In “Why Bother?” a thoughtful, searching essay on the place of literature in contemporary society, author Jonathan Franzen frets that whenever books attempt to critique modern society, they only ever find an audience already in agreement with them, and then he offers this aside: “The contemporary art scene is a constant reminder of how silly things get when artists start preaching to the choir.” Tossed off and tucked into parentheses, the comment is the kind of put-down of “the art scene” that’s become ubiquitous in our culture. Art’s always easy for a laugh, it seems, and that laughter is often tinged with a palpable loathing. Look at this quote from Michelle Orange’s review of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers: “By the end I was sure [Trash Humpers] would be most at home projected onto a white wall of the Whitney, a backdrop for white people sipping white wine, impressed with themselves for being impressed.” This is, admittedly, a deft piece of propaganda, associating the art world with blankness (white walls), racial prejudice (white people), and classism (white wine). On a similarly hostile note, Mike Hale, in his review of Amie Siegel’s film DDR/DDR, noted, “Only occasionally does [Siegel] feel the need to justify her art school degree.” I’m not certain what justifying an art school degree would really look like, but Hale is apparently relieved that it doesn’t happen too often in this movie. Todd McCarthy, former reviewer at Variety, recently wrote a jeremiad against Jean-Luc Godard, Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Béla Tarr, and other members of what he calls cinema’s “high-art elite.” “[Godard] and the others’ audience,” he wrote, “really does consist of a private club with a rigorously limited membership list.”
The quote is interesting as a measure of the extent to which anti-“high art” sentiments can become irrationally paranoid. The phrases “private club” and “rigorously limited” imply agency on the part of some politburo-style board of overseers, as if the work he’s talking about weren’t publicly available and physically accessible to anyone for the price of admission. It’s no accident that three of the four examples above come from writing about movies. As a medium with appeal to just about everyone, movies remain a staging ground for some of the most culturally loaded battles about taste and status and accessibility, battles that used to be waged (and still are to some extent) around that other mass medium, the novel (which, notably, is what Franzen was writing about).
In contemporary moral life, popularity itself has taken on a moral flavor. If something is popular, if a lot of people like it, this is offered as a defense against charges of moral turpitude, as if there’s something absolving about mass appeal. Conversely, if something is liked only by a limited number of people, it becomes morally suspect. We never accept that just a few people might like something; those people always become “a limited coterie,” “a group,” “a niche,” “a private club.” We find ourselves thrown into the kind of paranoid thinking that characterizes McCarthy’s rant. Sentiments about contemporary fine art are both the model for and the most extreme case of this kind of thinking. Art is thought to be some kind of shadowy game played by a self-styled elite with no goal in mind but the reinforcing of their own status as elites.
Like most people, I was surprised when Bravo announced its new show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a Project Runway–style reality show competition focusing on fine art that reaches its conclusion this week. The premise of the show raised a few questions: 1) Given the overwhelming diversity of contemporary art, what kind of artists would be featured? 2) What would they talk about on the show: as in, what would the judges say about the art? 3) What would viewers, journalists, bloggers, etc., say about the show? But my initial responses raise other, even more interesting questions, like 1) What’s so surprising about the basic fact of this program? 2) Why do I assume talking about art on television would be inherently problematic? 3) What is it about the combination of reality television and fine art that made me think the reaction to the show would be incendiary, divisive, and thought-provoking?
The people at Gawker, the reigning champions of contemporary ressentiment, were among the first to break the news about Work of Art, with the headline “We Are Dubious About Bravo’s New Work of Art Show.” “We watch just about every program on Bravo,” they said, “but this is going to be a hard sell.” First on their list of potential problems: artists, unlike designers or cooks, work in such a broad range of media that it would be hard to judge them. For the sake of answering the questions above, I’ll get this issue out of the way. The contestants on Work of Art do, indeed, work in a broad range of media, but the show has been relatively deft in dealing with this issue, and generally kept the challenges open-ended enough to allow for a diversity of work. Gawker listed four other possible complaints about Work of Art: that no one would take the artists on the show seriously after they appeared on reality TV, that no one in the art world would actually watch the show, that contemporary art is “bullshit” anyway, and that the art world is a “fraud.”
