"I want an art of balance, of purity, that neither harasses nor worries. I have chosen to keep worries and torment inside me and only paint the beauty of the world . . . I go to meet my feelings; I go towards ecstasy . . . I'm waiting for the love at first sight the I know is out there."
- Henri Matisse
"Art is art. Everything else is everything else." - Ad Reinhardt
Picasso in Chicago
Matisse isn't much in vogue among the culturati these days; their tastes seem to run to rotting fish and 'fly ridden' cow carcasses, not beautiful paintings. That may be because art, as we thought we had known it, has fractured Ad Reinhardt's mot and become everything else. As Tom Wolfe brilliantly states the case in The Painted Word, Art "disappeared up its own fundamental aperture . . . and came out the other side as Art Theory!" But that's not the worst of it according to curator and former museum director Julian Spalding in his enlightening critiques of the modern art scene, Con Art and The Eclipse of Art. Spalding sees little merit in much of what is presented in art galleries today and expresses a view now widely shared among art lovers that the whole spectacle " may be heading into a cul-de-sac," along with, I might add, the rest of what we erroneously call "civilization."
"Real art," says Spalding, "has been eclipsed by con art." Unfortunately, much modern art is a cartoon of forms that had once been valued as legitimate expressions of what it means to be a human being engaged with the mystery and beauty of the world. "We reserve the word art," writes Spalding, "for those rare visual creations that stir our emotions and stimulate our thoughts profoundly and elusively . . . art in the end, is not an illusion but a revelation." Lamenting art's post-war march toward content deemed shocking and offensive rather than what is considered "recognizable and enjoyable," Spalding points out "no modern artist worthy of the name could aspire as Van Gogh had done, to produce art that would be all embracing, popular, loving and profound and art today is the lesser for it."
In the Eclipse of Art, Spalding suggests that real art expresses our deepest truths and connects across the ages into our own time, maintaining continuity with the art of the past. "The quality that links the paintings of Vermeer and Matisse, Gruenewald and Pissarro and that earns them the status of works of art," he says, "is the aesthetic light that appears to shine out from them . . . The greater the art is, the more detached it becomes from private meanings or small social circles, and the more freely it stands as its own interpreter, to speak to all humankind." The aspiration to create the caliber of art described by Spalding is spiritual rather than conceptual, and seeks to express in some measure the same the "draught of joie de vivre" and beauty that inspired the old masters, an aesthetic which "floats in sparkling air," as Winston Churchill characterized the work of Manet, Cezanne and Matisse.
But even in the absence of such lofty ambitions, the creative process can be a transformative refuge from the vicissitudes as well as a guide for envisioning new ways of being in the world as we celebrate the dance of life. "This is the Quest," as the wonderful Irish painter Anne Madden imagines is the case for most artists "trying to uncover or discover a reality beyond actuality, trying to make visible invisible aspects of the world, however they conceive or perceive them to be." In addition to painting's "abstract qualities, space and color and formal passion," she says, it is the "structure of light" and the "aura great paintings shed" that inspired her work; these qualities emanating from the Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery of London, she confesses, made her hair stand on end. "It was the painting's aura and radiance that were, and remain, so affecting," she writes. "The figures appear to be inhabited by a light that permeates the silvery colors peculiar to that artist."
Reading Madden's comments I'm reminded of the ancient Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the compelling story of how the world came into being out of liquid chaos at the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing into the Persian Gulf. In the watery world of ancient Mesopotamia, as in the modern painter's fluid space of possibility, luminous atomic structures of color and light arise spontaneously out of the infinite flux of a random, ceaselessly changing universe, glittering images of cosmic light. In the paintings of Claude Monet, one of Winston Churchill's favorite impressionists, the focus is mainly on the visual impact of light rather than the narrative, or as a critic in Monet's era put it, rendering "not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape." Emile Zola defined such art as "a corner of nature seen through a temperament." The imagined or felt effect transcended the importance of the visual facts recorded. Monet launched this "impressionistic" experiment in communicating the effects of light with his idea of "all-over painting" which anticipated today's breakthroughs in Quantum Theory and the revelation that everything we see consists of atoms spinning in empty space.
"I am pursuing the impossible," said Monet in conversation with Herman Bang in 1895. "Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat . . . I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found--the beauty of the air around them, and that is nothing less than the impossible."
