No, seriously, it’s not the art’s fault



You can blame modern art for many things, but certainly not for our mass culture, right? Actually, you can. “Oh boy,” I thought, when I saw that article this morning, linked to by Ed Winkleman (who seems to be putting the final touches on his book - congrats, Ed!). Usually I find it extremely silly to blame art for things. But of course, it’s tough to ignore statements like “All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago”.

“To talk of art as an agent in the way Jones does in his Jeremiad is to congeal myriad individual instances of art-making into a single, monumental object, and then to attribute intentions to this lifeless lump as if it were in a position to decide how to behave. It is a betrayal of the present moment for the sake of a past that never existed. […] For sure, not all contemporary art is good, but to proceed in this way is to deny the intelligence, thoughtfulness, doubt, practical competence, intuition, sensitivity and humour of anyone with the temerity to make art now. And all because poor Damien Hirst cannot be all things to all people.” writes Michael Archer.

What I found curious about Jonathan Jones’ text is the idea that modern/contemporary art, that strange entity, constantly underfunded and ridiculed, that tiny niche of human activity, 95% of which never gets seen by more than, let’s say three people (the artist, his or her partner and that one close friend they have), somehow is supposed to have brought about the demise of all that used to be dear to us a.k.a. our culture? Really? Wow, I bet most artists had/have no idea they were/are somehow involved in something like that!

But it’s interesting that we have seen so many articles recently about the end of art or whatever else people were and still are writing. And there’s a bit in Jonathan Jones’ article that is extremely revealing: “In post-modern capitalism, secondary markets created a counter-reality that was unfettered by production. The economy was run like a theme park. It’s obvious how deeply involved in that daydream was the art of the last 20 years, which so gleefully rejected anything that might tie it to the slow, patient, tedious stuff of real creativity.” (my emphasis)

Ignoring the “counter-reality” (isn’t all art in a way a counter-reality?), the focus on “real creativity” is quite telling, isn’t it? To me, this reads like what might be at the center of his argument, namely simple resentment of modern/contemporary art, which doesn’t show any “real creativity”. Basically, artists are just having a laugh (especially since so much money was thrown after them before it all crashed - that’s the narrative you can see a lot these days).

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not true. Even pieces like Damien Hirst’s infamous diamond skull actually required considerable creativity. It’s true! How else would anyone come up with something like that? Putting a lot of diamonds on a skull - is that a run-of-the-mill idea that most people have on a daily basis? I don’t think so. Whether or not it’s great art of course is an entirely different matter. But to say that “real creativity” was “rejected” by “the art of the last 20 years” strikes me as little more than a purely rhetorical device.

Oh, and even though art supposedly “rejected […] real creativity” it has still “led the way” as the world was screwing itself? How would that work? Wouldn’t you need some of that “real creativity” to lead the way to the world screwing itself?

PS: I suppose I should add this PS lest people think I’m embracing each and every piece of contemporary art (Damien Hirst’s work for example). I’m not. That’s not my point.