These may not really be four different complaints, but one large complaint refracted into different shades. I think the fact that Gawker assumes no one in the art world would watch reality TV is related to the fact that Gawker thinks the contemporary art world is a fraud; the two things form a complex knot. Regarding the art world, Gawker said, “The incestuous world of Art Basel and the West Chelsea gallery scene is not welcoming to outsiders. It is trying to foster the illusion of exclusivity, prestige, and big, big money to make a bunch of crazy people really rich.” They go on, “The art world is a fraud and so is the art it creates. It is no longer about creating aesthetically pleasing works or things that are objectively beautiful.” Of course, saying something is “objectively beautiful” is like saying something is “objectively too red,” but no matter—we have a general sense of what they mean. Gawker writes, “I'm not going to say that the people on this show aren't real artists, but, come on, what kind of artist would be on a reality television program?” Now this statement is interesting. What is it about art and artists that renders this statement culturally legible? Why would Gawker question “what kind of artist” would be on reality television? People generally wouldn’t ask what kind of businessman, or what kind of chef, or designer, or model, or actor, etc. would appear on reality television? (Interestingly, though, they might ask what kind of person would appear on reality TV.) We’re back to the question of what’s so surprising about the show to start with. There’s a general idea that artists are oppositional, but what do they oppose? Likewise, there’s an idea of artistic purity, but purity in relation to what? I think there’s a term that structures much of the contemporary anxiety about art. It structures both Gawker’s assumption that artists should hold themselves above reality television and also structures Gawker’s contempt for said artists and their world: the market.
What really gets on people’s nerves about the art world, what makes so many people not just dislike it but actively hate it, is the claim (often made both explicitly and implicitly) that art is somehow above and beyond the market as defined by consumer capitalism. That it has a different shape, different parameters, a different system for valuing things. This argument actually has deep roots in our culture. This idea holds that entertainment is a commodity, but art is something different. An example of this kind of thinking might be: when people go to a movie where the requisite amount of stuff blows up, and the right plot points are hit, they’ll probably say it was fine. An exchange has taken place, and people feel they “got their money’s worth.” But when they go to a movie that really moves them, they might feel that they got something that wasn’t really called for given the price of the ticket, some surplus value that they couldn’t put a price tag on. They’ll then turn to their friends and say, “That was a work of art.” We could say that something about “art” strikes people as sui generis and outside the logic of supply and demand. But the reverse of this kind of thinking also has deep roots in our culture. Basically, there’s the claim that art is in no way, by no stretch of the imagination, outside the market, that the art world is actually just the market run amok, with lots of money (“big, big money” in Gawker’s terms) poured fourth for no reason, and that the art world is actually much worse than pop culture because it’s smaller and more insular and more disgustingly full of itself because it deludes itself into thinking it has some special status.
Discussions about art and society tend to break down along a few fault lines that relate to the status of art and the status of the market. We could break the debate down into four positions, or ideal types: a) pro-market, pro-art, b) anti-market, pro-art, c) anti-market, anti-art, and d) pro-market, anti-art. Pro-market, pro-art people hold that art is a part of the market, and that this is good because the market, while it may have its problems, is sort of electively democratic and produces quality. People who subscribe to this view are usually intellectuals who made their way outside of the academy—Clive James and Dave Hickey come to mind—and they usually have a bone to pick with avant-gardism, and think that art would do better to pay more attention to audiences; in other words, that art often fails because it’s not involved enough with the market.
Anti-market, pro-art people usually hold that the market is suffocating and alienating and demoralizing and that art strives to stand outside it either through critique of it or through the instantiation of values that don’t lend themselves to a market economy. In the ’40s and ’50s, art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, in different ways, nursed an anti-market, pro-art view into ubiquity within intellectual circles, and for that reason, despite the current outré-ness of many of their arguments, they remain enormously influential in contemporary art criticism. Contemporary art theorists who thrive within academia usually vaguely fall into an anti-market, pro-art stance. But the poet laureate of the anti-market, pro-art viewpoint is Lewis Hyde. Not as virulently anti-market as many academic theorists, Hyde’s book The Gift argued that while art is bought and sold in the free market, it simultaneous exists in a parallel “gift economy.” That when we, for example, buy a book by Dostoevsky, we receive something (Dostoevsky’s prose) that has status as a gift, and that while we pay for the physical object, we don’t pay for it the way we pay for a diet Snapple. It’s not that something called the “art market” doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t account for the actual value we get from a work of art. In Hyde’s view, the erotic nature of the gift economy offered by art stands as a corrective to the rigidly logical nature of the market economy.
