Friday, March 12, 2010

Dumber Than Jesus (or Losing Control of the Master Narrative)

#class update: Yesterday was a chaotic day in #class-land. Man Bartlett's beautiful stack of balloons (really, you had to see them in person...the piece was gorgeous) succumbed to a burst of cathartic popping (Jerry Saltz, who had kindly stopped by, joined in the fun). It was just what the doctor ordered, actually. Olympia Lambert straddled the charm-offend fence hysterically in her performance as "The Happy Gallerina" (a certain major art magazine editor may still be confused). And Rebecca Goyette's madcap collective of energetic performers rocked the evening time slot with "a panel of judges, internationally recognized Art Critics, Gallery Owners and Artists who..." juried artists' work live and in person.

Today is equally jam-packed. At 2 PM, recent secret MoMA docent, Yevgeniy Fiks will present a slide-lecture titled "Communist Modern Artists and the Art Market," showing how many of the the most highly valued art of the 20th century was produced by artists who considered themselves communists (Picasso, Leger, Kahlo, Rivera and more). At 4 PM, Bernard Klevickas will present "Labor Class- Learn what it is like to construct a masterpiece." From 2000-2005 Klevickas worked at an art foundry fabricating art for Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, Frank Stella and others. This will be a great opportunity to hear what the experience is like from the labor and production side of things. And at 6 PM this evening, an event I've personally been eager to eaves drop in on : The Critics Panel: What will happen when New York's art critics come to the table at #class? We have a few brave volunteers to bring the critic's perspective to the discussion. Signed-up to share are Martha Schwendender and Christian Viveros-Fauné (both art critics for the Village Voice), Johnathan T. D. Neil (Editor-at-Large for Art Review magazine), and Thomas Micchelli (art critic for The Brooklyn Rail

I don't really have a strong connection between that title above and my post today. Someone just said it over the weekend in relation to the often offered-up idea that grouping artists according to their age (rather than their work) makes for an illuminating exhibition. Perhaps from a sociological point of view it can be illuminating to see how a new generation thinks, but from a curatorial point of view, it seems, in a word, dumb.

One of my favorite indulgences in the art world is the ARTnews Retrospective columns. I think mostly, it just reaffirms my belief that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the context of youth obsession, that's certainly true, but it's also true it seems in terms of what people who surround an artist throughout their development invest in their success emotionally (in addition to financially). One hundred years ago, for example, ARTnews published this complaint:
It is heresy, from accepted art standards, to admire or even see anything but fantastic, and often vulgar vagaries in the so–called art of Matisse, and equally heresy, from the viewpoint of his band of followers, to decry him and his works. Around Matisse now wages the war of the suffragists and anti–suffragists—the vivisectionists and anti–vivisectionists of the art world, and he calmly pursues his path, and is getting an enormous amount of advertising out of it all.
—"Drawings by Matisse," March 5, 1910
That Matisse had his defenders (and that they were vehement) would seem prescient by just about any standard of art historical importance today. (More than even Picasso, I personally would rank Matisse the most accomplished artist working in the 20th Century.) But it's not only the passive-agressive dismissal of Mattise's "so-called art" that I find most interesting in that passage, but rather the resentment against his "band of followers" and their devotion. What's at stake in the mini-drama this statement describes is controlling the master narrative. This writer knows it, and he/she sees that his/her side is losing the upper hand in it. It's not just that the writer doesn't like Matisse's work. It's that he/she doesn't like that other people like Matisse's work.

Control of the master narrative is probably the most contentiously fought battle in any generation within the art world. In a fundamental way, it's the key to access and opportunity. It's frequently the key to financial success as well. Not having that control is extremely frustrating.

I had a great conversation with an artist the other day about Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, who was being called the greatest painter of his generation and possibly of all time in certain quarters, but who, half a century later, didn't even make it into a book about great French painters. Monsieur Meissonier's work didn't change, his paintings didn't fall apart, he didn't murder a village of farmers. He and his fans lost control of the narrative. That is all. And if I were a supporter of Meissonier's, I too would be very frustrated.

