Friday, August 8, 2014

Does Art Matter Anymore?

This past spring, a nude performance artist made a minor media stir by publicly pushing paint-and-ink-filled eggs out of her vagina onto a canvas to make a profound statement – okay, perhaps not so much profound as profoundly messy. Around the same time, Lady Gaga, the music industry’s most self-consciously artsy star, incorporated a vomit performance artist into her show (it’s even more repulsive than it sounds). “That performance,” says Lady Gaga, “was art in its purest form.”

I’m not sure what “art in its purest form” means, but was it even art at all? Have we so degraded the definition of art that it includes whatever we decide to spew publicly from bodily orifices? As a critic for The Guardian correctly notes, much of the modern tradition of performance art “is an embarrassing revelation of the art world's distance from real aesthetic values or real human life.”

And that’s the problem. Such acts of disgusting fetishism, desperate self-promotion, and calculated shock value taint the endeavor of art itself as it has been understood around the world for many centuries. They make it difficult for the average person-on-the-street to understand, respect, and value art. They make it hard to remember that there was a time when creating art involved serious training, skill, and vision, and that it isn’t just about attention-seekers acting on their most idiotic or disturbed impulses.

In the past, creating art was the domain of a trained few, employed and appreciated by the moneyed elite. But with the rise of capitalism, gradual breakdown of the class structure, and the proliferation of museums, cheap reproductions, and art education, pretty much anyone could enjoy art. Eventually, access to affordable materials meant that anyone could also attempt to produce art. In time, this democratization downgraded our culture’s definition of art to mere personal expression, as if anything anyone does to express himself or herself rises to the level of art as long as a pretentious enough justification can be fashioned for it.

For example, last week Business Insider reported on photographer Jedediah Johnson, whose art consists of slathering on lipstick, making out with people, and taking pictures of the smeared results. His “Makeout Project” supposedly “attempts to change our preconceived notions about kissing,” which sounds like just the sort of postmodern bull that artists say to get girls – although in this case, he occasionally makes out with men too, and in at least one ultra-disturbing instance, with a baby (as an aside, what kind of parents allow this frankly twisted creep to smear lipstick on their child with his lips?).

It doesn’t help that such postmodern silliness earns insane valuations at art auctions and sales. In an article bluntly titled, “The Overpriced World of Bad Art,” the New York Post reports that collectors are increasingly “spending millions on artists still alive who are producing art that is less and less accessible... It’s a cynical attempt to be cool by consumption, and increasingly, the artists they collect create work for them that verges on contemptuous.”

Examples include “art” like light bulbs on a blank wall ($506,503), a dead tree ($468,000), and a dead shark in a tank ($12 million). “My Bed,” an installation consisting of cigarette butts, used condoms, and stained underwear piled adjacent to artist Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, sold at Christie’s last month for $4.25 million. In museums a hundred years from now, will frauds like this be representative of the best art of our time?

The dead shark went for spare change compared to a Francis Bacon triptych that sold for an auction record of $142 million at Sotheby’s last year. Also in 2013, a collector picked up a Picasso for $155 million in a private sale. Several years before that, a Jackson Pollack splatter-fest fetched $140 million. Now, unlike Tracey Emin’s rumpled sheets, those were exceptional works by recognized modern masters, but the point is that when a piece of art sells for such an astronomical sum, the money becomes the focal point. It distracts from the work itself and makes people view the art world as nothing a scam on obscenely wealthy collectors.

Is all this insanity conditioning people to dismiss art as silly and irrelevant in the real world? Are we becoming too cynical to grasp the power of truly profound art, or to find personal meaning in it? As a culture, we need to revive aesthetic standards that help people take art and artists seriously once more. We need to retrain ourselves to appreciate the visual arts, to feel their aesthetic impact in our lives. In short, art needs to matter again.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/4/14)