The art object, as a newly victorious fetish (and not the sad, alienated fetish) must work to deconstruct its traditional aura, its authority, its power of illusion to stand out in the pure obscenity of commodity.(1)

Jean Baudrillard

“How useless is painting”, wrote Pascal, “which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!” This is the sort of reaction that might well be engendered in the uninitiated after a visit to the exhibits of the annual Turner Prize in London’s Tate Gallery. It may or may not be deemed an adequate response to Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista, a limited edition of ninety small cans, each containing a thirty-gram turd of the artist. (Or possibly not containing the turd, because an obligation enjoined on the purchasers was that the cans should never be opened and so far apparently none of them has been. The last [unopened] can to appear on the market fetched ₤97,250 at Sotheby’s in 2008.) Manzoni’s inspiration for this line of work was a remark made by his father, namely: “your art is a load of shit” (his father happened to own a canning factory). Actually it is not quite true that no Manzoni can has ever been opened: in 1989 Bernard Bazile, a French artist, exhibited a partially opened one as his own work at the Centre Georges Pompidou and labelled it “Boîte ouverte de Piero Manzoni” – thus illustrating that Manzonism had become a highly marketable commodity. Indeed Manzoni himself was nothing if not inventive in regard to marketing his genius; for example, you could also buy balloons containing the artist’s breath (they were labelled “Fiato d’artista”).

Pascal’s insight could certainly be applied to Jeff Koons, the cult artist of crass consumerism and infantile jokes, whose works include Rabbit (the cast of an inflatable plastic bunny which allegedly “parodies” Brancusi’s bird sculptures), vacuum cleaners framed in Plexiglass or the artist’s take on kitsch ornaments like a pig flanked by angels from a series aptly named Banality. Koon’s genius is to “amplify an object’s quiddity through a framing device even more puissant than a pedestal”, as one curator of a Koons show put it in a catalogue blurb which is itself beyond parody. This quiddity stuff was apparently Koons’ big idea; according to the critic Jackie Wullschlager he hasn’t had any others. His career, she writes, has been spent in “elaborating that gesture: exaggerating the aura of cheap, ordinary things, aggrandising them into works of art in increasingly expensive materials, and proffering them back to the one per cent as ultimate positional goods”. This is the cutting edge of a phenomenon whereby, as Jean Baudrillard puts it somewhat hyperbolically in an essay (1995) entitled Aesthetic Illusion and Disillusion, “art as a whole is now merely the metalanguage of banality”.(2)

Acceptance of Koons’ art is effected by the sort of aggressive marketing that is familiar from social media campaigns aimed at the impressionable: “If you’re critical, you’re already out of the game”, announced Koons’ dealer, while Koons himself explains that “when people make judgements, they close all the possibility around them”. This observation is sadly not seen for what it is, complains Wullschlager, namely “the reversal of the spirit of intellectual openness that has allowed art to flourish since the Enlightenment”. Anyway most critics tend to play along with the Koons freak show (it wouldn’t do to look out of touch). As The New Yorker’s man put it: “[Koons is] the signal artist of today’s world… if you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” As much in sorrow as in anger, Wullschlager concludes from all this that the Koons phenomenon illustrates “what happens when money and celebrity become the yardsticks of culture. It is not a pretty sight.”(3)

Of course one should bear in mind that art has always, in some sense, been a commodity, as well as all the other things that it is. In the Middle Ages the church was the most important commissioner of art – and even those donors pictured kneeling in the corners of Gothic religious paintings would not have been able to sponsor an iconography that was not ecclesiastically sanctioned. From the Renaissance onwards, sponsors would include secular lords and the subjects were often profane, while the sujets remained largely at the discretion of the sponsor. Aristocratic and ecclesiastical commissions determined art and architecture from the Counter-Reformation until the 19th century, their various phases (Baroque, Rococo, neo-Classical, etc.) reflecting broader shifts of taste and artistic demand in societies becoming more secularised as a result of the Enlightenment. Thereafter an ascendant bourgeoisie (earlier in the Netherlands) began to finance artistic production after its own taste, being also prepared to buy what a recognised artist happened to have on offer. The advent of Historicism in the 19th century meant that the institutions of the state provided a huge reservoir of commissions that required their chosen artists to celebrate and interpret a humanistic and primarily heroic national narrative. Romanticism began to salute the free artistic genius, a sloganeering attitude that was later taken up and made the norm by Modernism; but even the Romantics were often responding to perceived interests and wishes of potential buyers, for example in catering to the newly fashionable sensibility for landscape and nature.

