Art: Mystique or Mystery?

With Christ's Incarnation, we can have it both ways.

February 6th, 2012

"'Art for art' is a tactical slogan, a necessary rebellion against philistine didacticism and political control. But pressed to its logical consequences, it is pure narcissism."
—George Steiner

"Labor is craft, but perfect rest is an art."
—Abraham Joshua Heschel

To many, the world of contemporary art often seems esoteric or vaguely corrupt—motivated more by a taste for shock, prestige, and money than by our traditionally romantic ideals about art and artist. We're accustomed to thinking of the ideal artist as flying above the fray of marketing and money—the squalid business of business. And yet, the most successful contemporary artists are those whose "brand" is managed in the hype-machinery of a pressurized art market where name and fame are derived from a successful scandal or bold one-upmanship—where artists become famous for being famous more than for the complexity, insight or beauty that their work evokes, and where a market tautology exists: higher art prices validate higher art prices. The value of a work of art is commonly understood as whatever someone is willing pay for it (or is manipulated in the pressure-cooker of the auction house to bid for it).

As I see it, we are still very attached to the romantic ideal of the artist, but there's a built-in contradiction in the way we actually do business as artists and art consumers. As consumers, we like to think of artists as making art for its own sake, but we also want that same art to have an increasing market value. As artists we are vulnerable to those clever enough to "relieve" us from the obligation to do the dirty work—to do business for ourselves—and, we are thereby subject to an art market that is built upon arbitrary or inflated standards managed by retailers with a large stake in financial and social outcomes. Art world middlemen manage the business of art by inserting themselves into the space between client and artist, between the producer and the "consumer" of art—and thereby make their livelihoods off of the contradictory situation that demands "art for art's sake" but delivers a thinly veiled, highly commercial, branded, consumable product with investment value. (And in this case the actual product is often less important than the status accorded it by the cognoscenti of the art world, lending credibility and market share to an otherwise forlorn and "anxious object" as Harold Rosenberg once wrote of the modern work of art.)

The art object is thereby denatured and its meaning or value is managed by a system employing arbitrary criteria determined by those with powerful commercial interests ("whatever anyone is willing to pay"). A common result of all this is a "gnosticized" art object whose physical reality is marginal and ultimately unnecessary because what is valued is not the object so much as a manufactured patina of mystery or high social status accruing to its limited accessibility. In effect, we have an artificially engineered art economy that sells mystique or prestige, not crafted objects with their own innate value or meaning—hence the confusion over any number of aesthetic or content issues that descends on average, educated citizens who are not conversant with current fashions in the art world or managed within this system.

An alternative to this mystique economy can be stated simply in the words of the great American poet William Carlos Williams: "No ideas but in things" (by which he meant that the young poet must ground her work in reality—in "thing-ness"—not simply spin a gossamer concept without facture, without physical product where poet or painter engages in a costly making process). And of course this advice flies in the face of the current dominance of the conceptual or the coy kitsch references in contemporary art culture, where making or crafting a work is seen as secondary (and often executed by hired craftspeople). The main attraction in this scene seems to be the über cool brand that stays ahead of the bleeding edge of fashion. There is a saying associated with the influential schools preparing students for the current art market: "Traditional art schools educated from the wrists down; we educate from the wrists up." Craftsmanship is seen as a minor affair; ideas are what counts, not earnest, handmade things.

Personally I see two significant problems resulting from failure to follow the poet's advice: one, the denial of the thing-ness of art, its gnostic disembodiment into pure concept (and secondary values like the sophisticated taste for kitsch) results often in a denatured art form that is more verbal than visual (why call it "art" if its visual qualities are negligible or secondary?); and two, the art that is so denatured can end up on a spectrum from hollow novelty to esoteric text necessitating heavy theoretical baggage. In either extreme the aesthetics are secondary, and in order to be sold, the art requires being manipulated, set in an arcane theoretical scaffolding, or inflated in a mystique economy for the reasons stated above.

In post-modernity, by imagining that we've perfected the idea or concept of art, denying art's necessary materiality, its visual object-hood, art and artist are colonized by secondary marketing where the genuine mystery of images is drained off and art is subject to the worst sort of commercialization process—that is, one that denies its own commercial motive and substitutes a momentary frisson in place of craft, and where the real power is located not in the art or the artist, but in style and market strategy. Art thereby devolves to pure notion, minus any reference to crafted materiality or real presence.

