Archive for the Art skepticism Category

Here’s an interesting little story from the BBC‚ about a side-result of the recent overheated international art market. Apparently, for about two decades in Britain—until they were recently caught—a son and his elderly parents made fake artworks and artefacts worth millions of dollars.

Shaun Greenhalgh made sculptural objects and paintings that were often flatfooted copies of originals he had found in catalogues. The artists and family also created fake letters to provide provenance for the objects that fooled multiple museums and collectors.

The police became suspicious when the letters contained misspellings and incorrect samples of cuneiform script. After raiding the family’s home, the police found that the artist’s forgeries went back at least seventeen years and had netted the family at least half a million pounds—the amount found in the family’s bank account. But police said the family’s crimes did not appear to have been motivated by money.

“They didn’t own a computer or live in luxury,” said the police. “They were living in abject poverty, a very poor lifestyle, very basic.”

So why did they do it, according to police? “They had a resentment of the art market and wanted to prove they could deceive it,” said one police official. “Greenhalgh felt he was a better artist than he would ever get recognition for and he developed a general hatred of the art market and the art establishment.”

Hm, possibly true. But just about every artist thinks the same—that he’s a better artists than just about everyone else—and most don’t end up going criminal.

Or do they?

Australian libertarian commentator Eric Fry, on his website The Daily Reckoning, recently compared the Fed’s recent bailout of reckless mortgage loan speculators to how American educators have taken to coddling burgeoning young art students.

“…Modern American-style capitalism is more like ‘arts and crafts’ time in one of Manhattan’s pricey nursery schools. Every coddled kiddy’s ‘artistic’ creation – no matter how inept or ghastly it may be – elicits praise from the nursery school instructors. Indeed, every grunt elicits praise…and every boo-boo finds a Band-aid.”

This is revealing in two ways. First, that the cushy manner of the American education system, and the entitlement culture it engenders, is becoming increasingly known around the world. Second, that this entitlement culture may not only be a factor in American art and education, but it may have become entrenched far and wide, in the money system, the federal government, and the supposedly “free” economic market.

“The subject of the failed artist is one that’s never far from most of our minds, and in all likelihood, many of our futures.”

–Jerry Saltz, in a Dec. 2001 review of an installation by Michael Smith and Joshua White called “The QuinQuag Arts and Wellness Centre”

I should start this Chronicle by explaining what I mean by “artistic failure.”

It’s a tricky enough topic. When you Google the phrase, artistic failure tends to be applied most often to writing about individual artworks that don’t live up to expected potential. While the author could have simply referred to said work of art–Crime and Punishment, say, or the play Hamlet–as a mere “failure,” the work is instead deemed a deeper disaster, an “artistic failure,” as if there were something wrong at the very core of this work. The application of the damning modifier artistic reveals in these web musings and critiques a deeper frustration with anything that claims the exalted status of art and yet comes up short against the term.

This usage–of artistic as a damning modifier–suggests a conflicting attitude in America about art. On the one hand, because (most likely) of our recent history as a hegemonic force in world culture, Americans expect great things from art. We expect our artists to excel and lead the world, to help win the Cold War, to right social wrongs, to reflect what’s best about our country back on ourselves, to be stoically heroic exemplars of American “greatness”–all while making work that is interesting to look at and valuable to hold onto (preferably astronomically so).

At the same time that Americans have these (perhaps unrealistic) expectations about art, our national discourse about art and how to support it has been dominated–for the past twenty years, at least–by a brass-tax, efficiency-focused, business-oriented rationalistic realpolitik quite at odds with our national expectations for art. I’m referring to a host of defining incidents and events–the Mapplethorpe obscenity case, the furor over “Piss Christ,” the rise and fall and rise of the “NEA Four,” the removal of a Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” and the like–that knocked the status of artists down several notches. That is, whereas the previous generation of artists– Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenberg, Kenneth Noland, et al–had in mid-last century been national heroes and international stars that were placed on high pedastals and widely worshipped, now artists were somehow seen out of step with mainstream American values, if not downright pariahs.

As a result perhaps, today, while Americans still say they almost universally love art (and presumably continue to have high expectations for it), they also, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, overwhelmingly say they dislike artists. That is, 96% of survey respondents revealed they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities, but only 27% of respondents believed that artists contribute to the good of society.

This is understandable. When Joe Paycheck and Molly Punchclock, who each day put in an honorable and hard shift of economy-sustaining work, see artists getting wealthy for doing something they deem, at best, a hobby–well, it’s gonna lead to some kind of frustration…

While I’ve written plenty of art criticism in my time, I don’t intend here, on The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America, to focus on works of art that I deem to be failures, artistic or otherwise. However, I will explore how this essential conflict–between the American national aspirations for art and the American skepticisms about art and artists–plays a key role in what I intend to address as “artistic failure in America.”

Stay tuned for more…

Because I was attached to an anthropologist back in 1994, I had heard of and read parts of libertarian researcher and author Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve–which argued, controversially, the genetic superiority of the affluent classes (i.e., the plutocracy) in America–but I had not heard until recently of his 2003 book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950.

In this, Murray argues that world progress in the arts and sciences has declined since around 1800, and this has happened despite the fact that “wealth, cities and their cultural endowments, communication, and political freedom have…improved in recent centuries.”

According to the Wikisummary of Human Accomplishment, the decline is the result of a diminishment of four conditions that Murray says are necessary for people’s creative work to reach their full potential. Achievement is best stimulated, he says, in a culture:

  1. “…in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.” Moreover, Murray writes: “Human beings have been most magnificently productive and reached their highest cultural peaks in the times and places where humans have thought most deeply about their place in the universe and been most convinced they have one.”
  2. that “encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals.”
  3. where “organizing structures” are rich and old. Such structure can include “theories, styles, and techniques…such as the spectroscope in physics or the grand piano in music”.
  4. where people have “a well-articulated vision of, and use of, the transcendental good relevant to that domain.” Such a good can include truth, morality, or beauty.

I will have to read the full text of Murray’s Human Accomplishment, if only to see how his arguments about the decline of human achievement in art mesh with my ideas about the rise of artistic failure. There were large swaths of the Bell Curve that frustrated me by failing to show true causality for what was being argued. Granted, Murray is a master at manipulating statistics to prove a point that seems intuitively true, and apparently he does so again in this book, ranking great figures in several fields of human accomplishment from 800 BC to 1950 using various statistical means. We have to remember though, while many may be convinced that the arts are only getting worse, Disraeli’s adage about stats (”there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”) and the old adage about nostalgia (”that nostalgia is to memory as a diet soda is to a fine wine”) reveal that collective human belief is often faulty.

Still, artistic failure is real enough in America… I’ll stake my steak on that much.