March 18, 2013:
We were in Miami late in February for a long weekend, staying with friends, and spent a morning at the Rubell Family Museum, which has a large collection of contemporary art. We've been there before but they were showing new acquisitions which we hadn't seen.
Let me describe a few things: first, a room filled with very large, no, enormous paintings about ten feet high, six wide, covered with blobs of paint of various colors, no attempt to harmonize the colors, the paint applied not with brushes but out of buckets, thrown or shoveled on the canvas, dribbled on, gotten on one way or another, and applied in such thicknesses that it cannot dry. Already gobs of paint were starting to peel off the canvas and would soon wind up on the floor. Each canvas, the labels told us, weighed about 800 pounds. The instability of the paint was intentional, the labels also said. The painter was someone named Murillo, if I remember correctly (no relation to the great Spanish Old Master). These paintings were very ugly, and that also seemed to be intentional. Intentional and impractical. If you wanted to own them you would have to hang them in a room with a cement floor, easily cleaned. They looked like the inside of a septic tank.
In another room equally large canvases pieced together out of smaller ones, each of the smaller ones covered with dirt, dust, random lines, and some stenciled signs, in smudges and smears, representing nothing identifiable except perhaps the floor of a back alley somewhere. In this room a photographer was at work taking pictures of Mr. Rubell himself, and a woman I took to be his wife. The labels in this room told us that this was the work of a visiting artist who had spent two weeks working feverishly, night and day, to make fifty or so of these giant pieces of dreck. I thought of Rilke, writing the Duino Elegies in a similar fever of work and a similarly short time. How the world has changed!
Yet another room was occupied by a large collection of Budweiser six-packs, most of them stacked against a wall, a few in free-standing piles. This was evidently meant to make a political statement about commercialization and the shallowness of American culture. I suppose if you were utterly naive and had never thought about such things, this display might strike you as profound. As it stood it was nothing more than a footnote, way out of date, to Andy Warhol, a much wittier artist than this.
What has happened to contemporary art? It just gets worse and worse. During the dot.com bubble in the late 1990s I had a job, which lasted, alas, only briefly (it paid very well), writing art commentary for the website of the Louis Vuitton company. To see what was happening with contemporary art Lorraine and I spent a day in West Chelsea in NYC touring galleries. We saw a Damien Hirst exhibition at Gagosian, who then had only one gallery in West Chelsea; now he has them all over the world. I think the shark was there, in his giant tank of formaldehyde. Also on display inside a wire cage was a doctor's closet full of medicines and stray medical instruments. None of his dot paintings were there; I was grateful for that. On the same street we wandered into an open door in a building devoted mostly to small art galleries and found there a gallery where only one thing was on display. It was a big thing, a bathtub made out of subway tiles into which red water, meant, presumably, to represent blood, was constantly dripping from pipes in the ceiling. When the show opened there had been a naked woman sitting in this bathtub. She was gone when we wandered in, but you could watch a video loop of her sitting in the bathtub if you wanted. The gallery was empty of other viewers and the artist himself came in while we were there, looking exceedingly morose. Maybe he'd gotten a bad review, or worse, no review at all. In any case we were forced to say something, like "how interesting," because the gallery owner insisted on introducing us. I felt bad for him. He clearly believed, if what he called his art was any evidence, that life sucked big time. Even the sky pees blood on you.
At the Rubell collection I made a concerted effort to find some common ground with this art, but could not. None of what was on display was meant to be lived with. It was too ugly, too big to fit in most houses (where would you put that bathtub? what would it cost to keep the blood flowing? what would it cost to keep a naked girl in it?), and too scolding. Besides, to actually buy art involves you in the whole capitalist "art system" of galleries, auctions, money the root of all evil, and that's corrupting. This art is meant to be pure in its motives. It wants to rebel against everything, against the wall it hangs on, against the gallery system, against art as an aesthetic object and especially against the standards of beauty that aesthetics implies. It wants to criticize, to abjure all categories of gender, which is of course socially constructed and therefore inauthentic, it wants to escape all the traditional genres, it will not trust any kind of representation. It is often deliberately impermanent, so that permanence, and all pretense to permanence, can also be questioned and challenged and politicized. Thus the globs of paint falling off the canvas.
It is also angry, and as anger usually is, it feels itself to be righteous. It wants to be subversive on every conceivable level. It wants no part of subtlety, wit, grace. It wants only to make statements, usually political, and almost always they are extremely banal. Sometimes, as in Jeff Koons's case, the statements are about art objects and what they are supposed to "mean," and on a very superficial level this is presumed by those who buy Koons's piece to be witty and profound. Well, guess what? You've just wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars, because this is a one-trick pony and your heirs will curse you for wasting their inheritance. It's just not that interesting. None of it.
So this is a giant con, and it's sad. At the heart of it is a market that flourishes despite all the supposed disdain for the market, and the fashionable people flock to the art fairs, which are multiplying geometrically, along with the celebrities and the parties and the hangers-on. William Blake was wrong. The road of excess does not lead to the palace of wisdom. It leads to Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and the like, all unspeakably rich now but still wearing no clothes.