Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, 208 pp., Cambridge, $28
Donald Kuspit has had enough of what he names "postart," art that -- in his opinion -- does not qualify as art yet is consumed as if it were art. In his impassioned new book, The End of Art, he convincingly argues that postart is the product of two demystifications: One is the demystification of esthetics among art's consumers; the other is the diminishing interest of artists in exploring their inner selves in favor of the external world, or of a simulacrum of the interior world -- the spectacle.
On the demystification of the esthetic, Kuspit quotes Frank Stella's devastating critique of "Modern Starts" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999-2000. Done during the watch of MoMA director Glenn Lowry, the exhibition was a rehanging of the museum's collection under banal groupings ("people, places and things") in lieu of stylistic and historic families (Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, etc.), the usual way of presenting art in museums. Such an arrangement, Kuspit suggests, skirted dealing with how people, places and objects are depicted by different sensibilities; it stressed the obvious everyday features of the art at the expense of everything else, style and latent unconscious content. It turned the museum collection into historical postart.
Postart of the present, according to Kuspit, who is a well-known practitioner of Freudian esthetics, is also the outcome of the demystification of "the cult of the unconscious." Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, plus a new culprit, Allan Kaprow, started that trend, the latter with his ephemeral factual happenings. Kuspit claims that the artists spawned by these three, even those who pretend to spill out their unconscious guts (he singles out Paul McCarthy and Raphael Montanez Ortiz) confuse the unconscious and the spectacle: "Blurring -- indeed collapsing -- the difference between manifest and latent content, they normalize the unconscious into an entertaining clich. . . . They have no comprehension in the dialectic between unconscious and consciousness" (p. 130).
At the end of nearly 200 pages of impassioned negativism, a negativism that engulfs the image on the cover of The End of Art -- a dramatic color photo of Damien Hirst's Sweet Home, a dish of cigarette butts -- Kuspit names the artists who escape his fury. There are seven women and seven men (mostly painters) on his list of "important New Old Masters," two painters who have "evolved into New Old Masters" and two "deans of New Old Master Art," also painters (p. 183). The list includes Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl and Vincent Desiderio, Paula Rego, April Gornik and Jenny Saville.
Kuspit's political correctness on the issue of gender does not extend to new media. The absence of photography, video, film, installation and performance art from his roster of new old master art is entirely consistent with his demonstration, but it is nevertheless shocking. For haven't these new media greatly helped Third World artists become known? And have we not in the West benefited from their joining the mainstream? This omission is regrettable, for the underlying conclusion of The End of Art, that Marxist-influenced theory as practiced in the U.S. has caused entropy, the slow disappearance of the pleasure principle from the art experience, is certainly worth examining.