Anti-market, anti-art people just hate everything. They think the market is demoralizing but that art is terrible because it’s too involved with the market. Obviously these people don’t get along very well with the pro-market, pro-art people. Most intellectuals are too shifty to fall into anti-market, anti-art rhetoric, but many of them fan the flames, and none better than Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu coined the ingenious term “cultural capital” to talk about how taste is used to establish and reify status within society. Your preferences regarding art objects can be seen as “cultural capital,” which functions similarly to actual capital—said preferences give you social standing, offer social mobility, lead to positions of power; or, conversely, “bad taste” can leave you socially stranded or form a kind of glass ceiling. The whole business of liking and disliking, of relating to things, becomes, if not entirely enslaved by the market, a parallel market, ruled by the same detached self-interest.
As far as I know, there are no great intellectuals who are pro-market and anti-art, but this position holds that the market is awesome and art is generally bullshit. You don’t have to search hard to find this sentiment, and in fact, the pro-market, pro-art people, who often find themselves opposing avant-gardism as bullshitty and the art market as far too insular, often bleed over into this kind of thinking. Usually people don’t fall so neatly into one category or another. Someone might use an anti-market, anti-art sentiment to dismiss Jeff Koons as a hucksterish joke, and that very same person might conjure up a pro-market, pro-art sentiment to talk about bebop as a kind of para-modernist art form that enjoyed substantial popularity. While individuals will adjust their views based on how they feel about a particular work of art and about the behavior of the market at a particular moment in time, these views remain defining poles in our attitudes about the place of art in contemporary society.
Work of Art is a battleground for these various points of view, not only because reality television is a product par excellence of the market but also because the contest on the show is a synecdoche for the market. This explains a lot about Gawker’s initial reaction to the show (which seemed to give voice to much of the popular reaction). There was derision regarding “what kind of artists” would participate in the show because it’s assumed that artist types are anti-market, pro-art people. But there was derision about the very subject of the show because popular discourse is usually a confusing mixture of pro-market, anti-art and anti-market, anti-art feelings, which are exacerbated by a livid reaction to the presumptuous, preening, outrageously self-congratulatory aspect of artists’ supposed anti-market, pro-art feelings. At the same time, I think there’s an expectation that artists should be anti-market, pro-art people, resulting in “what kind of artist” questions. When artists aren’t anti-market, pro-art people we feel ripped off. The whole debate about art and the market can be seen as part of a larger debate about whether there are any values that we have, or could have, that resist the gravitational pull of the market.
In case this begins to seem like some rarefied intellectual argument, a debate at the faculty club between Marxist professors and their Friedmanite colleagues, here’s a sample of an argument that occurred in the comments section of Salon. Curator and critic Glen Helfand wrote an article broadly posing the question of whether art world insiders’ disdain for Work of Art isn’t just a manifestation of their contempt for Middle America. A commenter identified as Conversing with a hairdryer chimed in: “The art biz is a biz. It has promotion and branding and marketing and shmoozing and bribes and sex and all the things that make the other businesses of the world function.” In concurrence, Vibrocount wrote, “The art world is about money. When artists learn this and accept it, they get the gallery showings. Good art is rarely a consideration.” Bernbart struck a note of dissent, saying, “Art should not be created in competitive environment.” (sic) In disagreement, jhillr64 wrote, “I know lots of artists, who are very serious about their craft, and also many gallery owners who are very serious about art...neither group is under any illusion about what the end game is about...it's selling art for profit...duh?”
Also at Salon, Heather Havrilesky’s disturbing appreciation of Work of Art began on a note of doubt: “I envy artists. But I still have to wonder, should such idealistic little lambs be paraded into the crass slaughterhouse of reality TV, for the butchers to slice away at their bluster, to rip at their swagger, to tear apart their fragile egos? Well, of course they should.” We have to be very skeptical of Havrilesky’s claim that she envies artists—she seems to show nothing but contempt for them. When she’s not being patronizing (“little lambs”) she’s being vicious (“bluster,” “swagger,” “fragile egos”). But she means to assure us that she’s actually hip and with it because even though Work of Art is her new “TV addiction,” she has nothing but contempt for both artists and reality TV, which is a “slaughterhouse” that “slices,” “rips,” and “tears.” She goes on to say:
While I might find the comments of the judges unfair or hopelessly pretentious or flatly irritating, while I might balk at the fact that China Chow’s main claim to her role as the show's host is that she's an aristocrat who “was born into a family of collectors.” (Hey, me too! My grandmother collected cottage cheese tubs and orange juice bottle tops!), I still love the fact that I’m not actually at an art gallery, teetering on bad shoes, drinking Sauvignon Blanc with a bunch of sniffling wieners with overpriced scarves tied jauntily around their smug throats. I love that I don't have to self-consciously lean in to view the little speckles of paint on the canvas, knowing that I appear to be just another one of these preening fools with appreciative or dismissive or critical looks plastered across their faces. I don't have to hear the murmurs of "Mmm, vibrant use of color!" or "This reminds me of Vermeer, a little—the darkness," or other Art History 101 vomitry.
