Laissez-Faire Aesthetics; What money is doing to art, or how the artworld lost its mind.

By

lisa yuskavage

(David Zwirner Gallery)

john currin

(Gagosian Gallery)

art basel miami beach

bob dylan's american journey

(The Morgan Library and Museum)

fernando botero

(Marlborough Gallery)

I.

The art world has never been so well-oiled a machine as it is rightnow. Auction records are toppled practically every month, the biginternational contemporary art fairs have produced a new breed ofhigh-end shopaholics, and in New York's West Twenties the crowdsstreaming through the galleries are the most elegant on earth. Thisart scene, which has been fattened and massaged and emboldened by aboisterous stock market, is certainly a spectacle. So it's nowonder that last fall both Vanity Fair and W got on the bandwagon,devoting special issues to the visual arts. In a Vanity Fairfeature on "the auction mystique, the new collectors, and thepassion driving it all," Tobias Meyer, who is with Sotheby's,argues that the nosebleed prices being paid for new work in theauction rooms reflect a "democracy of access." What Meyer regards asa democratic principle will strike others as an old-fashionedoverheated free- market economy. Vanity Fair's editors seem quitetaken with this pay-as-you-go democratic spirit: they find anotherexample in the video portraits that Robert Wilson, the stagedesigner, is now offering to anybody who can cough up

$150,000, a sum that the magazine says "is peanuts in today'sthrough-the- roof art market." As a come-on, Wilson has donesomething rather undemocratic, turning out videos of movie stars,among them Brad Pitt, who landed on the cover of Vanity Fair withWilson's ah-sweet-mystery blue light playing over his bare torsoand white boxer shorts.

Of course it didn't take the fall of 2006 to tell us that big moneylikes flash-in-the-pan art, or that we are in a period--and it'scertainly not the first one--when art and fashion and Hollywood areoften indistinguishable. Amid the gold-rush atmosphere of recentmonths, however, something very strange has emerged, something morepertinent to art than to money--a new attitude, now pervasive inthe upper echelons of the art world, about the meaning andexperience and value of art itself. A great shift has occurred. Thishas deep and complex origins; but when you come right down to it,the attitude is almost astonishingly easy to grasp. We have enteredthe age of laissez-faire aesthetics.

The people who are buying and selling the most highly pricedcontemporary art right now--think of them as the laissez-faireaesthetes--believe that any experience that anyone can have with awork of art is equal to any other. They imagine that the mostdesirable work of art is the one that inspires a range ofabsolutely divergent meanings and impressions almost simultaneously.I used to be bemused when Lisa Yuskavage, whose lesbo-bimbo figurepaintings were featured at the David Zwirner Gallery in October,was praised for channeling, all at once, Disney cartoons andGiovanni Bellini's altarpieces. And I did not comprehend howadmirers of John Currin, who defies accusations of misogyny bymaking the men in his paintings every bit as repulsive as the women,could believe that he is both the direct descendant of Cranach theElder and a raunchy comic in the Mad magazine tradition. Myproblem, I now realize, is not only that I am looking forconsistency, it is that I persist in imagining that there is such athing as inconsistency. The paintings by Currin and Yuskavage thatare now going for hundreds of thousands of dollars are engineeredfor an audience that believes that a work of art can satisfyradically disparate and even contradictory attitudes and appetites,and satisfy them consecutively or concurrently-- it hardly matters.A painting is simply what everybody or anybody says it is, whateverybody or anybody wishes it to be.

The collectors who made sure that John Currin's show in November atthe Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue was sold out even before itopened believe that it is their privilege to respond to anything atany time in any way they choose. When they hang a Currin on thewall, they are given permission--more than that, they are given theright--to appreciate this oilcloth horror as a painterly paintingas exquisite as a VelAzquez, or to enjoy it as an incompetenthigh-kitsch send-up of classical painting, or to assess its valueas social commentary, or to laugh at it as a piece of Dadaiststupidity-for- stupidity's-sake. Or they may enjoy their Currin asa financial trophy pure and simple, proof of their buying power. Orthey may regard it as an object of delectation, in much the waythat they have been instructed by some art-historian-turned-art-consultant to enjoy a Bonnard. They can have itevery way. They experience no conflict. And Currin gives themenough cunningly mixed signals that the possibilities seem endless.It hardly matters that what Currin doesn't know about figurepainting would fill volumes, since his collectors know even less,if that is possible. (What precisely is it that Currin doesn'tknow? For starters, he does not understand that volume inrepresentational painting can be--and to some degree, mustbe--generated through the power of contour as a two-dimensionalexpression of three-dimensional experience.)

