“We could have such a dman good time together…”
“Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.”
— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Thirty years ago, writing in his book, the Shock of the Modern, Robert Hughes ended by pointing out that after 1945, there were about sixty art galleries in Manhattan and that by the mid 1980s there were over six hundred. The MFA programs he said, were then graduating approximately 35,000 students every year or, roughly the Renaissance population of Florence.
Get yourself a look at the back offices of any art gallery and you’ll see portfolios stacked floor to ceiling. If it were a person, the diagnoses would be morbid obesity, sclerotic veins, and the inevitability of a stroke or heart attack big enough to drop a bull elephant or a gang of art critics jacked on coffee, ground up Adderall and fresh from heaving their dinner into the toilet, because they are certain they need to lose what’s left of their ethics.
In the little seen film, Art School Confidential, the almost always sinister John Malkovich, plays a sinister art school dowager who has spent decades perfecting his paintings of, triangles. The hero of the film, who foolishly believes in beauty as an aesthetic, is ground up by the machine and all but broken.
Reading a profile of a freshly minted “VOG” or voice of her generation, young novelist, Sally Rooney we are told, arrived fully formed like Zadie Smith, and was soon awash in breathless literary criticism that found her to be wonderous and as exciting as a room full of kittens.
That Zadie Smith has all but admitted that her rise to fame was a case of Oxbridge nepotism; that she is a hack, and a tool of the establishment which wanted to sell a Cool Britannia “multicultural” face, is of course never mentioned, and everyone is supposed to pretend that her writing isn’t as scintillating as what you can read on the side of a box of cereal.
At some point someone with clout, a literary Edward Snowden, is going to show up at a media outlet or some post Wikileaks platform, and spill the ugly truth like the wet viscera of a just slaughtered cow, and everyone will (pretend) to be shocked to discover that the art industry, is as pathetically corrupt as every other major industry in the post industrial imperial waste land.
Among the issues here is irony – and not in the misused sense where hipster doffuses use the word because they have an atrophied intelligence, and the cognitive power of a piece of lawn furniture, but in the authentic sense of how we, here on the left, are not out of agreement with people on the right, who survey contemporary art, and not withstanding their lack of understanding which conflates Contemporary with Modern, but in the sense that the overwhelming majority of what is being hyped, packaged, sold, celebrated and rammed down your throat is utter crap, with half the wit of a watery turd, and twice the deadening impact on your senses.
The aforementioned VOG is of course the latest winner of the literary lotto, in which marketing goons, with the ethics of a virus, slither and undulate their way into meetings with executives who posses the rare combination of being both morally gelatinous, and having the sadistic habits of prison matrons, and small cadres of accountants whose idea of literature is the unshakeable conviction that anatomy textbooks are about the art of seduction, and a book’s worth is to be measured in how many spreadsheets it takes to delineate the point at which they can no longer afford their mortgage.
While this rancid slaughter house is running, it is packaged in the moral aspic of the wider corporatocracy, with its economic gulag meets social thunder dome anxiety, that treats everyone and everything as an expendable commodity.
Have you ever watched Britain’s Got Talent or America’s Got Talent, and observed the industry at its finest? Observe how authentic cultural moments – say, Janis Joplin circa 1966 – are absorbed by the corporate Borg Collective, and sold as an off-the-shelf tool, as if Walmart was a SOHO art gallery, or an indie record label, and some waif, with a not awful voice, but all the depth and emotional range of a fourteen year old, and the cold cynicism of a reptilian assassin, is costumed in the attire of an idea that, having been repurposed, sold, advertised, and then jettisoned out of the corporate airlock into the void, becomes yet one more viral plague, immune to anything of value except money.
That is how books are made.
That is how art is hung in galleries.
Add to that the exploitation of authentic social concerns around misogyny, bigotry, class warfare, environmental genocide, and the madhouse of the contemporary Orwellian hall of mirrors, and you have militant cadres of art mafias selling Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, with the same evangelical fervor as Ford or Netflix or a decadent and depraved imperial foreign policy.
