Skip to content

Compelling Scenarios Part 3

In the art world, it’s the narratives that define the assets. The cleaner and more enticing they are, the better for artist, gallerist, and curator alike. Because the client base is no longer full of connoisseurs, and their intentions for artwork are no longer restricted to unraveling transcendent mysteries. Knowledge isn’t power in this realm – it’s money. The quicker the suppliers can provide the former, the quicker the consumers will provide the latter, and the larger the market can grow. Narratives Make the Art World Go ‘Round, Schneider, The Gray Market, January 30, 2014.

Clem was sure that the artist had to turn away from the “subject matter of common experience.” But in practice this never happened. Instead as art became more “abstract” the need for explanation became more imperative. Why is this particular work of interest? Why is it important? What is being said? None of these questions can be readily answered through process abstraction itself. It turns out that Modernist Art driven by subjectivity absolutely needs context. And so we turn our attention to the artist. If we know more about the artist, about how they live, what they think, how they produce, then maybe meaning, narrative, can be overlaid upon the work, make it accessible, make it valuable. The truth is Modernist Art, all of Modernist Art, more than any other kind of art, depends upon this kind of advertising. And it starts with Jackson.

 

Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock painting, 1950.

“I’m not a phony! You’re a phony!”

There he was, lean and sinewy, cigarette hung on the lower lip, clad in black jeans and tee, worn work boots soaked in paint. He looked the part of an American Genius. The war was over, America was now the Super Power. Aside from our military and economy, what did we have to offer, culturally, besides Hollywood? Enter the Rebel hard at work. Pollock was an icon of cool making hot paintings for cold collectors who were on the make for the next big thing. Jackson’s legend began to grow. There he was fist fighting at the Cedars (and not very successfully) or relieving himself in Peggy’s fireplace (very successfully.) There he was in Life Magazine hailed as the next big thing? His paintings photographed by Cecil Beaton wound up in Vogue, backdrops for upscale fashionistas. This narrative was entrancing, the paintings lovely. True or false it didn’t matter. Over the years we’ve embellished these stories, made a movie about them, turned Jackson’s abstractions into cultural touchstones. The common experience makes the process relevant.

It was Namuth’s images more than Pollock’s paintings that grabbed the public’s imagination, Ms. Rose wrote in ”Pollock Painting.” A rhetoric developed around them, a language of trances and rituals, boxing and dancing, rhythm and randomness. Even the critics based their theories on the photos. Harold Rosenberg’s famous 1952 essay in Art News, ”The American Action Painters,” was not about painting at all, Ms. Rose suggests. Rosenberg ”was describing Namuth’s photographs of Pollock.” Critics Notebook; The Photos That Changed Pollock’s Life, NYT, Sarah Boxer December 15, 1998.

 

Hollis Frampton, Frank Stella Painting, 1958-1962.

You see what you see…

Since Pollock we’ve seen these kinds of narratives develop around all manner of painting and all manner of artists. One after another stories have been applied over the processes of the studio and aimed directly at the market. They are advertising, marketing, packaging. Frank Stella’s career is instructive in this. From the very beginning he was involved in documenting his rising career, creating a narrative for the punters. Here is a fortunate photo of one of Frank’s famous Black Paintings, Getty Tomb, in process. We are witnesses to the creation of one of the very first and now very famous Minimalist Abstractions. At the time of this photo Frank was just 23 years old, ambitious and already savvy about the Modernist market. Look at the simplicity of this narrative framed by Hollis Frampton. Frank makes an abstraction by instruction, like a paint by numbers schematic. There’s nothing special about this process, not really. It’s just enamel paint, hardware store materials, a pattern and some elbow grease. The photo implies that he’s manufacturing an abstract just as Ford builds cars or Clorox makes bleach. The image is intended to make the abstraction legible, to give it context and precedent.

This is how the world turns an unknown abstraction, an unknown artist into an asset. And it was Clem’s bad faith pitch about the renunciation of “common experience” which moved that focus onto the artist. Pollock understood this and it proved his undoing. It was Stella’s generation that adopted and modified Clem’s Modernist directives while by-passing the historical proving ground. And anyone who has watched or seen Namuth’s images about Jackson at work knows their power. So these younger artists created their own narratives, their own common experiences and entered the market system. And in all honesty this need to comply to the compelling scenario hasn’t stopped. This Modernist Process, this contextual explication of abstraction, still plays out today on sites all over the internet – just like this one….

