Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cult of Personality 2.0 | Open Thread

We were talking in the gallery the other day (over Kyrgyz brandy, if I recall correctly) about the state of the art world, as we're wont to do, and noted how the top artists of our day seem to be lacking in what used to be a central requirement in the cult of personality department: i.e., an interesting personality. Try as they might, the big money makers in contemporary art don't generate as near as much interest in their personal lives as they do their bank accounts, and, on the other hand, the artists we see grabbing all the head-lines on the gossip pages don't generate as near as much interest in the secondary market as they do, if at all, in the primary market. Something has shifted, we concluded over cocktails, since the days when Warhol was both raking it in and still the most interesting person to sit next to at a party.

Was it just that the top money makers have become too burdened with the CEO obligations of their studio factories to continue to the devote time to sating our hunger for bad boy antics or sexy girl photo sessions? Or was something else afoot here?

I didn't give it too much thought at the time (there was Kyrgyz brandy to attend to), but in reading the latest edition of one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures (ARTNews' monthly Retrospective column), I thought about the cult of personality issue again:
75 Years Ago

The widespread popularity of Lust for Life, Irving Stone's ­recent fictionalized biography of Van Gogh renders it almost inevitable that the Museum should be crowded to capacity by a public whose interest and curiosity has been heated to fever pitch. Rarely is there an exhibition which can be approached by so many persons thoroughly acquainted with the dramatic details of an artist's life and career, as in the case of Van Gogh. All the lurid ups and downs, and mostly downs, of his profession . . . are nearly as familiar to the reading public as was the progress of the Hauptman trial.

—"The Van Gogh Exhibition," November 9, 1935
And then it hit me. The cult of personality in contemporary art isn't (and perhaps has never been) about worshiping a hero. It's entertainment, akin to watching a rodeo or NASCAR race. Despite protests to the contrary if questioned, a good chunk of the audience is secretly hoping to be witness to a real time. The more fine artists flirt with the mass media channels usually reserved for celebrities, the more our expectations/hopes become that they, like celebrities, will fabulously self-destruct while we're all watching. All the "lurid ups and downs, and [God willing] mostly downs," are the attraction.

Now, of course, when we talk about cult of personality within the art world in the classic sense, we mean how people will pay big money for a napkin doodle by a famous artist just because they did it. It's a projection of value onto all of their output, based on the assessment that it's them, and not only their work, we want to take home a part of. It explains why inferior works by famous artists will sell for more than masterpieces by lesser known artists. It also explains the entirety of Damien Hirst's market.

Now back in 2008 (oh, the memories), in an excellent article, Linda Yablonsky argued that the success of both Hirst and Koons could be attributed to the cult of personality:
Moments after a press conference for “Jeff Koons on the Roof,” this year’s outdoor sculpture exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, a clutch of reporters made a tight circle around the artist. Clean-shaven, dressed in a metallic gray business suit and gracious to a fault, Koons hardly batted an eye as he linked the three bright and shiny chromium works on the roof—monumental replications of a child’s drawing, a wrapped candy and a balloon toy from his 1994–2000 “Celebration” series—to contemporary, early Christian, and Greek and Roman sculptures inside the museum. The reporters didn’t just hang on every word. They clamored for autographs. And they got them. “This is going right next to my Mickey Mantle,” announced a lumbering photographer, holding his prize aloft.

Only one other artist today excites this kind of hero worship: Damien Hirst. Koons and he both create provocative work. But that alone can’t explain their star power.
Maybe it's just the economic bruises the world is still recovering from since then, but somehow, today, only two years later, neither of those artists' stars seems so bright. Was it really their personality that garnered all that attention? Or their (now somewhat less stunning) markets? In 2008, Yablonsky attributed the attraction to their charisma. But charisma is fueled by confidence. If the Hirstian and Koonsian brand of confidence came from the number of 0's at the bottom of their bank statements, it's not surprising that they seem a bit lackluster in comparison today.

My central question here, and please consider this on open thread on the topic, is whether what makes for hero worship has fundamentally changed. Have commercialism and ultra individualism shifted the focus away from "interesting personality" as defined by the quirky or inspiring way one views the world to "interesting personality" as defined by power and money?

Labels: cult of personality, open thread


Blogger nathaniel said...

Two words: William Kentridge. (An exception rather than the rule, Igrant you; but still, I love sitting next to him.)

10/27/2010 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous James V Freeman said...

Dear Ed,

Most likely the biggest problem with the art world is that it almost entirely neglects high skill, quality and originality.
In other words, it's no longer hungry to find and showcase artists worth looking at.
Most intelligent, dedicated and gifted artists I chat with largely agree that the NewYork/London/ major metro art scenes have really been a merry-go-round for money laundering and tax flipping, not for celebrating the best that artists can do.

As an artist who has been in New American Paintings, International Artist (cover) and has sold most of his major work in recent years for $12,000-$25,000 to collectors with Garbers, Wyeths and Lathrops,
I am furious that I've hit a glass ceiling with advancing my career.
New American Paintings did nothing for me (looks like the same person juries it every time, doesn't it?), and New York seems off limits no matter what angle I approach. If the art world is to ever thrive again, it has to showcase excellent work; I don't care if they use my art for insidious financial dealings, just use good art for a change.

I would like to invite you to visit me and my fellow artists at "The Old Mennonite Church" studio near Lancaster, Pa where I share a space with some really, really fine artists - realist and abstract. We'll show you around the place and pour you some fine Lancaster brew.

10/27/2010 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger minimum said...

Perhaps it is more to do with where the audience/country is financially. When you feel flush it is great to hear about others successes, but when you are having trouble making ends meet you would rather the ebb and flow of triumph and failure.

