Time to purge the moneylenders from the temple of art, as Michael Kimmelman's angry review of the "Greater New York" exhibition at P.S.1 seems to imply? Or has capitalism taken such a hold on art that it owns the temple?
Kimmelman's "Youth and the Market: Love at First Sight" (New York Times, Mar. 18, 2005) is loaded with irreverent truths, which makes it one of the most accurate assessments of the current art scene around. The exhibition was a "youth-besotted, cheerful, immodestly ingratiating jumbo survey of contemporary art" timed to coincide and compete with a "blowout art fair." Kimmelman astutely observes: "It is said that fairs have now become the new art festivals, but its equally true that the big museum surveys increasingly resemble fairs."
At last, news that's truly fit to print! More to the point, "the show peruses a scene whose wide stylistic range, persistent teenage infatuations and overall dexterousness are firmly entrenched characteristics of the marketplace." Kimmelman thinks "craft and finesse are de rigueur," but I think the craft is superficial and the finesse slight.
Kimmelman has to say something nice, however small, to balance his negativity, which is very big. Its a pleasure to see a New York Times writer practicing the Fox News version of fair and balanced journalism. Theres the same effort to be balanced, compromising his outspokenness, in Kimmelman's remark that the show is "a mirror of the current power structure, which isnt all bad." But he doesnt say which galleries are good. He only says which are "predictably favored."
Another example of cowardly balanced fairness: speaking about the "earnest and cunning students. . . emerging already branded with signature styles," Kimmelman reflects, "Theres something rather depressing about such youthful professionalism, even while it is undeniably impressive." If only he had put a period after the mournful first part of the sentence, and discarded the rest of it. For he's wrong: it's undeniably unimpressive -- such routine professionalism goes with the cynical knowingness of today's young artists, all eager to become wealthy celebrities. (Being an unbalanced old woman with distemper I dont have to say anything complimentary to anybody.)
Again to the point: "Gallerists and their client pools of hedge-fund optimists, competing for the latest hot list, troll university campuses for budding talents." Will they flower? It seems unlikely. Theyre in art for the short haul not the long run. Theyre certainly not in it for long term esthetic investment. No interest in immortality in this fast-buck, fast-paced crowd. "Well-behaved, clever, snappy paintings by young artists" signal "the dawning of a new art-market boom."
More to the irreverent point, they signal the peculiar passivity of the new breed of artist. No creative risk-taking here, instead a lack of creative nerve that thinks it's the new creativity. Of course, risk-taking has become as overcommodified and prematurely used up as everything else, but youth is always expected to discover new risks to take, suggesting that it also has become overcommodified and prematurely used up. Perhaps it should go back to being seen and not heard, which might allow some adult artists a chance, even in the marketplace.
And in the magazines. But then the magazines are an extension of the marketplace. The commercial leadership has passed from Art in America to Artforum, the hot new yellow pages of marketing. But at least the marketplace keeps coming up with new artists, while there are no new ideas in Artforum. It is a closed shop, full of stale October ideas, rather than an open forum.
Perhaps Alanna Heiss, officiously babbling away about the virtues of the exhibition at P.S. 1 -- shes the director -- on Channel 1, the New York City cable company's news station, ought to be the next editor. Her German curator, also persuasive -- I didn't know it was still fashionable to be German -- might be made the managing editor.
But I would rather see the young but wise curator at MoMA, which has formed a grand alliance with P.S. 1, be given both jobs, for she got the sneaky point of the "Greater New York" show: to test the staying power of promising arriviste artists. As she said to me, blessed with the right publicity, they might gain admission to MoMA's permanent collection, assuring them a hypothetical place in art history. She compared MoMA to the Pied Piper, promising the children paradise but leading them to the wasteland. Forgive MoMA, for it knows not what it does.
The aging, lively Picasso let Douglas Duncan photograph him wearing nothing but shorts, but Picasso lived in warm and sunny southern France. And his art remained vital and innovative, whatever you think of this or that late work.
Schnabel lives in cold New York, and his sculpture simulates misbehavior -- it looks like phlegmatic silly putty sausage put through a Beuys grinder -- suggesting that its really well-behaved. He would be admitted to art school if he applied. But then hes already got his place in art history.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives. He didnt live long enough to see Schnabel, Martha Stewart (criminal kitchen queen), Princess Fergie (honorary American, now that she's doing ads for Weight Watchers), Michael Milken (criminal ex-junk bond king), etc., etc.
America loves second acts -- comeback kids who prove that you have to stoop very low to finally climb to the very top of the social heights. It's the American way, a path blazed by the robber barons of the 19th century and followed diligently by the corporate swindlers of the 20th and 21st centuries. After all, how did Frick and Guggenheim make the money to build their museums?