Friday, May 04, 2007

Where Are Art's Controversies?

The chorus of voices decrying the constant barrage of news, reviews, and commentary about the art market is near deafening at this point. The rally cry "Please, talk about 'ART'" is correspondingly in a crescendo, but as I look around, it occurs to me that part of this lack of dialog about "art," per se, may be linked to the fact that unlike previous points in history, there are no high-profile controversies in art at the moment.

Oh there are still certain sensitivities that can be upset, buttons artists know that by pushing they'll get a reaction (think the Chocolate Jesus), but there are no great ideological battles being waged. The closest we get is whether or not virtual imagery has supplanted physical objects. And while that's a moderately interesting idea, it doesn't have anywhere near the high-drama impact that we've seen in historical battles between abstraction and representation or avant garde and kitsch, for example.

Then again, the importance associated with one stance (vs. the other) in such debates seems quaint at this point. I mean, I know there are folks still debating such distinctions, but have they offered anything even remotely new or intriguing in doing so recently? And to be honest, the idea of having to trudge through all that again makes me feel knackered anyway.

Of course this is what one would expect in the Pluralistic era of Art History. Without credible movements or warring camps burning the midnight oil to cobble together revolutionary manifestos, where would the fuel for such debates come from anyway?

So what that leaves us with, with regards to the cry to "please talk about 'ART'" is more or less a desire to talk about individual artists: egoism (or the Cult of Personality) in intellectualism's clothing.

OK, so that's unfair. There are certainly issues being raised by very smart artists that are worthy of consideration, if not "barricades in the streets" type debate. But with so much noise out there (i.e., so many artists vying for attention), no one artist can hold the public's imagination long enough to where the people take away much more of what they're expressing than a sound bite (kind of like last night's GOP Presidential debate).

Maybe all of this is for the better. Maybe there was nothing (other than entertainment) that ever really came out of the great controversies in art history. If today's artists can combine representation and abstraction into avant garde imagery that borderlines on kitsch, what were those great debates about anyway? Again, I suspect it mostly boiled down to egoism, but I do long for a new, hearty row now and then.



Blogger JD said...

The market has, to a painful degree, eclipsed the discussion of art ideas.
Of course the ideas are out there, and are being talked about by people who
love art, but as reflected in the media, it's more about what sells and for
how much.

That said:

There's no such thing as Feminist art.

I'm growing tired of fantasy-based representation.

5/04/2007 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"but there are no great ideological battles being waged. The closest we get is whether or not virtual imagery has supplanted physical objects. And while that's a moderately interesting idea, it doesn't have anywhere near the high-drama impact"

Wait-virtual "imagery" supplanting physical objects???Ed-this is a surprising statement to me. when you put it that way, it sounds a lot less like "a moderately interesting idea", and a lot more like a trully radical problem.

5/04/2007 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

For me this subject touches on how meaning has become a lost cause of late. Meaning is seen as romantic, outdated, idealist, basically corny. The idea of position has become basically obsolete. But, although this sounds unnatural, I do think that it is part of the artist's role to manufacture meaning. But you can't do it on your own. What ever hapened to zeitgeist?

5/04/2007 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

The rally cry "Please, talk about 'ART'" is correspondingly in a crescendo

Ooh, ooh, can I be the first to say it? The Art Market is the new Art -- art is art market, and art market is art. Perhaps there are no great controversies about art because the notion of what art is within the context of the contemporary art world is no longer in the act of becoming. That is, many years after Danto pronounced it, art is finally dead (rather, it probably has been dead for a long time previously). The art world's self-imposed sequestering has shut it off from non-art society (thus, losing its capacity to shock, or engage with society-at-large in any capacity whatsoever), leading art to embrace its most powerful signifier within the autonomous art world -- its value as a market share.

So, if you want to get into a great row about art these days, just try to tell someone that a Dana Schutz painting isn't worth $50,000 -- they'll be some heated mud-slinging in no time.

5/04/2007 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Wait-virtual "imagery" supplanting physical objects???Ed-this is a surprising statement to me.

It's a temporary claim of supremacy by tech savvy artists who are dreaming of a bold new world, in my opinion, but I might be proven wrong. The notion being that physical art has become passe because you can (or will be able to) create anything in a virutal world you can in the physical world. Why it's not all that convincing to me is it ignores the pleasure part of working with one's hands and body (i.e., the smell of paint, the feel of a chisel, the need to move around the studio, or pick up objects and move them, etc.). In other words, just because you could create a work entirely at a computer, doesn't mean artists will. Some artists still make their own paint and create their own tools to ensure they're making exactly what they want to how they want to and that it all feels exactly how it should to them while making it.