Whether it’s Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst we need their stories in order to form a consensus about the work. That said, how real does this narrative, this common experience have to be? Can we find consensus even if the narrative is made up, if it’s a pose or a provocation? Damien Hirst’s recent fantasy show in Venice answered these questions. “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” created abstraction through a “documented” 10 year antiquing process while advertising the worth and value of the work on view. But there’s really nothing new about this Branum factor either. Only the size and scale has changed. Franks’ photo op was a staged event. And this documentation was absolutely part of the studio process, intended to elucidate the moment. Does this photo of this particular painting at this particular time make the painting that much more valuable to us, to the collectors, to the institutions and by extension to the markets? What context does it provide to make the work legible? What does this photo actually say about the importance and singularity of the Modernist Process and by extension the value of and the need for abstraction and context? And at this point we have to ask – which is more important – the studio or the common experience?

Compelling Scenarios Part 4 to come…

Compelling Scenarios Part 2

Flying Dutchman, 1961–62. Oil on canvas, 80.75 x 80.75 inches (205.11 x 205.11 cm). Collection of the Linda Pace Foundation.

NOTES:

Joan Mitchell entitled her painting “The Flying Dutchman”. The title comes from a story of a cursed ship that must forever sail the seas without landing. The ship, if encountered, brings doom to those who have seen it. For my money this narrative perfectly describes the teleology of the Modernist Era – Process and Market – no beginning, no end, no other history, the loop – from a to b and back again. The cycle of the painting’s production, the abstraction formed through the processes of that production, the “imitation of imitating”, the strokes, the drips, the smears and scrapes, the eternal self-referentiality of the subject matter, the Modernist Process has to be completed through us. As an artist, a viewer and a participant in this work, one must reprocess the processes, leave the work in flux, “unfinish” it in order to state that it can be finished. One is doomed. One must remain forever at sea, a Flying Dutchman. In the larger Market there are no theoretical changes. There’s just stylistic rapprochement, gentle upgrades, cross-platform programming, institutionalization – all done in the Modernist way by and for the Modernist Market so that artists can feed from its golden cord. And like Joan’s painting history is truncated and looped, falling back on itself, regurgitating itself, explicating itself. For the Modernists there aren’t other compelling scenarios, different outcomes, or new visions. We are Flying Dutchmen one and all…

A BRIEF RECENT HISTORY

On the world economic stage there have been a number of recent historic changes that have brought the art world, its studios and markets, to where it is now. 1991 was an auspicious year. The successful first Gulf War followed by the collapse of the USSR rearranged world power structures and the flow of capital. There were massive outflows of cash from Russia, China, India and South America as new oligarchies formed and banking systems collapsed. Additionally, over the last 25 years the UK, the EU and the US have become the beneficiaries and protectors of this global capital providing easy access to their markets, their finances, and their governments in order to partake in and benefit from what Clem called the golden umbilical cord. Process has been hard at work…

THE NEW ART ECONOMY

The first Armory Art Fair occurred in 1994 nearly 7 years after the ignominious collapse of the high flying stock markets of the 1980s. By 1989 the market value of most of the hot art collections had flattened like pancakes. A Domino Effect began with selling frenzies at the auction houses. The problem was – no one was buying. Collections and reputations for nearly all the major players – collectors, galleries and artists – were in ruins. Some would never recover. For the next 6 or 7 years the art market kind of flailed along – galleries closed, artists disappeared, production in the studios was nonexistent. No one really gave a damn and the art world changed. No one had any money so in stepped the installations, the performances, the video monologues, what used to be called PC Art, and lots and lots of photography. But these things didn’t really sell. They were ephemeral. The galleries determined that something had to be done.

The original Art Fair was intended as a shot in the arm for the anemic and moribund art market. In fact it was more a “happening” than it was a serious selling fest, though sales were made. That first fair at the Gramercy Hotel was a surprising success – part party, part spectacle and part trade show. Over the next few years the fair grew by leaps and bounds, and it seemed that everyone wanted to get in on the party. By 1999 the fair had professionalized, moved to the Armory on 69th Street, and took on the name Armory Show after the original from 1917. That was a stroke of marketing genius, because the fair linked itself to a watershed historic moment – the arrival of Modernism in America. The rest has been fait accompli. The Armory Fair jump started the art economy, brought new artists into the business, and most importantly, became a must-do-stop on the grand tour of the New World Order gypsy tribe of oligarchs and hedge funders looking to quietly clean their cash.

