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.
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.
“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.
“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?
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.
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?
The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict.Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.
What I’ve been trying to open up in these FB posts is a deeper consideration, understanding and conversation about what Art is and has become in the face of our Economic Modernist Art World. What does it mean to be an artist at this time in the face of this new reality? Why has there NOT been a backlash of art, aesthetics, theoretics, providing a different viewpoint, a different reality of what our art world should be? Why have we settled for the Neo-Liberal model of unregulated markets, unfettered investments and oligarch manipulations of the very things that should have meaning to US, to artists? We can not go back to an imagined reality of an avant-garde, but we can ask questions of ourselves, about how we fit into this time, about what kind of work we make, what kind of visions we create, and who, ultimately, those visions are for.
I’ve done these posts on FB purposely, because it is their database, and I was hoping to make a sly point. My database for Henri floats free on the net. I have my own url. It is part of the larger “lost” web and to whatever degree possible it makes Henri individuated. Facebook, however, is a genius business idea. It was created as a web within the web, a club so to speak, and somehow they’ve managed to convinced us that their surveillance and collection of our data, our thoughts, images and ideas, is to our benefit. FB is a fill-in-the-blank, click your preferences, and upload your data kind of place. Their programs control and shape your creativity, and in some cases if you cross a line that they deem uncrossable, they’ll throw you off for a period of time. As I write this FB stock price is $112.26, its market cap is almost $320 billion – all because we participate in this “beneficent” umbrella – we create its value. And in that Facebook has become like a new kind of Vatican, a place where believers, users, obtain their moral code and provide “value” to the cause in the form of personal information – what they like, how they shop, what they think, etc. The strange thing is we can do these very same things on our own web pages. We can communicate, share photos, stories, whatever you like, and we can do it for ourselves. We can do it without FB’s Electronic Vatican pocketing our information. Why are we so willing to believe that it’s in our benefit to give over our lives over for someone else’s profit and someone else’s control?
I make this point, ask these questions, because we’ve adopted these same policies of contrition to the market in the art world, and it’s changed how we make art, how we live our lives in the studio and how we consider ourselves in the Economic Modernist Art World. As Dave Hickey has said when speaking of money’s effect on artists and the art world, “care is control.”
“If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on. That nasty question which never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago – What good is art? What use is art? What does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? and an art that is completely monetarized in the way that it is these days is going to have to answer these questions or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes – The Mona Lisa Curse