I can't see the virtual works created on a keyboard replacing that for everyone, regardless of how convincing or innovative the end products become. The rise of virtual art will be met with a backlash, and then settle into being just another medium to choose from, IMHO.

5/04/2007 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous house_of_rats said...

Edward said: "Why it's not all that convincing to me is it ignores the pleasure part of working with one's hands and body "

here, here! Until we evolve into brains in a vat, we will continue to make art with the digits on the ends of our hands as well as with digital computer technology.

I do both "craft based" object making and 3-D digital work (and Photoshop too) and I can't imagine why they would be thought of as mutually exclusive. Virtual is real nice--but Second Life isn't the ONLY life yet. we gotta have some objects in this time and space that don't suck! Objects that appeal to the senses.

But maybe that is what's radical now--appealing to the senses and the body instead of the intellect?

I think there's no discussion because we're all so exhausted from philosophy fatigue.

5/04/2007 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see...

There is plenty of controversy in art out there.

A few months ago Saltz talked some. For example: he wrote about marxist-liberal discourse in art not working anymore. We need something new, he said.

Nobody touched that statement. Shock and disbelief among people I know. He was right on. I have said so for a long time. The liberals-marxists in the arts/October crowd and others are tired and exhausted and are not better in their dogmatism than the fundamentalist-republican-homophobes we know around.

Furthermore, "The future of gay art", in Dumbo, organized by a few Chelsea people is another. (I hope I can read more about it somewhere...I was not there.)

Most likely the truth is (for our time): "Within gallery walls you will not find controversy"-mls


...painting will be dead...

5/04/2007 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I think maybe past art controversies just look bigger in hindsight, also. We see a big battle between, say, the Impressionists and the Salon. But back then they were just some people showing paintings in a city full of artists. Now that we've exalted Monet and Manet and Renoir, we can look back and sift out magazine articles or newspaper screeds for or against them and gin up this who Manichaean war between the Forces of Convention and the Heroic Outsiders. But were these really huge battles at the time?

Or think of Caravaggio -- was he really a scandal in his own time? Or would you say most of his contemporaries didn't even know who he was (most of them being illiterate peasants, of course)? How many people were allowed in the Pope's apartments back then, really?

I think today's battles will be defined by the future. We'll see who's doing the big thing only decades from now.

5/04/2007 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous T.H. See said...

......So, if you want to get into a great row about art these days, just try to tell someone that a Dana Schutz painting isn't worth $50,000 -- they'll be some heated mud-slinging in no time.

after the current show one wonders if even she thinks they are worth that much...after seeing the show at Zach Feuer Gallery I had the fantasy that the paintings on display were deliberately stupid (i mean come on some of these are pretty bad), as if they were created soley to expose those who would celebrate anything simply because they have heard of it somewhere before. I wish it was all meant to function as a reminder that waiting lists and embracing youthful exuberance solely for it's own sake are bad for art, the market, etc.... but I assume this isn't the case.
I have appreicated much of hers (especially) and others work that benefited from the of the straight out grad school type but really, can't this culture allow anything to mature before it is sucked dry?

5/04/2007 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

With all due respect to the fact that Dana represents the "art market" to many folks, can we not use this thread to critique her exhibition? I haven't seen it yet, and so that would be unfair to me. ;-)

The liberals-marxists in the arts/October crowd and others are tired and exhausted and are not better in their dogmatism than the fundamentalist-republican-homophobes we know around.

I think that's a fair statement, but the problem is, whethe better in their dogmatism or not, the liberal-marxists/October crowd are still interested in making and critiquing Art. In general, the fundamentalist-republican-homophobes are not.

can't this culture allow anything to mature before it is sucked dry?

That does seem to be a regretable by-product of things moving faster and faster via globalization, I agree.

5/04/2007 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

The controversies are in architecture, right now. Mention Frank Gehry or Thom Mayne in a mixed crowd and watch the fireworks.

I love these guys work, but talk about egoism? Wow.

I think it goes along with the near fascist state of our society that the art of controversy is about re-creating society itself. Call it the Ayn Rand effect. The architect as god thing.

5/04/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Carla said...