When Art and Money get together it’s a heady experience. We, and I mean all of us, gush in satisfaction or disbelief at the prices of Modernist Art. But what has been sexier for the owners of this new art has been the unregulated market itself. The trade, the bid, the power to push one’s aesthetic decisions into history – Wow! If you’ve ever been to one of these auctions you can practically smell it in the air – rapacious anxiety and sweaty pheromones. It’s a race for glory with the largest purse winning. (You don’t get this kind of rush in the real estate markets.) The galleries, however, are bit more earthy. No rules, no oversight, no pesky competitors – everything can be done in the backroom with a handshake. You can sweat the gallerists eye to eye, bargain for 20 percent less. This is Process, this is what Action Painting is for the Modernist. Clem’s formula applies right through the whole game, from studio to collector. Process and Market are one.

 


There have been other consequences as well. The biggest was the need for precedent, something on which all markets thrive. There must be product, proven product that investors want to use. So all eyes began to turn to the astounding glut of contemporary art that has piled up since the 1950s. And all of it, ALL OF IT, had to be made useful and viable as precedent. It had to be seen as a part of a continuity to shore up the market. Even if the work is not of the “top tier” and the artists unknown, they too could play a part. They would be the 2nd generations, the middle classes, the yeomen of academia. They would be the  proof that those who are feted, collected, and auctioned, those whose prices would reach astounding levels in the market, were actually worth the price. They would be the base of the pyramid.

The other problem was the Western Pre-Modern Canon, the Old Masters. How would we deal with that? So the market used the simplest solution it could and just ignored it. Old Master works did not come on the market that often anyway. They were difficult to resell, and they just weren’t that sexy anymore. Anything before 1900 doesn’t really matter to the quarter auction Market or the Processes that keep that market stable. So, for all intents and purposes Art History starts with the Americanization of Modernism and the beginning of the Modernist era. It worked! The institutions followed suit and have concentrated on the dissemination of Modernist ideology and doubled down on the Professionalization of Art Production. In other words, the Art Markets have institutionalized Clem’s theoretics. And Art History, the grand version of it, is for tourists and yokels. At the turn of the new century Neo-Liberal Modernist work began to churn through the Art Markets in a big way for larger and ever larger sums of money.

All of this money has had a big effect on how we make art and how we interpret it.

Part 3 to come…

Compelling Scenarios Part 1

The production of a compelling scenario is likely to constrain future thinking. There is much evidence showing that, once an uncertain situation has been perceived or interpreted in a particular fashion, it is quite difficult to view it in any other way… Thus, the generation of a specific scenario may inhibit the emergence of other scenarios, particularly those that lead to different outcomes.

“Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability”, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232 (1973).

 

 

PROLOGUE

This era’s compelling art scenario, mixed up as it is with an overwrought economy, has created something that we call the Modernist Era. Our scenario is a metastasized belief system born of Modernism’s technical processes and Postmodernism’s market savvy. But let’s not confuse our Modernist era with the Modern one from which it came. Modernism was leftist in flavor, anti-bourgeois in taste and bohemian in attitude. The Modernist Era is centrist in flavor, pro-bourgeois in taste and corporate in attitude. This reversal in theoretical structure has a lot to do with the realities, expectations and tastes of American society.

When Modernism first came to the United States (in 1917 with the Armory Show) it brought a load of social baggage with it. The last thing Americans wanted, then or now for that matter, was leftist ideology or revolutionary fervor. In 1939 when Clem Greenberg wrote Avant-Garde and Kitsch there wasn’t an American Avant-garde. There wasn’t even an advanced form of painting or sculpture being produced in our studios. Basically, there was a bunch of European Modern knock-offs and a few nativist ne’er do wells showing at 291. So Clem took it upon himself to create an avant-garde by producing a compelling scenario.

