HBO’s ‘The Price of Everything’ (2018): a documentary by Nathaniel Kahn

As so often with documentaries that try to come to terms with contemporary art, the real subject seems to evade capture. The title suggests we are in search of something like an ‘understanding of value’, meaning that behind the astronomical prices currently being realised for works of art, there is a perception that buyers are not so much interested in the works themselves, only in their asset-worthiness. In other words, no one really cares anything about the art, only about the money.  

Not an easy idea to explore visually, but Khan’s plan is to let the facts speak for themselves. So he documents key aspects of the moneyed artworld by showing successful artists and their artworks interspersed with interviews with a variety of relevant experts and dealers, all the while leading up to an anticipated Sotheby’s extravaganza (c1:20:00).  This is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that none of the experts involved are themselves exactly sure what the ‘art’ of contemporary art is all about, and so are unable to offer anything particularly insightful. And asking artists to talk about art can also be something of a let-down, as they often have no idea what they are playing at and tend to resort to banalities.

This doesn’t mean the unfolding of events, overlaid with authoritative but slightly shallow commentary, isn’t entertaining to watch: it is.  And we still get to witness the problems besetting contemporary art directly, even if by default, and in the absence of editorial guidance.

As a starter, there is the populist sentiment – surprisingly decades old now – that contemporary art objects are ludicrously overvalued, and that a reckoning of sorts ought to be on the cards. Gavin Brown, himself a dealer, thinks that he can ‘smell smoke’ (1:10:52), but it’s not clear exactly what he means by this. Is this smouldering the result of buyers starting to lose an interest in art, or is it their dawning realisation that they’re not quite sure what they are paying for ?  

This is really where the essence of the ‘problem’ with contemporary art lies: nobody knows what the ‘art’ of contemporary art amounts to, so people are parting with money on the basis of what gets to be described in the film as a ‘fashionable consensus’ (c49:00). As far as asset management goes, this is neither here nor there – let the enablers like Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo monitor the market for you (c1:02:03) – but if anyone is genuinely interest in the art itself, and wants to know if what they are buying has real worth, an entirely different set of ideas need to be brought into play.

For a work of art to have genuine value, not as a tradable commodity but as ‘itself’, it has to form part of a revelatory narrative with substantial and cogent content. It has to have more to it than surface features, or its value as a mere ‘recognisable’ image. And it has to be more than a mere relic. The Mona Lisa, for example, is a crafted relic of a bygone age, and its ‘meaning’, such as it can be said to have one, is entirely limited to its historical context and the techniques employed to realise it. There is nothing to the Mona Lisa beyond that, and although the image may have its own fascination as an instance of highly crafted portraiture, it is spectacularly dull as an artwork, as it does not possess any narrative content, or anything particularly interesting to say about itself other than the decidedly obvious.  And this in turn is true of almost all the classical museum pieces: they are all about the realisation of narrow classical conceptions and sensibilities, which explains why wandering around art museums and national galleries can be something of an ordeal: worthy, perhaps, but also faintly boring, as the ‘wow’ factor can only deliver so much before it begins to tail off (see Alexander Nemerov, art historian, at the Frick Collection c28:14).

Is this all there is to art ? Not if you know what to look for, and it seems that most people – even the art professionals – don’t know where to start. The transition from ‘classical’ to ‘contemporary’ has not brought with it a crucial change in perspective, and so still languishes in the idea of ‘art’ as a mixture of cultural artefact and crafterly technique, with ‘value’ as a function of desirability. And desirability in turn is a mixture of recognisability and fashionable consensus, the consensus being generated and sustained – or diminished – by changeable ideas as to what is ‘current’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘artistically substantial’. This whole train of thought is somewhat circular and insubstantial, and cannot come to rest on anything like solid ground, which is exactly why dealers are constantly alert to a possible day of reckoning when someone will call time on much of the duplicitous waffle which counts as sales talk.

Then what to look for ? You look for content. Content, as opposed to surface imagery is everything in contemporary art. What is content ? Content is the totality of the artistic narrative represented by a particular artwork. What is the artistic narrative ? It is the theatrical declaration – and all its directly related avenues – presented to the viewer by the artist through their artwork or works. Put more simply, it is the information contained in, and represented by, the theatrical meaning of an artwork, not as a merely sensual and aesthetic experience, but as a portal to a more imaginative type of experience. In the same way that an item of clothing, closely associated with a particular person, can generate an imaginative encounter not only with that person but with their world, so carefully conceived artworks can do exactly the same thing; only this time it is not necessarily the mundane world being represented, but a narrative and imaginary one. For example, a Joseph Beuys sculpture is not an ersatz Rodin, it is a portal to the Beuys world, and in its own way an infinitely more interesting invitation than that presented by a classical sculptural pose; the same is true of the technically shoddy but arresting works of Andy Warhol, or the technically sophisticated works of Jeff Koons; in both cases these works are items which conjure up distinctive theatrical environments which extend way beyond the immediate aesthetic features on display. Narrative artistic content is not about the relative superficiality of sensual beauty; it is about inviting you to partake in a mentality, or to view another modality of experiencing. The more powerfully an artwork can pitch you into its own realm of theatrical narrative, the better the art. 

The problem is that the popular conception of art conceives each and every artwork as a standalone object, to be assessed according to classical principles of skilled technique and traditional subject matter. In this view, you compare a Warhol to a Caravaggio, and a Koons to a Donatello, and decide in both cases that the modern works are seriously ‘insubstantial’. But this is an astonishingly blunt and blinkered view of the possibilities of art, and doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the opportunities which extend beyond judging objects in terms of mere sensual beauty. And it is this basic inability to recognise – and inhabit – a realm beyond classical conceptions of ‘art as crafted beauty’ which explains why there is an ongoing sense that all of contemporary art could turn out to be nonsense, and that a collective awakening might be about to bring the whole market crashing down.