The emphasis on careerism changes one's motivation. Strategizing for a prime art world position has gone from being a practical concern to being a guage of moral character. Like the Reagan-era conservatism which made poverty a shameful state, the current art-world places more value on one's promotional drive ("professionalism")than on their individual output, and it does so with a self-righteous "no excuses" manner.

There's little controversy in art because few are personally vested in their own, or others' art.

5/04/2007 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

an earlier commenter: Wait-virtual "imagery" supplanting physical objects???...

Edward: It's a temporary claim of supremacy by tech savvy artists...but I might be proven wrong.

Mr. W, I second the motion. Real trumps virtual every time. It's kept video and conceptual art in a niche, if an exalted niche in some cases.

Human physical existence ultimately insists on physicality when undergoing the interaction of visual art experience.

We don't trust ghosts of any kind, even if we no longer fear them.

The nearest exception, in my opinion, is James Terrell. But even then it's the experience of light in physical space which is rendered ambiguous by light's properties -- entirely a physical event.

5/04/2007 04:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the controversy is less in art styles, and more in the widening gap between the haves vs the have nots.

The ones who have the time to be in the studio, the ones who had no education denied them, and life + educational experience abroad, the ones who did not balk at the thought of paying the artworld entrance fee of a Yale or Columbia education, and maybe Skowhegan to boot.

Yeah, a few "norms" make it through, but every time I hear an artist who went to boarding school in Switzerland or studied art on their parent's money from the age of 12 refer to themselves as "average middle class" I want to puke.

Sssh , i just let put the big art secret, it's not about age so much as the MFA programs are just instruments for the uber rich to make sure their kid becomes a success . Remeber those stories about the old ab-ex artists working in bookstores or waiting tables while painintg from their loft at night?

Now it's 10 year olds who know that to become an artist they go to the best grad school and pretend the apartments they buy are from art sales, as opposed to dad's money-- the have nots don't have a chance.

The ones who do are very few and far between. It's all so gross and vulgar. Okay, call me bitter, but it is true. I am also disgusted by how many artists who come from rich backgrounds apply for prestigous grants just to have one more notch. Exxon, corporations, artists, it's all the same now.


5/04/2007 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger Carla said...

On behalf of Painting, I would like to welcome, as liberators, The Virtual. Painting may now explore the tactile nature of it's own belly-button, via traditional landscape or abstract meanderings, free of Art's demanding, expectant gaze.

5/04/2007 05:04:00 PM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

to elaborate on htla's comments; WAAAAA!

5/04/2007 06:48:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

I think there is room for discussion about the ways in which the market has influenced art practices and concepts. Is it possible for an artist to, for the most part, avoid the gallery scene and maneuver primarily within the muesum world? It seems at one point that was possible.

Such a question may seem limited to career concerns but it relates to art practice concerns as well. In today's climate, can we have another Gordon Matta-Clark or Robert Smithson? Can we have oddballs like Ray Johnson or movements like Fluxus? Or have these sorts of personalities and ideas been absorbed within the system unimpeded?

I thik that it is true, as someone mentioned, that the distance of time is needed to have a discerning picture. But it seems in other moments it was still possible to locate avant garde practices, around which, controversy lies. Just where is/are the avant garde today?

I like Tim's idea that locates avant garde duking-it-out within the architecture world, which would make sense given the larger imperialist mode we find ourselves in today. I dont think that would be the first time in history we would find such a relationship.

5/04/2007 07:29:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Another Question:
Is it that artists are no longer interested in taking a stance against the art market forces (as they did in the 70s)? Or is it that they simply can't? They cannot even be recognized as artists outside the system so there is no longer a way to develop a method of art making opposed to that system (and "opposed" can have varying levels of negativity and severity).

Or, can complicity be used as critique itself?

5/04/2007 08:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Dawn R said...

WOW!! Some great comments, ideas and philosophies from many. I think there are few controversies because controversial art is extremely difficult to execute. First, you have many galleries, not all gallerie, that shy away from controversial art for fear of not selling, unless of course you get a PR story like the chocolate or Barak Jesus. Second, the art world is so desensitized against controversies, almost everything has been done and it's extremely difficult to discover a new controversy or subject that will make the art world take notice. Lastly, I think some artists are afraid of the ramifications in producing controversy in today's culture of political correctness. There are so many etiquette rules of not offending, and privacy issues that artists may feel sequestered into toning down their art so they don't have to deal with any reprecussions.

5/05/2007 09:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Henri said...

Hey Edward if you want to read a real fiesty donnybrook about painting, abstraction & Postmodernism head over to -

There's argument, theory, links to a manifesto called Rough Trade -
and by the way you're absolutely right - most good fights are about egoism.


