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.

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…


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 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).




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.”

Frills, foliage and flesh … Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work adorns a Vuitton bag designed by Jeff Koons. Photograph: Louis Vuitton

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???