I recognize that the taste for Currin and Yuskavage is in part acontinuation of developments that are now a generation old. Thewhat-the-hell attitude with which the new high-end consumers of artconfront the whole question of meaning will strike some asreminiscent of the mentality of a number of collectors in the early1960s. Back then, there was a whole group of big spenders who wereturning their attention from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art andboasting about how much fun they were having now that they hadsloughed off the serious themes of the mid-century abstractionists.And it is hard not to see the in-your-face kitsch of Currin andYuskavage as an extension of the ironic fascination withincompetence that gave birth to the movement known as "Bad"Painting, which was kicked off in 1978 by a show of that name atthe New Museum, organized by Marcia Tucker.

Yet there are differences between garbage then and garbage now. PopArt and "Bad" Painting were self-consciously ironic; they dependedon the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from whichone was registering a dissent. Irony, even in thewhatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the1980s and 1990s, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglowof a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They hada target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aestheticsmakes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea. Ittreats everything equally. David Zwirner, the dealer who in recentmonths has sent Yuskavage's reputation into the stratosphere, hasobserved in an open letter to the artist that "frankly, I am notsure what your work is about." He makes this declaration withoutany embarrassment. And while Zwirner does hasten to add that thepaintings are "utterly sincere," I am left with the gatheringsuspicion that the meaning of the work is designed to beunresolved, that the work is meant to register as noncommittal, atleast from the audience's point of view. This promiscuity can beregarded, I suppose, as a sort of "democracy of access."Transcendence and stupidity, formal perfection and kitsch: it's alljust part of the same big expensive banquet.

II.

The art world is in many respects an insular place. Thepreoccupations of the most gifted painters and sculptors, when theyare alone in their studios, are with tradition and innovation, andcan by their very nature never be fully appreciated by a broadswath of the public. Even the most highly touted goings- on in theart world, such as the emergence of an art star like Yuskavage, arethe product of forces that the public can scarcely understand. Whencontemporary art does electrify the public, which is surely the caseright now, the art itself is often part of an urban spectacle, atrophy floating atop the cultural maelstrom, and there can be noquestion that the blissed-out atmosphere in the Chelsea galleriesthis season has everything to do with New York's emergence as theultimate amusement park for sophisticated tourists around theglobe. On West 19th Street, even as Yuskavage's show opened in thegreatly expanded David Zwirner Gallery, you could see, right acrossthe street, the finishing touches being put on Frank Gehry's firstfreestanding building in New York, Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp.It did not take much of an imagination to make a connection betweenYuskavage's ballooning babes and the billowing translucent skin ofGehry's office building. This is the shape of the art-and-designcarnival in 2007.

One of the strange facts of our time is that although Picasso andMondrian and Pollock are household names, the middle-class publichas never entirely accepted modern art, never fully embraced itsmystery and its magic. Even in the face of this deep distrust,however, the public has assimilated the old bohemian belief in acommunity of artists as a sort of freely established aristocracy,perhaps seeing here another version of the "democracy of access."This past fall, as exhibitions by big-name artists opened in thegalleries and museums in rapid-fire succession, the reporting inthe newspapers and magazines was all gossipy enthusiasm, as if thejournalists were courtiers at some newfangled Versailles. At theMuseum of Modern Art, there was a Brice Marden retrospective, andthe artist himself was catnip for the paparazzi, aging but stillhandsome in the role of everybody's favorite lonesome cowboy, aminimalist now turned maximalist whose strongest paintings remain afew two- color canvases, in milky greens and blues and grays, thathe did in the first flush of his fame, in the early 1970s.