Does this mean that, as essentially narrative objects as opposed to aesthetic ones, all of contemporary art is somehow validated ? Of course not: much of it is as superficial as it appears to be. Much contemporary art is simply not able to act as a portal to a distinctive theatrical realm, and so remains, despite the best efforts of its creators, at a level no higher than that of ‘creative crafting’. This is not the fault of the artist; this is the fault of the artistic muse, which has failed to bless that artist and their creations with access to the interesting, or the unsettling, or the revelatory.

A Richter abstract

 As an aside, it needs to be said that one of the most vacuous genres of modern and contemporary painting is that of ‘abstraction’, where colourful splotches and swirls on a canvas are imbued with a significance beyond mere ornamentation. The idea that splotches can be ‘meaningfully interpreted’ is an idea well worth investigating, and testing objectively, but anyone who does so will soon realise that it is a complete waste of time and goes nowhere. It is possible for abstract painters to develop a markedly distinctive style, but the style invariably ends with itself, and cannot generate narrative content which can develop into something approaching an involving theatricality. A ‘Pollock’ is just a large-scale decorative work with a highly characteristic method and style, but there’s nothing more profound to them than that (see Jerry Saltz on Pollock c57:41).  Abstract paintings may have historical value as recognisable instances – or relics – of a particular line of visual experimentation, but it doesn’t make sense to pretend that they are worthy of extended intellectual exegesis (see the sections on Gerhard Richter 30:24 & 49:00).

Where does all this take us ? We’re establishing the principles whereby one is able to judge the worth – in terms of authentic content – of contemporary art. And these principles have little or nothing to do with classical academic technique, or aesthetic (meaning ‘sensual’) representations of beauty. Contemporary art is about conjuring up, using artworks, frames of mind which cannot be accessed any other way: it is about using presentational objects (sculptures, paintings, installations and so on) to present to the viewer unusual and revelatory narratives, which can then be experienced vicariously as recreational events. As was said before, the more an art object offers you an entry point to a fascinating vicarious world, the better the art.

Why isn’t this simple perspective on contemporary art more widely understood ? Partly because many people are so locked into the idea of artworks being standalone aesthetic objects that they can’t think of them in any other way; so if an artwork is not obviously beautiful by classical standards, it may well not be a ‘proper’ work of art at all (see Alexander Nemerov on Koons c50:47). Viewing contemporary artworks as subtle forms of theatre requires a certain ability to enjoy sharing other people’s frames of mind.  

Alexander Nemerov examining a Koons

Our conception of artworks as items in a kind of narrative theatre, and as an invitation to explore very distinctive takes on life, is certainly complicated by the fact that many artists might themselves dispute this characterisation. They might want to see themselves as members of a classical tradition producing standalone objects that ought to be judged by classical standards – give or take a few concessions to modernity – but this lack of insight into their own endeavours only succeeds in adding a peculiar and fascinating dimension to the whole experience.  Genuine ‘lack of self-awareness’ can invest creative work with a depth and mystery that far exceeds anything cynical market-manipulation can achieve, which is why Warhol and Beuys and Koons and Gilbert and George have a cogency to their achievements – perhaps despite themselves – that others like Hirst and Emin and Creed can only marvel at.

But having established principles by which we can assess contemporary art objectively – and in so doing bypassing the sense of uncertainty that fuels the idea that the contemporary art market is an absurdist charade – we still have to acknowledge another somewhat perplexing possibility which the film reveals in passing. And this is the idea that because contemporary art is so widely misunderstood by all concerned – as well as being inherently bohemian and weird – it is always going to have a sense of playful decadence about it, with people competing for apparently meaningless objects just for the entertaining hell of it. So what if the thing in my lounge is a bizarre pile of junk, we outbid guys in Japan and Russia, and the catalogue assures me it’s ‘profound’. Who cares if the monstrous splotch and swirl painting over the fireplace in my chateau   would be better placed in a kids’ nursery; it’s worth tens of millions, and it makes all my educated friends jealous. And so on. It may well be that people really don’t care that much about the real ‘art of art’; they just want to spend their moola extravagantly in public; and if a successful bid creates a frisson of shock and bewilderment among the chattering hordes, so much the better.  Of course you might also need to be able to recognise what’s fashionable and desirable, but there’s always someone at Sotheby’s to help you with that.

Oliver Barker in action

Where does this leave us ? Well, ‘The Price of Everything’ certainly gives us a mildly diverting look at the goings-on at the very top end of the food chain, even if it fails to present us with any decisive insights. So we never come close to learning the real value of art.  The auctioneer Simon de Pury reminds us (c53:15) that much of the fashionable desirability of artworks is down to a matter of ever-changing taste, and that the only way cultural artefacts will survive is for them to have commercial worth (c1:45). Both ideas may be true in their way, though this doesn’t tell us anything about the art, only about the people who buy it. But looking ahead – and things being what they are with the way the rich spend their money – we can be reasonably confident in the belief that, no matter how many bubbles and crashes there are to come, and no matter how shallow the appreciation of art itself remains, the art market – as an arena for conspicuous acquisition – is always going to be there. After all, the rich are always going to need to decorate their properties with spectacular trophies.

More on this conception of art:

Other reviews of the same film:

A new conception of ‘art’

The popular idea of art as ‘creative crafting’, stretching from arranging flowers in the home to classical oil paintings in museums, is, when all else is said and done, centred around the idea of ‘taste’. ‘Taste’ is itself a matter of ‘sensual aesthetic sensitivity’, in which we focus our attention on the sensual features of presentational art forms – from music to ballet to sculpture to poetry, and everything else besides – and enjoy them for the pleasurable effect they have on us. Our appreciation of these sensual features can of course be educated and refined, and we take refinement of this sort as a sign of culture and sophistication. And the core capacity that we educating and refining – in artistic terms – is our ability to discriminate the finer points of sensuality, in essentially the same way as a gourmet refines their ability to taste food. The artistic connoisseur and the food gourmet are both engaged in exactly the same kind of quest for sublime sensuality.