Not only is the object-hood downplayed in this scenario, but this brand mystique is also predicated upon the scarcity of the "limited edition" or limited access and the belief that good art must, by definition, be rare and accessible only to an elite. (The irony is thick in all this: Warhol's oeuvre, which is generally accepted as the bell-weather of the art market, glutted the market early on—with over ten thousand objects produced in his "Factory"—until after his death, when scarcity could be proven and hence outrageous prices fetched, so that now some of his paintings sell for well over a hundred million dollars and are among the hottest things on the modern art auction block.) By promoting a scarcity mentality, the middleman can drive up prices, separate art maker and art consumer, and create a fevered demand by those with a lot of disposable income and a competitive appetite for cultural markers. (An infamous example of this a decade ago was when a Japanese businessman bought a Van Gogh painting of irises for $56 million and then stored it in a vault.)

Instead of experiencing community and genuine participation in the work of art, such buyers unwittingly become party to a shallow scarcity-based marketing scheme—one that subsists by driving a wedge between the traditional partners of meaning-making: artists, patrons and the interpreter-consumer. So the thing itself—the actual work of art—is devalued, and the idea of it, or better yet, the notional echo of it, is manipulated to stand in for the art even as the sense of rarity grows in the hothouse of the current art market.

The two other results of mystique marketing are first that the artist seldom gets to know his actual clientele (thereby undermining potential for any more substantive or lasting meaning), and second, the art object is more the subject of an elaborate game than a beautiful or meaningful thing-in-itself shared and enjoyed between members of a community over the long haul. Another way of saying this is that this sort of conceptual branding creates a "meaning gap" between art-maker and art-consumer—substituting a fashionable, managed experience in place of the thing itself—the conceptual framework becomes the be all and end all of experience, yielding a disembodied art form. The art world in this context becomes indistinguishable from the entertainment industry—and successful careers are judged by similar criteria, with artists totally dependent on navigating popular taste the way Hollywood producers do. In this way artists become famous not for their consummate skill or depth of engagement with the world, but for their adeptness at judging the popularity of a particular gimmick or fashion trend, and their art ironically becomes valuable for achieving exaggerated market share. It becomes expensive because it is expensive.



Marcel Duchamp, generally acknowledged as the grandfather of conceptual art, is unlikely to have ever envisioned this ultimate ramification of his so-called "readymades" (the infamous urinal among them)—yet he would have admired someone like Damien Hirst for the artist's sheer chutzpah and brilliant strategy for unmasking the art market while busily fleecing it. In my view, Hirst has grasped this business of marketing notions in place of traditional art objects better than almost anyone in the current high-art culture.

For the Love of God, © 2007 Damien Hirst—"sold" for 50,000 pounds Sterling.
For the Love of God

In his piece For the Love of God, a cast-platinum human skull is studded all over with more than 8,600 of the highest quality Tiffany diamonds, including a large pear-shaped pink diamond on the forehead. As part of the concept, Mr. Hirst paid more than £14 million to have the piece manufactured by top craftsmen (never really touching the piece himself as maker); he then formed a business alliance—a holding company of which he was a material member—to buy the piece at the White Cube Gallery in London, driving its value up to almost £50 million in price-bidding, allegedly purchasing his own piece via this self-formed company. This stunt of course drove Mr. Hirst's market share up markedly because it was the highest price ever fetched for a single object by a living artist. And in this case the work of art is not simply the object—the diamond studded platinum death's head—it is the whole phenomenon, the concept of the thing: an artist controlling the art market with a savvy strategy and canny self-aggrandizing spoof on the whole system.

In an article in London's The Guardian, Germaine Greer said, "Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative—revolutionary even." If there is a message in Hirst's diamond skull, it is something like, "you can't take it with you"—we are all going to die in any event, and though we cast our death in platinum and cover it with the highest quality diamonds, we are still dead—in fact, not only are we dead, but our art is dead (or all about death). It is all, as Greer said, a matter of marketing, but with this there is a near-total collapse of meaning in any decipherable sense of the word. Hirst's For the Love of God signifies anything but love, and if God is in the mix, God as we know him is utterly obscured by Mammon. And, I would argue, that is Hirst's whole point.

"For the Love of God." Was there ever a more fitting title for a contemporary artifact born in this scarcity—mystique economy of art? The title phrase is commonly used as a kind of expletive phrase, spoken as an exclamation of frustration. In fact, Hirst says it came to him when his mother actually said to him in an exasperated tone, "For love of God, what will you do next?!" And what the artist did next was cast himself as all parties in the transaction—producer, middleman, and consumer—bypassing all the respective roles in the existing art world, substituting himself as the entire arena.

One could complain that Damien Hirst is corrupt (as some did when news broke on this scheme) and you could claim that he has a corrupting influence on an otherwise normal and ethical art world, but to my way of thinking that would be utterly naïve. I believe that Hirst has done his job extraordinarily well, holding up a magic mirror to show what the art world has largely become—a system often based upon shallow novelty and all-too-clever gamesmanship instead of a community celebrating beauty and meaningful things lovingly wrought. In one sense, Hirst's platinum and diamond skull is beautiful. But it is also hideous—in both its imagery and its meaning—and of course Hirst self-consciously makes this very point.