Such a perception of patronage in the history of western art highlights what is different about art patronage today, at least as it is conducted in the price stratosphere that determines the contemporary canon. The shift to an almost purely commodified art world surely begins with the rise of the art dealer as an influential trend-setter and arbiter of taste from the 1870s onwards; it has reached its apotheosis with the dealer-led commodification of contemporary art. Instead of reflecting institutional, social or aesthetic preoccupations as heretofore, much of contemporary art is primarily commodification, a refuge for oligarchs’ money and a prestigious type of investment in a world where the global super-rich have more wealth than they can imagine outlets for. This sort of art market, divorced from aesthetic considerations based on any agreed norms or any sponsor-led reflection of a particular social framework, is the artistic equivalent of the property market, with the difference that its players have devised a way of keeping it permanently aloft by a system of thinly concealed price-fixing. Institutions as buyers, awards like the Turner Prize in Britain and the much expanded phenomenon of art fairs help to keep the business rolling along.

This combination of ostentation and secrecy reminds one of the Marxism-based theory of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who believed that the financial and social elites used culture as a means of distancing themselves from the rest. “The gratuitous expense of time or money that is presupposed by material or symbolic appropriation of works of art”, he wrote, “or even … the self-imposed constraints and restrictions which make up the ‘asceticism of the privileged’ … and the refusal of the facile which is the basis of all ‘pure’ aesthetics, are … variants of the master-slave dialectic through which the possessors affirm their possession of their possessions.”(4) The modern art market looks a lot like this, except that the “refusal of the facile” has been replaced by the exaltation of novelty for its own sake. The works may still be unfathomable to the uninitiated, but that may be because there is nothing to fathom. The point is that complexity and depth have all too often been substituted by shockingly new variants of self-conscious vacuity, self-parody and boorish narcissism.

The immediate consequence is that art is considered to be anything which someone decides to label as such, for example light bulbs going on and off in a gallery room (which won the Turner Prize) or a neatly arranged pile of bricks (admittedly architecture is also a neatly arranged pile of bricks). Time was, however, when the success of an artist was measured more in his or her ability to emulate (not copy, see below) the masterpieces of recognised geniuses; or, by the same token, an ability to push the limits of the status quo to achieve a new angle of vision. Rules had first to be mastered so that genius could break (or reinterpret) them. As there are now no norms to undermine, it is ever harder for artists to produce something that will stimulate the jaded palate of the public that has been led to expect that mere novelty is the essence of genius. “Creativity” today thus tends to be governed by the law of diminishing returns – if there are no rules, there are no rules to break.(5)

If everything or anything is art, there is no criterion of artistic quality other than what the nouveaux riches can be persuaded to pay for it. “I don’t know what art is”, says dissident critic Brian Sewell, “but I do know what it isn’t. And it isn’t someone walking around with a salmon over his shoulder or embroidering the name of everyone they have slept with on the inside of a tent.”

Although the Americans and the Brits have expanded the definitions of art most arbitrarily and enthusiastically, Central Europe has provided key inspiration in the work of Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). The latter’s inflated rhetoric about the artist’s role in society (unkindly described by a hostile critic as “simple-minded utopian drivel”) was complemented by his gift for devising attention-grabbing stunts that launched a thousand imitators in the dreaded field of “Performance Art”.(6) One of the most hyped of these performances was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965).