What is it about art that makes us hate art lovers so very much?
There are a few interesting things about this passage. One criticism of television is that it offers a substitute for actual social situations and grows to supplant actual social situations in the lives of its watchers. The response to this criticism is that people obviously know the difference between real life and TV and that no one would actually try to replace one with the other. But Havrilesky is overtly saying that, in this specific instance, she actually is seeking to replace one with the other and that she gets satisfaction from it. She takes a social situation she finds distasteful (being in an art gallery) and says that she receives more pleasure from its TV double (Work of Art). To work toward answering Havrilesky’s question “What is it about art that makes us hate it so very much?” one would first have to point out that the entire thrust of Havrilesky’s article is that she hates everyone and everything so very much. And this is the real reason Havrilesky is in favor of the show: it allows for the pleasure of looking at art without the terrible burden of liking or approving, or just plainly being uncynical about anything. You don’t have to like the show (it’s reality television!), you don’t have to like the art (ditto), you don’t have to like the contestants (they’re on reality television, for crying out loud!), and you don’t have to like the judges (they’re either “hopelessly pretentious” or “flatly irritating”).
It’s no surprise that the host of Work of Art is an art collector, the mentor an auctioneer, one of the judges a gallerist, and another a gallery owner; people who are that involved in the actual sale of art objects are almost by psychological necessity pro-market, pro-art people. The one coup of the show was to get three time Pulitzer Prize–nominated critic Jerry Saltz as one of the four judges. But anyone who knows Saltz’s work probably wasn’t too surprised. Saltz has made a career espousing a kind of world-weary, commonsensical approach to art, telling people that everyone can engage with art if they just trust their gut. The show has the burden of trying to make discussing art look fun and approachable, which is basically what Saltz has spent his career in print trying to do.
The judges and authority-types on Work of Art are introduced with little sound-bite manifestos, almost all of which lead to confusing nonsense. The mentor Simon de Pury says, in an accent that somewhere along the line stopped being French and now just sounds vaguely moneyed, “My response to art is purely physical. I usually know within the first split second if it’s a great work or not.” This is a tactic that tries to make art palatable to a mass audience: appealing to sensationalism. The irony is that sensationalism can actually be a form of high snobbery. Part of what’s interesting about this quote is how poorly it accounts for almost anything about contemporary art. Leaving aside that it’s probably a very bad way to ascertain “greatness,” it’s also probably a very bad way to ascertain even goodness. Take, for example, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which are exact replicas of actual Brillo boxes. De Pury would either have to claim that a) these are not great or that b) all Brillo boxes are great art. Of course, it was Warhol’s gift to dramatize (and render humorous) these issues, but we don’t even need Warhol to see through de Pury’s ridiculousness. How would de Pury account for issues of originality? A derivative work, even a counterfeit, would have to be the exact same thing in de Pury’s world (which would be dangerous, since he makes his living auctioning off art, which relies on the works being originals). This appeal to sensationalism, clearly meant to calm the nerves of the art-phobic, who it is assumed fear pretentiousness and evasion, actually ends up being evasive and mystifying.
The other manifesto-bites end up being less ridiculous, partly because they often say much less. Saltz gives us a taste of Romanticism: “Art is a way of showing the outside world what your inside world is like.” Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who speaks in a deliberate, over-emphatic way that makes her every utterance sound like it exhausts her, says, “I’m just looking for something that intrigues me, something that confuses me, or surprises me.” Fair enough. Then Bill Powers, who can be constantly seen physically struggling to produce the most basic thoughts, says, “We’re looking for artists that inspire us to look at the world from a new angle.”
