“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme…”
— John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
“Art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.”
― Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
The conservatives and the reactionaries are not wrong when they survey Contemporary Art and feel the urge to either vomit or laugh, or do both.
That they are almost always wrong in explaining the aesthetics of Contemporary Art, wrong about its context, wrong about its history, and wrong about how it is an accurate if unintentional mirror of the corruption inherent in the Capitalist Gulag, says more or less all you need to know about their lack of sophistication, erudition and the fact that their sense of humor is usually drummed up, ex nihilo or from the nearest whoopee cushion.
And yet (and a universe of digressions are contained in those two words) even when right for all the wrong reasons, it says something crucial about Contemporary Art when a gang of pinheads, who are generally one bad day away from screaming Michel Foucault is hiding under their bed, and that the dreaded “Neo Marxist Postmodernist Feminist Environmentalists” are out to get them by forcing them to eat kale, drive electric cars and wear Birkenstocks, can survey what’s been spaffed up a wall at a gallery and say, correctly: That’s shit.
Which brings us to The Catherine Edelman Gallery and their Chicago Project.
The Edelman Gallery is a well regarded and long running Contemporary Art gallery specializing in photography.
It is also a nihilistic cult center devoted to a neo-fascist aesthetic of sadomasochistic visual violence, that pretends it is about an engagement with the anomie and angst of the post-industrial urban waste land, where hardboiled existentially tormented gunslingers (cameras instead of Colts) capture the Flowers of Evil nature of our contemporary reality.
This marketing bullshit appears across the contemporary art landscape. It is bloodless while insisting it is passionate. It is nihilistic while insisting it is desperately engaged with life. It is cruel while insisting it is all about empathy.
Walk into nearly any Contemporary Art gallery and you will be confronted by a vast con job. Vast canvasses with a single line of color or no color at all, vacuum cleaners or sharks immersed in formaldehyde are presented as if they are both blatantly obvious in their meaning and yet shrouded in the arcana of the initiates who, unlike you, understand the code of reality.
Years ago Richard Serra attempted to install a series of undulating rusted steel sheets in front of the Beaux art Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco.
The sheets, meters high and long, blocking the view from the museum to the woods beyond and visa versa were, said Serra, designed to create a consideration of your relationship to space.
No doubt they were but of course so does the frame of a car rusting away in your front yard.
The Chicago Project is curated as an adjunct to the main gallery and does not mean to imply representation by the gallery. It is instead a kind of effluvial Medici gift by the Doge to the hungry plebs who, while gaining exposure, are free to showcase their work and sell it.
And all of it, despite being by nearly 50 photographers, is not only all essentially the same (notwithstanding the idea that a gallery is free to curate a show based on similarities in style or the lack there of) but it all is essentially the same hostile, antagonistic rejection of anything even remotely beautiful, provocative or intelligent.
This of course is an old argument.
Beauty and the beholder’s eye and just what the fuck did the diminutive Keats mean when he got an erection and a coughing fit after looking at a Grecian urn and said beauty is truth and truth is beauty.
Part of what he meant is a contextual issue.
England in the early 19th century was in the first phase of the fever dream of the industrial revolution. Slave labor, the accidental empire, the inbred, moronic, sadistic, masochistic ruling class and the destruction of the environment and the growth of the industrial Gulag all prompted Keats to pine for a lost arcadia – however much a retrograde fantasy.
Beyond that of course was an appeal, a kind of rhetorical Molotov cocktail, thrown at the mob to say, beauty, the opposite of belching chimneys and the ginned up zombie workers, and their overlords, was an ethereal yet solid presence; the sublime that touched the soul rattled the nerves and danced away only to reappear elsewhere.
It was a Mission Statement (sic!) against the scientific certainties that said god was in the geometry of business and a successful merchant was a prophet.
The language of course has become a kind of museum no one visits anymore.
The Modern ear rejects it and not without good reason.
But the idea remains and remains as relevant if not more so today as the oceans rise and the air turns to rust.
Tender is the night, said Keats, because he loved the world.
World wars, cataclysmic events, and the idea that after Auschwitz poetry is banal, have made it difficult for anyone to hold on to Keats and a Romantic aesthetic without sounding glib if not offensively shallow or indifferent to the brutal truths of a world racing towards the abyss.