If aesthetic sensual refinement is to be understood in a measured way, it needs to be situated in the context of everyday life, and against the backdrop of ordinary human motivations. Most of life is spent dealing with competitive striving for money and social success, and these demands leave very little time left over for anything else.  Which means that spiritual, intellectual and artistic needs tend to be pushed into a corner, and then dealt with in a confused and fragmentary fashion, with only vague ideas to guide us. So the occasional visit to a gallery, and the occasional concert recital, come to be seen as meaningful enhancements to our inner lives as a somewhat mystical process.

But what gets lost sight of – because it is not really seen for what it is – is that sensual refinement doesn’t really advance anything other than itself, except if you indulge in mystical thinking, and tell yourself that your subtle sensual experiences – such as standing before a classical oil painting and saying to yourself ‘how beautiful !’ –  is of the same stuff as enjoying an exquisite meal prepared by a celebrity chef.  We might like to separate the experiences in our minds, and rank one much higher than the other, but this doesn’t bear closer examination: sensuality is sensuality, and the current popular conception of ‘art’ has it that art is about educated sensual refinement of one sort or another.

Where else to go ? Well, modern art has, wittingly or unwittingly, introduced a new dimension to presentational material which takes us into narrative territory of a complex and demanding kind. Narrative content is of course standard in plays, films and novels, but we don’t tend to think of these as ‘arts’ except when the element of ‘creative crafting’ is very noticeable, such as in an ‘arty’ film filled with unusual camera angles or a convoluted plot. We also tend to think of narrative as being about ‘storylines’, with a sequential story arc, but modern art has shown that other forms of narrative are possible, involving experiential immersion and the taking on of entire ‘frames of mind’. To understand an artist like Joseph Beuys, for example, you have to be able to connect with his peculiar angle on life, and not be distracted by the lack of classical sensual qualities in his artworks.

Francis Bacon Figure Study 2 at Huddersfield Art Gallery:
this type of work is about narrative, not aesthetics

How is this a new conception of art ? For a start, it has little or nothing to do with ‘aesthetics’, meaning the sensual appreciation of beauty. ‘Art’ becomes instead a matter of orchestrating elements of a particular artform in the service of narrative, not in the service of sensual attractiveness. A Francis Bacon painting is about the revelation of a certain type of unknown world, and if we want to appreciate it fully, we need to be able to enter into that world as best we can, connecting with it through the painting. This is not about imaginative reveries or resonances, this is about connecting with what we see, directly, as if we had been shown a window into a mysterious landscape. What is this realm Bacon is revealing to us ? We may not be able to put it into words, but this mysterious experiential possibility – this ‘narrative’ – is what his paintings are inviting us to engage with. This is what his paintings really ‘mean’, in the truest and fullest sense.

And the more demanding and revealing and unsettling the narrative, the better the art. Not every narrative is ‘artistic’ in the sense we are defining it here: for ‘art’ to be properly ‘art’ it needs to tell us something we don’t already know, otherwise it is simply presentational crafting, like an ordinary play, film or novel. ‘Ordinariness’ is, at best, reassuring; ‘art’ needs to be unsettling for it to qualify as authentically art.

[A slightly longer version of this here.]

[More on this conception of art here.]

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The inner meaning of Cindy Sherman

There’s nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with treating each and every Cindy Sherman photograph in aesthetic terms, as if it were a standalone object, subject only to the rules of aesthetic beauty and craft. You would then be looking at the colours, and shapes, and composition, and the print grain. You would think about the formal arrangement, and the subject matter, and whether it’s better or worse or the same as a similar work by another photographer. You would assess its impact on you, as a function of its size and shape and framing and overall appearance. Perhaps the image reminds you of some other artwork, or perhaps it puts you in mind of a whole train of thought. These are the standard sets of ideas that arise out of the application of classical aesthetic principles.

But if you approach Cindy Sherman through the aesthetics of shape and form, you’ll miss her art. What does that mean ? It means that the most interesting and provocative aspect of her presentational material is not contained in, or restricted to, the most obvious formal boundaries of the individual artworks, whether viewed singly or collectively, because it happens to be located ‘elsewhere’, in a more inclusive narrative and interpretative realm. This means that the ‘meaning’ of Cindy Sherman’s art is not the meaning of the individual images contained in her individual artworks, because it is another type of meaning altogether, located at the level of her whole approach to wanting to present artworks for public appreciation in the first place. She is not presenting us with generic holiday snaps, or Karsh-type portraits, or Stephen Shore-type Americana; she is presenting us with ‘Cindy Shermans’, and if we want to understand her art, we need to understand what a ‘Cindy Sherman’ is all about.

How do we do this ? To begin with, we have to step back from the details of the pictures themselves, and grasp her approach to art as a whole – as far as we can intuit this whole from the various sources of evidence – and then return to the pictures themselves, to see how they incarnate this approach. This is neither a difficult nor an easy task, as it simply depends on an ability to go up a level from the created works, to the specific ‘vision’ that created them – the creative perspective specific to Cindy Sherman – in order to appreciate it as a special kind of experiential possibility, and one which ultimately gives real meaning to the individual artworks themselves.

A ‘Cindy Sherman’ – ‘every last woman on earth’

So to understand what a ‘Cindy Sherman’ is, you have first to understand as much what she is ‘trying to do’, as what she has done. You need to be able to inhabit her intention, her inner vision, as much as her achievement. And if you can do that, you can then understand everything that results from that vision, and thereby understand the real meaning of her work. And it’s not possible to intuit the mental vision that created her works from a ‘close aesthetic reading’ of them, because close readings are governed by principles which have nothing to do with visions, and approaches, and inner perspectives.