This avant-garde wasn’t modeled on the revolutionary precepts and rebellious insurrections of European Modernism. It was modeled after the practical entrepreneurship of the American business world. AG&K concentrated on the functions of Modernism itself, how Modernism actually worked as art, leaving out any references to spiritual, societal or political issues. How one produces art would become the point of the Art, the self-referential subject of the work – How not What. If one could then infer other things from the outcomes of this Process, well then, that was just fine and dandy.

Clem determined that advanced art was to be freed of the world of common experience, or in layman’s terms the what. No direct imagery would cloud these pictures, and this ambiguity of subject matter would allow Greenberg to promote advanced art as business friendly, less objectively objectionable to the paying American elites. This new form of Advanced Art aspired to present itself as Fordist in its perfection of process. And in doing so it assured artists that style could become copyrightable, would ensure the rise of a singular branded form of art making. This difference, the emphasis on the how something is produced as opposed to what is produced, created something that the Modernists call Cutting Edge Art rather than the concept of Revolutionary Art used by the Moderns.

“It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at “abstract” or “nonobjective” art — and poetry, too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape — not its picture — is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself… The very values in the name of which he invokes the absolute are relative values, the values of aesthetics. And so he turns out to be imitating, not God — and here I use “imitate” in its Aristotelian sense — but the disciplines and processes of art and literature themselves. This is the genesis of the “abstract….”

…But today such culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs — our ruling class. For it is to the latter that the avant-garde belongs. No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”

“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, Clement Greenberg, 1939 (italics and bold are mine)

This Modernist compelling scenario has underwritten our avant-garde since the 1950s. Clem’s masterful idea of studio production and real-world marketing targeting a particular audience as potential customers was wholly new at the time, and I dare say, radical. No avant-garde that came before had been so outwardly marketed as a “product” meant for a particular kind of  collector. Within a few years his avant-garde had become a huge financial success. Clem’s formula and seal of approval changed the entire game. It turns out he was a genius of marketing and promotion. Painters who had worked in obscurity and poverty for years suddenly found themselves featured in magazines, collected by museums and shipping their work around the world to be shown in other art capitals.

What followed was an explosion of new art, young artists, new professionals, galleries, and the formation of a growing and industrious art world that didn’t need Clem’s imprimatur in order to sell – as long as the work honed to the formula. In fact Clem’s Modernist scenario has been so effective that even to this day his principles defining how Modernist art should work continue to underwrite the recurring Process oriented sub-genres that fuel and dominate our market driven avant-garde. NeoModernists, Postmodernists and now the NeoLiberal Modernists have all successfully employed Clem’s formula to great effect and great success. In fact all “advanced art” made these days conforms to this formula even when employing the world of common experience.

 

What’s interesting in the Hirst video is how everything presented is about Process: How it’s made, how it’s presented, how it’s perceived, how much it costs, and how the market is involved in every facet of the spectacle. What we are looking at and what that might mean is never fully discussed and is not of any real interest. Logistics, production, presentation, and performance are what matters. The Process, the Market, abstracts everything!

Part 2 to come…

Enough Already…

Just when you think you’ve encountered all the silly business that you can possibly come across about the nature of the Modernist Art world, you come across yet another article that readjusts your perspective. After reading Jonathan Jones’ column on Jeff Koons’ Handbags I’ve lost the will to live. I don’t even know how to comment on this stuff any more. Here are a few choice things to mull over…

“High art needs all the friends it can get.”

“I can’t think of a simpler way to put great art at the forefront of modern minds. This is not a cynical exercise. The hunt painting is not a pop icon – yet – but a serious painting beloved by art connoisseurs. Jeff Koons, for instance.”

“This is not simply a line of luxury bags. It is an artist’s meditation on the masters, in handbag form. Picasso copied and reworked great paintings in his later years.”

I used to think that Jonathan Jones knew better. I’ve enjoyed his column quite often in the past, but after this ridiculous crit I think I’ll have to take a pass for a while. There is no way that anyone with a modicum of sense would actually make this particular claim for an image that’s been plastered on an obscenely expensive handbag…

“F(a)r from rubbing Rubens in the dirt and reducing the sublime to the worthless, these luxury objects look to me like heartfelt homages to great art. Koons clearly has an erudite and passionate love of oil painting, for while his bags touting the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Cypresses may be easy on our brains, he is also bravely educating us by insisting on the glamour of Rubens, Titian and Fragonard.”

Bravely Educating? Seriously???