5/05/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think there are artists maturing without being sucked dry but they are on the margins- surviving outside the mainstream fast paced art world- but then at some point you feel like you need the art market to inform your work- or vindicate your efforts- i was inspired to hear judy chicago's talk at the brooklyn museum with elizabeth sackler- i am still inspired to say something as a woman in my artwork and that gets me out of bed everyday and into my studio to make my work- is there anything beyond that? i dont know- but i dont want to talk about rape sexual abuse gender or all the folks i've slept with in my art- that's not what being a woman or being a feminist is about for me- neither the political nor the psychological agenda- do i have my finger on the pulse of contemporary society? i think the most one can hope for is to speak to the concerns of one's own generation- those seem to be the ones that are most meaningful... and long lasting- but with the increasingly complex world homogenized by globalization at the same time radically polarized by wealth and class the debate and practice of art does provide a common ground for meeting...

5/05/2007 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger soboyle said...

We are casting a wide net, but individual experience is much different than an abstract view on what is and isn't important at any one time. It may be something about personal experience vs media experience, the disconnect between what seems obviously true, and what is collectively taken for the truth, and the wayward direction it moves in.

5/05/2007 10:49:00 PM  
Anonymous DaveC said...

Cool looking stuff.

I don't know if it is exactly art.

From Lileks

5/05/2007 11:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Because theres so much art out there you find yourself being swept away by it. And people tend to grasp for any consensus opinon about some artist. The market feeds off this and accellerates the process. So you have a product that is highly subject to hype and whos position is solidifyed by the market. And I think artists see this and imitate/elaborate on successful products. Thus affirming to the market the art historical importance of the "imitated art" Its a very predictable and safe game which must leave some people with a nagging emptiness. Theres no sublime. Maybe thats good. I dont know. I do think art has morphed into the entertainment industry & the real sublime stuff (which we really want) cant happen due to social/historical circumstances. Which is why there arent alot of raging art debates going on. The best art of the 20th century were risky confrontations to the market. Now we can only reward the sharpest game players. I think Warhol nailed it; there are alot of artists who just want to live out their fantasy of being an artist. And perhaps the artworld is more into the fantasy of great art rather then the real thing.

5/06/2007 01:33:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Timely post. The following article from New Republic summed up a lot of this well. Although I do not agree with everything there, some of the conclusions drawn are very spot on.

The comment above about Ab Ex artists working in moldy lofts struck a chord. That was pure - does not exist nowadays... Art, fashion and Hollywood are coalescing into an amorphous bubble that concentrates on marketing the next blockbuster...
A coat made of penguin wings might be a good fashion statement down the catwalk today but 100 years from now no-one is going to care less… We need to be a little more careful about the art we collectively exult…

5/06/2007 05:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I could not agree more.... I hope that Edward will pick up that concept and present it as a post one day.
Back when it was not profitable to be an artist, or you had to wait 30 years for validation, it was not an attractive career, but now the rich kids can convince their parents that it is worthwhile to buy their way in via the best schools, the same way that they do in other professions.

Mark, I don't think it is possible to avoid the gallery scene... too many validating gatekeepers go to the galleries to find artists, believing that anyone who is any good would have already been "discovered" by a gallery. You cannot, as an individual artist, get a listing on "", for example, your gallery must do it for you. There are many obstacles that an independent artist faces that just fall away if you are willing and able to enter into the game.
Like most other systems, the art world is a giant machine, where all parties benefit from keeping things just the way they are.

5/06/2007 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Surely we can make and market our art, and live our lives, in a place somewhere between "moldy lofts" and the "Art/fashion/Hollywood" nexus.

Also, can we discuss the word "careerism." It's tossed about with abandon. As artists we need to get our work out into the world, create some visibility and opportunity for ourselves. Making the art is not enough; we need to do some marketing. And we need to understand that doing so it not a dirty word. It's not "careerism." It's business. Unless we want to do a soul-sucking 9-5 job to support outselves, we need to think about ourselves a small business owners. Because while art may come from a pure place, it has to find its way into the marketplace. I don't want to live or work in a "moldy loft." I don't buy into the idea that poverty makes you pure. Poverty makes you poor.

5/06/2007 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger D Howard said...

I suppose the battle is between money and art. Marketing and art, just like the churches, marketing and truth.
I know who wins in the end. If you can call it winning.

5/07/2007 01:09:00 AM  

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