So what then is a ‘Cindy Sherman’ ? Being a complex artistic state of mind, it is not that easy to put into words without ruining its essential coherence and character, but it is still possible to identify some of its features in a roundabout, interpretative way. There is, at the root of all her work, a very strong sense of the solipsism of the ‘last woman on earth’, staring fixedly at herself in the mirror of her art, trying both to disguise herself in every possible way while yet holding on to an elusive sense of self. And even when she removes herself from her images she remains fully present in them: she is a steady presence in all her staged situations, always changing form while always remaining the same.
At the most superficial and basic level, her art is about a public sharing of our secret search for ourselves, in which we try on different faces and different masks in the hope that one will fit, while at the same time also enjoying the distancing afforded by masks, and so perhaps not really caring if the search for something like an authentic self ever quite comes to an end. The ‘last woman on earth’ in her loneliness might just turn out to be ‘every woman on earth’ in her solidarity with her sisters, united against an as yet unseen and unidentified enemy. It would be too simplistic to say that this enemy is ‘man’; it is more likely the nagging fear of the inherent limitations of the ‘feminine mask’ itself.

At her most complex, Cindy Sherman’s art is about exploring our ideas of ‘self’ through the images we call to mind when we think of ourselves. Our everyday image of self is usually a ghostly – and heavily idealised – version of the face we think we see in the bathroom mirror, but of course the bathroom image is not necessarily the face, or the head, other people see. And our uncertainty as to the real meaning of our ghostly idea of ourselves leads us into the realm of self-portraiture, where we study endless still photographs of ourselves – in an interminable succession of changing locations – in the hope of some kind of mysterious inner reassurance.

And the key to a ‘Cindy Sherman’ lies somewhere in all this. But to ‘get it’ – to get what her art is all about – you don’t run through of series of intellectual interpretations, and then apply them to a particular case: instead you just ‘get it’ as an intuitive congruence, a matching of minds – you just know what’s she’s thinking, you just connect with her vision – and in this way you share the perspective she is ‘inhabiting’ to inform her art. You just ‘get’ her artistic vision in one go – multi-layered and multidimensional and inexhaustible though it may be – and in getting it, you get to understand her work. There is no other way of doing it, unless you’re prepared to miss out on what she really has to offer.

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The beautiful and the interesting: aesthetics vs art

To grasp the unique power of art – the power to fascinate and enthral – and to allow it to work its own particular magic, we have to be able to distinguish it from the altogether different power of aesthetics, which is all about the power of beauty. ‘The beautiful’, as an experiential possibility, with its appeal to our senses, is one form of engagement with crafted objects; ‘the interesting’, with its appeal to our ability to enter into alternative realms of imaginative experience, is quite another. The two are often confused, which leads to a situation in which aesthetics predominates, and art – especially modern art – is not fully appreciated.


Gregor Schneider: room in ‘Todes Haus u r’


A Francis Bacon painting, is an art object, as is a Rudolf Swarzkogler performance, as is a Joseph Beuys installation; and to assess them using aesthetic principles is misguided and absurd. They have nothing to do with attempts to realise ‘beauty’, and so to dismiss them as ‘not beautiful’ – or trivial aesthetic thoughts to that effect – is not only to make an elementary categorical error, it is also to miss out completely on what they have to offer. These objects are inviting you to join them in the story they are telling, in exactly the same way as a still from a movie invites you to join in a narrative which happens (in the case of a movie) to be situated, in its entirety, elsewhere. Art objects tend to be more subtle than movie stills, because they do not necessarily refer directly to plot-driven narratives, but rather to the ‘settings’ – the mental environments, or landscapes – in which narratives can occur. Gregor Schneider’s ‘Totes Haus u r’ is not meant to be a lame attempt at ‘Homes and Gardens’; it is an installation in which we are expected to ‘sense’ what has happened, and what might still happen, within its creepy confines. For Schneider to tell us exactly what has ‘happened’ in each room might ruin the piece; we have to connect with the unseen events intuitively, and let those distant intuitions work their special kind of narrative vicarious magic, and this is what gives the work a greater power than one which, perhaps like a horror film, is overly explicit.

So if we are to understand art, we have to understand the conceptual logic of ‘the interesting’, not that of ‘the beautiful’. Anyone can understand the beautiful – you just respond to the appeal to your senses – which is why everyone understands the logic of classical museum paintings, even if they find them boring. You can educate and refine your sensual capacities, but the basic sensual logic remains the same. Art, on the other hand, is heading in a completely different direction, which is why modern art causes such confusion. Refining your ability to understand ‘the interesting’ is a much more demanding undertaking, as it requires of you the skill to pick up on atmospheres, allusions, and whole ‘takes’ on life, sometimes all in a single glance.

But in the same way that much poetry is trivial and empty, so is much modern art. Operating on narrative rather than aesthetic principles doesn’t guarantee the worth of the content. Trying to be interesting rather than beautiful doesn’t mean that all the junk you put on display is going to be worthy of our attention; for that to work it will have to connect with other narrative forces, and move itself into much darker realms.

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Burden (2017) – a full-length documentary on performance artist Chris Burden (1946–2015)

Many of the talking heads interviewed in this film give little mirthless chuckles as they discuss Burden’s early work, as if they’re still not really sure what he was up to. They’re telling us the whole thing might, in the end, turn out to have been no more than a joke. Burden also appears ambivalent about his own efforts in the sense that, although he doesn’t giggle when explaining a piece, he often opts for banal, non-artistic explanations – the sort of boilerplate anyone might come up with – thereby undermining the cogency of the actions themselves. The documentary also gives the impression – possibly unintended – of wanting to consign Burden’s performances to an early phase in his career, thereby encouraging us to view the performances as student ‘experimentation’ – itself a subsection of vacuous tomfoolery – rather than as anything more serious.