Modernist Economics

A bag with the image of the “Mona Lisa” is part of the Koons collection. Credit Louis Vuitton Malletier/Melanie & Ramon

When you have 35000 square feet of industrial space and a crew of dozens of art specialists manufacturing your work you have to find new ways to “bring home the bacon.” In this article in the NYT Jeff Koons and LVMH have created a new line of  bags for the extremely well-heeled consumer. The PR machinations maintaining and explaining the artist’s brand while using that brand to “add value” to the LVMH products are textbook “synergy.”  Koons has taken a few of his Gazing Ball appropriations, and used those free range images of old masterworks as imagery for the handbags. Of course the bunny, Koons’ logo, is added as a grand finale.

“I think we’re going to get some pushback,” Mr. Burke said. “People are going to be upset about the sacred entering the realm of the profane. But we like to do things that can be perceived as politically incorrect. If we are getting flak, we think we are doing something right.”

I don’t know about “sacred,” but right there is the Modernist’s attitude about how high Art is supposed to work. When one get’s “flak” it means that one is innovating, “breaking down walls,” “breaking new ground,” etc. And by pissing people off it means that one is making Art. Modernists confuse argument with innovation. For instance innovation now is not in creating new forms or coming up with new ideas. Innovation is about transgressing the rules of copyright. Artist’s works are no longer misunderstood or banned for content, but rather, they are removed from the market and sued for infringement of ownership. For the Modernist innovation walks hand in hand with the definition of fair use. The transgression is then tried and “certified” by the courtrooms of the Southern District. If, however, the artist contacts the owner of the copyright and pays for permission of use, would the work be seen as transgressive? Would cooperative art making still stand up to the Modernist idea of innovation?

“And they have the support of the museums. They didn’t need them — the art is all in the public domain — but they wanted the best quality photographs to work from, which meant using high-resolution shots that the institutions keep for their records. Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, was on board very quickly. “I totally agree with this project,” he said.”

If transgression of copyright means that the work is classified as Art, then cooperation with the owners of the copyright clearly means that these bags are not Art. These products are nothing more than luxury goods produced for a class of consumer that can afford to purchase them. And I’m betting they are not cheap. Think of all the institutions these works had to clear in order to get made. Think of the money changing hands. Modernist “Art” like this requires the approval and cooperation of a phalanx of corporate, legal, and market interests. But we shouldn’t be surprised. The Modern became Modernist long ago, and we all exit through the gift shops.

There are so many eye popping quotes in this article that I should just appropriate the entire thing and post it without comment.
But then, I too would be just another machined Modernist.

Jeff Koons’ New Line – NYT, April 11, 2017.

How To Let Go of the Modernist Era…

Design and Designer

“…H&M has enlisted American figurative artist Alex Katz, known his brightly colored portraiture, as the latest to design a capsule collection. Katz’s signature style will be woven into clothing for men and women as well as homewares. “The partnership with H&M surpassed my expectations,” Katz told Vogue. “It is exciting for me to work with H&M to make my art more accessible to more people.” “As Alex Katz Teams Up With H&M Are Artist Collabs the New Fast Fashion Trend?” Kyle Munzenrieder, W Magazine.

Continuing on from yesterday’s questions about commerce and an artist’s involvement in that commerce….

Today we have Alex Katz working his magic for H&M. Now what the firm means by his “signature style” I can’t say. How would this translate into clothing? Maybe the flattened, toned color, the abstracted line, and the red lipsticks will be featured. Maybe these clothes will radiate a kind of mid-50s to early 60s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” feel, the same feeling that pervades Katz’s figurative work. Maybe the signature style is about colorful, well dressed, contented Preppies enjoying the fruits of the American Empire. Alright, that’s a bit OTT, but so what? I’m not really keen on Katz’s portraiture which to my eye comes across like American Anime, but his landscape work on the other hand is beautiful – decorative, assured and visual at once. Maybe these bucolic paintings will be made into pattern which could easily be done. There aren’t any photos of the clothing line yet, so I’m talking from an uninformed place – which has never stopped me before….

