The Long Tail

I began this as a reply to a recent comment by the artist, critic and theorist Martin Mugar and I thought it might be better as a post. Please forgive the editing – it was done on the fly – So without further ado….

Hi Martin,

Thanks for your comments, happy to be back. I just read the linked article in your comment, and unfortunately, it’s based in the same kind of Postmodern thinking as the work it categorizes and catalogues for us. We are presented with a menu of style and we can pick and choose á la carte. There’s something here for everyone. What’s interesting about the work he mentions is how accessible it all is without it being overtly distinct. Pepe comes across as a purveyor of goods, a proprietor of painting. The article is not so much a celebratory lauding of a new golden age or even the lasting legacy of painting itself, but it comes across as an inventory, a back catalogue of goods and services. And since art is now an economic activity this makes perfect sense. What Pepe is actually describing are long tail retail strategies for the continued economic viability of abstract painting.

So many of the abstractionists on his list seem to prize the professionalism of painting over expression, but there are a couple of exceptions. For the most part these artists’  works are capable, handsome, manufactured at the top end, filled with expected outcomes and familiar tropes – it’s proven, sanctioned and branded. However, even though I think that a lot of this work is (in Pepe’s words) “good”, I continue to want abstraction to move, change, evolve, and become something different. I want the work to be hotter, if that makes any sense. In the Postmodern Era we prefer our Art to be cool, ironic, to have a high-end slickness to its presentation. And this kind of “coolness” isn’t just in our painting – it goes across the board through all of our culture. For instance we are going through a cycle of branded entertainment now with the Summer Blockbuster Movie season. That kind of easy product, the accessibility and familiarity of it, is how money is made in our Modernist Entertainment Culture. Art, especially painting, is all about the coolness factor and it’s manufactured and presented like products that define a luxury lifestyle. Unlike Pepe, I do think most painting is dead in this way. It has become something we manufacture for a select group of collectors, and once we’ve hit on something sellable, we brand it and reproduce it like Ferrari F12 Berlinettas.

I prefer the one-off, the masterpiece. The one image that seers into your brain and is carried with you for a lifetime. Doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot of other work done by the artist. After all an artist has to eat, right? But there should be a few great one-offs in a career. In the Modern era Picasso had them, Matisse, Pollock, De Kooning, Johns and Rauschenberg had them at the beginning of their careers, even Warhol had his in the beginning. But there were not too many others after them that did – though there has been a steady stream of branded series painters making “good” work. And I have a bit of a problem with that. I prefer the conceit of the arrogant stage comedian, like Chris Rock, who after his set would hold the mic out arm’s length, open his hand and let it drop to the floor, walk off stage. He left the set behind never to be done again. One and done. But that’s not the case with so many of the artists on Pepe’s list, and I’m sad to say that’s not how Entertainment Modernism works. There will always be a part II, III and IV, ad infinitum, or at least until the tickets stop selling.


Image from wikicommons


When Michelangelo first came to Rome he was seduced and overpowered by the Belvedere torso, the same one that’s now dramatically presented in the Vatican Museum. And it was so powerful an image that it changed Michele’s whole relationship to sculpture, painting and drawing. In fact it deeply influenced the work he was then doing on the Sistine ceiling. He was already hailed as a genius, a purveyor of Neo-Classic Florentine culture, and he could have continued to work as he had for his entire career. He was after all – the consummate professional. But there was something about this sculpture that fired his imagination, and nearly overnight his work became a different thing altogether. What Michele was not afraid of, what he was willing to risk was his own passion, his own personal demons. The Belvedere is not only beautiful, it is powerfully sexual, and it’s supremely obvious that it fired his passions in a deeply transformative way.  Because of the Belvedere he created thick, persistent fleshy imagery that wound up upending the “professionalism” of his day. He changed and redefined the Renaissance as something different. In fact his imagery was so jarring that the Pope had the scaffolding taken down half way through the making of the piece to show it off to Rome. It set the art world on fire.

