PRINT November 2007



REMEMBER KING TUT? Some thirty years ago, critics of the art world’s institutional workings ominously forewarned that the rise of the blockbuster exhibition—the showcase designed for mass appeal, able to draw immense throngs into the gilded tombs of history by taking up such iconic subjects as the ancient Egyptian ruler or Impressionism—would be attended by the dilution of historical discourse and the artistic community’s public sphere. After all, how could a meaningful, nuanced synthetic analysis of often profoundly ambiguous contemporary concerns take place when exhibition spaces were increasingly devoted to artists (if not to pharaohs) with the kind of name recognition more typically associated with the most popular commercial brands? Following the logic of a mass-production economy based on volume, the institutions of art—whose success would soon come to be measured almost exclusively in terms of audience size—were obviously becoming the instrument of powerful economic forces already dominating the culture at large.

Such a protest might seem quaint to us, if only it hadn’t been so prophetic—and, indeed, today’s museum requires massive attendance figures just to cover operating costs. So we would do well to look once again at the art world’s frequent mirroring of mass commerce, particularly in light of the explosion of popular interest in contemporary art during the past ten years. (Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether art’s public sphere has gone the way of the pyramids.) For with this radical expansion, contemporary art has seemed to follow a shift in the general culture from an economy of scale to one steeped in customization (or at least the illusion thereof). Even the most cursory look at the art world now—or at the copious advertisements cradling this editor’s letter—will glean a cornucopia of artistic approaches manifested in a diverse assortment of forms, media, and disciplines, wherein every practice (and all dialogue around it) unavoidably risks becoming yet another niche market among many.

To say this might seem at first merely to argue that our day has seen an extension of the pluralism of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the coexistence of parallel or divergent artistic strategies in contemporary art suggested there was no single coherent historical strand or trajectory to which artists, critics, curators, or collectors must necessarily respond. With contemporary art’s ever-widening circle, in other words, an array of artistic practices became fiscally sustainable as so many fields of “interest”—and to each his or her own taste. True enough. Of deeper consequence, however, are the various ways in which art as a critical enterprise begins to signify within this expanded field of taste, performing itself for knowing audiences, always signaling, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, its outsider (or cultish) status. It fulfills and affirms the expectations and biases of its viewership, matching the contours of “art” within the broader terrain of mass commerce, where the unique, transformative experience—formerly the purview of art alone—is given primacy. (Note in this regard how art fairs have begun mimicking biennials.) Following in the footsteps of so many subcultures of the twentieth century, then, the criticality of artistic practices typically registers less as subversion than as difference—something that operates less in terms of effect than affect, or style. And with its increasingly customized appeal, art becomes the redundant image, even the advertisement, of itself.

Of course, I write this letter in part because the same logic applies to this magazine, whose very purpose is supposedly to render such redundancy more visible, unfolding its implications not only for artistic production but also for art’s relationship with the culture at large. In representing any artwork at all, the magazine makes it digestible; and once a critical position is articulated here, another niche market is potentially created. Additionally, just as an artwork may become valued for its ostensible—even vocal—resistance to value, so criticism might seem to explicate and critique art and culture while in fact reaffirming the status quo. A question: Assuming that a publication, by its very expository and disseminative nature, is fated to perpetuate such cycling, how might it implicate that cycling nonetheless?

To be fair, the art world and Artforum are hardly alone in courting the image—and donning the attitude—of criticality. We live in a society of style. (Consider, for example, the increasing role of humor and entertainment in politically themed programming, from Bill Maher to Jon Stewart, where laughter fosters a sense of belonging and signals a kind of mutual accord, an affirmation of shared and preexisting opinion—the making of audience into a demographic marked by passivity.) Still, understood within artistic circles, this proposition can be revelatory. Take Aaron Young’s ten-minute Greeting Card action this fall, a Tut-like affair if there ever was one, taking place as it did in the glittering darkness of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York (and there entombed amid the supple honeys and totems of fashion and corporate sponsorships). But rather than decry its spectacularity, we should note here that the double allure implicit in conventions of art’s unconventionality was on full display: In the cavernous hall of the armory, Young had a dozen professional bikers burn rubber on a 72-by-128-foot plywood floor, stripping off layers of black paint to reveal a fluorescent orange, yellow, and pink undercoat, thereby creating an interlacing network of lines strongly reminiscent of Brice Marden’s signature loops. The neo-avant-garde recalcitrance appeared entirely intact, what with the seeming antagonism of placing the deafening mechanical screams of a motocross rally dead in the heart of Manhattan’s hushed and moneyed Upper East Side; and with the knowing art-historical nods to Michael Heizer and Richard Prince, both of whom previously made work deploying biker culture to bring high culture low. Yet, for his part, Young clearly grasped neither his work nor its context, since the material reality of the two was infinitely more provocative than anything put forward here as “art.” Exhaust produced by squandered fuel gulched into the rafters; gas masks were handed out to well-heeled onlookers for protection against the fumes. And so the true critical potential here was obvious but left incidental, tipping grossly into parody: While the front page of the New York Times was likely featuring, on the very day of Greeting Card, reports of rising oil prices, of a raging war in Iraq, of rapid global warming, or of health hazards due to the air quality in Lower Manhattan, here was an artist who would underline the liminal disaster that is this age—if only by making visible and then inhaling deeply this historical moment’s acrid air, and by forcing his audience to do the same, however unwittingly.

But that would be a myth worthy of Tut himself. As it was, Young merely placed his public performance at the service of painting, dividing his floor into sections to be sold to collectors, first come, first served. Even so, money in art is not what’s at stake here. Rather, in the wake of customization throughout culture, it is the need for an art—and for a criticism—that is something other than a rhetorical device.