But all that aside – I have to ask again – why would successful and well-regarded artists do this sort of thing? Is it the money? Is it the chance to reach out to a wider audience – as so many artists like to claim? Yesterday, I discussed my questions about Barbara Kruger designing a label for a winery, because her work, or my interpretation of her work, IS critiquing Consumer Culture, using its very own advertising tools to have a go at it. The work is political, social, anti-consumerist in its stance. So seeing her work on a bottle of wine rang my bell. Again, I don’t know the context of her involvement so I may be shooting my mouth off while stuffing in all ten toes at the same time. I kinda hope that’s the case. Then I can remove my feet, apologize for my ignorance, and put her book back on my library shelf. I’ve always been very impressed with the snarky stridency of Ms. Kruger’s work.

Alex Katz on the other hand, well, I’m not so sure that this kind of work is outside of commerce, or better yet, it’s not critiquing commerce or society or politics or much of anything, really. His work documents, glorifies and beautifies a certain kind of lifestyle in America. There’s nothing much to argue about in these images. His work does indeed have a “signature style”. His color is wonderful, and there’s a quirky flatness that makes the paintings feel contemporary. There isn’t a lick of tension to be seen anywhere. His subject matter and painting style is profoundly bourgeois, and his work continues the 19th Century “Belle Epoque” painting tradition. I would like to think that Mr. Katz is a most contented human being and a gracious man to be around – but then what do I know? He might very well be Satan making serene paintings to pull us over to the dark side. In any case I believe that he’s managed to perfect his own version of Matisse’s armchair…

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

And if I think about it – I guess this kind of thing would be perfect for a clothing line.

Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation

It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.
But there is another world outside. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago – that then festered and mutated – but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury. Piercing though the wall of our fake world.”

A fantastic documentary on power, politics, and vision.

Link to the full HyperNormalisation here.

Commerce and Commercialism

“Much of Kruger’s work pairs found photographs with pithy and assertive text that challenges the viewer. She develops her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results (often billboard-sized) images. Examples of her instantly recognizable slogans read “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground,” appearing in her trademark white letters against a red background. Much of her text calls attention to ideas such as feminism, consumerism, and individual autonomy and desire, frequently appropriating images from mainstream magazines and using her bold phrases to frame them in a new context.” Wikipedia entry for Barbara Kruger.

I recently visited some friends who live in Long Island. I don’t do such things very often, and I thought this short trip might enable me to have a laconic suburban experience. Instead I was introduced to a fast-paced throng-filled world of viniculture and farm-to-table gastronomy. It seems that Long Island agribusinesses have made themselves into a thriving service industry aimed at the deep pocketbooks of well-heeled weekend home owners. The best way to describe this cavalcade of epicurean pleasure seeking is that it’s modeled after the highly successful tourist-friendly Napa Valley – a Faux-Napa, if you will. My friends and I headed out for the wine tastings on offer only to find that the back roads and blue highways were jam-packed with hundreds of other gastro-nauts turning what should have been an ordinary twenty minute drive into an hours long commute.

What’s immediately apparent is that the gentrification going on in this farm country is astounding to witness. Homes are being bought up by wealthy city dwellers looking for weekend get aways, and the locals are cashing out and leaving. It seems that NYC is exporting more and more of its economic theoretics. Bloombergism is flooding through the tunnels. Anyway, my first taste of ex-urban second-home living left me a bit uneasy and riddled with lots of questions I just wasn’t prepared to engage. I sat with my friends, whom I love, at the Bedell winery enjoying a conversation about life, incomprehensible traffic, the pros and cons of antipasto, and contemporary art when I suddenly realized that the labels on the wine bottles were designed by Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Barbara Kruger. As it turned out the Barbara Kruger wine was actually extremely good – in addition to being extremely expensive.

Considering the moment- good friends, lovely wine, good conversation – I was bothered by what I thought these labels might mean. I found these artists’ involvement in this particular commercial enterprise just a bit off putting. But why should this be so? I’ve never had a problem with artists making money from their work. I mean it’s just a gig after all, right? One has to work for a living. Make money when you can. Put a roof over your head and food on the table. Maybe these artists hang out at this particular winery. I know that I would, especially for that Kruger Red – delicious. Maybe they drink, run up a tab, and this is how they pay it off. Artists have been doing that kind of thing for centuries. But these are successful artists. Their works sell for tens of thousands of dollars and resell for millions. Surely a bar tab is an easy nut for them to crack.