Most of the pleasures of the show, as they stand, aren’t the pleasures of art, but those of reality television. As a synecdoche for the market, the reality TV contest proves an interesting genre for analysis and speculation. In the most harrowing episode, the contestants are put into two groups to collaboratively make a public art installation. De Pury announces to them: “While you are all working as a team, tomorrow you will be judged individually.” The phrase captures much of the madness of the contemporary workplace, in which those people with whom you collaborate most closely are also those with whom you compete for approval and promotions. In these shows, the contestants are expected to be each other’s close friends, their support group, and also their rivals, their worst enemies. Your “success” on the show relates not only to how you fare in terms of the competition, which is the stated goal, but also in how well you come across to the audience, which is the implicit goal. The shows end up testing the participants' ability to compartmentalize; to be everyone’s friend in the living quarters and then to beat them out in the end; or, if you’re not everybody’s friend, to be a compelling villain.
At Slate, Troy Patterson offered this interesting provocation regarding the contestants on Work of Art:
Know that each of the artists here is a child of Pop, intuitively and definitionally. Each of them rolls the creative process, the finished work, and her public performance as an artist into an eager consumer package. They're all operators with soundbites on line one.
It’s no surprise that in our debates about art and the market we always return to Pop Art and Warhol. While Warhol offers no solution to the art/market conundrum, he dramatized the problems in a way that was cold and cruel and ready-made for ironic spectatorship. As a result, people see whatever they want in Warhol. The pro-market, pro-art people see proof that art in the modern world is as much a matter of manipulating the media as it is a matter of making interesting objects. The anti-market, pro-art people see biting meta-commentary on the vacuousness of modern capitalism. The anti-market, anti-art people see a nihilistic embrace of the same. The pro-market, anti-art people see evidence of the total decadence of the art world.
I’m not sure I agree with Patterson’s claim that the contestants on the show are all children of Pop, at least not entirely. There’s something very sad about Work of Art, which to me seems related to the fact that not all of the contestants on the show possess the utterly cynical sophistication required to be a “child of Pop.” They don’t just want to sell themselves, they want to “improve” and “grow,” and often seem invested in actually making good art.
One of the saddest moments on the show came when, during a critique, a contestant said, “Can I ask a question, what things would you like to see in the work?” Jerry Saltz shook his head with paternal disapproval and guest panelist Ryan McGinness said, “The fact that you’re even asking for advice is the wrong approach.” Talk about a bait and switch! You can’t set yourselves up as the ultimate judges of an artist’s worth and then admonish them for appealing to your tastes. But the moment illustrates that the judges on the show are uncomfortable with too much market logic—it disappoints them to be used so blatantly for what’s basically “market research.”
But the saddest of the show’s many sad moments was the announcement of the assignment for episode seven. China Chow told the contestants, “For your challenge you will be digging deep. We want you to create a piece of art that explores the first experiences that shaped you into the artists you are today.” The challenge zeroes in on at least two of the things that a lot of people want from art: revelation and vulnerability. But don’t these things only mean something if we somehow feel they’re freely offered? Demanding that an artist make work about their childhood is like your couple’s therapist ordering your boyfriend to tell you about his daddy issues. I only really feel you’re being vulnerable if I don’t suspect an ulterior motive. If I think you’re telling me about the crushing defeats in your life just to get me into bed, it doesn’t really mean anything to me.
But are we ever free from ulterior motives? Isn’t the big takeaway from recent intellectual thought that our lives are completely overdetermined by ulterior motives? Marx’s capital, Freud’s id, Foucault’s power, etc, etc. Don’t we always act in favor of self-interest and isn’t our self always interested in things that are, in the long run, kind of petty and gross, like status, sex, and control? Aren’t artists always really trying to make money? Or get laid? Or assert their superiority? Can anything really ever be freely offered?
I’m struck by the notion that, whatever our beliefs on these matters, our desires very likely tell a different story. We approach art like blossoming lovers who long ago lost their faith in love: our attraction is curiously unperturbed by our rational thought. We call the art world a fraud and yet part of us can’t help wondering, What kind of artist would go on fraudulent reality TV? We want from art, perhaps against hope, some experience free of ulterior motives. Like a desperate mistress or an incorrigible suitor, we arrange clandestine meetings hoping that maybe, just maybe, this time, he’ll really leave his wife or she won’t withdraw her hand.
Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.More articles by Tom McCormack