Last Judgement

Image from camchowda


Years later Michele would be asked to do it once again behind the main altar of the Sistine with his Last Judgment. But this time he was older and he approached it with a different sensibility. His Belvedere discovery had been refined through the years and had started an informal “school” of Mannered art. Still, he was Michelangelo, an artist known for his terribilità and he once again challenged the taste makers of the day. He packed so much Mannerist nudity and sexuality on that wall that the church had to reconsider. So, the Vatican bean counters hired a hack to chip out and cover the crotches of all the massive flesh that Michele had dared to paint. But up above on his ceiling they didn’t touch a thing. The altar fresco was “contemporary”, a full on Neo-Platonic Mannerism filled with heretical bath house sexuality. It was of its time and place. The ceiling, however, is a personal Classicism so audacious and sacrosanct that they dared not touch it. Michele’s transformative passion is what mattered on the ceiling, and because of it his work was like no other artist of his day. Yes, he was trained by the Florentine institutional artists to be a “professional”, but on his own he went further into the past, and in so doing, further into his own passionate heart. There is nothing “slick”, “cool”, or “professional” about either of these one-off masterpieces. They burn. One and done, then Michele dropped the mic.

Abstractionists today are all over the boards trying desperately to find a niche in the long tail of our art economy. Pepe’s article makes that clear to me. But what I do not see in his list, and what I long for in abstraction is the thing that Michele brought to his own world, that thing that sparked some fantastically inspired one-offs – like the fresco I saw in Florence by Bronzino or Tintoretto’s San Rocco wonderland in Venice. There is a hot, visual quality to these works. You can feel the combustibility. You can see the passion. And that is, for me, something that I prize. Maybe the problem with our branded Postmodern painting is not with the professionalism in the work we see, but with the hearts that make it. Maybe what we need do is reconsider who and what we are as artists.

6 thoughts on “The Long Tail

  1. What a great read!Enjoyed it immensely.Very passionate and accurate in its appraisal of contemporary art.I know it is an old canard about Michelangelo chipping away at the marble to find the sculpture hidden within but it brings to mind the notion of the unthought in Heidegger’s thinking, which I assume means what is not in the thought presented by the thinker but what is left out but informing it in a mysterious way.So in the case of Michelangelo it is the experience of removing all that marble which somehow still affects our experience of the work.I see it in those climactic events that are the finale of any given Matisse,how it comes together out of the removal or obliteration of earlier stages.Is the “unthought” a remnant of the aura found in earlier periods that Walter Benjamin finds absent in contemporary art? Not to be found for sure in what you nicely refer to as the “branded Postmodern painting”.

    I was surprised by how cavalierly Pepe Karmel tacked on the globalist reference at the end instead of trying to use it as a premise for the whole article.He didn’t want to impose any heavy thinking on the ArtNews readers. I suppose the breezy style provides a vehicle for a shopping list of PoMo artists for the wannabe collectors who read ArtNews.My son who did some graduate work at NYU said they are plugged into the globalist mentality,opening up branches of the University throughout the world.So he is not surprised that one of their professors should be pro-globalist.
    It all leaves a bad after taste.

  2. Look forward to your next (first?) one-off masterpiece, Mark. As I have been told a few times recently: “Put up or shut up”. What you waiting for? You too Martin…

  3. Intrigued by the notion of the long tail,I asked my son to comment on it and got his reply:

    “I used the idea of the long tail in a paper I wrote at NYU as a way to describe the democratization of aesthetic determination. in other words, with access to the long tail, content distributors (e.g. gallery owners) cannot corner the market on determining the aesthetics of the time…rather, there is room for everything.”

    Strange that art now gets to be defined by notions of commercial exchange,when it has been defined in the past by abrupt shifts in direction imposed by strong personalities trying to increase the psychic weight and power of their imagery.Maybe as I said in my topology essay this is just a long period of processing of the great mid-century artists.

  4. In the essay on the long tail my son Gabriel wrote at NYU, it appears the long tail is supposed to be supportive of variety in the tail(where smaller and less expensive niches exist).In the art world the bulge before the tail is where the blue chip artists,the heavy weights, reside.The tail should be full of variety.That does not appear to be the case.Those who reside in the tail are just mini-clones of the artists in the bulge.If you look at it as a history map it kind of captures my thesis that Carl Belz has commented on as the present time representing a long devolution of the classic period of abstraction.
    As to Robin’s comment about doing more painting and less commenting, I feel that the writing helps clear the field so to speak and makes the painting more focused.If I can’t sort out the bewildering display of contemporary art that is part and parcel of the media display as Mark so poignantly points out then I feel swamped in a sea of absurdity.

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