Which brings me back to my unease. It stems from what Robert Hughes was talking about in his Mona Lisa Curse – the annoying unanswered question in our Neo-Liberal era. What is the purpose of Art? If one uses one’s ideas, one’s style, for purely commercial purposes does this invite parody, insincerity, bad faith? I really had no idea what was going on here or how this artists’ label series came about. For all I know there’s a perfectly noble reason for this kind of commercialization – like charity or something. I mean why would successful artists package a bottle of wine or for that matter endorse a consumer product with their serious work? Especially in the case of an artist like Barbara Kruger. Her entire critique depends on satire and irony, appropriation and exaggeration. The work’s centered on “feminism, consumerism and individual autonomy and desire”, and yet, here the same imagery is used for packaging a bottle of wine, a high end consumer product priced to sell at 70 bucks a bottle. What exactly does Barbara mean by “Taste”?

To be fair to Barbara Kruger making a label for a wine bottle may not have been a difficult decision. Her work has been used in commercial ways before. She comes from advertising, has worked and prospered in that world. Like most Postmodernists who like to play on all sides, Kruger seems to like to do so as well. Context is everything! But still I was bothered. So I began to think about and question consumerism and contemporary artists relationship to that consumerism. When does an artist turn their work into a product for sale rather than an art work for sale? IS there a difference? Do we still make distinctions  between unique works of art and consumer products? Should we? And if so what is that distinction here in the Neo-Liberal world where everything has an economic purpose? What is an artist’s ethical duty to their work – is there one? Should there be one? What, exactly, is a Postmodern avant-garde provocation and where is its focus? And why would an artist whose work is committed to a critique of consumer culture and its impact on society use their work to sell consumer products? Does it matter?

Malta

IMG_0228

Michelangelo Merisi, Portrait of Fra Antonio Martelli, 1608, 47″ x 36.5″, Oil on Canvas, Palazzo Pitti.

Nec Spec Nec Metu

Grand, isn’t he? Well, maybe not so much the man depicted, I mean, he looks like a slyly dangerous douche to me. But the vision of the depicted, the visual opulence in this painting, is stunning. Look at the way the light illuminates certain defining moments in his pose – the hand at the belt delicately holding the prayer beads, the other hand deftly adjusts the sword so it can be easily drawn. His forehead is lined and his eyes are set deep. His gaze is weary. He’s a man of experience. His right ear has been made specific, perfectly realized, cocked and listening to everything in this particular room. The silk collar and cross on his chest fill out the man’s volume. It makes him solid and thick in all of that blackness. Fra Martelli emerges into our gaze, fills the space before us. He’s an emissary of god, a judge of men, a protector of the church, a Knight of St. John, and if need be, an executioner. This man is ready to act both in thought and deed against those who trespass against Holy Mother Church and the Papacy – heretics, blasphemers, sodomites and murderers.

Unfortunately, the artist who painted this picture, Caravaggio, had been charged with all of these crimes. And he was on the run from a well armed band of bounty hunters looking to take his head. Yes, Michele was a wanted criminal, but he also happened to be the Roman art world’s hottest painter of the moment, a controversial avant-gardist and the premier imagist of the new century. Collectors, punters and the church had been lining up to be involved with this art star. There were lists for chapel commissions, decadent parties, FU money, and glamorous success. All had been going really well for our hero right until the moment he managed to murder a crappy swordsman named Tomassoni in a back alley fight over a bad bet, a “bad” woman and some bad blood. That violent encounter fueled by misguided machismo changed everything in an instant, and it sent Michele on a sweaty runner to the South of Italy.

Lucky for him there were powerful Roman wheelers and dealers working on his behalf, and by using their connections and back-alley associates they had managed to cobble together a trade that would lead Michele to redemption in Malta. For the Knights Caravaggio would become their court painter and make them famous. He would also swear allegiance to the Cross and the Brotherhood. In return he would be titled as a Knight and find protection from the assassins and bounty hunters that were hot on his tail. As a bonus if he could keep himself together and out of trouble a Papal pardon would be given for his capital crimes back in Rome. And with that pardon “Fra Michele Merisi” could find his way back to the Piazza Navona and back to the life of privilege that he had thrown away so carelessly. His sins would be forgiven. In Italy this kind of deal making is called “l’arte di arrangiarsi”. Arrangiarsi is all about stretching the rules and finding a solution to a difficult problem – find a clever way to get around a tight situation – and in this case the “deal” would get the troubled genius back to work for the Church. But this particular deal hung on one really shaky proviso – that our troubled hero would tow the line, keep it in his pants and show a bit of contrition.

