Breathing Slowly

As I’ve gotten into the High and Low of Popular Culture my research has taken me back to MOMA’s show of the same name which was seen in 1990-91. What a freaking clusterf*@k of a show that was! But the catalogue is fantastic – it divides up the categories of low culture and links them to the Modernists works that were built around them. What is immediately apparent in the catalogue is the difference in the visual intentions of the Modernist artists to the intentions of our Postmodern artists. Modernists transformed the “low” culture creating new meanings through deeper visual and intellectual engagement in the work. Postmodernists appropriate without changing any visual meaning, they rely heavily on the context of how their work is seen hoping that that will alter the meaning of the found images. We’ll discuss this in the upcoming post.

Right now I’m still struggling in the studio and against the tide of everyday difficulty that is washing against my shores at the moment. I won’t bore you all with my personal details, but all of us are busy dealing with the political and economic tidal wave that is swamping the art world. Every conversation I have, everyone I know is feeling anxious and afraid about the immediate future. Artists especially have always been among the first to feel the heat of any historic burnout and this time is no exception. Many artists have shows coming up, and the once confident feeling that something will sell has been replaced with a grim determination to sell something. Right now you can bet that a lot of artists are applying to universities, and I’m sure these schools will have buckets of resumes to go through. It’s sort of like the the stock markets retreating to treasuries in times of trouble.

Jerry Saltz in his recent column lays it out:

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk….  

Jerry remains hopeful about the future in his column. I’m not so convinced. This time things are different in the art world. Postmodernism is still rampant and it remains mired in the clanking machinery of the art institutions. The growth of these institutions in the 90s and naughts was inevitable after the last downturn. In these new top-down art markets there are more huge collectors with deep pockets, and the market will try to protect the collected work purchased by those collectors. If it doesn’t then they (both the market and the collector) lose prospective future capital. It’s sort of like the Treasury rescuing the status quo on Wall Street without changing ANY of the regulatory mechanisms that created the situation in the first place. It is the theory of Too Big to Fail. Economics is now the guiding force of the art world. Additionally nothing has changed for artists. I will hammer the nail again – Postmodernism is the reason the art world and the art in the art world looks the way it does. It is Postmodernism that needs to be dismantled, and until that day, change will be difficult to find. 

At this moment I’ve also been thinking about a more personal history. We don’t talk about it much in the art world these days, but the 90s was a time when there was a huge flight backwards. Two things caused this – one was the drying up of capital, the other was the devastation of AIDS. After the recessionary fallout the art world adopted a corporate institutional business model to preserve itself, and we artists lost many, many great minds. Who knows, maybe Art would look a lot different today if things had played out differently, maybe Postmodernism would have been challenged much sooner. We’ll never know. When the art world got started again in the late 90s it was an extremely conservative reactionary place, and we’ve seen this game being played out in bigger and bigger venues with bigger and bigger paychecks through the last 10 years. Postmodernism and capital were one. In the end we are defined by the choices we make and the actions we take. 

I was sitting in my studio last week looking at a large painting that I’ve been fighting for months. There are ideas there that I’m finding difficulty facing – I don’t understand it yet. I’m sure many of you have had the same experience. I think this difficulty has a lot to do with the ideas I’m flipping around as I write HIGH and LOW. My experience of art and my life meld all the time – one feeds and informs the other. I learned to be a Postmodernist years ago, I changed in the mid 90s because POMO never set well with how I saw and experienced the world. We change to survive, we find new visions and new ideas to progress. Hopefully we advance. Maybe Jerry is right and we’ll find room to explore new ideas. It’s up to us. I’ll finish this post with a quote from one of the greats…

Maybe Rembrandt’s subject matter – the beggars and jews that he liked to go around with or observe – were just as ‘usual’ as cut-and-dry, as Vermeer’s interiors or Rubens’ fleshy nudes or our swirls of colour. They were what happened to be around, what one naturally painted when one got up in the morning and prepared simply ‘to paint’. I will admit to you frankly that I want to be on the artistic bandwagon. Sure, sometimes I go through periods of real despair, look at my picture and say to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?” But to go back to scratch – what scratch? As an artist I am what I am now, and couldn’t possible go back to representation, to the academy, which was where I started…. Bill Dekooning, 1957.

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