true. JC

More Afterwords: Before this got posted, the obituary for Hilton Cramer appeared in the NYTimes. He was the longtime art critic for them, and for many years carried a lot of weight. As the obit detailed, he believed that art went badly wrong when artists decided collectively that they wouldn’t make objects of art any more--their lofty principles and distaste for anything commercial prevented them from producing marketable objects. This is still another way, I think, of defining the phenomenon I’ve been writing about. (Reading this, I was reminded of an old serial cartoon by Jules Feiffer which I’ve saved somewhere, in which the artist, brandishing his brushes and palette, strikes a series of dramatic poses while denouncing the commercialism of his time, finally throwing out his arms and exclaiming: FUND  ME!)

With Gombrich and Kramer both gone,  there are fewer and  fewer of us left to lament the  decline of serious art-object making. So I end this as one of the dwindling number of true believers in art production as the making of aesthetically rewarding things,

James Cahill, March 29, 2012.

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