Negatives Don't Cut It

by John Link

A very intelligent and high ranking officer of a university where I once worked used to joke that no one should sit next to him at a party unless they had something nasty to share. This very smart guy nailed the truth that in the short run, nothing holds our rapt attention like negatives. Once a negative is detached from a sense of humor, as it often is, anger and its many derivatives drive it even harder, sometimes to the point of actually inciting action. Change is the result and that can be very good sometimes.

There is a lot of nasty in the world of art to both joke about and piss us off and even serve as a call to action. On February 16, 2014 Maximo Caminero visited the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, picked up a painted vase by Ai WeiWei and dropped it on the floor, breaking it to pieces. Caminero stated he did this to protest the museum's failure to include local artists in the exhibit, preferring instead the internationally famous, such as Mr. Ai. This might have been just another case of the now familiar and not that newsworthy category of "performance protest art", except Ai WeiWei is quite an odd duck himself. His fame is tied to breaking historically important urns, including a priceless one from the Chinese Han Dynasty, and defacing others. The shocking destruction of the Han Dynasty piece was photographed and the photographs were displayed behind the pot that Caminero broke. Caminero told a local newspaper his "protest" was actually homage to Ai WeiWei that was inspired by these very photographs. Rumors flew in reputable news channels. CNN reported that the broken vase was worth $1 million. The official appraisal of the broken pot has not yet been released, but it is likely not worth nearly that much. Ai previously collected a group of nine Neolithic vases similar to those on display at the PAMM and painted them - some would say mutilated - with common house paint, same as the one Caminero broke. The group of nine sold for about $150 thousand in 2012, or less than $20 thousand each. But the negative loves itself the more negative it can make of itself. Now that the $1 million bell has been rung, it will be difficult to un-ring.

Ai's comments about the incident to the New York Times are stunning. He opposed Caminero's "protest" because the pot was not owned by the protester. The avant-garde must abide by the rules of capitalism to be acceptable, according to Ai. That's how domestic the once uncivilized beast has become. Once such rules are satisfied, it is OK to deface and destroy irreplaceable treasures from past civilizations, but only if. Surely there will be critical commentary. Surely it will be as screwed up as the incident and the players themselves. Above all, there is enough negation involved to make one's blood boil, and surely someone's will, both for and against both artists involved in the incident. And there is plenty of hypocrisy for the Dave Barrys of the world to feast upon, and for their readers to enjoy.

But what of art itself? And is there any serious art writing that can spring from this incident? Is the boiling of blood really the essential business of art or the words that enlarge themselves thanks to it? Did the Han Dynasty urn Ai chose to destroy originally engage us because it made us angry? Did it even make Ai angry? Did Pete Seeger write protest songs that were off key and intended to be accompanied by out of tune instruments and played to random rhythm? No. Art is not built from negation. Even when it addresses a problem, it does so from a position of strength, if it wants to be successful. Art must give us pleasure, must satisfy, must click our clicker first. Then it can do whatever else. If Where Have All The Flowers Gone? were not such a pretty song it would never have worked as a protest song.

Serious art writing is a parasite. It cannot survive without attaching to art that is strong enough to give it nourishment and this arrangement is good for both the writing and the art. I'll say it again. Serious art writing is a parasite. That fact has gotten severely twisted. Sometime post 1960 this reversed and art assumed the parasite position. It attached itself to the published word. Like a bizarre leech, it evolved to make itself more and more compatible with what can be written and made to appear profound, made to look intellectual, analytical, morally provocative, and the like. Today we have magnitudes more of both art and art writing, but it is a mile wide and hardly an inch deep. Art as a parasite on the word has weakened both endeavors.

Some of the most passionate and interesting art writing since 1960 has examined the aesthetic decline that has ensued as the world of art submitted to the written word and achieved the Holy Grail of "understanding" and subsequent prosperity. Early on, especially, those rants would really grab me and take me for a cathartic joyride. I ate them up. And they were always better than the soulless cerebral word play that still dominates the art press. But those rides were about that which was lacking, that which should exist but did not, that which was literally nothing. They were about "advanced art" that did not provide essential satisfactions. And so they were, to an extent that finally wore them out, polluted by the pollution to which they were necessarily attached.

What is needed now is what has always been needed: writing about superior art. Harold Rosenberg had more strange ideas than I'll ever be able to count, but when he associated them with the great Abstract Expressionists they made a great read, even though he violated most of the rules of good writing. He didn't give a hoot about the "who, what, when, where" of classic journalism, nor was his thinking clear enough to associate with any reasonable use of the term "logic". Likewise, "evidence" and "specifics" were foreign to much of his writing. Yet it soared because it was attached to art that soared. He showed that when writing associates with art that is good enough it gains extraordinary freedom to walk the line next to craziness yet retain credibility and relevance.

But when crazy writing attaches to weak art, such as Barbara Rose and her essay on ORLAN's plastic surgery, and is published in the likes of Art In America, then you have something for some to furrow their brows over and make like they are sensitive, others to laugh at, and others to boil some blood. But in the end it is something contrived and stupid. It cannot hold up, so it sinks.

Sadly - for wannabe art writers - complaining about bad art writing does not constitute anything very exciting. While it might be good for a warm fuzzy or two among those who long for the good stuff, it is just too easy to do. Negatives are just that nasty, that they soil themselves, even when they are true. Identifying yet more bad writing about yet more bad art is hardly remarkable. The vulgarian in the street does that all the time. Wrapping obscure words and academic references around vulgarian truth does not change it any, for better or worse.

If art writing wants to surge and once more spill over with radiance, showing us the path to eternal Apollo, it must find superior art. The question, I suppose, and with great sadness, is whether it can find any in our time. It is not obvious where this superior art is. It may only be a supposition on my part that it is somewhere now, because art, no matter how good it might be, is not truly superior if it exists in isolation. The global community may have eliminated the possibility of "art centers" like Florence, or Paris, or even New York for its 20 year run. But it is not possible for there to be just 10 superior artists anymore than it is possible for there to be the 10,000 or more now in the massive spotlight.

It takes a right sized group of exceptional artists, working both together and in competition with each other, to get it done. It also takes a cultivated audience for their work which includes word smiths who add what only they can add. This group of artists, audience and writers must be known to each other with reasonable clarity and interact with each other, particularly the artists. I don't see that happening right now. The scene may simply be overrun. There are too many artists, too many galleries, too many writers, too large an audience, for anything more than a Tower of Babel to thrive. This was first recognized by Darby Bannard in the 80s, and has multiplied itself many times since. If this is all there is, it should eventually wash itself out, like an over extended stock market, and then rebuild. But like any stock market crash, it won't happen until it happens.

On the other hand, perhaps there are some subgroups that are not that visible, but are visible enough to themselves to make it work. Such a group would understandably wish to gain recognition from the system now in place because of the vast resources it contains. But that may not be in the best interest of their art or their writing. Small fires can be extinguished by throwing too much fuel on them at once. There is historical evidence that suggests hardship for artists is associated with furtherance of their art. It would behoove writers to seek out such groups if they want to set real fire to their writing. Visiting studios is probably a better strategy than visiting galleries. The filters in place right now seem to ensure a predictable product that inspires cookie cutter writing, no matter how extreme some of it presents.

We do not need art that explores ideas. We do not need art that provokes. We do not need art that criticizes society. We do not need art that denies art. We have all that, in droves. It is common, ho-hum stuff. What we need is art that makes us feel like we are dancing three feet off the ground, a metric I borrow from Clement Greenberg. And writing that leverages from that basic phenomenon to wherever, by whatever means suits its purpose.

February 26, 2014

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