The art world, which in the old days of Warhol and Studio 54 was theplace you went to get away from your family, has become a familyaffair. Among the offerings during the whirlwind of Art Basel MiamiBeach were visits to the Wynwood neighborhood, where the RubellFamily Collection was open to the public. In a New York TimesMagazine profile, Mera Rubell commented of the way that she and herhusband Don and her daughter Jennifer and her son Jason and hiswife Michelle collect art together that "the fighting, the agreeing,the resolution, it's all relevant." Perhaps the collectors aretaking a lesson or two from the new family-friendly artists. One ofMarden's daughters, Mirabelle, codirects a much-discussed New Yorkart gallery, Rivington Arms. Kiki Smith, whose dumb-beyond-beliefWhitney show was full of the sort of neo-hippie baubles I wouldn'tbuy at Target for

$14.95, has built a career out of the fact that her father was thesculptor Tony Smith, a friend of Pollock's whose hard-edged visionis now seen as critical in the move from the "hot" 1950s to the"cool" 1960s. And speaking of '60s cool, in a show at the JewishMuseum this season Alex Katz brought together five decades of hisportraits of his wife Ada, the queen of downtown high-bohemianchic. As for the older artists, they are presented as nutty great-aunts and -uncles: Robert Rauschenberg exhibited a series ofutterly perfunctory photo-transfer paintings at PaceWildenstein inNovember, which were perhaps being passed off as the work of anultra-cool King Lear.

The big galleries don't do shows anymore, they do coronations andrequiems. Larry Gagosian has perfected this style. His exhibitionspaces are so extraordinarily scaled that on the rare occasionswhen the art is really good, as was the case with the David Smithshow "Personnage" last spring, the grandiosity can feel genuine.But when the coronation is for John Currin, the corruption isalmost unbearable. I have not found the art world this depressingsince I attended the press preview for "The Art of the Motorcycle,"at the Guggenheim back in 1998. And when the requiem is for AndyWarhol, whose late work was the subject of "Cast a Cold Eye," animmense two-gallery show at Gagosian's spaces on West 24th and West21st Streets, the bombast is simply bewildering. There were Maosand skulls and hammers-and-sickles and camouflage patterns andsketchy renditions of Leonardo's Last Supper, some more than twentyfeet wide. When Warhol died, it was generally agreed that his latework wasn't much, but the art world knows exactly what to do when aname-brand artists exits with excess inventory on hand, and so thecritical upgrading has been inexorable. The huge Warholretrospective at the Modern in 1989 was a turning point for lateWarhol, and now these hollow monoliths are cult objects for thebaby boomers. They prove, much like the paintings that de Kooningdid after his imagination had been overtaken by Alzheimer's, thatthere is always a future in becoming a gaga hipster grandpa.

Warhol, of course, is the Moses who first saw the Promised Land oflaissez- faire aesthetics. Back in 1982, when Ingrid Sischy was theeditor of Artforum, she published an issue dedicated toart-and-fashion synergy that had a dress by Issey Miyake on thecover and a centerfold of Warhol dollar signs. It has been downhillall the way since then, and Sischy, who helped out on Vanity Fair'sart issue this fall, hasn't missed much. If Warhol had to die beforethe art world could go completely to hell, it is surely because hisamorality was too deeply stamped with the old morality. But no suchqualms darken the thoughts of the artists whom New York magazinerecently profiled in a cover story called "Warhol's Children." Oneof these clowns does collages incorporating his own semen, much asWarhol had his friends and hangers-on piss on canvases to createhis "Oxidation" series.

Warhol is the evil prophet of the profit motive. His portraits ofChairman Mao can look positively visionary at a time when containerships full of neo- Pop Art are emerging from China. Warhol waseverywhere this season, not only in the galleries but also atBarneys, where there was an Andy-themed holiday catalog, Andyshopping bags, and limited-edition gift certificates with Andyimages. I don't especially mind Andy at Barneys. Warhol began hislife doing advertising for high-end fashion retailers, and we couldcount ourselves fortunate if the damage that he did was limited toBarneys.