But time marches on, new narratives supplant older ones, what is to be done?

Parallel narratives take place all the time. Many people very happily ignore the so-called master narrative and succeed within a parallel narrative, but if you had been central in the master narrative, and it slips out of your grasp, what are you supposed to do? Pick up with a parallel narrative and carry on?

Perhaps that's all there is to be done. Vainly fighting a juggernaut master narrative detour distracts from making art, which there is precious little time for as it is. I'm sure Meissonier's advocates ranted and railed against the incoming top dogs (the Impressionists) and his slip into obscurity, but doing so runs the risk of making one look, in the lens of history, like Norma Desmond. Perhaps it's better to exit gracefully, understanding that the fickle hand of fate takes as well as it gives (Meissonier lived quite comfortably).

But I know artists better than that... :-)

Labels: art careers, artists lifestyle, narrative


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, what a sweet and touching post.

I'm sure that the master narrative in this day in age is a pretty narrow view of what is actually going on in the art world. As you indicate, there seem to be more parallel narratives that possible to count.
But also, the master narrative is still where the money is... not necessarily better art, just noisier, and of course, more lucrative.

3/12/2010 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

This writer knows it, and he/she sees that his/her side is losing the upper hand in it. It's not just that the writer doesn't like Matisse's work. It's that he/she doesn't like that other people like Matisse's work.

Sounds so familiar...

3/12/2010 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

An interesting observation about the "master narrative" is that it appears to be a newly visible in the contemporary dialog. It's not as it is a new idea but rather a distinction which had been suppressed by its blind acceptance. We weren't talking about this so directly six months ago.

3/12/2010 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

During the life of Matisse there was a whole lot of things going on a whole lot of levels (technology, design, science, entertainment, etc). I think the Master Narrative
that resulted in Matisse is La Belle Époque, what brought it (industrializiation and political innovation) and what terminated it (the first war). It was a time of creative synthesis. People were interested in structures (the Eiffel Tower), and Matisse excelled in applying this thinking to visual arts. A "zeitgeist" is too large a phenomenon to be reduced to a single field of creativity like the artworld.

Cedric C

3/12/2010 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous John Haber said...

Wasn't it a joke of Manet's about Meissonier that everything in a painting is iron but the sword?

3/12/2010 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Writers throughout history have been guilty of thinking that the circumstances of their time were ever thus. Until the last century and a half or so, maybe starting around the time of Delacroix and Ingres, there was not a master narrative so much as honest-to-goodness hegemonic artistic styles. You only get a choice about which stream of art history to canonize when there's more than one. In a situation like ours, in which one could make a case for just about anything as a significant artistic movement, such is the diversity of work being made, attempts at history more closely resemble tale-telling than the humble observation of circumstances, which is the difference between history and narrative.

Somewhere in these beleaguered pages I've already described the contemporary museums as the enforcement arm of a particular narrative that casts Duchamp as Jesus, Greenberg as Satan, and Kosuth, Warhol, Bourgeois, and Beuys as the Gospels. This is working its way into my #class presentation a week from today, and I've decided to call it the Duchamp Christ narrative, in the full sense of the Greek christos, "anointed." The problem is that we don't have a single ascendant style of art right now and the narrative is trying, for entirely commercial reasons, to pretend that there is.

Probably everyone looks back on the writers who penned their objections to the Impressionists, the Fauves, and the first generation of abstract expressionists at the time the work first appeared and presumes, had they been there, they would have made the right call. This is by no means assured. When George says that the excerpt at 12:47 sounds familiar, we can safely assume that he isn't thinking of himself. But these things are difficult to sort out, and not many people have the independence of judgment to decide on them as they unfold. All one can do, and this answers the question in the OP, is to exercise that judgment to the best of one's ability and work accordingly.