The Wikipedia’s description of the latter runs as follows: “The artist could be viewed through the glass of the gallery’s window. His face was covered in honey and gold leaf, an iron slab was attached to his boot. In his arms he cradled a dead hare, into whose ear he mumbled muffled noises as well as explanations of the drawings that lined the walls.” Such materials and actions had specific symbolic value for Beuys. For example, honey is the product of bees, and for Beuys (following Rudolf Steiner), bees represented an ideal society of warmth and brotherhood. Gold had its importance within alchemical enquiry, and iron, the metal of Mars, stood for a masculine principle of strength and connection to the earth. A photograph from the performance, in which Beuys is sitting with the hare, has been described by some critics as “a new Mona Lisa of the 20th century”, though Beuys disagreed with the description.(7)

This pretty much sums up the problem with Performance Art, as with Conceptual Art, namely that it tends to require a lengthy verbal explanation of the arbitrary meanings attached to its component parts, some of which may chime with archetypal symbolism, but most of which appear to have been thought up smoking marijuana in the bathtub. Tom Wolfe first made this point in his coat-trailing book The Painted Word (1975), a polemic that made the targeted artists, and especially the pretentious new breed of opinion-forming art critics, satisfyingly apoplectic. By the time we had reached the stage of Conceptual Art, Wolfe implies, the visual had been subordinated to the word, and the word often to ideology. “Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up in its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!” And elsewhere he added: “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”

But this is only part of the problem. The other part is that the frantic search for ideas and actions that scandalise the public (for example with blasphemies and pornography) is highly reductive, just as the reiterated use of formerly taboo words like “fuck” or “fucking” in contemporary drama now has only a deadening and weakening effect rather than a shocking and dramatic one. Since modern culture has insisted on its taboo-breaking role, its duty to shock above all, it has been running out of taboos to break. The last frontier, as Martin Gayford has mischievously suggested, is political correctness. Of Sarah Lucas’s sculptures at the 2015 Venice Biennale he writes: “[There are] a number of life-casts of the lower halves of women with cigarettes protruding from their intimate crevices. This last is outrageously daring, smoking being one of the few truly taboo subjects in the modern world.”(8)

An exception to the banality of such “shocking” artistic statements might be the “Actionism” of the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, whose “Aktionen” hark back to pagan sacrifice and symbolic rituals transposed onto a Christian backdrop. His “Orgiastic Mystery Theatre” (Orgien, Mysterien, Theater) consisted of “actions” that included animal sacrifice and simulated crucifixion with the active participation of helpers (for example to chuck buckets of blood around), as well as music and dancing. This required elaborate staging and quite a lot of participants (indeed audience participation) that raised it somewhat above the level of solo artists, or a small group, simply trying to outdo each other in weirdness. Its mixture of ritual, music and visual effects make it more of a Freudian Gesamtkunstwerk travestying certain sacral elements of our civilisation.

However the mingling of ritualistic slaughter with sadomasochistic elements and parody of Eucharistic symbolism still seemed designed to épater le bourgeois, an intention shared with the notorious New York happenings that foreshadowed the Orgiastic Mystery Theatre. In particular the crucifixion parodies were evidently intended to outrage, as the following description of the high point of one Aktion suggests: “The naked man lies as if crucified. Viscera (or brains?) are put on his sex organ and doused with buckets of blood by Nitsch. The man is again given blood to drink. He kneads the mess on his own body for a long time with apparent enjoyment. Then he is taken away on the stretcher with a cacophonic noise followed by a charming violin piece.”(9)  The 130th Aktion (in Naples in 2010) involved the “crucifixion” of two “curators” of Personal Structures, an “international contemporary art platform” with which Nitsch’s later work is associated. It was considered such a success that its documentation was exhibited at the following year’s Biennale, together with Marina Abramović’s video installation of her locked in a staring battle with a donkey.