  [Amazon link]

Performance art is a highly specialised form of theatre which, rather than relying wholly on character-based and plot-driven linear narrative – with its dependence on tensions and resolutions within conventional parameters – opts instead for orchestrating lesser-known and more demanding elements of theatricality, as a means of exploring alternative narrative possibilities. And although the chosen elements of an art ‘performance’ may appear to be unusual and startling, they are in reality no less rigidly theatrical and narrational than those which constitute a more conventional staging.  In other words, though the content of an art performance may appear to be bizarre to the point of unintelligibility, it will still conform, in every way, to the paradigm of a theatrical presentation; that is, it will begin with the establishing of a theatrical pretence, followed by an identifiable time-limited action. A performance can only be said to begin when the relationship between performer and audience has been formally established (the pretence); and then the action must proceed, through the presentation of content, to an identifiable ending.

All of which means that a performance artist is, in formal terms, no more mysterious or bizarre or unwarranted than any other conventional actor. The plays they put on might be narratively challenging, and their choice of theatrical space wildly eccentric, but the actions themselves are ‘plays’ of a sort none the less, whether consisting of a single image lasting a millisecond, or involving disconnected events going on for days.

It’s apparent from the uneasiness of the talking heads in this documentary – artists and commentators alike – that performance art is still conceived of as some sort of aberrant, and possibly vacuous, ‘gesturing’, wholly unrelated to the world of classical painting and sculpture, and therefore having no legitimate claim to be ‘art’ at all. Real artists ‘paint’ and ‘sculpt’; only clowns and students ‘perform’.  

So Burden’s problem lay in the fact that he was operating in a world that to this day still doesn’t really know what he was on about, and still doesn’t know how to present his work without making it look faintly absurd. Oddly enough, Burden comes off well – at least in the clips shown – in a important interview with Regis Philbin, in which Philbin (perfectly understandably, given his remit) tries to encourage Burden to portray himself as weird and deranged; and in which Burden answers questions straightforwardly and unapologetically, yet without the conceptual armoury required to put paid to the idea that his work was borderline buffoonery. If Burden had argued that he was essentially a theatrical performer, using challenging imagery as a means of access to unusual realms of experience, performance art might today be given its due.

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Marianne Moore and a key principle of modern art

Marianne Moore wrote:

“Academic feeling, or prejudice possibly, in favor of continuity and completeness is opposed to miscellany—to music programs, composite picture exhibitions, newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Any zoo, aquarium, library, garden or volume of letters, however, is an anthology and certain of these selected findings are highly satisfactory. The science of assorting and the art of investing an assortment with dignity are obviously not being neglected, as is manifest in “exhibitions and sales of artistic property,” and in that sometimes disparaged, most powerful phase of the anthology, the museum. (Complete Prose, Viking, 1986, p.182)

‘However expressive the content of an anthology, one notes that a yet more distinct unity is afforded in the unintentional portrait given, of the mind which brought the assembled integers together’ (Complete Prose, Viking, 1986, p.183)

Marianne Moore as a Child (altered from Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

 Moore has grasped the essence of the curation and exhibition of seemingly unrelated objects better than most, and in doing so has offered a key insight into to how authentic modern art needs to be understood. Modern art is not about parsing the features of individual art objects – decoding them into some sort of simplified everyday ‘meaning’ – but about grasping what Moore calls the ‘distinct unity’ underlying any apparent diversity; and this distinct unity is the entry point into the ‘mind which brought the assembled integers together’. It is the ability to enter into this underlying experiential mentality which takes you to the real location of art, not the ability to find a meaningful explanation of an individual object.  

In other words, you understand the true meaning of an art object by grasping the state of mind that chose the object to represent it. This is not some strange and convoluted practice – we are able to think like this all the time, every day: for example, if someone gives you a gift – whatever it might be – the true meaning of the gift is not what it can do for you, or how much pleasure you can get out of it, or anything else, but the intention in the mind of the giver.  To the extent that you are able to grasp that, is the extent to which you understand the gift.

There are two crucial provisos to this: the underlying ‘unity’ behind the artwork – in other words the mentality which it displays – is not necessarily one and the same with that of the artist, though it might well be. It may also be a completely artificial construct which an artist has happened across; an obsession with murder and torture, for example, doesn’t make the artist who portrays it an undiscovered criminal, because art is essentially a vicarious and theatrical form, and at least one step removed from reality.

The second point is that for art to be art, it has to do more than simply represent what we already are familiar with. It has to find ways to reach parts that ordinary life doesn’t reach, otherwise it doesn’t qualify as art. The features of everyday life, from mundane events to horrific new stories, aren’t art in themselves; they have to be orchestrated in such a way as to be both vicarious and, in some distinctive way, ‘extra unusual’, and ‘extra unsettling’. Then they become art. An unmade bed on its own, however squalid, is not art, it’s simply the realisation of a feature of ordinary life; an unmade bed in a Francis Bacon painting, however ordinary-looking, is most certainly art, because its part of the revelation of a ‘unity’ which takes us into completely unknown realms of experience.

