At a party in 1969, a drunken Willem de Kooning found himself face to face with Andy Warhol. He did not like what he saw. Here was the King of Pop (Art), at 40 the very nemesis of the abstract expressionism that de Kooning, then 65, had helped put on the international map. It was an opportunity for the seizing, a moment to tell the wiggy Warhol just where to put his Brillo boxes. “You’re a killer of art,” he told Warhol. “You’re a killer of beauty and you’re even a killer of laughter. I can’t bear your work.”
Almost a half-century on, you have to admire the bluntness of the criticism while allowing yourself a twinge of nostalgia: To modern eyes, de Kooning’s bile just seems so damn charming – the 20th-century equivalent of Ruskin telling Whistler that he was a fop “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Can you imagine anyone in today’s art world getting that worked up? These days, diffidence is the default aesthetic response: “You like Christopher Wool? Cool. I’m probably more of a Glenn Ligon man myself.” And if diffidence doesn’t work, there’s always a retreat into gnomic Wittgensteinism, i.e. “That of which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence.”
Besides, what did de Kooning really have to be upset about? Warhol was a painter, as he was. As with de Kooning, a lot of Warhol’s work was made to hang on walls. De Kooning conjured a stunning Marilyn Monroe portrait in 1954; Warhol did the first of his own many Marilyn paintings in 1962. Both were making good money. In short, these guys were playing with the same deck, save for a few cards.
Today’s international art practice, by contrast, comprises such a bewildering array of idioms, schools of one, strategies, styles and projects, each with its own recondite vocabulary and apologists, that a kind of cultural gridlock has taken hold – even as works arise that almost dare the audience to shout “Bogus!” and “Shame!” Last month, an orange stainless-steel balloon-dog sculpture by Jeff Koons sold at Christie’s for almost $60-million (U.S.).
The shouts, however, never seem to come. Or if they do, they are to little or no response and minimal consequence in what New Yorker art writer Calvin Tomkins calls “this unprecedented climate of acceptance.” Indeed, Art+Auction magazine recently put Koons at the top of its 2013 Power 100 list of the most influential art-world players. “Koons is in a position,” noted editor-in-chief Benjamain Genocchio, “to demand whatever he wants from the art-world infrastructure.”
The catholicity of the contemporary scene, its global reach, the sheer volume of its multidisciplinary output and the equanimity that seems to greet it make it hard to engage in one of journalism’s favourite activities, especially at this time of year – the identification of trends.
If there are trends, they appear to be more about the presentation of the art and how it’s consumed than about content. Notes Leah Sandals, online editor at Canadian Art magazine, “Despite the fact that my job is to cover art, I don’t feel like I see enough in person these days to survey trends accurately. I see plenty of JPEGs, but that’s not the same thing. … Also, I find my reaction to art so incredibly subjective: Any trends I might personally identify are likely best classified as simply ‘Stuff I like’ or ‘Stuff that seems to be relevant to my life at this moment.’”
For John Kissick, director of the School of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Guelph as well as a published art writer and practising painter, “It increasingly [seems] as if fewer people actually feel the need to go to exhibitions at home anymore. Everyone who is anyone – meaning collectors and curators – is always jetting off somewhere else to see and buy.” This usually means attending fairs such as the recently concluded Art Basel Miami Beach. “It is so very convenient,” Kissick observes, like strolling “a high-end shopping mall. No rain or blustery winds. No long walks on the mean streets. More beautiful people. More supposedly ‘important’ art.”
And if “diffident” defines our current response to contemporary art, young new artists are sidling up to their own buzzword: provisional. “In response to any question about the work these days,” notes Kissick, “an artist will inevitably say, ‘I see the work, piece, section of painting, whatever as provisional.’” Unfinished, in other words – “as if it is dangerous, or at least retrograde” to declare anything finished, let alone finish it.
It seems more than ever the case that, as U.S. art critic Clement Greenberg once put it to me, no one wishes to get caught out, to be doomed to history’s dustbin by making a positional mistake, such as those critics who deemed Impressionism, then Post-Impressionism, then Expressionism, then abstract expressionism ugly and anti-art.
There is, however, one realm, in Canada at least, where artists, curators, scholars and critics appear to be in confident accord, and that’s with respect to what Sandals calls “the growing recognition and continued mobilization of aboriginal art and artists.”
This fall, Duane Linklater, an Omaskeko Cree from Northern Ontario, was recognized by the jury of the Sobey Art Award as the best contemporary Canadian visual artist age 40 or under. And throughout 2013, institutions large and small devoted considerable real estate to Indian artists and Indian themes.
Among the biggest shows: Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, at the National Gallery; Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art., at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto; Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools at Vancouver’s Belkin Art Gallery; and Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, a touring show originating with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Many of the artists in those exhibitions used the conceptual conceits and multiplicity of materials favoured by their non-native contemporaries – but somehow, in their hands, the enterprise seemed fresher, more urgent, necessary even.
No one, of course, save for hidebound conservatives who think there hasn’t been a great work of art since, say, The Sower, wishes a return to past orthodoxies. Nothing indecorous or profane here, per favore, Signor Buonarroti!
But as Joni Mitchell has observed, there can be a “crazy you get from too much choice.” Recently, Artforum contributing editor Bruce Hainley bemoaned the fact “we live in a time of a lot of very bad art” and “widespread cultural bankruptcy” and the “stage-managed moment.”
But did he name names; cite an example or three? He did not. He simply decreed, parenthetically, “Has it ever been otherwise?” before going on to use the adverb “diegetically” in an analysis of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a movie that nabbed the No. 2 spot on Hainley’s best-of-2013 list. At that, you had to imagine de Kooning’s ashes (cremation, 1997) returning to human form, to permit him to roll over in his grave.