Not incidentally, the museums are busy squandering their credibility regarding the formation of these narratives, as they increasingly flout ethical norms and try to position themselves ever earlier in artists' careers. The übercollectors can act like monkeys with credit cards indefinitely but the situation for the museums is not sustainable. It could come apart in interesting ways. The better art is already working around this system rather than with it.

3/12/2010 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

There was a strict language to the Master Narrative Duchamp was working about (the fertile, explosive and sometimes destructive
explorations of an era that some refers to as "Decadent"). The 1960's artists got entangled in that narrative of concluding with modernity just when things were becoming much more complex. For each Fluxus artist, we learn today of a new artistic movement from the 1960's that was exploring something new. It was a rich period but also very confused. As I often say, the PoMo era, dominated by pop art and post-conceptualism, embraces a museal language, almost in a desparate attempt to redeem a "museal quality" (or hierarchy) to the disparate aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) they were working on. You have Beuys showing pictures on walls to an hare, the icons of commercial products framed in tableaux by Warhol, the importance of the pedestal and the curio in Damien Hirst, the monumental permanence in Koons or Kapoor sculptures (and a whole bunch others post-conc artists). Many installations are not so much about "space" itself than about "museal space". Post-Conc is very self-conscious, and the white cube gallery most of the time serves as a laboratory space to frame and judge realities through an optimal goal of adorning them with museal values.

But just like record shops loosing more and more of their pertinency, I do see a future where the gallery space as we know it today
looses some of its pertinency, and #class already has a number of projects that extend from the gallery space, and are more about Web 2.0 and other communication technologies. I think a new era will begin once "collecting" as become redundant. Once you can type in any name of film, mucic album, or indeed work of art, and you can instantly find a copy to browse on the internet without worrying if you actually own it. Of course it sounds impossible yet that a painting can be rightfully rendered on a computer but... Hey, have you seen Avatar ? Because we are striving toward that.

Once the avatar of an artwork reach the quality of an original,
you get rid of a lot of museal anxiety that permeates the contemporary arts of today.

Cedric C

3/12/2010 08:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

++fertile, explosive and ++destructive

I realize this sounds silly, but I was thinking of atoms, eggs, molecules, genetics, the origins of things, all topics that obsessed creativity on every levels between the 2 wars.
Sexuality too (Dali and Duchamp).


3/13/2010 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

"I think a new era will begin once "collecting" as become redundant. Once you can type in any name of film, mucic album, or indeed work of art, and you can instantly find a copy to browse on the internet without worrying if you actually own it. Of course it sounds impossible yet that a painting can be rightfully rendered on a computer but... Hey, have you seen Avatar ? Because we are striving toward that."

But what about sculpture? I dread that people look at my work online and then think that they understand it. Some things need to be seen, touched and walked around! We live in a spacial world and no illusion of 3D can take that away.

3/13/2010 08:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric c said...

There will always be sculptors, and artists as we know them today.
There will also always be people interested in authenticity. I'm thinking of the impact that
broadcast technologies might have on our expectations and apprehendings of cultural
content, and how this might have an effect some day on how we envision economy and value.

To faithfully transcribe everything about the experience of walking around a 3D sculpture or
touching it (touch-technology is only beginning) is definitely part of what 3D technology will be
striving forward, but long before we get there, authenticity might become something too rare
or not interesting enough for people to care. That's where you loose the collector. How
long can authenticity remain interesting? Can we afford authenticity? Do we have an
ecological space for permanency?

The future 3D bronze is a computer 3D rendition that helps you cast bronze into a sculpture for 2 months, and then you recycle
the bronze to use it for the next artist's bronze. Every artist gets
their 15 days at Trafalgar Square. What materials are you using and how can I replicate it, is all the question.

Cedric C
(who also works (more like worked) with sculpture/space)

3/15/2010 02:53:00 AM  

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