10/27/2010 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Adams said...

No doubt the seen of the world has change dramatically since Van Gogh time.

10/27/2010 01:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Christi Nielsen said...

Warhol? Affected. I can't stand to be around affected artists.

Yes, it's fun if they have great personalities... But I'm there for the art.

10/27/2010 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger ellen yustas k. gottlieb said...

Market place will have artists "come out" of their decency closets and be more interesting more bohemian also more talented. The times dictate what gets attention. There was a period when artists did turn conservative, happy about their incomes and being settled, the more unsettled the artists get the more creative and interesting.

10/27/2010 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Wade Guyton video over @ interview magazine!?
WTF kind of personality is that... "I can barely do art", (but his dealer can sell it).
There certainly is a degree of substance missing form many of these top-tier artists. And beyond that the bullshit is flying all right out o their mouth like teh great Idiot Wind which Dylan spoke of.

By the way James V Freeman, you may very well have a wonderful personality but your art needs to take a trip through the modern grad would be eaten alive. Your work is not relevant to the New York art world...Wade Guyton is!

10/28/2010 01:05:00 AM  
Blogger George said...


10/28/2010 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

Craving personality, ie "entertainment" is one thing, and craving good art is another...having both is a luxury. And frankly, I havent seen BOTH in a while, including some of the more popular artists Ed has mentioned. It's truly a gift to have both and sometimes the *entertainer* aspect of the personality overshadows the art, hence giving a false impression that the art is good, i believe.

10/28/2010 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...just wondering - not sure where this leads:

There's an interesting idea over in site, that :

"What we see as “too much infor­ma­tion” is prob­a­bly some­thing more like “a sur­plus of free attention.”" other words that the amount of attention we have is a constant, but where we focus it has changed. That we don't have the necessity to pay attention to critical stuff anymore (your car has advanced radar collision recognition? - so no need to focus on being a prudent driver- let 21st century AI technology and 18 safety air bags do that for us) and so we pay attention to whatever else is at hand. That new internet heads up display of the latest news with satellite feed in realtime...

So in terms of Eds "has hero worship changed?", now, instead of needing to uncover and discover the qualities we admire in an artist, we have that readily at hand, crtiics, commentaries, tweets, blogs, high resolution panoview displays where ever we happen to be. So we needn't pay as much attention to that stuff - its readily at hand, but the ups and downs of the artists follies - that remains to be discovered as the story remains yet untold. It takes a life time to unfold.

So maybe it isn't what interests us that has morphed, but more something like the time/effort we need to spend to look for those insights has diminished dramatically, and so we fill that efficiency time void with "mundane" arcana.

10/28/2010 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's changed is that artists like Koons and Hirst are businessmen, first and foremost. They aren't artists, they are brands.

10/28/2010 11:50:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Hero worship has been replaced by celebrity worship.

10/29/2010 02:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To quote Damien Hirst, in art the goal posts are always shifting. The criteria for measuring artistic achievement is always changing. In the 70s many people thought Warhol was a sleazy pornographer and that pattern painters were the best. Koons and Hirst symbolize worldly success in art. Sort of anti-van goghs. Bound to change with changing economy.

10/29/2010 05:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

It doesn't feel like we're living in a very generous moment right now. An interesting personality that is defined as "quirky and inspiring" requires that the, lets say audience, have a certain amount of confidence in themselves, which would have been the case in Warhol's 60s. It was a time of growth, everyone was going to have a new car, a new house, and a pension. Now, it's a much colder, and crueler, world. The cult of personality is defined more by envy. The "power and money" being what everyone wants so therefore they're interested in anybody who has those things. "Quirky and inspiring" somehow seems quaint in a world of rising deficits, fuels cost, and mortgage payments. A Warhol is an expense, a distraction, an indulgence. Can we afford such indulgences? I think this is the unarticulated motivation behind that particular shift. But I think also the means of delivery has changed radically. In Warhol's time there was TV, and print media, now there is social media - facebook, twitter, texting, etc. Instead of a small group of heros to worship served up by a limited network, there's now as many heros as there are potentially new communities formed around any number of common interests. So the idea of a "hero" is relative. If the group worshiping Warhol formed a critical mass then the mass has now been smashed by social media into an ever growing number of fragments and thus the hero in question has also been fragmented. This is probably a good thing. Instead of having a limited specificity to focus on we can embrace the potential found in the fragments. So maybe the 'power and money" thing is a lingering remnant of an obsolete paradigm that people cling to out of fear. Your right Ed, our personalities simply aren't interesting. When people are scared, the last thing they want is interesting. Some meandering thoughts on the subject.

10/29/2010 07:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ed, since this is an open thread I just wanted to point out Jim Kempner's web series "The Madness of Art" in case you haven't seen it. I think it's hilarious and imagine you'd get a kick out of it. I've laughed at every single episode. Anyway, here's the link:

10/29/2010 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

The previous comments frame the issue quite well, I think. I would just like to add that the recent death of Dash Snow may have also caused a slight shift. Some raucous behavior can get attention but it also quickly becomes self-destructive and perhaps some of Dash's generation; Dan Colen and Banks Violette for instance are becoming more reflective and looking more longterm after having gained a level of success while at the same time the older established artists are working to sustain a comfortable level of existence and find it not to their advantage to rock the boat. Also in a climate of uncertain financial viability the high-end is doing fine, the low end is struggling with paying the bills and the middle is also finding itself on the lower end.

Perhaps critics too are being somewhat hesitant to comment on some of the more extreme forms of art worried that the undercurrent of the art has self-destructive tendencies for the artist. So instead the established artists get attention even if negative and new discoveries are not as actively sought out.

10/29/2010 11:51:00 AM  

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