What is a fitting Christian response to the world of art and markets described above? Certainly our view ought not exclude conceptual art or a vigorous and nuanced approach to making and selling art—yet I'd argue that Christian belief ought to privilege beauty and "thing-ness" as in the poet's epigram—and it should also honour accessibility (as in the wild profusion of beauty and rich provision of good things in God's material universe—sending rain to both the good and the bad). (More about this in a future essay.)

A parting word about the current art world as alternative religion. As Sarah Thornton said in a BBC interview about her book Seven Days in the Art World, "Contemporary art has become a belief structure for atheists . . . you go to art fairs the way someone might go to church." She went on to say that art has become a substitute religion where people of no faith can find meaning.

But of course from a Christian perspective this has ominous echoes of the episode of the Israelites and the worship of the golden calf. (Something Damien Hirst has also made witty reference to in an earlier piece, The Golden Calf—a actual bull preserved in a large tank of formaldehyde with 18kt gold plated horns and hooves and symbolic gold disk suspended above the bull's head. Hirst sold the piece for over £9 million in an audacious move, auctioning his own art at Sotheby's in a lot entitled Beautiful Forever Inside My Head—itself a witty send up on the outrageousness of his simultaneous participation and critique of this fevered art market.)

There is, in my way of thinking, a genuine alternative to the witty endgame of a tired art world that resorts to one-upmanship and shock or schlock—with Christ's Incarnation the thing-ness of things is hallowed and we can have it both ways: We can have a relationship with God our Maker, and also make and enjoy art without needing to artificially pump it up with a false sense of mystery or worship it like a new golden calf. There is genuine mystery enough in the world our Maker has created—and as a believing artist, more than anything I desire to honour that mystery, even if it places me beyond the pale of a sophisticated art scene that has developed an appetite almost exclusively for irony, shock or momentary shopping buzz.

Lest the reader think that I am purveying an all-negative assessment of the current high-end art scene, I'd hasten to add that not all in the contemporary art scene are stuck in the rut of cheap witticisms and ironic kitsch mongering. Artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Wolfgang Laib—two popular contemporary artists whose work interacts meaningfully with the natural world—are honouring and framing its mystery and beauty and continuing to move beyond cheap tricks to make art that is authentically new, avoiding the tendentious qualities described at length above.

While I'm grateful to Damien Hirst for so pointedly revealing the bankruptcy of an art market built entirely on status and branding, when I enter the studio I look away from that world to one where physical process and materiality are integral to beauty and meaning, and where the artist and her community celebrate together the festal play and power of the well-crafted object as much as nuanced ideas. "No ideas . . . but in things"—as Williams said. If there is indeed a Christian alternative to the current mystique art economy, it might be understood as an "incarnational economy" or a "physical abundance economy" (as over against the rarity or scarcity/competition market that dominates today).

In conclusion, a word about art and the idea of disinterested work-work that is freed from narrow utility and didacticism or propaganda. All art (poetry, painting, music) has traditionally aimed at an encounter with transcendence—a desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of the self and of death. Both in the Steiner and Heschel quotations at the beginning of this essay, there is a hint at this gamble on transcendence. In Heschel there is a more general statement about play, about rest from labour that is associated with art and the aesthetic—a Sabbath of sorts that we feel in our encounters with genuine art or poetry.

Steiner pushes this to include not only a bid for transcendence or immortality, but also the tacit reality that all true art acknowledges the "other"—the viewer, reader, or listener—not only as existing, but having claims on the artist and the art. I would welcome correction on this, but what I see found lacking in much of contemporary art is the sense of courtesia of intellectual hospitality and reaching out toward the other, the receptive beholder in a kind of eros of invitation. There seems to me a sort of cultural narcissism afoot, and what I've tried to discuss in this essay is how I see that working in terms of the market. What I hope to explore further in another essay is the possibility of an "ethics" of art—not a narrow moralistic art, but one that acknowledges the other and the claims of the other on the art and artist—one that operates within community or helps to bring that community into being.

Topics: Arts Business
 

Bruce Herman, 59, is a painter, and Professor of Art at Gordon College, near Boston, where he is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts. Herman's artwork has been exhibited in over one hundred and fifty exhibitions in major cities in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A.) and internationally (England, Italy, Israel, and Japan). His work is housed in many private and public collections including the Vatican Museums in Rome; Grunwald Center at Armand Hammer Collection; L.A. County Museum; Cincinnatti Museum of Art; and the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts.

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