Compelling Scenarios Part 4

“When Gorvy landed in Hong Kong 16 hours later, he discovered text messages from three clients asking if the painting was available. One immediately made an offer for the 1982 canvas showing Robinson as a squat, scowling figure. The deal was completed two days later for about $24 million — more than triple the $7.3 million the work fetched at auction in 2007… In this marketplace everyone is looking for an edge,” Gorvy, who resigned from Christie’s this month, said in a telephone interview. “It just shows you the power of social media and the transformation of how people are buying.” Want to Sell a $24 Million Painting Fast?, Katya Kazinka, Bloomberg, December 21, 2016.


Jackie Robinson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, mixed media on canvas, 1982.

In every belief system control is the main focus for the elites who run it – control of politics, control of economics, control of societies. Basquiat certainly didn’t believe in those systems. Just take a moment to really look at his art. But the allure of money and success calls to us all. The life lesson quickly learned is that once in it’s almost always impossible to find a way to out. Money and fame compromise even the strongest rebel. We know that Jean never really was comfortable with his renown. He was a star right out of the box, making art and money, partying, hanging with Warhol, it looked glamorous. To the suspicious elites JMB was capricious, unpredictable and didn’t follow rules – not the artists’ rules, not the gallerists’ rules and certainly not the collectors’ rules. He was disloyal. He was wild. He made too much work for the market. There was gossip about his mental health. There was nastiness about his intentions. There was blatant racism. There were drugs. He paid for his success and individuality in ways a lot of successful artists didn’t. In Rene’s essay one of the most devastating pronouncements about the new Modernist system is this, “We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.” And when you put it this way you might see why JMB might have a problem with this system of control.

Not long after Jean’s early demise the controlling elites rewrote his biography and reframed his achievements. Collectors, foundations, auction houses, and the secondary market needed a more sympathetic character to make the work more desirable and therefore more salable among the collecting classes. JMB went from drug addicted charlatan to misunderstood genius, a new era Van Gogh with every knock of the auction hammer. It also helped that Jean was a close friend and collaborator with Andy Warhol – already a market darling and deeply collected by the same people who also collected Basquiat. Every systemic connection was used, every marketing ploy employed. This publicity tour was designed to institutionalize and monetize the work already owned and legitimize the cache of work yet to be sold. It is how the Modernist system profits from nearly anything it apporpriates. It’s how reputations become anodized and art works are legitimized enough to be bought and sold for millions of dollars from jpegs and text messages.

“Perhaps because I have seen graffiti, then seen something else, thrown myself on the dance floor, then gone on to dance another way, I say that the reason for abandoning so much during the ’70s was that each fad became an institution. What we can finally see from the ’70s buried among the revivals and now surfacing (Tagging, Breaking, Rapping) was at least one academy without program. Distinct to the ’70s, graffiti, in particular, was the institutionalization of the idiosyncratic that has led to the need for individuation within this anonymous vernacular. This is why the individuals (Crazy Legs) must distinguish themselves. Artists have a responsibility to their work to raise it above the vernacular.” Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, December 1981.


JM Basquiat, False Teeth, 1984, Mixed Media on paper.

Rene Ricard used a term in the above quote that I’ve come to really appreciate, “the vernacular.” I appreciate it because I don’t know what that is any longer. In those days it was fairly easy to locate and understand. It had to do with the quotidian life. In the Modernist era we do not define or question “the vernacular.” We tweet it. We publicize it. We pay homage to it. We buy it and sell it. It underwrites our comfort and complicity. It’s monetized and marketed. And because of its ubiquity it defines every interaction. It levels everything to common experience, especially difference. Our vernacular is continuously legitimized and normalized through our media, our entertainments and our markets. It is so pervasive that we do not question our acceptance of it or its power in our lives. In other words – there is no room, no time, no ability to critique our Modernist Era. We are not fast enough to keep up, to catch up, to get ahead of the speed of the markets, the onslaught of our conformity or the constant and endless replication of the present. We disregard death. We are surprised by aging. We are inoculated to change. The vernacular is always already the same.

JMB was there at the cusp of this Market change, and he passed away just before it took off. Time was speeding up during his brief time in this system. He was one of the first global artists and was one of the first artists after Warhol to amass a huge following in Europe and Asia. The pressure to produce for these markets must have been tremendous, especially on someone who worked from the inside, from emotion. And that’s the really hard part. How does one work from one’s emotions without one’s art becoming acting? How does one remain authentic? It’s not an easy thing, and any artist that works from their emotions knows this. To go from sleeping in the park to flying in first class changes one’s view, not only of the world, but of the world within as well.

I asked Jean-Michel where he got the crown. “Everybody does crowns.” Yet the crown sits securely on the head of Jean-Michel’s repertory so that it is of no importance where he got it bought it stole it; it’s his. He won that crown. In one painting there is even a © copyright sign with a date in impossible Roman numerals directly under the crown. We can now say he copyrighted the crown. He is also addicted to the copyright sign itself. Double copyright. So the invention isn’t important; it’s the patent, the transition from the public sector into the private, the monopolizing personal usurpation of a public utility, of prior art; no matter who owned it before, you own it now. Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, Artforum, December 1981.