The mysterious mystical light that penetrates the paintings of Claude Monet is also apparent in the work of the great visionary artist William Blake in which light has the power of a cosmic force, penetrating everywhere in the picture at once. Seeing this light in the work of these old masters or in Anne Madden's beautiful paintings for that matter, is not just another metaphor for the revelatory power of art. There is a dynamic process at play wherein light mysteriously exposes itself, revealing what Goethe called the "archetypical phenomena" that is the essential nature of light. "The eye owes its existence to the light," said Goethe. "Out of indifferent animal organs the light produces an organ to correspond to itself; and so the eye is formed by the light for the light so that the inner light may meet the outer." In other words, the work of these and other great artists exposes the viewer to an awareness of light revealing itself, or as contemporary artist James Turrell says, "Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation."
Matisse is another artist who recognized light as the link to the spirit when he said "the artist or poet possess an inner light that transforms objects to create a new world, one that is sensitive and organized, a living world that is in itself the infallible sign of divinity, the reflection of divinity."
The Aesthetic Value of Art
The aesthetic value of a painting derives from several qualities. One example is texture. As Bernard Berenson famously said, a painting must have tactile values. Color is another quality widely cited by collectors and connoisseurs as an important value determinant. One great American collector known for his love of colorful paintings was Duncan Phillips, a man who critic Robert Hughes once described as the "compleat optical collector." Phillips craved the "delight and radiance and sensory intelligence that is broadcast by an art based on color," wrote Hughes. "Color healed; it consoled; it gave access to Eden . . . He came to see the significance of modern art largely as narrative of color, of agreeable sense impression laden with thought, "A joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."
I suspect Phillips would agree if he was around today that Kandinsky got it right when he said that color is the key the artist uses to "get the human soul to vibrate," and especially with Vincent Van Gogh's take on color in a letter to his brother Theo. "Man is not placed on this earth merely to be happy," Van Gogh wrote, "nor is he placed here merely to be honest. He is here to accomplish great things through society . . . to outgrow the vulgarity in which the existence of almost all individuals drags on. The uglier, older, meaner, sicker, and poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent."
But even when championed by a great artist like Van Gogh, color isn't everything; art is much more than retinal sensation; a painting also constitutes the artist's inner vision, "Not what you see," as Picasso put it, "but what you know is there." Picasso recognized that authentic art is intuitive and arises out of the creative process that he once described to the photographer Brassai. "If it occurred to man to create his own images," he said, "it's because he discovered them all around him, almost formed, already within his grasp. He saw them in a bone, in the irregular surfaces of cavern walls, in a piece of wood. One form might suggest a woman, another a bison, and still another the head of a demon."
D.H. Lawrence thought along the same lines, describing artistic design as an act of seeing the relations between various elements at play in a situation. "You can't invent a design," Lawrence said. "You recognize it in the fourth dimension. That is, with your blood and your bones, as well as with your eyes."
For Robert Motherwell, a painter considered by the media pundits of his era as the most articulate member of the abstract expressionists, the challenge was to find a "creative principle . . . a method of rightly conducting the brush." Above all, Motherwell sought to cultivate what he called a "principle that is not a style," an attitude that is open to chance, an approach to graphic expression he labeled "psychic automatism." His goal was akin to the poet Mallarme's idea to "paint not the thing, but the effect it produces."
"To express the felt nature of reality is the artist's concern," Motherwell said. "By feeling is meant the response of the 'body-and-mind' as a whole to the events of reality. The great Paul Klee, for all his knowledge and skill as a painter, deferred in the end to a power greater than himself to account for the miraculous effect described by Motherwell. I think all visual artists, great and small, eventually realize the truth of Klee's insight that creativity is really a gift from the Almighty rather than a volitional act. "The best pictures cannot be willed," Klee said. "They just come into being."
The Post-Warholian Nightmare
"Success in the art market is measured in terms of rising prices rather than rising sales."
- Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices
In 1990, a can of artist Piero Manzoni's kaka sold at Christie's London for $67,000. Many art lovers construed from this transaction that the art market had degenerated into a hog pit, a consequence of crony corporate capitalism that was documented back in 1985 by the writers of the Whitney Biennial catalog. "We have moved into a situation where wealth is the only agreed upon arbiter of value," the catalog stated. "Capitalism has overtaken contemporary art, quantifying it and reducing it to the status of a commodity. Ours is a system adrift in mortgaged goods and obsessed with accumulation, where the spectacle of art consumption has been played out in a public forum geared to journalistic hyperbole."