Underlying Wiener Aktionismus is an assumption that rituals and symbolically laden images must take the form of literal events, as opposed to the illusionistic show of conventional drama. In his theoretical writings(10) Nitsch lumps together Dionysian and Christian rites as provokers of Aristotelian catharsis through fear, terror and compassion. A key part of his socio-artistic credo is that natural human instincts have been repressed by social norms and conventions – which is hardly an original notion from Rousseau onwards. Moreover ritual slaughter and blood-smearing will release repressed energy, as well as offering purification and redemption throughsuffering.(11)  This too hardly seems to be an earth-shattering discovery, since the mingling of the mimetic with the symbolic is eternally characteristic of drama – what difference is there really between a faked crucifixion à la Nitsch and the simulation on stage of someone being shot? A further conundrum arises with other exotic examples of contemporary Performance or Conceptual Art, namely that in order to épater la bourgeoisie that has become both your sponsor and enthusiastic audience, ever more desperate or gimmicky stratagems are required, the end result being little more than clichéd socio-political gestures. As the Italian critic Lea Vergine waspishly observed, the Orgiastic Mystery Theatre should really be called “Irritart” because it functions merely as social irritant. In a review of a Nitsch documentary Retrospective held in Prague, Eugene Gorny elaborates on that point: “We… see in Nitsch an example of religion degenerated into art (in this respect our [post]modern condition reveals once more a sad similarity to Hellenistic epoch). On the other hand, art itself becomes no more than a charlatan’s hocus-pocus, however terrifying or purifying it could seem. … The art of Nitsch and the like will always have a strong appeal for those who follow their impulses of violence and lust because of their lack of awareness.”(12)

The ritualistic element in Nitsch’s work at least gives it a certain coherence compared to the whimsical happenings of much other “performance art”. Some early actions led to interventions (on the grounds of blasphemy or obscenity) by the Vienna police, who perhaps were not best equipped to make fine distinctions between artistic authenticity and mere exhibitionism. While Nitsch was brought before the courts several times on grounds that many would now consider anachronistic or reactionary, a fellow Actionist, Otto Mühl spent over six years in prison for sexual interference with minors and drug offences committed as leader of the Friedrichshof Commune in Burgenland. After a while he distanced himself from Aktion, calling it “happening as a bourgeois art form, mere art”. As an artist with intellectual and political pretensions, Mühl too displayed a remarkable lack of originality in his manifesto for the commune, the aim of which was the Proudhonist destruction of private property, as well as the institution of free love and collective education of children.(13) Since such education evidently included in some cases sexually abusing minors, the courts were not over-impressed by this altruistic mission statement. Normally one should not judge an artistic talent in terms of the artist’s biography, but in both cases – Nitsch and Mühl – their artistic output is largely inseparable from their socio-political and philosophical allegiances – and they themselves seem to insist on that.

For example Otto Mühl’s obiter dicta seek to justify the gratuitous hard core pornography of his film-making (including coprophilia, sadomasochism and the consumption of vomit and urine) in the following terms: “I am for lewdness… I make films to provoke scandals, for audiences that are hidebound, perverted by ‘normalcy’, mentally stagnating and conformist… The worldwide stupefaction of the masses in the hands of artistic, religious, political swine can be stopped only by the most brutal utilisation of all available weapons. Pornography is an appropriate means to cure our society from its genital panic. All kinds of revolt are welcome: only in this manner will this insane society, the product of the fantasies of primeval madmen, finally collapse… I restrict myself to flinging the food to the beasts: let them choke on it.” There is an irony here, namely that although both Wiener Aktionismus and Mühl’s post-Aktionismus were avowedly hostile to commodification, which was seen as part of bourgeois society’s totalitarian conspiracy against personal liberation, the scandals he sought to provoke could only take place through a process of commodification – that is, through media hype and public provocation which transformed otherwise banal obscenities into a marketable commodity. No true and enduring artist in history has justified his or her work purely on the grounds that it shocks people: the shocking element, where it occurred, was a by-product of creative genius’s apprehension of truth through aesthetic profundity. Smearing people’s genitals with blood, faeces or vomit may well make us feel physically sick, but that is a physiological rather than an aesthetic reaction.

To be continued

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