Top critical review
4 people found this helpful
A Crock: Art As Questioning by an Indolent Elite
on March 23, 2014
The impulse toward elitism in art has always been powerful. The branch of this endeavor aimed at persuading the non-elite, especially the middle class, that it is simply incapable of appreciating art has been not only powerful but wildly successful. Starting in the mid-19th century, it has managed to wipe out even the concept of a popular market for new or avant guard art. In poetry, for example, book sales, minimal as they are, are largely the result of class reading assignments in literature courses. The professors write to and for the professors; Hallmark owns the rest.
The forgers portrayed in the book share particular traits. They tend to be people from modest educational and social circumstances who mastered difficult artistic techniques just in time to see them rendered obsolete by modernism and the nihilism that followed. They found demand for these services largely, if not exclusively, in the field of restoration, which in all cases led to falsification. Citing revenge as both motive and justification, they each established careers as gifted forgers, thieves in strictly legal terms. Justification typically is expressed as resentment or envy of an elite characterized by knowledge, money, or both. "Yes, I have cheated them, and they deserved to be cheated. That is my art."
But the crimes of these forgers pale in comparison to the post-modern artists we meet in the book. Relieved of the need for mastery of technique, they are free to concentrate solely on justification. And as Keats demonstrates in the third section of the book, it is all so easy to accomplish. All that is required is to assume the pose of the interlocutor. You simply explain whatever it is you are doing as "raising questions" about whatever subject matter comes to hand.
For example, Keats describes a project by Sherrie Levine in which she photographed pages of a book containing photographs by Walker Evans. According to Levine, this is not what it seems to the uninitiated, the laziness of someone with nothing original to say, but, rather, "A picture of a picture is a strange thing and it brings up lots of contradictions." In such vague and sophomoric fashion, elite artists are said to be questioning society about such things as the "boundaries of art," the nature of attribution," the relationship between past and present," or "the boundaries between subject and object" -- practically anything except, of course, the ability to compose an original photograph. Thus, they shift the burden of meaning from themselves to viewer. It is up to you to prove your worthiness by finding or assigning meaning to the naked act of photographing a photograph. The artist's job is to ask some vague question. If you cannot answer it, and thereby make a case that the act means something, you have proven once again why art is for the elite. Its a perverse form the the emperor's clothes with the emperor in on the ruse this time.
But the fraud of post-modernism really shines when Keats introduces us to a cadre of shallow thinkers posing as artists. J.S.G. Boggs draws facsimile bank notes that, we are told, "leverag[e] the absurdity or art to question the sanity of finance." Really? Define finance? Explain how its "sanity" is in question? What does "the absurdity or art" mean and what does that have to do with finance? It's all just gibberish, lazy and shallow pleas to those who equate finance with evil and don't want to think more about it than that. If bankers and governments are upset about the practice, that is enough.
And then we come to street art. Someone defaces a billboard and it "provokes pertinent questions: Who owns a city's visual space, the corporations who can buy it or the public who lives in it.?' By this anarchist logic, someone might feel justified in spray painting one's automobile, on the ground that it is part of a publicly-owned visual space. Or one's house. Or one's face.
Hacking is also art, again, because somehow it questions things. Someone highjacks a public WiFi spot and alters newspapers to reflect the political views of the hackers. Or hackers create a fake website purporting to represent the views of the Vatican, again, altered to reflect the political views of the hackers. The fact that the viewers were not asked to participate is apparently of no importance. What matters is the transmission of a political message characterized as questioning something or other. I suspect the Chinese Communist government may be way ahead of the hackers on this one.
Finally, we are invited to view genetic research as related to art -- someone generates frog steaks from a living frog and then serves them with the frog in attendance. I confess that I am simply not up to the task of seeing what is being questioned here except good taste, much less why this is art. I embrace my exclusion from this particular elite.
In sum, the stories of the six forgers are interesting and worth reading. Ultimately, I am not persuaded that their frauds constitute heroic acts of vengeance. They set out to deceive, they studied the most effective way of doing so, and they accomplished much in that regard, often muddying the waters of art history in the process. I do not agree with Keats that these acts have raised important questions about such things as attribution, culture, and the rest of it. Rather, they have raised questions about the security of markets and the reliability of certain indicia of authenticity. Producing a convincing painting in the style of an established master does not, to my mind, question the value or originality of that master. Rather, it plays to greed, arrogance, and the qualities that made that master respected in the first place. The question raised, it seems to me, is what the elites who have replaced those technique-driven forms with what has come after have to show for the effort. The book's answer to this question is, perhaps,well-summarized by the following passages:
"This avant guard tendency to ponder and parse what it means to be free, rather than acting on that freedom in any new way, is ubiquitous."
"The readymade liberated artists to incarcerate themselves in their own hall of mirrors."