And there you have it, the global art market in a nutshell, a racket designed by rich people to ensure that they don't take losses on pictures. Thus informed, you're now ready to buy that expensive New York apartment at Gramercy Park and commence to fill it with selections from the plethora of toni galleries in the Big Apple, a conspicuously upscale venue that quickly dispels William blake's pious notion, as reported by critic Robert Hughes, "where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on." Art is not only being carried on, in some instances, it's transcending reality. Like modern agriculture, modern art is big business. "Modern art in America did not emerge gradually from cold-water walk-ups and obscure studios," writes Ariella Budick in the Financial Times newspaper. "It sprang into the public consciousness on a factory scale." Budick is referring to the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City that launched an unprecedented era of dynamic growth and expansion in the nation's art world, a phenomenon that has driven prices to ever rising heights.
Commercialism in art is described in the Philosophy of Andy Warhol by the money man himself: "Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting," Warhol wrote. "I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall." When he was producing his iconic images in the 60s and 70s, Andy Warhol was known as the "Pope of Pop," but his legacy as an artist is more substantive than the sobriquet suggests. In the years since his death in 1987, his influence has extended far beyond the so-called "Pop" movement. As Arthur Danto pointed out in his enlightening writings about the artist, Warhol transformed the very concept of art itself. According to Danto, "He changed not so much the way we look at art, but the way art was understood." Before Warhol, the assumption was that art was supposed to be beautiful, but that definitely was not the case in Warhol's Duchampion world in which anything under the sun qualified as art. His silkscreen paintings of celebrities, for example, or the famous Brillo boxes aren't beautiful in the traditional sense at all. Nor was the environment in which these works were created, an industrialized, mechanistic version of the traditional ideal of the "artist's studio," aptly named The Factory, a milieu where uniformity, not beauty in the classical sense, ruled. Warhol openly admitted that he aspired to be a machine, citing repetition as a key element in his aesthetic. "I like things to be exactly the same over and over again," he famously said.
Money, of course, has nothing to do with beauty, at least Beauty with a capital "B" so as not to confuse it with glamour. Glamour is merely stoking the fires of desire through the allure of fetishism and fashion. Beauty emanates from a much deeper source. Agnes Martin, in a brilliant essay on the subject, describes beauty as an awareness in the mind of the mystery of life. Being an artist, according to Martin, is being concerned with beauty and happiness. "Beauty illustrates happiness," she says. "The wind in the grass, the glistening waves following each other, the flight of birds--all speak of happiness. Happiness is being on the beam with life--to feel the pull of life." Matisse expressed the same idea when he stated that his intention as an artist was to "reconcile man to himself by means of aesthetic harmony." Ugliness, by contrast, the opposite of the happy mind state induced by beauty, lacks the power to please us. It saps our energy and sullies our creative relationship with life. The bland uniformity of the urban landscape is a case in point, a monstrous modernist expression that has an inharmonious, spiritually deadening effect because something vital is missing from the scene, namely, the wild element of nature that makes the human heart sing.
In our greed-is-good culture, consumers are held in the grip of desire where style lacks content, form is without function and commerce is devoid of integrity because only things that serve egotistical purposes are admitted. The moral or aesthetic ideal is excluded in favor of the stylistic hook. The art world is no exception to this mad rush to catch the gleaming product de jour in a cultural milieu that Robert C. Morgan calls the "post-Warholian nightmare," a context in which art has lost its traditional sense of spiritual and aesthetic necessity and become another "product." The purpose of the modern art marketing process is to foster a state of being that the Surrealists called le merveilleux, a heightened state of awareness of desire and its satisfaction. "When seeking the object of fulfillment," wrote André Breton, "the demands of desire exert a strange power over external phenomena, tending egoistically to admit only that which can serve its purpose."
"The post-Warholian nightmare is precisely this," writes Robert Morgan. "Art has become irrelevant to the art world except for the dinners, the parties and the discos. It is one big, mindless bash where money talks and no one listens, and where even fewer see the art." In postmodern terms, insists Morgan, "The art of the spectacle conveys little in the way of heightened emotional awareness and no transformation of the audience's idea of the world through feeling. The result is a psychic deadness that characterizes much of today's art, a calculated coldness that mirrors the morose, alienating effects of television and the porn dominated internet."
A final thought on this theme comes from art critic Donald Kuspit, who says that "art has to facilitate our belief that we can be spontaneously creative selves. It is necessary for psychological survival in our society, which however materially wonderful--and clearly it is not materially wonderful for everybody--is hardly fit to live in psychologically. If art doesn't help us believe in ourselves, it will become another wretched part of our unfit environment."