If you really look at this stunning portrait you can see that somehow Michele seemed to understand that things for him would never be so straightforward. Especially not for an artist, a painter, a sinner, who crossed serious men like Fra Martelli without thought. Of course it wasn’t long before his deal with the devil, the “arrangiarsi”, went south. In short order our hero was beaten, jailed and defrocked by the very “gentlemen” he had just begun to paint and immortalize. We don’t really know what happened in Malta, but considering Michele’s past transgressions, there could have been no other ending to his stay with the Knights. Somehow he managed an improbable escape from the prison pit at Sant Angelo (probably with a bit of help) and went “on the lam” – first through Sicily, then back to Naples, leaning on “friends” and picking up quick commissions all along the way. It looks like he may have been heading back to Roma to renegotiate his pardon – maybe his contacts had managed to cobble together another lousy deal – or maybe they were just leading him on. Conspiracy theories are profligate when it comes to Caravaggio. Meanwhile, determined heavily armed killers were once again hot on his tail. And so this is how the bitter end game played out for Michele – paint quickly for cash, try to avoid the bounty hunters (he wasn’t always successful), and move on, fast. Until he died of fever and madness, stumbling along the shores of Porto Ercole, chasing after his absconded boat. Well, that’s the official version of how he met his end…

Strange, though. The last few “lost” paintings, the ones Michele had “left” aboard his hired felucca before his retched death, managed to wind up in the “right” Roman collections. Arrangiarsi indeed.

Firenze

Like so many places in Italy the city of Firenze is a living museum. Millions of us pony up every year to indulge in the beauties of the past. We marvel at how many of the works in their galleries and churches can still move us, enthrall us, fill us with vision and emotion even though these works were made hundreds of years ago. It’s comforting to know that there is a human constant, a human connection in our visions. But because we are just tourists we march through these things like we are on treadmills – moving from one sight to another, pushed along by the crowd behind, all of us wanting to see the same things, experience the same things in our own publicly produced private moments. But these things that we encounter are never quite what they once were as marvelous as they might seem. They are the past, they are memories. We tend to fetishize these moments, polish them for consumption, mark our tourist’s moments through them. We’ll take photos of the famous things, meander to the next and the next, leaving them on the walls where we found them. We prefer to see these things through the postcards in our pockets, the catalogues in our bags or the moments captured in our photo streams. But strangely, once in a great while, some thing that we’ve seen sees us as well and follows us back to our hotel rooms. The thing  becomes… present. And before we know it this present thing has slyly insinuated itself into our lives. On that day Fra Martelli came along with me and has been with me ever since, a bothersome last “gift” from Michele.

2 am and all I can think about is that vision can be a supremely dangerous thing. I wrote in my sketch diary – “It’s not the things we know we’ve seen or the things we expect to see that takes us. It’s the things that surprise us, the things we think we do not want to see, things we see that we can not or will not understand, the visions that persist, that are and will remain for each of us, unrelenting.” And I have come to understand that this is life making itself known in no uncertain terms through vision. These bothersome things are raw, unfocused and they exist without our permission or our influence, without our taste or our preferences. They see straight through us. They can not be conjured up in series or made through technologies or experienced without consequences. They do not maintain their distance. They are dangerous, and these visions change how we see the world.

Today there are expeditions looking for the bones of Caravaggio amongst the catacombs of Porto Ercole. They conduct tests in labs looking for DNA markers and genetic sequences hoping to prove that his remains rest among the other poor souls dumped into these nameless pits. And by doing so they may resurrect him, make him one of us once again. We painters are also doing these same kinds of things, conducting the same kinds of tests, looking for markers and sequences among the bones of a dead Modernism. We search through the artifacts of abstraction – the flat surfaces, the processes and manufactured products, the advertising landscapes and image flows. We look on “pictures of nothing” hoping to find that something may indeed exist there, and we are happy when we find ourselves reflected back on those surfaces. But for me Fra Martelli continues to stand in that dark room, in our room, counting his beads, waiting for us to decide – will we see our fate and change or will we continue on our path as our lost Michele had done so long ago?