Among the Chelsea dealers with palatial settings and the instinctfor a coronation, Matthew Marks stands out as the man with sometaste. Although it may be that for the time being we have seenenough of Ken Price's sensuously shimmering clay sculptures, theaplomb with which Marks presented Price's work in October left agallerygoer with a champagne high. And in a season when Chelsea hasbeen overrun with artists who are under the delusion that you canmake an interesting abstract painting by jumbling togethereverything and the kitchen sink, it was a pleasure to re-acquaintoneself with Ellsworth Kelly's imperial austerity, new and old, ina Matthew Marks extravaganza that opened in November in threelocations. The accusation can be made that Kelly remains too muchthe captive of a relatively small reservoir of ideas that hedeveloped in the 1950s and 1960s, but I am certainly always glad tosee those early works, including a group of black and whitedrawings that comprised one-third, the smallest third, of whatMatthew Marks had to show. The new paintings at Marks are all madeof two panels, with the panels painted a single color and thensuperimposed to create a sort of shallow relief. On West 24thStreet, the panels were rectangles in brilliant colors, and piledatop one another they exuded a semaphore-like power. On West 22ndStreet, the panels were black and white, and I was especially takenwith two vertical works in which the tension between a singlecurved edge and a single angled edge yielded visual music, as iftwo strings had been plucked to create two sonorous sounds.

Kelly's tripleheader was a real event, not a media event. The samecan be said of Lucian Freud's show at Acquavella in November. Ihave never been an ardent admirer of Freud's figurative style, andI think such hard-bitten journalistic power as his paintings oncehad has been diffused in the work of the past twenty years. Still,in these dark times you could receive an education if you walkedfrom Freud's show of figure paintings over to Currin's folly a fewblocks south. Freud's manner of modeling the figure with anencrusted pileup of paint may finally be judged a misunderstandingof modernism; his celebration of the painted surface, whileprobably meant to clarify representational structures in ways weknow from the work of Soutine and Braque, amounts to little morethan a series of angsty decorative flourishes. But Currinunderstands so little about pictorial conventions, whether OldMaster or high modern, that you cannot even begin to speak abouthis work in terms of a misunderstanding of modernism.

As always, a gallerygoer who visits only the blue-chip dealers isgoing to miss a lot of the best work. This fall, Thornton Willis, aveteran painter, showed some wonderfully persuasive abstractions atElizabeth Harris, comminglings of triangular forms, neither exactlycrystalline nor exactly opaque, that suggest an emotional terrainat once rambunctious and saturnine. And a very young artist, BryanMesenbourg, presented some cunning constructions, reminiscent ofH.C. Westermann in their pokerfaced love affair with old- fashionedgadgeteering, in a group show at Feigen Contemporary. In the midstof this white-hot art scene, however, anything that was capable ofholding my attention, whether by Price or Kelly or Willis orMesenbourg, seemed to exist not even at the margins of the artworld, but in something more like solitary confinement, with eachartist utterly alone, a lunatic in the padded cell of his ownimagination. It is hardly surprising that even the people who stillhave the capacity to respond to a work of art have been finding itso difficult to get in the mood. The only common language left anylonger is the language of reputations and trends--which is to say,the language of money.

In the midst of this supremely sordid season, I visited Art BaselMiami Beach, the fair that now anchors nearly a week of events inearly December that extend well beyond the Convention Center onMiami Beach. And what struck me most forcibly as I wandered theaisles was the noisiness and the vehemence with which prices wereannounced. Dealers wanted to tell anybody and everybody, whetherthey were potential clients or just art-world rubberneckers, notonly what everything in their booth cost, but how much the discountwould be. It was an orgy of money talk. When you take a look at theart market, what you're really seeing is the stock market. Thewhole art world is like Nobu during bonus week, a freak show ofconspicuous consumption. The point is not what the booze or the rawfish tastes like; the point is how fiendishly expensive it is.

III.

To point out that culture is a business, and sometimes even amoderately big business, is to state the obvious, and I will notargue with those who would say that so it always was and so italways will be. This is true, as far as it goes. The trouble isthat a business model has come to drive the entire art world, andlike the corporate executive who regards the launch of each newproduct as a challenge to the success of the last one, because youmust keep growing or you will die, the arts community finds itselfin a state of permanent anxiety. There always has to be a newartist whom the media will embrace as enthusiastically as theyembraced Warhol; there always has to be a show that will top theexcitement generated by the last blockbuster at the Modern or theMet. And a lot of the artists and curators are really into thegame--they are fueling the system. What you see when you look at apainting by John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage is a business model. Fromthis point of view, the current season is a big success. And thisbrings all the more forcibly to mind the essential paradox ofcultural success, which is that growth becomes the measure of allthings. In a world where everybody wants to quantify the value ofexperiences that are inherently ineffable, who can wonder that theguy who recently paid something like

$140 million for a Pollock feels that he has cornered the market onineffability?