With an army of millionaires and billionaires spending twenty percent of what the Capgemini/Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report calls their "investments of passion" dollars on art, a flood of money has been vying for a relatively trickling flow of art works. After a slump in the 90s, the big art auction houses are offering more works at higher prices than ever before, a trend that may have inspired critic Robert Hughes to comment, "What strip-mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture." Historically, art as a "product" has been valued in a context that transcends commerce. Pissarro, for example, viewed collectors who invested in a work of art as if it were a share of stock as "vulgar" and "degenerate." One can only imagine what the great artist would think of art futures contracts sold by Dublin-based Intrade's Prediction Market. The idea, according to Intrade, was to create a "price-transparent, liquid tradable, art-based derivative" that would bridge the circles of collectors and financiers. If one shares Pissarro's view of all this, remember that is was artist Andy Warhol who famously quipped back when the current art boom began in the 70s, "I like money on the wall."
Judging by the record sales of art at auction recently, so do a lot of very rich collectors. In view of the exponential rises in art prices since Warhol's day, one can't help but wonder what's so special about art that people are willing to spend as much as $100 million for it, as a collector recently did for a diamond-studded skull by Damien Hirst. Well, for one thing, art tends to endure. What's the saying? "Life is short, but art is long!" You make some art and it's liable to survive you, while that gourmet dinner you ordered at Le Bec Fin, no matter how artfully prepared, is consumed in an evening. Another special thing about art, of course, is that rich people are willing to spend fortunes for it. That makes it very special indeed, at least if your name is Damien Hirst, Bansky, or one of the other 'highly paid' luminaries of the art world. David Rockefeller made Mark Rothko's art very special, for example, when he sold an early work of the artist that he bought for measly ten grand for more than $74 million.
Alas, art prices, like prices in most commodity markets, are determined by the forces of supply and demand. The art market is unique, however, in that it is essentially supply driven since the number of works available for sale at any given time is always limited. The scarcity of high-quality art and the thirty-year market cycle tends to drive prices even higher. The total supply of paintings by a deceased artist, for instance, is fixed; no additional supply can be created to meet increased demand, a phenomenon economists call "zero elasticity." Thus, when collectors compete at auction to acquire a particular rare art asset, the price can catapult into the astro-sphere. Another factor that pushes prices up is a phenomenon art experts call the "Veblen Effect," Nineteenth century economist Thorstein Veblen's theory that equates high art prices with increased demand. According to Veblen, rising prices in the art market have a way of attracting buyers rather than driving them away. That Veblen was clearly on to something is evidenced by Art Market Research's index of contemporary art, which has shot up more than nine fold since 1997.
Human beings have been creating works of art for over 30,000 years as far as we know. Famous examples include the mystical cave paintings at Lascaux, the Great Pyramids and Royal Tombs of Egypt, the pottery, statuary, and temples of ancient Greece and Rome, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the painting masterpieces of the Renaissance, and the vast proliferation of experimental forms of the modern era. This creative bouillabaisse, accumulated through the ages and now celebrated via the wonders of mass communications technology, has in many ways redefined social values and moral behavior, no small achievements. Indeed, the word "art' is imbued by our image-based culture with glitz and splendor. There's more wealth concentrated at the upper echelon of society than ever before, so much in fact, that the folks controlling the Lion's share of it can't seem to find enough ways to spend it. Luxury watches, designer handbags, elegant clothes, supersonic airplanes and magnificent yachts don't seem to satisfy the lust for novelty among the rich so they buy art by the truckload as well. To satisfy the insatiable appetites of these high rollers for anything artistic, there is a great deal of crowding at the trough as artists multiply like horny energizer bunnies. Everybody and their brother, it seems, aspires to be an artist as art schools across the country turn out more than 40,000 artists every year. The irony is, in a high-tech world where it's easier than ever to market creative work, only about ten percent of the more than two million art school graduates out there are actually making a living as artists.
After a generation of cultural Reaganomics during which the aesthetic "inner" meaning of art was eclipsed by greed and sensationalism, a sea change is in process. As the art world evolves beyond its obsession with what Robert Hughes described as the "shock of the new," a phenomenon that perversely constricts both artist's and collector's ideas about the meaning of art, there is a growing acceptance of the idea that the best works are those that reflect an attribute art dealer Brooke Alexander calls "genuine impulse," a mysterious characteristic that he says "has to do with someone making an image which is really part of his or her character, what they're really about." Hopefully, the legions of artists flooding into the marketplace will use their creative skills for more compelling reasons than capital preservation for the leisure class. In view of the transformative power of Art to enlighten the human heart, illuminate perception and enlarge the aesthetic landscape, perhaps it can save itself, and us, from the destructive excesses of consumer culture. The imaginative tools of art and design thus defined could open new evolutionary pathways out of the current crisis by "luring us into a different kind of knowing," as the Mythos Institute expresses it, "calling us not to cling to the glittering image, but to follow our hearts and bring forth more beauty into the world."