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Robert Hughes and the ‘dumb show’ of modern art

This is a transcript of Hughes’s conclusion to his televisual survey of modern art (The Shock of the New), and the last words to camera in Episode 8 ‘The Future That Was [End of Modernity]’. It is worth quoting in full:

“We finish where modernism began, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps the etiquette now demands that I should try and prognosticate about what is coming next. Well, I won’t, because I don’t know. History teaches us a certain thing, that critics, when they fish out the crystal ball and guess what the future will be, are almost invariably wrong. I don’t think there’s been such a rush towards insignificance in the name of the historic or future as we’ve seen in the last 15 years. The famous radicalism of ’60s and ’70s art turns out to have been a kind of dumb show, a charade of toughness, a way of avoiding feeling. I don’t think we are ever again obliged to look at a plywood box or a row of bricks or a videotape of some twit from the University of Central Paranoia sticking pins in himself and think, “This is the real thing. “This is the necessary art of our time. This needs respect.” Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t. And nobody cares. The fact is that anyone EXCEPT a child can make such things, because children have the kind of direct, sensuous and complex relationship with the world around them that modernism in its declining years was trying to deny. That relationship is the lost paradise that art wants to give back to us. Not as children, but as adults. It’s what the modern and the old have in common – Pollock with Turner, Matisse with Rubens or Braque with Poussin. The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness not through argument, but through feeling. And then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way, to pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. This task is, literally, endless. So although we don’t have an avant-garde any more, we’re always going to have art.”

Hughes was in his early 40s when he spoke these words, and whether or not he later came to a different understanding of art, we can analyse it as an interesting overview in itself. Some might say that this is unfair, in that it places excessive weight on what was probably just a sequence of throwaway lines, none of them particularly well thought through; and that the weight of his artistic perspicacity – such as it is – is contained in the preceding programmes, not in some fluffy coda. But the problem with critical indulgence like this is that it doesn’t really value clarity of thought in ‘explanations of art’, and is prepared to forgive all kinds of intellectual shortcomings in the name of a good performance. Hughes is unquestionably good value as a talking head, but much of what he had to say doesn’t bear close analysis, as he was more interested in dazzling the listener than in presenting a coherent position. And the default position seems to be that, when it comes to ‘art’, you don’t really have to know what you’re talking about: you just have to be entertaining; no one is paying much attention to the words, they’re focussed on the pictures.

So Hughes saw modern art as no more than a ‘dumb show’ put on by ‘twits’. And these twits were ‘denying’ the cosmic feelings required to return us to the ‘lost paradise’ of wholeness and comprehensibility; and they were doing this in the ‘declining years’ of modern art, though it’s not clear why Hughes specifies that period. The basic project of art, according to Hughes, is always to ‘make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness not through argument, but through feeling.’ Presumably we lost our glorious connectivity by thinking too hard (‘argument’ in Hughes’s terms), though once the glory is restored, we can ‘close the gap’ between ourselves and everything that is not ourselves, and in so doing ‘pass from feeling to meaning’. And this is done not by ‘committees’ but by ‘individuals’, ‘each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.’ And the task of closing the gap and returning ourselves from feeling to meaning is, ‘literally, endless’.

Naturally enough, this kind of intellectual swamification doesn’t respond particularly well to systematic analysis, and we should probably treat it as one would other examples of swami-speak, and politely disregard it as sentimental piffle. What Hughes is saying in effect is that reverential contemplation of the works of the old masters –  that is, swooning rapturously in front of those overwhelmingly dull gilt-framed museum paintings – is where the ‘real thing’ is to be found, and that the old master are paradoxically, the ‘necessary art of our time’. And in all this Hughes is articulating as definitive a statement of orthodox art mysticism as one is likely to find anywhere, given that most supposedly philosophical declarations on art tend to be very vague, and tentative, and uncontroversial. In addition, Hughes is also reassuring us that artistic authenticiy lies in the good old ways of classical technique and traditional form, and traditionally endorsed subject matter.

We are dealing with at least two things here: firstly ‘art mysticism’, meaning a conception of art that spills over into states of comforting self-validation; and secondly a simple form of ‘life coaching’, in which art is believed to offer its practitioners a philosophy of life and action. Both forms of ‘inner perception’ involve calling up reassuring moods and reassuring frames of mind, which the experiencing subject turns to for guidance. In this way art is made to resemble – for those who deploy their ideas in this fashion – a type of faith, or religious belief. And in the case of Hughes, his faith is firmly grounded in a reverence for the classical tradition.

What Hughes couldn’t comprehend is that modern art has something of its own to say. Modern art could only be judged as a dumb charade if you had no idea what it was up to, and Hughes clearly didn’t. Modern art was about introducing a new narrative form, based in theatrical principles, whereby art objects could come to be seen as static elements – props, if you like – in the creation of imaginary stage sets, laid out over many locations, and occasionally even in many countries. Warhol, and Beuys, and even Jeff Koons were setting up ‘environments’ and decorated ‘spaces’ which contained their own artist-specific narratives; sometimes involving direct performances by the artist themselves, as in the case of Beuys and Warhol; and sometimes only implying narrative, as in the case of Gregor Schneider or Jeff Koons. Modern artworks are not standalone attempts at classical beauty – though they can be that as well –  they are essentially props in the display of subtle narrative environments; and once you pick up on that, the physical artworks explain themselves.

For example, the ‘art’ of Joseph Beuys is his ‘art-theatrical life’, not the cumulative aesthetic detail of his individual artworks which, in classical fine art terms, make no sense at all. Most of what Beuys exhibited as art could easily be dismissed as junk, but only if you were unable to grasp its theatrical value.

In the same way, Duchamp’s urinal may have started out as a Dadaist prank, but it became, in time, and when situated in context of his other artworks, a symptom of Duchamp’s ‘art mentality’: that is to say, the particular angle, or perspective, on presentational objects that he wanted to promote. On its own, the urinal is just an absurdist conversation piece; but in the context of Duchamp’s other artworks – like the hat rack, bottle rack, snow shovel, bicycle wheel –  it is clearly representative of Duchamp’s strange dislocated, cold, vaguely sadistic sensibility, and his own distinctive artistic take on life. And if you leaf through a book of Duchamp’s art, a distant ‘narrative’ starts to emerge from the onrush of images, though this is not a sequential plot-driven narrative of the type you find in the cinema – it is an artistic narrative, indeterminate and haunting – exactly like the meaning afforded one by a good film – and unique to the presentational possibilities inherent in modern art.