Many people have observed that collectors now prefer to buy in theattention- grabbing public arena of the auction or the art fair,rather than in the relative privacy of an art gallery. One hearsvarious explanations for this shift. Some say that collectors areworried about being outsmarted by the secret machinations ofdealers. Others say that it is simply that the collectors want tohave as many people as possible watching them as they spend theirmoney. But there may be something deeper at work here, some fear ofthe inwardness or the particularity of the experiences that art canoffer. By buying art in public, the collector turns a rarefiedexperience--and what one would hope is the private avidity forart--into a popular experience, a spectacle that unfolds as ifunder klieg lights in a sold-out stadium.

When the collecting of art takes on that familiar pop-culture buzz,we are seeing a diminishment of the variety of artistic experience,and this variety is among the glories of any culture. Baudelairemay have been the first to point out that one of the greatpleasures and privileges open to an educated audience in a modernsociety is the possibility of experiencing both high art andpopular culture. And why on earth shouldn't it be possible to enjoyThe Sopranos and Sex and the City, which we take in with thousandsof other people, and also the new work of an abstract painter thatmay be known to no more than a hundred? The trouble starts whenpeople begin to imagine that all these experiences are equal. Theargument for equalization is often presented as if it were a pleafor populism, for a "democracy of access." But in practice thisequalization is often profoundly anti-democratic, because theassumption is that the man on the street will never be capable ofappreciating a Mondrian--or a Poussin--for what it is, on its ownterms.

The biggest danger currently faced by people who love painting andsculpture is this unitary view of culture, which in practiceamounts to the view that all culture is, or should be, popularculture. I am somewhat baffled by the appeal of such an idea,although perhaps it has something to do with the value that iscurrently placed on "interconnectivity" and "interface." Of coursethe organizers of Art Basel Miami Beach are anxious to distinguishwhat they do from what goes on at the multiplex, but thedistinctions that they want to make are less of kind than ofcaliber. What they really want to do is create haute popexperiences.

The mood in the Convention Center where Art Basel Miami Beach washeld was not all that different from the atmosphere at a carshow--or, for that matter, at an upscale mall. Fifty years ago, deKooning's friend Edwin Denby was already arguing that "the miles ofNew York galleries [are] as luxurious to wander through as a slavemarket." And some of the critics who went down to report on ArtBasel Miami Beach were perfectly aware that they were in the midstof the biggest and most luxurious slave market on earth. You couldhear it in their been-there-done-that tone. And you could seecritic after critic attempting, without much success, to rise abovethe muck by announcing that he or she had made one or twodiscoveries, something of real value hidden away at one of thesatellite art shows, at Pulse or NADA or Scope, which had sproutedin some of the low-income and industrial areas on the mainland. InMiami, the search for integrity was desperate, and ultimatelydoomed.

Monty Python would have had a field day with those art tours inWynwood. The invasion of the trendoids was closely watched by thelocals, many of whom were obviously living close to the povertyline. But even people who have never heard of Marcel Duchamp cansee that when the people with the funny glasses show up to stare atthe cubicles full of funny things, the real estate investors withtheir condo conversions can't be far behind. This is not to saythat there wasn't some first-rate art to be seen at Art Basel MiamiBeach, including significant works by Picasso, Morandi, and deKooning. I did find myself thinking that for somebody, perhaps forsome college kids who found their way here, Art Basel Miami Beachcould be an open sesame. But once those kids fixed their attentionon that Morandi, who was going to show them the way forward?

The trouble is that fewer and fewer people are willing to recognizethe fundamentally different nature of various forms of culturalexperience. And make no mistake, there are essential distinctionsthat must be made. It is in the very nature of popular culture thatits pleasures are ones that we share with a wide range of peoplesimultaneously. And it is in the very nature of high art that itspleasures are ones that we experience as individuals. To insistupon this distinction is not to say that one experience is betterand one is worse, it is only to clarify the character of eachexperience. The art in popular culture has everything to do withcreating a work that catalyzes a strain of feeling in the massaudience. High art operates in a completely different way, for eachviewer comes to the work with the fullest, the most intense, themost personal awareness of the conventions and traditions of an artform. The essential high-art encounter is a private encounter--butwe are living in the YouTube era, when people are oftenuncomfortable with privacy, with its challenges and itsrevelations. The intensity of the high-art experience haseverything to do with a disengagement from the pressures of thepresent. It is the unquantifiable experience par excellence.