INEQUALITY MADE VISIBLE
"We have plenty of art, and important art, too . . . We have plenty of art in America. It is social justice which is in gruesomely short supply." - Kurt Vonnegut
The consequences for contemporary artists and their work in a predatory capitalist economy plagued by rising financial inequality and political polarization are the same negative ramifications of greed and unbridled exploitation that now undermine social stability world wide and ultimately threaten the very survival of the human species. In 2017, the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report revealed that one percent of the world's richest individuals own half of all global household wealth and ten percent of these rascals accounted for a whopping 88 percent of it. This monstrous inequality and the social polarization that ensues has been reflected in the art market by the mega-sales of several exorbitantly expensive "trophy " paintings at auction. Two recent examples are a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which sold at Sotheby's for $98 million ($110.5m with fees) and Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" which sold at Christie's for $400 million ($450.3m with fees). Sales like these and the rapid commodification of art in recent years has made it clear that money trumps aesthetics, a process that has made a handful of artists very rich. According to Artnet.com, 25 big-name artists were responsible for more than 44 percent of all auction sales totals in 2017. Meanwhile, at the lower and mid-range sectors of the market, individual artists strive just to keep going, along with a once thriving middle class in America that continues to shrink in tandem with working-class families struggling for basic survival.
Ever since the neoconservative coup d'état got rolling with a vengeance during Ronald Reagan's administration, an elite cabal of wealthy neoliberal criminals has succeeded in transforming what was once a democratic republic into an oligarchy with an economic system that works well for a few folks at the top, but shamelessly oppresses and exploits those that Franklin D. Roosevelt called "the forgotten people at the bottom of the economic pyramid." According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, inequalities in America threaten to undermine the entire social order. Stieglitz cites the Walton family as an example of the egregious inequality that now prevails. Just six of the Wal-Mart corporation heirs, reports Stieglitz, command the wealth equivalent to the bottom 30 percent of American society. As ecologist David W. Orr points out, the twenty richest Americans have more wealth than the lowest-earning half of the population. Globally, sixty-two people have more net wealth than the lowest-earning 3.6 billion people.
Why does inequality matter? For one thing, when all the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top ten percent of society, the other 90 percent is deprived of spendable income. Statistics released by the Social Security Administration reveal that 51 percent of American workers in 2014 made less than $2,500.00 a month before taxes--which is below the poverty line for a family of five. What's more, seventy percent of American workers make less than $50,000 annually, according Washington's Blog, an online publication. Forty percent make less than $20,000 per year. A recent Truthdig report concluded, "We've gotten to the point where the majority of US citizens are barely making enough to make ends meet, and let's face it, most aren't even scraping by." In fact, over 150 million Americans have now fallen into poverty while corporate CEOs' salaries have jumped 26 percent in just one year. Stiglitz also points out that not only does the US have the highest level of financial inequality in the world, it also suffers the least equality of opportunity of all the advanced industrial nations.
Stiglitz further notes that the neoliberal argument often advanced claiming financial elites deserve the lion's share of the spoils because they contribute the most, is specious at best. In reality there is a "big disconnect between private rewards and social returns," says Stieglitz, a fact that undermines the neoliberal "trickle-down" theory that formed the basis of the casino-capitalist economy ushered in with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a measure that separated investment and commercial banking activities. As a result, risk-taking rather than socially beneficial lending became the primary focus of financial institutions, which led to disaster. The truth is, capitalism has historically never performed well for the society at large without regulation, a bald refutation of the neoliberal view that sees the world exclusively through what John Ralston Saul calls the "prism of economics." The people who have amassed the greatest wealth are not the creative class of inventors, artists and geniuses who developed the new Internet-based engine that now drives the global economy. That distinction belongs to the banksters and other financial speculators and parasites who manipulate the crony capitalistic system that brought the world to the brink of financial ruin in 2008.
Today's obscene inequality, facilitated by the neoliberal delusion of endless economic growth, would serve as a warning for a wiser society that
"The economy must conform to the rules set by the larger system in which it is embedded," as David Orr notes, "or sooner or later it will cause its own destruction." Understanding the "patterns that connect" (Gregory Bateson's phrase) human culture to the large bio-physical systems of nature, Orr suggests, is paramount for survival. Unfortunately, America's neoliberal
policy makers are largely oblivious to ecological realities. The price for this ignorance could well be mass extinction unless human beings learn to operate in accord with nature's limits. "Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology," EF Schumacher presciently wrote, "towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful."
West of Dover. Amish farmer, Dover, Delaware,