Why couldn’t Hughes get any of this ? Probably because he was unable to see beyond the distorting prison of traditional aesthetics, which reduces everything to a monotonous obsession with ‘beauty’. Classicism likes to think of itself as the last word in culture and refinement, but behind its ornate exterior it is straightforwardly shallow and one-dimensional. It encourages professional aesthetes   to think of themselves as super-sensitives, with all their capacities refined to a high camp tizzy, but in practice they’re very often the least perceptive, and the most intellectually inept.

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Robert Hughes and Andy Warhol’s ‘stupidity’

Robert Hughes described Warhol as ‘as one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. Because he had nothing to say.’ Hughes was dismissive of much of modern art because, like many other old school aesthetes, he never managed to understand it.

And over the course of the ‘my life’ in question, Robert Hughes (1938-2012) established himself as perhaps the foremost art critic in the western world; a not insignificant achievement, though something of a let-down when you realise that he wasn’t exactly slugging it out with hundreds of other critical titans; and that other than the presence of his own lumbering hulk in the foreground, the pond he was waddling around in was almost empty. And the idea of Hughes as an ‘art interlocutor’ – interpreting all things artistic for those who don’t know what’s going on – is also considerably less than it seems, because if you stop to examine his torrents of confident non-sequiturs it soon becomes apparent that much of what he had to say was hardly ever about the art itself, but more about art’s place in culture and society. They are not one and the same.

Like Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) of the TV series ‘Civilisation’ before him – and this also applies to many other art critics – Hughes was able to declaim to a largely suppliant and respectful audience, as the vast majority of those who enjoy art are simply not in a position, either in terms of book knowledge, or breadth of artistic experience, to contradict a supposed expert. The art world itself may contain many genuine enthusiasts, but discussions of art in the media are not characterised either by a depth of understanding or by a depth of insight, any more than the world of religion is characterised by spirituality. There are obviously groups of well-informed people all over the place, but their ideas don’t shape public opinion, and so it is left to those with the self-belief enough to want to climb up on to the stage and tell the rest of us what art is all about.

The problem with art criticism in its current state is that there is a widespread belief – across the board – that, in the end, nobody really knows what art is, and so everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This means that establishing yourself as an authority on art is going to be about the strength of your performance, not the quality and consistency of your ideas. A critic basically needs to be able to declaim fluently and entertainingly; and Hughes of course had added value in being able to spice his brew with scathing judgements, thereby not only giving us a laugh, but also answering a need for surefootedness in an otherwise slippery and uncertain realm.

Hughes was also a physically big presence, and macho with it, and this must have given potential dissenters pause for reflection. And it’s hard not to experience his pronouncements as authoritative, despite the caveats that have been listed. Yet his art critical declarations are fatally undermined by the fact that most of the time he doesn’t seem to be interested in the art itself, but only in its cultural significance.  ‘The Shock of the New’ TV series is, according to Hughes, about modernity, and ‘modernism’, as reflected in modern art; but approaching art in this way doesn’t tell us about the art itself, and its intrinsic qualities, it only tells us about art’s relation to cultural history. If you want to know about an artwork ‘as art’, you want to know what, as a presentational object, it is revealing to you in its own unique way, and not its network of relationships in a wider cultural context.   There is of course a place for analysing such relationships, and an interesting one at that, but contextual analyses tell us nothing about the essence of the artworks themselves. To the extent that we approach art as a feature of cultural history we are not really engaging with art on its own terms at all but employing it as a launch pad for lines of thought of an entirely different order.

Why do critics like Hughes – John Berger is another – make this kind of absurdly simple categorical error ? Why do they confuse interpretative freewheeling on culture or society with the idea that they are talking about art ? Basically because they don’t have a clear idea as to what art is in the first place, and are not sure how to draw a clear distinction between art itself and the stuff that surrounds it, and so end up thinking that it’s probably amounts to the same thing.  It’s as if you were to confuse the sound of Hendrix’s music with ideas about his choice of clothes, and his girlfriends, and his stint in the army.

There is a telling moment in Hughes’s encounter with a Warhol collector, where Hughes, in an unusually confrontational mood, describes Warhol as ‘as one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life’, and when asked why, replies, ‘Because he had nothing to say.’  We can conclude from this that for an artist to be worthy of consideration, they must either be able to display classical dexterity; or, as exemplified by Paula Rego, be able to represent serious subjects. Failing that, they would have to be able to give a good account of themselves, justifying why their less than classical tomfoolery should be given legroom. 

This is the idea of ‘art’ as equivalent to classical aesthetics, in which an artist is expected to master hard won academic techniques, and then put them to the service of creations which are not only manifestly skilful, but which also depict subjects which are traditionally ‘profound’, even if they amount to no more than vases of flowers or bowls of grapes.  Words such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’ and ‘ravishing’ are the requisite descriptive tools here, because we are talking about creations which have obvious ‘aesthetic value’ by conservative standards; and insofar as artworks situate themselves within classical parameters, they also call for for classical modes of interpretation, derived from scholarly art history.

The problem is that authentic modern art – of which Warhol is unarguably one of the greatest practitioners, even if you don’t much care for his work – operates according to non-aesthetic narrative principles, and is therefore headed in a quite different direction from the quest for classical, museum-quality ‘beauty’. Modern art is about connecting with the experiential landscapes which some artists are able to conjure up through their artworks, and this connectivity functions according to theatrical and narrative principles rather than aesthetic ones. Modern artists are revealing to the viewer worlds they have discovered, and then, using their artworks and artforms, inviting you to experience them as your own. A Warhol ‘Marilyn’ is not an ersatz Velasquez  – even if Andy thought it was, and wanted it to be: a ‘Marilyn’ – like any or all of his other works – is an invitation to a theatrical extravaganza of transgendered and drug-addled camp nihilism, spiked with glitz and glamour and celebrity, and dialogue reduced to a cultivated vacuity. This performative inversion of normative values – Warhol’s real theatrical ‘art’, in words, pictures and behaviour – is quite other than the kind of cognitive deficiency Hughes though he was dealing with. Truth be told it is Hughes who turned out to the stupid one, wholly unable to recognise the transgressive artistry all around him, and wholly unable to make the transition from an orthodox classicism – the type of lumpen conception of pictorial art any bonehead can come up with –  to the new world order.