The essential problem in the art world today is that in almost everyarea, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to theprograms of our greatest museums, there is an obsession withappealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice thismeans always operating as if painting and sculpture were adimension of popular culture. To be sure, I am drawing a sharperdistinction than is always the case. Pop culture has sometimesgained in interest when it has adapted some of the fascination withdifficulty and obscurity that is a powerful element in the high-arttraditions. By the same token, the saltiness of pop can addsomething to a painting or a sculpture; and at the Museum of ModernArt in the years when Alfred H. Barr Jr. ran the show, some of themarketing ideas of Madison Avenue were used to jump-start people'sengagement with difficult modern art. The problem, again, is notwith popular culture, but with the wholesale imposition of itsmethods and values on an alien terrain. It is this muddling of therealms that fuels the insane art commerce of our day. When we seeartists whose careers are barely a decade old dominating theauction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, weare being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in amoment--and this is a pop culture idea. So, for that matter, is theidea that the way for a museum to attract an audience is bycreating a sexy new addition where people can see and be seen. Oneof the tragedies of the past few decades has been that the museumshave lost faith in their own permanent collections, where visitorswere once invited to engage, one by one, with works created by themasters, one by one.

IV.

I am as tired as the next person of the high culture versus popularculture debates that obsessed intellectuals for much of a century.There was a deep vein of selfcongratulation that ran through thosediscussions, in which the literati showed off their in-depthknowledge of the other side of the tracks. Yet there was also aterrific energy about the best of those discussions, a spirit thatwas fundamentally dialectical and fluid, an effort not to subjugateone side of the argument to the other but to strengthen ourunderstanding of all aspects of the culture through a constantprocess of comparative investigation.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is fundamentally anti-dialectical, not onlybecause there is no acknowledgment of the need to comprehend thedivergent implications of our attraction to high art and popularculture, but also, strangely enough, because there is a refusal toaccept the very existence of competing forces. There is no strugglewith distinctions because there is no recognition of distinctions.The result is a flattening of all artistic experience. If theclearest expression of laissez-faire aesthetics is to be found inthe extent to which fashionable painters are now embraced assimultaneously offering traditional values and Disneyland-stylefun, the new mood is also having an impact in the art museums,where pop culture is often sold as the new laissez- faireavant-garde. I still listen to Bob Dylan. I am still caught up inthose prickly yet silky lyrics that I first heard in the '60s, whenI bought the albums as soon as they appeared. But I question whythe Morgan Library and Museum felt the need to present a show thisseason devoted to the life and times of Dylan, and I was franklyappalled to see "Bob Dylan's American Journey: 1956-1966" competingfor attention with a small gathering of medieval illuminatedmanuscripts and metalwork, a group of drawings by Fragonard andother artists of the eighteenth century, a retrospective of thecareer of Saul Steinberg, and a show of Mozart manuscripts.

I realize that even to raise the question--what is Dylan doing atthe Morgan?--is to provoke the wrath of the intellectual hipsters.They will point out that the Morgan was the invention of a modernmillionaire, and that the pages illuminated by a monk in thefourteenth century were no more destined to be exhibited orcollected on Madison Avenue than some album covers produced byColumbia Records in the 1960s. And of course a library that isdedicated to our cultural heritage can arguably embrace a fluidconcept of its own collections and exhibition programs. Thehipsters will want to make it seem closeminded to question whyDylan memorabilia should be exhibited steps away from the StavelotTriptych, a masterpiece of the medieval goldsmith's art.

But the question can be put a different way. It seems to me that itis in fact the Morgan that is being close-minded--insensitive todistinctions, to particularities, to the possibility that highculture and popular culture are so wonderfully different that theycannot in fact be put together. I imagine that Steinberg, an artistwhose understanding of the relationship between art high and lowwas as deftly dialectical as that of anybody who has ever lived,could have woven a funny little allegory around the presence of theBleecker Street hipster troubadour amid the incunabula at theMorgan, but if the people at the museum see any irony in thesituation, they are not letting on.