And yet, precisely because of the looming catastrophe, precisely because of the long night of disasters, one might pause to consider the Romantic gesture and recast it as a subversive act of courage and, ironically define it as Avant Garde which in turn redefines “Contemporary Art” as reactionary, old fashioned, out of touch; shallow, glib, banal, spiteful junk that withered on the vine but like a zombie army, marches on without understanding the brutal truth:
It’s dead, Jim.
But where did this come from?
One answer (though by no means the only answer) is of course The Congress of Cultural Freedom.
The CoCF was of course a CIA front established to organize a liberal left opposition to Stalin but was also organized as an alternative to the European (i.e., Paris) based left artistic cadres dominated by Picasso.
It is no accident that Peggy Guggenheim bankrolled Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg and created the idea that Abstract Expressionism was aesthetically viable. (which does not ignore her support for non Abstract Expressionism including Picasso)
Guggenheim was a useful, wealthy fellow traveler of the American establishment and the cocktail circuit that ran from Manhattan to Georgetown, and included CIA and Foggy Bottom spooks, mandarins and aristocrats all committed to defeating “the Red Menace” and to moving the artistic center of gravity from Paris to New York.
Part of that effort was realized in work that was “about” color; and “form” in an kind of ectoplasmic state not yet this or that but all and nothing simultaneously.
And of course, ultimately nihilistic and reactionary.
These two points are not unable to coexist. What is authentic in Abstraction – think Mondrian, and Klee or Miro – is a reflection of the intrinsic dualities of human consciousness; neither this nor that but both or something else brought into focus only by observation which, paradoxically changes the meaning of the thing itself (in Kantian terms).
But there is no ignoring the corruption of the idea unless one chooses to ignore that having the CIA as your patron is no better and could easily be worse than having a Medici Pope ask rhetorically: Who’s your daddy?
Picasso, in contrast, though often abstract if not ever Abstract, remained figurative.
That is, the human form or the form of objects about which the human revolved, were always his subjects.
And thus, in the end, intrinsically humanistic and Romantic even if it was Romance with a burn mark.
Guernica, his Guernica, is surreal, and abstract but not Abstract. It is a fable, a myth, and a nightmare but not without hope.
Abstract Expressionism, terrified of its inability to challenge the old bull and given an incentive to be antagonistic towards social commitment, retreated into a hyperventilating petulance that rejected the figurative and wrapped itself in Meaning while of course sucking on the covert tit of the establishment.
It was, while claiming (insisting) otherwise, fundamentally, anti-intellectual.
Pollock was plucked from obscurity and put into Life Magazine which of course was an unofficial organ of the state more or less on par with Pravda.
The distinction between similar and more or less on par, is not unimportant as on the one hand Life published The Old Man and the Sea but the same machinery of night where Henry Luce was a gangster, also drove its author to execute himself to save the state from the trouble of having to do it themselves.
One can of course understand and have sympathy for the post war American artists. The world was terrifying. Philip Roth said so in, Writing American Fiction but he forgot, or hoped everyone else had, that the world was terrifying for Melville and Whitman and Twain and they still managed to slice open a vein and let the words pour.
Roth of course ended up as a freelancer for the spooks and wrote bourgeois curios that the trained seals of the state media called genius.
As adjuncts of wholly owned colonies within the Bertelsmann AG and Conde Nast Imperium, they are the first to tell you their rhetorical shit does not stink and of course no one is going to argue with them. After all, to borrow a phrase – The New Yorker only speaks to the New York Times and The New York Times only speaks to God and God owns Harper Collins.
And Roth and his generation – many of whom made their literary and art criticism bones in magazines that were all on the CIA printing press – were terrified of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald because they, along with the rest of the Moderns had jumped into the darkness and though crushed, bought the ticket.
Roth bought a table at Elaines and a house in Connecticut.
Fast forward a few years and you of course have the end phase 1960s and the world seems to crack open – Strangelove, Sgt Pepper, Altamont, My Lai, the assassinations, coups, counter coups, (as always, feel free to make your own list) and all the rest of it – and all of that under the looming prospect of radioactive mushroom clouds or the mirthless blues numbers of a nation of Stepford Wives and endless Tupperware parties. This is the context of, The Graduate and the collapse of hope in Easy Rider or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Thompson was right; you could see where the wave of freedom had reached its breaking point and rolled back leaving refugees in its wake.