We forget more and more every day as the churn of information, the seas of images, and the regurgitation of selected headlines are flashed through our consciousness in seconds – over and over and over again. It’s neither memory nor understanding, but instead it’s control. Our interior lives get pushed aside. There is no past and no future, no history or consequence. There is only the ever present now. So instead of “isms” we have trends, instead of eras or movements, we have seasons, and instead of ideas, we have tweets. The Artist must become as fast as this business cycle. And to do this an artist must become a business person, a globalist, a CEO, a director or an architect who subcontracts the production of works of Art for the texting collectors. The artist must be freed of the history of studio, freed from the confines of Art history. The greatest complement you can give someone in our Modernist business is to call them an entrepreneur. And to earn that title means that one has achieved a copyrighted brand, a patented product, something that benefits the system, something that upholds the vernacular.

I don’t know if this really happened, but it is one of the best scenes in Julian’s movie about JMB. Jean (played by Jeffrey Wright) comes over to visit because he is distraught over how the art world sees him. Julian (played by Gary Oldman) gives a speech about not being accepted in your own time. No one will understand Jean’s work until, etc. – cliche, cliche, cliche. This is done over dinner while sharing spaghetti in Julian’s cavernous palatial home/studio. Later, Jean does a drawing for Julian’s young daughter (the next generation that will understand, I suppose) then leaves through the stairwell. Julian follows, opens the door, and sees Jean pissing on his stairwell floor. It’s a great moment because it brings to mind Pollock’s fireplace antics when he pissed on the warming hearth of his collector’s / benefactor’s home. Only here Jean is pissing in the stairway that takes one to the lifestyle of the successful artist ©. SAMO.

Douche Repast

Night Watch Room, Rijksmuseum, 2017

Amsterdam. Hungover and art touring. As you can see this Elephant grave yard has a Rembrandt at the back. I feel like hell, but I’m sure that’s just the well earned result of the night before. I know this, because I looked in the mirror this morning to see a blurry vision of my parents looking back at me – thoroughly dispiriting – as is this Old Master viewing demographic. Truthfully, I just wanted to spend a little bit of quality time in front of this painting, but I find that it’s impossible. The entire viewing process has been programmed to move us along quickly. This painting is, after all, the big star of the museum. Everyone with a ticket is entitled to have a look, so to keep the line moving they’ve made the viewing process as unpleasant as possible. The Museum Guards flanking the painting keep the crowds moving by moving themselves, back and forth in front of the painting as if they are part of the composition – and indeed – they are. The benches are placed to the sides which gives you an angled low shot of a lot of lumpy backsides clad in all types of uncomfortable slacks. People take their places along the low barrier to take pictures on iPhones or other electronic devices, thus blocking any sustained viewing. Those frontline photographers then step back to have a gander at the results. If it’s not good they’ll move back into position to shoot another. And so it goes. It’s all been designed to keep the punters on the moving walkway which inevitably leads to the gift shoppe exit.

Kren’s was right – museums are all about the Brand – about the quality product. The art world restructured itself in the early 90s after the crash and Krens led that charge. There was a corporate takeover of the bankrupt art retail systems which turned the centuries-long history of considered collecting into a Neoliberal traders market – from auction house to museum boardrooms right through to artists studios. The Rijks is just trying to profit from the system like any other art gallery, and in this case its money maker is the Night Watch. My Mom used to say, “A cat may look at a king.” But that’s just not the game anymore. Cats don’t have a penny to their name and can’t afford the entry. Looking at “culturally significant Art” is considered a consumer privilege reserved for those who can afford a ticket. Cash makes us feel democratic, art for the people, that sort of thing, but to really see, you’ll still need the Willie Wonka Golden Ticket.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement in front of Dutch master Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ painting during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, March 24, 2014. Frank Augstein / AP

I’m willing to bet that Rembrandt never thought that his painting would be used as the backdrop for thousands of tourists’ shots uploaded into the cloud. Nor would he have expected the President of the United States to put Art in its place. “Obama remarked that the painting, which is housed in the recently-renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was the most impressive backdrop he had ever had for a statement to the press.” Backdrop for a statement. And truthfully that’s how the Neoliberal Art World likes its art – painting is there to enhance the corporation’s standing. No one would have predicted that this great painting (or any great painting for that matter) would one day not really matter as Art. In this age Art’s meaning, all Art for that matter, is tied to its ability to enhance the ROI, the Corporate Presence or the Branded Experience. Business, as they say, IS the best Art.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have my old school moments of belief and wonder – the gesticulating Donald Trump in the middle of the composition is a painterly tour de force, and the Billy Bush in the shimmering fabulous outfit next to him is a study in the flashy portrayal of wheezing pedantry. Rembrandt when he was on his game was great, and at another time I would have fought a bit harder to see this wonderful thing. But regardless of my regard these moments of painting wizardry are no longer the point of this Art experience. And neither are those floral patterned skinny jeans standing in my way.

Look, I understand that I was flowcharted out of this economic equation long ago, but does everything to do with Art have to be so blatantly consumerist? The answer of course is yes, yes it does. The thing that I began to understand, as I held my throbbing over-indulged noggin, is that the images on all those flashing screens are now the final arbiters of one’s visual experience. They are the product made, the manufactured images, the acceptance of this kind of Art, this way of Art. These images are the endgame of tourism, airlines, hoteliers, restauranteurs, museum CEOs, trinket shops, book publishers, online art discount stores, Apple Inc., e-commerce app makers, and museum traffic flow systems. That art tourist screenshot saved in my iPhoto file is nothing more than an expensive document, a bought and paid-for moment that locates, times, date stamps, collates and programs my complicity and readies my bohemian capitulation for a press release, a snapchat or a fucking tweet. Let’s call it “surveillance viewing” – not of the Art, which only exists now to facilitate an economic transaction, but of me, of us, the consumers of these paid experiences, the customers of Branded Art Products. And with the photo posted above I too have participated in this Art Economy.

You’re welcome.