I worry about the Morgan. Renzo Piano's ballyhooed addition, whichopened last spring, has transformed what was a series of intimatespaces dedicated to the glories of connoisseurship and scholarshipinto a bunch of art boutiques in a high-modern mini-mall. This isnot to say that the Morgan cannot still offer an unforgettablemuseumgoing experience. Yet the signs are not good. Americanmuseums are full of curators who worry about the malling of themuseum, and realize that there are other ways to answer theconcerns of trustees who want to bolster the endowment and combatrising costs. But in a country as wealthy as ours, what aregenerally presented as fiscal decisions can also be a cover fordeeper philosophical predispositions. There may not be a museumdirector in America who is any longer willing to look a trustee inthe eye and tell him that he is sitting in a museum and it is noplace to talk about pop culture marketing strategies. There may notbe a museum director in America who is willing to argue that an artmuseum is a particular kind of place, and that particular placesare friendly to particular experiences.

We live in a country in which we have lots of opportunities to enjoyDylan, and motorcycles, and the sight of Dylan on a motorcycle, andI don't see that it is asking too much to insist that there is aplace where the focus is on medieval manuscripts and Old Masterdrawings and Mozart and the nineteenth- century novel. Make nomistake, there is an agenda behind the Dylan show at the Morgan."Bob Dylan's American Journey" is an effort to reassure the publicthat an institution that might be perceived as off-putting becauseit stands for some particular things is in fact a laissez-faireinstitution--a place that will happily embrace whatever the marketwill bear.

What laissez-faire aesthetics has left us with--all along the line,in the curatorial meetings at museums, in the conversations in theaisles at the art fairs, in the MFA seminars in the art schools--isa weakening of all conviction, an unwillingness to take stands, areluctance to champion, or surrender to, any first principle.Perhaps it was in response to such whatever-ism that many people oftaste found themselves waxing enthusiastic over the intractablymaudlin paintings devoted to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib thatFernando Botero exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in the fall.The enthusiasm that sophisticated gallerygoers showed for theseworks, which had about as much sense of form and structure as mushybrown gravy poured over marzipan, had a lot to do with the factthat an artist had taken a stand. (It happened to be the rightstand.) And the fact that Botero was not selling the paintings oneby one, but wanted to donate them all to a museum, could make himseem heroic in the current climate. By the time that Arthur Dantoproclaimed in The Nation that Botero's paintings were in certainrespects superior to Picasso's Guernica, we might as well have beenback in the 1930s, in the low era of socially relevant art, whenimages of oppressed workers and handsome soldiers fighting fascismwere embraced by an audience that already knew enough of modern artto know that it was not really comfortable with it.

Botero appeals to an old-style philistinism, to the idea that worksof art should have meanings so obvious that they grab you by thelapels. If people are running to embrace his Abu Ghraib paintings,perhaps it is because they feel so deeply threatened by the newface of philistinism, which is laissez-faire aesthetics. Perhapsany stand in art now seems better than no stand at all, and nevermind the art. For what laissez-faire aesthetics promises is atolerance of everything--high, pop, whatever: a tolerance so blandthat it really amounts to indifference. (This is not repressivetolerance so much as manic-depressive tolerance.) And by nowgallerygoers and museumgoers, even the most astute among them, arequite frankly afraid to insist that high culture always has someelement of the prejudicial about it--a preference for a particularstyle or way of doing things or play of the imagination that is tosome degree not supported by mere fact.

Laissez-faire aesthetics is the aesthetics that violates the veryprinciple of art, because it insists that anything goes, when infact the only thing that is truly unacceptable in the visual artsis the idea that anything goes. At times, amid the chic hedge-fundmaelstrom of Art Basel Miami Beach, it could seem that what haddied was the modernist century, with its vehement advocacy ofcertain aesthetic principles. Perhaps we have to accept that it hasgone. But what is really in danger now is something much biggerthan modernity. It is nothing less than the precious exclusivity ofthe high-art experience, which stretches from the Tanagra figurinesand the Romanesque manuscripts to the paintings of Rembrandt andPoussin and Corot and Mondrian. There is nothing laissez-faireabout any of these masterpieces. When we contemplate them in alltheir particularity--in the almost delusional extremism of theirvaried visions and in the insistent singularity of their poetry--weare constantly reminded that high culture is anything buteasygoing, that it is always daringly, rightfully, triumphantlyintolerant.

By

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.