A profound case of the jitters and shakes then not only makes perfect sense the truth is, if you weren’t self medicating there was probably something seriously wrong with you.
And so, a generation of cynical, angry antagonistic artists determined to piss in the national punchbowl and drop a fragrant deuce in your lap.
Until it morphs into the Establishment and becomes turgid, reactionary, banal propagandistic spunk tossed off by people who are too old, and too flabby to be wearing leather motorcycle jackets. In other words, the sort who used to read Rolling Stone and now read Rolling Stone while checking their stock portfolios.
The result is an industrial scale prefabricated anomie; an industrial mass produced nihilism but devoid of any threat either to the viewer or to the establishment.
It is Art Inc.
It is S & M but don’t leave lube stains on the imported carpet – it was made in a post feminist collective from free range Afghan wool with every three cents going to support war refugees.
The photographs are bleak renditions of bleak soulless corporate enclaves, and artificial representations of stark moments in generic homes where, we are supposed to believe, the subject is a kind of digital version of Munch’s Scream.
The palate is almost always monochrome because color as a reflection of life in all its possibilities has been banished; shunted off to a ghetto where it is demeaned as unrealistic and glib vs the grey East German aesthetic celebrated as authentic – an authentic reflection of uniformity, conformity, and the terror of the contemporary mise en scene.
Except, it’s as interesting as a Silicon Valley Industrial Park – or campus because of course they’re not corporate psychopaths making a fortune off of slave labor while shoving digital heroin into the world’s amygdala and servicing the Mass Ponopticon like proper Borg Drones – no sir, it’s a campus full of youth and creativity and the clash of ideas.
The Edelman Chicago Project is dead on arrival.
It is a zombie show for zombies.
Consider the work of, Justyna Badach.
And her “Mission Statement” which beings with a quote from Hanna Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism:
“Inwardness as a place of absolute freedom within one’s own self was discovered in late antiquity by those who had no place of their own in the world.” Hannah Arendt (Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951′
And then the opening statement by the “artist.”
“My images are an investigation of rejection, isolation, marginalization and expression of individual desires.”
First, if one accepts the premise that Arendt offers an appeal to authority (we do) then what to make of the idea that inwardness, the autonomous self, is the engine of freedom, and that by quoting her, and then explaining what the work is about, is essentially unintentionally ironic as it robs the viewer of their autonomy and substitute’s the official slogan in its place.
This is Soviet style “freedom” and the dead hand of “Socialist Realism” disguised as badassery.
Let’s be clear: a work of art is a Mission Statement. An artist explaining their work is a collaborator with the regime helping to make the trains run on time.
The “artist” has bought into the machine and said they are so without talent and the viewer so devoid of imagination, that everything must be explained. Imagination, the shock of the new, must be strangled in its sleep.
There is no surprise here, no potential for shock, joy, wonder, fear, or all of that and something more and instead there is the side of a cereal box and a list of ingredients.
Not Ode on a Grecian Urn and certainly not Olympia or the harpies from Avignon, but an explanation of the notes someone copied from an out of print dissertation, on a documentary about a man whose great grandfather curated the museum where Keats was blown away by eternity.
The “Mission Statement” is of course a marketing tool designed to force submission and deny freedom. It is intrinsically tyrannical if not totalitarian.
The image itself then is held hostage by the statement and the statement holds the viewer hostage.
The obvious response from the Art Mafia is that you are free to disregard the statement, or reject it.
But of course that’s not what happens at all.
The Mission Statement is a requirement – the galleries demand it – and it must adhere to the prefabricated template of the machine and thus it is forced and by being forced the “artist” is coerced into jerking off while everyone watches.
The language is of course all essentially the same – the same dreary paint by numbers patois about engagement, and autonomy, and freedom and exploration and so on all drummed into frauds rolled off of MFA assembly lines into the corrupt maw of the Art machine which then demands fealty to the cult.
The image in question is of a man in a shambolic room in the middle of shambolic moment that is devoid of anything except the propaganda in the statement as if the work is not by definition the statement and the individual is not the curator of their imagination.