The result being that if it’s a photograph or a painting of a Black Woman, and you don’t like it, for any reason, including a refined sense of aesthetics, or the idea that it’s competent but utterly unoriginal, and thus banal, and you say you don’t like it, you will be hounded into social oblivion while people scream that you’re a bigot.
Critique a novel, by a young woman, because it’s shallow, and thus banal in its assertions of importance, and faux originality, and you will be hounded into social oblivion wile people scream that you’re a sexist pig, Harvey Weinstein Harvey Weinstein Harvey Weinstein.
Amid this catastrophe, this cornucopia of masturbatory excess, the unexamined irony is of course that the people yelling the loudest about “Art” that claims to be about addressing the genuine issues of narrow systemic representation, in which only a slim majority of mostly White men have wielded power, are being used by, a slim majority of mostly White men wielding power, and who are laughing all the way to the bank as they ghettoize the Art Industry into increasingly narrow and increasingly irrelevant precincts, that feed marginalized demographics who are so stupid they not only don’t know they’re stupid but, are so stupid they wouldn’t understand it even if you drew them a diagram and bolted it to their hands so they could find it.
In place of an authentic, functioning society, with the riot of freedom causing collisions from which sparks fly and may very well cause an inferno, we have a perfectly calibrated machine. From time to time the otherwise unruly masses pitch a fit and set themselves on fire. Predictably the Stasi, who have files on everyone, target the more intelligent trouble-makers, send out the goon squad to beat the heads of the foot soldiers, and restore order. If need be, they accidentally kill someone to make it clear to everyone else that they are not fucking around, and then it’s back to business as usual – as if the Golden Age of Television and the glory of HBO are not soporifics infecting the violent, anti-establishment nature of art in which, authentic artists not only will bite the hands that feed them but will take a meat cleaver to your fucking arm, stir-fry it, and force you to eat it.
On any given day you can tune in to YouTube and listen to the smug self-righteous, if well-intentioned banalities of The Young Turks and The Majority Report, yada yada yada, and notice that not once, have they ever turned their attention to the nexus between a dead, corrupt, corporate art world and the rest of the socio-economic gulag as an example of the pile of dead canaries in the mine shaft of the nation.
American culture has been hijacked; kidnapped and is being both held hostage and pimped to the usual suspects – Wall Street and hedge fund psychopaths.
Amadeo Modigliani died more or less destitute. A few years ago one of his paintings sold for a hundred million dollars – purchased over the phone by a Chinese billionaire who payed for it with a credit card.
The retort is usually some version of pointing out that the Medici and the Borgia paid for Michelangelo’s espresso and Gitanes, so it’s not as if things were ever better.
That of course is, ironically, an example of scoring on your own goal because it doesn’t prove that the system works, it proves that the system works for the psychopathic pirates and gangsters and their PR whores, who fill out the pages of art magazines and newspaper “reviews” – which are really just slick, paid advertising – and are always looking over their shoulder because it was the Florentine mafia that chased Caravaggio out of town, and the Paris mob that hired Da Vinci to design weapons systems, so the inbred Parisian thugs could beat the dukes of Burgundy to death.
That may be amusing, in the same way that cemeteries are hilarious, but it doesn’t prove that the system is good, only that it works the way a whore house works, or your local dealer works, because the shit he cooked up in his kitchen sink hasn’t killed you yet.
Take a look around: The planet is on fire. Stop pretending the art world is immune.
At the end of the collected letters of Ernest Hemingway, he says to a correspondent, I have no idea where you can go anymore to get away – the world, with its perversions, its sins, its sadistic amusements sold as refreshments, has touched everywhere and everything.
That was 1960.
A year later, hounded by the Stasi for having run guns for Castro, for his support for the anti-fascists in Spain, and for not paying his taxes, like a proper bourgeois tool of the empire, he created his masterpiece – Tintoretto in brain matter and bone; a Jackson Pollock drip painting, about which everyone says, it tells us about him when the hard truth is, it’s well past time for us to ask, what the fuck does it say about us.