[More articles on this conception of art here]

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Identifying which bit of an artwork is the ‘art’: Joseph Beuys as an example

Locating the ‘art’ part of an artwork, or of an artist’s body of work as a whole, is not as blindingly obvious as it might seem.  It is not the same as a direct experiencing of the sensual features of the physical material, although many people think it is. The ‘art of art’, the ‘art part’ of an artwork – if it exists in an object at all – is to be experienced in a different ‘realm’, or through a different order of perception, from that of the straightforwardly aesthetic, or the directly sensual. Enjoying the sensual features of an object is not enjoying the art, it is enjoying the ‘aesthetics’. This is not to pass judgement on those who want to concentrate solely on the aesthetics of creative crafting – that is, on the creativity involved, the technical skill, the colours, and the shapes – but merely to point out that ‘art’ is offering a completely different type of experience from mere sensual enjoyment, no matter how refined and educated that enjoyment might be.

In popular culture, ‘art’ means ‘creative crafting’. Any presentational object that has a bit of flair to it, is thought of as art. The continuum stretches from knick-knacks about the house, to classical oil paintings in museums. It’s all ‘art’. And everyone feels entitled, on the basis of an innate aesthetic sense – meaning an innate ability to discriminate between things which ‘look nice’ and things which don’t – not only to engage with anything which is presented as art, but also to pass judgement on its value, in terms of its attractiveness. This innate aesthetic sensibility can of course be refined, and educated, and cultivated – hence the difference between an ‘art expert’ and a mere ‘art lover’ – but the sensibility itself is common to us all.

But ‘looking nice’ is one thing, and ‘art proper’ is another. We also all have the ability to share mental perspectives, and frames of mind, and takes on life. We do this every day when we talk to other people, or watch shows on television; we connect with other minds, and try to see the world through their eyes. Art proper is a particular kind of mental sharing, based in theatrical principles; the artist creates and presents works which they hope will act as entry points to the perspective that they want to share: this is the real ‘art’ of art.

What modern art has done is introduce the idea of theatrical narrative into artforms other than pure theatre or film. It has introduced it primarily into the visual arts, but also into music and literature. It has done this by shifting the focus away from classical aesthetics, and onto the symbolic potential of objects, such that this symbolic potential can be orchestrated to create an experiential realm of its own. This is a grand way of saying that art objects become symbols of an experiential realm, rather than aesthetic ends-in-themselves, to be judged for their beauty or otherwise. But artistic symbolism of the kind we are talking about here is not a matter of ‘decoding’, or working out some simple corresponding meaning, it is about picking up on the experiential realm that the object is pointing to; and then being able to, as it were, taking it on in one’s imagination.

This may sound very subtle and complicated, but it is not. It is exactly the same as seeing an object about the house that reminds you of someone else, and then entering, briefly, through a sort of instant mental congruence, into the world of that person. We do this kind of thing all the time, and what modern art does is formalise the elements of this kind of ‘invitation to congruence’ and organise them into a deliberate event, such that people can share it as something like a theatrical experience.  

How does this work in practice ? When you see an artwork by, say, Joseph Beuys, you might be, as many people are, predisposed to assess it aesthetically, in terms of its physical features; but in doing so you are failing to pick up on the fact that the ‘art’ Beuys is presenting to you lies elsewhere, and has nothing much to do with the aesthetics. What Beuys is inviting you to do is join him in his ‘world’ – his theatrically constructed realm of narrative – and to the extent that you are able to do this, you are able to grasp his art.

How do you do this ? How do you join Beuys in his world ? There is no set method, short of informing oneself about all aspects of his work, and letting an overall sense of ‘Beuys-ness’ cohere and begin to emerge as the underlying platform from which you approach his work; and not as objects of aesthetic interest, but rather objects which furnish a distinctive landscape of his making. There are people who, for example, decorate their houses in certain very distinctive retro styles – say 1950s American, or traditional Japanese – and to the extent that they create a noticeably distinctive lived environment, it is impossible to think of the individuals without thinking of the ‘distinctively decorated world’ that they have created. And if you were to see, in another context, an item of furniture or decoration which would fit in with one or other of these retro homes, it would be impossible not to ‘connect’ mentally with the homes themselves, in some sort of imaginative congruence. This is an everyday phenomenon – we do it all the time – and the difference with art is that the artist is not inviting you into something as simple and familiar as a decorated home, but rather into an entire experiential realm, unique to them.

1950s retro home decoration

The important thing in all this is to grasp that it is the experiential realm which is the ‘art’, not the art object which point to that realm. Beuys’s art is the ‘Beuys world’, not the aesthetic features of his many and various art objects. He is offering art lovers, through the presentation of his artworks and his performances, a means whereby we can share with him an entire mindset; and a mindset so far removed from anything that we might encounter in everyday life as to be worthy of our artistic attention.  


A glimpse of the Beuys world 


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Understanding modern art

This purpose of this blog is to review all aspects of modern art in the light of basic distinction between decorative crafting (aesthetics) and art proper, which is a form of vicarious narrative that is characteristically ‘unsettling’ and ‘uncanny’. Aesthetics is about beauty; art is about congruence with unusual realms of the imagination. Articles explaining this in detail can be found here. Readers are welcome to post constructive criticism and comments on the Facebook page.