The other images are no better and no worse than snap shots taken by someone on a vacation. Here’s the car with the door open and here’s one of me next to the car with the doors closed.
Photo after photo of men, of no particular interest either to themselves or anyone who is not a voyeur, and whose idea of interest is something more complex than a blank wall.
The work is useless; a glib reflection of a glib idea executed in a glib and absurd manner as if the 1812 Overture required a hearing impaired assistant to make the sign for cannons except they’re not cannons, they’re packing sheets of plastic bubbles that “snap” when you squeeze them.
Or consider Bill O’Donnell’s Many Rooms.
With lighting borrowed from the hallways of the headquarters of an insurance company, and an imagination borrowed from the 1970s, he offers a rope trailing in and out of a generic “mid century” kitchen with a white bowl and a carving knife “oddly” positioned to suggest along with the rope that all is not well in suburbia.
Someone arrange a screening of American Beauty.
But wait, because here’s O’Donnell to ram meaning down your throat:
“These pictures are shot in a rusting tin dollhouse. This home functions as a metaphor for an afterlife, the dwelling place of human ideals. The scenes are inspired by three themes of the Western philosophical tradition: Knowledge, Conduct and Governance. The work treats these essential questions: What is the nature of reality? How does one live a virtuous life? How is one related to one’s society? While inspired by the formal, particular structure of Western philosophical inquiry, these are undeniably haunting uncertainties that have been pondered throughout human history.”
If the photograph requires a page long explanation (we’ve truncated it) then what the fuck is the point of the work?
If I’m free to experience it then why tell me what it’s about? Why not allow it to be mysterious or confusing or unclear?
If it’s about a metaphoric afterlife, than I’m not free to interpret it.
If I’m free to interpret the “afterlife” anyway I please then why tell me what it’s supposed to mean when I view it?
But worse still is the fact that even if one grants the premise and accepts O’Donnell’s claim that the rope is a metaphor for Theseus’ dash into and exit from the labyrinth (while taking note that for such a “woke” dude, he conspicuously elides Ariadne from the story) the fact remains the images have no discernable visual connection to the stated theme. They are so banal, so generic, so devoid of élan or talent, that they could be about anything.
Then O’Donnell adds:
” I use windows and doors, the liminal membranes between public and private domains…’
The ten cent word in the drag of a ten dollar bill because of course he has to toss off liminal in order to make it sound like his flat can of soda is a fine Bordeaux.
The patois of the con job.
And is that even original – the space between doors and windows; the public and the private?
Hasn’t that been done to death, resurrected, killed, buried and brought back to life yet again?
And the images of course are just more boring holiday pics – minus life, sex, hate, lust, Eros, joy, and above all, color or beauty.
The images are in color but they are all uniform – mostly a dull forest green and the bland interior of dead homes.
Then there’s Collen Plumb. Her “subject” is animals and humanities’ relationship to and with them. Thus, we are given an image of a colorless sky, with a hint of not quite grey-white, some trees in the distance and a jet black pair of what appear to be mounds of dirt in the foreground – except they turn out to be the back of horse.
See the horse is lost in our view and our view is directed away from the reality of the horse and so we are not in touch with the essence of the horse.
Or, it’s a trite sophomoric effort and a disservice to an actual idea better served by having the balls to shoot a photograph of a horse being slaughtered for its meat or gunned down to “cull” the heard.
But why take risks when it’s easier to be pretend to be risky?
And so it goes – image after image devoid of anything Romantic and by Romantic we mean subversive.
And that is crucial – we are (re)defining Romantic as subversive. And here, subversive is beauty and beauty is subversive.
Consider that in the current moment of terror, this moment of reactionary circular firing squads, and the dull blunt trauma of a socio-economic thunder dome, what could be more subversive than beauty for the sake of beauty- images that while mercurial, or mysterious, retain an essential aura of aesthetic harmony and as a result call forth a desire to live.
The Edelman Gallery is a fossil.
The work on display is a petrified forest of dreary self indulgent paint by numbers “art” that is, despite its claims to be cutting edge, really just kitsch – Thomas Kinkade in leather.
Pleading to be spanked and choked.
See the gallery here: